Kingdom come: The ring of Kerry
Take a tour of Kerry and find a treasure chest of attractions
So that's why they call it The Kingdom. After two days swooning under the McGillycuddy Reeks, passing golden beaches and postcardy harbours, wandering into ice-cream parlours and pottery workshops, hearing island lore and eating baskets of fried fish, you can forgive Kerry for crowning itself. Kerry is thrilling. And Peig Sayers in English is surprisingly easy on the ear.
Leaving on a Friday morning and coming back Sunday, the four-hour distance by car – with stops – from Dublin felt like a real skive. All the more so for my weary big sister, who was leaving behind her three children.
Of course, there's plenty for families to do, but sometimes you just don't need little ones around.
Killarney National Park
The pull of the sea can be so strong that you might want to head straight for the peninsulas, but it's a shame to miss out on Killarney. First, there's its sweeping National Park. Muckross House and Estate – 26,000 acres of gardens, lakes and oak forests – was given to the state in 1932. A stroll or clip-clop around the park on a jaunting car comes highly recommended.
Muckross House and Traditional Farms
The house was built in 1843 for the Herbert family, and in this splendidly dismal Victorian pile you'll find a display of stags' heads and a pair of Irish elk antlers. You can see the servants' quarters, and the delicate suites where Queen Victoria stayed over two nights in 1861. Take a family tour for €22 (adults €7).
Across the way are Muckross House Traditional Farms, reconstructions of 1930s, or pre-electrification, farmsteads. Children, should they tag along, will enjoy running up the boreens into the three traditional cottages.
Inside, a bean an ti – 'woman of the house' – bakes soda farls in cast-iron pans on open fires, knits and tells tales. You can feed the geese and hens, milk the cows, see pigs and donkeys, or join a blacksmith at work before devouring the farls with butter churned inside.
It's as much an invention as it is a replica, but no less heart-warming. Family tours cost €22. Toddy is your contact. Tel: 087 253 1625.
Of course, go southwest and there will be fine days and foul. The skies determine your plans. Our notion of walking sections of the Ring of Kerry and taking a boat to Skellig Michael was scuppered by the rain and wild seas. But the Unesco world heritage site of Skellig Michael, an early Christian monastic settlement, is, well, special.
Off we went instead for Dingle and the most westerly tip of Europe. You pass beautiful Inch Beach, made celluloid in 1970 by 'Ryan's Daughter'. You can swim and surf here on a fine day; not today.
At neighbouring Annascaul, it's worth stopping at Tom Crean's South Pole Inn, not because it's a tourist trap – which it is – but because it is a happy, vibrant place he built himself in the 1920s. It marks the end of his inconceivable journeys into the Antarctic with Shackleton. The photos and clippings on the walls capture the spirit of this leathery-faced adventurer, who first set sail at 15.
Dingle Way, beginning and ending in Tralee and skirting precipitous Mount Brandon, can be walked in stages. The whole lot takes about eight days. Not for us, thanks. In the fishing village of Dingle, everything is close together and people are windswept and welcoming.
You can easily bankrupt yourself on Main Street's drag, a jumble of seafood bars, cafés and craft shops. Mazz at the Dingle Record Shop will fill you in on live music. There are nightly folk sessions in An Droichead Beag and John Benny's. Dick Mack's on Greene Street is a most civilised nook of hostelry.
Funghi turns 30 this year, they say, but, again, swimming with our most senior dolphin is for a fine day. On a foul day, you could kill an hour in the aquarium or have some quiet time in the Diseart chapel, which houses 12 of Harry Clarke's lustrous stained-glass windows.
Dingle offers an inexhaustible amount of fun and culture throughout the year. Events include the Feile na Bealtaine (May 2-6), in which a colourful cast of artists, poets and comedians file in for two days of performances, compered by magician Bryan Quinn.
The musical medley 'Other Voices' happens at St James's (deconsecrated) Church and is filmed every December. The first week of October is a fruitful time to sample local food and fermentations at the Dingle Food Festival.
The Slea Head Drive and the Blaskets
The Slea Head Drive is invigorating even on a dull day. This loops around the peninsula in serpentine curves over terrific cliffs and views that force you out of the car. We could just about pick out the misty archipelago of the Blasket islands, though not the 'Sleeping Giant'.
On a fine day, the eco tour of the Blaskets takes you out to see seals, dolphins, whales, sea birds and, if you're lucky, a puffin. Mick (086 335 3805) is your contact. But today the winds were the 'violent' ones that 'Islandman' Tomas O Crohan wrote about in the 1920s, off the Great Blasket, his "crag in the midst of the great sea".
Instead, we took in the exhibits at the fascinating Blasket Visitor's Centre. You can watch footage from the 1950s of this quirky storytelling community that usually only appear in black-and-white photographs in booklets.
Nearby at Dun Chaoin, the Cill Ghobnait loop walk takes less than an hour, while at Louis Mulcahy's workshop, in the firmly Gaeltacht area of Ballyferriter, you can spin the pottery wheel – and, if you can't afford a mug, drink from one in the upstairs café with a slice of orange cake.
Killorglin and the Gap of Dunloe
Killorglin is home to many things but mostly to Puck Fair, a street festival in which a goat is captured from the hills and crowned. Just smile and nod. This August, 9-13, is Puck Fair's 400th year of madness, no kidding.
Near Killorgan, the Gap of Dunloe is one of the most quietening expanses of nature you'll ever see. Sublime is hardly the word. A narrow path snakes through Purple and Bull mountains. Horse and trap or horseback, or indeed a bicycle – rented from Killorgan – will carry you down the valley past lakes, footbridges and ruined cottages, and wild goats teetering far above you.
The late German industrialist Dr Hans Liebherr decided not to turn this ravishing plot of land into one of his crane factories, and instead opened The Hotel Europe in 1961.
Staying here is much like nestling into the fragrant heather with your toes dipped in the Lakes of Killarney, only you are in a lakeside bedroom enveloped by the colossal McGillycuddy Reeks.
Such a room costs €280 at peak, but you save on flights, don't you?
It's nature and luxury all at once. You'll be ruined in the spa – we're talking "heat experiences and lifestyle showers", an outdoor infinity pool and salt Jacuzzi. For supper, there is simple stuff such as pan-fried catch of the day in the Brasserie, or a fancier spread at the Panorama restaurant.
Why else would you stay? Might be the commodious lounges, library, tennis court, and languid breakfasts overlooking the lake.
Ard Na Sidhe
On Sunday, while sis exerted herself in the spa, I got to snoop around Ard na Sidhe ('Hill of the Fairies'), another one of Dr Liebherr's properties, which is now part of the chain of six hotels. It was built in 1913 for Lady Gordon, a memoirist and gardening guru who divorced her husband and stashed away some very fine antiques before her death. She liked her William Morris tapestries.
The house sits on Caragh Lake and offers a quiet, bespoke staycation with the opportunity to meet artists from the area. The high tea around the fire here is famous.
Eating and drinking
In Dingle, try the healthy fare at Cul Gardin, or Goat Street Café for lunch. Out of the Blue on the harbour is for your chowder and langoustines. The post office at Ventry will make you sandwiches before a walk, and Slea Head Inn is a cosy stop-off for scones and tea.
In Killarney town there are crowds of gastropubs, or Gaby's or the Lord Kenmare's for a seafood extravaganza. We had tea and sandwiches in the famed Miss Courtney's Tearooms. This frilly little place has been around since 1909. There is rock 'n' roll playing, and tea and cakes are served from your usual genteel mish-mash of bone china. High tea for two is €29.
We ate at Beaufort – not the French mountain cheese, but the tiny hamlet on the way to Killorglin. The Kalem film production company rocked up here in 1911 and made five silent films over a few years, basing themselves around the Beaufort Bar.
This rustic inn got its liquor licence in 1841 and today the same crackling wood fire welcomes you. Upstairs we feasted on plaice and the many kinds of potato – baked, steamed, gratineed – with which Kerry's chefs fatten up their visitors.