Ireland's Hidden Heartlands: Top 10 things to do in Ireland's newest tourism region
Ireland's new tourism brand is all about Midlands magic, writes Travel Editor, Pól Ó Conghaile
Sick of crowds? Fed up splashing holiday cash on airline extras, or sharpening your elbows for tourist-mobbed city breaks? Seeking an off-radar getaway - one with a little less madness and a little more meaning?
You're not alone. In fact, that's one of the main drivers behind Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, Fáilte Ireland's newest tourism 'brand'.
Getting its consumer launch in early July, the region stretches from Leitrim to Limerick along the River Shannon, sprawling over several Midlands counties. The focus is on nature, lakes and soft adventures like walking in an area most visitors whizz past on motorways as they rush between city and coast.
The hope, of course, is that dedicated investment, marketing, attractions, food trails and more can do for the Midlands what the Wild Atlantic Way has done for the west. My instinct is that this will be a slow burner but, as our travel guide (below) shows, there's no shortage of things to do once you take the plunge.
Ireland's Hidden Heartlands is "the final piece of the puzzle", Fáilte Ireland says - the last in a family of brands that also includes Dublin and Ireland's Ancient East. And whatever about the quibbles (where's Laois?), one quip I heard at its launch sums up the local feeling.
"It's about bloody time."
1. Ireland's twin towns
Where: Killaloe & Ballina, Co Clare & Tipperary
Why: The 13-arch bridge linking Killaloe and Ballina (along with Clare and Tipperary) over the River Shannon is a bona fide stunner. It's also one of the Midlands' most annoying traffic bottlenecks.
Park up (or, better still, arrive by boat) and set off on a magical little mosey - winding along the riverbank or floating docks, popping into St Flannan's Cathedral to see its rune and Ogham stone carvings, grabbing a homebaked treat at The Wooden Spoon (facebook.com/woodenspoonkillaloe) or pub grub at Goosers (goosers.eu), or plan ahead for a shopping trip at the Sunday farmers' market (11am-3pm). Killaloe has historical chops as the birthplace of Brian Boru, but the joy of a visit lies in simply ambling back and forth between the two sister towns.
Did you know? Irish rugby legend Keith Wood is a proud Killaloe local; his latest venture is a French-style brasserie upstairs at Wood & Bell (woodandbell.com).
Insider tip: Fancy a flying spin on the new Lough Derg Blueway? Local Eoin O'Hagan has launched Derg Boats (dergboattrips.ie) for guided RIB trips on the lake. Read Eoin on his love for Lough Derg here.
More info: discoverkillaloe.ie; discoverloughderg.ie
2. Tree-climbing & treats at Lough Key Forest Park
Where: Boyle, Co Roscommon
Why: Is this Ireland's best forest park? I love that Lough Key still feels so fresh - the paint pops, staff uniforms are bright and clean, litter vanishes quickly and everyone seems to have a smile on their face. Set around the pretty lake of the same name, the place is bursting with activities. A short walking trail takes you through old servants' tunnels to a tree canopy walk; there's an adventure playground and a tricky indoor puzzle arena called the Boda Borg (best for older kids, and three to five people), and you can also hire bikes, boats and Segways.
Elsewhere, burn off excess energy by checking your monkeys into Zipit Forest Adventures. It takes time to get used to the clip system, and you need to be aged nine or over to move beyond the basic level, but aside from that it's a fun and challenging aerial adventure course... with 900m of zip lines thrown in. Allow at least a day for this little patch of paradise (for longer stays, there's a caravan and camping park).
Did you know? Nearby Boyle is the birthplace of Chris O'Dowd, who filmed part of his comedy series Moone Boy around the town.
Insider tip: Advance booking is a must for Zipit (zipit.ie). Make sure younger kids visit the loo before harnessing up, and bring €4 in coins to exit Lough Key's car park, too.
More info: loughkey.ie; or read Ireland's Top 25 family days out here.
3. Eat in Athlone
Where: Co Westmeath
Why: Athlone lies bang in the middle of Ireland, but it's never quite been able to convert that plum location into tourist gold. That could be set to change, thanks to new initiatives like the Old Rail Trail and upgraded Athlone Castle (athlonecastle.ie) but also two brilliantly complementary - and improving - modern Irish restaurants in the town.
At The Fatted Calf, Fiona and Feargal O'Donnell, together with chef Dee Adamson, are turning local ingredients into delights the equal of anything in this price range in Galway or Belfast. Any restaurateur outside of a city will tell you locals don't suffer small portions or pretentiousness, but here they've cracked a way to serve thrilling Irish produce (from Lough Boora celeriac to John Stone beef) with confidence and a lightness of touch that can, at times, be disarmingly beautiful - the brightly colourful Kilmore Quay crab starter (above) being a case in point.
Meanwhile, over at Thyme, chef John Coffey is achieving a similar balancing act, which peaked for me on a recent visit with a riff on Castlemine lamb with wild garlic, broccoli and sheep's yoghurt (above) that brought summer on the Shannon right onto the table. Neither restaurant is cheap, but savvy foodies will know value for money when they see it, from cheery and knowledgeable service to time and energy spent supporting local businesses (Thyme's coffee is hand-roasted by Bell Lane in Mullingar). Put Athlone on your destination dining list now.
Did you know? Sean's Bar on Athlone's Left Bank is the oldest in Ireland. Or is it? Debate the issue over a dram of the pub's own whiskey.
Insider tip: Right now, Athlone's traffic is a nightmare. The new one-way 'Orange Loop' will flow well once works to improve Church Street wind up - in the meantime, plan parking in advance.
More info: thefattedcalf.ie; thymerestaurant.ie; athlone.ie
4. Get yer boots onto the Beara Breifne Way
Where: Cork to Cavan
Why: What is the Beara Breifne Way, exactly? Ever since this epic walk was unveiled as a 'central spine' of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, I've been digging for info. Based on the 14-day march undertaken by the chieftain O'Sullivan Beare and his supporters in 1603, the route stretches 500km from Dursey Island to Blacklion, Co Cavan.
Broken into sections and trails, it has the potential to become a kind of Irish Camino, but most people will surely dip in and out - for a stretch of the Miner's Way and Historic Trail in Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo, for example, or the Hymany Way heading north from Portumna.
Restoration, by community groups and the Heritage Council, is mostly complete, but work continues in parts of Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon, and I'd like to see an updated website, walking hubs and proper maps. But here's hoping... A 'new' walk like this is the ideal excuse to get off our devices and out into Ireland's off-radar countryside.
Did you know? A Walking Passport for the route is available at bearabreifneway.ie - you can collect heritage stamps along the way.
Insider tip: Plan your walk using irishtrails.ie, a super-handy guide to Ireland's trails.
More info: heritagecouncil.ie
5. Cruise the Shannon
Why: Say the word 'cruise', and ships with Broadway shows and endless buffets spring to mind. The River Shannon offers a smaller, more sedate bit of boating (providing you're not on, or bumping into, a stag party, of course). The numbers of domestic tourists cruising on the Shannon dipped over the last decade, but there's nothing quite like it for slipping into a traffic-free countryside while self-catering under your own steam. Once you set off, the pace of river cruising slowly subsumes you, and the thrill of spotting a darting kingfisher or swans gliding by the callows will catch you off guard. Pick a section of the Shannon - Banagher to Killaloe, for example, or Carrick to Enniskillen via the 16 locks on the Shannon-Erne Waterway - and leave the rat race in the rearview mirror.
Did you know? You don't need a licence to operate the boats - but listen closely to instructions! You can also read ravel writer Thomas Breathnach on what a River Shannon cruise is like here.
Insider tip: Fancy a shorter spin? Book a short cruise with Spirit of Killaloe (killaloerivercruises.com) or the Moon River cruiser from Carrick-on-Shannon (moonriver.ie).
More info: Emerald Star (emeraldstar.ie), Carrick Craft (cruise-ireland.com) or, for a barge adventure, Riversdale Barge Holidays (riversdaleholidays.com; above). Read more on barge holidays in Ireland here.
6. Stones that speak
Where: Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly
Why: "Even the stones speak," Pope John Paul II once said of Clonmacnoise. The most vulnerable of those stones have been moved into a new visitor centre since the Pope's visit in 1979, and you must pass through it to see the churches, round tower, and early Christian husks of this enchanting Shannonside site (€8/€4; heritageireland.ie).
Better for younger kids, perhaps, is nearby Lough Boora Discovery Park (loughboora.com; free but bring €4 in coins for parking), with walking and fairy trails, bike hire, an evocative sculpture park and fishing just some of the activities on offer (there's a visitor centre and café, too).
Did you know? Clonmacnoise is free to visit on the first Wednesday of each month.
Insider tip: A Fairy Festival takes place at Lough Boora on July 22. Run by Bord na Móna and The Irish Fairy Door Company, it's shooting for a world record-largest gathering of fairies in one place!
7. Hit Hodson Bay
Where: Lough Ree, Co Roscommon
Why: Did you know Lough Ree is home to the world's tallest floating slide, as verified by Guinness World Records? You'll find the 12.5m 'Round Tower' among a legion of other water slides, trampolines, climbing walls and bouncy castles at Baysports on Hodson Bay (May-Sept.; €17/15; baysports.ie).
The waterpark is just a stone's throw from the Hodson Bay Hotel, a family-run four-star that feels like a lakeside resort... just five minutes from Athlone. There's loads going on here, from weddings and meals to lakeside drinks and boats at the marina, but it ticks the family boxes too, thanks to a decent pool and kids' club.
I was happy to note several smaller touches - like pastries and juice thoughtfully left where guests wait for breakfast tables, or individual iPods in the spa's relaxation room, and nicely invested staff (the barman who tips a local Black Donkey Beer, for example, or the waiter who offered to source some lamb for our next meal when I notice none on the menu). Couples should splurge on a lakeview room in the Retreat Wing.
Enjoyed staying at @Hodsonbayhotel on Lough Ree this weekend, bang in the middle of #Irelandshiddenheartlands. Good tip on the @BlackDonkeyBeer, Mr. Barman. And yes, that’s a pancake machine...🍴 pic.twitter.com/yJhtW5YGj9— Pól Ó Conghaile (@poloconghaile) June 5, 2018
Insider tip: Bring a spare pair of socks for Baysports (below) and book a spa treatment with the hotel's excellent therapist, Jocelyn Balota (try a full-body or a Thai foot massage) - who alone is worth a detour from the M6.
More info: The Hodson Bay Hotel (hodsonbayhotel.com) has two-night family packages including B&B, kids' club, and dinner on one night from €490.
8. Cool tombs and hidden history at the Cavan Burren
Where: Cuilcagh, West Cavan
Why: Clare isn't the only county with a Burren, you know. Cavan's "godforsaken" landscape, as it was described to me once by historian Séamus Ó hUltacháin (below), is a remarkable patchwork of karstic limestone, glacial erratics, Neolithic tombs and 19th-century farm remains squirrelled away near Cuilcagh Mountain.
Trails start at just 1.3km (the multi-access calf-house dolmen route, taking you to an old cattle shelter improvised from a collapsed tomb), and the park is also crossed by the Cavan Way, the 26km trail stretching from Dowra to nearby Blacklion.
A giant's tomb here, fading rock art there, and caves opening into the earth like portals… the more you look, the more there is to see. There are toilets and a small visitor centre, but pack a picnic if you plan on staying a few hours.
Did you know? The Shannon Pot lies along the Blacklion to Glangevlin Road (R206). Legend has it that Síonnan, the daughter of Lodan, came here looking for the Salmon of Knowledge. It wasn't happy. The salmon caused the pool to overflow and drown Síonnan, creating the river that runs to Limerick to this day.
Insider tip: Plan (far) ahead for an Irish feast at Neven Maguire's Macnean House & Restaurant in Blacklion (above, nevenmaguire.com).
More info: thisiscavan.ie; cavanburrenpark.ie. Read our tips for 24 hours in Cavan too!
9. Walk on water on Leitrim's new Blueway
Where: Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim
Why: The entire Midlands region gets just 28 pages in Lonely Planet's 718-page guide to Ireland. Of those, Co Leitrim gets just two-and-a-half. Ireland's least-populous county has its charms, however: not least the Yeatsian landscapes around Glencar; the cascading Fowley's Falls (below) near Rossinver; creative places to stay like Teapot Lane (glampingireland.ie), Beirnes of Battlebridge (battlebridgecaravanandcamping.ie), Ard Nahoo (ardnahoo.com) and Tawnylust Lodge (irishecotourism.com), or the simple pleasures of getting lost on its thatch of R and L roads.
A new arrival is the 600m 'floating walkway' along the Shannon Blueway at Acres Lake, part of a 14km off-road trail connecting Drumshanbo with Leitrim village. Walk on water here, or take things a step further by trying stand-up paddling with Leitrim Surf (leitrimsurf.ie).
Did you know? Carrick- on-Shannon is home to one of Europe's smallest chapels. Squashed between neighbouring buildings on Bridge Street, Costello Chapel contains two coffins (and a sweet story) beneath its glass floor.
Insider tip: Hungry? Leitrim's quintessential stops remain Conor and Ronan Maher's Oarsman (above, theoarsman.ie), one of Ireland's first new-generation gastropubs, and Sham Hanifa's Malaysian-meets-modern-Irish cooking at The Cottage in Jamestown (cottagerestaurant.ie).
More info: leitrimtourism.com
10. Discover an Irish lost world at Rindoon
Where: Rindoon, Co Roscommon
Why: Follow the sign for 'Rindoon: Deserted Medieval Village' just outside Lecarrow, on the Roscommon side of Lough Ree, and you'll soon find yourself on an easy adventure with its origins in 1227AD.
A 3-4.5km looped walk veers across fields towards the lake shores here, throwing up an amazing array of ruins. There's the husk of an ivy-swaddled Norman castle, teetering on its hummock; a town wall stretches 500m in length; the remains of a medieval church and windmill mound beckon.
The walk takes less than two hours, even with younger kids, and, like Kilkenny's Jerpoint Park, it blossoms into a brilliantly Irish lost world. I love the sense of discovery to these relics of a medieval town and hope any future development doesn't spoil that. Dodging cowpats, dragonflies and bees, the nine-to-five feels very far away indeed.
Did you know? Just across Lough Ree from Rindoon, Longford is Ireland's least-visited county, with just 25,000 overseas visitors in 2016, Fáilte Ireland says. Will Center Parcs in Ireland change that? The company opens its first Irish resort at Longford Forest next summer.
Insider tip: At the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre (above, heritageireland.ie) near Kenagh, Co Longford, you'll find a fascinating, 18m-long stretch of Iron Age road dating from 148BC. See also longfordtourism.ie
More info: irishtrails.ie; visitroscommon.com
NB: All prices subject to change/availability.