Your Unforgettable Journey Along the Waterways of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands

Swan on the misty waters of Lough Derg at Ballycuggeran, County Clare
Moor along the banks of the Shannon and explore the quaint towns of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.

The gentle shrug of water across the surface of Lough Derg makes you want to put down anchor and just float for a few hours. The legendary lake kisses the sides of Clare, Galway and Tipperary before it spills into the Shannon, so it’s easy to find a solitary spot to lap up the quiet, cast out a line, or unbuckle your picnic basket for a lazy lunch.

This is Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and the key to it all is the Shannon itself. For millennia it has been the traditional boundary between ‘the West’ and the rest of Ireland. The waterways of Ireland’s midlands aren't always the most obvious choice for tourists, and that’s part of their enduring charm. You may be only 90 minutes from the country’s main cities, but once you connect to the serene and scenic network of lakes and rivers, you could be a million miles away.

Castle Island, Lough Key

Although Lough Key is a reel of spectacular views, Castle Island is a snare to the senses. Whether the mists of the lake shroud the fortress or the rays shoot across its ivy-laced façade, McDermott’s Castle is equally mesmerising. Lough Key Forest & Activity Park is the centre of excellence for anyone looking to learn more about the legend of Úna Bhán and makes a great base for a couple of days by the water.

Chinese Dragon Boating, Carrick-on-Shannon

Imagine canoe boats with ferocious dragon heads on either end, poking out of the clear water at Carrick-on-Shannon. You’re not seeing things! These Chinese Dragon Boats can be spotted on the river with a helmsman from Leitrim Surf Company steering the course, while the crew rows in unison to the rhythm of the onboard drummer. Here is a unique way to explore the beautiful waters around Carrick on Shannon.

Stand Up Paddling (SUP), Killaloe

Stand Up Paddle Boarding, with Soulkite, at Killaloe, Co. Clare
Create a splash with SUP Paddleboarding, Killaloe, Co. Clare”.

Go on an adventure, strap on a life jacket, aboard your paddleboard and take off one paddle stroke at a time. Stand Up Paddle Boarding, an old Hawaiian sport, is a memorable and surprisingly simple way to witness the indigenous beauty of the Shannon. Strike off from the still waters of Killaloe and float under old bridges and into the wilds of the countryside.

Holy Island, Lough Derg

This monastic settlement brims with history. From the remnants of the Celts’ potion-making equipment to the Viking raids of the 9th century, the stories of the island’s past cling to the land. It's not hard to work out how it got its name with the ruins of no fewer than six churches on this tiny but pious isle, which is awaiting approval as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For insiders’ knowledge on this ancient monastic settlement seek out local historian, Ger Madden. His tours from Mountshannon give justice to this ancient monastic settlement with his massive wealth of knowledge, and storytelling prowess. Keep a lookout for the white-tailed eagles, Saoirse and Caimin and their chicks, who have nested in the area.

Renting a boat on the Shannon

Carrickcraft, Emerald Star and Silverline Cruisers all offer a range of rental options from 2-10 berths. They’ll be able to suggest a variety of itineraries to help you on your way, from a leisurely cruise to Banagher to a tour of Athlone and Hodson Bay.

Stay every night in a town or village or escape to the wilderness on remote jetties where you can cook and eat on board in the well-equipped galley (boat-speak for kitchen).

Most cruising companies along the Shannon allow you to bring your pet on board, so that’s one less thing to organise before you head away on holidays. If you’re looking for a pet-friendly itinerary, then check out the highlights of Watson the adventure dog’s trip to Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.

Baysports, Athlone

For something equally adventurous in County Roscommon, Baysports, just outside Athlone, is a great shout for families with its inflatable water park, kayak tours, and pedalos. It also holds the Guinness World Record for the largest floating slide in the country.

Acres Lake Floating Boardwalk, Drumshanbo

Strolling atop the lake’s tide is a unique experience at any time, but truly magical at the setting of the sun. Watch the pastel sky morph into darkness on the Floating Boardwalk at Acres Lake just outside Drumshanbo.

Whatever your preferences, the River Shannon in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands is filled with breath-taking vistas and enriching experiences that will leave you intrigued, relaxed and looking forward to your next trip back.

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