“And now we’re going to release you back into the wild.” It’s a warm July afternoon and I’m lying on my back, floating on a paddle board in the “Drumshamazon,” a canal lined with overhanging trees that connects Lough Allen with Acres Lake in Co Leitrim connects, and things have taken an unexpected turn.
Dwin Gray, our instructor, owns the Lough Allen Adventure Center and also teaches master classes in the Wim Hof Method, a hybrid of deep breathing and ice immersion made famous by the bearded Dutchman on his BBC show Freeze the fear.
Hof’s theory states that we’ve lost our connection to nature and to ourselves, but simple therapies like breathing and cold-water swimming can calm our busy minds, dissolve trauma, and rebalance and reconnect our bodies.
Luckily the husband, our teenager and I aren’t trying to freeze – apart from the unplanned dip in the frigid waters of Lough Allen earlier while we were messing around on the paddle boards.
Instead, Edwin guides us through a breathing meditation to the soundtrack of birdsong, the wind sighing in the trees, and the lapping of the water. When we swim back to consciousness 10 minutes later, it feels like we slept well.
It’s the second day of a journey exploring the northern part of what Fáilte Ireland refers to as ‘The Hidden Heartlands’, an area encompassing stretches of Roscommon and Leitrim, Longford, Clare and Galway and surrounding the banks of the Shannon and its tributaries . In the past I have driven straight through this area when heading to the Sligo, Connemara or Clare coast. But I’m learning that there’s a lot to keep the visitor here.
Our journey into the wilderness began the day before on the quays of pretty Carrick-on-Shannon. The county town of Leitrim is the start and end point for the floating holiday homes cruising the Shannon-Erne waterways, and the quays and marina are lined with hire boats.
But we travel at a more leisurely pace. We have hired an electric day boat and after a demonstration and some comedy whilst learning about mooring in the afternoon breeze we make our way to the village of Leitrim.
The landscape is lush, the waterway lined with rushes, water lilies, meadowsweet and the tall pink spikes of toadflax. Our teenager takes the wheel and we soar past families of swans, spot a heron and keep an eye out for a kingfisher. Every now and then a cruiser rushes by and we learn to follow in its wake to avoid being swamped.
Its magical; we glide silently like an oversized swan. If it had been a few degrees warmer, we would have jumped over the ship’s side to swim. Instead, we moor to a pontoon and grab a small table for dinner and a sundowner on the Leitrim Marina Hotel’s terrace (leitrimmarinahotel.com).
We’re not the only ones with this idea, and a couple nearby insists we swap our table for their larger one. The friendliness of strangers – we encounter it again and again here.
We stay at the Bush Hotel, a 55-room warren of a place where Michael Collins once stayed, with walls adorned with photos and newspaper clippings about the city and its history. The hotel is not only in the middle of the city, its parking lot also has an e-charging station for our electric car – a blessing.
It’s Monday evening and the streets are quiet as we head to Di Vino (divino.ie) Italian restaurant. Inside, however, the place bounces. It’s easy to see why – the food is delicious and we’re clearing away big plates of bruschetta and homemade pasta full of flavor. The husband even manages a tiramisu – his litmus test for a good Italian meal – and his smile says it all.
The next day we try a different form of slow travel and rent e-bikes from Electric Bike Trails in Leitrim. Here you can enjoy 20 km of car-free cycling, a loop from Battlebridge Lock, just a short hop from Leitrim village, to Drumhauver Bridge near Drumshanbo.
It’s the teenager’s first ride on an electric bike, and she takes off like a rocket, cheering with joy. We follow their dust trail on the towpath, greeted by walkers and ramblers enjoying the green route along the way.
Here everything revolves around the water. The lakes, the canals, the cruise ships and the towpaths. We stop to admire the floating boardwalk across Acres Lake and a passer-by offers to take our picture.
‘We have the highest water table in Ireland,’ he tells us, and I remember the old joke about land being sold by the bucketful in Leitrim. “Right,” says the man. “I’m trying to dig up my garden to plant a wildflower meadow, but the soil keeps filling with water.”
We continue to Drumshanbo, up a steep hill to dine at The Jackalope Café, part of the stylishly designed Shed Distillery (thesheddistillery.com). We eat plates full of lettuce, falafel and carbs on top of a great carrot cake.
In the eleventh hour, a far-sighted district council voted in favor of the restoration
You can take a tour of the distillery but we choose to order a gunpowder gin at the bar instead. For a tenner, our barman tells us the history of the distillery, lets us taste gunpowder tea and different gin spices and then mixes us the perfect G&T.
We keep shaking. On the other side of Drumshanbo we stop to ask some locals for directions. “Come in,” the man says to me. “We’ll get a map and put you on the right path.”
The next morning we say goodbye to the lovely people at the Bush Hotel and drive 10 minutes to the town of Boyle in Roscommon to visit the King House.
This imposing four storey Georgian house was built in the 17th century by the thriving King family, who later moved to the more stately Rockingham House in Lough Key, presumably to signal that they had now ‘arrived’. In the 1980s, our guide Mary Lavin tells us, the square was to be demolished and replaced with a parking lot. In the eleventh hour, a far-sighted district council voted in favor of the restoration.
Now King House serves as a cultural center for the community and episodes spanning 300 years of history are on display, from vignettes on the King family to the days when the building was barracks for the Connaught Rangers.
There is an exhibit dedicated to Hollywood star Maureen O’Sullivan, whose father was in the Rangers, a fascinating room full of objects donated by heads of state to former President Mary McAleese and the Boyle Civic Arts Collection. It’s a heady mix and well worth a visit.
However, we cannot leave without visiting nearby Lough Key Forest Park. We booked a two-hour slot to puzzle our way through the 47 mental and physical challenges known as the Boda Borg. Age is no advantage here and once again the teenager leads the way. We climb ladders, over swinging boards, answer quizzes, press buttons in the right order…
It’s a brilliant test of creative thinking – and family dynamics – and we emerge at the other end, exhausted but elated.
We turn home. There is so much we still want to do – like the Zipit Forest Adventures and the Castle Island Cruise on Lough Key. But we think it’s good to let a few things wait until our next visit to the Hidden Heartlands.
Fran Power was a guest of Fáilte Ireland whose Keep Discovering campaign encourages people living in Ireland to experience the joy of discovering the many hidden gems the country has to offer. For inspiration on where to go and what to do, visit discoverireland.ie
Fran stayed at the Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon. bushotel.com
Drumshamazon Stand Up Paddle Board Expeditions with Lough Allen Adventure Center operate twice daily at 11:30am and 3:30pm, €35 per person. loughhallenadventure.ie
Carrick Day Boats electric boat hire, €120 for three hours. moonriver.ie
E-bike hire from Electric Bike Trails, €30 for 3.5 hours. electricbiketrails.ie
Boda Borg in Lough Key Forest Park, from €25 for 2 hours (minimum three people). loughkey.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/irelands-hidden-heartlands-hold-surprising-treasures-to-uncover-41925421.html Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands hold surprising treasures just waiting to be discovered