Greenways discovery: walking and cycling trails

With its picture postcard scenery, proximity to the Shannon, and position as the 'heart of Ireland', Ireland's Hidden Heartlands has staked its claim as a prime spot for a relaxing getaway. Stretching across nine counties, the region has distinctive qualities that matter when it comes to embracing the essential characteristics of nature: rural locations that are rich with wildlife, small localities that bear the hallmark of instinctive warm welcomes, and landscapes that are equal parts rugged and beautiful. All of which makes them perfect for a staycation or trip away with plenty of walking, cycling, and general gentle leisure.

Gentle exploration

Itineraries are simple but wholly effective: you start at the beginning, and then some hours later – after a leisurely walk or cycle, a sit-down lunch or beverage, a photo or three of splendid vistas, and maybe even a selfie or two – you eventually come to your destination. There is no contest to see who will get to their destination first. The only struggle you'll experience is whether you'll reach for your water bottle before or after the next slow turn on the path. What could be more mindful or healthier than that? You will, of course, make your own decision as to where you'll gently investigate, but read on for several suggestions.

Couple walking in Portumna Forest Park, Co Galway Couple walking in Portumna Forest Park, Co Galway
Cavan Burren Park, Co Cavan Cavan Burren Park, Co Cavan

On yer bike

The two-way Old Rail Trail begins in Athlone and meanders along for 40km to the market town of Mullingar. Naturally, the scenery and length makes it popular with cyclists. As part of the Midlands Great Western Railway route, you cycle past flourishing small towns and lush countryside. How long it takes, and where you want to end up is entirely up to you. Along the way, be sure to stop in local eateries and haunts: if you head towards Moate, check out the Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, a vibrant hub of heritage, history, art, and genealogy. That's not to mention the ring forts and hidden hedge schools. If you stop in Athlone, call in to the Castle for a tour or the equally historic Sean's Bar for a tipple and a touch of history.

Dun na Si Amenity & Heritage Park, Westmeath Dun na Si Amenity & Heritage Park, Co Westmeath

On yer... feet

If you prefer to walk your way to happiness, consider the Beara-Breifni Way. Running 500km north from the tip of Beara Peninsula, Dursey, Co. Cork, to Blacklion, in the Breifne region of Leitrim and Cavan, roam along the banks of the stately River Shannon and through the lake regions of Roscommon and Leitrim. There are various routes, including Suck Valley Way (a 105km circular course that starts and ends in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon) and Miner's Way/Historical Trail (a 118km circular trail comprising three looped itineraries that course their way through parts of Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo).

The Cavan Burren Park is worth a visit too. Set on a limestone plateau at a height of 295 metres, it's one of the first prehistoric relict landscapes in Ireland. Time stands still there, and it's the perfect place to find peace under the shadow of Cuilcagh Mountain. Trails stretch for over 10km, with a choice of bog bridge trials over limestone bedrock and past some of the more interesting prehistoric features in Ireland.

Of course, there are other equally beautiful itineraries you can choose from too. One is along the 16km Longford-Clondra trackway. Developed in 2014 as an off-road walking and cycling path, the trail takes you through unspoiled countryside to the picturesque village of Clondra, Co. Longford, which has superb pubs for that all-important rest-and-recreational stop-off.

Another is the East Clare Way, a circular route that winds its way through rolling hills towards the hospitable market town of Scarriff and onto Killaloe, Co. Clare, a village with alluring narrow streets, a selection of classic pubs, and a marina that complements the area's water activities (paddling and surfing are always good shouts).

Woodlands Walks

If you prefer woodlands instead of walkways, head to Portumna Forest Park, a 450-hectare expanse ripe for discovery by either foot or bike. If you fancy letting wheels do the work, hire bikes from De Burgos Bike Hire, Portumna town, and then select a bicycle trail route in the Forest Park.

If you like wandering as your eyes are calmed by lakeland views, contemplate undertaking the Lough Derg Way, a 64km route that you can follow northwestwards from central Limerick to the River Shannon – taking in an evocative gathering of canal banks, forest tracks and old roadways – and then to the lake port on Lough Derg. It's a beaut of a walk that transports you back to those hazy, drifting summer days when you had little to do and loads of time to do it in.

Trails through Cavan Burren Park, Co Cavan Trails through Cavan Burren Park, Co Cavan

See the sights

Take a break from walking, and visit majestic buildings or take a calm cruise along the River Shannon. Visitor and Heritage Centres are perfect ways to investigate the past, and Ireland's Hidden Heartlands has exceptional ones, including Rathcroghan Visitor Centre (see 'Ireland's Gate to Hell'!), the aforementioned Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, and Cavan Burren Park's Visitor Centre too. If golf is your preference, then the Glasson Country House Hotel and Golf Club (a pearl right on the shore of Lough Ree) is the place.

Whichever you choose, all roads lead to the end result: discovery.

Water Way to Spend a Day, Unmissable Shannon Waterways Activities

Water Way to Spend a Day, unmissable Activities in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands

"Walking on water" is no longer the miraculous feat it once was. In fact, if you fancy an aquatic stroll all you have to do is take a trip to lovely Leitrim. We'll explain later, but for now let's just say it's one of many amphibious activities on offer in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. The country's waterway trails run through a wonderfully serene and scenic network of lakes and rivers that aren't always the most obvious choices for tourists. That is their charm – and it's well worth the little effort involved in unearthing these gentle gems. The key is Ireland's longest river, the Shannon, which flows from Cavan in the north until it meets the sea at Limerick. Measuring 360km, it beats Britain's longest waterway – the mighty Severn – by 6km. For millennia it has been the traditional boundary between "the West" and the rest of Ireland – while also comprising a fascinating world all of its own. Here are our top picks for some unforgettable waterbased activities which will leave you feeling relaxed and revived!

Cruisers at Shannon Bridge, Shannonbridge, Co Offaly Cruisers at Shannon Bridge, Shannonbridge, Co Offaly

Aye, aye captain

For a gentle and relaxing introduction to the water, why not start with a guided boat tour? Lough Key in Co. Roscommon is certainly worth a visit and Lough Key Boat Tours offer guided boat tours on the Trinity where you will learn about local history and folklore legends. If you'd like to be your own skipper, why not hire a cruiser and experience the freedom to explore as you will. Carrickcraft offer a range of different styles of boat from 2-10 berths. All have a well-equipped galley (boat-speak for kitchen) for those who would like to self-cater en-route. They suggest a range of itineraries to help you on your way, from a leisurely cruise which takes in Clonmacnoise, Banagher, Athlone and Hodson Bay.

Canoeing near Cloughoughter Castle on Lough Oughter, Co Cavan Canoeing near Cloughoughter Castle, on Lough Oughter, Co Cavan
Family Kyaking on Lough Oughter, Co Cavan Family Kyaking on Lough Oughterr, Co Cavan

Off the beaten track

Or if you really want to get away from it all and escape into the wilderness, the river Shannon and the Shannon-Erne Waterway is your destination. Carrick-on Shannon in Co. Leitrim is a great place to start your trip, offering a variety of different activities to suit all tastes, ages and levels of fitness. For a fun group-option try Chinese Dragon Boating for groups of 14 plus with Carrick Boat and Bike Hire. It's not as mad as it sounds – and might suit any kids with a fondness for dragons. The boats are like big canoes, with dragon heads at either end. You get a helmsman to steer you in the right direction and even a drummer to keep you in synchronised rhythm – and off you go. Alas for health and safety reasons, the dragons' fire-breath has been switched off! Multi-award-winning restaurant, The Oarsman, might be worth a visit as a culinary treat afterwards.

It's not all boats and cruisers

SUP or Stand Up Paddling is the latest craze to hit Ireland. A Hawaiian sport, it's growing hugely in popularity on our small isle. It's great for balance and fitness and isn't too difficult to master. It offers a range of 'SUP Safaris' including the 'Drumshamazon' which takes in some incredible Amazon-style scenery, but without the alligators! The 'Battlebridge BBQ Safari' is a 4-hr safari which rounds up the evening with a well-earned BBQ at 'Bierne's of Battlebridge'. The firm will also tailor make your own personal safari to suit your preferences. SUP is available with Carrick Boat and Bike hire and further down the Shannon with Soulkite in Killaloe.

Take that! Stand Up Paddle Boarding, with Soulkite, at Killaloe, Co. Clare Take that! Stand Up Paddle Boarding, with Soulkite, at Killaloe, Co. Clare

Further downstream, we come to the fabulous waters of Lough Derg, the 3rd largest lake in Ireland. Here, a visit to Holy Island is a must. 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. Local historian, Ger Madden, offers guided tours from Mountshannon to this ancient monastic settlement, which also has a round tower and an 8th century graveyard. If all this spirituality inspires you to renew your marriage vows, you can do so over a special "bargaining stone" on the island.

While there, look out for White-Tailed Eagles, Saoirse and Caimin and their chicks, who have nested in the area. If you prefer to paddle your own canoe, you can rent kayaks and make your way out to this intriguing heritage site. For something equally adventurous in Co. Roscommon, Baysports is a great shout for families with its inflatable water park, kayak tours, and pedaloes. It's also set the Guinness World Record for the largest floating slide – which is a big plus for big and small kids alike.

Fishing is the most calming of all water-based activities and if fancy casting a line, the Shannon waterways are an angler's paradise. In the Republic of Ireland, you don't need a licence to fish for most species (apart from sea trout or salmon). But you must have a share certificate for the upper regions of the Shannon and its tributaries, which is available from most angling and tackle shops. Fishing for Kids is also a wonderful initiative with trips for young angling enthusiasts at Killaloe. Finally, the walking on water bit... Acres Lake Floating Boardwalk in Co. Leitrim is Ireland's first such development and extends around the lake of the same name, extending the walking and cycling trails all the way into Drumshanbo, connecting it to Leitrim Village.

Whatever your preferences, the River Shannon is a unique water-world where gentle adventures, breath-taking vistas and enriching experiences will leave you intrigued, inspired, relaxed and re-energised!

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