A dark crown of rock loomed above me, the heavy clouds guarding its most prized summit, Carrauntoohil, rising from a cluster of diamond-sharp ridges.
A visit to Ireland’s dramatic MacGillyCuddy Reekss Mountains takes it tongue-twisting location names to a whole new level. So how would it fare when adventure photographer & writer for MyOutdoors, Jessie Leong, visited Ireland for the first time to climb Ireland’s highest mountain?
Day 1: Arrival into Ireland
The little Ryanair plane shuddered to a halt on the narrow tarmac strip, rain lashing down the sides of the airplane. With a flight time of just under an hour, the plane had landed in Kerry; an airport so small and antiquated that it felt like we had gone through a time warp.
It was my first trip to Ireland and as I mistakenly stepped through the choice of three illuminated colour doorways – red, blue, green – I nearly walked straight past the single baggage carousel. Staggering with an over packed holdall through the car park, rain bouncing off the tarmac, the tail end of Storm Ali had caught the attention of international news with the apocalyptic winds, but it seemed like there was only rain to battle with on my arrival.
I grabbed my rental car keys from the white portakabins and headed out into the rain for the start of my Irish adventure in the Reeks District…
Winding down the narrow and winding country roads from Kerry Airport, I was reminded of a slower pace of life. Various brown coloured signs highlighted local attractions and a blue wiggle pointed out that I was following the driving route known as the Wild Atlantic Way, as well as reminding me to drive on the left hand side of the road.
Within twenty minutes, I’d arrived at the bustling town of Killorglin with the windscreen wipers on full speed. A pink plastic folder containing my travel itinerary acted as an emergency weather break for the short walk from the car park to the terracotta walls of The Bianconi Hotel and Inn.
After checking in, I was welcomed into the room that became the base for the duration of my trip. A water bottle emblazoned with ‘Reeks District: Ireland’s Adventure Playground’ propped on the table slyly hinted that this trip was going to be an activity - packed one. I smiled at a hand scribbled note on a postcard from Lee from the Reeks District Tourism Board; a thoughtful touch welcoming me to the area.
The first evening in Ireland was a cosy and relaxed introduction, meeting Reeks District hosts, Chair Jens Bachem, and Project Lead, Lee Griffin. Dining on some of the freshest seafood at The Bianconi Inn, the food was a combination of comfort cooking and food wizardry, warming my soul with a starter of fresh cockles and mussels in a steaming broth, whilst the black sole dusted with a light crumb and capers was mouth-wateringly tender. The Bianconi excels in its excellent food combinations – dressed crab and grapefruit anyone? - followed by a delicious Crème Brulee pudding. It’s hard to visit the Reeks District and not have your taste buds be blown away by the exceptional quality of the food on offer from local restauranteurs in the area.
I chatted with Jens, who is a keen wild swimmer and loves all things water sports and owns several holiday properties overlooking Caragh Lake. A quick sneak peek through his Airbnb account revealed endless views of the mountains; tall trees that stretch above the lake and the infinity pools of natural water that are crying out to be photographed. It’s not the Ireland that I expected - combining both mountain, freshwater and sea in such close proximity.
Looking down my itinerary, I noted with excitement that there would be a visit to Carrig House and the Ard na Sidhe; two top 4* country houses, which showcase similar breath-taking views of the lake, one being a dinner and the other an afternoon tea … My heart swooned.
I headed to bed with kind assurances from Lee who said she would drop off a packed lunch from Jack’s Bakery first thing in the morning for my adventure in the mountains. ‘You’ll have a great day on Carrauntoohil’ she cheerily assured me, ‘We’ll be keeping an eye on the weather!’
Day 2: Hiking up Carrantuohill
My 30L pack was far more stuffed than it usually is at this time of the year - but I suspect this was due to serious amounts of waterproofs and the exciting packed lunch from Jacks Bakery. Carbs fully loaded, I was all set for an adventure in the mountains and an ascent of Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain, via Howling Ridge. I met my guide for the day, Piaras Kelly from Kerry Climbing at the famous Cronin’s Yard car park with the dramatic MacGillyCuddy Reekss mountains looming behind us. As we approached the path up towards Howling Ridge and away from the route up Devil’s kitchen I was reminded of a Scottish-like wildness to the area. Trail soon turned to stone hopping through some boggy terrain and scrambling moves on the moraines below ‘Hag’s Tooth’. On our way up to Céim an fhia, aka “The Heavenly Gates,” we passed a stone shelter where a solitary Irish flag hung limply in the claggy conditions.
The starting point of our route was a narrow notch in the cliffs of the north-east face. Looking upwards, Piaras picked out the start of our route, as, one by one we caved into peer pressure and the waterproof trousers were zipped on… which meant the wet weather soon subsided.
Helmets on, harnesses on, we debated the pros and cons of whether to wear gloves or not. Climbing in the mountains always requires an outlook of commitment and as the foreboding dark crown of rock across the skyline looks shrouded in moisture I zipped up my waterproof as a light lashing of rain beaded against it and we made our way up delicately up the first pitch of Howling Ridge, continuing with steep little pitches to finish after approximately 300m of climbing.
Howling ridge is given a rough V Diff grade but this isn’t climbing to be underestimated. It involves plenty of vertical scrambling with breathtakingly bonkers exposure and slippery, smeary footholds that reminded me that good technique in big boots (and climbing with backpacks) is the de rigueur here. It’s wonderfully alpine – and the keen mountaineers familiar with the more technical Grade III scrambles of North Wales will find many a route here to whet their hearty mountain appetites.
Throughout the climb, Piaras reminded us to take care as there is always loose rock on the route due to the mountain being formed of eroded sandstone. It is dramatic, exciting and very exposed in places. The ridge ends with one last steep pitch which Piaras proclaims as the so-called ‘money pitch.’ Suddenly all the cameras came out as I climbed the final pitch, stepping round the pinnacles and making it to the belay on holds which fall away dramatically from the ridge.
As we finished the last few moves on Howling Ridge we topped out onto a large boulder field. The final remaining 150m or so took us past a sign warning tourists that the route behind us is not a path downwards. We headed towards the summit of Carrauntoohil, which at 1,038m would qualify as a Munro in Scotland, with clouds parting to reveal a stunning vista of the Reeks District with the Dingle Peninsula and Kenmare Bay and mountains of North Cork in the distance.
The descent follows a fairly steep boulder scree path downwards in a south east direction back to the Heavenly Gates. A fast descent meant the warmth returned to my fingers - it really had been a day of four seasons - and we watched the afternoon sun light up the routes on Binn Choarach and the Devil’s Kitchen path to Carrantuohill.
We descended the gully and rocky benches that we’d climbed earlier, moving quickly over steep ground. Piaras pointed out the various popular ridge lines that offer harder challenges to experienced scramblers and both summer and winter climbing options; including Pipets Ridge and Primroses as the main scrambling / rock climbs up the NE face of Carrantuohill. A wealth of information, gained from experience built on countless mountain days under his belt, Piaras also pointed out the magnificent looking Cág Cos Dearg / Curve Gully Ridge (Hard Severe) overlooking Ireland’s highest lake.
Back at Cronin’s Yard, a feeling of elation coursed through me. It had been a successful first day out exploring the mountains, and as I quickly peeled off my waterproofs and boots, it was time to head back to The Bianconi Inn for a quick refresh before heading out for dinner at Carrig Country House.
Carrig Country House is an experience every visitor to the Reeks District should experience. The contrast between snacking on some jelly beans in the exposed drama of the mountains and the comfort of Carrig Country House couldn’t be greater.
For those who fancy sampling award winning food, Carrig Country House is the kind of place where guests are welcomed into the lounge with a petite savoury ‘amuse bouche’ along with their welcome drinks. Guided into a candle-lit room, it feels at once homely yet luxurious. We dined on smoked trout (presented under a glass cloche full of real smoke) followed by a perfectly pink, Ring of Kerry lamb with gooseberry & elderflower posset and chocolate torte to end. Post-dinner, we settled into the sofas of the country house, in perfect contentment.
Day Three: Surfing at Inch beach
Saturday began with a slower start; aching legs a gentle reminder of the previous day’s adventure. The day commenced with a trip to Aloha House involving a restorative hour-long massage by Madeline, who practises Lomi Lomi massage in a unique Hawaiian inspired retreat space overlooking the River Laune, and just a short walk from my accommodation.
A warming herbal tea added to the soothing effect at the end of my massage, and with lighter, more supple shoulders, the next part of my full day on the coast took me on a road trip out of Killorglin towards Inch Beach.
With a packed schedule, I took a brief pause at Foley’s Bar; an unmissable building which is the perfect place for no-nonsense beers. Grabbing a quick pre-surf sandwich and a packet of crisps a look out of the windows revealed the mountains outstretched ahead of me and
I headed off towards the famous Inch beach with its golden sands to meet Kingdom Waves Surf School for an afternoon’s private tuition.
For someone who has never been surfing before, being in the sea was going to be the one activity that would require me to go back to basics. Tim, an experienced instructors at Kingdom Wave Surf School, gave me an introduction into the safe learning environment of Inch Beach sheltered from offshore winds.
The surf session was highly informative and Inch Beach was a great place for a beginner to learn how to surf. I was in the brisk Atlantic water, waist deep in a neoprene wetsuit learning a whole new sport. We practised getting onto the board in waist deep height water, covering the basics of surfing using body board techniques. My lesson lasted for an hour, but with Tim’s infectious enthusiasm I was hopping on and off the board, watching other surfers all keeping a close eye on the incoming waves. The afternoon finished with the waves lapping at my board, sun peeking from behind the clouds, lighting up the surrounding McGillyCuddy Reekss and magnificent sand dunes catching the late afternoon sun’s rays.
After an afternoon with salt of the sea in my hair, and sand beneath my feet, it was time to stuff cold feet into sandy trainers and drive back to Killorglin for a meal at Sol Y Sombras Tapas bar.
Housed in a converted church, as I walked into the tapas bar a mere two minutes away from my hotel, I was reminded what a varied schedule in the Reeks District this visit had been. From mountain epics to coastal escapes, my evenings had been packed with opportunities to sample some brilliant restaurants, and Sol Y Sombras Tapas was one of them.
Saturday night closed with a tired and aching body and knowing I had one more action-packed day before boarding my flight home…
Day Four: Kayaking at Lake Caragh & Lower Caragh
An early alarm clock roused me from my bed. Bags packed, keys deposited, flask filled, I met Mick Moore, my kayak guide at a small, seemingly unremarkable, roadside bay by Lower Caragh. We agreed to share a double kayak for the first part of our day and head down Lower Caragh with a few keen paddling friends.
We heaved a heavier-than-it-looks bright green kayak down to the water’s edge, sealed the spray-deck onto the kayak and donned helmets to embark on the final activity as part of an action packed trip in the Reeks District - paddling down white waters on the Lower Caragh river.
The river winds its way through a series of twists and bends, snaking below the steep slopes of Seefin and Commaun. The water is dark, bubbling and alive; it kicks at the belly of the green kayak. Mick hollered at me to paddle. It’s an intensive work out, an adventure found in the flow of water. Having tried surfing the day before, there’s a state of flow being totally immersed concentrating on the flow of water and ‘reading’ the water conditions.
We reached the end of the white water and heaved the kayak onto dry land and onto the roof racks of his car.
After a short drive we headed for a complete change in kayaking discipline , swapping double kayaks for single sea kayaks and down to a private embankment of the Ard Na Sidhe where blue skies meet blue lake water there. This time I paddled alone, taking time to observe the beauty of the surrounding landscapes set in the heart of the Reekss District.
Post kayak adventure, I was greeted by Jens and Lee for a final moment of dining over an afternoon tea overlooking Caragh lake. Ard Na Sidhe is a truly wonderful location to end a trip with. The house places nature at its heart with natural sunlight flooding the rooms. Lunch included a feast of buttery scones and finger sandwiches and I took in the last, perfect, picture-postcard view of Lake Caragh, with its magnificent blue hued mountains in the background and endless vistas.
The Reeks District is a fantastic option for a magnificent multi- adventure holiday.
My lasting impression of the trip was kayaking on Lake Caragh looking up to Carrauntoohil and the Reekss Mountains, demonstrated just how special it was to discover a new mountain area I’ll definitely be revisiting.