Travel: The Big 5 – tackling 'Ireland's ultimate bucket list' challenge in Co Kerry
This brand-new challenge series combines fitness, mindfulness and exploring Co Kerry's wild, rugged and recently renamed Reeks District. Abi Jackson tries it out
HEADING to Cloon Lough for some late-night paddle boarding, I have everything crossed for clear skies. The lake sits on the edge of the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve – a status granted to areas that possess "exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment", with strict rules in place to keep them that way.
It's the only International Dark-Sky Reserve in Ireland and one of just three in the world with a Gold Tier ranking. In short, we could be in for some bad-ass astronomical displays.
Mother Nature has other ideas tonight, though; there's thick cloud. Still, stars or no stars, late-night SUP is thrilling, and after squeezing into a wetsuit by torchlight, I clamber on to my board and start tentatively paddling.
Soon, my six travel buddies melt into the darkness. It's silent but for the rhythmic 'plaps' of paddles on water and bats flapping a few feet overhead. Then, the clouds begin to crack. Moonlight filters through, bathing the lake in the softest, silvery glow. It's sheer magic. And for a moment, nothing else exists.
I'm in Co Kerry tackling The Big Five – a brand new series of active challenges that's just launched in what's now being marked as the Reeks District in Co Kerry – so named after the area's MacGillicuddy's Reeks mountain range.
Dubbed 'Ireland's ultimate bucket list', the challenges combine fitness, mindfulness and, most of all, immersing in the Reeks District's stunning landscapes. As well as the night SUP, there's summiting Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest peak at 1,039m; kayaking 6km across Caragh Lake; surfing at Inch Beach; and cycling 90km of the Ring of Kerry.
You pick up a Big Five passport from the Reeks District Visitor Centre in Killorglin, which gets stamped each time you complete a challenge. Do all five in five days and you earn a place on the Big Five Wall of Fame – or spread the challenges across 12 months and multiple visits, using the tracking app, Komoot. Me and my six companions are tackling all five in just three days – and we're the first people to do so.
Reeks District have partnered with local providers, who can kit you out with equipment and guides, and their website has all the info needed to get planning. You can book individual activities directly, or official partner Hidden Ireland can help tailor bespoke packages, with various accommodation options to suit all budgets.
Our base is Kingstons Townhouse in the centre of Killorglin, a half-hour drive from Kerry Airport. Recently refurbished, Kingstons has the style and comfort of a boutique hotel, alongside the friendly home-from-home feel of a family business. And there's an adjoining pub, where guests can enjoy a hearty breakfast by morning and join locals for a bevvy or two by night. We've got to earn our Guinness, though – and the first challenge on our list is Carrauntoohil.
There are several routes up. We're taking Devil's Ladder – the most direct but also one of the steepest, although there's a long steady hike to reach it. Our guide, Piaras Kelly from Kerry Climbing, says with good fitness levels, it should be possible to get up and down in seven hours.
Mountaineering experience isn't essential, but it's a fair slog and some routes involve scrambling. Piaras doesn't just help keep us safe and on track; he's a font of knowledge too. Whether it's the quality of his tales on local history and the mountain's geology and wildlife, or the crackerjack passion he tells them with, time races by.
The final stretch to the summit is open to the elements, and a chilly headwind forces us to crank those effort levels up a notch. There's a reward in store, though. The summit is often covered in cloud, but today the views are spectacular. Vibrant green peaks and valleys dotted with glimmering lakes stretch into the distance towards the Wild Atlantic Way – the rugged coastal trail that circles the Reeks' westerly edges.
Back at Kingstons after our descent, I recharge with a quick glass of Dingle, the local whiskey, and soothe my legs in the sauna, before heading for a seafood dinner at Carrig Country House Hotel – one of the area's scenic lakeside restaurants.
The next day, it's on to challenge two; surfing. Although it's popularity is certainly growing, Ireland isn't well known for the sport – but this doesn't mean it hasn't got great beaches. Inch, for example, is a vast stretch of glorious golden sand. And it does mean – bonus – less crowds.
To complete this challenge, you don't have to be a super surfer – so long as you catch some waves. Tim Alcutt from Kingdom Waves gives us a lesson on the sand, before we brave the choppy Atlantic to channel our inner surfer dudes.
I spend most of the time tumbling off the board and battling to get back on. It's utterly exhausting – and insanely fun. Afterwards, my mouth tingles from saltwater and I'm buzzing from head to toe.
Next, it's on to Caragh Lake for our kayak challenge with Cappanalea Public. I'm tired, and the prospect of paddling 6km is daunting. That quickly disappears though. Enda Prendergast, our guide, has that super-chill aura of someone who simply loves life, and it's not hard to see why...
Caragh is a huge basin of tranquillity, trimmed by trees and rhododendron-scattered hills. Yes, we're working up a sweat, but as we paddle further and further from shore, and raindrops begin dancing across the water's surface, I can't remember the last time I felt so relaxed.
The moonlight SUP follows, then there's just one challenge left: cycling the Ring of Kerry with Jay Scully and Leif Winchester from Trailflow Biking Adventures, who can kit groups out with a support vehicle and bikes as required. Thankfully, we have a whole day for this one. At 90km with three hefty hills (the route snakes round Ireland's three highest mountains), you could say we've saved the toughest challenge for last.
By now, though, I'm wholly aware The Big Five is as much about the scenery and spirit of the land and its people, as the activities themselves – something you really need when you're feeling the burn after hours in the saddle. And the Ring of the Reeks really delivers.
Ballaghbeama Gap, the first 'big' hill, twists and turns with tight hairpin bends, edged by steep craggy verges. It's dramatic and exciting – I even spot wild mountain goats – and puts those quads through their paces.
Next, some fun descents then a steadier ride towards Moll's Gap, where the landscape begins to open out and things start to feel even more wild and remote.
You'll want to keep something in the tank for the third and final proper hill – the Gap of Dunloe really is a climb. And, if the cycling doesn't entirely take your breath away, the stunning views will.
Three days, five stamps, and my name is one of the first up on The Big Five Wall of Fame.
They're calling it Ireland's ultimate bucket list. But I'm not sure you'll just want to tick them off and be done with it. The Reeks District might just pull you back for more.
:: For more about The Big Five, visit reeksdistrict.com/bigfive. Packages including four nights' B&B and all five activities start from €529/£470pp (based on four participants).
:: Double rooms at Kingstons Townhouse from €120/£106 per night (for two), room only (kingstonstownhouse.com).
:: Guided ascents of Carrauntoohil start from €55/£49pp (kerryclimbing.ie). A day's kayaking on Caragh Lake and night SUP on Lough Cloon from €65/£58pp (cappanalea.ie). Two-hour surfing lessons start from €35/£31pp (kingdomwaves.com). A day cycling the Ring of the Reeks starts from €100/£89pp (inc bike/helmet hire and sandwiches) (trailflowbikingadventures.com).