Best of Ireland’s Waterways – Taste Travel Guide

We have heard of slow travel, but this is something else altogether. Take your pick – this is either leisure travel with a silent ‘p’ or p-leisure travel. Either way, you’ll get to experience some of Ireland’s most beautiful and peaceful countryside whilst sliding by on crafts that are easy to manage and manoeuvre. You’ll be doing something else, too: taking a breather, taking it easy, waking up and smelling the proverbial coffee as life elsewhere rattles by at a speed you’ll never see on the waterways. Websites to visit for further details on itineraries, navigation routes, and boat/barge hire include: 


As you can very easily imagine, with the Shannon being the longest river in Ireland there are more than a few things to do whilst gliding calmly from one lock to the next. Frankly, there won’t be enough days in the week to do everything, so for such a waterways swaycation (yes, I think we’ve invented a new word here) you will probably need to plan a schedule of what to do and when. There will always be beautiful rural scenery, of course, as well as safe harbours and cosy marinas located in villages and towns along the lengthy stretch of the river, but the recently developed Shannon Blueway is quite the perfect guide to the number of leisure pastimes you can embark on. From trekking and cycling activities to a variety of paddling trails around Drumshanbo, Carrick-on-Shannon, Lanesborough, Ballyleague and Boyle, the possibilities are plentiful. And fun.


It makes its way right through Dublin yet it’s so obviously under our noses we sometimes take it for granted. With Inchicore as its access point, the canal casually passes art galleries and museums, but exchanging paths for decks offers much more rural scenes and sights (expect to see birds, wildlife and gently sloping landscapes). You won’t be stuck for transport options, either, as it’s easy enough to hire out canoes, kayaks and barges along the route. And remember – you can always rest canal side, hop ashore and stretch your legs along the Grand Canal Way, which trails in parallel. 


Lough Derg’s reputation as a kind of heaven for paddling trails is known far and wide, and with over 20 shoreline trails and 13 trailheads available – each one with its own perspective – you might say there’s something for everyone in the audience. There are trails suitable for all, too – from the experienced paddler (defined by Blueways Ireland as “self-contained… confident… independent”) to those who would prefer to visit the rather more shielded ‘stay and play’ paddle areas, which experience lower levels of motor craft movement. Be advised that because Lough Derg is exposed to southerly winds you are requested to always be within 50m of the shore and to use the trails only in winds of Force Two or less. 


Following years of neglect, the Royal Canal reopened for serene business in 2010 and has since become a must-do route. Stretching over 140km from the Liffey to the Shannon, taking in 46 working locks (ten of which are double-chambered) as well as providing a genuine window into the past, the Royal Canal is home to a countryside that many people have never experienced before. Self-drive barge hire companies operate at each end of the navigation route, so water lovers can enjoy winding their way into outstanding scenery not usually explored. Day boat hire/self-hire is also available.


From Athy, County Kildare to St. Mullins, County Carlow, the Barrow Navigation meanders along, ducking and diving in the most gentle way possible, for almost 70km. Evolving from an industrial past into a present that is populated with pubs and eateries in the scenic villages of Bagenalstown and Leighlinbridge, the experience also lends itself to those interested in history as well as outdoor pursuits. Alongside the famous Barrow Way (which tracks the towpath from Lowtown to St Mullins, and a section of which you’d be advised to walk), canoeing and white water paddling,  there is an abundance of bygone sites to see: Abbey of Duiske at Graiguenamanagh, the dolmen at Brownshill, the oldest bridge on the river at Leighlinbridge, and various standing stones, forts and burial chambers. 


Known as the Erne System, and comprising Upper and Lower Lough Erne, this 64km stretch of cruising water, from Belturbet to Beleek, is equal parts serenity personified and a virtually untouched sanctuary for anyone into water sports, fishing, boating, scenery and/or generally having the time of their lives. Dramatic landscapes and remnants of the locale’s history form the spine of this waterway: from monastic round towers and majestic castles to wandering through the lovely town of Enniskillen, it’s the kind of area that gives new meaning to the term ‘God’s Country’. There are a number of cruiser hire companies to choose from and once you’re on the water you’ll discover that the world is indeed your oyster (and who knows – you might even have some for dinner!).

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If you fancy over 60km of still-water canal, lake and river lined with verdant scenery, then Shannon Erne waterway is for you. Weaving its way between Belturbet (north) and Leitrim village, this connects the Erne System and the Shannon Navigation. There are completely serviced public marinas to be utilised along this stretch, while barges and cruisers are available from various boat hire companies. As well as the normal pleasures of sedately motoring along the waterway, there are options to drop anchor, so pull alongside and pop ashore at numerous gastropubs or bring the family to view the renowned Crom estate. Once again on board, as you drift along, keep an eye out for what you would surely never see whilst at home: swans, otters, kingfishers, and other inhabitants of the serene waterways. Seriously – anyone who says this is hard work should be sacked.


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