A day in the life of Lough Derg
Story of the Day
One minute it's nibbled by drizzle. The next it's a brimming bowl of black, angry waves. Then sun bursts through the clouds, throwing a fast-moving spotlight over the surrounding hills and fields. It's Lough Derg, Ireland's Pleasure Lake, and I'm spending a day with the best it has to offer.
Activity of the Day
"There are some hard and fast rules," says Matt Szlachta, instructor at the University of Limerick Activity Centre (061 376 622; ulac.ie) "But a lot of sailing is about instinct."
Around us, Transition Year students are falling off windsurfing boards and monkeying up a high-ropes course. All manner of visitors come to this purpose-built centre (corporate clients range from RTE to the Irish rugby team, and they even do stags and hens), but I'm here to sample the day-long Taste of Sailing course (€100pp).
It's a steep learning curve. I'm still trying to tell jibs from jibes on our Phileas Ludic dinghy, when Matt spots a black shadow whipping across the water surface. "That's the wind!" he shouts. "Start turning. START TURNING!" Leaning back, spray in our faces, we zip along beautifully -- even if I do make Matt's life difficult by sticking my head in the way of the boom and locking down the main sail at all the wrong moments.
View of the Day
The twin towns of Killaloe and Ballina, linked by a 13-arch stone bridge (and its infuriatingly slow traffic lights), seem developed with the postcard trade in mind. Taken together, they're in a bracket with spots like Kenmare, Avoca and Rosscarbery, and I soak it all up on board James Whelan's Spirit of Killaloe (086 814-0559; spiritofkillaloe.com; €10/€6). To our left is Clare, to our right Tipperary, and the hour-long cruise affords views ranging from the ancient (Brian Boru's 11th-century fort) to the not-so ancient (Dolores McNamara's EuroMillions mansion).
Discovery of the Day
There's a growing network of looped walks in Ireland, plugging into all sorts of landscape and heritage gems around the country (discoverireland.ie/walking). "This is our Amazon," says Mick Murtagh, leading me along the Errina Canal, a Lost World of arched bridges, leaning trees, strange ferns and the odd kingfisher. His Community Group has cleared miles of towpaths to create three O'Briensbridge Loop Walks (shannonregiontrails.ie), both as a local amenity and to help put the town on the tourist map. "A walk down here is better than any visit to the GP," says Pat Aherne, another of the group. In almost an hour's walking, we don't hear a single car.
Dish of the Day
There's good eating on Lough Derg -- particularly at Brocka on the Water in Kilgarvan Quay, or Larkin's in Garykennedy. In Ballina, I try the saver menu at Flanagan's (061 622790; flanagansprimesteakhouse.com). It offers two courses for €19 and three for €24 (Monday to Friday), and I start with fishcakes before paying a €4 supplement for the 12oz rib-eye Delmonico, an enormous steak that flops like a saddle over its bed of mashed potato.
The restaurant is atmospheric -- set into an old railway station and offering simple tables and a champion view over the River Shannon.
The fishcakes are tastily fried in breadcrumbs, if tasting strongly of dill (no mention of which appeared on the menu). My steak is a solid eat, tender enough and with a good lick of pan juices sizzling on top.
Overall, it seems good value.
Remains of the Day
After I get back from Lough Derg, my mother tells me that she enjoyed several family holidays in Killaloe when she was growing up. We stayed at the same place too -- the 46-bed Lakeside Hotel (061 376122; lakesidehotel.ie). It dates from 1894, and she remembers a pretty institution watched over by the Arra Mountains and sitting on a lovely riverbank perch.
The Lakeside today is a basic, unfussy stayover.
The leisure centre punches above its weight (particularly the generous pool and 120-foot waterslide), but I can't help thinking it's selling itself short as a three-star.
Why not revamp tiring interiors and put a little extra effort into breakfast, so that the experience matches the location?
That said, I can't quibble with an offer of two nights B&B plus one meal and afternoon tea for €95pps midweek and €105pps weekends.
Pól Ó Conghaile