Our adopted grandmother in Allihies sent us off with a fabulous breakfast featuring her homemade soda bread and jams. We happened to get onto the topic of cheese and she mentioned that a famous cheese called Milleen’s is actually made down the road from her house, and that she’d be happy to give them a call and see if they were around. Of course we took her up on that offer, and later that morning, we were pulling up to the cheesemaker’s farmhouse and chatting with his wife and baby daughter Edith. He was out farming (obviously), but she was kind enough to gift us a wheel of Milleen’s – “for the baby!”, she said. Milleen’s is a delicate, soft cow’s milk cheese and while they sometimes ship a case to a far-flung place like New York, it’s generally too much of a hassle to export and they end up selling most of it locally.
Our wheel of Milleen’s would serve us well later for lunch with some scones and smoked salmon we got in Kenmare, strawberry-clove jam from a roadside stop back in Wexford, and Irish tomatoes left over from Kilkenny. It seems that no visit to Ireland is copmlete without a drive on the Ring of Kerry, a fact confirmed by the throngs of tourist-packed coaches stopped at every lookout along the way. We managed to find a quiet spot for our picnic.
While we loved Kenmare, we weren’t so keen on the next two towns we called on – Limerick and Ennis. Limerick seemed touristy (and home to our first McDonald’s sighting) while Ennis invoked our wrath by once again having no decent place to eat past 9pm. I couldn’t do another chipper so we settled for Chinese. The lady at the restaurant seemed rather impressed when we asked first for chopsticks and then for a third dish of chillie oil – she told us afterwards she had assumed we were from Spain, given our tans. I guess either way, it’s clear we aren’t from around here. We spent the night in Ennis, exploring the streets and reading plaques commemorating mundane events in the town’s history, and then cut out first thing in the morning.
Riccardo loved the movie ‘The Princess Bride’ as a kid – having only seen it for the first time as an adult, it doesn’t evoke the same nostalgia in me. One memorable scene features the “Cliffs of Insanity” and was actually shot at the Cliffs of Moher, a natural wonder and one of Ireland’s most visited places…. here they are in the movie:
Several people had told us we shouldn’t miss it, so we planned a stop. Google told us that visiting the Cliffs of Moher can be kind of a gongshow – they’ve set up a 30 million euro visitors’ centre and charge 6 Euros a person for parking… to see a natural wonder. Anyone trying to park on a side street ended up with a 50 Euro ticket. Furthermore, it would probably be swarmed with tourists. We decided to try and pass by in the evening after the visitors’ centre was closed, and take our chances with the parking gods. In the meantime, we headed towards the Loop Head Peninsula to see some lesser-known cliffs which we dubbed the “Cliffs of Mild Neurosis”.
At the tip of the Loop Head Peninsula stands a lighthouse, built in the 1850s but still running (although recently automated). Someone got the bright idea to charge tourists 5 Euro to go up to the top, and we took the bait. A British lady joined us and the guide led us up the 72 stairs. The scene was beautiful but there was a thick mist on all sides. “On a clear day, like yesterday, you can see clear across to Connemara!” the guide helpfully told us. The British lady chimed in, “Oh, I was at the Cliffs of Moher yesterday, and it was the perfect day to see them. What a shame it isn’t the same today. Yesterday was really much better.” They continued on for some five whole minutes about how yesterday had been the ideal day. By the third time the British lady mentioned what splendid visibility they had yesterday, Riccardo and I both snapped back, “So we hear!”
As luck would have it, when we got down from the lighthouse, the mist had lifted, and we walked around the peninsula which is bounded by steep cliffs. Some of the coolest scenery I have ever seen in real life. Unlike the Cliffs of Moher, these cliffs were unencumbered by fences or walls, and you could walk right up to the brunk and give your wife heart palpitations in the process if you felt like it. At the very tip of the peninsula, hundreds of stones spell out the word EIRE in giant letters. It’s left over from WWII, meant to tell pilots they were flying over neutral Ireland and to hold their fire.
We followed the cliff’s edge and wandered past eerie rock formations and 90 degree drops, pausing occasionally to lie in the grass or take a photo – and during one such stop, we spotted the unmistakable triangular fins of a small school of five dolphins swimming in the bay below. The lighthouse office was filled with pamphlets offering dolphin cruises for 100 Euro and more, but here they were just hanging out. It was magical. We watched the fins in silence until the spell was broken by a rough bark – we looked down at the water some 50 feet below to find a lone seal, whiskers and all, enjoying a swim. And as if this wasn’t enough – while Riccardo was doing some camera stuff, I watched a little sea bird hopping over the rocks not too far away. This little guy seemed to have different mannerisms than his gull and heron friends. It may have been… a puffin. Still not 100% sure, but I’m going to go with it.
Along the route back to the mainland, a sign invited us to stop for a drink at the “last bar before New York” – the westernmost watering hole in County Clare. We did, and it was at this unassuming seaside pub that I sampled the best crab I’ve ever had in my life.
It seemed silly to go to the Cliffs of Moher after such a spectacular day of cliff-ogling, but we went anyway, arriving about an hour after official “visiting hours”. The sleek parking lot was emptying out and we just cruised right in through an open barrier. While the last stragglers trickled out of the area, we parked and trekked right up to the wall for our very first glimpse of the natural wonder.
Everyone was right – the Cliffs of Moher are definitely worth seeing. They’re strange and awe-inspiring. The morning’s mist had completely disappeared and the Cliffs were bathed in a warm glow that Riccardo appreciated from a technical point of view. I just sat and admired with my eyes, and decided it was worth at least double the price of admission – in our case, free, because when we were done we simply got back in the car, drove back through the entrance, and patted ourselves on the back at having managed to avoid the tourist throngs and questionable admission fee.
But between the Cliffs of Insanity and the Cliffs of Mild Neurosis, we’d still pick the latter.