Special Report
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Treat yourself to a voyage of discovery into hidden heartlands

Tom Breathnach takes a trek through the fantastic amenities on offer in the counties collectively called the ‘Hidden Heartlands’

Lough Derg

Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands has been one of the true tourism success stories of the pandemic era as Irish staycationers seek a great escape off a little more “off stream”.

And few destinations showboat the region’s glimmering, shimmering delights more than the great waterland wilderness of Lough Derg. Often muddled with its Donegal namesake, the more southern Lough Derg is actually the second largest lake in the Republic, with its vast shores offering a range of escape options from boutique lakeside hotels to quirky glamping getaways.

The lake flanks the shores or Clare, Galway and Tipperary with the Tipp side offering some of the best views; climb (or drive up!) the iconic Tountinna mountain for one of the best panoramas in the country while postcard lakeside spots like Killaloe-Ballina, Terryglass and Garrykennedy make for super foodie pit stops.

On the Galway shores, Portumna, the largest town on the lake, makes for a great beeline too for both nature lovers and history buffs. Portumna Forest Park is one of the largest mixed leaf forests in the region and offers a great family friendly escape with extensive biking, hiking and nature trails. While there, be sure to pop into Portumna Castle, an imposing 17th century demesne which makes a great Instagram stop...plus it features a pretty fab café too.

Cavan

All too often overlooked as a staycation destination, Cavan’s languid landscape of loughs and drumlins is perhaps the epitome of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands trending appeal. So much so, in fact, that the entire county now sits under that one Fáilte Ireland brand after half of the county seceded this year from Ireland’s Ancient East.

The county features myriad unheralded attractions...did you know that Cavan has its own Burren, for instance? This unspoiled hiking paradise offers a range of trails bursting with biodiversity while just down the road lies the legend-seeped Shannon Pot, set to be the source of the mighty river. Visitors can also savour an-up and coming food scene where excellent gastropubs pepper roadsides alongside gourmet legends (think Neven Maguire’s MacNean Restaurant).

Venture to the centre of Cavan and you’ll discover Killykeen Forest Park, one of the country’s best woodlands and an ideal haven for walking trails, cabin getaways or a dream kayaking (don’t miss a trip to the enchanting Lough Oughter!

Leitrim

Ireland’s least populated county means some of the country’s most unspoiled scenery all to yourself! Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim’s ‘downtown” crossroads makes a great base and is home to some quirky attractions from an excellent farmers market, the smallest church in Europe as well as the world class arts centre, The Dock. To fuel up, head to Ireland’s new —and only — drive-thru organic restaurant (set in a former KFC!). Beyond the town, take the Shannon blueway north to Lough Allen, where you can enjoy everything from Ireland’s only floating boardwalk, water and one of Ireland’s top gin distilleries. Be sure to make a stop at Eagle’s Rock, an incredible rock formation which gives the landscape an air of a lush Wild West.

Longford

Longford may have been catapulted from a zero to hero holiday destination thanks to the hugely popular Centre Parcs but there’s plenty to see in this county with or without cabin fever. Like many a Midland spot right now, the region is trending thanks to the new Royal Canal Greenway which just launched last year. The village of Cloondara on the Shannon is the start (or indeed end point) of the route and local outfitter can kit you out with bike hire whether for everything from a leisurely afternoon peddle to literally doing the full 150km cross-country trip.

Looking for more adventure, go back in time with a visit to the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre, get lost in nature at Newcastle Woods or chase your visit with a trip to Lanesborough and one of Ireland’s newest artisan spirit makers, Lough Ree Distillery!

Westmeath

If your cross country adventure takes you further east, Westmeath is one of Ireland Hidden Heartland’s most popular gateways. Athlone, the largest town in the region is a historic hub stacked with attractions like Athlone Castle and its fine cathedral as well as cultural attractions from Luan Gallery to Sean’s Bar — the oldest bar in Europe! You can take a guided walk across the town, savour the town’s excellent restaurants or hop aboard an history--packed Viking ship for a tour along the Shannon. History buffs will also love visits to Tullynally Castle and Belvedere Castle while the National Famine Way is an increasingly popular camino style route which weaves through the county. If you’re seeking a waterside haven with some of the best sunsets in Ireland, be sure to add Lough Ree to your itinerary; it’s home to several top hotels and is quietly emerging as one of Ireland’s top luxury destinations.

Roscommon

We’re all craving the great outdoors nowadays and there’s few better counties to offer it in buckets than Roscommon. A scenic base is Lough Key Forest Park, one of the region’s great open-air playgrounds. The perfect family destination, Lough Key offers everything from boat hire and ziplining to weather-proof indoor activities like the Boda Borg challenge rooms. Elsewhere, you can uncover some golden Instagram photo-opps at Roscommon Castle and Roscommon Abbey, experience some fascinating heritage at Strokestown Park House and Irish Famine Museum or enjoy a great local food in lively Shannonside villages like Tarmonbarry.

Offaly

You don’t have to trek all the way to Machu Picchu to find a lost city. Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the River Shannon is one of Ireland’s most beguiling Christian sites and a visit to its riverside settlements of round towers, chapels and high crosses makes for one of the most dramatic locations in Ireland. But that’s just one of Offaly’s charms. Elsewhere in the county, the Slieve Bloom mountains are truly one of Ireland’s most unsung mountain ranges; make a motorway detour to their heather-blanketed hills and moors and enjoy outdoor activities from mountain biking to family friendly boardwalk walks. If you’ve still some energy in the tank, explore highlights from the Tullamore Dew Distillery, the scenic gastropubs of postcard Shannonbridge or delve into ancient human history at Lough Boora Discovery Park.