A short break in the Kingdom: Might Kerry just be too beautiful?
Fifty shades of grey sky, notwithstanding, Kerry is too beautiful not to explore...
There is a film, a clackety silent cine film, of five-year-old me in a huff and trailing seaweed along Banna Strand in Kerry.
Tables, rooms, people remembered from childhood are all invariably much smaller when you encounter them as an adult. Not so Banna Strand, which, a short drive from where we were staying in Ballygarry House Hotel, is a must along Kerry's impressive chunk of the Wild Atlantic Way.
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Neither in the cine film, nor on this decades' later visit was the sun shining, our May sky was 50 shades of grey, but the choppy Atlantic tide coming back in over a beach that stretches for miles either direction is a beauty that withstands any weather.
And let's face it, who holidays in Ireland for the weather? A spa break is a particularly good all-weather option, should it be inclement you can either hide completely in the spa or get warmed up after exposure, in the spa.
Ballygarry House Hotel is just outside Tralee and has been in the McGillicuddy Family for three generations, some 60 years of hospitality. Cosy, but surprisingly big, the hotel offers everything you might require for a weekend or midweek break. Our junior suite was really nice, a big, bright bedroom, sitting room and bathroom which included a jet bath and the lovely Voya range of seaweed-based toiletries from Sligo.
The emphasis on Irish products extends to Owen Mac's bar where the Dingle Gin welcome is warm and to the Brasserie where we had a great first-night meal of locally sourced surf and turf of fillet steak, pink prawns and monkfish (€33.50), monkfish tail scampi (€25.95) and a delicious superfood salad (€14.95). Which, in case of virtue overkill, we counteracted with an equally delicious strawberry meringue roulade (€7.50).
Those roadworks on the M7 and the 60kph limit do slow things down considerably so being able to arrive, check-in (and get a key, a real key, not a keycard!) and eat well on site has huge appeal after the four-hour drive from Dublin on a Friday evening.
The hotel, on TripAdvisor's 2019 Travellers' Choice Top 10, is situated on six acres of landscaped gardens and has views over the Sliabh Mish Mountains. Right next door are Ballyseedy Woods, which make a lovely walk but the hotel also offers bicycles, which is a nice way to explore the area too. The gardens and the mountains are the view you take in with your breakfast, you can tell yourself you're going to do laps as you hit the buffet prior to the delivery of your cooked food.
If you saw me in a hotel at breakfast time, you wouldn't believe that at home the first meal of the day is a paltry affair. But I have something of a fetish for hotel breakfasts, in part at least down to the someone-else-makes-it factor, and can vouch for the excellence of the Ballygarry feed.
Duly fuelled we headed to, well, to the Nadur Spa. Manager Gina, who keeps the bees which provided some of the honey in our breakfasts, and indeed in some of the beauty therapies on offer in the spa, gave us a tour and fluffy robes. A lovely lady called Katie gave me a relaxing hot lava shell Muscle Melt massage and, as the outdoor Jacuzzi would only have washed off my essential oils, I took my tea in the relaxation room. I hadn't seen the use of covered, garden style sofas in that setting before and it is an excellent idea because it offers cosy privacy.
My partner-in-crime arrived shortly after, positively floating after his first-ever professional massage. If you have never had one, it is something for the to-do list but guests who don't want a treatment can still use the thermal suite and fitness centre.
Fifty shades of grey sky, notwithstanding, Kerry is too beautiful not to explore. Depending on how far you want to drive, or how long an excursion you want to make, there are many options from Tralee. The town itself is thriving with some nice shops, restaurants and pubs. There is also The Aquadome which offers watery fun for the whole family.
You can drive 30 minutes north to Ballybunion, or head south west into the Dingle Peninsula, or, 30 minutes drive south east is Killarney, super touristy but not for nothing because the lakes, National Park and Ring of Kerry never disappoint.
We had two days and enough driving so kept our exploration closer, choosing to head for Banna. I walked and collected stripy shells, also 50 shades of grey, and my insane friend got in the ocean which he alleges is warmer than the Irish Sea. In Ballyheigue we bought Carrageen moss and bags of seaweed for the bath. And ice creams, because we were at the beach and even if you're in an anorak, you need a 99 at the beach.
On the way back to Ballygarry we visited Ardfert Cathedral. Built on the site of St Brendan's 6th Century church, entry is a very well spent €5. It takes perhaps an hour, during the first part of which a guide explains the history and layout of the site which has been built on and used over centuries, after this you can explore with a better understanding.
In an open crypt you can see two skulls and a femur, which might hold grizzly appeal for kids, as well as for this ghoul. It's a remarkable landmark, well kept and excavated but not overly so. Thanks to our knowledgeable guide, I can relay that Ardfert has the tallest surviving lancet windows in Ireland, they are quite something, and that glass was an option in the Middle Ages if you could afford it, but more usually animal intestines were stretched over windows, well-oiled ones apparently.
We were told the Kerry air would make us sleepy, and it did. The beds were so comfortable they practically demanded an early night. It was a short, but really relaxing break, which we enjoyed a lot. I think it's worth saying, too, that in the hotel, as everywhere, the people were really nice. It is easy to take the Irish welcome for granted, even to be cynical about it, but I certainly value that pleasant, chatty interaction with people.
The sun though, cheeky minx, only decided to play nice as we were heading home. But who holidays in Ireland for the weather?
Ballygarry House Hotel, Wild Atlantic Way break, from €310pps.
Two nights stay in a luxurious superior king room, full-Irish breakfast served in Restaurant 58, complementary Dingle Gin and tonic on arrival in Owen Mac’s Bar (ballygarryhouse.com).
Experience a Voya Bath Butler, a signature seaweed well-being bath in the comfort and privacy of your guest room. Soak in the mineral-rich hand harvested seaweed, guaranteed to soothe away any aches and pains from your day adventuring.
Complimentary access to Fitness Suite and the Nadur Spa Thermal Suite which includes an Outdoor Hot Tub, Sauna and Steam Room. Free onsite bicycles to explore nearby Ballyseedy Woods.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.