One of Ireland’s most-visited counties — for very good reason — is “The Kingdom” of Kerry. Dotted with historic towns and villages, Ireland’s highest mountain range, and some of the best coastal scenery anywhere in the world, Kerry should be near the top of your Ireland wish list.
Killarney National Park
For many, the charming town of Killarney is the hub from which to launch an excellent (Kerry) adventure. But if you have time, consider spending a couple of nights in this historic, easy-to-navigate city to explore the national park on its doorstep.
Much of Killarney National Park once belonged to a wealthy estate, long since donated to the Irish government and now operated as a tip-tip public space. Take your pick of easy walks through the old estate gardens, visit the lakeside keep of Ross Castle, hear the whispers of the past in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, or experience the day-to-day life of the wealthy — and I mean wealthy — landlords who once owned this beautiful valley.
[When you’re in town, consider stopping by Killarney Brewing Company for a tour and a taste of the local craft.]
Adventurous explorers can bring along hiking boots and tackle one of the park’s many peaks like Torc, Mangerton, or, just beyond the technical borders of the park, Carauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak at just over 1000m (3280 ft.).
On the end of the Ring of Kerry — off the end of the peninsula, really — sits a quiet little island community well off the beaten path and well worth a visit if you have a car. Probably named for or by the Spanish sailors who once traded up and down the west coast of Ireland (Valentia is sometimes spelled “Valencia” on maps), this island offers some spectacular coastal walks and views and a taste of Irish island life without requiring a ferry ticket.
Valentia is connected to the mainland by a bridge from Portmagee, south and west of Caherciveen. Parking for the southern part of the island can be found at the Skelligs Heritage Center just off the bridge. As you walk the Bray Head Loop, look for the two spiny Skellig Islands and imagine the eighth-century monks toiling away out there on the bare rock, scraping out a living and keeping the art of the book alive during the worst of the Dark Ages.
Those looking for an overnight center with an even more intimate feel and a bustling harbor can’t do much better than Dingle, on the peninsula just north of the Ring of Kerry. Here in Dingle town, enjoy a touristy-but-fun traditional music scene in one of the way-too-many-for-a-town-this-size pubs. (While you’re there, have a pint of Tom Crean’s local craft lager, named for the Kerryman and Antarctic explorer.)
Before you run out of daylight and hit the music pubs, take a walk along the coast to the old lighthouse that once guided ships into the sheltered-but-treacherous Dingle Bay. If you have good eyes, look out at the handful of small cruise boats taking tourists out to visit Fungie, the resident dolphin that hangs out in the bay. You’ll see him popping his head out to greet his audience (and get a little handout from the grateful tour boat operators).
Ring forts and ruins
No matter where you are in Kerry (or indeed in Ireland), you’ll never be far from an ancient ruin, but some of the best are on the Ring of Kerry (Iveragh) and Dingle peninsulas.
On the south side of the Ring of Kerry, near Sneem, many day-trippers take a detour off the main road to visit the well-preserved Staigue Fort in the middle of a farm field. The high stone walls, built without cement or mortar, are still in astonishingly good condition, and the steps leading up to the defensive ramparts are still accessible and safe to climb today. The local sheep keep the grass inside this ancient stronghold well-clipped.
For a more obscure ring fort closer to the crashing waves of the coast, visit the pair of them near Caherciveen on the western end of the peninsula. These are neither as large nor as well preserved as Staigue, but they are closer to the main road and every little bit as evocative — maybe moreso thanks to their relative isolation.
On Dingle, don’t miss the early Christian Gallarus Oratory — also now in the middle of a pasture. This curiously shaped structure, also built simply by carefully stacking precision-cut stones without mortar, was once a local church, serving a small congregation out here in the hills of Dingle. It’s still safe to enter, and you’ll feel surprisingly warm and dry as you step through the short, narrow doorway.
“Luke Skywalker has vanished!”
So leads the opening title crawl of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). At the end of the movie, we find that Luke (still played by Mark Hamill) has been hanging out on a remote island on a distant planet. The island in question? An Scheillig Mor, or Skellig Michael off the far coast of the Iveragh Peninsula.
In the eighth century, brave Irish monks paddled out to these barren rocks to build a secure and isolated society where they could worship and study in peace and solitude (and with the unforgiving Atlantic winds buffeting their huts every minute of every day). Their stacked-stone houses and churches, still standing, are nicknamed “beehive huts” thanks to their round, conical shape. (Look for them in the film.)
The islands are open for visitors, but the process isn’t easy. Tickets and visiting times are strictly limited to protect the many species of birds and wildlife that take refuge on the islands. Ferries running to the Skelligs can only do so when weather conditions are near perfect, which reportedly happens about four days out of seven in a good week. Those wishing to visit the islands are advised to book tickets early and have some flexibility in case of weather.
No matter where you go in Kerry, you’ll be welcomed with open arms by the well-oiled local tourism industry, and you’ll leave with spectacular memories and even more spectacular photos…if the weather doesn’t decide otherwise.