Kings of Killarney
Sarah Caden takes her family to the Kingdom's five-star Dunloe Hotel, and is wowed by the results...worth every minute of 'are we there yet?'
On our recent journey to Kerry, the six-year-old taught the three-year-old a phrase that every child should have in their arsenal. "Are we there yet?"
On the road from Dublin, the older daughter uttered it a lot, and, after a while, her sister took up the baton. "Are we there yet?" came the cheeky little voice from the back seat.
"No," was the answer, as it almost always is on the long road between Dublin and Kerry, but we reassured her of the same thing as we had reassured her older sister. The journey from Dublin to Kerry might sometimes feel long, but it always feels worth it.
We had heard great things about the Dunloe Hotel, near Killarney, long before we finally visited. My cousin, who lives in another part of Kerry, had spent a weekend there with her family, and her son had so loved riding the hotel's ponies that he's taken up horse-riding since. She had told me that it was a fantastic family destination, but spending a weekend in Kerry is no small undertaking when you live in Dublin. Kerry has always been a week- or fortnight-long summer destination for us. Until now.
We arrived at teatime on a Friday, having left Dublin when school got out. As we approached the hotel, both daughters gasped at the butter-coloured Haflinger ponies, with foals, that grazed on either side of the drive.
The ponies, which were brought to Killarney by the hotel's founder, the late German industrialist and huge local employer, Hans Liebherr, dot the 65-acre grounds, and there were bunnies, too, hopping around the place. Immediately, you feel like you've arrived in some sort of idyllic haven, even though you're also only a stone's throw from Killarney town.
What we look for these days on any kind of a break - long, short, near or far - is that it has something for all the family. There's no point in a break that's too adult, because the kids just won't sit still long enough to let you savour it, and if it's too focused on the children, then you stew in the resentful belief that you've sacrificed your life for them. At the Dunloe, you feel like they get this.
It's there in every detail, from the well-laid-out suite that accommodates four people without any sense of claustrophobia through the fact that they'll screen Frozen any number of times in the kids' club, to the fact that the waiter (Artur, in our case) knows a good bottle of wine as well as he knows that sometimes little girls just want egg and chips for their tea. I'd go so far as to say it's the Kelly's of the south-west, and that's high praise.
Of course, the problem with anywhere you feel this comfortable is that you don't want to leave it. There's plenty in the area, however, including Muckross House, for its lovely walks and a paddle in the lakes, and the nearby Gap of Dunloe, with its tea rooms and jaunting cars.
You can't come all this way, though, without venturing in to the Killarney town, and it has a lot to offer. We were there in early June, which meant that everything was up and running, but the place wasn't packed yet. Quinlan's Seafood Bar, run by a branch of the Quinlan family, who have a fish shop and the worth-a-diversion QC's Restaurant in Cahersiveen, is always worth a visit. They have top-notch fish and chips for those who want them, as well as lighter fishy fare for anyone else.
A few doors down is an olde-worlde sweet shop where you can introduce your kids to Peggy's Legs and Macaroon bars and old-style, jaw-breaking Bon Bons, while across the road is Murphy's ice-cream shop. Further down the street, then, is a more recent addition, the French patisserie Petit Delice, from whose Cahersiveen branch the aforementioned cousin brought a fabulous picnic when she and the kids came over to visit us.
The Dunloe has a playground that will likely beat the socks off anything the kids are used to at home. The younger one could have stretched out in the basket swing for the day - to the extent that I'm considering one for the garden at home - while the older one fell in love with the zip line. On the sunnier of the afternoons we visited, the pair of sisters who ran the kids' club, Bronagh and Niamh, were there with some other kids, but they brought cordial enough for everyone and somehow that little touch made all the difference.
The kids' club at The Dunloe is up there as a hotel highlight. Bronagh and Niamh were fantastic with the kids, and the weekend we visited, they were utterly unfazed by the fact that the kids present with special needs, including one of our girls, outnumbered those without. They managed the voting over what movie to watch - Frozen v Wreck-It Ralph - with great calm, built pirate ships out of indoor slides and blocks, and managed to do some sparkly artwork with them, too. Our pair were mad to get over there after their early tea of egg and chips each night, leaving us to Artur's wine suggestion and a dinner of uninterrupted conversation.
The husband paid special attention to the swimming pool, which, as a daily swimmer he nominated as one of the nicest hotel swimming pools ever. Certainly, the 25m pool is big and it's a family-friendly depth, but the four glass walls, looking out on to the rolling countryside, make it really special. So, too, does the wooden ceiling, which reduces the noise and makes it comfortable to splash around with several other families without threat to your hearing. The husband also noted that he could do his morning swim as early as he wanted, even if it was outside official pool times. It's that kind of place, where you feel that it matters that you enjoy yourself as you wish to enjoy yourself.
Of course, if you asked the children what was the best thing about The Dunloe, they'd have only one answer. The pancake machine at breakfast. On a table, beside the bo-ring fruit and yogurt, stands a machine out of which small, child-sized pancakes drop slowly but steadily. The resident children stand around, silently stunned, watching the pancakes flip out on to their plates.
It was the best, I've been told. And worth every minute of 'are we there yet?'
Three nights B&B, dinner for two on one evening, one family ticket to Muckross House & Traditional Farms. €798 per family based on a family room; €918 per family based on superior room; €1098 per family based on interconnecting rooms. For details, see www.thedunloe.com