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Two men, two bikes one great break

Come to Kerry for a cycling tour', said the invitation. "Go to the arse-end of Ireland to do something you hate," said my mind. And it'll probably rain. But this was the Park Hotel, the legendary retreat on the banks of the Kenmare River, and the invitation to sample one of the cycling tours they're offering as part of an all-inclusive weekend was too good to pass up.

I'd never been to their famous hotel, I hadn't actually been to Kerry in about 15 years, and had avoided the questionable joys of cycling for about that long as well. And so it was, with apprehensive buttocks, that I headed south.

There was a time that Kenmare was five-and-a-half hours from Dublin by car, but no more. With a motorway the whole way to Cork, a neat shimmy onto the South Ring and a relatively good road then all the way to Killarney, the town is reachable in less than four.

The most common picture you see of the Park -- looking up from the bay with the mountains as a backdrop -- is misleading, suggesting that the hotel is in the middle of the countryside. It's an illusion, as directly behind the hotel is the town of Kenmare, a quaint triangle of three bustling streets complete with an encyclopaedic array of businesses selling drink, food, souvenirs, drink, petrol and drink. It was the weekend of the Fleadh Cheoil when we were down, and the town was buzzing for 48 hours.

Notable by their absence, however, were the throngs of foreign, especially American, tourists that this part of Ireland is renowned for attracting. On the downside, the area is suffering economically and is relying on the Irish holidaying at home more than ever to stay afloat. On the upside, it meant that the backroads were mercifully free of tour coaches attempting to run us off them.

There are 14 different routes on offer, all graded from one to 10 according to the LA (Lance Armstrong) scale, 10 being the most demanding. The lowest on offer is a three -- a relatively flat 30km jaunt along the southern edge of the Kenmare river.

Feeling a tiny bit adventurous after a hearty breakfast, we plumped for the 60km loop north to Moll's Gap, down to Sneem, and back along the north side of the River to Kenmare, which merited a respectable five on the Lance-ometer.

As we cycle out of Kenmare on hotel-supplied bikes, the bustling town quickly gives way to near deserted, winding country roads, which climb gradually, and then quite steeply, to the stunning scenery of Moll's Gap, which offers a near-360 degree view of the Kerry highlands. Okay, it's only 400ft up, but to a novice cyclist that's like an ascent of the north face of the Eiger.

And there's no polite way of putting it -- the single biggest victim of cycling is your ass. With a rock-hard saddle and one of Ireland's famously rough national roads at your feet, your bottom takes one hell of a beating. And in attempting to shift the weight from your ass, you lean forward, meaning that your hands dig into the handlebars, with unusual results -- on more than one occasion, I went to change gear, only to find that my thumb had gone completely numb.

The joy of an uphill slog, however, is the downhill canter that inevitably follows. Turning left at Moll's Gap towards Sneem, our freewheel through the enticing countryside was interrupted only by a pitstop in the oasis they call Strawberry Fields, a country house cafe/creperie, where we sat in the garden and recharged with carbs (a banana, walnut and maple syrup pancake, to be precise). It was here that the advantages of sightseeing by bike really hit home -- the fresh air, the ability to go at your own pace and pull over wherever you like to admire the stunning views.

My wingman for this adventure was Eamon Keane, broadcaster and musician extraordinaire, as well as being the last known full-time Smithwicks drinker in Ireland. Though no gym addict, Eamon is deceptively fit, having recently completed a triathlon. The benefit of being a regular cyclist was evident as our tour went on -- as I started to slacken during the last quarter on even the smallest of gradients, Eamon thundered on, eventually out of view, and had already written a new song on the hotel's piano by the time I got back. But 60km in under three hours is not to be sniffed at for a total novice on the saddle and, though I felt fine, even invigorated, upon returning to the hotel, I was warned that I wouldn't be able to walk the following day, unless I went for a massage.

I needed no second invitation -- the Samas Spa in the Park is outstanding. I'm not a spa person, but this one is beautifully tucked away in the woods adjoining the hotel, has separate male and female sections, and a heavenly outdoor vitality pool that overlooks the bay.

The massage itself, lasting an hour, was just the right mixture of relaxing and vigorous, and set me up perfectly for a plunge in the warm, utterly luxuriant pool, which comes complete with an array of water jets that make you feel as if you're being hosed down by North Korean riot police.

It's cliched to describe as "Olde Worlde" an experience which brings you back to a day when staff were not just friendly, but chatty; rooms weren't just comfortable, but pleasant to stay in.

And when you sink into an armchair at the end of the night, the stresses of life back in the big smoke seem a world away. It's hard to put my finger on what exactly it is about the Park, but it's got olde worlde charm in abundance. It's top of my list of places to return to. Second only to Castleblayney, of course . . .


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