The Ring of Kerry’s northern neighbor, the Slea Head Drive, though less famous, is its equal. It starts outside the medieval hilltop town of Dingle (where Dick Mack’s offers one of the warmest pub atmospheres you’re likely to find), and takes you to the end of the narrow, 30-mile Dingle Peninsula. Out at Dunmore Head, the drive reaches a dramatic crescendo, braced against a cliff as it turns a corner and opens up to a view of a green slope leading into the sea, where the Blasket Islands stretch offshore.
It’s a spot steeped in history, too, with monastic stone beehive huts peering down from the hillside. Exiting Dingle is no less breathtaking, maneuvering through Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest mountain pass, toward Tralee.
From there, our trip skipped north, passing through the Burren, known for its bizarre limestone formations, stopping for dinner in Galway and carrying on to Clifden in County Galway, which would be our base for exploring Connemara. The area was the backdrop for director John Ford’s 1952 drama The Quiet Man, which starred John Wayne as an Irish-American reclaiming the family farm.
In Connemara National Park, we hiked to the top of Diamond Hill, and continued the scenic drive circuit with the Sky Road. Beginning on the north edge of Clifden, the 7.5-mile route rises to a staggering, wind-swept perch above Clifden Bay.
We made time for music in County Mayo’s Westport (where Matt Molloy of The Chieftains owns a pub that nightly cooks up traditional Irish music) but soon enough pushed north, past the dreamy, foggy, glacier-carved Killary Harbour.
En route to County Donegal, we spent an afternoon in the town of Sligo, which has grown in recent years but has not lost its fine old pubs. (We enjoyed our stop in one, Thomas Connolly’s.) Sligo is also famed as a place of inspiration for the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. We paused at Yeats’ grave in Drumcliffe, just outside of town, where a tip led us to a less heralded but unexpectedly charming loop by Mullaghmore Head. It was short enough to do on foot, and we caught it in the gorgeous late afternoon light, which bathed the jagged shoreline in a tranquil glow.
This late light — it can stay bright until 10 p.m. during the summer — frequently nearly did us in. Most restaurants don’t stay open past 9 p.m., so we often found ourselves, having stretched a stroll too long, racing to find dinner in time.
Luckily, innkeepers were always accommodating if we called ahead before arriving after dark. That was the case at Bruckless House, an 18th century, ivy-covered Georgian country house on 18 lush acres not far outside the town of Donegal. As our third and final resting place along the coast, it was the culmination of our journey: the bucolic idyll at the end of the road. The place teemed with almost comically picturesque country life: The Evans family and their young children could be seen running through the gardens with dogs; chickens hatched the eggs for our breakfast; a mare mothered a just-born foal.
The rugged north country of Donegal opened before us on the rocky seaside circuit past the towering Slieve League cliffs, the astounding expanse of Maghera Strand (a cave-walled beach outside Ardara), the deep valley of Glengesh Pass, and the herky-jerky scenic road up along the shores of Portnoo and Dooey. Nancy’s pub in Ardara, too, brought the trip to an apex with a trifecta of Guinness Stew, Guinness Cake and, naturally, a few pints of Guinness.
There were countless roads not taken — it pains me that we missed the Inishowen 100, named for its 100-mile route farther up in Donegal, and the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, for starters. But we spent our week in a happy daily cycle of drives, walks and pubs.
A few weeks after returning home, a speeding ticket arrived in the mail from somewhere northeast of Sligo, complete with a photo of our rental car as evidence. Every vacation needs pictures.