Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

 

Two days in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: A city with vibrant culture and history, welcoming people and fabulous food

Excerpt from original post Dominican Republic 2013. Read about the rest of our adventures in the Dominican Republic here.

Most people go straight to the resorts in Punta Cana when they visit the Dominican Republic, and they are missing out on almost everything great about the country itself. There is more to the Dominican Republic than pretty beaches. We spent our first two days in the capitol city of Santo Domingo, and we wished we had more time there. We were lucky enough on this trip to meet up with some locals to take us to their favorite restaurant and show us some local nightlife.

Day 1:

We arrived in Santo Domingo from a night flight around 11:00 AM, withdrew some pesos out of the airport ATM, and met our shuttle driver in ground transportation. He was very friendly and we made conversation as best we could with his limited English and our limited Spanish. He dropped us off at the Hotel Frances, a beautiful hacienda-style hotel in the Colonial quarter of Santo Domingo. The hotel building itself dates back to the 16th century Spanish colonial days. Our room was on the ground floor with a door opening to the courtyard restaurant.

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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo
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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo
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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo

We were exhausted and promptly drew the shutters and crashed for a couple hours. Around 3:00, we forced ourselves to get up, shower, and go out. We walked around the colonial quarter, still exhausted, and decided some caffeine was in order. We found a little cafe on the main shopping street of Calle del Conde with outdoor tables, and sat and had some cappuccinos. It was good people watching, and about all we could muster for the moment. After a good sit and some great cappuccinos, we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

**Tip regarding clothing: Dominicans don’t often wear shorts, so tourists wearing shorts will stick out like a sore thumb. Also, shorts are often not allowed in upscale restaurants or night clubs. Jeans are way too hot, don’t bring those. Paddy has some linen pants that he wore out at night that he loves. (Shorts are totally acceptable at the beach, just make sure you have some pants for going out to dinner).

Our guidebook strongly recommended Meson de Bari, which we later found out was also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The atmosphere was colorful and lively, and the service was great. Unfortunately, we ordered the wrong things and they were a bit bland. Stick to the house specials of stewed goat or crab, or lambi (conch) empanadas. Outside of the house specials, the food seems to be a little on the drab side. We recently watched the No Reservations episode, and whatever Tony was eating looked a lot more interesting that what we ordered, which was shrimp and beef with creole sauce. If we make it back to Santo Domingo, we will totally be giving this place a second chance.

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Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo
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Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo

After dinner we had a few drinks at the bar in our hotel, which was a tiny little bar off the corner of the courtyard. If we’d had more time in Santo Domingo, I would have liked to have dinner at the hotel courtyard restaurant. It was dimly lit and romantic. The entire atmosphere of the Hotel Frances was upscale and historically charming. I would definitely recommend it.

Day 2:

After a good night’s rest, we were ready to go out and actually see some stuff. We headed down to Calle del Conde and found a little cafe on the edge of the Parque Colon, a square named after Christopher Columbus. The park features a nauseating late 19th century statue of Columbus, with a naked Taino slave girl worshipping at his feet. Santo Domingo was the first successfull Spanish settlement that Columbus established in 1496, and the oldest continually-inhabited European settlement in the Americas. The settlement was then governed by  Nicolás de Ovando from Spain during 1502-1509, during which the native Taino population was brutally decimated down to roughly 12% of what it was when Columbus arrived.

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Parque Colon
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Parque Colon

We ate breakfast outdoors in the shade and watched several groups of cruise ship tourists walk by with cameras, shorts, and socks with sandals. Breakfast was standard American fare and a very tasty Spanish omelet (“tortilla”). The Dominican coffee was dark and delicious.

After breakfast, we explored the colonial quarter. It was interesting to see old Spanish-style buildings from the 1500’s here in North America. That’s definitely not something you see on the US west coast.

Up the hill from our hotel were the ruins of El Monasterio de San Francisco. It was constructed in 1508, suffering setbacks of hurricanes and later earthquakes in the 1600’s and 1700’s. It later became a mental hospital in the 1880s (I can only imagine what that entailed….my guidebook said that some of the shackles that patients were chained up with are still attached to the walls). Another hurricane severly damaged the building in the 1930’s, and it has been in ruins since.

Down the street from the ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco are the ruins of the Hospital San Nicholás de Bari, constructed in 1503. It survived many hurricanes and earthquakes, but finally succumbed to a hurricane in 1911.

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Hospital San Nicholás de Bari, Santo Domingo

Next, we visited the Fortaleza Ozama, a Spanish castle built in the 1500’s overlooking the Ozama River. It is the oldest European military building in the Americas, and weathered the natural disasters better than the hospital and monastery. The building served as a prison in later years until the 1960’s.

We bypassed a random guy asking us for money for a tour (the site is free) and did our own tour.

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Fortaleza Ozama, Santo Domingo
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Fortaleza Ozama
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Fortaleza Ozama, Santo Domingo

We were getting hungry, so we made one last quick stop at the old church in Parque Colon.

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Parque Colon

For lunch, we went to the El Conde Hotel restaurant on the corner of the Parque Colon. It was busy, with shaded outdoor seating and indoor seating. We had some American-style sandwiches, lemonade, and Presidente beer.

After lunch, we did a little shopping on Calle del Conde and ran into a small parade. It almost seemed impromptu, as it was really small and no one was lined up along the streets watching it. It was a nice surprise. We asked a local what it was for and were told “spring.”

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Parade Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 072

When I was an exchange student in Denmark in high school, one of my closest friends was a fellow exchange student from the Dominican Republic, Ramses. Ramses had moved to Colombia a few years prior to our visit, but hooked us up with his younger sister Stephania and his mother Violeta. I got in contact with them before our trip and they were more than happy to show us around for the evening.

Stephania and Violeta picked us up at our hotel and we went to the restaurant that Ramses said we absolutely HAD to eat at, Adrian Tropical. It is a Dominican restaurant featuring the popular Dominican dish, the mofongo. The mofongo is a dish made up of fried plantains, pork cracklings, broth, garlic, and other lovely items mashed up together with a mortar and pestle. If you go to the Dominican Republic, your trip won’t be complete unless you’ve had one. They are delicious and they seem to be the favorite food of every Dominican I’ve ever met.

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Mofongo
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Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo

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I had the shrimp mofongo, called the “camarofongo.” It was also delicious.

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Camarofongo

After dinner, it was a special night in the colonial zone and all the museums were free and open until late. We had a difficult time finding parking on the tiny streets, and when we finally found a space the museums were closing. Stephania and Violeta sweet-talked the man at Alcázar de Colón into letting us in really quick before they closed. Alcázar de Colón is the former home of Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus’ son.

After the museum, we walked across the square to El Patio del Canario, a bar owned by a local salsa music star. It is a tiny bar, and super charming. We got to see some locals dancing merengue which was quite impressive. Violeta tried to teach me some salsa dancing, not sure how well I did. The Presidente beers were frosty cold. They drink their beer colder in the Dominican Republic than anywhere we’ve ever been to. They come with a layer of white frost on them, and are said to be wearing a  “vestida de novia” or wedding dress. It was a hot night and that beer couldn’t have tasted better.

We called it a night around 1:00 AM and thanked Violeta and Stephania for a great evening.

Day 3:

The next morning we had a very nice (albeit expensive for Dominican standards at $15/person) breakfast in the Hotel Frances courtyard. It was worth it–there were a lot of options, eggs cooked to order, and a beautiful courtyard to sit in.

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After breakfast, we caught a shuttle to the town of Bayahibe to continue our Dominican adventure. Overall we felt like we just got a small taste of Santo Domingo, and really wanted to see more. If we make it back, we’ll spend more time exploring the capitol city. If you are considering a trip to the Dominican Republic, I would highly recommend making Santo Domingo part of your visit. You can even fly into Santo Domingo and out of Punta Cana, or vice versa if you want to see both.

Culinary Adventures: Pumpkin Pancakes with Apple Cider Syrup

Pumpkin pancakes with apple cider syrup: our favorite fall brunch recipe. The apple cider syrup is what makes this recipe the best–a sweet and spicy mouthful of fall in every bite.

 

I found this pumpkin pancakes recipe years ago on www.bbonline.com shared from Mountain Home Lodge in Leavenworth, WA. Looks like they have since taken the recipe down and put up some other pumpkin pancakes recipes instead. This one is perfect though, and the apple cider syrup is what really makes it great.

Mountain Home Lodge’s Pumpkin Pancakes with Apple Cider Syrup Recipe:

Ingredients

2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1/4 cup oil
1-3/4 cups pancake flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ounces melted butter
1/2 teaspoon or more of each: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger 

Apple Cider Syrup

1/2 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 cup apple juice or cider
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup butter

 

Directions:

In large bowl, beat the eggs well with the sugar. Add the other “wet” ingredients and mix. Whisk in pancake flour and spices until the batter is smooth. Batter may need more milk to make it thick, but pourable. Cook on griddle until golden brown. Serve with Apple Cider Syrup.

pumpkin pancakes with apple cider syrup
Pumpkin pancakes with apple cider syrup


**Note--The pumpkin in the pumpkin pancakes batter makes them cook quicker than normal pancakes. I made a few black ones until I realized I needed the burner on lower than normal. Try a few small ones first until you get it right. 

Apple Cider Syrup: 

Mix sugar, cornstarch, and spice in a medium saucepan. Stir in apple juice and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it boils. Turn heat to low and allow syrup to thicken. Add butter, stirring in a Tablespoon at a time. Remove from heat. Refrigerate any unused syrup for another morning.

It seems like every fall we have at least one visitor from out of town, and that’s usually when I make pumpkin pancakes. It makes too big of a batch for just the two of us, so it’s nice to have someone to share them with. We like to pair them with chicken apple breakfast sausages and eggs–protein to balance out the sugar.

pumpkin pancakes with apple cider syrup

 

 

Culinary Adventures: Oyster Stew

Our favorite oyster stew recipe: Alex Hitz’s Oyster Stew is a great fall or winter warmer.

 

I came across this oyster stew recipe in House Beautiful Magazine (I think it was one of the ones floating around my Mom’s living room) and tore it out and took it home. We loved it so much we shared it in a cook book of our favorite recipes last year for family (Mom got the recipe back, with style). It really brings out the oyster flavor. The original recipe (found here) calls for 1/4  cup bourbon, which was good but we like to use beer instead. Your call.

Alex Hitz’s Oyster Stew

Ingredients:

Serves 6 to 8

3 tablespoons salted butter

2 bunches green onions, thinly sliced, including both green and white parts

2 small cloves garlic, minced

2 cups milk

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 can of light beer 

1 cup very rich chicken stock

1¾ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon white pepper

2 pints fresh raw medium oysters, plus 1½ cups of their drained liquor

Directions:

1. In a medium-size stockpot over medium heat, melt the butter. When the foaming has subsided, add the onions and garlic and sauté for three to four minutes until they begin to be translucent.

2. Add the milk, cream, beer, chicken stock, salt, white pepper, and oyster liquor. Bring this mixture to a boil for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the pot from the heat and add the oysters. They should “steep” in the hot stock for about three minutes, until they are heated through fully and just begin to curl at the edges. Do not overcook them. Serve immediately.



Oyster Stew
Oyster Stew with Caesar salad and cheddar biscuits warmed us up after a fall beach day in Grayland, WA


We have added some smoked oysters to this oyster stew recipe along with the regular ones on our trip to Grayland, WA, and it turned out really good. We like it both ways. Serve with warm crusty bread or biscuits.

Why We Don’t Like Resorts

Why we don’t like resorts: The top 5 reasons we have a better time at local accommodations, and why we recommend ditching the swim-up bar for the small hotels

 

Resorts are enticing. Beautiful photos of beaches and palapa umbrellas, gigantic swimming pools with swim-up bars, buffets and entertainment. Many even include all-inclusive deals with all you can eat and ALL YOU CAN DRINK. We’ve been to a couple resorts, and we’ve determined that we prefer to stay at local places. Here’s why:

1. It’s not always the best deal.

Some all-inclusive resorts may seem like a good deal, but you can often find cheaper (and much better) food and accommodations in the local towns. Unless you are planning on getting completely wasted and sleeping off a hangover by the pool every day like the spring break crowd, it really isn’t as great of a deal as it sounds. When we went to Mexico in 2009, I started weighing prices of all inclusive resorts with small local hotels and it ended up being much cheaper to go with the small hotels.

 

2. The resort bubble.

Resorts are little bubbles of canned vacation. You are isolated away from the local people and culture. Sure, the resort employees put on “cultural shows” and dances for you, but it is always such a phony act and really doesn’t show you anything about the place you are visiting. The couple times we’ve stayed at a resort, we were most curious about what was outside the resort, which is often hard to get to because many resorts are isolated from local towns. They are meant to be somewhere to spend all your time and money. Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic is full of all-inclusive resorts, but there is almost nothing nearby. You can fly into Punta Cana airport, go to your resort, fly home, and say you’ve been to the Dominican Republic. But did you really see the Dominican Republic? Not really.

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“Cultural” Latin American dance show for the tourists at Sanctuary Cap Cana Resort, Dominican Republic

 

3. The food

A big part of our travel experience (probably the biggest for Paddy) is the local food. We are always so excited to try street food, dishes we’ve never had before, see what local people create with local ingredients. Resorts are full of buffets and touristy restaurants. You won’t get a real taste of the local cuisine at a buffet. You may even have a better chance of food poisoning at a resort buffet than eating street food in the towns. Tip: Avoid the hollandaise sauce.

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Paddy wouldn’t miss out on the Thai street food for all the swim-up bars in the world…

Then there are the other resort guests. Depending on what resort you are at and where you are, you could have a range of other people that specifically go only to resorts on vacations. You have the drunk parents at the swim up bar letting their kids run amok, assuming the overwhelmed staff will babysit them. You have the snooty women complaining that their room was “dirty” and there wasn’t enough fresh towels left yesterday afternoon. If you’re at an all inclusive in Mexico or the Dominican Republic you probably have the twentysomething “spring break” crowd rowdily boozing it up every where you turn, every hour of the day, and the ‘Merican couple from Indiana thinking they can speak Spanish to the staff by adding an o to the end of every English word. And then you have the people complaining about why they should tip if it is all-inclusive? (If tipping is part of the culture, tip. Because the staff probably work all month to make what you just spent on one night here. )

 

5. Service industry empathy

Paddy and I grew up in a tourist town, and have spent many grueling summers cooking for and waiting on tourists. At resorts, we find ourselves bellied up to the bar asking the bartender about his life. And we find out that his family lives three hours away and he works 12 day stretches and sees his family two days a month. But this is a good job. And enough about him–who wants another drink? It’s time to party!

When we travel to other places, we like to meet locals. You don’t get to meet very many local people in resorts (see “resort bubble” above). We also cringe while watching self-entitled resort guests order the resort staff around, not tipping, and being generally rude. It’s all par for the course in the industry, and I’m sure many of the resort jobs are really good jobs that the staff are lucky to have. However, we have a hard time separating ourselves from it and just end up empathizing with the resort staff the whole time.

 

 

Resorts always look really nice in the photos. They are an easy getaway that takes little planning. However, every time we travel, the best experiences are at the local hotels. Meeting new people, trying local dishes, attempting to communicate when we don’t speak the language and learning about the local culture are always what we enjoy the most. Discovering the undiscovered, seeing something new. We may end up at a resort again sometime down the road–maybe when we are old and just want a vacation involving laying around all day on the beach with little adventure. But that won’t be anytime soon.

 

The Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

The Dingle Peninsula in Ireland: Gorgeous beaches, ancient ruins, and a quaint coastal town.

The Dingle Peninsula was one of the highlights of our trip to Ireland in May 2012. We only stayed there two nights but saw quite a bit. We would definitely recommend renting a car to see the Dingle peninsula, and Dingle town is also a great home base for other adventures nearby.

Bear in mind that Dingle is a tourist town, full of Irish tourists as well as foreigners. This means that the restaurant prices are going to be on par with most other coastal tourist towns in the US and elsewhere. Plan on budgeting a bit more if you want to eat out.

Read about our full trip to Ireland in 2012 here

Day 1:

We arrived in Dingle traveling from Cork, about a two and a half hour drive away. We had a reservation at the Lantern Townhouse in Dingle, a very nice B&B centrally located in town with an internet cafe across the street. The owner Katherine was very welcoming and definitely pays attention to detail. The room was very nicely decorated and quiet, with chocolates on the pillows and a carafe of water and glasses on the dresser.

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Lantern Townhouse, Dingle
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Lantern Townhouse, Dingle

Below: view from room

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Lantern Townhouse, Dingle
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Lantern Townhouse, Dingle

Below: street view

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Dingle

We walked around a little bit, and realized that Dingle is a very popular tourist town. It kind of reminded us a bit of our hometown of Friday Harbor, WA. It is also a popular tourist destination for Irish folks, and as we later learned that evening, for Irish bachelor and “hen” parties. The touristy popularity of the town unfortunately means higher prices at bars and restaurants, so budget accordingly.

For dinner, we found ourselves craving raw oysters like crazy. We looked at a few menus and decided on Ashe’s Restaurant as they had a deal on three oysters and a pint of Guinness. The interior was very cozy and the food was excellent. They even had Tabasco for the oysters. Hot sauce is something we had been seriously missing in Ireland.

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Ashe’s Restaurant, Dingle

After dinner, we started our hunt for local live music. We didn’t have to go very far before we found O’Flaherty’s. It was packed, but a table opened up soon after we arrived and we snagged it. An Irish band was playing and the beer was tasty. There was music going on all evening long, and we had a great time. At one point a “hen” party came in and joined a couple at the table next to us. They weren’t being very obnoxious, and the older gentleman at the table seemed delighted to have so many ladies surrounding him.

Music at O'Flaherty's in Dingle
Music at O’Flaherty’s in Dingle

Day 2:

The next morning, we had a fantastic breakfast at the B&B, including homemade Irish breads, smoked salmon, eggs cooked to order, cheeses, salad, and meats.

We then spent the day exploring the Dingle Peninsula by touring around Slea Head Drive. The Dingle Peninsula is an area where people still speak Gaelic, so many signs aren’t in English. It was truly one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland that we saw, and I would definitely recommend making it a priority on your itinerary.

The weather began to turn that day, and the sun came out. I was actually able to go out in just a light sweatshirt and no hat and scarf. The roads were extremely narrow, and often a nerve-wracking experience driving around a sharp turn on the edge of a cliff only to face a giant tour bus coming the other direction. We made it out alive, though. **Note: the smaller the car, the better.

Dingle Peninsula Beach
Sandy beach just outside of Dingle town

Dingle Peninsula Beach

Windy scary two-way roads on the Dingle Peninsula
This is a two-way road–watch out for tour buses!
Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula roads
This is a two way road.
Dingle Peninsula
Old stone farm houses on the Dingle Peninsula drive

One of our stops on the Dingle Peninusla was at Clochuan, or the Fahan Beehive Huts. The date of origin of these ancient stone huts is undetermined, but believed to be built around the 12th century. We also stopped at the Dunbeg Fort, remains of another old ring fort built around the same period. It was really hard to wrap our heads around the age of the fort that was still there after over 1,000 years. The stone stacking construction looks simple, but has really stood the test of time.

Dunbeg Fort Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort Dingle Peninsula
View of cliff from Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
View of cliff from Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
 Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
 Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Looking down from Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
 Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
 Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
 Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula

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Fahan Beehive Huts, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula

Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula

Fahan Beehive Huts, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Dunbeg Fort, Dingle Peninsula
Fahan Beehive Huts, Dingle Peninsula
Fahan Beehive Huts, Dingle Peninsula

There were lots of sheep nearby relaxing in the meadows near the fort and beehive huts. They were spray-painted with pink and blue spray paint. I believe this is so that the farmers can let their sheep roam but still know which sheep  belong to which farmer. I had a very curious little lamb peeking at me from behind a fence, he was pretty adorable.

Dingle peninsula sheep
My little friend

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Pink and blue sheep

dingle peninsula

dingle peninsula ireland

dingle peninsula ireland

dingle peninsula ireland

We continued our loop around Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula, taking in the beaches and farms. It almost put our beloved Oregon Coast to shame.

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Remains of an old farmhouse on Slea Head Drive
Remains of an old farmhouse on Slea Head Drive dingle peninsula
Remains of an old farmhouse on Slea Head Drive
Slea Head Drive Dingle Peninsula Irleand
Slea Head Drive

Dingle peninsula ireland

Dingle peninsula ireland

 

After a beautiful tour around the Dingle peninsula on Slea Head Drive, we made it back to Dingle and were extremely hungry. We wanted something relatively inexpensive, so we found a little seafood basket and burger place called Harrington’s Family Restaurant. It was pretty tasty, despite some bad yelp reviews. Affordable casual restaurants in Dingle seemed to be few and far between. After lunch, we walked around town some more and did some shopping. There were plenty of tourist shops around town selling woolen items and all the usual tourist souvenirs.

Dingle town
Dingle town
Dingle town
Dingle town
Dingle town
Dingle town
Dingle town
Dingle town

That evening, we were still craving oysters (we really like oysters, what can I say?). We looked around at some other restaurants, but decided to just go back to Ashe’s. The main reason being that we knew they had Tabasco sauce.

We went out again that night, running into a lot more bachelor parties and hen parties at the bars. The next morning we mentioned all the bachelor and hen parties to the owner of the Lantern Townhouse and found out that they aren’t very welcome in town by everyone. She said “When they call me to book a room here, I scoff.” Personally, I think Dublin is a better place for a raucous good time.

The Dingle Peninsula was one of the highlights of our two week trip to Ireland. Dingle town was cute, but a bit pricey. It was worth it, however. The coast and the history of the Dingle Peninsula is amazing, and definitely worth at least a two day visit. We wished we had another day, but had to leave the next morning for Galway.