Cahersiveen: Kerry’s most underdeveloped tourist gem

“You’d want to hurry up or the tea will be gone cold” he shouted to me as he drove past on a narrow road just outside of Cahersiveen. Before that day I had never met the man and we didn’t even exchange names but, it being Kerry, a county legendary for it’s welcoming people he had stopped to talk briefly as I had walked past him about ten minutes earlier. With a brief conversation, he had the measure of me. He knew I was holidaying in the area and suggested, with an air or friendly provocation, that my wife (Melissa), who had set off ahead of me, was far too fast a walker for me to catch up with. He had also spoken to Melissa earlier as she passed along the same road. In a different setting, one might find the conversation a little invasive but this is South West Kerry where community means everything. Community requires a feeling of connection and this feeling of connection is established by taking the time to get to know people. If you are prepared to spend the time to get to know the area and its people it will be time well spent. If on the other hand, you want to blast through and see the Ring of Kerry in a day you might miss out on what makes South West Kerry such an enjoyable place to visit and holiday.

A sign advertises Whiskey tasting on the main street of Cahersiveen. In the background two lanes of traffic can easily pass but the road narrows further ahead and at a number of points as you progress through the town.

The town of Cahersiveen is located approximately halfway around the Ring of Kerry (if you start from Killarney). The drive there is pretty easy going with spectacular viewing points and places to stop along the way. The centre of the town feels very much like an old market town. On the Killorglin side of the town, the main building is the Daniel O’Connell memorial church which towers over the surrounding buildings. Progressing through the town requires a bit of patience; the road narrows at points and while on-street parking is reduced to facilitate traffic flow there are numerous pinch points that can take you by surprise, especially if you are driving a wider vehicle such as a motorhome or towing a caravan. The busy nature of the Ring of Kerry drive also means that the road can be very slow to cross during the holiday season for those on foot as there are very few breaks in the traffic and little in the way of pedestrian crossings. Once you manage to make your way through or into the town there is plenty to do and see.

We were based in Mannix Point Camping and Caravan site on the Waterville side of the town so it was approximately 2km walk into the town centre. As this was our first trip to visit family in Kerry post-lockdown and we had a soon to be 1-year-old baby with us we didn’t get to sample a lot of what the surrounding area had to offer but did manage to walk around the town and get a good feel for the town itself. Hopefully on a return trip we will get to explore more of the surrounding area.

Food and drink in Cahersiveen

At a rough count, Cahersiveen seems to have more pubs and pub-based restaurants than standalone eateries. Having said that, there are a good number of vacant units in the town so it is not at capacity and it leaves one feeling that the local tourism plan doesn’t do enough to keep tourists in the town where they might generate a need for more restaurants. There are two restaurants that come highly recommended on the main street ‘Quinlan and Cooke‘and the ‘Oratory‘. Quinlan and Cooke is renowned for it’s seafood and it provides both a restaurant and accommodation. It is linked to Quinlans seafood shops who supply fresh fish for the restaurant. The Oratory is a pizza and wine bar which also carries a solid reputation.

As we had a young baby with us dining out wasn’t high on our list of priorities so we paid a visit to Quinlan’s seafood shop. We asked for recommendations about what would work well on a barbeque and were told that either whole bream or cod might be the best option. We chose to take both and were highly impressed with both the quality of the fish (well prepared, thick cuts) and the freshness. If the shop is anything to go by, the reputation that the restaurant holds is very much deserved.

The town also features a number of pubs which double up as restaurants. “Eva’s” bar, restaurant and B&B and “The Fertha” seem to be well recommended but there are plenty more pubs and cafes that cater for diners at all times of the day. A busy bakery and cake shop near the church provides extra options for those who would prefer to take out rather than eat in.

Melissa and I did get the opportunity to head into town one evening thanks to a babysitting offer from my mother-in-law. Melissa, my father-in-law and I met up in Craineen’s pub on the main street. Being our first trip to a pub post-lockdown it felt a tad unusual at first but after a few minutes, it began to feel normal again. A round of drinks (one wine, one Guinness and one lager) came in at under 15 euro. The setting was typical of a traditional pub and gave us little to complain about. As it was only a few drinks we didn’t venture towards some of the better-known pubs but wouldn’t have been stuck for choice had we decided to do so.

The last food and drink-related establishment we checked out was “Willies Wild Atlantic Way Wines and Spirits”. The shop does whiskey tasting where you pay a small fee (3 euros) for each whiskey tasted but the cost is deducted from the price of a bottle if you decide to buy one. They have a range of whiskeys and wines to suit all tastes and budgets and if you are looking to pick up a gift or something local the range of Irish whiskeys won’t let you down

Out and About in Cahersiveen

While the Ring of Kerry is all about scenery, and there is plenty of scenery in the local area, the town of Cahersiveen itself has plenty to offer. Walking around the town, both on and off the main street, reveals a lot of less obvious sights and places to spend time from the tranquility garden with it’s painted mural bearing a poem welcoming visitors to the town, to pottery, craft and art shops and the old barracks – one of the towns major landmarks.

A marina in the centre of the town hosts not only berthing facilities but is also home to water activities that can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike. The marina building is home to a water sports office and the marina serves as a starting point for canoeing activities such as those organised by Paddle & Sea. For a reasonable fee novice or experienced kayakers can choose from a range of canoe and kayak based activities in the sea local to the marina. All the required equipment is provided and there are options for families too. Another sight of potential interest is the regatta which takes place mid-summer every year and provides a lot of local excitement. The highlight of the regatta is the 13-person Seine boat race where 12 oarsmen and a coxswain compete in a fast paced and competitive team rowing event. Seine boat racing is an Iveragh peninsula phenomenon and takes place in a number of coastal towns and villages over the course of the summer. We arrived a week after the Cahersiveen regatta so missed out on the event but we did manage to see the rowers at practice from the campsite (pictured above).

Another feature for the town and one that seems to be gaining popularity in Ireland is the local distillery. A number of distilleries have opened up in Ireland in recent years and will hopefully do a lot to promote Irish whiskeys abroad but many also offer guided tours with associated whiskey tasting. The Skellig Six 18 distillery has recently converted a factory on the outskirts of the town to a distillery and visitor experience. The distillery currently produces its own gin and is awaiting the maturation of its first whiskeys. Information from the website states that batches of whiskey will start to become available in 2022 but there is no official date for the launch of the ‘main’ whiskeys yet. Everything in Kerry is about taking time and whiskey maturation is no exception. If the branding and packaging of the Skellig Six 18 gin are indicative of the thought process that will go into the whiskey I expect I will be first in the queue when it goes on sale.

The Skellig Six 18 distillery shopfront in the town centre advertises the distillery and visitor experience with is located at the factory building immediately outside of the town.

The scenery in the surrounding area is spectacular but is difficult to experience from within the town A quick walk up some of the hills outside the town will provide you with a broad overview of the town itself and the surrounding areas but to get to the most spectacular sites will require a car journey along the Skellig Ring, Valentia or a trip to the historic forts and castles en route to Whitestrand beach. There are also more immediate vantage points to look across the estuary. From our pitch in Mannix Point we were treated to beautiful vistas every day, even when there was a lot of cloud cover.

A view across the estuary in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry

Travel with Children

If you are travelling with young children you can end up having to work around their schedules. The ability to work a walk or a trip to a playground into your day can be a lifesaver. The town has an impressive children’s playground near the church and a number of options for walking on quieter roads both within the town and in the local area. The volume of traffic can be an issue at high season if you are trying to walk along the main street, especially when the pathway becomes too narrow for large groups. Pedestrian crossings are limited and this can make crossing a busy road an annoyance. The town doesn’t have a sandy beach and if your children enjoy spending time at the beach then Whitestrand beach is the nearest to hand (about 5km from the town).

If your children are a bit older then the available options increase with the local water sports, cycling and hiking options being plentiful. We try to ensure that the kids have a choice of dinner at least one night for a longer trip and pizza from Apache was their selected option. Apache, Cahersiveen do a delivery service which can be an advantage if you can’t drive to collect. It’s by no means a necessity but the take-away or delivery option does give extra flexibiltiy for feeding the kids.

It’s not all good news

If you look for things to do or see in Kerry, visiting Cahersiveen doesn’t make the list (see DiscoverIreland’s post as an example). Killarney and Dingle are, for obvious reasons, rarely overlooked and many of the sights around Cahersiveen get an honourable mention but the town itself seems to miss the mark. This is a shame as the town is well placed as a central base for exploring the Iveragh peninsula, the Skelligs, Valentia and the local mountains. Why Cahersiveen isn’t the Jewel of the Iveragh peninsula is one of life’s great mysteries but it probably comes down to the fact that it doesn’t feel like a place for tourists.

Compared to the centre of Killarney or Dingle the town centre feels run down. Some buildings in the town are vacant or dilapidated. While this is to be expected in rural communities due to changing consumer preferences it does detract from the visitor experience and may encourage people to keep driving rather than stopping and spending time (and money) in the town.

Driving too is a big issue. The main street contains many bottlenecks which make driving difficult, especially in high season where agriculture and tourism are both in full swing. The traffic management plan (if there is one) doesn’t seem to work and leaves the town centre feeling more like an obstacle to be overcome rather than a destination in it’s own right. The fact that the majority of the town’s businesses are on the main street also means that browsing the shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants is more stressful than a quieter town or somewhere with pedestrian streets.

But things are moving in the right direction

The high points and advantages that Cahersiveen boasts as a tourist destination are significant and in my opinion outweigh the downsides. It has the scenery, the location and the people that can add up to a special and relaxing holiday experience. It only lacks a special sauce to tie it all together. Undoubtedly, developments such as the South Kerry Greenway and the “Daniel O’Connell quarter” will bring much development to the town and will encourage the development of better local and tourist infrastructure. The town does need to work on striking the right balance between local industry, agriculture and tourism but undoubtedly that balance will need to be pursued over a period of years.

Even without the significant investment and planning required to realise the potential of the town, steps are already being taken. Local community groups have taken an active interest in developing the town to make better use of its facilities. Redevelopment of houses along the main street have added a fresh look to the main thoroughfare while still retaining an authentic look and feel. Of course, this form of renovation needs to happen on a broader scale but does demonstrate the positive impact it can have on the town centre.. The launch of the distillery and it’s visitor experience makes for a more enticing stay and makes the town feel more “touristy”. For the time being the town provides a welcoming place to visit and spend time. As a base for exploring some of the finest scenery in South West Kerry it has a lot to offer and hopefully will see some much-needed development put it on the map as a jewel on the Ring of Kerry.

The Greenway would be a welcome addition to the town but we can also see the ‘Renard Save our Strand’ sign in the background. The preservation of scenic and tourism related amenities can be at odds with agriculture and aquaculture
Repurposing of the old railway line as part of the greenway development would do a lot to enhance the appearance of the town and the town park area and would give new purpose to a significant structure that has fallen into disrepair.