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The Full Shilling’s Guide to Kerry

The Full Shilling’s Guide to Kerry

Summer holidays as a kid in Ireland can be a tense affair. Back when I was child our summer holidays were spent in the back seat of the car heading south or west, fighting for space in amongst everything our Mum packed (was there any need for the half of it?) while Dad swore he wasn’t lost when we all knew he definitely was. Most summers would be wash-outs but I only seem to remember the good ones when the sun beat down and we spent what seemed like eternity outside – mostly in the nip if our childhood photos are anything to go by.

One particular holiday that stands out is the trip to Co. Kerry. We made our way there by car of course, following the Atlantic coast through counties Mayo and Galway before stopping in Clare for a night in a B&B. We all kipped in the one room, all of us kids spread out on the floor at various angles while our parents got the bed. We didn’t mind though because at that age it felt exciting to sleep on the ground despite the hundred or so crucifixes gazing down at us from the walls.

When we finally reached Dingle it felt like we were a million miles away from our home in Co. Armagh. Tracing the map with our fingers over the pages (we had one of those maps which had a page for each county), we lost track of all the roads and coastline we took to get there. The mountains loomed ahead in the distance so we would make short trips to them, renting out ponies at the Gap of Dunloe and stuffing our faces with the freshest fish we ever tasted.

I remember one particular day we were driving the Ring of Kerry when we pulled over to a lake which was catching the last bit of sunlight of the day. I stood on the edge of the road just drinking every bit of the view in and I started to well up with tears because I realised I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I was only about 9 (sensitive wee soul) but even then I knew how lucky I was to be from this island.

To this day Kerry can still take my breath away. I’ve been numerous times since that holiday, all with people who are over visiting from overseas because it truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have this deep need for foreigners to see it, nod with me and understand why I love Ireland so much, why I could never live anywhere else.

When my cousin was visiting from Australia a few weeks ago I knew we had to take her to Kerry. She is hugely proud to be half-Irish but to understand all those old songs that she listens to about Ireland we wanted to show her the places that inspired the songwriters to begin with. For that there is nowhere better than the Kingdom of Ireland!

While my knowledge of the whole county isn’t the best, I’ve highlighted a few spots that have given me great joy and know for sure that you would love too.

Best Drives

While the Ring of Kerry is breathtaking, it’s a route that can be very busy with tourists and can take a fair bit of time. Slea Head is a stunning drive out of Dingle with fantastic beaches and turquoise water. The last Star Wars movie was filmed in Ballyferriter, a village on the drive that is now bustling with a few more tourists than before. It’s still peaceful though and we managed to get the most beautiful beach all to ourselves for an entire morning before the buses arrived. If you make it here then you can take the boat out to the Blasket Islands for an excursion that will really blow the socks off ye!

Another drive is the Skellig Ring which takes you through Waterville, Portmagee and Glencar. You can even get to Valentia Island from here which is worth a day trip all on it’s own. Skelling Michael alongside Little Skelling tower in the distance turning completely white in the summer as the gannets take over to nest.

Ladies View is not far from Killarney and offers a glimpse of the Ring of Kerry without having to drive too far. The views here are one of my favourites in Kerry no matter the season but in the summer the drive there is incredible. Ferns grow ferociously, spilling on to the road and even through the windows of your car! There’s a multitude of photo opportunities on this drive alone so take it slow and stop as much as you can.

Best Beaches

Clogher Strand, Ballyferriter

My favourite beach in Kerry hands down. My cousin, sister and I spent nearly an entire day here with the beach mostly to ourselves save for the odd tourists coming and going. It’s not a great swimming beach due to the rocks and rip currents but the view alone is enough to keep you there – we had to drag ourselves away!

Derrynane Beach, Derrynane

Just off the Ring of Kerry drive this stunning beach is worth dipping your toes in to and feeling the white sand to calm you down.

Coumeenoole Beach, Slea Drive

On the Slea Drive route this narrow beach is perfect for swimming in the shallows. Just mind the currents because they can be a bit strong if you go too far!

Rossbeigh Beach

This beach has class views out towards Dingle and turquoise waters to swim in. It’s one of the best Blue Flag beaches in the region with a whole 8km so no worrying about feeling crowded!

Where to Eat

Out of the Blue, Dingle

We tried to get a table here but they were fully booked so unfortunately I can’t actually claim to have eaten here BUT I’ve been told by numerous locals that it’s the best spot in town. If you’re wise unlike me then make sure to book ahead!

Reel Dingle Fish, Dingle

A good spot if you fancy quick food and fish caught practically on the doorstep.

Páidi Ó Sé’s, Slea Drive

If you’re here in the winter this is a gem of a place to hole up in with great comfort to warm you up.

O’Carroll’s Cove Beach Bar, Ring of Kerry

The perfect stop if you’re tackling the Ring of Kerry drive and need to refuel.

Pantrí, Dingle

The perfect place for lunch and the most instagrammable too! The garden out the back even has a double seat swing where you can sip on your elderflower prosecco – yes, that is a real thing you can drink here.

O’Neill’s The Point Seafood Bar, Cahersiveen

If you’re on the Skelling Ring drive then be sure to call in here for delicious seafood and a spot to get cosy for an hour or two.

Murphy’s Ice Cream, Dingle & Killarney

If you’re still peckish after lunch or dinner then a cone from Murphy’s can never go wrong. The ice cream is made in Dingle and the staff are super friendly too offering advice on what flavour to go for.

Where to Drink 

J M Reidy’s, Killarney

This is my favourite pub in Ireland never mind Kerry! It’s an absolute labyrinth of nooks and crannies to hide in with the most delicious cocktails you’ve ever tasted. It used to be one of those typical Irish establishments back in the day when the grocer was also the hardware shop, sweet shop and bakery all rolled in to one. They’ve kept the old till amongst heaps of other gems from the old days which are just fascinating to look at but mostly it’s just a great place for music and a bit of craic.

Dick Mack’s, Dingle

A bit like JM Reidy’s with a huge range of whiskies that could do some damage. There’s also a pizza place and brewery out the back and even a leather shop at the side just in case you dance tap too hard to the music. Before you nab a wee seat behind the saloon doors though make sure to have cash because they don’t take card.

The Shire Bar, Killarney

Just for the sheet weirdness of it all this pub deserves a mention. They’re very much committed to the theme here with low ceilings and even some Hobbit juice to sip on while you wonder what the hell is going on. Worth it for the ‘gram if anything!

Kate Kearney’s Cottage, Gap of Dunloe

If there was ever an award for beer garden with the best view then this place might take it. Grab a pint and sit outside if you’re lucky before hiring a pony cart up the mountain.

John B Keane, the famous Irish playwright had this to say about being from Kerry,

“Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry you know you have a head start on the other fellow. In belonging to Kerry you belong to the elements, to the spheres spinning in the Heavens. You belong to History and Language and Romance and Ancient Song. It is almost unbearable being a Kerryman and it is an awesome responsibility”.

As a blow-in from the North I might not be able to experience the weight of being a native of Kerry but every now and again, just for a wee while, I can pretend that I do.

The Beaches of Connemara

The Beaches of Connemara

To be barefoot on a Connemara beach in April is the closest I think I’ll ever get to a miracle. We had driven down to the west coast from Belfast the night before and the weather had been wild as we arrived in to the mountains. The wind was howling and the rain turned the landscape in to a muddy watercolour painting with hundreds of waterfalls washing across the roads taking us to Letterfrack. April showers take on a new meaning in Connemara and it was safe to say that expectations for the weekend had taken a back seat as we finally approached Rosleague Manor, our base for the weekend. We ran up to the entrance to avoid getting soaked and when entering the hallway it felt like the antithesis of outside. There was an instant feeling of warmth from the open fires burning in the drawing rooms to the friendly welcome from Mark (a third generation member of the Foyle family who runs Rosleague) and I thought to myself, “even if it rains all weekend I reckon we’ll be just grand in here”.

We had gone to bed early that night, weary from the long drive and hours of conversation on the road. While I was delighted to be curling up in a beautiful bed in a manor house, I secretly hoped for a miracle, just a patch of blue sky so we could see the views that I knew were around us. The next morning I was woken up by the sunlight streaming through the curtains at about 6.30am and it took me a moment to register why I was awake so early. I eventually realised that it was sunlight, SUNLIGHT, that woke me up! I bounced out of bed and practically ran to the lake to soak in the morning (you can hear more about this walk and see photos in my previous post here).

After breakfast we set off on our drive, energised by the sun that continued to beat down with no cloud in the sky for competition. We took the Sky Road, an obvious choice on a day like this which provides the most amazing views of the Atlantic and the hundreds of islands that seem to hug the coastline like barren satellites. We stopped off at as many beaches as we could as the temperatures started to rise to a balmy 15 degrees and that’s when I found myself at Mannin Bay, barefoot without a cardigan or goosebump to be seen!

Blue skies met even bluer waters and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the same part of the world I fell asleep in. Connemara is truly a land of contrasts with a clear day completely transforming the coast and the mountains that loom over it. The mountains became golden with the few clouds creating shadow shows as they drifted lazily across the sky.

We drove most of the day beach-hopping and stopping off for seafood when our stomachs began to rumble. We ate outside on the streets of Roundstone at O’Dowd’s; me wolfing down crab claws and Andrew his staple of battered fish and chips. I drank a glass of white wine and could feel my chest burning a little as the sun bore down and not a trace of wind could be found in the air. I felt unashamedly smug as I closed my eyes and soaked up every ounce of vitamin D I could manage since it had been about 6 months since my poor bones felt anything like it.

Connemara is famous for its wild weather and landscape but few know the Connemara we got to experience last weekend. The turquoise waters, the white beaches, the burned cheeks from the Spring sun. If you ever find yourself as lucky as I was then please make sure to visit the beaches I have listed here. I’m sure they’re just as beautiful when weather is bit more turbulent, the seas furiously stormy and the wind blowing because that is the romantic view most have of the west coast but when the winds settle, the clouds part and the sea calms, well you have a pocket of paradise right before you.

THE BEACHES OF CONNEMARA

Mannin Bay

The water here is spectacular so no surprise that it’s a favourite spot for water sports. If you’re not too keen to brave the water by snorkelling then you can take a kayak out and spy the marine life swimming beneath you in crystal clear waters. It was empty when we were there and incredibly peaceful too so you might just get the water all to yourself.

Omey Island

The island is connecting to the mainland by a tidal strand that is only permissible during times of low tide. The strand is popular for families who fancy a bit of sand castle building and beach combing but we ventured on to the island itself with hardly a person in sight. There’s a beach on the far side of the island which was deserted and felt incredibly private save for a few neighbourly heifers and their calves.

Dog’s Bay

This is probably the most popular beach in the area and for good reason. The bay provides safe calm waters for young kids to splash about it and the water is just as clear as Mannin too. The long white sandy beach is great for walking off a lunch and the mountains behind you provide a stunning backdrop to gaze up at when you walk back to your car. Roundstone is close by too and a lovely harbour town to grab some lunch in.

Coral Strand

Typical of Ireland this beach is known for its folklore since it’s said that if you pick up a fistful of coral sand in each hand you have two choices. If you want to have luck in love then you through the sand in your left hand over your left shoulder. If you want luck in money then you should through the sand in right hand over your right shoulder. You can’t do both though, sure ye can’t have too much luck! Apparently this beach has some of the warmest waters too so shouldn’t be too terrifying to take a dip in if you’re feeling the need to cool off from the Connemara heat.

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

The snow is falling incessantly outside my bedroom window this morning, tiny flakes tapping at the glass to remind me how much things can change in a matter of days. Only a week ago Andrew and I were on our way to Donegal for the night, arriving at Castle Grove House under blue skies and bright sunlight that only fed false promises of Spring. Oh to feel just a wee bit of heat again!

We had been invited to Castle Grove by Ireland’s Blue Book as part of a beer-pairing night the hotel were hosting in their award-winning restaurant (with local brewery Kinnegar’s providing all the pairings!). This was one of the first events I have ever been invited to as a blogger so I was unashamedly very excited about being there! It’s no secret that Andrew and I are lovers of Donegal since we usually visit the county every few months so we were never going to turn down a chance to spend a night in digs on the north coast, especially when there were craft beers involved!

Neither myself or Andrew had been to Castle Grove before and as we pulled in to the beautiful country lane that took us to the banks of Lough Swilly where the house is nestled, it felt as if we had crossed in to a different era completely. The manor house sits proudly as it would have done when it was first built in 1695 except the Grove family have been and gone and now the Sweeney’s are holding the fort and welcoming in fresh faces in to their home.

Inside it felt like not much had changed either; fires were crackling in grand fireplaces in numerous rooms downstairs, beautiful antiques decorated corners that I am sure had heard plenty of stories and old paintings hung on the walls above the sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs, all of which were named after Irish literary legends (we were in the Jonathan Swift room which was just a bit fitting what with his connection to our hometown of Armagh!).

The room itself was not just a room but more like a suite straight out of Downtown Abbey equipped with a four poster bed and a cabinet full of crystal I was too terrified to touch. There were parts of the suite that were a wee bit dated (the bathroom for example looked like it hadn’t been updated in a few years) so lovers of modern finishes may not feel quite at home here. Personally I loved the quirky charm especially the bed since I had never slept in something that was so like the bed of every princess story I had ever read.

Though what struck me most about the house was it’s warmth. Everything about Castle Grove exudes the feeling of being so welcome, of being looked after and mollycoddled the minute you step through the door. Irene Sweeney, the manager and figurehead of the house, could always be found mingling with guests, tending to the fire and ensuring that everyone’e needs were met. She was genuinely delighted to have people coming to visit her wee part of the world and hosting events like the beer-pairing night was a way for her to showcase the house and everything Donegal has to offer.

Which as it turns out, is a lot. The beer pairing event delivered more than we were expecting, each course having been meticulously curated by Chef Brady and the head of Kinnegar Brewery, Rick LeVert. The Donegal oysters specifically were a sensation for me (Andrew is still sitting on the fence when it comes to oysters) and the dessert was practically licked off the plate. Each beer was introduced by Rick allowing us to understand why the flavours on our plate were designed around the flavours in our glass. It was obvious that great care had went in to the night which, judging by the hum of contentment around room, was a complete success.

I practically had to roll myself out of the dining room after we finally finished eating, only having enough energy for a few moments by the fire before collapsing in my fairytale bed. Next thing I knew it was morning which I welcomed by opening the shutters of my sash windows half-expecting cartoon birds to flutter around my head. We woke up slowly leaving just enough time to meet in the dining room for breakfast (are we the only one’s who leave it until the last 10 minutes?) which was the obligatory full Irish breakfast and lots of tea.

The sun was streaming in and not wanting to miss another moment of Donegal fresh air, we said our thankful goodbyes to Irene and the staff after a quick stroll around the grounds. We were told to make a beeline for Portsalon where we could find blue flag beaches empty of crowds (and in true Donegal style it over-delivered). We drank in the salty air and when the Atlantic winds settled for just a moment we could feel the head of the late-February sun on our backs, a sensation I can barely remember feeling now it’s snowing outside!

Not wanting to end things with Donegal just yet, we took a drive to Glenveagh Castle (so I could play princess just a little longer) which surprisingly neither of us had visited before. It’s actually younger than Castle Grove but looks like it’s been hidden on the lough for centuries longer. There’s a great trail for walkers and cyclists from the visitor centre to the castle but for those with little time or patience (or unruly kids) can hop on the minibus which saves a fair amount of time.

The views are incredible once you reach the castle with Scot’s Pine trees decorating the edge of the lake, providing plenty of magical forest walks. There are beautiful gardens to stroll in too which I can only imagine are even more outstanding in the summer. The views reminded me of Connemara, another essential destination in Ireland where Glenveagh Castle could be compared to Kylemore Abbey as a diamond in the midst of a wild landscape.

There is a real rawness to Donegal that I think has percolated to the people who live there. The people are as open as the land and the sea that batters it’s north and west so it’s only natural to feel yourself open up once your feet are on the ground there. For me there is a collective sigh from my mind and body when I’m Donegal, I release everything I’ve been holding within me and I feel instantly lighter, more open. It’s no wonder I felt so welcome by everyone at Castle Grove, it’s doors are open like the people inside, happy to invite anyone in need of a warm meal and cosy bed or even just a drop of tea by the fire.