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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Farrell

Road trip explorations in the kingdom of Kerry

Updated: Mar 2


Ross Castle, Killarney National Park


Renowned for its dramatic scenery, epic beaches and countless walking and cycling trails, Kerry is a haven for the active-minded and lovers of the great outdoors. When you add great restaurants, friendly people and numerous sites

of historical interest to the mix, it's hardly surprising that Kerry features prominently on many visitors' wish lists.


My recent trip was short but sweet: a mere two days offered only a tantalising glimpse of this beautiful region. My base in Tralee was the ideal location for exploring  both its north-western Atlantic coastline, and the jewel at the heart of the county: Killarney National Park. Despite the limited time I managed to squeeze in a scenic looped walk in the park, a visit to Muckross Abbey and Ardfert Cathedral, a sunset over Ross Castle, the picturesque Tralee Lee Valley Walk, and a stroll on both Banna Strand and Fenit Beach. All are easily accessible by car from Tralee.



Killarney National Park

Let's start our journey here at Killarney National Park, famed for its extraordinary natural beauty.



Killarney's three main lakes, Lough Leane, Lough Muckross and Upper Lake, are interlinked and nestled in a broad valley, surrounded by mountains. The park dates back to 1932 and stretches across a whopping 26,000 acres of diverse landscape with abundant woodland, lakes, mountains and waterfalls. The rugged peaks of the McGillycuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland, provide a dramatic backdrop.



I'm ashamed to admit that this was my first ever visit to Killarney National Park but it certainly won't be my last. I was reminded once more of how utterly stunning this country can be, and never more so than on a blue-sky day. The first hints of Spring were in the air: trees were in tentative blossom while a subtle warmth from the sun was a welcome surprise. And as for the views - nothing short of jaw-dropping.


The main access points to the National Park sites are off the N71 road, and there are multiple parking areas (listed here) depending on the parts of the lake you want to visit. I parked up at the Front Gate Lodge - Google Maps link here - passing the Gate Lodge on my right and following the slightly muddy path to the shore of Lough Leane, famously dotted with islands. There is also the option of taking the tarred path which runs parallel but I preferred to stay close to the water which lapped hypnotically on the shore.



Described by NationalParks.ie as "an outdoor enthusiast’s playground", one of the great things about Killarney National Park is the number of accessible walking and cycling trails. There is also the option of taking a traditional jaunting car, if you're so inclined. With routes ranging from an easy 1km to a more strenuous 5-7kms, there are plenty of options here catering for all levels and abilities. As my time was limited, I opted for the short but sweet 2.5kms Muckross Abbey loop. Highlights include a picturesque stone bridge crossing a brook with swans gliding nonchalantly past. It's worth noting that there is clear signposting everywhere within the park so it would be difficult to go astray.


Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park


Before long, the striking ruins of Muckross Abbey came into view, perfectly framed by trees.



Muckross Abbey


Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park


The remarkably well-preserved Muckross Abbey is one of the must-visit sites in Killarney National Park. Historical records indicate the founding of a monastery on this site in the 6th century, though the beautiful ruins we see today are from a later period: remnants of a Franciscan Friary from the 15th century.



The church was divided into a nave and chancel by the later addition of a tower. Standing beneath its central core, I was struck by the level of preservation of the rib vaulting above my head, the elegant tracery window on one wall and the ornate Ogee window on the opposing wall. Step inside to see the remains of a double piscina, a place which would've been used for the ceremonial washing of the priest’s hands and holy vessels during mass. It's worth noting that dormitories at first floor level can be accessed by a spiral staircase.



Best of all is the cloister, one of most superbly preserved examples in Ireland, with its enclosed vaulted walkways surrounding a cloister garth. But what is truly special about this site is the magnificent yew tree at its core, its enormous branches sprawling outwards and high above the enclosing walls, its foliage almost blocking the light to the interior below. It was fascinating to read that the tree is believed to be at least as old as the friary itself, and that the cloister might have been planned and built to accommodate it. We know from historical records that it was a fully mature tree in 1756 - utterly fascinating.



As was the case with most monasteries in Ireland, the monks were driven from the site by Cromwell's armies in the 1650s.


Muckross Abbey is free to enter, and open all year round.


It's worth noting that the lakeshore trail continues all the way to Muckross House & Traditional Farms, one of Kerry's most popular tourist destinations, and is clearly signposted. Sadly I didn't have time to visit on this occasion but it's a good excuse to come back.



Ross Castle



And now for one of the most iconic and most photographed vistas in the park - the majestic Ross Castle, perched on the shore of Lough Leane with mountains as a backdrop. As evening fell, its outline cast a dramatic silhouette against the skyline. Ross Castle sits on a promontory north of Muckross Abbey, a 5km walk or a 20 minute drive.



The castle dates back to the 15th century, built by the Irish chieftain O’Donoghue Ross, and is a quintessential example of a fortification of this kind from the Middle Ages with its tower house and keep. It is significant for being the last place in Munster to hold out against Cromwell and his forces in the 1650s.


Sadly the castle was closed for the winter season but is due to reopen on 29th February 2024. It gets very busy during peak months but there is no option currently to book in advance so expect to queue. Entrance to the interior is by guided tour only, on a first-come, first-served basis. More information here


Evening light on Lough Leane from Ross Castle, Killarney National Park


As locations go, this one is hard to beat. As the sun set, I positioned myself on the edge of the boardwalk and took it all in: the birdsong, the soothing sounds of water lapping at its edges, the play of fading light across the lake. Visible in the distance is Inisfallen Island, home to a 7th century monastery. Have a look here - it looks absolutely incredible with the remarkably well-preserved ruins of a 12th century Augustinian priory, as well as a Romanesque Church. Inaccessible as it looks, visitors can actually take a boat trip from here to the island. I am definitely going to do this next time.


Practical Information:

Everything you need to know about parking and facilities in Killarney National Park can be found here.


 

Tralee


Tralee Bay Nature Reserve and Wetlands Project


Tralee can be sometimes overlooked in favour of tourist hotspots Dingle and Killarney. And while the town itself left me a little underwhelmed, the outskirts are seriously beautiful. From here, visitors have access to the ridiculously picturesque Tralee Lee Valley Walk, one of the highlights of my two-day trip.


Tralee Lee Valley Walk


Canal banks, Tralee


This is an endlessly surprising and diverse 10 kms looped walk which starts on the outskirts of Tralee town with a smorgasbord of things to see. Following the path of the river, it joins a scenic canal walkway, passing both a nature reserve and a windmill, and finally emerges at the sea.


Tralee Bay


There are a number of access points from the outskirts of Tralee town including the Aqua Dome Car Park or the pathway behind the Rose Hotel - both will bring you to the picturesque path running along the River Lee. I stayed at the Rose Hotel and joined the route here, enjoying the sense of quietude and tranquility as I followed its meandering route.


Tralee Lee Valley Walk, River Lee


Alternatively you can join at the Basin Marina to start at the canal section of the walk. Kerry Gems have a good visual on their website here though it doesn't include the final section to Cockleshell Beach. From point C, you need to continue for approximately another kilometre south towards Tralee Bay.


Basin Marina and canal path, Tralee Lee Valley Walk


My favourite section was the peaceful canal walk, with some ridiculously beautiful scenery to enjoy on the way. Following the the tow path of the Tralee Ship Canal, the magnificent peaks of Slieve Mish line the route, a mountain range at the gateway to the Dingle peninsula. On this particular Monday morning, fluffy white clouds sat atop the rugged peaks, while the magnificent blue sky was reflected in the waters of the canal. Birds were singing as the sun warmed my face - one of those perfect good-to-be-alive moments. Thankfully, there are plenty of seats to pause & take in the views.


Canal banks, Tralee


Your next point of interest is the beautifully restored Blennerville Windmill which dates back to the 18th century. The pristinely painted white facade of Ireland's largest working windmill comes clearly into view at the point where the canal and river Lee converge. It really is a postcard-perfect vista.


Blennerville Windmill


On approach to Blennerville, you'll notice a small lake on your right, home to swans and a wide variety of bird species.

I continued walking to the magnificent stone arched bridge and paused to take in the fabulous scenery surrounding me on all sides. I had hoped to visit the windmill but my plans were foiled once more: it was closed for the winter season and due to reopen in March 2024. The list of reasons for returning this summer are growing by the minute. Click here to find out more and to book tickets.


Blennerville Road Bridge and Tralee Lee Valley Walk


At his junction, you have the option of looping back on the road or continuing towards the sea. I opted for the latter and headed for the Lock Gates where the canal enters Tralee Bay. This forms part of the route of the North Kerry Way.



This 2 kilometre (out-and-back) diversion is totally worth it for the vast uninterrupted views of Tralee Bay. From river bed to canal path and finally to the sea... I finally reached the adorably named Cockleshell Beach with a picnic area to sit and take in the views.


Cockleshell Beach, Kerry


Now is probably a good time to mention food. Or the lack thereof... Six kilometres in and feeling pretty peckish, I kicked myself for not planning ahead and bringing a packed lunch. The café in Blennerville had been closed so I had to make do with some crisps from the local garage. So just some practical advice if you're planning to do this walk - make sure to bring supplies as there are limited, if any, options off the route, particularly off-peak season.


Tralee Bay and Slieve Mish


After a short pitstop, I doubled back on myself towards the Blennerville Road Bridge once more. Instead of walking back along the same canal path, I turned right and crossed the road, heading back towards Tralee on the other side of the river. Kearney's Road runs parallel to the old railway line and before long, the Tralee Bay Nature Reserve comes into view on the left, followed by the Tralee Bay Wetlands project. A designated Special Area of Conservation, this wetlands area is teeming with biodiversity and considered to be of international importance.


Tralee Bay Nature Reserve and Wetlands Project


The Tralee Bay Wetlands Eco & Activity Park is beloved of locals and visitors alike offering a range of nature walks and eco tours, as well as a buzzy activity park. If water zorbing, pedalo boats or outdoor climbing walls are your thing, then this is the place for you. Everything you need to know is here.


Crossing a tributary of the river Lee, and continuing north I was on the home stretch. Turning left at Healy's Cross, I headed back towards Tralee and my home for the two nights - the Rose Hotel.

 

Rose Hotel, Tralee



The Rose Hotel ticked a lot of boxes for me throughout my stay. A warm welcome, friendly, helpful staff and an ethos of old-school hospitality won me over straight away. I should also mention the beautiful décor in Dott's Bar. Unlike most generic hotel bars, this is classy and inviting with low lighting and plush leather seating - a place to linger over a glass of wine or two. Also worth noting that the food here is very good, though pricey for both lunch and dinner. My Chicken Caesar salad was huge & delicious, while a vegan friend was chuffed to see a Tofu Buddha Bowl on the menu, as well as a vegan pannacotta.



Shout-out also for the ridiculously comfortable bed which felt like sleeping on a cloud, and the large, bright room with views of the mountains in the distance. The hot breakfast to order was also great. The French Toast with maple syrup was a cheery start to my day. And once more my vegan pal was delighted with her vegan omelette - a little imagination goes a long way.

 

Tralee Town Park and Rose Walk



So hands up who would be surprised to hear that there are roses in full bloom in February in Tralee Town Park? It was certainly a surprise to me but a pleasant one. The Rose Garden is just one section of this vast green space, one of the largest urban public parks in Ireland, with over 5kms of walking trails. You'll also find a fountain, a children's playground and a Garden of the Senses with sculptures and stonework referencing Ireland's ancient past.



The Rose Walk is a picturesque shortcut from the Rose Hotel to the town centre, crisscrossing the gardens above and exiting onto Denny St. Everything you need to know is here.

 

Banna Strand:


Banna Strand, Kerry


This Blue Flag beach is frequently touted as one of the most beautiful in Ireland, and it's easy to see why. Kilometres of epic sandy beach stretches all the way from Ballyheigue Beach in the north to Barrow Beach in the south. Views are expansive and the horizon disappears into a seamless fusion of sea and sky.


History buffs will know that this was also the location of the foiled plot by Sir Roger Casement to bring arms to the mainland from Germany in the lead up to the 1916 Easter Rising. He and his crew were captured and sentenced to death by the British government.


Banna Strand, Kerry


Banna Strand is 14 kms from Tralee and a scenic 20 minute drive.



Ardfert Cathedral


Ardfert Cathedral


Another day, another impressive series of medieval buildings. Located in the heart of Ardfert village, this is a worthy stop-off point on the way to Banna Strand. With a history dating back to the 6th century, a monastery was founded on this site by local saint Brendan the Navigator. Today you'll find a superbly preserved cathedral dating from the 12th - 15th century, and two smaller churches: Temple na Griffin, a simple 15th century structure and Temple na Hoe, a late 12th century Romanesque church predating the cathedral.



The main cathedral is a remarkable building, a good example of early Gothic, with a magnificent 13th century window dominating the east wall, and an incredible nine lancet windows in the south.



Architecture lovers will be impressed by the fabulous Romanesque-style doorway to the west. with its intricately carved chevron detailing. It's believed to have been part of an earlier church on this site and later incorporated into the newer addition. This makes sense as I wondered at the time about the strange asymmetrical placement of the entrance way (see central image above).



Inside you're in for a treat with a fine example of a sedilia. These were traditionally a group of stone seats for clergymen, deeply inset within a covering arch. This one is beautiful, richly decorated with a triple arch. Keep your eyes peeled for gargoyles lurking over your head too.


Like most medieval sites in Ireland, Ardfert fell victim to the political and social instability in the 16th and 17th centuries, incurring serious damage during the Desmond Rebellion, and eventually being destroyed by fire during the rebellion of 1641. Despite all of this, the level of detailing preserved to this day is remarkable.


For pricing and opening hours, see here


 

Fenit Strand and marina


Fenit beach


The final stop-off on my road trip was the lovely beach and marina at Fenit, perched on the edge of the Atlantic, 14 kilometres west of Tralee. With gorgeous views of Slieve Mish to the south and the Brandon mountains to the west, this small, sandy beach benefits from relatively calm waters and a sheltered location. Unsurprisingly it is very popular with swimmers. I spotted a few brave souls venturing in that chilly February evening but I was not one of them. I stood shivering on the shoreline, warming my hands on a coffee and taking in the views. We can't all be heroes.



It's worth noting that there are great facilities in Fenit including a large car park, toilets, picnic tables and a playground.


Despite strong sea winds nearly blowing me off my feet, I couldn't leave without climbing up to the imposing St Brendan the Navigator monument at the end of the marina. The harbour is picture-perfect, overlooked by mountains, and there really is something so lovely about colourful boats bobbing in the water against a bright-blue sky.


Fenit Harbour


At the entrance to Fenit Harbour comes into view a figure of a man, facing out to sea and towering above us on Samphire Rock. This is Fenit's homage to their native adventurer, St Brendan the Navigator, whose travel exploits across the Atlantic have been well documented. He stands powerfully and leans into the sea breeze, gazing out over the Atlantic ocean and pointing in the direction of America.



It's a strikingly effective piece of sculpture, particularly when silhouetted against the skyline as the sun starts to set. The views across the bay from the top are nothing short of breathtaking.


St Brendan the Navigator sculpture, Fenit Harbour


And that concludes my road trip to the Kingdom of Kerry. My appetite for this beautiful county has been whetted and I need to return as soon as I possibly can.


Happy travelling,

Karyn xx

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