Secret Ireland: Midland lakes
Summer’s here and Pol O Conghaile is ready to dive right in with a swim, picnic and currach ride around the lakes of Westmeath.
The summer cycle
Think of Mullingar, and cycling holidays don't spring to mind. But three cycling loops have been developed out of the town, circling Lough Owel, Lough Ennell and the countryside inbetween. I like the Lough Ennell option best.
Starting from Mullingar Railway Station, follow the Royal Canal to Ballinea. From there, quieter roads lead to the Jonathan Swift Park at Lilliput.
Swift used to holiday in the area, and local lore has it that he was inspired to write Gulliver's Travels here, too. From Lilliput, the 38km loop continues past Dalystown and Gaybrook, where I suggest diverting into Belvedere House Park & Gardens.
The woodland trails are a lovely breather here, but don't get carried away with the romance.
Robert Rochfort, who owned the Georgian villa, was a tyrant -- locking his wife away for 30 years and building the Jealous Wall, one of Ireland's zaniest follies, to block out his view of a neighbour's (larger) house.
From Belvedere, the cycle leads back to Mullingar town.
Details: See irishtrails.ie;
The Fatted Calf, Glasson
Bringing an appetite to The Fatted Calf is one of the best things you can do in the midlands.
Hidden away in the unassuming village of Glasson, here is a pub that doesn't just talk the 'gastro' talk, but walks the walk, from the scones on its counter to the specials on its blackboards.
I order a hot roast-beef sandwich on a Waterford blaa, served with rocket, horseradish and potato and smoked celeriac soup for €10.50.
The combo arrives on a wooden board; puffy bap giving way to sweetly fatty strips of beef, crunchy leaves and caramelised onions.
The soup has depth, and a pretty drizzle of green olive oil. Pretty much every taste box is ticked.
The lunch menu offers a decent choice of light bites such as steamed Lissadell mussels, or mains such as lemon sole in Paulaner batter.
Yes, it's strange seeing a country pub sell buttermilk-fried spiced chicken, but it tastes great, and the place feels rooted too, with its GAA posters, splashes of brickwork, and a big garden in which kids can run off the calories.
Details: Tel: 090 648 5208;
The summer skill
Currach-rowing, Lough Ree
Gore-Tex. Polyethylene kayaks. GPS systems. Mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes. Activity gear has got so hi-tech, it feels weird stepping into a plain old currach.
But these trusty old wooden boats are reassuring, too. It's like adventure and heritage in one.
Richie O'Hara thrusts two wooden oars into my hands. Richie ran an adventure sports centre in Achill Island for many years, he tells me, before relocating to Hodson Bay.
Kayaking, windsurfing and power boating and are all activity options at Baysports, but I can't resist the opportunity to row around the islets in one of these iconic old tubs.
There's a knack to currachs, I discover. The oars sit in pins, and a tug or two is all it requires to spin 360-degrees, due to the shallow draft.
The lack of a keel makes it easy to manoeuvre, which is good; but also easy to over-manoeuvre, which is bad.
The trick is to read the water, keep a low centre of gravity and face the bow into the wind wherever possible, Richie says. "If it's not windy now, it will be very shortly," he deadpans.
Slowly but surely, I strike up a rhythm, and we set off around Hodson's Pillar, allegedly the centre of Ireland.
After rowing around it, we strike back for the world of technology.
Details: Currach hire from €25 an hour. Tel: 090 649 4801; baysports.ie.
The picnic spot
Legend says the Children of Lir were turned into swans on Lough Derravaragh.
And pulling up at the camping and caravan park on its shores near Multyfarnham, swans are exactly what I see, gliding through the choppy waters like the very pictures of elegance.
There's a small shop and café here where you can grab a snack, hire a boat or buy an ice-cream, but an even more enchanted spot lies down the shoreline at Donore Wood.
Stepping into the forest past a little wooden sign, I find myself standing in an explosion of bluebells.
It's a gorgeous little glade -- with a plank of wood enticing me to cross the trickling stream and continue walking into the trees.
You won't find picnic tables here, but come at a quiet time, lay out a rug and you're sorted.
Details: Tel: 044 934 8650; Tourist Office, Market Square, Mullingar.
The overnight suggestion Lough Owel Lodge
Westmeath may not have the craggy peaks of Kerry or the coastal trails of Donegal, but its picturesque lakes and countryside have a slow-burning charm of their own.
"It's walking for softies," as Aideen Ginnell puts it, welcoming me into her B&B with a cup of coffee and a plate of fresh scones served with orange-tinged butter.
From the coffee table, I can see past the surrounding farm, past a pair of donkeys named Sonny and Cher, to a tunnel under the railway, and a gentle climb up Captain's Hill towards views over the lake.
Rooms at the lodge are named after Westmeath's lakes, with 'Lough Ennell' getting the sunlight in the morning, 'Lough Owel' boasting a lovely half-tester bed, and 'Lough Derravaragh' containing two family-friendly rooms.
Aideen likes to cook -- call in advance and she'll prepare a four-course dinner from €25pp. Mains might include a roast loin of pork from Joe Brady's farm up the road, with apricot stuffing.
She insists on fresh OJ at breakfast, too -- a priceless start to a day.
Details: €95 for a family room. Tel: 044 934 8714;
The secret beach
Portaneena, Lough Ree
Lough Ree's inner lakes are one of the midlands' best-kept secrets. Squirreled away at the lake's southeastern tip, boats enter them via an inlet behind Hare Island, passing between Killinure and Coosan Points into a series of sheltered bays and fields of whispery reeds.
Portaneena, between The Wineport Lodge and a marina, is at the heart of it all.
I stop by to find a cyclist taking a breather on a rock, a man attaching a boat to a trailer, a mother and son playing beneath the sycamore trees. The shoreline is alive with birdsong.
The beach itself is a mix of pebbles and washed-up reeds, with a shallow gradient -- I'd advise bringing beach shoes if little ones are paddling.
Details: From Athlone, follow the N55, taking the left fork at the Duck and Dog.
The outdoor dip
Lough Owel, Mullingar
At first, I'm not entirely clear where the path is leading me.
Pulling into a car park overlooking Lough Owel outside Mullingar, I walk past Linda Brunker's soaring sculpture of wild swans, pass beneath an old oak tree and cross a railway line, before finally ending up in a secluded bathing area.
A concrete walkway leads to a solitary diving board.
Travelling west on the N4, I've passed this layby dozens of times. But this is the first chance I've taken to go beyond its broad views, right down to the lakeshore.
It is well known to locals, and can be crowded at weekends, but it's deserted this sunny morning.
The walkway carries me over the stony shallows to depths as clear as they are cold. Not surprising, perhaps, for a spring-fed lake that was once known as 'Loch Uair'.
According to legend, the Viking tyrant Turgesius was flung into the depths of Lough Owel wrapped in heavy chains.
Hopefully, he won't grab your ankle, but even flinging a towel out on the concrete, or beneath the trees, is a lovely interlude.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ Westmeath.
Did you know Mullingar has its own currency? Shoppers using 'The Gar' in the town can collect a 10pc discount at participating outlets.
Visitors can also download a Mid-Ireland Visitors' Card from midirelandtourism.ie, availing of reductions across the region.
If it rains on your parade through the midlands, there is no need to fret.
You could visit the Kilbeggan Distillery Experience (kilbeggan distillery.com), or take a fully enclosed boat tour on Lough Ree with River Run (theriverrun.ie), based out of Athlone.
hot festivals & events
Fancy petting a dinosaur? At Belvedere House & Gardens, Erth's Dinosaur Petting Zoo brings its menagerie back from extinction for two days (€15pp; June 5-6).
Don't forget the Star from Mullingar, either -- the Joe Dolan Festival takes place from August 3-6.