Peak fitness: exploring Kerry’s Reek District
Climbing Ireland’s highest mountains, kayaking and surfing worked up a healthy appetite for some creamy pints and great food in the Kingdom’s adventure playground
Beenkeragh in MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, with Caher Ridge as the backdrop. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
Keep your hips loose and your head straight on. Sound advice for kayaking along the Caragh Lake or taking on Ireland’s biggest mountain, and a mantra in itself for a trip to the Reeks District in Co Kerry.
An adventure playground mixing the culture, craic and the incredible scenery that Kerry is renowned for, the Reeks District has an array of activities that sets it apart from its surrounding towns and attractions.
Nothing quite cures an aching body like a creamy pint, a jig and a sing song. And nothing quite clears a sore head like the fresh ocean breeze or the sense of awe and achievement as you look down from Ireland’s highest point on to the Dingle Peninsula, Kenmare Bay and even as far as the mountains of north Cork.
The Reeks District – stretching from Ireland’s highest peak Carrauntoohil to the Blue Flag beaches of Castlemaine Harbour – is a 3½-hour drive from Dublin and a matter of minutes away from Kerry airport. Flying in from Dublin was handiest for me, with the views on the way into Farranfore airport making amends for what is a rocky take-off and landing.
A half hour’s drive from the airport, hugging the Caragh Lake and just outside the town of Killorglin, is the Ard na Sidhe Country House Hotel. Built in 1913, the hotel now has 18 bedrooms. There are no televisions in the rooms – or anywhere in the hotel – and aside from the newspaper that accompanies breakfast, you’ll be able to switch off entirely from the outside world and just enjoy the crackling of the open fire, and the surrounding gardens and views.
A few good Kerry yarns
A charming spot with staff who go above and beyond, it boasts hidden garden trails, and is well-placed for fresh morning swims. The nearby Red Fox Inn (which is only a 15-minute cycle away) is a great spot for a few good Kerry yarns and a pint, but not too many, you’ve to peddle your way back.
Just five minutes down the road the Carrig Country House and Restaurant is, for its Kerry lamb feature alone, well worth the short spin for dinner. In the lakeside restaurant in this beautiful Victorian residence you can look out on the lake from your table.
The area’s main attraction, however, are the Reeks, and on my first morning in Kerry I took on the Coumloughra Horseshoe. That is a 12km hike/scramble of Ireland’s three highest mountains – Beenkeragh (1,010m), Carrauntoohil (1,039m) and Caher (1,001m). We climbed in that order, with a scramble along Hag’s Tooth Ridge separating the first two peaks.
Kerry Climbing guide and owner Piaras Kelly led my group up and following his lead allowed the freedom of mind to fully absorb the breathtaking views below and above. You can see the weather coming in and changing ahead of you. And it changes a lot in Kerry.
Kelly set a steady pace to match the group’s fitness, and in all it took seven hours. While it isn’t the most strenuous thing you’ll ever do – coming down is the hardest part – it certainly requires a good fitness level. There is an alternative, much easier climb which involves hiking only Carrauntoohil.
Some tips: bring lots of snacks – sweets, sandwiches, sports drinks, fruit – my Fitbit had me down as burning over 2,000 calories. Bring plenty of layers, to strip and put on as things get colder on the ascent, and a stick will save your knees on the way down.
Once Ireland’s three highest peaks had been ticked off, there was only one way I was going to get all those calories back. The lively town of Killorglin, home to one of Ireland’s oldest festivals, Puck Fair, hosts no shortage of pubs. Pick of the bunch being O’Shea’s, or Falvey’s, where the bar man takes pride in serving a “real pint, not like that sloppy stuff in Dublin. Dripping all over your hand”. You’ll wonder have you stumbled into a time warp, there’s no fancy decor or layout – just a cosy setting and locals who are mad for a chat and a laugh.
As for food, Sol y Sombra is a tapas restaurant in a former church that serves Spanish favourites made with local artisan produce. Starters and drinks there were followed by dinner at the nearby Bianconi Inn, which has been in Killorglin for 150 years, serving predominantly Irish fare.
Sore joints and sore heads
By the second morning, sore joints and sore heads needed mending. The folks at the Cappanalea Outdoor Activity Centre told us that early-morning kayaking was the best cure, and while it was hard to fathom when pulling on a wet suit at 9am, once you get out on Caragh Lake it’s easy to understand. The fresh air, the splashes of water breaking the total silence, and the views of the rugged mountains and dotted small beaches and coves that surround the glacial lake leave you fresh-faced with a cleared mind. On my first ever attempt at kayaking, unknown to myself I somehow managed to master the zig-zag.
We kayaked right up to Ard na Sidhe, where we had an afternoon tea pitstop, before heading to Inch beach for some surfing lessons with Tim from Kingdom Waves. Don’t let the cold Atlantic put you off. Snugly covered neck to toe in wet suit and running in and out of the water, you’ll be warm in no time. With the sun shining off the salty water, you’re taken away by the waves and the moment and time just flies by when you’re having fun and the competitive juices are flowing. This endless stretch of golden sand is one of the Reeks District’s two Blue Flag beaches and it’s remarkably quiet. A hidden gem and the highlight of my visit.
After all that, we head to Jack’s Coastguard Restaurant in Cromane – Georgina Campbell Seafood Restaurant of the Year 2018 – which lived up to the hype. The former coastguard station has been converted into a pub/restaurant, with one side of the building housing a typical Irish pub for the locals, while on the other side, there’s a seafood restaurant with stunning views.
After all that eating and drinking, exercising, and excitement, the perfect way to restore the energy for the trip back to the big smoke was some Lomi Lomi Hawaiian healing by the River Laune at Aloha House. Lomi Lomi is an ancient form of Hawaiian massage, blended with breathing exercises and flowing movements. Coupled with a yoga class, it was the perfect way to loosen out after a weekend of strenuous activity.
It was a hectic trip, and I was snoozing on the flight back to Dublin, already planning my next adventures in the Kingdom.
Eamon Donoghue travelled as a guest of Reeks District tourism
Aer Lingus Regional flies from Dublin to Kerry and back twice a day.
What to do
Kerry Climbing: A guided Coumloughra Horseshoe climb costs €75 (group rates available).
Cappanalea Outdoor Activity Centre: A day’s kayaking, canoeing or SUP boarding on Caragh Lake costs €65.
Kingdom Waves: Cost of two-hour surfing lesson is €35 adults/€30 kids peak; €30/€25 off peak. Board and wetsuit: €10 for one hour, €15 for two hours.
Where to stay
Ard na Sidhe: B&B doubles from €210 a night/afternoon tea from €25 per person.
Where to eat
Jack’s Coastguard Restaurant: Starters from €4.50/mains from €19
Sol y Sombra: Tapas dishes from €7.90
Bianconi Inn: Starters from €5/mains from €12
Carrig Country House & Restaurant: Starters from €4.95/mains from €19.50