The Ring of Kerry is one of Ireland's best-known and most scenic circuits, skirting the edge of the Iveragh Peninsula – the middle and largest of three fingers of land reaching out into the Atlantic on the island's south-west extremity. This 120-mile route takes the N70, N71 and R562 roads and encounters some of Ireland's finest landscapes, a breathtaking mosaic of rugged, storm-bashed coast, steep mountains, velvety green fields, historic sites, slate-coloured glacial lakes and welcoming towns and villages.
Tomorrow is St Patrick's Day, but the celebrations don't stop there because 2013 is the year of The Gathering (thegatheringireland.com), a 365-day initiative to encourage people with Irish heritage to visit. There are hundreds of events taking place all over Kerry and beyond.
The predominately coastal Ring actually starts and ends inland at Killarney (killarney.ie), a historic town set in an enchanting spot within Ireland's oldest protected wilderness, the Killarney National Park (killarneynationalpark.ie). The park is a fabulous tableau of heather-flecked mountains, sparkling, island-dotted lakes, monuments such as the 15th-century Ross Castle and Ireland's only herd of wild red deer.
At the centre of the park is Muckross Demesne, home to a friary and the 19th-century Muckross House, Gardens and Working Farm (00 353 64 667 0144; muckross-house.ie), sandwiched between Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. The estate, which hosted a visit from Queen Victoria in 1861, is open to the public; admission costs €7.50.
From Killarney, the N71 follows a twisting course gently ascending through the sublime scenery. You'll be grabbing your camera for the stunning panoramas of the lakes from Ladies' View – named in honour of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, who were similarly enthralled.
From Moll's Gap further uphill, the road descends to the coast and the charming heritage town of Kenmare, set on a sea inlet and founded in about 1670 by Sir William Petty. Reputed to be Ireland's first planned town, its streets are lined with boutiques, bars, restaurants and houses painted in a rainbow of colours. This year, Kenmare's inaugural festival of Irish music, the Feile Neidin (00 353 64 664 2268; kenmareirishmusicfestival.com), takes place on 5- 7 April with performances by the likes of the celebrated Kilfenora Ceili Band.
The Ring passes briefly inland through the charming village of Sneem and on to Caherdaniel, overlooking Derrynane Bay. Visit nearby Derrynane House (00 353 66 947 5113; heritageireland.ie), the ancestral home of the 19th-century politician and statesman Daniel O'Connell, known as the Liberator, who championed Irish freedom in Parliament. The lush, sprawling gardens with stunning coastal views and shady paths are enchanting (entry €3).
Waterville, roughly halfway around the Ring, is a town poised scenically between Ballinskelligs Bay and the dramatic Lough Currane, one of Ireland's best spots for sea trout fishing. Overlooking the water is a statue of the silent screen star Charlie Chaplin, who visited regularly with his family. Waterville now hosts the annual Charlie Chaplin Film Festival (chaplinfilmfestival.com), which this year is from 22-25 August.
As the N70 wends northwest, it passes some spectacular vistas towards Bolus Head and Valentia Island, where the first transatlantic cable was laid between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1866. At the bustling town of Caherciveen, you'll find imposing old barracks and pubs lining a quaint main street. From Caherciveen to Glenbeigh you can gaze across the water to the Dingle Peninsula before arriving at Killorglin.
Set on a hill on the banks of the River Laune, Killorglin is home to one of Ireland's oldest street festivals, Puck Fair (puckfair.ie), which is held this year on 10-12 August. The festival is thought to predate written records; traditionally, a wild goat is caught in the mountains and crowned King Puck for a weekend that includes a cattle fair, music sessions, amusements and extended pub-opening hours. From Killorglin, the Ring threads back to Killarney past the haunting MacGillycuddy's Reeks, a mountain range that includes Ireland's highest peak, the mist-shrouded 3,406ft-high Carrauntoohil, where you can also take a detour to see the majestic Gap of Dunloe. For more information see ireland.com.
Try the island life
Visible from several points along the Ring are the Skellig Islands, pictured (00 353 1 647 6912; heritageireland.ie), two almost vertical crags that dramatically poke out of the flinty waters of the Atlantic nearly eight miles off the coast. Vertigo sufferers would need to think twice about tackling Skellig Michael's ancient steps, which ascend steeply up the side of this Unesco World Heritage-listed monastic settlement. Established between the sixth and eighth centuries, it is one of Western Europe's most important early Christian domains, with six well-preserved, dry-built, beehive-shaped cells.
This year, Skellig Michael opens officially between 17 May and 27 September. Several local boat companies offer trips from Portmagee on the mainland, weather permitting. Visitors are also afforded amazing views and sounds of the smaller Little Skellig, with one of northern Europe's most important native and migratory seabird colonies of more than 70,000 gannets, kittiwakes, arctic terns, razorbills, shearwaters and puffins.
Des Lavelle (00 353 87 2371017; skelligboattrips.com) offers trips departing from Portmagee, as does Casey's (00 353 66 947 2437; skelligislands.com) between April and October. Trips cost €45pp, except in July and August when it rises to €50. Booking is essential.
Walk this way
The Kerry Way (kerryway.com) is Ireland's longest and oldest walking route. It begins and ends in Killarney and roughly traces the Ring of Kerry route. At 135 miles, it's a challenge, and normally takes eight to nine days but it can be divided up. Tailor Made Tours (00 353 87 334 4031; tailor-madetours.com) arranges board and luggage transfers. Seven nights cost from €546pp. Celtic Trails (01291 689 774; celtic-trails.com) has seven- and 10-night self-guided Kerry Way tours. A week costs from £740pp, with B&B, some meals, guide pack, luggage transfer and transfer from Killarney station. The Discover Ireland website (discoverireland.com) has a tool listing linear and looped walks on and around the Ring.
Where to eat
The Bianconi (00 353 66 976 1146; bianconi.ie), is something of a local institution in Killorglin. Local seafood such as Cromane mussels and Dingle prawns are served at this convivial old-school inn. Meanwhile, it's no great shock that QC's serves some of the region's best seafood; it has a family-owned fishing fleet to call on (00 353 66 947 2244; qcbar.com). Highlights include calamari fritti and grilled lobster. And try O'Neill's The Point Seafood Bar (00 353 66 947 2165), Renard Pt, Caherciveen.
The great outdoors
In Kerry, you could experience all four seasons in one day. In the sunshine, its beaches can assume a Caribbean-like hue. Rossbeigh Beach, pictured, is one of the most spectacular, a long, golden spit jutting into the sea and where the legendary Finn McCool set off for Tir Na Nog (the land of eternal youth). It's also a popular spot for kite surfers and kayakers and horse rides can be booked locally with Burkes Beach Riding (00 353 87 237 9110; beachtrek.ie; from €25 per hour). Surfing, kayaking, kite surfing, golfing and fishing abound on the Ring. Mor Active (00 353 86 389 0171; activityireland.com) has activities including sea kayaking trips near Caherciveen and coasteering from about €40pp for a half-day. The area is also famed for its golf courses. Killarney Golf & Fishing (00 353 64 663 1034; killarney-golf.com) has three championship courses and has hosted the Irish Open on several occasions. Green fees start at €75 per day.
Where to stay
Ard Na Sidhe (00 353 66 976 9105; ardnasidhe.com), pictured, translates from Gaelic as "hill of the fairies" and there is something enchanting about this Arts & Crafts mansion in lush gardens on the edge of Caragh Lake (doubles from €180, B&B). The Park Hotel Kenmare (00 353 64 664 1200; parkkenmare.com) is renowned for traditional hospitality and its fabulous spa (doubles from €430 half board). It has links with Dromquinna Manor (00 353 65 664 2888; dromquinnamanor.com), a collection of luxury safari-style tents on the water's edge outside Kenmare (tents open May to Sep; €150 per night for two). Also on the edge of Kenmare, Shelburne Lodge (00 353 64 664 1013; shelburnelodge.com) is a charming country house-style B&B where doubles start at €100. B&B Ireland (bandbireland.com) has a comprehensive range of properties on the Ring of Kerry, including ones that are ideal for golfers, angler and walkers. For self-catering, Irish Cottage Holidays (00 353 1 205 2777; irishcottageholidays.com), Irish Country Cottages (0845 268 0796; irish-country-cottages.com) and Owners Direct (ownersdirect.co.uk) all offer good selections.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Luton to Kerry airport (kerryairport.com), roughly 30 minutes' drive from Killarney. Aer Lingus (0871 718 5000; aerlingus.com) has connections via Dublin from several UK airports. Departing passengers must pay a €10 "Airport Development Fee". To avoid it, Cork airport (corkairport.com) is about a 90-minute drive away from Killarney with links on Aer Lingus, Ryanair and Jet2 (0871 226 1757; jet2.com).
Car hire is essential for exploring the Ring of Kerry. Most tour buses, which do cause traffic jams in peak season, travel in an anti-clockwise direction, so car drivers are advised to take a clockwise path to avoid congestion. Argus Car Hire (0844 330 2581; arguscarhire.com) offers seven days' car hire from Killarney from £61.
Another great way to get around is on two wheels. The Ring of Kerry Cycle Route is a sign-posted 134-mile trail that roughly traces the main route, but uses quieter roads for some sections. Bike hire is available in many of the bigger towns and villages – some have arrangements where bikes can be dropped off in different towns. Casey Cycles in Caherciveen (00 353 66 947 2474; bikehirekerry.com) offers rentals from €15 per day. Irish Cycling Safaris (00 353 1 260 0749; cyclingsafaris.com) has four-night self‑guided tours, from €445pp, which include bed and breakfast accommodation, cycle hire, luggage transfers and maps.