A Canadian’s Christmas in Killarney

‘The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen is Christmas in Killarney,” sang Bing Crosby on his 1950 White Christmas album, helping to secure the record’s place as one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time. But with Ireland’s current economic woes, I wondered if Crosby would still sing Killarney’s praises today.

So I headed to the Emerald Isle with low expectations that an Irish Christmas could compare to the snowy, maple-syrup-drenched nostalgia I felt for Canadian Christmases past. But what I found in Killarney was something that would undoubtedly make Crosby sing – the magic of Killarney is virtually untouched, even with Ireland’s epic recession.

With the Celtic Tiger’s tail between its legs, there is no better time to take advantage of Ireland’s travel deals than at Christmas, one of the busiest and most expensive travel seasons of the year.Killarney is found on Ireland’s west coast, inland from the Dingle Peninsula which lies like a bony finger pointing across the Atlantic. Its sprawling national park, breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife truly make it Ireland’s most naturally beautiful town. Aside from the North Pole, there is perhaps no place in the world more Christmassy than snow-covered Killarney, tucked into the base of the MacGillicuddy Reeks mountain range (Ireland’s highest) and overlooking the frozen Lakes of Killarney.

Gliding over the snow while snuggled into a traditional jaunting car (horse-drawn carriage) is the best way to see the massive UNESCO-designated Killarney National Park and all its inhabitants – peregrine falcons, merlins, white-tailed eagles and Ireland’s only herd of red deer, a breed which has survived in the country for over 4,000 years. Private, guided jaunting car tours start at $15 CDN.

Buried deep within the park is the 15th Century Ross Castle and the haunting ruins of Muckross Abbey, a Franciscan Friary founded in 1448. The well-preserved ruins are well worth a visit, but be careful not to touch the yew tree in the centre of the courtyard or you will be cursed with bad luck for seven years, according to locals. Admission is free.

A short walk from the abbey leads to the magnificent Muckross House – an historic 1843 mansion once owned by a member of the Guinness family and filled with Irish national treasures The house’s snow-covered gardens are home to a restaurant, craft shop, workshop and Muckross Traditional Farms. Admission starts at about $10 CDN.

Rivalling Killarney’s natural beauty, the town’s pubs, restaurants and hotels boast some of the country’s handsomest architecture. Well-maintained Tudor-style shops and pubs fill the main street, creating a warm and authentic atmosphere to enjoy the traditional music and dancing sessions or gourmet cuisine within.

After a cold day of exploring the park or Killarney’s historical sites, it’s hard to beat a warm bowl of Irish stew at Murphy’s Bar ($15 CDN), which features intimate stone walls and wooden beams. Gourmet diners head to upscale Chapter Forty for incredible Irish dinners that still offer great value.

And, of course, no trip to Ireland is complete without a good pint and a nice Irish whiskey. Both are in good supply at Sheehan’s Traditional Pub which features traditional music and dancing. Get there early as this place fills up quickly.

When it’s finally time to call it a night, the Killarney Lake Hotel goes unparalleled as it is located in the centre of the park and is built around the ruins of the MacCarthy Mor Castle. The rooms are well appointed but the focus is kept on the panoramic views of the snow-capped mountains and frozen lakes to be enjoyed from the outdoor hot tub. The hotel, built in 1820, is also within walking distance to the Tore waterfall. Rooms start at $110 CDN.

You can save a bundle by staying downtown at a selection of chain hotels, such as the Best Western Eviston House Hotel ($75 CDN and up), located within steps of Killarney’s pubs and restaurants and the local train station – a great option for both night owls and the budget-savvy.

Shop for everyone on your list at the Blarney Woollen Mills Outlet Store at the Killarney Outlet Centre for low prices on hand-made Irish wool blankets, sweaters, mittens, toques and slippers. And spending Christmas in Killarney adds craft and food markets, a children’s parade, an ice skating rink and a visit to Santa’s Lodge to the area’s already overloaded itinerary of things to see and do.

Killarney is also an ideal launching pad for exploring the wind-swept Dingle Peninsula and the famed Ring of Kerry, including the Ladies’ View. While it’s possible to explore both routes by car or bicycle, the narrow, winding (and sometimes snowy) roads make local bus tours a good investment. For $25 CDN, tourists can expect a five-hour guided tour filled with local lore without worrying about the break-neck curves or the distractions from the striking scenery.

No matter how you get there, you can’t miss the Ladies’ View on the way back into town, a stunning vantage point offering clear visibility across Killarney’s three lakes, park, village and surrounding mountains. Standing at that isolated point looking down on the rugged beauty of Killarney, it’s clear that even Ireland’s tremendous economic troubles cannot spoil the raw beauty of this magical place. A postcard-perfect view all year round, the touch of snow in winter might just give you (and Crosby) something to sing about. Now is the perfect time to see these priceless views for less.

And that’s no Blarney.

BY KATHERINE LOW for AOL Travel

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