Athlone: Shannon town demands your attention
With bike paths, rivers and lakes, Athlone is ideal for sailors, cyclists and historians alike
The Radisson Blu Hotel, Athlone is perched on the banks of the River Shannon.
For many, Athlone is simply a place to stop and stretch the legs on a long drive west, but having undergone a cultural renaissance of late, it now demands recognition as a destination in its own right. Adjacent to the Shannon and its lakes, and the 40km Greenway bike path, it’s ideal for sailors and cyclists alike, or for those of us who are neither but are looking for a weekend break that’s just a little outdoorsy.
The Radisson Blu Hotel, Athlone is perched on the banks of the River Shannon, so even in the heart of the midlands, you have a constant view of the water. The view from our room makes up for the hotel’s unassuming exterior: docked boats bob at the pier below, the glass corridor of the modern Luan Gallery juts out over the far bank of the river, and the battlements of Athlone Castle loom in the distance.
Downstairs, the hotel’s Quayside Bar has an outside seating area along the river for warmer days, and it’s a short walk along the wooden pier to hop on a Viking Cruise for a trip north up to Lough Ree. (There is also the option to head south to the round towers of Clonmacnoise, which you will recall from your school history books as Ireland’s most famous monastic site.)
On-board, our Kerry-born skipper “Viking Mike” keeps the banter entertaining with an outsider’s take on the midlands town and its expensive lakeside properties, and the chat is all the more enjoyable after an Irish coffee served from the bar down below. The Viking hats are optional here but after a few of those coffees you might find yourself demanding one.
This ship is Viking Mike’s labour of love, a replica of a Viking Knarr, the Norse merchant ship used for Atlantic voyages. We are lucky our own voyage takes place on a bright crisp day, and there are plenty of blankets on board to make the exploration of the island-dotted lake a cosy one. In the summer months, this waterway bustles with boating, fishing and water-sports.
As we disembark back in town, Viking Mike feeds some friendly swans he has known from birth and we shake off our sea legs and take the short stroll up the slope of the 12th century Athlone Castle. There are plenty of interactive displays here for the kids but regardless of age, it’s hard to resist a quick Instagram pose in the stocks or the “costume corner” where you can dress yourself as peasant or royal.
Tell anyone you’re heading to Athlone for an evening and they’ll point you to Sean’s Bar. The place is always packed to the hilt and a trad session plays in the corner. This is truly Ireland’s oldest pub, we’re told, the rest of them are just chancers. Dating back to 900AD, the wattle and wicker walls are still on display. Making the most of its international reputation, the bar now produces a whiskey of its own.
After all that seafaring, the Radisson’s Elements Bistro offers good value on a menu heavy on steak offerings, or if you’re a truly insatiable water babe, there’s a heated pool and steam rooms located down at river level in the hotel’s leisure centre.
Radisson Blu Athlone’s ‘Walk through Time’ break is available from €88 per person and includes one night’s accommodation, Super Buffet Breakfast, dinner in Element’s Bistro and complimentary passes to Athlone Castle Visitor Centre and Luan Gallery.