Our route through rural Ireland would now take us to a smaller hotel property. Where Adare Manor had been perched on 840 acres of parkland and lakes, we would now have to do with a smaller place, Sheen Falls Lodge, south in County Kerry. We would be roughing it because Sheen Falls, on the Wild Atlantic Way, is set on only 300 acres. They have this antique, light-green Buick open roadster that was used to take guests around the property.
On our first night, we had a barbecue on the lawn of a lovely cottage with grounds overlooking the water surrounded by miles of greenery. For the first time in four years, the area was experiencing two weeks of total sunshine and none of the "soft days" we had expected.
The next day, we set out for the stunning Beara Peninsula. This would give us a chance to take in some breathtaking scenery no one in our group had ever seen. We would visit ancient farmlands and meet some of the most colorful characters on the Irish food scene.
We met the folks at Knockatee Cheese. Their blue was memorable, and I actually ran into one of the members of our group in the large cheese section of a gourmet grocery store the day after we returned home. He was seeking Sean's Blue. We found something close. Knockatee doesn't export.
At Milleens Cheese in Eyeries we met up with the Steels, a family thought to be at the epicenter of the Irish foodie movement. Then we headed down the coast to meet the "All Ireland Chowder Champion," who had set up a big pot and demonstration table for us overlooking the fishing boats bobbing in the harbor of Castletownbere.
From there, we headed over to the Berehaven Lodge, overlooking a series of islands. We got a quick tip on how to make the best gin drink any of us had ever had (made with local botanicals distilled with the desalinated waters of the peninsula) and then sat on a deck where a chef from South Africa had invented a giant cooking pot to create an Irish/South Africa fusion series of tasting dishes.
As we drove from village to village and taste to taste, as we stopped at farms along the way and walked the streets of local villages, it became clear to me that I had stumbled on a part of Ireland's story that has not been fully reported.
For the first five days in Ireland, we never encountered a single tourist bus or, for that matter, any tourists. Ireland off the beaten path is available and magical. The first place I will return to is the lovely Beara Peninsula.
The nearest town was Kenmare. And it was there that my wife went missing. It was walkable from our accommodations, but I did not realize she had gone to town for an early evening walk, in part for exercise but mostly to secure some real estate information. That had never happened on our more than 50 trips abroad. I hadn't realized she liked the chowder quite that much.
One evening we had what had been billed as a simple dinner scheduled at a place called No. 35 in Kenmare. It was a truly memorable meal. We had to divide into several large tables, and in the middle of dinner a farmer showed up at our table with a small stuffed pig under his arm. He had bought the restaurant years before and decided that he wanted to give his chef some prize pork to work with, "the best available in Europe." So he bought a small farm, found the best animals from a rare breed of saddleback pigs and he raised the animals while his "chef does whatever it is he does with what I bring him."
Something about that I loved. The restaurant owner concerns himself entirely with farming product for his restaurant instead of banging about in the kitchen getting in the chef's way.
We had scheduled several "contemplation days" in between our planned activities. This is wise because it allowed our guests to utilize all the activities these incredible country hotels provide, including falconry, hiking, archery, painting and fishing.
Just prior to our arrival, the population overwhelmingly rejected the Catholic Church's position on abortion, in a historic vote overturning laws that outlawed the procedure under almost all circumstances. That was seen as a great victory for the new, younger Ireland. The voting did follow age lines, but during our travels in the country, I did not get the feeling in the countryside that the young were in any majority. You would have to stay in Dublin for that.
One local historian went to pains to point out that in 2017 the sale of incontinence diapers outsold baby diapers in Ireland, "So we're not all that young."
Thirty years ago, the Irish government decided it would create tax havens and do everything possible to become Europe's Silicon Valley. That has, of course, worked extremely well for the country and was a decision that would enable future generations to live a better life than their parents could ever imagine. Apple has been the beneficiary, but so have a slew of other major U.S. tech companies.
But there is an important byproduct of this embracing of modern technology and research. Companies like Apple and Google don't build messy, polluting factories in Europe. They try to keep those in Asia where labor is less expensive. In Europe, the tech companies have campuses, and they are good corporate citizens.
It goes beyond that. There are not many books used in the Irish school system. Apple provides iPads to just about every student who needs one.
This technologyembracing country has seen some startling results from its initiatives. Ireland now has the best-educated population in Europe. You can send your child to a private school for less than $6,000 a year, about the same price you would pay to enroll in Ireland's top institution of higher learning, Trinity College.
I had asked our on-site supplier, Noteworthy, to help us create an itinerary that did not exist, and they succeeded far beyond any of my expectations.
Let me offer some of the notes I wanted to share to give you a sense of place:
- An Irish coffee chain wanted to one-up Starbucks and encourage locals to buy local. So they doubled the caffeine in all of their drinks and named themselves Insomnia. They are quite popular.
- Walking around the village of Bantry, one discovers four butchers serving a population of just 5,000 residents.
- We met a local who occasionally joins her son for lunch in London. It costs her $20 to make the flight on Ryanair. Paris is just for "special dinners" as the airfare can be as high as $30.
- Any new road constructed in Ireland must have at least 1% of its construction budget set aside for roadside artwork. You see sculptures and art billboards wherever you drive, but advertising is tightly restricted.
- One drink can get you in some serious trouble if the police stop you, so intoxication is rare. Pubs are places, I noticed, where children and strangers are always invited into conversations. They are community centers that happen to have a stellar bar and some good food. We passed a pub opened by one of the survivors of the famed Shackleton Expedition. Imagine the stories one hears there from the barkeep.
- The Healy Pass along the Beara Peninsula is a landscape that easily tops the more popular Ring of Kerry. The road twists and turns as sheep rest on rocks along the roadside watching the machinations of the drivers attempting to scale the roadway. One turn is so challenging that no tourist bus could ever make it. Local officials have no plans to straighten out the turn.
- The cows really do smile in Ireland. That might be because they are all pastured, but it is also because they are not injected with an enzyme so they can tolerate corn feed, as they are in the U.S. You see, cows are naturally allergic to corn, and the Irish philosophy on that is to obey nature and just "let it be."
Ireland is not a country. It is the world's largest organic farm-to-table community with drop-dead-beautiful scenery and a population that has decided to end religious intolerance and bigotry while embracing the tech revolution. It is even better than the tourist posters would have us believe.