After diversions due to voting on the Lisbon Treaty and Kodiak's birthday, I'm ready to get back to my vacation stories...
Both of my aunts had always dreamed of visiting London. Since they were so close, they figure a weekend trip to London would be a good way to accomplish a lifelong goal. My parents decided to stay in Ireland and I rented a cottage near Red Wine Strand in Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula. Peter stayed home to work and look after Toby.
Our drive up to Dingle coincided with the one truly horrible weather day of their trip. When we woke up in the morning, the rain was coming down at a good, steady clip. It was the sort of rain that you just know could last all day and probably will. The entire family went to Muckross House in the morning, then to the Lake Hotel in Killarney for lunch. After lunch, my parents and I set off for Dingle while Peter took The Aunts back to the Middle of Nowhere since their flight didn't leave until the next day.
The drive to Dingle was marred by the weather, primarily, but also to my mother's reaction to it. As the old Volkswagen ad goes, on the road of life, there are Drivers and there are Passengers. My mother is most definitely a Driver, albeit a sometimes nervous one. She doesn't like highways, rain, or (in the States) left-hand turns. In Ireland, she had no choice but become a Passenger because she did not want to drive on 'the wrong side of the road,' especially not on narrow, twisty country roads.
I know she was doing her best as a Passenger, but my mother is the sort of person to have very big, emotional reactions to things and she's not shy about sharing them. When these things are happy things, like rainbows or puppies, my mother's joy is infectious and makes her a delight to be around. Unfortunately, the reverse of that statement is also true.
The drive up to Dingle was challenging but we were rewarded with sunny weather when we arrived at Ballyferriter. The next day, I minimised the driving as much as possible and my mother graciously agreed to spend the afternoon alone so I could take my dad on the most challenging, interesting, and hair-raising road in Munster, if not in all of Ireland: the Connor Pass.
My dad is an adventurous sort and he also enjoys car rides, so he was the perfect Passenger for this outing. Although most tourists seem to tackle the Connor Pass from the Dingletown side, I much prefer driving up through Tralee and then taking the pass from the more challenging side first. On the Dingle town side, you're treated to a beautiful, wide, multi-lane road with some curves. On the other side, you have a fantastically exciting road. It's narrow, only about 1 lane with little pull-ins to allow cars to pass. It's carved right into the side of the mountain. You've got blind turns, a wall of rock on one side, and a drop-off on the other side. It's everything you could ever want in Adventure Driving.
The other advantage of driving up the hard side is that when you have to back up to get to a spot to let another car inch past, you only have to roll backwards. (Pretty much, you just take your foot off the gas and brake and let gravity do its thing.) I wouldn't fancy having to reverse uphill in a manual transmission car.
We had a couple of exciting moments, like the local guy flying down the road without any regard to speed or whether there might be cars coming up the road. Or the tourist who froze in terror when confronted with having to inch past my car. In fairness, she was right up against the low wall that guards the drop-off edge, but then I was right up against a sheet of mountain rock.
When we got to the top of the pass, we parked in the car park and got out to admire the views. My dad bought me a celebratory ice cream cone and said that there should be a merit badge for driving the Connor Pass, that I had definitely earned one. After about ten minutes of freezing and admiring, we got back into the car and proceeded to Slea Head Drive.
If I were going to rate the scary roads in Ireland, this one would be near the top of my list, but it would also be the big winner for Most Fun and Favourite Scary Road. Not only does it have one narrow lane in places and blind turns and a precipitous drop down to the sea, it also has an actual stream that you have to ford. The stream is in the middle of a very sharp turn and I'm always amazed and amused by it.
The other nice thing about Slea Head Drive is that, aptly enough, it brings you to Slea Head, which is a brilliant little beach with rocky outcroppings and fantastic views. (The beach was used in the filming of Ryan's Daughter, which means precisely nothing to me but maybe you've seen it.) Usually when we go to Slea Head, there are loads of other cars and we park in the upper car part and then walk down a steep incline to the beach. You could drive down to the beach, but there's not a lot of room to turn around when you get to the bottom of the ramp. You could easily misjudge and end up mired in the sand (or worse, plunging into the water at high tide.)
When Dad and I arrived, the tide was out and the upper car park was empty. I decided to chance the incline and the gamble paid off since there was only one other car down there. The other people only stayed for about ten more minutes and then we had the whole place to ourselves. The weather was even good, so this was quite the unexpected treat.
When we arrived back at the cottage, everyone was happy. My dad was happy with the adventure, my mom was happy that she got to stay home and watch afternoon TV, and I was happy that they were both happy. I was a little concerned though, since I knew our plan for the next day would have us back on Slea Head Drive and I was unsure of how my mother would react to the road. If it was anything like the drive up to Dingle, it was going to be a really long day.
The next morning, we were greeted by brilliant sunshine and chirping birds. After breakfast, we piled into my car and set out for the various areas of interest on Slea Head Drive (like the beehives, Dunbeg Fort, and the famine cottages). On a minorly interesting part of Slea Head Drive, I heard my mother sharply inhale and could see in the rearview mirror that she was tense and anxious. Then inspiration struck.
I remembered how nervous I'd been for my driving test and how I'd learned that it was impossible to remain nervous when you're smiling. Something about the act of smiling is inherently relaxing. "Hey Mom, you know what, I bet you'd enjoy this ride a lot more if you played by the roller coaster rules. Instead of making that scared noise, how about trying to say 'WHEEEE!' instead?"
My mom gave it a try and agreed it worked. I think she might have even been able to steal a few quick peeks at the stunning scenery. Even though she seemed to be achieving a sort of peace with the scary road, I was still a little concerned about fording the stream. I needn't have been - she handled the stream like a seasoned trouper, marveling about how weird it was.
After we'd seen a few sights, a bathroom break was in order, but the restaurant near Dunbeg Fort was closed. (We asked when they usually opened and the answer from the woman at the Dunbeg Audiovisual centre was "when they open.") We could press on and hope to find one in the next village or backtrack. I knew there was a nice cafe with an outdoor seating area near Slea Head, so back we went.
If you'd told me after the drive up to Dingle that my mother would quite happily tolerate three trips across a stream on a narrow country road and would "wheee!" her way through blind corners, I don't think I would have believed you. But that's what makes people in general and families in particular so much fun - their capacity to adapt, change, and surprise.
Ed. note about the photographs: I took the first one with my mobile phone. Yes, that is my finger in the lower right-hand corner. I'm not the professional photographer in this family. My dad took the photo of Slea Head Beach.