Walking by the waters of Lough Derg, there are moments where you’ll feel compelled to just stand still and stare. Nature is in constant motion here and if you don’t slow down, you’ll miss it: the heavy flap of a swan taking flight, the hurried buzz of a dragonfly, tufted ducks foraging amongst wind-rustled reeds. In summer, the lake pulsates with birdsong and butterflies, and the forests are saturated in a cascade of ferns, rushes, grasses and reeds. In winter, pallid tones, bare trees and the magical play of light on the water create a setting that’s perfect for wrapped-up, cold-weather walks.
Truth is, there are few places on the island of Ireland that seem so draped in beauty as this vast lough, which spans 32,000 acres and borders the counties of Clare, Tipperary and Galway. Whether you’re looking out onto the swaying reeds that fringe the shore, standing beside an ivy-wrapped castle next to a little harbour, or taking in the panoramic patchwork of green fields from a mountain viewpoint, you get the sense that this is a place like no other.
Exploring Lough Derg is easy, and travelling by road or water you’ll find the route is punctuated by the picturesque harbours, towns and villages that rest serenely along its shores, from elegant Mountshannon to charming Garrykennedy. Portumna, at the lake’s northern end, offers incredible history in the form of a stunning 17th century castle and 18th century workhouse, but head south and you’ll come across two connected towns that are magnets for walkers, weekenders and watersports enthusiasts.
Killaloe and Ballina sit at a point where the lake narrows into the River Shannon – a place of incredible beauty, where just crossing a bridge feels like a cinematic event. Surrounded by rolling hills and mountains, the towns fizz with energy thanks to great local pubs and restaurants, artisan bakeries, buzzy little galleries and narrow streets and alleys – all against a backdrop of a history that sweeps back to the 6th century. Days drift gently into night here – you can stroll lakeside paths, paddleboard down a glassy canal, lounge around in bookish cafés or enjoy a dose of history with a heritage walk that takes in the 13th century cathedral and the 18th century houses that line Killaloe’s Main Street. And when darkness falls, there’s an abundance of cosy pubs and inviting restaurants ready to welcome you.
But best of all, Ballina and Killaloe are perfectly placed for exploring the grey-blue waters of Lough Derg and the stunning hills and mountains that fringe them. Follow a kayaking route along one of the amazing Blueway paddling trails, enjoy lazy lunches outdoors at waterside pubs, jump on a guided cruise, and take a trip out to the ancient monastic island of Inis Cealtra. There’s so much to do here, you’ll be planning your return visit before you’ve even finished the first.