Killarney: Getting away from it all with the Kingdom's finest
Fran Power and family check into Muckross Park and the Brehon hotels to explore Killarney
It's a warm, drizzly, bank holiday weekend and I'm in a boat making for Innisfallen Island, a tuft of tree and rock in the middle of Lough Leane in Co Kerry.
The captain of our boat is Charlie Fleming. He's been ferrying passengers around the three lakes of Killarney for many years with his fluffy dog and first mate Belle. And there's not much he doesn't know about the people and history of the area.
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If the name Innisfallen sounds familiar, he says, it's because the Annals of Innisfallen, a chronicle of Munster's medieval history, were largely written there by the monks of the now ruined abbey. There are stories of Viking raids on the Skelligs, a big snow in the 11th Century, the kidnapping of the Abbot in 823 as well as tales of battles between Irish chieftains, and between the Gaels and foreigners. Nothing much happened without the monks noting it down.
We come alongside a stone pier and wander around the ruins. You can still make out carved stone animal heads over the doorway of the church and the shape of the cloisters, while an enormous yew tree by the priory is said to be 750 years old.
No one lives there now except the sitka deer that swim over from the mainland from time to time, and the twisted old beech and oaks grow right up to the water's edge. It feels like nature has reclaimed the place.
It's the sort of spot to come with your togs and a picnic and spend a lazy summer's day. In fact, in Victorian times, parties would set out from Muckross House on the mainland to picnic by the ruins. From the island pier, you can look back to Ross Castle and the town of Killarney and the big Ferris wheel that has come to town for BikeFest 2019.
The husband, our 14-year-old daughter and myself are in the Kingdom for the weekend. Our visit has coincided with the 13th annual BikeFest, a gathering of thousands of motorbikers, and the town is filled with a strange mix of middle-aged men with tattoos and leather and facial hair and American tourists in Healy Rea-style flat caps.
But we have skipped the traffic and tourists of town and are staying in great luxury about six kilometres away at Muckross Park Hotel and Spa. Once a pub with a few bedrooms on the main route to the Ring of Kerry, the hotel had a major overhaul in 2006 when then owners Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin gave it a Celtic Tiger makeover.
They added a top class spa with pool, thermal suite and saunas and 68 bedrooms and suites.
The five-star hotel is now under new ownership, and is wearing well. The staff are delightful. Funny, helpful and the right side of chatty. We're in a large, plush and comfortable suite on the second floor, where a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries greeted us on arrival.
One big plus of Muckross Park Hotel is its location. Across the road is the Muckross estate, which forms part of the 26,000 acre Killarney National Park and we hail a jaunting car (€40) to take us on a tour of the park. You can hire one to take you all the way up to the Gap of Dunloe, the passage through the MacGillycuddy Reeks, which is breathtaking.
Muckross estate dates back to the 17th Century when the Herbert family settled in the area. By 1834 they had built the mansion by the edge of Muckross Lake where it commands a spectacular view. The family spent a fortune gussying up the house for the visit of Queen Victoria in 1861.
The dining room curtains were specially made, probably in Paris, and tapestries, Persian carpets, linen, were all commissioned for the royal visit. Even the gardens were remodelled.
The estate passed through various hands. In 1911, its Californian owner, William Bowers Bourn gave it to his daughter Maud, on her marriage to Arthur Rose Vincent. Quite the wedding present.
When Maud died, the house and estate of 13,000 acres were given to the State - though the house was closed for 30 years until locals persuaded the minister to open it to the public in the 1960s.
The guided tour takes you to the room where the Queen slept, and you can see those bespoke dining room curtains, and afterwards there's a good tea to be had in the cafe.
The grounds are lovely, and there is a traditional farm to visit, a playground hidden among the trees, or boats to hire out on the lake. There are stands of huge rhododendron trees. Beautiful in flower, these alien invaders have turned out to be a local curse as they are crowding out other local flora and spreading throughout the national park.
Next morning we walk through the woods and along the lakeshore of the park to pretty Torc Waterfall, a popular spot for popping the question.
Back at the hotel, I visit the spa and steam in the thermal suites and sauna before an expert facial that leaves my skin pillowy and plump for the rest of the day.
That night we head to the outskirts of Killarney, and the Brehon Hotel, where chef Chad Byrne is building a solid reputation at Danu restaurant. We sit into the Brehon Bar which serves some of the same menu, including a good offering of imaginative vegan dishes. Our fish and chips and hearty beefburger are just the comfort food we're after.
As the tourist capital of the southwest, Killarney is jammed with good places to eat. It also has the highest concentration of five-star hotels in the country. Another favourite is the Killarney Brewery Company on Muckross Road (www.killarneybrewing.com) where you can order a wood-fired pizza and a fine pint of local brew. And if you're looking for a bit of a buzz, the Laurels on Main Street or Murphy's Bar on College Street are the place to head.
But the 14-year-old has her eye on the Ferris wheel and its companion ride, a 200ft high swing ride that both shoots up and swings out. I'm recruited along too. Soon we are flying over the roof tops, the bikers and hotels and the lakes spread out beneath our feet in a carpet of blue and green and purple.
I wonder what the monks of Innisfallen would have made of that.
Fran Power and her family stayed at the five-star Muckross Park Hotel & Spa and enjoyed the ‘Summer by the Lakes’ package which offers guests a two- or three-night stay with breakfast each morning, dinner on one evening in the award-winning Yew Tree restaurant, summer cocktails for two in Monk’s Bar and complimentary use of the vitality suite in The Spa at Muckross.
There’s also a sailing trip on the Lakes of Killarney aboard the Lily of the Lake cruiser and complimentary bike hire to discover the lakeside wonders — Muckross Lake Loop, Meeting of the Waters and Torc Waterfall.
More information: muckrosspark.com / 064 662 3400/ firstname.lastname@example.org
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.