Hidden heartlands: Ireland’s best inland getaways

On the southern shore of Lough Ree, and with the mighty Shannon pouring through it, Athlone is a perfect base for an active staycation.

Building on the success of the Wild Atlantic Way, the Hidden Heartlands showcase the very best our inland counties have to offer, writes Ciara McDonnell.

The latest addition to Ireland’s portfolio of tourism destinations, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, focuses on our inland counties, traversing Leitrim down to East Clare, through Longford, Roscommon, Westmeath, Cavan, North Tipperary and Offaly.

Split into one- or two-day itineraries, Discover Ireland has put together trips that will appeal as much to Irish people who want to explore our green heartlands as to tourists flying in from all over the world.

FAMILIES

Cavan Burren Park

Just as the Wild Atlantic Way saw families visit parts of the country they never knew existed, the Hidden Heartlands is luring parents and children to areas they might never have thought to visit.

Ordinarily, no family from Cork would drive four hours to Cavan to try their hands at the teddy bear- making workshop at Bear Essentials. But they should.

Run by Anke, who moved to Ireland from Germany in 1984, this three-hour experience is worth every second on the road.

Children — and adults — can choose from teddies, or animals from foxes to owls. Anke painstakingly shows them how to stuff the animals, and stitch them up by hand. Afterwards, there’s a tea party for the kids and teddies with sweet treats, and outside in her rural haven, Anke has even built a playground for kids.

It’s a magical encounter, connecting generations — kids, parents, grandparents.

There are other stop-offs on the road trip. The brand new Knights & Conquests Heritage Centre has been created by people who ‘get’ kids. It opened its doors in September, the result of a drive led and funded by the community to develop the town.

Granard in Co Longford is the site of Ireland’s highest Norman Motte (at 163m above sea level), built in 1199. The Knights & Conquests Heritage Centre is adjacent to this site and tells the story of the Norman invasion of Ireland. There are audio-visual and interactive displays to discover, but there’s much more than that. Kids get a chance to try on Norman costumes, they are given Norman names — they even get a chance to hold a sword and feel its weight.

The archaeology display is another highlight, where children get to dig in the sand and make their own discoveries.

It wraps with a tribute to Kitty Kiernan. Granard was her birthplace, so it’s only fitting that she is part of the story.

Again, it’s another reason to embark on a road trip to the heartlands.

Finally, experience the great outdoors in the Cavan Burren. The visitors’ experience is again beautifully tailored to children, with walks for all levels and ages, subtle signs along the way that explain the geography, history and fascinating folklore.

Farnham Estate isn’t just for golfers — the sprawling hotel, with acres of beautiful woodland walks, is wonderfully child focused. The new restaurant, created in the old servant’s quarter, is a must see: brick walls and original features — and sensational food.

OTHER THINGS TO DO IN CAVAN

Shannon Pot — As the surface rising of Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon Pot’s fame can be traced back to the legendary Finn MacCool and the Fianna, the great warriors of Irish mythology. Legend has it that Síonnan, the daughter of Lodan (a son of the Celtic God of the Sea, Lír), came to the Shannon Pot in search of the great Salmon of Wisdom. The great salmon was angered at the sight of Síonnan and caused the pool to overflow and drown the maiden. The Shannon was created and still bears her name today. Facilities include a children’s playground. See www.marblearchcavesgeopark.com.

Tullydermot Falls — A spectacular waterfall located in the Cuilcaigh Mountains near Swanlinbar. See discoverbelturbet.ie/unesco-geopark.

Canoeing on Lough Oughter — One of the most picturesque of Cavan’s 365 lakes is Lough Oughter Castle. This is an enchanting castle built on a man-made island or crannóg. Hear about the many tales of Irish chieftains and battles that are linked to this monument.

The castle ruin is part of the Marble Arch Geopark on Lough Oughter lake adjacent to the Killykeen forest park and is only accessible by water. In the heart of the Lough Erne river system is Lough Oughter, with the historic Clough Oughter Castle as a backdrop. Cloughoughter is also in a Special Area of Conservation. It’s a 20 minute paddle to the castle or in rowing boat. See www.ruraladventure.ie.

OTHER THINGS TO DO IN LONGFORD

St Mel’s Cathedral — On Christmas Day 2009, the cathedral was destroyed by a fire in the early hours of the morning. The restored cathedral re-opened in December 2014.

Derrycassan Wood is scenically located on the shores of Lough Gowna in Dring, County Longford. The forest covers an area of 179 acres and consists of three recommended walks, the Nature Trail, the Walled Garden Walk, and the Main Avenue Walk. Signposting on-site directs the walkers on the various routes, but visitors can explore and create their own walking routes.

Get Outdoors

The Athlone-to-Mullingar Rail Trail Greenway

Athlone acts as a perfect base for an active staycation. Divided in two by the River Shannon, the town offers major bang for its buck in terms of activities and places to stay.

Start your sightseeing in Athlone Castle (www.athlonecastle.ie).

Dating back to 1220, the castle has been the centre of all major events for the area, and has been quite rightly named a national monument.

During July and August, the castle runs guided tours, but exploring it on your own is a fantastic way to learn about its history.

Make sure to make a pit stop at Sean’s Bar (www.seansbar.ie), which has its own entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest pub in Ireland.

Dating all the way back to 900AD, Sean’s still makes a great pint, and is a lively venue for some live music come nightfall.

Cycling is a great way to explore the surrounding area, and there are lots of local rental companies offering reasonable rates.

Fit and enthusiastic cyclists will love the 40km route along the Old Rail Trail, which starts at the eastern edge of Athlone and travels along to Mullingar town. A more leisurely pace is set on the route to Moate, where you can make a stop along the 12.5km journey at Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, which has a great café and a Rural Museum, which tells the story of rural Ireland over the last few hundred years.

There’s a wonderful walk behind Athlone Castle, which meanders for 5km in a circle, taking you along the banks of the River Shannon and the Athlone Canal.

There are well-positioned information boards along the way, which will teach you all about the birds and fish that live in the area.

After all that exercise, it’s time to kick back and take to the water. Kids will love the Viking Tour cruise along the River Shannon. Set sail on a replica Viking boat, and hear all the tales of Athlone’s Viking past. See vikingtoursireland.ie.

Grown-up getawayers will love the Whiskey Walking Tour which traces the story all the way back to 1740. Local distilleries used to produce up to 50,000 gallons per year. The tour takes an hour and a half and combines a tour of the town’s distilling hotspots and tastings for four local whiskeys (two of which come with chocolate pairings). See www.athlonewhiskeytours.ie.

EXPLORE

Lough Derg

The ancient Lough Derg is much more than a place to take a barefoot pilgrimage. There are lots of small and ultra cute villages surrounding the lake, each with its own charm and, crucially, great places to eat and drink.

Head straight to ULAC, the University of Limerick Adventure Centre, Killaloe, Co Clare (www.ulac.ie/). Here you can try sailing, kayaking or canoeing. Thrill-seekers will want to try stand up paddling, available at soulkite.ie at Lower Lough Derg.

For those who want to take a more relaxed approach, there are lots of relaxed boat trips, which leave from Killaloe each day.

Anglers will love Killaloe, which is renowned as one of the best spots for pike fishing in the country. Head to TJs angling centre (visit www.tjsangling.com) to stock up on everything you need. Fishing For Kids (visit www.fishingforkids.ie) is a Killaloe-based company that offers tailored angling lessons for the littlest member of the family — ideal if you want to put them to work and catch dinner.

For lunch, it’s worth driving for 30 minutes to get to Garrykennedy and Larkins Bar and Restaurant (larkins.ie).

With live music three nights a week, the great food and lively atmosphere might tempt you to stay a little longer than you intended.

There are excellent walking trails around Killaloe. The Ballycuggaran Loop is a fine walk of moderate intensity and takes approximately 1.5-2 hours. It is an adventure through Ballycuggaran, Co Clare, the homeland of the O’Cuggarans, an important family at the court of Brian Boru, so be sure to read up on them before you take to the hills.

No trip to Lough Derg is complete without a trip to the famous monastic settlement at Holy Island. Inis Cealtra is a must-visit with its Round Tower, ruins of six churches, a holy well and an eight-century graveyard. You can take a boat trip and guided tour with local historian Ger Madden (www.holyisland.ie) or, if you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic, you can hire a kayak and paddle your way out to the island.

Pod Umna Glamping Village

If you fancy staying somewhere different while on your adventure around Lough Derg, then consider Pod Umna Glamping Village. Choose from an eco pod, which can sleep an entire family and comes fully wired with lights and socket facilities or a shepherd hut, which is designed for two and is decked out with luxury bed linen and an oil heater. www.podumnavillage.ie.

TAKE TO THE WATER

Lough Key Forest Park

With 750km of cruising on offer, Carrick-on-Shannon is ideally placed as the gateway to the Shannon to the south and the Shannon-Erne waterway to the north. It’s renowned as an angler’s paradise, and whether you fancy taking a full-on cruise or a gentle paddle up stream, offers a fantastic base for anyone who wants to explore one of Ireland’s most popular waterways.

Whether it’s a night or a week-long voyage you are after, Carrickcraft (visit www.cruise-ireland.com) are the people to get in touch with.

Would-be sailors must complete the online tutorial via the company’s website before arriving, and Carrickcraft will take you off for a spin before you set off on your maiden voyage.

Cruise through Lough Key and on to the Boyle canal, where you will arrive to actor Chris O’Dowd’s hometown in style.

The King House in Boyle (www.kinghouse.ie) is a sympathetically-restored Georgian mansion with exhibitions aimed at both adults and children, and is well worth a visit.

The Lough Key Forest Park is an incredible park with an audio trail of its history, flora, and fauna from the 19th century underground tunnels to the tree canopy walk.

More adventurous souls will love to try ziplining at Zipit Forest Adventures (www.zipit.ie) while those of us who move at a more relaxed pace should avail of the electric bikes that are available to rent and travel along an 8km trial through the park.

You can hire electric bikes at Leitrim Village too (visit electricbiketrails.ie). If you don’t drive, the bikes can be delivered to your hotel in Carrick. Otherwise, it’s recommended to begin from Leitrim village, which is at the start of the Shannon Blueway, a network of multi-activity recreational trails by bike, foot, or kayak. Be sure to take a journey to Drumshambo, where you should stop for a G&T — the town is home to Gunpowder Gin.

For more information and links about Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, visit www.discoverireland.ie.

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