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135km (84 miles) SW of Shannon, 309km (192 miles) SW of Dublin, 87km (54 miles) W of Cork, 111km (69 miles) SW of Limerick, 193km (120 miles) SW of Galway

Perhaps the busiest tourist hub in rural Ireland, Killarney's sidewalks are spacious enough in the winter, but in the summertime, they're absolutely packed, as the streets become one giant tour-bus traffic jam and horse-and-buggy drivers risk life and limb to push their way through. The locals are well practiced at dispensing a professional brand of Irish charm, even as they hike up the hotel and restaurant prices to capitalize on the hordes descending from the buses. It all feels a bit cynical, with a few too many cheesy leprechaun-heavy gift shops for its own good. It's a bit much for some people, and hardly the bucolic, gentle Ireland that many are looking for. Luckily, it's easy enough to resist Killarney's gravitational pull and spend your time exploring the quieter countryside around it. You can always sneak into town from time to time for dinner or a night out in the pub with lots of people from your home nation.

Ironically, Killarney's popularity has little to do with the town itself; the attraction is the valley in which it nestles -- a verdant landscape of lakes and mountains so spectacular that author and playwright Brendan Behan once said, "Even an ad man would be ashamed to eulogize it." Exploring its glories is certainly easy -- just walk (or drive) from the town parking lot toward the cathedral and turn left. In a matter of minutes, you'll forget all that Killarney stress amid the quiet rural splendor of the 65-sq.-km (25-sq.-mile) Killarney National Park. Here the ground is a soft carpet of moss and the air is fragrant with wildflowers. Cars are banned from most of the ferny trails, so take a hike or hire a "jarvey," an old-fashioned horse-and-buggy available for hire at reasonable prices. Within the park's limits are two estates, Muckross and Knockreer, and the romantic remains of medieval abbeys and castles. At almost every turn, you'll see Killarney's own botanical wonder, the arbutus, or "strawberry tree," plus eucalyptus, redwoods, and native oak.

For many, the main attractions are the park's three lakes. The largest of these, the Lower Lake, is sometimes called Lough Leane or Lough Lein, which means "the lake of learning." It's more than 6km (3 3/4 miles) long and is dotted with 30 small islands. Nearby are the Middle Lake or Muckross Lake, and the smallest of the three, the Upper Lake. The most noteworthy of Killarney's islands, Innisfallen, seems to float peacefully in the Lower Lake. You can allegedly reach it by rowboat, available for rental at Ross Castle, but on our recent visits, the boathouse was unmanned all day, and trying to figure out just who was responsible for the boats proved impossible, so don't count on it. If you can get a boat and row yourself out, you'll find what's left of the monastery St. Fallen, which was founded in the 7th century and flourished for 1,000 years. It's said that Brian Boru, the great Irish chieftain, and St. Brendan the Navigator were educated here. From 950 to 1320, the Annals of Innisfallen, a chronicle of early Irish history, was written at the monastery; it's now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Traces of an 11th-century church and a 12th-century priory can still be seen today.