Here are our favourite things about the county, 11 things you simply have to do…
Swimming with the Dingle Bay dolphin
Fungie, Ireland’s most famous dolphin, is a national celebrity. The friendly sea-bound mammal has been hanging around Dingle Bay for years and is the centre of substantial tourism business for the town; there are even tours where you only pay if you see him. The best option, though, is an early morning, cold water dive into the Atlantic with arguably the county’s most famous icon. He’s usually alone, but, if you’re really lucky, there might be a group of other dolphins passing by.
Incredible scenery on the Ring of Kerry
There are so many coaches around this particular tour route that there can be traffic jams on the tiny rural roads come summer (and the roads are so narrow, the coaches all have to drive the same way around). This essential stop on the Wild Atlantic Way is popular for a reason though: its picture-postbox villages, Atlantic cliff views and emerald green hillsides are everything tourists often look for in Ireland. And that’s before we get onto the pubs. Which are epic, obviously.
Top-class hiking in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks
Ireland’s highest ‘mountain range’ wouldn’t warrant the name ‘mountains’ at all in a lot of countries, with the peak at just over 1,000 metres, but it is spectacularly beautiful. The summit to grab is Carrauntoohil, a 1,038-metre scramble involving a slippery gully and sloping boulder field before you arrive at a massive iron cross with – cloudy Kerry weather permitting – sensational views. There’s plenty of gorgeous rugged camping spots around and no shortage of motivation to hang around for a few days and explore more thoroughly.
Ride the Jaunting Cars
So you want a true Irish experience? Forget Guinness in yet another pub or those endless high-end golf courses, this is where it’s at. Short rides on horse-drawn carriages are a thing in Dublin too, but Kerry does it better, with tiny cosy carriages pulling you around routes with rugged rural views of Killarney National Park sites. Make sure you engage with the riders, they’re notoriously sharp and full of local stories.
Explore Skellig Michael
In a strange sense, this former home to the most isolated and dedicated of monks has gone from ancient to modern in recent years, as it played a key role in two Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens. It’s a tough spot to get to, requiring some luck with the summer weather (forget it in winter) to land at the foot of the steep-sloped island. Your ascent is challenging, taking you past wind-battered domed homes somehow standing after hundreds of years and even colonies of puffins. Uniquely, jaggedly stunning.
Get stuck into a GAA Heartland
Ireland’s great sporting association – a huge, community-influencing amateur organisation – consists of two main sports, hurling and Gaelic football. The latter is very much the thing in Kerry. Sure, Dublin is the current dominant side, but you’ll find few other parts of the country as passionate about the game as these rural heartlands, where it sits far above any other sport. Check out local clubs Austin Stacks (which is in Tralee) and Dr Crokes (based in Killarney) for regular games, or try and get to the popular county-level contests. As locals will be quick to remind you, they have the world’s biggest collection of national titles, called ‘All Ireland’ wins.
Explore the Lakes
Kerry’s lakes are a huge part of the history and landscape, with plenty to explore along their shores. Fishing, for example, is huge here (be careful with licenses – this website is great for information); many of the substantial waters have castles or scenic grand houses along their shores. If you’re feeling particularly brave, there’s lots of swimming on offer too.
Arguably one of the most impressive music festival set ups in the world. In early December, Dingle transforms and welcomes Ireland’s music-loving masses when Other Voices films in the tiny St James church. Only a lucky 80 or so punters can win tickets to actually sit inside the church (they can’t be bought). Other Voices has hosted the likes of Amy Winehouse, Sinead O’Connor, Damien Rice, Ryan Adams, The XX and Snow Patrol over the years. Many of the acts playing the televised festival move on to perform to the masses on tiny Dingle pub stages. Trust us, it’s sublime.
Rugged Atlantic Beaches
By the dozen. Start with Inch, on the main road out to Dingle, which will seem like something of an ironic name when you see its mammoth jutting sandbar. Then there’s Banna, with its poignant revolutionary history and minor surfing explorations, and Ballinskellig (also known as Ladies’ Beach), a sheltered bay perfect for nature lovers and sheltered by cliffs. In a county of straggly peninsulas, in fact, you’re never too far from a great stretch of sand.
The Dark Sky Reserve
Want to stare at the skies as you’ve never seen them before? Kerry’s ‘Dark Sky Reserve‘ takes advantage of the rural location, allowing visitors to ogle at an uninterrupted sky-scape (subject to clouds, of course), where not a single piece of ambient light appears to ruin the twinkling dome. Grab a telescope, cross your fingers for a clear day and hit the fields to gaze through the night, warm thermos in hand.
There are Gaeltacht’s (Irish speaking areas, where regulations exist to protect the official first language of Ireland) throughout Ireland, but two of the most picturesque and memorable are in the south west county. The poetic language will already be familiar if you’ve spent any time in Ireland – nearly every sign is in both English and the Irish language – and it’s a great thing to learn to connect with the country since original Irish culture simply wasn’t in English. While everyone speaks English now (and most as their core language), that’s very much a post-colonial effect.