Top 10 Irish lakelands experiences
There’s more to water-based breaks than the sea, you know. Ireland's lakes are wild and wonderful playgrounds unto themselves...
The Wild Atlantic Way is the poster child for Irish tourism.
It's the kid everybody loves, a natural talent that can't seem to put a foot wrong. But there are other children in the class - and, arguably, none have more untapped potential than Ireland's lakes.
We drive past them all the time. Think of the M6 crossing the Shannon near Lough Ree, the N4 brushing by Lough Arrow and Lough Key, or the M7 skirting past Lough Derg. All are pleasure grounds tantalisingly within reach, but bypassed by so many.
Give them time, however, and Ireland's lakes reveal whole ecosystems of activity. Our Top 10 lakelands experiences (below) range from sailing to fly fishing, from hiking to holy islands, and wildlife to survival weekends. It's not just the big lakes, either.
Blueways are popping up along the Shannon (cast as our "mystical waterway" in Ireland's Ancient East), and I've spent many memorable hours walking, paddling and cycling among the souvenir-sized lakes speckled about Cavan, Leitrim, Roscommon and Westmeath.
There's talk of a new tourism brand. Development is needed to take lakelands tourism up a gear, and last year's Programme for Government promised to direct Fáilte Ireland "to develop the 'Ireland's Lakelands' brand" to sit alongside the Wild Atlantic Way, Dublin and Ireland's Ancient East. A feasibility study is almost complete for an initiative based on the Shannon lakes and surrounding counties. Watch this space.
Our tip? Don't wait around. As daylight lengthens and the weather picks up, plan a detour off those motorways. Slot in a day, a few hours or a weekend based around a lake, rather than a town or county, and pick your way through its pub lunches, water-based adventures and surprising shoreline walks.
The waters and the wild await.
1. Mayflies on Lough Corrib, Co Galway
It's one of the country's premier fishing spots, but when May rolls around, Lough Corrib really ups the ante. Right up to September, the mayfly hatches on the lake, meaning the resident trout are practically flinging themselves onto your line. Take a class with world fly fishing champion Paul Miller at Lough Corrib Fly Fishing, based in Clydagh near Headford, so you can learn the ropes with a pro. With Ashford Castle on the northern shores and a peppering of islands including Inchagoill and its ancient church (St Patrick is said to have visited), the backdrop couldn't be more pristine.
While you're at it: Take a wander around beautiful Brigit's Garden (€8/5; brigitsgarden.ie) near Oughterard.
Details: Guided fly fishing costs €130 per day, for up to two anglers - hour-long classes are also available. See loughcorribflyfishing.com
2. Viking tours on Lough Ree, Co Westmeath
Ireland seems to have gone Viking mad over the last few years. Whether it's a 'boat' full of Viking hats roaring at you in Dublin or a couch-based binge on the cult TV show Vikings (filmed in Wicklow), you can't escape these marauders. To indulge your inner Viking, head out on Lough Ree in the Midlands on a 21m wooden replica of a Viking knarr. Built in 1923, this national historic ship is semi-open, so you can enjoy the breeze as you set out from Athlone, pass beneath the iconic railway bridge and venture past the reedy Callows out onto the lake. Stories? Just ask your guide about Olaf the Scabbyhead (yes, really).
While you're at it: Pop into Thyme (thymerestaurant.ie) in Athlone for a post-cruise meal. There's a value menu offering three courses for €30 midweek.
Details: The Lough Ree cruise sails from Athlone town from Easter to November and costs €12/€6pp. See vikingtoursireland.ie.
3. Time travel on Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh
There's a calming beauty to Lough Erne, with its deep, still waters, golden reeds swaying at the shoreline and green, wooded islands (there are around 154 in total). The history of Devenish Island is tumultuous - founded in the sixth century by St Molaise, over the years it's been raided by Vikings, then burned, before flourishing as a parish church and priory in the Middle Ages. Take a boat over and explore the ruins and the 12th-century round tower before finishing with a walk around Enniskillen or a drive through Fermanagh's beautiful lakelands.
While you're at it: Stay nearby at Lough Erne Resort (lougherneresort.com, pictured) or duck in for lunch - chef Noel McMeel's food is exceptional.
Details: Boat tours are led by Erne Tours (ernetours.com) from May to September and cost £10/€11.70pp.
4. Set sail on Lough Derg, Co Tipperary
Spanning three counties (Galway, Clare and Tipperary), Lough Derg stretches for over 40km, from Killaloe in the south to Portumna in the north. There are any number of sports you can do on this pleasure lake (within season, anyway) but it's best explored on a sailboat. Rent boats from Shannon Sailing or take a weekend course with the Lough Derg Yacht Club, both based in pretty Dromineer, outside Nenagh… you'll have the wind in your hair in no time. If you'd prefer to leave the sailing to someone else, take a boat trip to Holy Island - and watch out for its resident white-tailed sea eagles.
While you're at it: Grab some delicious crab cakes at the Cherry Tree (cherrytreerestaurant.ie) in Killaloe.
Details: More at shannonsailing.com, loughdergyachtclub.wildapricot.org
5. Go birdwatching at Lough Neagh
The largest lake in Northern Ireland, Lough Neagh links all of the Northern counties bar Fermanagh. It's also something of a paradise for birders. Head to Oxford Island in Craigavon and you'll find five birdwatching hides dotted around the lake, which you can disappear into to await the sound of birdsong. If you're after a more immediate sighting, head up to World of Owls in Randalstown, home to the only eagles in the North and some of the world's smallest (read: most adorable) owls. This is Game of Thrones country too - if you're a fan, factor in a tour of the Seven Kingdoms.
While you're at it: The Crosskeys Inn (crosskeys-inn.com) in Co Antrim is the oldest thatched pub in Northern Ireland, just a short hop from World of Owls.
Details: For more information, see oxfordisland.com, worldofowls.com and discovernorthernireland.com
6. Get Wild on Lough Allen, Co Leitrim
Let's face it - the world as we know it is pretty damn bleak. So the next time someone says "I just want to run away and live in the woods!" Lough Allen is the place to take them. The folks at Lough Allen Adventure in Ballinaglera lead Wilderness Therapy and Survival Skills courses, during which you'll head out onto an island, learn how to light fires with flint, forage for your dinner and build a shelter. But don't worry - you won't have to drink your own pee.
While you're at it: Take a tour of Carrig Brewing Co (carrigbrewing.com) in nearby Drumshanbo. You've earned it.
Details: Wilderness Therapy weekends from €240pp (loughallenadventure.com).
7. Cast off on Lough Leane, Co Kerry
You'll find some of the country's best fishing around the Lakes of Killarney, particularly on the rivers leading into Lough Leane - if you like your salmon and trout. And if you're staying at The Europe Hotel & Resort, you can rent a boat and set off from a private pier, with all the gear and tuition you need. If the thought of gutting gives you the willies, the kitchen can serve up your very own catch for dinner. You can catch your fish and eat it too, as it were.
While you're at it: Take a hike in world-famous Killarney National Park.
Details: A boat from The Europe costs €100 for up to three people, plus ghillie, with rooms starting at €260. See theeurope.com.
8. Cruise the Shannon
Want to take in several lakes in one trip? It's long been a popular holiday for tourists but the number of Irish holidaymakers cruising the Shannon has been increasing. There are a number of ways to go about it - you can rent boats that sleep up to 12 with Emerald Star, from €222 for a three-night Shannon Short Break, cruising from Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim to Lanesborough in Co Longford (it's launching a new fleet of five-star Horizon river cruises this season). Discover the Shannon has a Lough Derg Trail Weekend from €380-€480 for a two-berth cruiser. Or you can leave the driving to someone else and treat yourself to a cruise on the Shannon Princess, from €3,550pp.
While you're at it: If you end up in Leitrim, stop by The Oarsman in Carrick-on-Shannon (theoarsman.com) or The Cottage (facebook.com/cottagerestaurant) in nearby Jamestown for refuelling.
Details: See emeraldstar.ie, discovertheshannon.com and shannonprincess.com
9. Take the kids to Lough Key, Co Roscommon
If your school holidays are sullied by whines of boredom, Lough Key is the place to shake things up. There's a multitude of activities here, enough to please even the most sullen of children (you can pull in at the marina, or park if you're arriving on four wheels). Try the Adventure Play Kingdom, the tree canopy walk, orienteering, cycle trails and the beloved Boda Borg - where you work in a team throughout 47 rooms - for starters.
While you're at it: Take a tour of the nearby Boyle Abbey (heritageireland.ie) - parts of which date back to the 13th century.
Details: Camping starts from €12 for a two-man tent. See loughkey.ie.
10. Kayak on Lough Gill, Co Sligo
On a calm day, Lough Gill is surely one of the best kayaking spots around. Catch it when the sun shines and the water is still, and the views are absolutely killer, with lush mountains and pretty little bays. Head out with guide Barry Mottershead and you'll not only get a great paddle but a pit stop on Beezie's Island, where you'll pull in and be treated to French press coffee and homemade shortbread.
While you're at it: Call into Parke's Castle outside Dromahair in Co Leitrim (heritageireland.ie) and check out its pretty courtyard and great lake views.
Details: See sligokayaktours.com (€40/€30pp).
NB: Prices subject to change/availability