Glorious scenery, quaint pubs, perfect drives, wonderful hiking — Kerry has it all, says Simon Horsford.
Banter filled The Purple Heather in Kenmare, County Kerry. The bar on the town's attractive high street had been recommended by our hotel doorman as the ideal place to wind down after a hike on the nearby Beara Peninsula.
I ordered a Murphy's and eavesdropped on conversations, one with a tip for a horse running that afternoon at Navan. My nosiness got me nowhere, however, as the horse, on which I rashly placed a bet, came nowhere. But the hapless nag was the only blemish on a day that had begun in bright sunshine as we met our walking guides, Dermot and Helen Corkery, at our hotel, the nearby Sheen Falls Lodge.
We'd come to this part of Ireland — first popularised as a holiday destination by the Victorians — to explore the Kerry Way, the Beara Way and the Killarney National Park. It was quickly evident that Dermot was the man to show us. He grew up locally and his family has farmed in the region for generations; walking was in his blood, not least because his childhood involved a daily 10km round trip to school.
We followed paths that took us through a breathtaking landscape of lakes and hills, and at every turn Dermot had a tale. The route took us to Gleninchiquin and up Knockagarrane for a view across Kenmare Bay to Kenmare itself and on to the striking Macgillycuddy's Reeks and Carrantuohill, Ireland's highest mountain at 1036m. On route, we passed the Uragh Stone Circle, five striking neolithic megaliths. Its remote location made it even more evocative.
For the more adventurous, and for those with a tent, the well-signposted route along the Iveragh Peninsula, is also worth tackling, or for an easier stroll nearby, head to Dromore Woods for a walk that is part woodland and part coast.
After the pub we made for Sneem, known for its nature garden and various international sculptures dotted around the village. But it was all rather underwhelming — and I found only a couple of works, including an incongruous installation by the artist James Scanlon.
It all seemed like a work in progress in a village that is known as the knot in the Ring of Kerry (something to do with the confluence of the river).
The Ring of Kerry — the popular name for the Iveragh Peninsula — is the stunning scenic route that links the likes of Kenmare, Killarney, Killorglin and Cahersiveen in the west. It is best avoided in high summer but offers access to some of the loveliest parts of the country.
We headed anti-clockwise from Kenmare past the "Lakes of Killarney", lower, middle and upper; lower is the largest and home to some 30 small islands. In early morning it has an almost mystical air and otherworldly stories abound. One tells of an Irish chieftain, who is said to hold eternal court beneath the waters and to rise once a year on the eve of May Day.
After stretching our legs again with a climb to Torc waterfall, we headed for Muckross House, a striking Victorian mansion built in 1843 for an ambitious MP, Henry Arthur Herbert. It passed to the state in the 1930s, when the 4500ha estate became Ireland's first national park.
On a brief tour of the rather sombre interior, we heard of the costly (for the host) visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1861, the zenith of Muckross' history. There were more than 100 in Victoria's entourage and the trip was planned six years in advance — for a two-night stay.
But Victoria's visit gave a seal of approval to Kerry, which proved popular with the great and the good. Wordsworth and Byron made earlier appearances, and Tennyson wrote about Killarney in Blow, Bugle, Blow. We were less taken by the busy town, with its profusion of bars, but did like the fabulous neo-Gothic cathedral, designed by Pugin, and the racecourse, whose July and August meetings are a high point.
Escaping the town, we took a delightful jaunting horse-and-carriage ride to Ross Castle. Michael, "the driver", told us his family had been in the business for five generations and he has eight draught horses trekking Killarney routes.
Back at our hotel we had tea in the library then explored the beautifully kept cemetery, which includes a reminder of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Kenmare was badly hit and the simple plot is a sober reminder that not all could join the 5000 locals who took up a controversial emigration scheme to America.
Near the graveyard we also found a well, adorned with prayer pledges, dedicated to the fifth-century monk St Finian, who is said to have cured leprosy.
We only touched on the region during our long weekend, missing out on fishing, the beaches and a ride in the hotel's grand 1936 Buick Roadmaster, but we had already had a sense of why the Victorians were so captivated by Kerry.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Emirates offers a daily A380 service between Auckland and Dublin via Dubai.
Getting around: Insight Vacations offers many itineraries taking in Ireland's Ring of Kerry, including the 12-day Country Roads of Ireland.