Exploring Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands has left me with a want to keep discovering this beautiful island of ours. Road trips really are the best way to see as much as possible and my dad and I set off recently to Athlone, Leitrim and Roscommon.
Our quest began with a check-in at the Sheraton Hotel located in the centre of Athlone town. Not only was its location perfect but the hotel is very slick and charming with friendly staff. The room is very spacious too and presented a gorgeous view of a man-made rooftop garden.
First up was a trip along the River Shannon with Viking Tours Ireland (vikingtours ireland.ie). With the sun splitting the stones, we set sail for Lough Ree, departing from the quayside of Athlone Castle. Both rocking our Viking hats, we listened to Captain Mike, who told tales of Viking treasure and explained about religious settlements in the area.
There’s a shop on board too, so we were able to kick back and enjoy the views with a drink and snack in hand. A nice nod to events outside of Ireland caught my attention onboard as the boat is decked out with Ukraine flags and painted in the Ukrainian colours as an act of solidarity and support.
For lunch, Bastion Kitchen came highly recommended so it was only right we tried it out. I don’t know what I liked more — the coffee, the treats or my toasted sourdough sandwich. It’s a busy spot which is unsurprising as huge emphasis is placed on making healthy, hearty food and all with local produce.
Our refuelling was much needed as we then made our way to Ireland’s largest inflatable park, Baysports on Lough Ree (baysports.ie). This has been on my to-do list for ages and it was such a laugh. On arrival, they provide you with wetsuits and lifejackets but to get to the floating waterpark, you have to jump into the water and swim over.
I felt like I was on Ireland’s Fittest Family as we swam as fast as we could to make it to the floating obstacle course. We stayed out there around 45 minutes, making our way around the course and using the different water slides. It was a blast and far from being only for children, as many believe, it’s perfect for some grown-up fun.
After we’d dried off, it was back to the hotel to freshen up and get some food in Athlone’s Dead Centre Brewing (deadcentrebrewing.com), a craft brewery, bar and restaurant. What I loved about this particular spot is they make their own limited-edition beers on site in their brewery. Literally metres from the bar, they keg the beer and then serve it.
When I arrived I did a fairly comprehensive beer tasting with owner Liam Tutty — it was a great experience especially when, oddly enough, one of the beers tasted like a cocktail.
Beer aside, I’ve never had nicer pizza and garlic bread in my life. The dough was incredible.
In terms of atmosphere, the place was hopping, with a really cool vibe and we ended up staying there longer than expected. I couldn’t recommend the place enough — it’s a goldmine and is perfect for groups, solo travellers and couples.
When in Athlone town it would be sinful not to visit Sean’s Bar, Ireland’s oldest pub, so we continued our jaunt there. It’s a traditional Irish bar that looks small from the outside but it seems to extend as far as the eye can see inside.
I loved it there — the people, the setting, the music. It was a great experience and definitely a spot I’ll head back to with the girls. Sorry dad.
The following morning brought us to Leitrim for some exploring of the Shannon Blueway on electric bikes. I had never tried an ebike, so was excited to get exploring on one. We hired them locally in Leitrim village from Electric Bike Trails (electricbiketrails.ie) and I so loved the experience that I’ve since rented an electric bike twice — they are revolutionary and so easy to use.
With ease, we cycled along the Shannon Blueway, coming across the majestic Acres lake on a beautiful floating boardwalk. We stopped off then for a coffee and headed back with the bikes to begrudgingly return them.
It was time for refreshments again and as a gin lover, The Shed Distillery had to be on my itinerary. The Shed is home to Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin, as well as Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey, the first whiskey to come out of Connacht for more than 100 years. As if that’s not enough, it’s also where Sausage Tree Pure Irish Vodka is made. We got a guided tour of this working distillery and got to see where its founder PJ Rigney sometimes hosts small gatherings in his snazzy den area.
My dad doesn’t drink so I had the tough task of tasting the whiskey, vodka and gin throughout the tour — I surprised myself by discovering that I liked the whiskey almost as much as the gin.
Afterwards, we had a drink in the striking Honey Badger Bar that looks very much like an outdoor botanical garden. My dad had a non-alcoholic gin and couldn’t get enough of it. I tasted it too and it was hard to tell the difference.
Ravenous, we headed to dinner in The Oarsman in Carrick-on-Shannon on Bridge Street. It’s an oldstyle pub that features a lot of dark wood and dimmed lighting. We ate upstairs and in my opinion we had the best seat in the house, sitting right by the window where we got to take in the many stag and hen parties beginning a night of fun.
The menu was impressive in that it wasn’t like a traditional pub-style menu. Instead, it was a proper restaurant menu with a vast selection of options and what really stood out to me was the menu listed the local suppliers and produce used. Even more impressive though was the steak — it was faultless and was muchneeded after skipping lunch that day.
The following morning, I ventured solo to the Arigna Mining Experience (arigna miningexperience.ie), Ireland’s first coal mine museum, which tells the story of the region’s 400-year mining industry. The drive up was spectacular, presenting panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and deep valleys of Roscommon.
With hard hats on, our guide, an ex-miner, brought a small group of us deep underground telling us the fascinating tales of the miners and the exhausting and hazardous conditions they worked in. It was a pleasure to get to visit a place like this and it would be a great one for children to experience.
Back above ground, we made the journey to Lough Key Forest Park in Roscommon.
This is a popular spot with families for camping on site. I did the tree canopy walk and enjoyed a coffee by the lake. You can also take a boat trip and enjoy forest trails as well as lots of outdoor activities and indoor fun at Boda Borg.
Despite all this activity, we still only covered a tiny part of the Hidden Heartlands. I would return in a heartbeat and would love to explore further next time I visit.
For more information and to plan your trip, visit Failte Ireland at failteireland.ie