The swell and roar of tides as they crash along a white sandy beach, a scramble and final push to reach the highest point in the land, a lingering look at epic vistas and ending the day in the cosy snug of a pub; if this sounds like your perfect outdoors weekend, you may want to start booking a trip to the Reeks District.
This beautiful area of Kerry, centred around the town of Killorglin, is a great destination for those who want to enjoy the world-famous scenery round these parts but stay away from the tourist hub of Killarney. While the latter deserves its popularity, in peak times you’ll be battling crowds of visitors looking desperately for an ‘authentically Oirish’ trip. Instead the Reeks offers a quieter, rawer experience for people seeking adventure.
The dizzying heights
The region was recently rebranded by the local tourist board and is named after MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, a beautiful 19-kilometre stretch of peaks and ridges that is also home to the three highest mountains on the island. The Reeks dominate the skyline here but if you want the most spectacular views, you’ll have to work for it by climbing one of the 27 individual summits.
Carrauntoohil is the major draw for adventurers and, at 1040 metres, is the highest mountain in Ireland. Although it doesn’t compare to the giants of the Himalayas, it does mean you can climb it and return in one day and it's accessible to most people with a moderate level of fitness and a decent level of preparation. As with all strenuous hikes, you should consider hiring a guide for the day if you don’t feel comfortable with navigation.
Devil’s Ladder is the shortest ascent and until recently was the most popular. However, the ‘ladder’ is a steep ravine with loose rocks and can be dangerous, especially in the crowded peak times. A more stable and picturesque route is Brother O’Shea’s Gully where you’ll see sights like waterfalls and Ireland’s highest lake en route, although parts of the climb can be fairly exposed. Once you get to the top, either return the way you came or via one of the other recommended routes as it is unsafe to descend elsewhere. Going with a tour operator is the safest and most straightforward option. You’ll find the most up to date route information on Kerry Mountain Rescue.
An easier but just as stunning summit to climb is the Purple Mountain, which brings you along the famous Gap of Dunloe. If you only have part of the day for your mountain escapade, or have reduced mobility, Strickeen is doable in just three hours and has a fairly gentle gradient on the way up but still gives you great views of the nearby lakes. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, there's also a variety of points in the Reeks to do rock climbing.
Oceans, rivers and lakes
When you’re ready to return to sea level, the Reeks District boasts two of the best Blue Flag beaches in the country. Inch Beach is a five-kilometre sandy stretch reaching out from the Dingle Peninsula into Castlemaine Harbour. The star of many tourism campaign videos, it’s one of the most picturesque seascapes out there, although, like most beaches in Ireland, you’ll need a little luck to see it on a gloriously sunny day. Its potential for strong winds make it a hotspot for surfing, with consistent waves throughout the year. Offshore Surf School and Kingdom Waves both run surf lessons or you can rent your own board and wetsuit (you will probably need a full one no matter what season it is) to go it alone.
At the other side of the harbour is Rossbeigh Strand. Unlike Inch, no vehicles are allowed on the sand here, meaning there is more room for walkers and sunbathers to relax and (fingers crossed) soak up the rays. Surfing is popular here too, and it’s an essential stop for kite-surfers as it’s possible to travel the seven kilometres between the two beaches on a board. The firm, flat sand at low tide make it popular for horse-riding as well: nearby Burke’s Beach Riding can pair you with gentle, calm horses for treks ranging from a one-hour trot on the beach up to a full day journeying through farms, mountains and valleys.
If calmer water is your thing, you can try exploring some of the nearby rivers and lakes. Wild SUP tours organise paddle boarding excursions on Caragh Lake and the River Laune, a good way to bird-watch and enjoy the views of the mountains around you. You can also kayak down the river that runs through the lakes of Killarney and Killorglin town or stop and fish for salmon or trout if you arrange a permit.
For a variety of dining and drinking options, Killorglin is the perfect choice. Just 15 minutes drive from the base of Carrauntoohil, you’ll have easy access to the famed Kerry wildness without giving up the delicious delights of good dining. There's a small but diverse array of excellent restaurants to choose from: local seafood is a highlight from Jacks’ Coastguard Restaurant or Bianconi; the ever-popular Sol y Sombra serves excellent tapas; or try the handmade pasta in Giovannelli. There are also plenty of wonderful pubs to string together for a crawl, though note that some still only accept cash.
For something totally different, it’s worth checking out the festival calendar before booking your stay. The Puck Fair, held in August every year, is the most famous and truly a one-of-a-kind experience. It probably evolved from an ancient Celtic festival celebrating the start of the harvest festival, although there are other legends saying it marks the time when a goat fortuitously warned the town that Oliver Cromwell’s army was pillaging nearby. Either way, for one long weekend of the year, a wild goat is crowned king of the town and the pubs stay open for 21 hours to celebrate. The old custom doesn’t sit right with everyone – the goat is held in a cage full of food for three days and left hoisted at a height, leading to some claims of animal cruelty. Others point to the fact that, as a mountain goat, heights are not an issue for the animal and it is checked regularly by a vet, well-fed and returned to the mountains afterwards. If it’s not for you, the town offers a permanent statue to ‘King Puck’ that you can admire at any time.
Other dates for your diary include K-Fest which takes over disused buildings in early June and fills them with pop-up art galleries and performances of dance, spoken word and music. More recently, the town has turned another ancient custom into a festival date with Biddy’s Day. Around the time of Imbolc, the pagan Irish celebration of spring, groups would take a straw doll called a Brídeóg (named for the pagan goddess later turned Christian Saint Brigid) into local houses, bringing good luck, prosperity and fertility for the year ahead. Now the town hosts an entire festival on the day of the event in early February, including a nighttime parade.
Need to know
Kerry airport is ideally situated to access the Reeks District and its compact size means there’s no such thing as queues at security or baggage claim but route options are limited. The Reeks are also two hours drive away from both Cork and Shannon airports, which have more choice of flights or four hours from Dublin. You can also hop on the train from Cork or Dublin.
Like many parts of rural Ireland, you’ll have the most freedom if you rent a car as public transport can only get you so far in the area. However, there are tour services and taxis, or you can continue with the active theme and rent bikes, either independently or with a cycle tour. If you’re planning on taking advantage of Ireland’s newly-christened adventure playground and remaining outdoors, be sure to pack clothing suitable for all seasons, no matter what time of year you go.