We were hardly bereft of inspiration. The Dzogchen Beara Buddhist retreat centre – spectacularly situated on a remote cliff top on Ireland’s rugged Beara Peninsula – is surrounded by boggy, rock-studded mountains. From my morning walk, I knew them to be covered with sheep poo, magic mushrooms and the small pink and yellow flowers that were now decorating my hair.
I sat up straight and focused on the horizon. A ray of sun was breaking through the clouds, shining on a distant patch of sea. In the summer, this area is a breeding and feeding ground for dolphins and whales. You can sit in the meditation room and watch them play.
“The mind will naturally settle, like a glass of muddy water left to stand,” the teacher said, assuring us this was no boot camp-style meditation session patrolled by the ‘no-thought’ police. He directed us to keep our eyes open and our “senses alert” and stretch whenever we needed to.
Things are pretty cruisy at Dzogchen Beara. A Tibetan Buddhist centre under the spiritual direction of Sogyal Rinpoche – the author of The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying – most people who come here are burnt-out city-slickers in search of awe-inspiring scenery, tranquility and wide open spaces. The free, twice-daily guided meditation sessions are a bonus you can take or leave.
Palm trees, fuchsias and an array of sub-tropical shrubs surround the centre, and the small, white-washed buildings overlooking the blue ocean give the place a Greek island feel. Buddhist prayer flags flap in the breeze and walking tracks lead off to rolling heathland, secluded forests, rivers, waterfalls and craggy coastline that drops suddenly into the sea and reveals sweeping views out to distance peninsulas. This is west Cork at its wildest and finest.
Adjacent to the Buddhist centre is a basic, cottage-style hostel complete with men’s and women’s dorms, a large kitchen and communal area, a dairy-allergic” pet cat and a worryingly Zen attitude to the bee hives in the roof. Also on site and available for rent are three self-catering cottages with prime sea and sky views.
Throughout the year, the centre runs short retreats on topics such as “discovering the true nature of love”, “finding peace” and “living up to death”.
For Saturday night kicks, the centre screens free video lectures by Sogyal Rinpoche, but if you prefer your Saturday night enlightenment served in a pint glass, Dzogchen Beara is only 7km from Castletownbere, a busy fishing port and the Beara Peninsula’s largest town.
The heart and soul of Castletownbere is McCarthy’s Bar, a knees-up Irish pub, complete with one of the country’s last matchmaking booths and a programme of live traditional music three nights a week.
A 20-minute stroll out of town brings you to the well-preserved Derreenataggart Stone Circle, one of the hundreds of megalithic ceremonial sites that pepper the Beara Peninsula.
While County Cork can confidently wear Ireland’s culinary crown, there ain’t much in the way of tastebud-tantalising restaurants in these parts. People staying at Dzogchen Beara tend to stock up on food and cook for themselves. Castletownbere has a fish shop, supermarket and a small gourmet delicatessen. Foodies, however, will drool over Mannings Emporium in Ballylickey, on the main Bantry to Glengarriff road. Waving the flag for all things Cork, Mannings specialises in local farmhouse cheese, fresh bread, handmade chocolate, organic fruit and veggies as well as imported sausages and New Zealand wine.
Occupying parts of counties Cork and Kerry, Beara tends to be overshadowed by its dramatic, yet commercial, neighbouring peninsula, the Ring of Kerry, which attracts busloads of leprechaun-spotting, bog- trotting Americans.
Beara is still somewhat undiscovered by the tourist hordes. In the summer there’s beaches to laze on, diving at shipwrecks and plenty of kayaking, sailing and deep-sea fishing. Hiking is another major draw, with nature reserves to explore as well as hill climbing (the 684 metre high Hungry Hill with its 60m waterfall is a treat). There’s also the epic Beara Way, a 196km walk that loops around the peninsula.
Cycling is a popular way to get around the 137km coastal road, although you’d want a firm belief in reincarnation before joining the cars and trucks that rip around the narrow bends. The jewel in the route is the sweeping valley views from the Healy Pass. Public transport is pathetic around Beara, so it helps to have a set of wheels or a lucky hitching thumb.
A handful of islands are accessible from the Beara Peninsula, with Garinish Island in Bantry Bay the most visited. Open from March to October and a short boat ride from the lovely town of Glengarriff, Garinish is a 15-hectare formal Italian garden. The warming Gulf Stream allows lush, sub-tropical vegetation to flourish. Late spring is the best time to catch the rhododendrons and azaleas showing off and any spot of sunshine is likely to bring out the barking, basking seals. Dursey Island, at the peninsula’s end, is a bird and whale sanctuary. Only 250m offshore, you’ll need to brave the wooden cable car to get there. It can carry three people or one cow at a time, with livestock getting first dibs.