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Hiking Ireland in stile

The tour brochure for the walking trip in southwest Ireland touted outdoorsy stuff by day and gracious living at night. I could see myself strolling grassy paths lined with fuchsia blossoms and accepting an invitation to tea in a thatched-roof cottage. I could almost hear a rough guy quoting Irish poetry in the ruins of a castle.

One day of the six actually lived up to my fantasies. Three others spent on soggy land and one on rough sea were Gaelic reality. On the sixth day I shopped for fisherman sweaters in Killarney, as "active" as I could handle by then.

When I was clicking off 6 miles every morning _ in new hiking boots _ to be in condition for my first walking trip, I didn't expect the Irish version to be akin to survival training.

In the afterglow of that first-night dress-up dinner at the grand Park Kenmare Hotel, jumping off point for the Beara Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, I had no idea that the next morning I would be riding a van to the middle of nowhere. Once out and into the drizzle, I climbed a stile (steps) bridging a tall stone wall, then headed what seemed straight up, zigzagging from rock to slippery rock in an effort to avoid sinking ankle-deep into peat (Kerry's answer to quicksand).

Yikes!

I was last to reach the fogged-in summit, sweaty, panting, shaky in the knees but secretly proud of having met the challenge considering that I was twice the age of our Backroads tour company guide. The way down the other side was even more miserable, slipping and sliding, especially when my daypack shifted and threw me off balance. I grew to loathe that daypack, and each day I made it lighter _ usually to my regret when the thing left behind turned out to be what I needed an hour later, be it binoculars or rain pants _ or a comb.

Even the most fit of our group of 16 began to groan at the sight of yet another stile to be negotiated before moving on to the next stone-fenced field. I counted more than a dozen of those stumble steps, no two alike.

"I thought this was going to be like walking on a golf course," wailed a yuppie homemaker from Bradenton.

"Oh, this is definitely a hike," grinned our tour leader, a red-headed Superwoman in her late 20s. "A walk means mostly flat terrain."

It soon became clear why pre-trip instructions had strongly recommended waterproof hiking boots, rain pants, rain parka, rain hat, an extra sweater and a supply of moleskin in case of blisters.

Two of our number, a Detroit dermatologist and his sophisticated woman friend, came equipped with fancy collapsible walking sticks and designer rain hats.

Another doctor, a North Carolina cardiologist, bought a walking stick the size of a baseball bat as soon as we got back the first day. His petite schoolteacher wife smiled and made do so well that she was usually far ahead of the rest of us.

Our dreamy-eyed poet, from Woodstock, N.Y., baa-ed at the sheep that watched our progress. The sheep baa-ed back, reassuring us that we weren't the first invaders in their rocky wilderness.

Hard-to-spot, yellow stick-figure signs pointed the direction of the official Kerry Way, but even the most avid hikers in the group _ a natural-foods chain-store executive and his companion _ got lost in the fog when they left the hotel long before the rest of us one morning.

What is it about shared, high-priced hardship that makes for bonding instead of dampening spirits? The more we puffed and huffed, slipped and slid, tiptoed across shaky logs spanning rushing mountain streams, the more we relished the Lucy-like commentary of our Florida housewife. The more we giggled at the quips of our New York publishing house editor, the more we marveled at the masochists who looked upon this kind of exertion as relaxation.

But when the fog finally lifted long enough for a glimpse at the scenery, we knew why we had come: No place else looks like Ireland.

Now we knew first-hand why it's so green.

Laughter was as constant as the "heavy mist." Michael Murphy, our local expert on everything from botany to birdlife, fairy hills to how many pints of Guinness could be consumed during a proper pub lunch, didn't need sunshine to teach us Irish outlook.

Most days we packed our lunches, choosing from a buffet of meats, cheeses, raw veggies, trail mix, chocolate bars and fruit juices. Each hiker carried his own water supply.

"Eat before you're hungry _ drink before you're thirsty," warned Superwoman II, a pert brunet in a baseball cap who traced the day's route on a map at the post-breakfast meetings. She also distributed sheets that detailed every yard of the way _ turn left at the stile by the barbed-wire fence, go straight ahead at the pillar topped by three rocks _ just in case stragglers lost their way.

We ended each day in the wilds with van rides back to deluxe hotels, where we recuperated from the hike, which for some was as little as 3 miles, for others as much as 16.

It was a nice change of pace, dressing for dinner in elegant settings, with an Irish whiskey-tasting one night, a session with a shanachi (storyteller) on another and gathering around the fireplace to hear our poet read his works that last evening together.

My favorite feasts were served the two nights at the Park Kenmare, where I dined on four courses of fresh seafood, gorging on the wondrous mussels from the pure water of Kenmare Bay. Two nights at the Butler Arms at Waterville, even closer to the shellfish source, were less formal but just as tempting in menu choices, and by that last evening at the Cahernane Hotel in Killarney I almost felt guilty about depleting County Kerry's mollusk supply.

The most memorable day for me was a boat trip out to the Skellig Islands, a water journey that can be so rough that it intimidated even Superwoman II. She had had a terrible time on the crossing the week before, she said. She looked pale just describing the ordeal. We dutifully swallowed our Dramamine pills, boarded the small fishing boat and made the 1.5-hour trip over to the big island without incident.

Once there, the more adventurous _ all but the North Carolina schoolteacher and I _ set off on the trek up a long, steep incline that led to 700 narrow steps to the beehive ruins of a medieval monastery and a contemporary lighthouse. It wasn't just the number of steps up that put me off _ the clincher was that there was no railing or support for the trip back down.

Besides, I had seen my first puffins _ what looked like 1,000 of the jaunty little birds that think they're helicopters _ and it was love at first sight. I perched on a wall and ran through most of two rolls of film trying to capture the antics of the feathered clowns less than 5 feet from where I sat. I studied them, they studied me, and I have never been in more enchanting company.

The poet's wife, a social psychologist, summed up our adventure as we sprawled on the Hotel Cahernane lawn for a closing picnic before we boarded the van back to Cork Airport. It had been total escape, she said, because we had been so intent on meeting the challenge of each day that there had been no time to think of problems that might have preceded the trip or the problems likely to follow.

Pat Hanna Kuehl is a freelance writer living in Denver.

If you go

Next time I would take a walking stick, which helped balancing on wiggly rocks, and I would trade the daypack for a multipurpose belly bag like some of the others were wearing. Hey! Look who's thinking in terms of "next time"!

For more information on Backroads walking and hiking vacations, contact Backroads, 801 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA 94710-1740. Telephone: (800) 462-2848 or (510) 527-1555. Fax: (510) 527-1444. E-mail goactivebackroads.com.

For a source of information on similar tour operations, get a copy of the twice-a-year Specialty Travel Index, $6 an issue; call (415) 455-1643, fax (415) 459-4974, e-mail spectravix.netcom.com, Internet address http://www.spectrav.com or consult a travel agent.

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