Joe Dermody finds there is much to enjoy in rolling hills of Co Kerry, especially without the aid of his sat nav.
Dare to stray from the well worn routes, turn off the sat nav and take your car across one of the glorified undulating sheep tracks through the Kerry mountains.
At the time, the jury was out; but now I’m so glad that I went astray driving back from a great day trip to Dingle, taking at least one wrong turn en route to our hosts in Ard na Sidhe Country House, the stunning heritage home on 32 acres of landscaped gardens hidden in the depths of Caragh Lake, not far from Killorglin. But more about the house later.
My wife had nodded off on the drive back. When she awoke, I had to quickly revise my faith in my intuitive sat nav-less driving.
Fair enough; Blennerville was turning up on the road signs. Solution? A 12km drive literally cutting through Short Mountain on a road the width of a cycle lane.
Starting at Camp village, it felt like 12km, but it’s probably 6km as the crow flies; the other 6km is in stomach-churning ascents and descents, like wading through the folds of a very tall pancake. And, just for added thrills, over each hill crest lies the possibility of oncoming traffic.
Yes, though more like a footpath, this is a two-way road. And yes, we did meet a few oncoming cars, notably one cheerful local in a very wide white van. Squeeze is too generous a word. The detour was definitely a buzz.
That said, the eventual sunlit view of Castlemaine Harbour framed by two mountainsides was both breath-taking and a welcome relief. Magnificent, beyond memorable.
Like many Cork natives, I’ve always been a fan of Kerry. I go there at least once a year, so I thought I had already seen the best of what the Kingdom had to offer.
Nestling in the lap of Carrauntoohil, the natural beauty of Caragh Lake is a must visit; the recent gorse fires have done little to dampen its charms.
This stunning corner of Kerry is a leisurely two-hour drive from Cork.
Our two-day visit took in a visit to Killarney’s shops and a walk in Killarney National Park, a walk along Inch strand, a very enjoyable (though not inconsequential) day trip to Dingle, and a visit to the panoramic views of the Connor Pass, a favourite selfie-stick peak for visiting cyclists.
We also enjoyed a delicious Spanish meal in Sol y Sombra, a tapas bar in Killorglin where piano-man Duke Special was due to perform a few days later.
And, of course, we got to enjoy the wonderful humour that sets Kerry people apart, none more so than the two animated hen party bus tours leading the mid-day singsong at Sammy’s restaurant on Inch Beach.
But, for all that, the highlight of our visit was our accommodation at Ard na Sidhe.
The place is stunning. Built in 1913 from the drawings of its owner Lady Edith Gordon, it is a magnificent example of an English Elizabethan style house with remarkable stone features, all styled to their owner’s taste.
Born in Kerry of landed gentry stock, Lady Gordon bought this hidden lakeside plot to build “the House of my Dreams”. And what a dream.
This really is Hidden Ireland. Some locals we met in Killorglin knew the house existed, but said they wouldn’t know how to find it.
To this day, Ard na Sidhe remains a monument to Lady Gordon’s creativity and single-mindedness to build such an epic 18-bedroom home in such a remote spot, at the very end of so many miles of meandering narrow roadway, slowly ebbing to a peaceful halt in this restful lakeside hollow.
Hotel manager Debbie Brosnan and her staff clearly have a great fondness for Lady Gordon. Having speedily read through most of her memoirs, The Winds of Time (1934, out of print), I must confess to instantly liking her myself.
Though little known today, she rubbed shoulders with politicos like John Redmond and Anglo-Irish literary giants like WB Yeats and AE (George Russell). I really enjoyed her accounts of sourcing local building materials, and hiring local craftsmen to do the work.
She recalls a ‘paper hanger’ who loved nothing better than to tell three different women he’d call around on Tuesday to put up wallpaper; then he’d either visit just one, disappointing the other two, or he’d stay in bed and take great joy in disappointing all three.
And her foreword states: “To have any success with reminiscences these days, one must have been on terms of exceptional intimacy with Crowned Heads, statesmen and diplomats, and have been proposed to, or at least embraced, by most of the leading celebrities of the day.”
Fame and fortune were not her goals. She said she wrote the book to add her views on the passing social class that was the Irish landed gentry, taking the chance to avow that class’s love for Ireland. Even when driven out by political circumstance, they’ve always yearned to come back home.
And when you’ve stayed here, you too will yearn to return. Everything about Ard na Sidhe is pure old style luxury, from the comfort of the spacious bedrooms to the atmospheric livingroom with its turf fire, and the wonderful welcome.
The food is really delicious, and completely in fitting with the luxury of the house; it’s not cheap but it is surprisingly reasonable for fare of this quality. Starters include a fresh cream soup (€6) or a roasted cauliflower risotto with home-smoked cod flakes, hazelnuts and raisins (€12).
The main courses included poached fillet of hake with savoy cabbage and leeks (€28), or baked fillet of salmon and ratatouille and all the trimmings (€28), or a pan-seared Irish sirloin steak with charred onion, roasted mushrooms and black pepper cream (€32).
The house has a range of rooms, with overnight B&B prices for a couple varying from €200 up to €310. The special offer of €145pps for one night B&B, plus dinner for two.
Lakeside fishing is free, rods provided by the house. If you want to take the boat out, an experienced gillie will accompany you, at an added charge. It’s a treat you won’t regret.
I know we’ll be going back, and the sat nav will be staying home again.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved