Destination Kerry

I am wearing a wetsuit for only the second time in my life, but I feel ready to conquer the Atlantic Ocean on a stand-up paddleboard.

The reason for my confidence? My companion for the afternoon is former pro windsurfer Jamie Knox. He has been teaching awkward punters like me watersports in Castlegregory for 25 years.

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He is on-hand to feed me compliments throughout our two-hour session. He makes me feel like I’m James Bond, gliding out to sea. In reality, I am more like Inspector Gadget, clumsily splish-splashing in the water.

The point is, he keeps me moving, he keeps me motivated, and makes me feel like I am really doing something worthwhile.

It’s easy to see why he has a high return rate.

Stand-up paddleboarding is easy to get the hang of, so it’s perfect for children. And it’s safe, something Jamie clearly prides himself on seeing as he gets a lot of business from families.

“Everything is controlled and in a safe environment,” he says. It’s obvious that water safety is paramount for Jamie and his team, but the rules don’t spoil the experience. There are activities for all ages and abilities, so nobody gets left out and nobody is put in a situation that they can’t handle.

Jamie Knox teaches watersports in Castlegregory
Jamie Knox teaches watersports in Castlegregory

Back on land, I feel refreshed and I am badly in need of sustenance. Luckily, Kerry is home to some of Ireland’s best food experiences, two of which I can find back in my hotel, Ballygarry House in Tralee.

Last night, I ate a mighty four-course meal in the Brooks Restaurant. Tonight, I dine across the corridor in the Leebrook Lounge. Both menus, though distinct, complement Ballygarry House’s high-end, four star experience.

A family-run country hotel with a modern twist, Ballygarry House is all about attention to detail. The staff’s little touches and observations make the visitor experience seamless — it’s a trait that comes with having a fourth-generation proprietor for a manager.

Located just off the N21 and surrounded by the Slieve Mish Mountains, Ballygarry House is in a good spot for visitors on the Wild Atlantic Way, and their Nádúr spa offers a range of unique experiences. Last month, the hotel launched its Wild About Kerry brochure and packages, capturing little gems this end of the route.

Grainne Kavanagh of the Coach House interior design shop literally introduces me to Dingle’s little gems when she takes me on a whistle stop tour of the Kerry Craft Trail.

There is a diverse range of products and artwork on the route, from the leather-bound notebooks at Holden Leather Goods, to the scarves at Fiadh Handwoven Design, to Lisa McIntyre’s papier mache sculptures. Everything is distinctly Dingle and comes with a story.

Sandra Cremin’s eco-friendly, soy-based Dingle Candles and scented sachets are inspired by the mountains and changeable weather — fragrance number one, my favourite, is Dingle Rain.

Goldsmith Niamh Utsch also sources her inspiration from the landscape, which can change dramatically. It has an impact on Utsch’s creativity and mood, leading to a range of pieces that can be intricate and complicated or very simple.

Jewellery maker Abi Dillon, the latest addition to the craft trail, sources her raw materials from the sea. She collects shards of glass that wash up on the shore and turns them into necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The pieces are made up of complementary greens and blues, frosted by the sea. They are precious — they really are something else.

Abi Dillon makes jewellery from sea glass
Abi Dillon makes jewellery from sea glass

My next stop is Dingle Distillery for a tour with Eamon Dowd and Gillian Sheehy, and for quick a drop of Dingle Original Gin. The whiskey isn’t quite ready yet — the first batch will roll out next year.

Artisanal alcohol is definitely trending and the Porterhouse Brewing Company, the parent of Dingle Distillery, helped shape the independent brewing movement in Ireland.

The first thing you notice is the delicious aromas. It’s enough to get the group salivating. But patience is key in the art of distillery, so we have to control ourselves as we make our way along the production line, watching the magic slowly happen.

The distillery is a modest affair — the output is two casks a day — so you really do have to come here taste their products yourself. It’s worth the journey.

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“How much do you know about Fungie?” Bridget Flannery asks me as we pull away from Dingle pier, her husband Jimmy at the helm. “It’s a bit like the national anthem,” I say. “I know enough to get me by.”

Fungie the Bottlenose dolphin is synonymous with Dingle tourism. He gave the town a much-needed boost 30 years and has been a big contribution to the local trade ever since.

DSC_0358I was hoping to solve the mystery of Fungie’s attachment to the town’s harbour, but I had no luck. There are plenty of theories — he has little competition for fish, he loves the human interaction, the waters are more accommodating — but nobody really knows why he has stayed here for so long.

One thing I did learn was that he works overtime — even long after the last tour, he made an appearance for Travel Extra. And what an exciting moment that was.

Jimmy uses a number of techniques to tap into Fungie’s sonar and nine times out of ten, he pops up to say hello.

It’s rare that he doesn’t make an appearance. The Dingle Dolphin Tour payment model is no Fungie, no fee, and it has kept them in business for three decades.

They have a saying in Kerry: “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.” We live in each other’s shadows. It resonates throughout the Kingdom’s tourism trade. There is a sense of camaraderie, of commitment to their business. It is a motto for any budding tourism co-op.

This article first appeared in Travel Extra magazine.

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