Unlike most towns in Kerry, Kenmare is bustling even when it’s wet, and is a perfect base to explore the county
Around 1790, Lady Louisa Lansdowne of the town’s leading family remarked how the people of Kenmare were “in general well dressed” and had “more animation and apparent enjoyment of life” than any set of people she had ever seen.
On a rainy summer’s day, not a lot has changed in one of western Europe’s few planned towns.
Laid out in an x shape by the Lansdownes in the 1770s, it has retained its pretty order and human scale.
Most of its buildings and facilities are intact.
Unlike most towns in Kerry, Kenmare town centre is bustling, with small shops and cafes aimed at the indigenous Irish as well as the classy international tourist who flock here — despite the difficulties of access.
Two creative writing teachers from the US, who are leading students at a residential course in Armagh, were on Bridge St and waxing lyrical about the food and the shopping.
Poetry teacher Terri Ciofalo, from Illinois, says it is “a little oasis”. She has previously visited Killarney, but Kenmare offered “a gentle landing.”
“The shopping is so good. It is high quality, hand-made, “ says Terri.
The “scale “of Kenmare suited them and was a wonderful base for touring, says her companion, Kimberley Lynne from the University of Baltimore.
It has a good mix of ancient attractions, like stone circles and holy wells, alongside some top-class restaurants, says Kimberley Lynne, who teaches playwriting.
“The food is phenomenal,” adds Kimberley.
Though “not overrun” by tour buses, something the ladies appreciated, Kenmare is a great base for touring.
The beauty of the Ring of Beara the previous day was so overwhelming there was “that Stendhal moment of a spontaneous cry”, says Kimberley.
Kenmare is at the cusp of two rings: The Ring of Kerry to the north from Killarney to Iveragh, and the quieter but and gaining in momentum Ring of Beara, over the Suspension Bridge to the south.
But it is largely untouched by the tour buses who swing north from Sneem to head over Moll’s Gap, bypassing Kenmare.
The town has always felt a degree of isolation and, as such, has been able to develop along its own lines.
Around 40 years ago the area became a magnet for Europeans seeking an alternative lifestyle. That original impetus has blossomed today and the town boasts one of the best vegetarian restaurants and organic shops anywhere.
Bara Plockova, from the Czech Republic, has lived in Sneem for over a decade.
She had run her own vegetarian restaurant in the Czech city of Brno.
Now, Bara, who does most of the baking, including the scrumptious brown pitta breads, is one of seven members of the Bridge Street Co-operative Society Ltd.
The Bookstop vegetarian cafe offers paperbacks for €3, hardbacks for €5, and the food has become so popular the garden now has to be used for spillovers on “Fiver Fridays”, which offers a sumptuous main course for a fiver.
“As much as we can, we buy local,” says Bara.
They want to keep the prices reasonable and members and local staff put in a lot of voluntary hours.
“We want to educate people there’s a choice to eat differently and healthily, meat-, chemical-, and microwave-free,” she says.
One family from Kill, Co Kildare, seems to agree.
Heidi Stapleton and her children — Aoife, 18, a student at Maynooth, and son Rory, 13 — are “glamping” at Dromquinna Manor, John Brennan’s high-class safari-style campsite built around an old manor house on the shores of Kenmare Bay.
Heidi says the family are fans of the Brennans — John, and his brother Francis, who runs the five-star Kenmare Park.
The glamping is simply wonderful and every morning the fresh croissants arrive in a golf buggy, says Aoife.
They are rushing to go on the Seafari cruise — the 2.30pm sailing from the pier along the drowned fjord of Kenmare Bay to spot seals, birdlife, and the unique landscape from the sea.
Meanwhile, the lower corner of Henry St is buzzing with new shops and old fronts. Unchanged since 1964, Grainne O’Connell’s informal restaurant/bar, the Purple Heather, was among the first to establish a reputation for good food in Kenmare — and it is still going strong.
The traditional darkwood and burgundy bar that gradually develops into an informal restaurant at the rear is one of the best Kerry bars offering good, simple, home-cooked food, with wonderful breads, cheeses, seafood, and chutneys.
Nearby is Puccini’s, now a year old. Owner Lillian O’Sullivan named it after her favourite composer and a memorable night at La Scala in Milan.
“It started as more coffee than books, but now we are more books than coffee,” says assistant Fiona Brosnan, who is working alongside Ilann Wall, the owner’s nephew.
As for shops, gold, wine sellers, antiques, and street traders, they are all in Kenmare, alongside exclusive boutiques.
The newest is Joules, only the second brand store outside of Dublin and Kildare, attracted by Kenmare’s classy coastal style.
The premium lifestyle brand is open since May but is already going down a treat, says supervisor Elaine Shine.
Stripes, rainwear, contemporary style and great fabric are its hallmarks.
There is plenty to do in Kenmare, and the town’s lace museum, alongside the tourist office, might be a first stop just to see how a nun and the women of the town saved Kenmare from starvation and gave the town its first step on the international stage.
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