Southwestern Ireland really does have the best of everything. Scenic, romantic, full of friendly people with terrific accents, castles, family-friendly pubs and gorgeous scenery. Best of all, Killarney, in County Clare, lies at the doorway to Ireland's biggest national park, where you can almost step back through time.

The Gap of Dunloe leads into Killarney National Park, whose three beautiful lakes are crystal clear but look black because they sit atop peat. By all means, hire a jaunting ("jaunty") cart to get from one side of this pass to the other. You'll pass through the MacGillyCuddy Reeks, Ireland's highest mountains, at the speed ofa trotting Irish Draught horse, not much taller than a pony. Shaggy and patient, they pull their jaunting carts up through the rocky throat of hills endowed with a wild sort of beauty that has changed very little for hundreds of years.

Close your eyes as the cart moves along, and you go right back in time. The drivers call to each other in lilting Gaelic, the same language you will see on every traffic sign right alongside English. The clip-clop of the horse's hooves sounds the same as it did a hundred years ago when the majority of our ancestors traveled behind a horse. It was a more leisurely age, and you start to shed the hurry-up-and-get-there mindset of the modern world the farther up the pass you go. The jaunting trip takes a couple of hours, so it's not like a quick carriage ride through Central Park; you have time to relax and appreciate the huge difference between our mechanized age and those gone by.

On the far side of the pass you come to the lakes. It's worth the cost of hiring a boat to cross back through the park to the Killarney side just to listen to the boatman tell you tall tales and legends as you glide along. You'll pass the last great stretch of native oaks in Ireland, which once covered the whole country, but now are so reduced that Ireland has instituted a tree-planting program.

A 9th-century ruined monastery peeks from the trees on Innisfallen Island, where legend says the great Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, was educated. You'll come out at Ross Castle, the last fortress to fall to Oliver Cromwell's invading forces in 1652. You can hire another jaunty cart to take you back to town, or walk, as it's only a ten-minute hike back into Killarney. You may need it to shake off the spell!