Mike Lockley enjoys an unspoilt slice of them emerald isle with breathtaking scenery, sumptuous food and grand hotels
“I don’t fancy the chances of that there horse you’ve bet on,” said the deadpan, dapper Irish gent.
“Why’s that?” I asked, clutching the betting slip.
“Well now,” he mocked in a soft, lilting, Killarney accent. “I’ve just seen the jockey buy a book to read on the journey.”
I don’t gamble, particularly on horses. I have a flutter on the Grand National and last year by sheer luck bet on a great nag. It took 15 other horses to beat it.
“I don’t blame you,” said the Irishman. “It’s a strange old business, to be sure. You win one day, then lose the next.”
So why not bet every other day?
But there was something about Killarney Races, a course shrouded by mountains, that brought out the regal magic of this sport of kings. I was intoxicated by the colours, the animated tic tac men – I thought they were mutes in distress until someone explained their function – and the raucous roar of the crowd.
The intoxicating atmosphere had an effect. It started as a harmless flutter – the odd pound here, bookies gently explaining the parlance of the profession: “Roll over?” barked one. I gave him a puzzled glance before pleading: “Do I have to – the lino’s dirty?”
But by the time a winless day drew to an end, I was pleading, close to tears, to my wife: “For God’s sake, just give me your dead mother’s watch.”
It was, however, yet another magical memory from a dream two-day stay in Killarney – a whistle-stop trip organised by the Killarney Chamber of Tourism and Commerce, with assistance from Aer Lingus which provides regular flights to Cork from Birmingham Airport.
It’s a stunning slice of Southern Ireland – and one not lost on Birmingham’s large Irish community. The hotel my wife and I stayed at – the relaxing, beautifully furnished four-star Randles Court – had a high percentage of second city guests, many drawn to the magnificent golfing greens that pepper the surrounding landscape.
Among them during my fleeting visit was former two-time world title boxing challenger Pat Cowdell, from Warley.
He thought it was “bostin”. His colleagues thought it was “bostin”, which confused a contingent of American tourists from Boston.
Despite being reliant on tourism and having more hotels than you can shake a shillelagh at, Killarney has not descended into “kiss-me-quick hat” tacky. It’s an unspoilt slice of emerald on the cusp of the Ring of Kerry – a breath-taking road that cuts through mountains to the coast. At night the ribbon of bars resound to the sound of Irish music.
The food is sumptuous and portions generous. If you’re looking for real deal Irish grub – stews, steaks and pies that could stump Desperate Dan – try the Laurels, a lively Irish pub that rocks with traditional music.
Regulars coaxed me into taking the mic and delivering a republican song. Not one of them sang along with the national anthem of El Salvador.
Only Killarney could make global headlines when civic leaders, keen to maintain the town’s title of Ireland’s cleanest community, ordered a unique restriction on jaunting carts – the horse-drawn taxis whose staccato clip-clop sound echo through the streets. Operators were told to put nappies on their beasts. After initially threatening legal action, they relented. It’s a slice of legislation only the good burghers of Killarney could find necessary.
My wife and I took a jaunting cart to Tomies Wood – an area now more accessible thanks to the restoration of walking tracks.
From there, it was a boat across the Killarney Lakes, an expanse of breathtaking beauty to rival any Scottish loch.
What’s more, the lakes have an additional tourist attraction. It’s eagle country.
Sea eagles were reintroduced to the national park close to a decade ago and there’s always the possibility of spotting one of the magnificent raptors sweeping across the water. I spent an hour scanning the horizon from the magnificent Lake Hotel, an establishment close to 200 years old. Its list of illustrious clients include the family of Charlie Chaplin. Did I see an eagle? Did I heck as like, but a seagull nicked my ice-cream.
Our stay ended with a magnificent banquet in the mirrored room of the Malton Hotel, a Victorian establishment once owned by the railways.
Seven courses. Actually, mine was eight – I mistook the finger bowl for a soup course.
* Where to stay
Randles Court Hotel: The Randles Court Hotel is one of the most luxurious four star hotels in Killarney. Dating back to 1,906 guests will enjoy the comfort and elegance of an era long since passed complimented by the most modern of facilities. The Randles Court Hotel Killarney is part of Randles Hotels Killarney Group. www.randlescourt.com
The Malton Hotel: Formerly The Great Southern Hotel, this has been a favourite retreat with visitors for over 150 years. A Victorian landmark in the heart of Killarney town centre, the hotel offers the perfect blend of old world grandeur and modern luxury. The menus also feature fresh breads and pastries from The Malton Bakery – the hotel’s in-house bakery. www.themalton.com
* What to do
Ross Castle and Innisfallen Island: Built in the late 15th Century by one of the O’Donoghue Ross Gaelic Chieftains, Ross Castle has had a long and distinguished history. This typical Irish keep is built on a rocky outcrop on Ross Island by the shore of Lough Leane. Although not a large fortress, its profile and location make for an imposing structure and it has proved to be a very effective defensive stronghold throughout the centuries.No trip to Killarney is complete without a visit to Innisfallen Island, a place of immense beauty. Boat Trips to Inisfallen Island are available from Ross Castle Pier and the adjacent Reen Pier. (Prices from approximately €10 per person)
Kate Kearney’s Cottage: Nestled at the entrance to the world famous Gap of Dunloe lies Kate Kearney’s Cottage, a 150 year old family-run establishment. At ‘Kate’s’ you will enjoy the tradition of hospitality made famous by the legendary Kate herself.
Dinis Cottage: The historical cottage dates back to the 1700s and was once a hunting lodge.It has operated as a tea room for more than 200 years. It is a tempting stop-off for many visitors walking the popular Muckross and Dinis route through the National Park. Dinis Cottage was built by the Herberts and has a wonderful Victorian magic and charm. It is located in the heart of Killarney National Park close to the Old Weir Bridge and the Meeting of the Waters. Some of the graffiti etched on the windows of Dinis Cottage dates back to the 1820s. There was a tradition for newly engaged couples to carve their names, for luck, on the glass windows with their new diamond. www.killarney.ie
* Where to eat
The Laurels pub and restaurant: The Laurels is a wonderful traditional Killarney pub which has been run by the O’Leary family for almost a century.Little has changed in that time. Tiled floors and beamed ceilings, lots of alcoves and dimly lit corners, friendly and attentive staff, all contribute to the charm of The Laurels. Expect to find the best traditional fare around. Mussels come in a tureen with a choice of sauces, Thai green curry, citrus cream or tomato and basil with home-made soda bread. Irish stew with crusty home-baked rolls and traditional potato-cakes filled with chicken and smoked bacon on a mushroom sauce. These are found happily rubbing shoulders with dishes of a decidedly more cosmopolitan persuasion – such as bruschetta topped with goats cheese and roasted red pepper, Caesar salad with Cajun chicken and croutons, chicken fajitas with salsa, guacamole and sour cream, monkfish in Thai red curry Sauce Also promised is ‘the best pizza in town’. www.thelaurelspub.com
Coach Tours: Kerry Coaches: www.kerrycoaches.comInfo@kerrycoaches.com or call +353 64 6631945
Walking Tours: Mike O’ Connor, Killarney Walks. Killarneywalks@gmail.com +353 87 2778828
Jaunting Cars: Contact for Jaunting Car Ride through Killarney National Park. www.killarneyjauntingcars.com Alternatively, call Paul Tangney on +353 87 2532770