By John O’Ceallaigh
As an Irish-born travel journalist, I always face a quandary when writing about the most beautiful places in my home country (of which there are so many). There are those little pubs where I know I’m likely to get a place by the fire or the many golden beaches ordinarily left empty. When a friend and I drove languidly along the southern stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way under brilliant blue skies back in September, I was delighted so many of those humble country roads were ours alone. But still, it’s been a bruising few years for Irish hospitality and I do think everyone deserves to experience the beauty of Kerry.
That autumn trip back home from London was my first visit in decades to the Kingdom County and it really is full of majesty. This is where you’ll find Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain; there are no end of castles and romantic ruins strung along the coastline; at Skellig Michael, a pyramid-shaped island that juts up from the sea some 12km from the mainland, hardy beehive huts at its pinnacle are a near-mystic relic of the monks who settled on this outcrop in wilful piety from the sixth century.
I was constantly astounded by the panoramas that unfurled before me, particularly because I had primarily made my way down south from my parents’ home in Galway to stay for the first time in what is commonly regarded as one of the best hotels in the country, Park Hotel Kenmare.
Dating from the late 19th century, the Park was purpose-built as a hotel at a time when even the idea of tourism in Ireland was in its infancy. Its founders were prescient, though, and picked a perfect setting for their property. Most of its bedrooms look beyond its gardens and nearby woodland, towards a sheltered bay and mountainscape. In the other direction, it’s a two-minute walk to the many pubs and restaurants of pretty Kenmare. Pocket-sized but lively, the town serves as a gateway to properly spectacular scenery, from the Ring of Kerry and Cork’s Ring of Beara to the Gap of Dunloe and the rugged beauty of Killarney National Park.
Those places are timeless, but recently the hotel itself was beautified significantly, and it’s a nice story. Locally born, London-based interior designer Bryan O’Sullivan has made a name for himself in recent years with the work his practice Bryan O’Sullivan Studio has undertaken for Maybourne Hotel Group. (Among other launches throughout the portfolio, he’s behind The Berkeley Bar which also features that standout mural by TM Davy, and has designed the beautiful ground-level communal areas at the incredibly striking Maybourne Riviera hotel in the south of France.) Around the time the pandemic kicked off, he was enlisted to redesign the public areas of his hometown’s most storied hotel and the results of his efforts were unveiled in the summer of 2021.
A sensitive modernisation, the €1m makeover has elevated the standing of the hotel significantly. Finished in dainty pastels, ground-level lounges are furnished with plump, scallop-edged corner couches; a slew of newly acquired prints now hang alongside the hotel’s original artworks; there isn’t a bad seat to be had in the restaurant, whose centre holds a ribbon of curved banquettes. I was charmed by the look of the snug little hotel bar too, stockpiled with an impressive collection of Irish whiskeys and with Guinness available on draught. It’s not often you’d have the possibility of having a pint poured at a fancy hotel bar, but I’ve never really been one for cocktails; I love that the hotel’s well-known proprietors, local brothers Francis and John Brennan, incorporated this everyday pleasure into their bar’s inventory instead of feeling they needed everything to be conventionally fancy.
There’s so much more I liked about the hotel besides. Many there for years, team members are gently attentive and sincerely friendly; service is excellent and the welcome is generous, with standard room rates incorporating masses of activities. They include yoga, meditation, fitness classes and guided walks in the surrounding countryside, while there’s an impressive spa on site and additional activities on offer such as falconry. Thoughtful touches presented themselves frequently. We found a note on our windshield one morning saying it had been cleaned so we could take in the landscape more clearly; one afternoon we returned to our room to find a congratulatory present awaiting us as a reward for ascending Carrauntoohil successfully (if you visit this part of Ireland in beautiful weather that activity comes highly recommended, and the hotel can arrange a private guide to accompany you so the climb goes seamlessly).
Additionally, the Park, part of Relais & Chateaux, is home to one of the best hotel restaurants in the country. At chef James Coffey’s The Dining Room, I enjoyed a near-flawless tasting menu that was beautifully presented, perfectly paced and just so tasty. There was Dingle crab with apple and dill, and coal-baked carrot with pink grapefruit and black garlic. Our last-night dinner there was such a wonderful finale to days that had been spent out and about in some of the most beautiful stretches of the country. I know the hotel is hardly a secret, but whenever I’m asked for tips on where to stay in Ireland this address is one recommendation I happily share with everybody.
LUTE is a luxury-travel consultant and content agency that works with hotel groups, tour operators, tourist boards, airlines and more. You can learn more about LUTE here. For frequent luxury-travel updates, follow LUTE and LUTE founder John O’Ceallaigh on Instagram.