Sophie White's family believes that West Cork is the most beautiful place in the world. Could a trip to Kerry change their minds?
My family believe that West Cork is the most beautiful place in the world. Upon arriving in any far-flung stunning destination the highest compliment that they can pay is to liken it to West Cork. Northern Spain, Barbados, India all look just like West Cork. For my husband who grew up spending summers in Clifden, nowhere even comes close to Connemara in terms of wild beauty and awe-inspiring landscape.
Therefore, it was a few days in Kerry before we found ourselves grudgingly admitting that maybe, just maybe Kerry was quite nice. "Kerry!", we exclaimed patronisingly, "Who knew?"
It turns out that virtually everyone knew - from the Vikings, who attacked the area repeatedly, to the monks who built remote institutions of learning and prayer there, to an ancient Egyptian prince who made the gruelling trip to those very institutions by camel, on foot and by boat to study with the same monks. We just came late to the party it seems.
The first leg of our Kerry odyssey was spent exploring the Dingle peninsula which is a fabulously rugged and bohemian outpost. We stayed two nights in Castlegregory, a small seaside town just west of Tralee. The town strikes the perfect balance between old-school rural Ireland - a great pub complete with a resident dog out back, a pharmacy worthy of the moniker apothecary and "original" Eircom phone boxes - yet all the mod cons were available as well, such as flat whites and fresh sourdough bread.
A beautiful old cottage in the village is home to the celebrated restaurant, Milesian, where head-chef Greg O'Mahoney - formerly of Pichet and L'Ecrivain - creates delicious food with a great early bird menu, locally sourced everything and a roaring open fire.
Like all good holidays, a rhythm evolved for our days, starting with a bracing dip in the sea followed by excellent coffee, pastries and papers in Moe's Café. A browse at the farmer's market and fish shop for dinner followed, before hitting the road to explore the stunning surrounding area. The Conor Pass and the road around Slea Head are epic odysseys of Lord of the Ringsian proportions. At times the road is barely more than a ledge above the crashing Atlantic far below with views of the Blasket islands stretching away into the mist. It's no wonder that these wild rocks have been the setting for many films like Ryan's Daughter and most recently JJ Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek series. Of course Kerry has never needed the endorsement of Hollywood types, this is the self-appointed "Kingdom" after all.
And Kerry does, indeed, possess all the "Kingdom" prerequisites; ruins and castles, villains and heroes, cascading waterfalls and lakes concealing parallel worlds in their hidden depths. It probably helped that the next day we were exploring the Ring of Kerry in extreme weather conditions with rivers running over the roads at points and peaks shrouded in fog. Throw a bit of Rachmaninov on the radio and the general vibe of fatalism and high drama was really compounded.
After our journey through the howling wilds of Kerry, we were immediately cocooned in five-star luxury upon arrival at our second destination of the holiday, Muckross Park Hotel. A high-end resort that retains the personal touch that makes a hotel warm and inviting, the hotel is located just outside Killarney, directly across from Muckross House and Abbey and dates from 1795.
The award-winning spa at Muckross Park Hotel is a complete escape, where after their treatments, guests can lounge on muslin-draped chaise longues enjoying the views of Killarney National Park while gorging on chocolate dipped strawberries and Prosecco. I opted for the Wilderness Therapy Ritual which seemed to be some kind of full body massage.
I am never one to read the massage fine print, you know where it says; 'You will be slathered in goose fat and then rubbed all over with blue potatoes'- that kind of thing. Basically I always believed that all massages were essentially the same and that highfalutin names and poetic descriptions were a bit arbitrary. They could just write "pay us some money and we'll give you a rub" and I would be just as happy. But this Wilderness treatment was the real deal, a complete sensory experience.
First there was a full body exfoliation. Then a hot stone massage which - OK, maybe everybody knows this- but is actually being rubbed all over with hot stones - sublime. Next a cold unguent was massaged in which was gorgeous after the heat of the stones and finally a refreshing mist was spritzed liberally all over me. Like getting a face of mist on the boat over to Skellig Rock without having to leave the rarefied, lavender-scented spa or even stand up for that matter.
After my experience of 'Wilderness' in the controlled conditions of the spa, I was keen to get out into the wilds for real. Outdoors Ireland specialise in guided hikes, kayaking trips, canyoning and abseiling for adventurers of all abilities. They are passionate about what they do and love to show the fantastic scope for adventure that Kerry's unique landscape offers.
Exploring Loch Lein by kayak allowed us to visit the many islands and caves of the huge lake and to discover the untouched beauty of remote stretches of shoreline which are virtually inaccessible on foot. Our knowledgeable guide, Jason, told us stories of the monks of Inisfallen - an island monastery in Loch Lein - taking cover in nearby caves during Viking invasions, hiding with precious manuscripts and treasures, until they were given the all clear by the sounding of a bell that would reach them across the lake.
After the bit of exertion we were ready for the hotel's Yew Tree restaurant, where we enjoyed course after course of divine delicacies. In fact such was our epic eating that we became convinced we were creating our own mythology to add to the lore of the Kingdom. We were like the Viking invaders returned, this time to pillage and plunder the cheese board and dessert menu. And with scenery, cheeses and dessert like this, return we shall.
Muckross Park Hotel has luxury autumn breaks from €240pps for a three night stay, including dinner on one evening in the Yew Tree Restaurant and a complimentary Room Upgrade including wine and chocolates. 064 662 3400; www.muckrosspark.com
Outdoors Ireland: 086 860 4563; www.outdoorsireland.com