The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Ireland: Jonathan Epstein of Celebrated Experiences.
If you want to be filled with wanderlust—and jealousy—follow Jonathan’s Instagram feed. Between the picture-perfect Cotswold cottages and the Michelin-starred Scottish restaurants and the grand Irish castles, you’ll wish you could hide inside Jonathan’s suitcase on his next trip. The next best thing? Let him and his trusted deputy Katie Stewart arrange your itinerary, including the most scenic drives between all those fairytale properties and otherwise-hard-to-book restaurants. You’ll benefit from the duo’s close relationships with colorful hoteliers and star chefs, not to mention their friends all over the U.K. and Ireland—from whiskey distillers to crystal cutters to cashmere-sweater weavers. Of course, they can also snag tickets to special events (including Wimbledon and Premier League Soccer).
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
As in the rest of the world, hotel rates in Ireland have changed dramatically since the pandemic. For a warm, characterful, well-located 4-star in peak months, rates are typically in the $400s, including taxes and a full breakfast. Great Southern Killarney offers strong value for a more traditional “grand hotel” feel. If you want something smaller and more intimate, The Killarney Royal and The Ross are both family-owned and operated. The Royal is traditional, while The Ross is contemporary and youthful; both offer warm and professional service. The hotels also give perks to Jonathan’s travelers; at Killarney Royal, for example, you can step behind the bar and learn to pour a proper pint of “the black stuff” (yes, that’s stout!). County Kerry is also home to 5-star properties that are often less expensive than 5-stars in other regions of Ireland.
Hotels worth the splurge
At Sheen Falls Lodge, located outside the village of Kenmare, you can fall asleep to the sounds of the rushing Sheen River as it flows into Kenmare Bay just beyond your window. The hotel also has some of Jonathan’s favorite suites in Ireland: Oscar’s Suite and the Falls Master Suite really give a great sense of the magnificent location. Jonathan’s favorite in-town luxury hotel in County Kerry is the family-owned and operated Killarney Park, which has been recently refreshed with a new lobby and lounge area, and has one of the county’s top restaurants. The Master Suite, one of Ireland’s best two-bedroom suites, is a brilliant option for families. From here, you can easily walk to several pubs, restaurants and right into the National Park.
Restaurants the locals love
The best town for dining in the County is Kenmare. In fact, a big reason people live in Kenmare is the array of great restaurants in this scenic village. The Lime Tree, No. 35, and Mulcahy’s are consistent favorites.
Dishes to try
The seafood in Kerry is wild, local, and fresh as can be. Within a few miles of your restaurant, fishermen are hauling in catches of crab, mussels, salmon, mackerel, cod, hake, sole, lobster, scallops, oysters, John Dory, turbot, monkfish, and prawns and driving them straight to the restaurant’s kitchen. The southwest of Ireland is also famous for its grass-fed beef, lamb, and locally produced cheeses. For dessert, you have to try Murphy’s Ice Cream. Yes, they have the basic flavors—and those are delicious—but they also scoop up originals such as Chocolate Whiskey, Irish Brown Bread, and Dingle Sea Salt. Sean and Kieran Murphy opened in Dingle in 2000 and have branched out with shops in Killarney, Galway, Dublin, and Kildare. One of their secrets is that their ice cream is made from the milk of Kerry cows, a rare breed indigenous to this region. Ireland is now one of the world’s top destinations for craft food producers, and Murphy’s is a great way to sample the time and energy that goes into carefully prepared Irish craft foods.
Prime picnic spot
Everywhere! Seriously, everywhere you go on the Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, or Beara Peninsula is a great picnic spot. Two that get you far off the beaten path, so you probably won’t see another soul: In a quiet field about a five-minute walk from the road on the Dingle Peninsula, you can actually find the abandoned school house made famous by the film Ryan’s Daughter. Picnic here in the late afternoon, when the light over the Blasket Islands is magnificent. About 30 minutes south of Kenmare on the Beara Peninsula, there is a turnoff (away from the sea) toward Gleninchaquin, where you’ll have the waterfall and lake in an incredibly bucolic glen all to yourself.
What to See and Do
The spectacular scenery between Kenmare and Killarney on the Ring of Kerry (see “Instagram Moment”). Yes, it can be crowded in high season, but the views are immense, and there are some wonderful cultural highlights such as Muckross House and Gardens. Jonathan’s driver/guides know all the secret places and best times of day to venture to this area. A close second would be Killarney National Park. Often overlooked by those driving the Ring of Kerry, the ultimate jewel in the Ring is the park itself. With easy-to-access hiking and cycling trails—as well as canoeing and kayaking excursions—this is the best region of Ireland for visitors who want to do, not just see!
Ireland is full of wonderful artisan food producers, and Kerry features many, such as Lorge Chocolates. On a quiet road between Kenmare and Glengariff, Benoit Lorge (formerly the pastry chef at award-winning Sheen Falls Lodge) creates truffles and other confections as delicious as they are beautiful. Jonathan can arrange chocolate-making classes; if you don’t have time for one, at least stop in to pick up gifts to take back home.
Helen Sullivan’s pub and restaurant in Kilmackalogue, on the Beara Peninsula, is a place so charming you won’t believe it’s for real. It’s smack on the sea, and the fish and famous mussels she serves are all freshly caught.
Kerry has received a lot of attention since the Skellig Islands off the coast were featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rather than venturing out in what can be very rocky seas and braving hundreds of steps and steep climbs once there, simply enjoy the islands from afar. The best way to do so is to detour to the Skellig Ring. The buses that can clog parts of the Ring of Kerry rarely venture here, and it is a lovely 18-kilometer stretch of road.
For those who love scenic drives and are really trying to get off the beaten path, focus on the Beara Peninsula. While there aren’t many traditional tourist sites here, the views are majestic, and you share them with far fewer visitors than elsewhere in Kerry. The Peninsula is home to many of Ireland’s most lovely, authentic coastal villages.
Hiking in Killarney National Park is wildly diverse; the countless trails range from short strolls that end at waterfalls to challenging climbs. The forest scenery is outstanding, the vistas sweep all the way down to the sea, and you’ll also see plenty of deer, birds, and, of course, sheep! Jonathan can pair you with a private hiking guide to even scale Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil.
Sean Daly is a second-generation master craftsman who left his job at Waterford Crystal many years ago to create his own boutique company: Dingle Crystal. He has a small store in Dingle, where he sells objects including bowls, glasses, and chandeliers, but the real magic takes place just outside of town in his personal workshop. Jonathan can arrange a private meeting there with Sean, who will demonstrate the painstaking process of cutting the glass and share his strong and unedited opinions on the crystal industry in general.
This region is full of interesting local craftsmen, and Jonathan can arrange similar experiences with whiskey producers, pottery makers, chocolatiers, and more.
Canoe, kayak, or have someone take you out on a boat on the peaceful lakes of Killarney. You can boat from Ross Castle, Lord Brandon’s Cottage, and other spots around Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. For a fun adventure, Jonathan can combine a ride in traditional Irish jaunting carts with a short hike, and then a lovely voyage across Lough Leane—with an added stop on the historic Innisfallen Island, which has beautiful ruins and many interesting stories. You can also try a bit of fly fishing. Sheen Falls Lodge is home to a beautiful stretch of river that flows into Kenmare Bay. Sometimes seals wait right where river meets bay for their salmon lunch! If you’re keen to try fly fishing, Sheen Falls’ excellent ghillies (fishing guides) will teach you how to cast and help you find the perfect spot. If you are lucky enough to catch something, the hotel will prepare it for you in their smoker.
Ireland is more temperate than people realize; Jonathan recommends March, April, May, September, and October, when the summer crowds aren’t there but fine weather remains. It certainly might rain (this is Ireland, after all), which just means you’ll have rainbows! In March, Ireland is awakening from its short winter and flowers start to bloom. In April, newborn lambs dot the Kerry landscape, and in May the rhododendrons are electric across the countryside. In September, leaves start turning, ushering in fall. October is a great month for quiet outdoor exploration, and the locals have more time for you. March, April, and October are significantly less expensive than the summer months.
January 10th through February. Once the lights turn off from the holiday season, it’s dark and, yes, rainy. Most hotels close, as do some attractions.
Spending fewer than two nights in Kerry. You need at least that much time to see this part of Ireland and tour at least two of its peninsulas.
Getting a late start and driving counter-clockwise around the Ring of Kerry. You really need seven or eight hours to tour the Ring properly, stopping for lunch and to visit historic sites and villages. Going clockwise means you’ll be driving in the lane closest to the sea—so it’s easier to pull over to take that perfect picture—and you won’t get caught behind tour-bus traffic, which goes counter-clockwise (this does mean that you will have the buses coming at you). Driving in Ireland can be quite an adventure, especially in the most scenic, coastal areas, so if you have the budget, consider hiring a driver/guide. You’ll learn more about the area and can relax and take in the scenery rather than being on the lookout for sheep in the road!
It may be a cliché, but Ladies’ View on the Ring of Kerry is just spectacular. The name comes from Queen Victoria’s historic visit to Ireland in 1861, when her ladies-in-waiting are said to have raved about the view. It always looks a bit different because of the way the light and shadows dance in the valley.
For a less obvious option, head to Slea Head, the majestic drive at the edge of the Dingle Peninsula. It’s hard to describe the stop exactly, but you’ll know it when you see it because it is an OMG moment: a spectacular cove with staggered waves rolling in to a deserted beach that then rises to a patchwork of fields that will make you think you have just seen 40 shades of green. Much of the drive in the Dingle Peninsula will be like this. After the Slea Head drive, follow the “WARNING” signs up to the Conor Pass. This road is not for the faint of heart, but the views are incredible, and if you can hold your camera still against the wind long enough, you will be rewarded with dozens of amazing shots.
A bottle of Dingle Original Gin, which is made in small batches at a distillery on the edge of the Dingle Peninsula.
Who doesn’t love an Aran Wool Sweater? They certainly keep you warm, but many shops sell fakes that are not made in Ireland at all. Check the label to make sure you are purchasing the real thing. At Cleo, in Kenmare, you might pay more, but at least you know you’re buying a quality wool product made by hand.
It’s not necessary (though appreciated) to tip when bags are brought to your room; in restaurants, 10-15% percent is sufficient. For bartenders, round up the tab. Leave 5 euro or more for hotel housekeeping when you feel they are going the extra mile. They work so hard!