My own Tour de Kerry
Cycling is having something of a moment these days. Whether it's the Green Party supporter out saving the planet on his trusty mountain bike, lycra-clad Lance Armstrong lookalikes haring up mountains after a day at the office, or the It girl trundling through Dublin 4 on a quaint set of wheels, they've all got one thing in common: they're part of the bikegeist.
So far I've been reluctant to join, partly because I'm pathologically lazy, but mainly because I'm far too wary of the heavy Dublin traffic to cycle through it. Yet everyone I know has suddenly become a bike fanatic. And I can't deny that a note of jealousy creeps in when I contemplate the fact they'll glide through city traffic jams in half the time it takes me to walk, drive or go by bus.
Moreover, what other activity better epitomises post-boom self-restraint than cycling? It's free and has more than a whiff of self-flagellation about it.
So I've figured it's time to give it a go, and where better to start than the plush Park Hotel in Kenmare, where the cycling craze has just hit with a range of new bike trips through some of Kerry's most stunning scenery, combined with mouthwatering food, crackling fires and a top-notch spa.
With their hotel neatly sandwiched between the iconic Ring of Kerry and the less celebrated but arguably more beautiful Beara Peninsula, brothers John and Francis Brennan, who have run this institution since the early 1980s, realised the Park was the perfect spot for keen cyclists to base themselves. After all, times are changing -- while once upon a time the Ring of Kerry was clogged with tourist buses and bikes were a rarity, today the buses are few and far between but the cyclists are multiplying at an astonishing rate.
Many guests turn up with their own hi-tech bikes. But for those that don't bring their own, the hotel has a fleet of bikes on hand to lend to their residents. This being the Park, they are, of course, top-of-the-range, carbon-framed Giant models, a hybrid between a racer and a mountain bike with specially designed puncture-resistant wheels and a seemingly endless number of gears.
With bike-mad boyfriend in tow, I arrive in the early afternoon and, after enjoying lunch in the hotel's comfy lounge, I'm all for settling back on the couch and enjoying the views of the summer gardens through the enormous bay windows.
But my inertia is short-lived: hotel manager Rory O'Sullivan -- himself an enthusiastic cyclist -- quickly provides us with a list of potential routes which are graded, alarmingly, according to something called the Lance Armstrong scale, a rating scale based on the cyclist's model for fitness and endurance.
The full Ring of Kerry cycle, for instance, at 177km long and with a 223m climb, is the most difficult and scores a full 10 on the scale.
Unfortunately, the route I had planned for our first outing -- pedalling around the corner down Kenmare Main Street to check out the town's glut of art galleries, jewellery shops and fancy-looking cafés -- registers at 'You Have Got To Be Kidding Me' on Lance's scale.
So instead I find myself panting down the Beara Peninsula on the easiest of the suggested routes: Kenmare to the Lake House, a landmark pub in the parish of Tuosist. This is a round trip of 29km and scores just three on the American cyclist's scale. I am beginning to see why Lance is so unpopular.
The road down the Beara is not as quiet as we'd hoped -- lots of cars rattle past -- but in the midsummer afternoon sunshine it is as pretty as a picture. The hedgerows are filled with fuschia and foxgloves, and while there are only intermittent views of Kenmare Bay from the main road, there's plenty of that sub-tropical deep greenness in the surrounding fields and laneways which makes the Beara so unique.
When we arrive at the Lake House, we stop for a Lucozade and a freshly baked scone, which we consume in silence at a picnic table overlooking the Clonee lakes. There's no other sound except for the low hum of the bees in the wildflowers, and for a blissful minute I forget that we have to cycle all the way back to Kenmare again before we can enjoy dinner.
The following day, after a large breakfast, it's back on the bikes. This time we're heading up Moll's Gap and over to Sneem, a route which scores a five on the Lance Armstrong scale and seems a little over-optimistic for someone in my position.
However, I'm assured that with the right bike, nothing is impossible. And so it proves. The long uphill climb out of Kenmare is not as difficult as I had imagined and this is all down to what seem like 4,268 gears on my deluxe Giant bicycle. Although at one point I'm fairly sure I see a a snail overtake me on the winding mountain road, we do finally reach Moll's Gap, where we're rewarded with views across the Black Valley and a Mars bar from the high-energy packed lunch the hotel has provided.
And that's when the fun really starts: the long, heart-stopping, glorious downhill stretch towards the Blackwater river. We seem to have the wooded hills and valleys of the county all to ourselves until we reach Sneem, where coachloads of tourists are clattering around the village green, jostling for space, eating ice cream and drinking tea. We join them for a quick sandwich and enjoy the bustle of the town before getting back in the saddle for the final stretch.
Cycling, I ponder philosophically on the way back to Kenmare, is really very instructive. Wherever there is an uphill bit to endure -- and in Kerry there is always a hill, even when you are supposed to be 'on the flat' -- there is also a descent to enjoy. It's all very yin and yang. So you quickly learn to take the rough with the smooth, the ups with the downs.
And you do get to see the world in a different light: this road from Sneem to Kenmare is one I've driven countless times, but I feel as though I've never seen it properly before. Now I can see right across the Bay and watch the shadows falling on the rocky landscape of the Beara without risking crashing the car into the cliff face.
By the time we arrive back at the Park, my pride at having survived a 53km cycle in one piece is only partly dented by the looks of relief on the hotel staff who, it appears, had given serious thought to alerting the local mountain rescue team. "You were gone for AGES!" they exclaim. Yes, we say, but we, er, stopped to admire the view. For six hours.
The following morning my legs are beginning to feel the strain, so it's time to pop over to the hotel's Samas spa. An ultra-modern extension to the hotel which was built in 2003, it's a beautifully designed wood-and-glass structure which sits unobtrusively in its woodland setting. We spend an hour relaxing in the heat-treatment rooms and the outdoor vitality pool, where you can sit cocooned in the warm waters and gaze out through the pine trees to the waters of Kenmare Bay. A cup of lemon and ginger tea and a one-hour 'nurturing' massage later and your muscles are almost convinced you were never on a bike in the first place.
We leave the Park later that day feeling amazingly refreshed. I'm beginning to think there might be something in this cycling lark after all.
NEED TO KNOW
Cycling packages at the Park Hotel (064 664 1200; parkkenmare.ie) cost from €205 per person sharing per night. This includes a double room, breakfast, bike hire, gym warm-up, emergency road back-up, detailed touring information on 18 specially selected routes and entry to the lap pool. A personal bike buddy guide can be booked for €150 per day. A daily high-energy lunch costs ¤12. Massages cost from ¤145. Cycling packages are available until October 25.