Leitrim: Standing up to paddle the Shannon on a short break
For centuries our ancestors turned their backs on our coasts, rivers and lakes but things are gradually changing and we are slowly learning to embrace water.
A visit to Leitrim last weekend proved that this trend is also evident in our least populated county. Leitrim's lovely lakes and rivers are teaming with pleasure boats as well as novelties such as paddleboarding.
Paddleboarding is a relatively new idea and involves standing up on something resembling a surf board and paddling.
We gave it a go in Battlebridge, a pleasant hamlet close to Leitrim village where the Shannon is young and resembles an ordinary river rather than the majestic giant it becomes later in its travels.
The other side of the river is Roscommon where we could see a quirky-looking campsite with wooden huts painted in pink which are popular with hen parties indulging in a bit of glamping. The popularity of hen parties and obnoxiousness of stag parties was a recurrent theme with almost everyone we spoke to in this part of the world.
Our paddleboard guide was Lee Guckian from the Leitrim Surf Company.
Like so many people who work on water, Lee is preternaturally calm which is a wonderful quality when you trying to convince two middle aged people to balance on a surf board and then paddle along a choppy and cold-looking Shannon.
Tom paddles in Leitrim
I'm glad Lee used his considerable charm to get us onto the paddleboards because the hour or so that followed was wonderful.
Standing as you drift gently down a river is a novel sensation that presents the paddler with a great view over the river banks and rushes that predominate in this part of the country.
Battlebridge is the last navigable spot for barges and the Shannon feels more like a tributary of the Amazon than a river that has been the centre of commerce for centuries. Kingfishers darted here and there and we heard cuckoos in the distance, something that the knowledgeable Lee said was common despite how rare these birds have become.
Somehow, we managed not to fall in but it was a close shave. Those who hate the idea of a plunge (albeit protected by a wetsuit) should probably steer clear of the sport but it was an enjoyable and unusual way to see a river up close.
Read more: 10 great reasons to visit Leitrim
We decided to stay in Leitrim village and headed to the Marina Hotel for lunch, which as its name suggests, looks onto a marina along the Shannon.
On a sunny day, it would make a great spot to have a drink and while away an hour or two watching the cruisers slide by but the weather was cold so we sat inside and ate a delicious steak sandwich and Caesar salad.
With fire in our bellies, we hopped across the road to rent electric bikes from Electric Bike Trails which operates from the village as well as the Lough Key Forest and Activity Park in Boyle in nearby Roscommon.
Electric biking is fun! As a daily cyclist, I was far from sure that I would enjoy an electric bike. In fact, a bit of power is handy to climb Leitrim's hills while the sensation of powering ahead with minimal effort brought me straight back to childhood and that period when you were learning to cycle as your father pushed.
Electric Bike Trails founder Eileen Gibbons was so taken with electric bikes that she threw up a steady job in the public sector to start renting out the bikes to tourists. We took an hour-long spin around the remarkably quiet roads surrounding the village but Eileen and her husband also offer all sorts of bike trips from Lough Key along trails without cars as well, somewhat incongruously, as archery and a shooting range where can channel your inner maniac and shot at tin cans with a replica Uzi.
Tom on his electric bike
I loved the electric bike experience; it seems like a fantastic alternative to conventional cycling and I look forward to getting one when I'm too old to propel myself anymore.
We spent the night a few miles away in Lough Rynn Castle near Mohill.
This four star hotel was built by the Third Earl of Leitrim around the time of the Famine but he was assassinated not too long afterwards by tenants from his Donegal estate.
Perhaps the best thing about this Victorian mock Elizabethan castle is the wonderful grounds. Stretching to 300 acres, it contains one of the best walled gardens I've ever seen as well as the a lake where we saw either an otter or mink scurrying in the undergrowth. The castle and setting mean that Lough Rynn has been a popular wedding venue for everybody from Brian O'Driscoll and Amy Huberman to local funnyman Chris O'Dowd and Dawn Porter.
The next day was wet and windy but we didn't mind too much as we headed to Carrick-on-Shannon to pop our heads into the smallest church in Ireland; the wonderfully eccentric Costello Memorial Chapel which celebrates the love and grief of one widower for his wife.
This was followed by a truly excellent lunch at the Oarsman, a pub which had numerous Bridgestone plaques around the door and a cosy, comfortable gentleman's club-like atmosphere inside. The Oarsman, which has been owned by brothers Conor and Ronan Maher for more than a decade, is just the sort of place that we need more of. Full of character, good service and a tasty family and pocket-friendly menu, the busy pub provided a great place to huddle from the rain and have a good read of the Sunday Independent. As a reluctant watery finale to our Leitrim sojurn we took the Moon River cruise along the Shannon and Boyle rivers from Carrick-on-Shannon.
As the rain lashed the cruiser, we drank coffee and enjoyed the remarkably empty river banks along with the good-humoured banter from our guide Tom.
Among the sights were former president Mary McAleese's tasteful summer house but the overwhelming feeling was just how unspoilt much of the countryside remains. Perhaps our historic neglect of the waterways has ensured a golden legacy for the future?
For paddleboarding, contact Lee Guckian at Leitrim Surf Company on 086 349 4013 or email email@example.com
For electric bikes contact Eileen Gibbons 071 9623609 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Lough Rynn Castle can be reached on 071 9632700 or email@example.com.
Cruises on the Moon River are daily except Sundays when there are two trips. Phone 071 96 21777 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (adults €8 and children €5).
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Sunday Indo Living