'It's a hard life," said the old man sipping a pint outside Reidy's pub.
He'd sat down an hour before, but still had the pack on his back and the bike clips on his trouser legs. Around him, Killarney was in fifth gear. Tourists thronged Main Street, a July sun was beating down, and a breeze dangled the song of a busker in and out of earshot. A local next to the man surveyed the scene, and threw in his tuppence.
"'Tis," he said. "Very difficult."
Trying to capture the tone of a Kerry conversation is like trying to fold water. But let's just say the men didn't seem too troubled. Nor was I, earwigging in the background. There are worse trials in life than summery pints in the Kingdom.
Kerry was recently voted Ireland's Favourite Home Holiday Destination in our Reader Travel Awards. There were common themes to your comments - scenery, food, adventures, childhood memories. Tourism goes back at least 250 years here, and that shines through in its confidence and visitor infrastructure.
But if you're looking for the best things to do in Kerry, there's more to the Kingdom than that.
There's a secret sauce. An X-Factor. Kerry feels like magic realism. A normal road can, without warning, deliver you into a cinematic explosion of scenery.
You'll stumble on a tiny chocolate factory overlooking St Finian's Bay; a bright yellow pancake cottage near Moll's Gap. Every conversation is a rabbit hole. It's 2019, and still a summer beauty pageant held midweek in a giant tent with music by the Garda Band will be one of the most-watched TV events of the year. At times, I wouldn't be surprised to see an animated character cross the street, or An Fear Marbh sit upright in the sea.
Kerry is devastatingly beautiful landscapes. But it's also Pauline Bewick and Brendan Kennelly. It's Amy Winehouse playing a stripped back Love is a Losing Game in St James's Church. It's football. It's how you feel when you hear Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh's voice. It's Peig and Puck Fair. Saint Brendan and Star Wars. Fungie and Francis Brennan. It's a particular kind of cuteness.
The 'Kingdom' tag apparently dates back to 65AD, when the O'Connor clan took control, but it's since taken on a life of its own. Kerry is a country within a county, somewhere that blurs the lines between various visions of Ireland, that knocks you off guard and keeps you that way. It's a feeling, as much as a place.
I like that Kerry doesn't stand still. It doesn't rest on those tourism laurels. It values vibrant small businesses. Its food scenes are improving - particularly in Dingle and Kenmare. Its 'Reeks District' was re-branded just last year, and already Rough Guides has named it one of the best places in the world to visit. Kerry is rooted in the past, looking to the future.
'Tis very difficult, all right. - Pól Ó Conghaile
There's no shortage of great places to eat in Kerry. Karen Coakley (pictured) is a TV chef and food blogger from Kenmare, who runs food tours of the town every Wednesday in the summer as Kenmare Foodie (kenmarefoodies.com). Here, she tells us about the foods she loves to eat, and the local spots on her tours.
"I have this passion for food, and a passion for where I live. There are two roads from Kenmare to Killarney, and I'd always come through the National Park. I just drove through it now, and I had to keep stopping the car to take videos for Instagram to show everyone how beautiful it is.
"Killarney National Park is the most amazing place, and literally within 10 minutes of my house I'm in the middle of it. I know Killarney is seen as a touristy destination, but to me, it's just beautiful.
"People always ask me where to eat in Kenmare, but there really is just so much choice. In general, you can't get a bad meal in Kenmare, the standard is really high. For myself and my husband, if the sun is shining then it's the Boathouse Bistro (dromquinnamanor.com). It's right on the water, overlooking Kenmare Bay and the islands. They've got a fantastic gin list and great scampi.
"For seafood, Packie's (packiesrestaurant.ie) is an institution. It's been going for, frankly, I don't know how long. Everything is local and seasonal. Mulcahy's (mulcahyskenmare.ie) is another favourite - he has so many seasonal signature dishes and his sushi is exceptional.
"Poffs (facebook.com/poffsfood) does amazing brunch, with fabulous eggs benedict. For coffee and pastries, we have Maison Gourmet, a French patisserie that's on my food tour. There are three bakers in there, they're all French, and they make everything from scratch. It's the real deal!
"We visit some great producers on my food tours - people love the story behind Kenmare Ice Cream (facebook.com/Kenmare.Ice.Cream; above), for example, and we finish up at Tom Crean Fish & Wine (tomcrean.ie), run by the famous explorer's granddaughter, Aileen Crean-O'Brien (below). She tells her story about him, and how she herself went to Antarctica to walk in his footsteps.
Outside of Kenmare, I love the Strawberry Fields pancake cottage (strawberryfield-ireland.com), between Moll's Gap and Sneem. They serve the most amazing pancakes with local toppings, and you can sit outside and look at the mountains.
For a foodie experience with a difference, there's Atlantic Irish Seaweed (atlanticirishseaweed.com), run by John and Kerryann Fitzgerald. They do seaweed discovery walks and workshops.
"That's one thing my food tours have taught me, that there's a beauty in keeping things local. There's an amazing connection between the producers and hotels and restaurants in Kenmare. It's a very special place."
In conversation with Nicola Brady
With Rough Guides recently lauding the Reeks District as one of the world's best places to explore in 2019, there's a real buzz around the region the travel bible described as simply "spectacular". Piaras Kelly (pictured) runs Kerry Climbing (kerryclimbing.ie) with his wife, Catherine, and takes people walking, climbing and scrambling up the mountains.
"I love Carrauntoohil. Obviously there are lots of different routes up to the top - my personal favourite is a rock climb called Howling Ridge.
"That goes up the north face, and it's doable for everybody with even a half decent level of fitness, even if you're never climbed before. We do get people who are a bit nervous, but part of my job is helping people get over their fears.
"We often get people who have come down to do Carrauntoohil for the first time, and one of the more straightforward routes is probably the Devil's Ladder. Once they've done that a few times, they often come back to do Howling Ridge with ropes, helmets and the full kit.
"The Brother O'Shea's Gully route requires the same level of fitness and time, but the only difference is it has more sections where you need to use your hands. It's not rock climbing, but you definitely couldn't do it with your hands in your pockets. A rough guide for any ascent is between six and seven hours, up and down.
"You could have a view of your feet all day if the cloud is down, but on a half-decent day all the routes have stunning views. I know it like the back of my hand, I've climbed it thousands of times - there are routes that I've pioneered, and it's literally on my doorstep - I live at the foot of Carrauntoohil.
"It's not my mountain, but I feel like it is.
"Kayaking is my other passion. I live pretty close to the lakes of Killarney, so when I'm not on the vertical I can get onto the horizontal fairly easy. I'll paddle down the river, finishing in Killorgan, and many other stops along the way.
There's a lot of history there, on the lakes, and Inishfallen Island. We're just blessed. We have the mountains and the sea, the rivers and the lakes.
"For kayaking, I would probably recommend Irish Adventures (irishadventures.net) which run trips in Dingle. They'll take you out to see Fungie, and they also do sunrise trips out in the harbour, which are pretty special.
I'd also highly recommend the Cappanalea Outdoor Education Centre (cappanalea.ie) in the Reeks - they do stand-up paddle boarding, white-water kayaking, bush crafts and stuff for kids too.
"A tour of Muckross Lake would probably be my favourite cycling trip - you can cycle the whole way around, and there's a lovely little hunting lodge-turned-coffee shop called Dinis (facebook.com/diniscottage), so you can break up the cycle with a coffee and a nice bit of cake.
"There's also a beautiful area called Glencar, just on the other side of the McGillycuddy Reeks. Everybody's very familiar with the side of Carrauntoohil near the Gap of Dunloe, but not many people know that if you continue on for another couple of miles, you're really in the heart of the Reeks district. If I was to tell someone how to get off the beaten track, I'd tell them to go to Glencar."
In conversation with Nicola Brady
John Brennan (pictured, right) is Managing Director of The Park Hotel Kenmare (parkkenmare.com), the award-winning property he runs with his brother, Francis. The pair welcome thousands of guests through their doors each year, and are never short of a tip or two for getting the most out of the county…
"I love Kenmare Bay. The estuary is 37 miles long, and it's bordered by the Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Beara. So from a scenery point of view, it's absolutely magnificent. Nothing will thrill me more than going down Kenmare Bay on our boat, and going into Helen's bar in Kilmakilloge for an open crab sandwich. If I can do that, on any day of the year, then I'd consider that a blissful day in Kenmare.
"We like the boats, and we have a few of them. We leave Kenmare, go down to Oysterbed, and then perhaps go over to O'Carroll's Cove, or for a walk on the beach at Derrynane (below). Or we might scoot over to Cahersiveen, Valentia Island and, if the day was nice, over to Dingle for a bite to eat.
We love to go to Out of the Blue (outoftheblue.ie) for lunch - they do superb fish and chips, with mushy peas. If we were overnighting in Dingle, we'd go to The Chart House (thecharthousedingle.com).
"There's not a day that we'd go out on the boat without seeing dolphins. You can also see basking sharks and you'd absolutely always see seals. If you go out as far as the Skelligs, around the fabulous Bull Rock, you might see puffins and gannets, too. We saw a sunfish one day - he's a real stupid fish! He has a big flipper on his back that keeps flopping over; he's a real weird-looking fella.
"I can't stand the smell of fish on the boat, though, so we never fish. I've only gone fishing once - I couldn't physically take a fish off a hook.
"One thing that our guests always love, that might be a bit of a surprise, is a walk on the Old Kenmare/Killarney road. We drive guests out there and they walk the old road back. It is an 8km walk, and it's right across the mountain where no one would ever be.
"We had two people from New York with us just over the New Year, and they loved it - I knew they would. I dropped them over, and they weren't back 'til 4pm. They enjoyed it so much that they said they just sat and looked at the views, they couldn't tear themselves away.
"We do that as a complimentary guided walk every Saturday morning for guests at The Park. What's nice about it is it's the old road, so it's only a dirt track, but it's nice and wide, and it comes over a part of the mountain you'd never come across.
"The Halloween Howl is a fantastic event in Kenmare. The whole town is transformed into a Dracula-like setting, with fantastic events, children's parties and a huge parade in the town. Families love it, and we'd have loads of people who come down for that every year, because the kids just get such a buzz out of it."
In conversation with Nicola Brady
Catherine Moylan (pictured) is the chairperson of Listowel Writers' Week (writersweek.ie), which takes place on the last weekend of May and sees world-renowned authors flock to this pretty Kerry town. But there's plenty more to see in the county that inspired countless poems, songs and plays…
"I was born and bred in Listowel. I grew up here and, like a lot of people, went away for a few years. But I'm back over 10 years now, and it's an honour to be chairperson of the Listowel Writers' Week.
"Sometimes, I think you appreciate a place more when you go away for a while and return home - it gives you a renewed enthusiasm for a place.
"This year will be the 49th year of Writers' Week, so it's actually the oldest literary festival in the country. There are an awful lot of people whose work has been discovered at the festival. The original aim was to both provide an audience for emerging writers, and to celebrate established writers. And it still does that to this day.
"We have a young adults book festival, too; 900 students descended upon the town last November. We did little quirky things, like competitions for the best six-word stories - some of them were incredible.
"We have a film club in the local cinema in Listowel every Thursday, and you have people who come who are anywhere from nine years old to 90. There's a little discussion there afterwards, and it's all very informal, but unassuming and lovely. We're so lucky to have that.
"I often tell people who come to visit that they need to think of the hinterland. Listowel is only one place, but many of the writers who come get inspiration from all around us.
"Ballybunion, with its Blue Flag beach, is just nine miles away. Collins Seaweed Baths are on the ladies' beach, and have been on the go for 90 years.
When I have friends visiting, we'll usually go for lunch in Listowel, have a wander around, and check out the boutiques. Then I'll take them out to Ballybunion for a dip in the sea and a lovely seaweed bath. You can have a cup of coffee on the beach and it's just magic. It'd cure anything!
"There's a cliff walk just above the beach, and a new one called Bromore Cliffs. Michael Flahive, who set up the walk (bromorecliffs.com), has lived in the area for years, and he'll regale you with tales of his youth and adventures… he's a natural-born storyteller! I've been there three times and each time I go, I hear another story.
"There's a song, The Cliffs of Dooneen, which Christy Moore is famous for. People assume that the cliffs are in Clare, but they're actually just up from Ballybunion. I'd recommend driving from Ballybunion into Ballylongford to see the hometown of Brendan Kennelly, too. It's a lovely, quintessentially Irish town.
"We always joke that there must be something in the water in Listowel, between all the songwriters and the poets, the playwrights and the writers! They all grew up in a town that respected and revered the spoken and the written word."
In conversation with Nicola Brady
Tríona Duignan is a music promoter based in Dingle, who has worked on Other Voices (othervoices.ie) from the very beginning. Here's her take on her home county…
"Music has always been a big part of my life. My dad, Eoin, is a traditional musician, so I grew up with music around the house. Other Voices [the winter festival and TV show] had a huge impact on me - it's been great to be a part of it from the beginning and to see it build from such a small thing to what it is now.
"Seeing bands in this small, intimate setting makes such a difference. That's what Other Voices is all about - the intimacy, being able to enjoy the vibrations and the music and the energy.
"In Dingle, Nelliefreds (facebook.com/nelliefreds) and McCarthy's (facebook.com/McCarthysdingle) are both great for live music. The folk concerts in St James' Church are intimate and special too.
"I haven't actually been up there yet, but Mike the Pies (mikethepies.com) in Listowel is doing really well, and it's supposed to be brilliant. There's a nice music venue called Sol y Sombra (solysombra.ie) - it's a tapas bar in a church in Killorglin.
"We're spoiled in Kerry - there always seems to be something going on. The Dingle Food Festival (dinglefood.com) is a great weekend for food and music. All the restaurants take part in the food trail, you can get little samples everywhere you go. There's a great buzz around the town. I have a café in Dingle called Pantrí (facebook.com/pantridingle), and I got DJs playing out there for the whole weekend, which was great fun.
"One thing I love is heading out to the Blasket Islands (above). It's absolutely breathtaking. A perfect day for me would be getting up early, having a good breakfast in Pantrí, then making a picnic of a few bits from The Little Cheese Shop (below,on Gray's Lane), bread from Bácús (bacus.ie), chocolates and salads from Crinkle Stores, then heading off.
Even driving around Slea Head is beautiful, we're so spoilt with the scenery. I've travelled all around the world but the Dingle Peninsula is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
"I kind of love the wild, wintry days in Kerry. If you drive out west you can see the waves crashing - at Clogher beach, the waves can almost be crashing on top of your car. There's just something so great about the blustery weather, going out for a windy walk on the beach then going for a nice cosy pint.
"Tig Bhric (westkerrybrewery.ie) bar is just opposite Wine Strand, and they have a lovely fire, candles on the tables and an old record player, which is really nice. It's a microbrewery as well, so you can have a pint of their own brew.
"Skellig Rock is gorgeous. I went to the Skelligs once, and on the boat trip over there were schools of dolphins and whales all around us. Then when we arrived on the island, there were loads of baby puffins. They're only there at certain times of year, so we were so lucky to see them. The man driving our boat had caught some fish, so we bought that off him and cooked it up back in the cottage we were staying at in Waterville. That was a cool day."
In conversation with Nicola Brady
Looking for a special place to stay in Kerry? Travel Editor Pól Ó Conghaile has six suggestions from his Little Black Book...
1. Castlewood House, Dingle
"Pure class and comfort from start to finish" was how readers described Brian and Helen Heaton's now-iconic Irish guesthouse. Castlewood (pictured above) which won ' Best Irish Welcome' in our Reader Travel Awards 2019, also placing highly in 'Ireland's Favourite Small Stay' and - no surprise for regulars here - 'Best Irish Breakfast'. B&B starts from €96 per room in February, with a host of special packages available.
Contact: 066 915-2788; castlewooddingle.com
2. Killarney Park Hotel
Kerry has no shortage of five-stars, with The Park Kenmare, The Dunloe, Sheen Falls, Aghadoe Heights and The Europe just some of the jewels in its crown. The Killarney Park is a surprisingly intimate and central stay that seems to reach out and embrace you even as you walk down the drive. Staff have that Kerry kindness too - nobody will forget your name, but they won't over-use it, either. B&B from €230.
Contact: 064 663-5555; killarneyparkhotel.ie
3. Cahernane House, Killarney
Killarney's worst-kept secret re-opened last year after a €6m refurb, with a new look complemented by antique details like the banker's desk used at reception. B&B with dinner starts from around €95pp. If you like this, take a look at Ard Na Sidhe (ardnasidhe.com), a beautiful Arts & Crafts house overlooking Caragh Lake near Killorglin.
Contact: 064 663-1895; cahernane.com
4. Ballygarry House, Tralee
Its Nádúr Spa, friendly staff and new Restaurant 58 (harking back to the year it opened) were just some of the reasons Ballygarry House made our Fab 50 last year. B&B with dinner is currently available on special from €89pp. Other Kerry four-stars worth checking are Parknasilla and the Great Southern in Killarney, recently taken over by the Scally family.
Contact: 066 712-3322; ballygarryhouse.com
5. Pax House, Dingle
John O'Farrell's modern Irish guesthouse is set just a mile outside Dingle, and it boasts some of the best views on the peninsula. Named Ireland's best B&B in our Reader Travel Awards 2022, prices start from around €150 per room... but it's worth paying extra for the sea views.
Contact: 066 915-1518; pax-house.com
6. Camp like a champ!
Camping and caravan parks always feature widely in Reader Travel Awards nominations, and you're spoiled for choice in Kerry. Manix Point, Wave Crest and Glenross are just a sample - or, for a treat, why not splash out on a glamping adventure at Dromquinna Manor? Luxury tents start from €150 per night.
Contact: camping-ireland.ie; dromquinnamanor.com
NB: All prices subject to availability/change. This story has been updated since it was first published on 26/01/2019.