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Killarney and County Kerry, Ireland: Insider’s Guide

by Jonathan Epstein | May 30, 2019

The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Ireland: Jonathan Epstein of Celebrated Experiences.

Trusted Travel Expert
Jonathan Epstein

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 Nicole Baratelle 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).

Trips start at $500 per day for two travelers, or $375 for accommodations only.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
There are so many great-value options in County Kerry. The Killarney Royal and The Ross are two of our favorites—especially for travelers who crave being in the heart of town (in this case, Killarney). Each property is family owned and operated, which we think is a critical part of the guest experience in Ireland. The Royal is traditionally elegant, while the Ross is contemporary and lively; both offer incredibly warm and professional service. Rates in low and shoulder seasons start around $250–$300 per night for our favorite rooms, including taxes and an amazing full breakfast. The hotels also give perks to our 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!).

Hotel worth the splurge
County Kerry is also home to many of our favorite five-star hotels, such as Sheen Falls, Killarney Park, The Europe, and Aghadoe Heights; they each are special in different ways. For sensational views of the Lakes of Killarney and the national park, book the two-bedroom Penthouse Suite at Aghadoe Heights, which has a massive terrace and 3,000 square feet of indoor space. If you prefer to be in town, it’s hard to beat the Master Suite at Killarney Park, one of Ireland’s best two-bedroom suites and a brilliant option for families. We love its sophisticated style, and of course the incredible service you get at this family-owned and -operated property. From here, you can easily walk to many of our favorite pubs, and right into the park. If you want to be surrounded by nature, the Falls Master Suite at the recently updated Sheen Falls Lodge, outside the village of Kenmare, is a dream. Fall asleep to the sounds of the rushing Sheen River as it flows into Kenmare Bay just beyond your window. The suite is beautifully residential and can connect to another bedroom, making it another wonderful choice for families.

Restaurants the locals love
There are so many fantastic spots in County Kerry, but my favorite town for dining remains Kenmare. There are changes every season, but my consistent favorites (and the picks of my friends in the area) are Mulcahy’s, the Lime Tree, Packies, and The Mews.

Must-have dishes
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 Irish Cream Liqueur, Carmelised Brown Bread, and Dingle Sea Salt. Sean and Kieran Murphy opened in Dingle in 2000 and have branched out with shops in Killarney, Galway, and Dublin. The secret is that it’s 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.

Ring of Kerry, Killarney, Ireland

Ring of Kerry, Killarney. Photo courtesy Jonathan Epstein

Prime picnic spot
Everywhere. Seriously, everywhere you go on the Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, or Beara Peninsula is a great picnic spot, but two of our favorites are very off the beaten path, so you probably won’t see another soul. Ryan’s Daughter helped make the Dingle Peninsula famous. In a quiet field about a five-minute walk from the road you can actually find the abandoned school house made famous in that film. 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

Don’t miss
The spectacular scenery between Kenmare and Killarney. It’s my favorite stretch of 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.

Hidden gems
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 to behold. We love to arrange chocolate-making classes for clients. 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 that 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. Experiences don’t come any more authentic than at Sullivan’s.

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, we recommend that you simply enjoy them 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.

Finally, 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.

Cheap thrill
Hiking in Killarney National Park, where 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! We can pair you with private hiking guide to even scale Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil.

Bragging rights
Sean Daly is a second-generation master craftsman who left his job at Waterford Crystal 15 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. We 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 artisans, and we can arrange similar experiences with pottery makers, chocolatiers, and more.

Downtime
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. 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! I love this setting for 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 you can then smoke your own catch in the hotel’s smoker!

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Best Times to Go

April, May, September, and October, when the summer crowds have gone but the fine weather remains. It certainly might rain (this is Ireland, after all), which just means you’ll have rainbows! In April, newborn lambs dot the Kerry landscape and in May the rhododendrons are electric across the countryside. In September, which is considered high season, leaves start turning, ushering in fall. April, May and October are significantly less expensive than the summer months and offer great value in Killarney and throughout Kerry. If you must travel during the summer high season, Kerry is still less expensive than comparable destinations in other parts of Europe.

Worst Times to Go

January and February.  It’s dark and, yes, rainy.  Most hotels in this region will be closed as will some of the tourist attractions. With the spring blooms in March, Kerry comes back to life.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

The first is 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. The second is getting a late start and driving counter-clockwise around the Ring of Kerry.  Most people don’t understand that 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 a pleasure, but if you have the budget, consider hiring a driver for the trip around the Ring of Kerry: 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!

Instagram Moment

It may be cliché, but Ladies’ View on the Ring of Kerry is just spectacular.  It is located on my favorite stretch of the Ring between Kenmare and Killarney. 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. I have stopped here dozens of times, and it always looks a bit different because of the way the light and shadows dance in the valley. It never gets old.

And for a bit 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 truly 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.

Perfect Souvenir

A bottle of Dingle Original Gin, which is made in small batches at a distillery on the edge of the Dingle Peninsula.

Word of Warning

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.

Tipping Tips

Tips are appreciated in Ireland, but the rules are slightly different. It’s not necessary to tip when bags are brought to your room, for instance, and in restaurants we suggest 10 percent. For bartenders, I suggest leaving a bit by rounding up the tab. For transfers and guide services, ten to fifteen percent is acceptable.  You can also leave a euro or two for housekeeping.

Reviews

A fantastic hotel in the Cotswolds…

Virginia McKenna | August 15, 2019

The accommodations selected were…

Tamsen Toal | August 5, 2019

Comprehensive knowledge…

Richard Flaggert | June 24, 2019
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