Kingdom come: Finding a slice of paradise on a family holiday in Kerry
Róisín Ingle: Watersports, seafood and stunning scenery are the perfect combination
Róisín, Joya and Priya ready for a bumpy excursion on a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat).
We’re less than 20km outside Killarney, when I realise with a mortified jolt what a travesty it is that as a family – my partner, our two 10-year-old twin daughters, myself and my mother who is along for the ride – have never properly explored the much celebrated natural beauty of the Irish county known as the Kingdom.
We came down by train from Dublin before renting a car from the very helpful staff at Budget in Killarney and in no time we’ve arrived at a spot called Ladies View, which we are later not at all surprised to learn is one of the most photographed places in Ireland.
We stop the car like the wide-eyed tourists in our own country we are and start snapping this outrageously photogenic scene. It’s a view that seems almost ridiculous in its beauty. You are looking down at a lush green patchwork landscape, rolling mountains and glittering lakes. Bathed as it is today in sunshine which to our great fortune hangs around for our entire long weekend in Kerry, it looks like the setting for a romantic fairytale.
Or some kind of biblical paradise. Thy kingdom come, you can’t help thinking. No wonder a pair of Taiwanese tourists nearly drove their car off the edge here a couple of years ago, thankfully emerging from their vehicle unscathed.
This view is seriously distracting. It certainly diverted the ladies-in-waiting of Queen Victoria when they passed this way in 1861. Legend has it Ladies View is named for them.
We drive on. We are here to explore this stretch of the 2600km Wild Atlantic Way. Our base will be the Parknasilla Resort & Spa a few kilometres from the picture postcard village of Sneem. We’re excited because we know it is very fancy and looks out over Kenmare Bay but it’s only when we drive up and take in the immaculate garden facing the water, with mountains beyond that we realise how lucky we are.
It’s spectacular. We’ve asked for connecting rooms so the girls can be near us and our balcony looks out over the Kenmare River and hundreds of acres of tropical parkland. Cupcakes, with the girls names decorated in chocolate on the plate, have been placed in their rooms with two very relaxed looking Parknasilla teddy bears are having a snooze on the beds.
Hungry after the journey down, we have an excellent dinner in the Doolittle Bar, highlights: a pot of fresh crab and a stunning seafood chowder. The bar is named for the iconic Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. There’s a Pygmalion restaurant too, for even finer dining and to-die-for steaks.
The theatrical references are in tribute to George Bernard Shaw who stayed here once and wrote of Parknasilla “this place does not belong to any world that you or I have ever worked or lived in . . . it is part of our dream world”.
Another thing that’s been said about the hotel which was first established in 1895 is that it was a “grand hotel, but not too preoccupied with being grand to be friendly”. It’s true. The staff, including movie star Jessie Buckley’s dad Tim who is the bar manager, were a delight all weekend long.
We are a family that takes serious enjoyment in a good breakfast buffet, and the one at Parknasilla is really good. (My daughters said I had to mention the “amazing” fried potatoes.) While us adults linger over coffee and those gorgeous views, the children wander off down one of the many walking trails on the grounds.
The Fairy Trail is great they report, and the Treasure Trail is fun but the Seaside Trail is their favourite “because there are mermaids down there and we talked to them”. (This is something they should probably add to the hotel brochure.)
After breakfast we drive along the breathtaking coastal route to Derrynane and the homestead of Daniel O’Connell, now a national monument. His childhood and family home lies on the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula and you can immediately see why this idyllic place, managed now for the Irish people by the Office of Public Works, was such a refuge from the demands of his legal work in Dublin and all that emancipating of catholics.
The sparkling sea is so tempting that we soon abandon the kayaks on the sand and go for one of the most magical swims we’ve ever had in Ireland
The girls are used to looking at the big man’s statue on O’Connell Street, assessing how much bird poo he has on his head from their perch on the top deck of the bus back from school, so it’s “brilliant”, they say, to be in his house and imagining him at home with his wife and children.
They find his death bed which is one of many fascinating exhibits in the house “a bit creepy” but they are surprisingly engaged by the short video telling the story of the great Liberator.
Afterwards, we get a quick but fascinating “Medicine Walk” with Niall Hogan in Daniel O’Connell’s garden – Niall tells us about the healing properties of daisy stalks and elder berries.
Then it’s time for lunch. Are you fond of a seafood platter? We highly recommend the Smuggler’s Inn, Waterville where when one plate arrived we thought it was to feed all five of us. But no, we each got a plate heaving with prawns, mussels, oysters and smoked fish. And I’m under strict instructions to tell you about the Shirley Temples – a refreshing mix of 7up, raspberry cordial and grenadine served up in a long glass with striped red and white straws.
Just as we are wondering if we can ever move again after all that seafood, Lucy Hunt of Sea Synergy joins us to take the children on a seashore safari in the rockpools of Ballinaskelligs Bay. She points up to a window above The Smuggler’s Inn, her family’s restaurant and bar, now run by her brother.
“That was my bedroom,” she says not even trying to play down the great good luck of growing up with this pristine white strand as her back garden. She spent most of her time down there as a child and has made the sea her life’s work as a marine biologist.
Lucy is the founder and managing director Sea Synergy which is a marine awareness and activity centre in Waterville. She has that annoyingly healthy glow enjoyed by people who’ve lived most of their lives outdoors and she is your woman if you want to find out what lies beneath this part of the Wild Atlantic Way, from crabs to shrimps to sea anemones.
While she is showing the kids all of this I sneak back up to the Smuggler’s Inn to test out the Guinness. It’s very good. The kids return with tales of why we need to keep the ocean clean and marine life flourishing. Lucy’s work here is done.
The next day, we go kayaking with Derrynane Seasports down at the harbour. We’ve never been in a kayak before but we are the kind of people who think we are great at things we’ve never done before so we are in our element.
“The amount of people who think the kayaking will be no bother and then find themselves getting into a spot of bother,” muses a smiling Helen Wilson who runs Derrynane Sports, reminding us that the wind and tide changes can be challenging, and arms not used to kayaking can get weary.
Sure enough when we are out in the very safe and sheltered harbour we occasionally need the services of the young man who has a motor boat perfect for towing weary kayakers. It’s exhilarating, kayaking around the harbour. The sparkling sea is so tempting that we soon abandon the kayaks on the sand and go for one of the most magical swims we’ve ever had in Ireland. Then we get back behind the oars and do our best to row back to base.
We are all glowing when we get back to Helen who is sitting in front of containers covered with log and bark to make them blend more into the seaside environment. Inside the containers are equipment for sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, bodyboarding, waterskiing, wakeboarding, surfing and snorkelling.
“I’m the old lady of the log cabin,” she says sitting on a blue-painted wooden picnic table but she’s not – she has been running Derrynane Sports for 26 years, and is youthful and full of beans. The sun shines on and we sit chatting and drying off before it’s time to move on again.
Our final watery adventure is back at the hotel where a seafaring man called Noel of Sunfish Explorer Tours is ready to take us on a boat ride. Rugged and romantic Noel proposed to his wife high up on Skellig Michael which tells you everything you need to know about him. Lifejackets on, suddenly we are off.
I wasn’t expecting this. My hair has been blown vertical by the rushing air, I can’t tell if my children are shouting for joy or shrieking in fear and when I’m not wondering nervously when we are going to reach dry land again, I realise I am actually enjoying myself on this RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat).
You’d have to be in the whole of your health for it mind you. Earlier, Captain Noel had tried his best to persuade my game for almost anything 79-year-old mother to join us. She declined citing her muscular degeneration and weak sea legs and went to relax in the Doolittle Bar. As we speed through the water, past tiny islands and disinterested seals, Noel turns around to us and shouts, “it’s probably better we didn’t bring granny”.
“Yes,” we roar back.
Noel is exactly the kind of person you want as a guide. He has exhaustive local knowledge of the Kingdom and this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way. He’s bringing us across the water to one of his favourite places in the area, Kilmacalogue, where Teddy O’Sullivan’s Bar is a lesser known but still busy tourist spot.
To reach this bar by conventional means from Parknasilla would mean a long drive, but we get there in minutes on the RIB. Inside tourists are getting stuck into seafood platters and Guinness. We order mussels and chips. The bar and B&B is old-school in the very best way.
We meet Helen who has run the place for 50 years – she is an institution at this stage and it’s worth visiting Kilmacalogue just to say hello to her. Another attraction apparently is the music on the pier at weekends, but there were no tunes when we visited so my daughters busked Danny Boy instead to lure out any nearby dolphins or mermaids.
My daughters are now insisting they don’t want presents for their birthday next year. They just want to go back to Parknasilla, to the breakfast buffet, the seaside trail, the games room with table tennis and foosball, back to the Kerry kindness we found everywhere, to the crabs at Ballinaskelligs Bay and the mountains and the sea.
They want to go back to Bake My Day, the puntastic and lovely cafe we discovered on the way to Caherdanielfor vegetable soup and enormous pavlovas and O’Sheas in Sneem where they had burgers the size of their heads. They want to go back on the RIB with Noel and have another dip in the warm, clear waters of Derrynane Harbour and more chats with all the characters we met along the Wild Atlantic Way.
I can’t say I blame them.
They actually cry on the way back to the train station in Killarney. When the tears dry they become philosophical, channelling George Bernard Shaw: “The thing about this trip to Kerry,” said one daughter, “was that it was so amazing and it whizzed by so fast it was like a really, really great dream.”
And it was. Except it’s all there – gorgeously, fantastically, memorably real.
All summer long, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. Read all about it on irishtimes.com/summeroffamily