On the waterfront: Are you missing out on some of Ireland’s best holiday spots?
They say the human body is two thirds water so perhaps it’s no surprise that we often gravitate to water when we want to relax or recharge after a long week.
For most of us, a staycation or weekend break is an excuse to head to the coast but you can find some of this island’s most interesting places inland. Ireland’s waterways, lakes and rivers remain something of a hidden secret and a natural resource that’s overlooked by many of us when booking a short holiday.
A recent trip to Killaloe in Co Clare with my fiancée gave us a chance to check out this part of the world and see what the River Shannon has to offer. The Clare town is twinned with Ballina, Co Tipperary, with the two towns straddling the banks of the river and separated by a 13-arch stone bridge.
You’re right on the water but the town also throws up plenty of surprises on its narrow, winding streets in the form of great little cafes, lively pubs or interesting eateries. We stayed in a riverside townhouse on Canal Bank with a central location and impressive views of the river from its rooftop terrace.
Less than two hours from Dublin, we had time to drive down after work on Friday and relax with a few pints when we got there.
There are obvious benefits to getting off the beaten tourist track. When we dropped into The Washer Woman in Ballina, we were able to get a seat and order a pint without fighting our way through two rows of American tourists. The front bar is a cosy spot to enjoy a Guinness and the friendly atmosphere, but it also opens up into larger musical venue and a smoking area that has taken comfort to a new level.
Around these parts, the locals aren’t jaded by an endless stream of visitors so you can still strike up a friendly conversation in a bar. We ended up having a great chat with the owner Keith about everything from the local Clare-Tipp rivalry to the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death.
If you’re into water sports, then the Shannon region should really be on your bucket list. We booked a kayaking and stand-up paddleboard session at the UL Sport Adventure Centre in Two Mile Gate but there’s everything from sailing to canoeing to windsurfing on offer.
With the sun making a welcome appearance on the day, the kayaking experience couldn’t have been better. Skimming along the surface of Lough Derg on our kayaks, it was a peaceful but exhilarating start to the day. The session ended with a pier jump into the nippy waters, which is a guaranteed way to blow away any cobwebs from the night before!
If you haven’t tried kayaking before, a lake is a great place to do it. You don’t have to fight the waves like you would on a sea kayak so it doesn’t take as long to get the hang of the steering, paddling and - depending on your experience - not capsizing!
The scale of the River Shannon and Lough Derg really hits you if you haven’t been there before. It’s like that famous scene from Crocodile Dundee where he says “That’s not a knife… this is a knife.” You may have seen rivers and lakes before, but the Shannon is in a league of its own.
The area’s natural beauty isn’t the only attraction though. Many of Ireland’s lakes and rivers are associated with ancient settlements so you can get a real glimpse into Ireland’s cultural and historical past.
Killaloe was once the capital of Ireland, back when local boy Brian Boru was the High King of Ireland. It’s easy to see why he didn’t want to move away after he took the top job.
One iconic local site that we visited on Saturday afternoon was Holy Island, a former island monastery that was a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years. Local historian and guide, Gerard Madden, took us on a guided tour of the island and showed us its round tower, churches, graveyards and the island’s remarkably preserved crosses – some of which are over a thousand years old.
This isn’t just for history buffs. The tour is well worth it for Gerard’s stories, the boat ride and the experience of exploring a place that’s a throwback to a different time and age – not to mention the 360 degree view of Lough Derg from the island’s highest point.
The tour leaves from Mountshannon Harbour, which is a famous viewing spot for white tailed eagles. Unfortunately, they remained elusive on the day we were there but it was still a great spot for an impromptu picnic.
If boat rides are your thing, there’s no shortage of options around these parts. We opted for the Spirit of Killaloe tour on Sunday, which is a tour of the Shannon on a luxury, 60-seater cruise boat. We did this tour after our morning kayaking session, so we were in a perfect mood to kick back, relax and soak up the views from the upper deck.
It’s not just water-based activities that are on offer. We also called out to An Sibin Equestrian Centre, which is located just outside Mountshannon. Neither of us had ever tried horse riding before so we were under no illusions that we’d be cantering through the hills after an hour. Still, our guides Maria and Liza were very patient as they took us on a horseback trek through the remote hills.
The centre offers everything from short treks for greenhorns like ourselves to six-day, 140-mile rides to the Burren for experienced riders. On the basis of our first trek, it might be a while before we work our way up to that one.
If you’re looking for free entertainment, there are countless walks and hikes through forests or riverside hills in the area. We stretched the legs with a wander through Woodpark Forest Park, which has a distinctive carpet of bluebells. If you’re feeling more energetic, you can choose from one of the many longer trails or hillwalks in the area.
Killaloe may be a small town but it’s full of surprises and you’ll find some great food options if you explore the town’s busy side streets.
We called into a lovely little café called The Wooden Spoon to pick up a takeaway breakfast/lunch on Saturday morning. Their gourmet sausage rolls were so good that we couldn’t resist a return visit on Sunday.
We grabbed an evening meal in Ponte Viecchio, an unlikely combination of a second-hand bookshop and an Italian restaurant. The quirky décor and walls of bookshelves made for a unique setting as we finished the day with some delicious antipasto, pizzas and wine.
The local Killaloe Farmer’s Market takes place every Sunday and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area. It was much more than just a few stalls selling organic vegetables. As well as handmade crafts, you can also pick up artisan food products or enjoy some amazing, freshly-prepared treats that any foodie would love.
On the way back to Dublin, we squeezed in one final bit of sightseeing when we stopped off at The Lookout viewing spot, between Ballina and Portroe, which offers a dramatic view over Lough Derg.
It was the end of a busy weekend but there was still a sense that we’d only just scratched the surface of what’s on offer. Many of the locals that we chatted to recommended the Brian Boru Festival, so a return visit in July might just be on the cards.
To find out more about what Ireland’s waterways have to offer and to be in with a chance of winning a five-day activity break for six people, check out the Head into the Blue website.