Pat Chalke, one of the organisers of Killarney’s Wander Wild, is explaining the motivation behind the town’s outdoor festival.

Tourists, he insists, will want to experience destinations. And he’s right.

It’s one of those ideas that’s so obvious you wonder why it hasn’t been in existence for years. With its breathtaking location on the lakes, National Park everywhere the eye can see, mountains to climb and explore, it’s a no brainer – a festival to celebrate Killarney and the great outdoors.

This isn’t our first time in Kerry, in the mountains. Yet when we set off on a hike, for a Wander Wild taster, the kids nearly explode with excitement when they see real sheep grazing on the mountain’s edge. We’ve driven past them so many times, it’s a novelty to see them so close.

Wander Wild, a hands on experience, will change all that for visitors. We realise just how right Pat is.

Its first iteration a few years ago was as a mountain walking festival, an idea that had its origins with the local Chamber of Tourism and Commerce. It was a success, but organisers knew it had bigger potential. And so, in March 2020, Wander Wild was born.

We all know what happened next – plans were put on hold as the world went into lockdown.

Last year, six weeks after restrictions were lifted, Wander Wild launched officially for the first time. They dipped their toe in the water in 2022 and this year it returns with a full itinerary of events. Families, experienced walkers, all ages, all abilities and interests are catered for, ranging from adventure to wellness.

Step off the tour bus and make for the mountains at Wander Wild festival
Some of Wander Wild Festival’s preview panel, hard at work in Killarney National Park. Photo credit: Adrian McCarthy, Grandview Media.

Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, or a rambler off the beaten track, or want mindful relaxation, the adventure and wellness festival, set in the lakes and mountains of the 25,000-acre UNESCO Killarney National Park, has a host of outdoor events for the body, mind and soul.

Over the weekend, you can dip, swim, hike, bike, kayak, horse ride, ramble. There’s yoga and light walks, if you have more of a restful weekend in mind, or hardcore climbs and runs for those looking for a challenge. Afterwards, you can meet with like-minded people at the festival HQ – also a base for families, including children’s activities.

As we walk through Hag’s Head, setting off from Cronin’s Yard on our taster weekend, we see the Devil’s Ladder in the distance, Carrauntoohil towering above. The kids step over little ponds of frog spawn, and gasp in amazement at the rainbows that keep appearing through the mountain peaks.

I find myself constantly asking John O’Sullivan, our guide, how long things will take – how long our walk is, how long it takes to climb Devil’s Ladder – and each time he just smiles at my city mentality and obsession with time. It’ll take as long as it takes he responds, over and over. The clock stops when you hike with John.

He’ll be busy the weekend of Wander Wild climbing Ireland’s highest mountain with some, or hiking to the lofty mountain site where the remains of a plane that crashed during the Second World War lie, or taking people like us on gentler hikes to introduce them to the mountains.

No one knows the area better. His hiking business (The Reeks Guiding Company) began because locals kept asking him to take visitors out on the mountains. He’s also a member of the mountain rescue team, call outs are regular and it’s only to be expected that safety is a paramount for him. No dogs in the area, he says. Wear the correct footwear. If you’re taking children, it’s safer to stay on paths if they are under 12.

Innisfallen island. Photo credit: Adrian McCarthy, Grandview Media.
Innisfallen island. Photo credit: Adrian McCarthy, Grandview Media.

As part of our taster weekend, staying at the central Killarney Towers Hotel, we took a short boat ride to Innisfallen Island with Donal O’Donoghue, better known as Dux. Once home to a monastery dating back to 640 AD, the island was a place of solitude for the monks to reflect and pray. They were great scholars, the High King of Ireland Brian Boru was said to have studied there.

Donal walked us through the monastery ruins and shared the history, with two other unique guides, his two cocker spaniels, Bob and Marley.

The boat trip itself with the two dogs on board was the kids’ highlight. One of them, as Donal described it, would go “full Titanic” as our speed picked up and sure enough the cocker ran to the front of the boat and let the wind catch his long ears.

Donal is great craic, and an excellent guide. We walked beyond the beautiful monastery ruins in search of deer – he showed us videos of them swimming to the island. It was magical.

Marine assistants Bob and Marley aboard the Hollie Belle. Photo credit: Adrian McCarthy, Grandview Media.
Marine assistants Bob and Marley aboard the Hollie Belle. Photo credit: Adrian McCarthy, Grandview Media.

A family business, Donal’s father also operates lake boating trips via his Gap Of Dunloe Traditional Boat Tours. Another local character, we’re determined to return to experience one of his tours.

Other festival highlights include guided trail runs, suitable for beginners, a guided tour done while trail running. And there are so many other options. Start the day with a sunrise dip at Dundag, float in nature with a forest bath, discover the power of breath with a Wim Hot Method Workshop, or savour a warm recovery with a Samhradh Sauna Experience.

New additions include a natural ice-bath in the Lakes of Killarney, a 3D sensory tour of the Blue Pool Nature Reserve with a light and sound installation, and a gourmet food trail. Families should try the ‘Ciar’s Quest’ digital treasure hunt around Ross Island.

Or get the competitive spirit going in the family with some urban orienteering. There’s no need to bring a car either. With sustainability in mind, the festival will provide a shuttle bus to bring people to and from all scheduled activities outside of town.

Expect market stalls with some local produce, an opening Spring Equinox parade, outdoor films, a concert with Mundy.

The bars and restaurants will be fully involved and on board too in this Fáilte Ireland supported festival. We ate at the cosy Laurels and The Porterhouse, a restaurant that’s definitely worth a visit. Rather than add plastic screens to protect customers and create pods during covid, they brought in a carpenter to make intimate snugs throughout the interior. It makes for a dining experience nothing short of perfect.

Pretty much like our Wander Wild taster weekend. Make sure you visit. (March 24-26)