Now we’re getting into it, the Ireland of a million postcards and movies and tour buses. As you leave the stark, raw north and head south, you can feel the atmosphere take a deep breath and relax, like it just started a yoga class. The temperature’s a little warmer, the wind’s a little gentler, the colors are coming out. But, let’s not forget that it’s still January, and we are apparently still the only tourists. This is great news for this part of the country.

We first went to Clare and the eerie, Druidian moonscape that is The Burren. It was appropriately foggy and utterly gray, and we fully expected to see a wizard or sorceress materialize among the ancient tombs (Joris would be excited; Amanda, not so much). We went looking for good, live trad music, since Clare is supposed to be ripe with it, but no luck — a major downside to being here in the off-off season.

Then there are the rings: Dingle, Kerry, Beara. We started with Dingle, and it lived up. It was remarkably empty of visitors, and it is a stunning place to have to yourself. Aside from the odd sheepdog that would ferociously try to herd our Renault, it was just us and windy roads and sweeping colors and coastlines. And a pair of very flamboyant seagulls who were hustling for change on a roadside wall. Kerry was similarly awesome, though given all the hype, no more stunning than Dingle or other areas (see below). We became fascinated with Skellig Michael, a 54-acre jagged rock island, 7 miles off the coast of Kerry, where a group of eremetic monks settled in the 7th century and remained for 600 years. You could feel the commitment just by looking at the island, which was captivating.  We then spent the night at a remote guest lodge which was supposed to be empty, but in which we heard sounds of movement and saw a light in another room go off. Ghost? Squatter? A deformed deranged sibling being hidden away by the owner? Not sure which is preferable.

Then we saw Beara. The Beara peninsula is where we want to be. From a textbook beauty perspective, it’s frankly just as attractive, but there’s a soulfulness and peacefulness that we didn’t feel as much on the other two. It also has these great pockets of lush plants and trees and ferns, and then you’re suddenly back amidst the scrubby browns and reds of the mountains, pockmarked with placid, sleepy lakes. And it’s all surrounded by that turquoise coast and tiny fishing villages with a grocery, a post office, and four pubs. We love the Beara.

Now we’re in Cork City, kind of a rude awakening from the Rings. But it’s onward and upward as we make our way to Dublin…