The Devil’s Punchbowl certainly lived up to its reputation. Zipped all the way up in my rain jacket, I fought the howling wind and the steep slope to make forward progress along the ridge. To my right, the mountainsides fell sharply down to the lake they enclosed—the punch in the bowl, if you will. But, I couldn’t see the waters through the devilish mist that enshrouded me and my hiking companions.
Up ahead, our guide waited impatiently for us to ascend. Surefooted and sure-sighted, he confidently led us through the haze. Where we saw only a mystifying expanse of peat bogs, he somehow saw a clear trail. When we miraculously arrived back at the beginning of our misty detour, we owed our safe return entirely to him.
I always imagined hikes in Ireland to be easy strolls across rolling green hills. A guided trip was therefore unnecessary for an experienced walker like me. But it only took one week in County Kerry and two hardy Irishmen to convince me that a good guide could make the difference between a hilly meander and a memorable adventure.
A guided hiking tour in Ireland
My boyfriend and I signed on for a seven-night walking tour in Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula and Ring of Kerry. Our 11 fellow hikers were mostly in their 50s and 60s, and most were either experienced hikers or in decent physical shape. The tour schedule included five days devoted to hiking and organized sightseeing and one free day to explore on our own.
I’ve been on unguided hiking vacations before, but this trip owed its success to our two leaders: Tony and Mike. We could have easily hiked the same trails on our own, aided by a good map and a compass. But, the guides transformed routine strolls into explorations of Irish history and culture.
Crinkly-eyed and white hair all askew, Tony explained how the beehive-shaped ruins we saw were a resting place for monks on pilgrimage between the spiritual centers of the Skellig Islands and Brandon Mountain. He told tales of the one-legged old woman who climbed over a mountain every Sunday to hear the news from the town of Annascaul. He demonstrated how peat is harvested and presented us with unusual plants and herbs to taste and smell.
If Tony was ever the polite gentleman, Mike was our hot-headed guide. He was quick to order a pint or tell you a joke, and he had an opinion about everything. He told no-holds-barred stories about Irish politicians, the tourist industry, past hiking trips, and his views on the Catholic Church. You got an earful from Mike on any subject, whether you wanted to or not.
With these two local characters at the helm, our group was privy to an insider’s experience of Ireland. On my own, I might have missed the ancient stone circle on the outskirts of Kenmare or the pub dedicated to Ireland’s own Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean, in Annascaul. I would never have sought out a sheep fair, but watching farmers haggling over ponies and cows in the middle of the street during a rainstorm is an Irish memory I won’t soon forget.
No two days were ever the same. One day, we’d stroll along a beach then up into green pastureland with views of the Skellig and Blasket Islands. The next, we’d traverse a deep valley before climbing up and over a peak to descend to the lake below. We hiked past sheep, horses, stone walls, wildflowers, and the ruins of old homes and monasteries. Our trails could be anything from well-marked national park paths to peat bogs and pastureland. And every afternoon, we’d top off our adventure with a visit to a nearby town or a pint in a local pub.
Better yet, Mike and Tony were experienced weathermen, traffic reporters, and route planners. They switched hikes so we got the best views on our two days of sun, and shortened one Kerry excursion so we spent less time out in the rain. When we begged to see the Torc Waterfall, they came up with a new schedule that allowed for shorter and longer hikes, as well as a stop at the falls. Mike took back roads to avoid the tourist traffic, and Tony planned jaunts that took us away from the August crowds. We only had to share the hills with one or two other adventurers and flocks of sheep. Imagine our shock when we saw the crowds in An Daingean (formerly Dingle Town) and Kenmare.
Our guides certainly led the way. Whether it was avoiding a mean farmer along the Dingle Way or forging a trail up the steep slopes of Maghanaboe, Mike and Tony took me on hikes I’d never have managed on my own. And that’s a meaningful compliment from a woman who’s hiked all over the world.
Choosing a tour
I booked my walking tour through Cross Country International (CCI), a company that runs walking and horseback-riding vacations in countries around the globe. Not only was the tour exceptionally well run, but the price was very competitive. The current $2,100 per person (singles add $310) price tag includes all breakfasts, packed lunches on hiking days, and all but one dinner; seven nights’ accommodations in a B&B; airport transfers and transportation to the trailheads; and two fantastic guides.
For comparison, Country Walkers’ six-night Ireland: The Southwest tour costs $2,998 (singles add $275), and does not include any lunches. The Wayfarers’ six-night Ring of Kerry tour is priced at $3,250 (singles add $450), and includes all meals and wine with dinner. These tours cost more because they house guests in nicer hotels and inns than the simple B&B I stayed in. It’s possible that meals are fancier as well, but I can’t believe these trips can offer better guides than the ones I had.
For a cheaper option, you might look at Footfalls Walking Holidays’ seven-night Beara Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry & Dingle tour, which is priced at $1,230. The price includes guesthouse accommodations, breakfast and packed lunch, but not dinner. You can certainly eat relatively cheaply at pubs and still spend less than the cost of the CCI tour.
When looking for the tour company that’s best for you, you should take several factors into account in addition to price. In Ireland, you’ll want to think about where you want to hike. The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula offer stunning scenery, but the Connemara and County Mayo areas offer superb hiking as well. You’ll also want to consider travel dates. Hiking tours generally run from May through October, though specific itineraries may only have a few departure dates each year. Summer airfare to Ireland can skyrocket, so the high prices may counterbalance the desire for warmer weather.
Another factor is the average age of tour participants. My boyfriend and I were probably half the age of most of our hiking companions. I certainly didn’t mind socializing with people of my parents’ generation, and really enjoyed the camaraderie in the group. However, if you must hike with your peers, or are worried about the general fitness level of the group and difficulty of the hikes, it’s best to ask the tour company before you book.
I arrogantly thought the hikes would be a breeze for an experienced walker like myself. But Ireland’s hills do have steep climbs and rough and rocky terrain. Most of our hikes were six to nine miles and took about five hours, including a break for lunch. So be honest with yourself about your fitness level before you sign up.
You will also want to budget for equipment costs, especially if you’re not a regular hiker. For a weeklong walking tour, you’ll need waterproof boots (not country walkers or trail runners), several pairs of comfortable or wicking shirts and pants, raingear, and a hat. I would also recommend a pair of walking sticks for some of the rougher hikes. I left mine at home, thinking we’d just be strolling in the hills, and ended up borrowing a walking stick from one of the guides to navigate some uneven terrain.
Personally, I don’t need deluxe accommodations or gourmet food to have a good time. Give me fresh air and a trail to follow and I’m in my element. I’m definitely an independent, do-it-myself kind of traveler, but I would say that the Cross Country International guides made this trip priceless.
Ireland doesn’t evoke images of adventure travel the way New Zealand and Costa Rica do. I quickly changed my mind on that account when I found myself navigating a trail-less ascent that was so steep I was using my hands to climb the slope. As one of my fellow hikers kept noting, we were quickly outdoing anything we’d ever done on a StairMaster in the gym. I also stared down brazen sheep in my path, trudged through neverending rain on an endless downhill, and held on for dear life as Mike swerved our van around oncoming lorries and crazy Irish drivers.
Yes, Ireland offers its very own type of adventure. Yes, you can find it on your own. The Kerry Way and Dingle Way are marked trails, after all, and you can choose from an assortment of guidebooks in local stores. But, a guide can provide that insider’s view or off-the-beaten-path experience you can’t look up in a book. They’re the pot of gold that makes the rainbow all the more exciting to find. And that’s no Irish folktale.