Ring of Kerry calling
Go Ireland: The Kingdom could be a perfect destination for a restorative New Year's break, write Alanna Gallagherand Seán Flynn
THE KINGDOM of Kerry boasts too many sights to see in one visit. By staying local, and concentrating on the micro rather than the macro experience, you can take the time you need to drink in the magical landscape.
The Ring of Kerry is a 170km route that offers ancient monuments, World Heritage sites, castles, villages and Blue Flag beaches. The circuit starts and ends in Killarney, but it is better to stay in the pretty towns and villages of the Iveragh Peninsula, which offers all sorts of accommodation options.
The peninsula is rich in architectural heritage as well as stunning scenery. It has ring forts, ogham stones, even fossil tracks to investigate, as well as the monastic complex on Skellig Michael - a highlight of the county.
If you're travelling from Dublin for a weekend, the best way to travel might be to fly, hire a car at Kerry Airport, then head for Kenmare, the gateway to the Iveragh Penninsula.
Picturesque Sneem is worth spending time in. O'Shea's attracts a large crowd and offers trad music sessions. The town also has a James Bond connection: Andrew Cook claims in his book M: MI5's First Spy Masterthat Ian Fleming, the 007 creator, took his inspiration for Bond from a London-based chemist named Sigmund Rosenblum, who spied for British intelligence in Russia in the early 20th century. Cook reveals that Rosenblum was recruited for the job by William Melville, an Irish emigrant who was born in Sneem in 1850. There is an exhibition on the subject at Tralee Museum.
Then head for Caherdaniel, a short drive away, site of Daniel O'Connell's ancestral home. The Liberator's house is furnished with family portraits, writings and a great many items, from the duelling pistols used when he killed his rival John D'Esterre in 1815, and the black glove he subsequently wore in remembrance, to the fabulous gold chariot he rode through Dublin past jubilant crowds on his release from prison. It also has a tea room with delicious home-made treats.
Staigue Fort, near Castlecove, is one of the largest and finest ring forts in the country. The fort is surrounded by a large bank and ditch, still very obvious on the north side. It shows great building skill and is similar in style to Grianán Ailigh, in Co Donegal.
The Ring of Kerry beaches are rich with beachcombing bounty. Sarah Varian, a marine biologist who has a family house outside Sneem, says even country people walk over stuff on the shore. "The best beaches to comb are Derrynane and Glenbeigh," she says. "Beachcombing gets the kids outdoors and away from their computer screens."
A whole second stage of the Ring of Kerry begins at Waterville, a pretty place frequented by Charlie Chaplin, who used to stay at the Butler Arms Hotel. (There's a statue of him in the village.)
Valentia Island has a plethora of historic and geological points of interest. In addition to its Atlantic-cable history, and slate deposits that roofed the Palace of Westminster, it has 400-million-year-old fossilised tetrapod tracks and the sumptuous, sub-tropical Glanleam Gardens, which benefit from the virtually frost-free climate.
You won't be able to visit the Skellig islands in winter, but if you wait until spring you'll want to include it in your trip: their ingenuity and your wonder at man's spirituality will liberate you from your work-life imbalance - if only temporarily.
The rich bird and sea life that you can spy during the boat crossing is almost worth the trip alone. The local waters are warmed by the Gulf Stream, and you might be lucky enough to see leatherback turtles and blue sharks.
Then take one last detour on the way back to the airport to Muckross House, a Victorian stately home in Killarney National Park. The gardens are world-renowned, and they do a cracking lunch.
Checking into a haven of calm in a frantic world
MANY IRISH hotels are dropping their rates this winter, but a few exclusive resorts won't be among them. "We have not changed our rate card; looking towards 2009 we have little intention of doing so,'' says Alan Campbell, the manager of Sheen Falls Lodge.
As he chats, Campbell - who has worked for Richard Branson for long periods - is plumping up cushions and casting a critical eye around one of his hotel's luxurious drawing rooms.
To the uninitiated, all seems fine and dandy. On this cold winter's afternoon there are thick carpets, sumptuous sofas, roaring fires and, from the window, breathtaking views of the cascading falls.
But, as Campbell explains, it is the minor details that matter if your goal is to be the best.
Set on a private 120-hectare wooded estate outside Kenmare, Sheen Falls has long been a favourite of those fussy folk at Condé Nast Traveller. These days its tranquillity attracts the likes of the Riverdancecouple John McColgan and Moya Doherty.
Most of the guests are Irish, the majority from Cork and its hinterland. A good number come from Dublin, virtually all of whom have taken the sensible route, avoiding the five-hour drive with a cheap Ryanair flight to Kerry and a €50 car hire.
Sheen Falls is what Americans might call an upscale resort. In the wrong hands it could be austere and formal, corporate and cold-hearted. Under Campbell's leadership, however, there is warmth and friendliness around every corner.
This is a five-star hotel with a distinctively Irish twist, where the emphasis is as much on the warmth of the welcome as on the food and the facilities.
But there is a rich irony in all of this, as the resort was developed and is still owned by a Danish shipping magnate, Bent Hoyer, and is staffed largely by a cosmopolitan crew from France, Poland and South Africa.
Once the summer residence of the marquis of Lansdowne, Sheen Falls Lodge in its day welcomed the gentry in their pursuit of hunting deer and fishing salmon. Today the lodge retains the warm, welcoming atmosphere of a manor house.
It helps that the lodge has such a terrific location. The heather-laden Cara Mountains form the backdrop, overlooking Sheen Falls and the waters of Kenmare river.
Inside, all is peaceful and serene. The bedrooms are tasteful and elegant (they don't do over-the-top vulgarity here), with marble bathrooms and generously proportioned beds. There are also a small number of suites, overlooking the floodlit falls.
When you venture from your room you will find the ground-floor drawing rooms well stocked with newspapers and magazines. And, unusually for this kind of resort, there is a bar area with the ambience of a real public house.
Best of all, downstairs is a library, lovingly maintained by someone who takes an interest in life and literature. How often have you visited a hotel library to be confronted by unreadable, dusty tomes? At Sheen Falls you will find a living, breathing book collection with recent publications neatly classified as history, biography, sport or whatever.
Sheen Falls's only drawback is that its spa and pool facilities are somewhat outdated compared with its excellence in every other area. (A new spa facility is on the way.) That said, the friendliness and expertise of the spa staff won us over.
A massage from a therapist who works with the Kerry football team was the ultimate chill-out.
As one might expect, the outstanding food was sourced from local producers, and in these days of self-service buffets it was a pleasure to enjoy a breakfast cooked to order.
At dinner most sensible guests opted for the fresh fish. This was good food cooked simply and well by a confident chef.
Alan Campbell says Sheen Falls is keen to market itself not just as a hotel but as a five-star resort. Over the coming months it hopes to tap into rich new markets in India and China.
There is much to tell potential customers. Sheen Falls offers an extensive range of activities - cycling, walking and a grass tennis court down by the falls. The hotel also has a play area for children and organises kid-friendly activities.
At the very top end of the market, there is also a selection of thatched houses built on the grounds with views across the river. They don't come cheap - weekly rental in high season can reach €9,000. One of the homes recently sold to a Dublin-based medical entrepreneur for more than €3 million.
Our two-night stay had us vowing to return to Sheen Falls, a haven of calm and courtesy in a frantic world.
In the hotel DVD - channel 1 on our room's TV - Bent Hoyer says he wants the lodge to be the kind of place where you can fall in love all over again. Sheen Falls will give you every chance to succeed in this mission.
It is the perfect place for a romantic getaway. You arrive for the weekend, then want to hunker down and stay for a few extra, precious days. Is there any better recommendation?
• Seán Flynn travelled as a guest of Sheen Falls Lodge (Kenmare, Co Kerry, 064-41600, www.sheenfallslodge.ie )
Where to stay on a break in Kerry
Westcove House and Stables, Castlecove, 00-44-1420-23113, www.westcovelettings.com. Offers several stay options. The main house has a bar, a games room and the option of a cook. It sleeps 10 and costs from €2,500 to €3,400 per week. There are also stone coastguard cottages 25 metres from a shingle beach, with spectacular views. Sleeping up to 11; €700-€1,700. There are also stables.
Aghadoe Heights Hotel Spa. Lakes of Killarney, 064-31766, www.aghadoe heightshotel.com. Closed on New Year's Eve, but until December 30th and from January 1st this upmarket yet child-friendly destination is offering a family room with B&B from €275 per room per night. Rooms for couples and singles start at €200.
Park Hotel Kenmare, 064-6641200, www.park kenmare.com. Has a Victorian ambience and one of the country's best destination spas. Two nights' accommodation, with breakfast each morning and dinner on one evening, costs from €395 per person sharing.
Go there: Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Kerry Airport, at Farranfore. See www.kerryairport.com for car hire. Iarnród Éireann (www.irishrail.ie) also serves Killarney from Dublin Heuston. Bus Éireann (www.buseireann.ie) has a seasonal Ring of Kerry service.