Athlone: A short break in Ireland's belly button
Athlone is bang in the middle of the country. But does it have more to offer than a convenient stop between Dublin and Galway?
It seems to me that Athlone - the belly button of Ireland - is one of those places we've all passed through but few have ever gotten out and explored. Travelling back from six hectic days of camping and hiking in Munster, I figured it was time to check out this historical town and try some activities off dry land as well as unwind.
Is it easy to get to?
Athlone is bang on the M6. An hour from Galway and 80 minutes from Dublin by either car or train.
Where did you stay?
The Radisson Blu, nestled on the banks of the Shannon and a five-minute walk into the town centre. It's a typical modern hotel. It's clean, functional, bright and spacious plus good facilities including a 16m pool and well-stocked gym.
What did you do first?
The summer was having a last hurrah - a glorious September afternoon - so we took advantage of the barbecue on the Riverside Terrace. Watching the boats on the Shannon while enjoying sizzling salmon as my girlfriend, Viv, tucked into tender steak was a brilliant start. We were too full to try the mouth-watering chocolate fountain for dessert.
We boarded the Viking Ship north up the Shannon and into Lough Ree - Ireland's fifth-largest lake. Passing numerous islands, an informative live commentary revealed how many of the small islands within the lake were plundered and pillaged by the Norse settlers, who used the inland waterways to tighten their grip on Ireland. One island, Inchcleraun, is home to the ruins of a monastery and six churches that came under repeated attack.
Did you Explore the islands?
No, but we did land at Hodson Bay and headed over to Baysports where manager Richie O Hara took us under his wing. First up was a bit of dragon boat racing where our group was separated into two teams of seven, including a drummer to help us keep rhythm, and back out into Lough Ree. Two abreast in the longboat fitted with a dragon head at the bow, it was a good workout and great fun to boot. My smiling jaw almost throbbed more than my weary arms.
Next up was a spot of kayaking - my core ached for days after - and a paddle out to Hodson Pillar, claimed to be the dead centre of Ireland.
Then a short boat ride to the new water park, which from a distance looked like the set of TV's Total Wipeout. Amanada Byram was nowhere to be seen. The inflatable features include a hamster wheel, climbing walls, slides into the water and 12ft vertical plunges - the big kids in us were truly let loose.
I thought you were supposed to be relaxing?
Well, once back at the hotel we grabbed a pint on the Riverside Terrace before getting ready for dinner in the hotel's Elements Bistro. The restaurant was buzzing with the joys of Saturday night, so much so you couldn't hear the pianist, but at €25 for three courses, the menu proved excellent value. Highlights included my starter of risotto cakes flavoured delicately with goats cheese, while Viv savoured her rib eye steak with black pepper sauce.
Then off to join the high spirits in the hotel bar, where live music - from 1960s classics to Garth Brooks homages to the more up to date with Pharrell Williams - got a few of the guests up dancing after a night cap or three.
Did you get a good night's sleep?
After six days in a two-man tent and a hectic day, the room - with Shannon views - was happily spacious and comfy. Our heads drifted as soon as they hit the pillow.
So you got a nice lie-in?
We were up for 10.30am and straight downstairs to a well-stocked buffet with all your Irish breakfast favourites, cereals, fruit, breads and a 97pc fat-free pancake-making machine.
And after brekkie?
We explored the charms of the old town, taking in Athlone Castle. Dating from Norman times, it has plenty to keep the family amused with interactive displays including quizzes and a 360° visual presentation on the bloody sieges of Athlone in 1690 and 1691 between the Williamites and Jacobites, plus chances to dress up in period costume and try out weapons of the day. There's also an interesting section on Athlone through the ages, including news reels.
Then across to Sean's Bar, which Guinness has certified as the oldest pub in Ireland, dating from 900AD. Thankfully, it has been modernised since then, but it still has plenty of old-world charm included slanted floors and part of its original wattle and daub wall on view.
Heading up the hill, we stopped at the award-winning Kin Khoa Thai restaurant. The former army hospital, with vibrant yellow facade, was a great spot to round off the weekend. The prawn gaeng dang was bustling with flavours and pepped us up to head off for a last drink in the old town, thronging with locals and tourists, young and old, for a Sunday evening toast to a great weekend.
Radisson Blu Athlone: rooms from €59 or mid-term specials of a family suite (two adults, two children) for €109 inc breakfast. Viking Ship: €10 adults, (€8 for hotel guests), €5 children; Baysports: €25 combo offer of one hour at water park plus one hour kayaking; Athlone Castle Visitor Centre: €8 adults, €4 children.
How do I get in touch?
www.radissonblu.ie/hotel-athlone or 090 644 2600; www.vikingtoursireland.ie; www.baysports.ie and www.athloneartsandtourism.ie.