Sheep’s Head Walk – Getting There is Half the Fun

We are just back from a walking holiday on Sheep’s Head, Ireland. It was not an entirely happy experience, I’m sorry to say, but it had its good parts.

Sheep’s Head is a peninsula on the western coast of Ireland south of Bantry. It is in between Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay, a quiet, isolated place with no towns of any size, only a few villages and isolated homes and farms. When looking for a quiet, relaxing walk to do at the end of the season, it seemed like just the place. As it turned out, maybe we should have gone somewhere a little less remote, but I’ll get to that.

Geographically, Sheep’s Head is a long, skinny peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic. There is a ridge of low peaks running along the length of it centered towards the northern side. The northern slope of this ridge is steep and rocky and falls swiftly down to the shore. The southern side is gentler, falling away in long shallow slopes. Most of the human habitation on the peninsula is on the southern side, clustered around the villages of Kilcrochane, Ahakista, and Durrus. The highest point is Seefin, a rocky hill near the center of the peninsula.

Looking to seaward down the spine of Sheep's Head. Bantry Bay is to the right, Dunmanus Bay to the left, and the peak of Seefin in the distance.

Looking to seaward down the spine of Sheep’s Head. Bantry Bay is to the right, Dunmanus Bay to the left, and the peak of Seefin in the distance.

But our adventure began long before we got to Sheep’s Head. Pull up a chair and listen to the story of how our relaxing vacation became the most stressful near-disaster trip I’ve ever been on.

We were booked to fly from Boston to Philadelphia and from there on to Shannon, Ireland. The plan was to then get a bus from the Shannon airport to Cork and another bus from Cork on to Bantry. We had looked up the bus timetables and worked out the schedule. Then the company we booked the walking tour through suggested buying bus tickets in advance, which you can now do online, since that’s cheaper than buying them in person. This sounded like good advice, so we popped back onto the Bus Eireann (the Irish national bus company) website with planned schedules in hand ready to buy our tickets.

Only, the Bus Eireann ticket sales system was showing completely different timetables for the buses we needed to take than what we had found before. We spent hours going back and forth, trying different ways of selecting the tickets, checking to make sure we had the correct timetables, not something that was out of date or about to go out of date or just the Sunday-Saturday-St.-Patrick’s-and-Jewish-holidays version of the timetable. In the end, we just had to give up and resolve to buy our bus tickets in person. (We managed to get our first ride, from Shannon to Cork, settled, but everything after that both going and returning was up in the air.) So, a few hours down the drain and we were none too happy about it, but problem solved.

The day of departure arrived. We were both pretty relaxed, having spent a couple of days packing and cleaning up the house. Then, literally as we were heading out the door to drive to Logan Airport, the phone rang. We were so close to departure that I was considering just letting the answering machine take the call, but fortunately I didn’t because it was an automated call from US Airways telling us that our flight had been canceled because of a mechanical fault.

I placed a call back to the customer service number and I was soon talking to a very helpful agent who did her best to get us rebooked. There was an earlier flight out of Logan that we might have just made it onto, if I threw the phone down, we jumped in the car, hit every green light and didn’t get stuck in traffic on Route 1 inbound to Boston on a Tuesday afternoon. Not impossible, but not something we wanted to chance. The only other option was a flight from Manchester that was reasonably possible for us to make. We took that, even though it meant flying out from a different airport than we would return to, which meant we couldn’t drive to the airport and park our car for a week as was the plan.

As soon as I got off the phone with the airline, I looked up a local car service that does both Logan and Manchester airports and asked if they could fit us in that afternoon. They said they could just make it if they sent someone out immediately, so we booked our drive with them and sat down to wait.

The car pulled into our parking lot ten minutes late because it had gotten stuck behind a construction crane getting to us. We just barely had time to make it to the airport to get checked in and get our bag checked (we were traveling with just one checked bag). Fortunately, the driver was a friendly guy who assured us that we would make it and put us at ease.

We did make it to Manchester in time and headed straight for a check-in kiosk to get our boarding passes. I entered our confirmation code to call up our booking. It found nothing. I entered my name. It found nothing. I tried both again. It found nothing and directed us to see a ticketing agent. Starting to panic a little, we went to the check-in desk to talk to a live person. After some poking at her computer she discovered the problem: when the oh-so-helpful US Airways customer service rep rebooked our flight, she booked it for tomorrow! Not only that, but she had also rebooked our flight from Philadelphia to Shannon for tomorrow! Now, I don’t think she did this intentionally, since she was very clear with me on the phone about finding flights today, but somehow it happened.

I pulled out my print-out of the e-mail confirmation of our original flights and showed her that, yes, we were supposed to travel today and someone screwed it up. She went back to poking at her computer. The she called over someone to help her poke at the computer, who called over two more people to poke at the computer. All this while, the time was ticking away to the departure of the flight that we were supposed to be on. At least one of the check-in agents knew the right magic spells to cast over the arcane machinery because we got our flights re-rebooked with barely fifteen minutes to spare. Then there was the question of luggage. The hold of the plane we were supposed to be on had already been closed, but after placing some calls they promised us they would open it again and get our bag on, checked through to Shannon. We didn’t have time to worry about that though, as we had only single-digit minutes left before they boarded the plane and we still had to get through security.

We ran through the terminal to the security checkpoint. (At this point, I was very glad to be at little Manchester instead of big Logan because 1 – it was a much shorter sprint, 2 – it was a much shorter line, and 3 – there were fewer people around to be alarmed by the sight of a dark-skinned, dark-haired man looking slightly deranged as he charged towards airport security with a backpack.)

We just made it onto the plane. We didn’t know whether our bag made it or not, but we hoped that it had. The flight to Philadelphia was blissfully uneventful, even though we were seated separately in whatever seats were available.

We reconnected in Philadelphia. It had always been a fairly tight layover and now we had even less time to make it from one terminal to another. We raced through the airport and got to the waiting area for our gate with enough time to spare to grab some crappy airport fast food. Our seats were separated again on the Philadelphia-Shannon flight and we were both stuck in middle seats between two other people. (We asked, but no one was willing to trade seats so we could be together.) It was a long, dull flight with bad food and no elbow room, but we made it to Shannon and to our relief there was our bag, waiting for us and wagging its tail. (Okay, maybe not the tail-wagging part, but after the day we had had, learning that our luggage had made the trip with us was almost as big a relief as finding a lost pet.)

We got a good breakfast in an airport cafeteria, which helped, and then we set to work figuring out the buses. It turned out that the timetables we had originally made all our plans with were perfectly accurate. I have no idea what is wrong with Bus Eireann’s booking system, but at least we could fall back on our original planned route. We took the bus to Cork, dozing fitfully on the way, then got tickets for Bantry and took our next bus, dozing fitfully on the way. Finally we stepped off in Bantry and headed for our B&B, which was a little bit of a hike from the town center.

Once we had gotten our stuff stashed at the B&B, we dragged ourselves back out on the town for dinner. We ended up at a tiny local restaurant (there was room for barely over a dozen people in the dining room) serving fresh locally-caught fish where we treated ourselves to a marvelous dinner.

Bantry, a charming seaside town

Bantry, a charming seaside town

We finally got back to the B&B at around eight in the evening local time, which to us felt like three in the afternoon after going all night with only a few restless naps. We were weary from travel, exhausted from stress, and needed a good night’s sleep before starting our walk the next day. So, naturally, we were both stricken with insomnia.

We did at least get some hours of sleep before we had to be up and off in the morning. After an excellent Irish breakfast, we set out on the first day of our walk of Sheep’s Head.

Tune in next time and I’ll continue the story of the vacation that went sideways.

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3 Responses to “Sheep’s Head Walk – Getting There is Half the Fun”

  1. ekoti Says:

    Sitting separately for the Philly-Shannon flight was a bit of a pain, yes, but at least we weren’t part of the 7-member family with kids who also got totally displaced. Last-minute plane change, apparently. Don’t envy the airline staff – they must’ve fielded dozens of seating requests that night.

  2. Timo Says:

    Adventurous but hardly relaxing as holidays should be…

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