River cruises, luxury hotels, and adventure centres give people a reason to keep coming back, writes Jimmy Woulfe
THE twin county-border towns of Killaloe and Ballina which straddle the lower end of Lough Derg combine in a tourism double act — which boasts an increasing diversity of restaurants giving it a spectacular mix.
After a day out in the lake, many visitors complete their day eating and drinking in establishments strung along the water’s edge on both the Clare and Tipperary shores.
More than most, James Whelan knows every nook and cranny that Lough Derg harbours along its shoreline.
And 25 years ago, he discovered there was an opportunity to show off the lake to visitors and started doing trips with a small boat that could carry four passengers.
This summer, his Killaloe River Cruise company will take thousands of people on two cruise boats, Spirit of Killaloe , which can hold 50 passengers, and Spirit of Lough Derg , which takes 12. Both vessels conduct about six hour-long, 10km trips daily.
James said: “Our departure times are flexible. Unlike coastal tourism, most of our visitors are Irish, in fact about 65%. We get all kinds of groups from active retirement people to wedding parties and private parties.
“The one-hour duration is very popular as people can take in other attractions along with a trip out on the lake.
“Both vessels have inside decks and inside saloons. We have noticed a great bounce in the numbers in recent months and we are anticipating a very good season.
“Killaloe/Ballina is very popular for weddings in local hotels and this brings us a lot of business on wedding days and for the ‘after-wedding’ parties.”
While the cruise trips do not stop at any of the lakeside destinations, local businessman Alan Smith can give very good advice on how to enjoy a few days on the lake.
He had a 8m diesel power boat which can sleep four. Most weekends, Alan, wife Deirdre and daughters Hillary, 15 and Shannon, 14, take to the lake.
Alan said: “We have a sleep-over in the boat. There are so many places to stop for a meal and a drink. There’s the Poitin Still in Dromineer, Larkin’s at Garrykennedy, McNamara’s in Mountshannon, and of course the many restaurants here in Killaloe and Ballina.
“You make great friends out on the lake and there is a great social side to it and everybody watches out for each other just in case anybody has a problem.
“We meet a lot of visitors when we go out for a meal while on a weekend on the boat and it’s great to be able to tell them of the many places to visit along the lake.
“If you are out for a meal you can have a drink before going back to where the boat is berthed.”
Flanagans on the Lake is a very popular starting and finishing point for people on lake visits. Its manager, Geraldine Hough, presides over a breathtaking dining location on the lake edge.
Many customers ‘park’ their boats near the front door on a night out.
Its front lawn is a favourite barbecue location and now the owner, Cathal Quinn, has just opened a ‘Whiskey Tower’. Bar manager Ciaran Ryan said: “We have a whiskey club which meets once a week and where the members can sample from the 136 different whiskeys we have stocked in the Whiskey Tower.
“There are over 50 members and they are people who enjoy a good whiskey. We have whiskey from all over the world, including the Japanese brand Hibiki. We also have a cask of a 1966 whiskey we got in an old bonded warehouse in Dublin. It costs €70 a shot.”
The UL Sport Adventure Centre, meanwhile, attracts professional soccer and rugby teams from the UK for pre-season training camps.
Currently, it is a heaven for children from all over the country who learn everything from yachting skills to climbing on the high rope adventure structure.
Booking manager Kaye
Morrissey said: “We have an amazing range of outdoor activities. We are very busy catering for school groups but we also have many visitors from abroad.
“One family from Hong Kong have been coming back for years.
“Parents bring their children here for the day and they can go off and tour around. We have rugby and soccer clubs from Britain for pre-season training camps and many GAA county hurling and football teams also come to sharpen up.”
Chief instructor at the centre, Marty Flood, said it attracts a lot of experienced boating enthusiasts to complete instructor courses at the centre.
Just down the road is the newly developed The Killaloe Hotel and Spa.
Sales and marketing manager Jean Ni Bhaoill is getting in a lot of new business to the four-star boutique establishment.
Jean, who formerly worked in production at Lyric, the RTÉ classical station, said: “I started here in May for the start of the rebranding of the hotel. Our next initiative is to have a spa open within 12 months. We are very busy with visitors over coming months on the shores of Lough Derg.”
Its location by the lake makes it a very attractive venue for weddings.
“Couples can come right up to the hotel by boat as there is a marina right alongside the hotel,” said Jean. “Bookings for our 32 rooms are excellent. We also get a lot of walk-in business. This week we have a VIP group from the US. We do a lot of barbecues and have a garden fire overlooking the lake.”
While Tipp and Clare maintain a fierce rivalry on the hurling field, the counties combine at Killaloe/Ballina to extend a winning team embrace to visitors who come to relax on the lake and trek and wander the slopes of Sliabh Bernagh and take in its fantastic views.
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