The sun was blazing. Barefoot we danced to the music as we arrived into Athlone, not by car or by foot, but the only way one should make their grand entrance, by boat. Stopping at the lock, we paid our fee, the anticipation building. Up ahead the St Peter and Paul Church stood proudly in the sun as we passed Athlone Castle to our left, the bustling town to our right. Mooring up, we had arrived for the night.
My love for Westmeath started a few years ago, on our maiden voyage on the Shannon. At the time, Barbara Smyth in Silverline Cruises (based in Banagher, Co Offaly) invited me to be the captain of my own boat for a weekend, to experience life on the Shannon. And on that summer weekend, I found sea legs I never knew I possessed. As a result, Barbara found a repeat customer in myself and my husband who along with friends have set sail many times over the years.
However, in recent years, heading north towards Westmeath has been our preferred route on a weekend trip. Cruising along the majestic river, you pass the ancient monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise as well as beautiful farmlands, enjoying a unique glimpse of the countryside, before hitting lively Athlone on a Friday night. The weekend follows the river on to Lough Ree which offers much more than just the popular Hodson Bay. The new lease of life on Glasson Lakehouse is a vibrant offering whereas the Wineport Lodge adds a touch of luxury to boating life.
Travelling by boat exposes you to parts of Westmeath that you wouldn’t normally see but of course, all these destinations can also be explored by car.
Athlone is one of those towns where you could pass away a lovely afternoon exploring the bustling streets along the left bank or diverting into the quaint side streets. After passing Athlone Castle many times over the years, we decided to venture in on our most recent trip. The suspense builds as you make your way up the cobbled pathway entering the Castle Courtyard which has beautiful views over the Shannon. It makes a lovely spot for a picnic.
With elements dating back to the 12th century, this Anglo-Norman settlement still contains artifacts that depict its historical importance, especially in light of the many battles that occurred over the centuries, most notably the Siege of Athlone in 1690. Coins, weapons and shields dating back to the earliest settlers can be observed as well as more modern artefacts including John McCormack’s papal chain, gifted to him in 1928. But hearing tales of the conflicts was the most exciting part and I was particularly interested in the family connections of the O’Kelly clan, my maiden name.
Adult tickets are €10 while children tickets are €5. Opening hours available on www.athlonecastle.ie
You might think it doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside when you are exploring a church but when it comes to St Peter and Paul Church in Athlone, you really do want the sun to shine.
That’s so you can admire the six stunning stained glass windows that depict post-independence Catholicism.
Although the site has religious connections dating back to the 12th century, the present church was completed in 1937 so the beauty of the windows shows the impressive art of the early 20th century, developed by Harry Clarke Studios in Dublin.
Each window has swirling details and dazzling colours, each telling a story focused on a central character surrounded by smaller panels depicting life events.
Depending on your interests, you could spend hours here examining the art in detail or if like us, you have an impatient two-year-old in tow, you can pop in just to see its beauty. Whether you stay for five minutes or five hours, it’s a memorable experience.
After your spot of culture in Athlone, it might be time for the kids to let loose. Whether you’re travelling by car or boat, stopping off in Hodson Bay is a must (although it’s technically over the bridge in Roscommon).
If you’re on a boat, you can dock right up outside the hotel. A few days on a boat is great fun but it can be a bit rough and ready so booking into a spa is a real treat. Kids, on the other hand, will be obsessed with Bay Sports. My little one is too young to really experience it but our friend’s kids who visited with us gave us the full report. It was short but to the point – “awesome”!
It’s Ireland’s largest inflatable park and is made up of a collection of floating islands and obstacle courses. But it’s the slides that are really wow and include the Guinness World Record tallest inflatable waterslide.
Smaller kids can also start off on Athlone Castle, which is a jumping platform, and there is a junior park for those that are just finding their sea legs. This is one of those places that is obviously fabulous in the sunshine but they provide wetsuits and you’re going to get wet anyway so it can also be planned for one of those cloudy Irish summer days.
However, be aware that they are doing some works this summer so there won’t be any tall slides available. And yes, before you ask, some of parts of the park are suitable for adults.
The Shannon has a well-established route and it’s not often that new offerings come along but there is one that has seriously livened up the scene in recent years.
Glasson Lakehouse has been a golf and wedding destination since the 1990s but it got a renewed lease of life when the Press Up group took over in 2020. It created quite a buzz in Westmeath as the hotel and restaurant group has taken the capital’s hospitality scene by storm over the last decade with venues such as the Dean Hotel, the Devlin and the Mayson as well as restaurants including Elephant & Castle, Wow Burger and Angelina’s (to name just a few).
Boats can moor up for the day to have a spot of dinner or a drink but on this occasion, we abandoned our sea legs and stayed on land in Glasson Lakehouse for two nights.
It’s rare that a destination can tick the box for so many different groups of people but it can and it does. On a sunny weekend in May, ladies in cocktail dresses sipped prosecco while toasting the new bride and groom who were hosting 250 people for their big day in the ballroom upstairs while downstairs in Tom’s Bar (which while modern still has successfully obtained an ‘old man bar’ atmosphere), golfers enjoyed a few drinks after their outing.
All the while, we relaxed on a family weekend away. And this hotel is so family friendly. You don’t even need to leave the resort to jam pack your day. After breakfast, our morning started in the playground which kids can literally slide into it (a large slide links the terrace food area down into the play area).
It’s one of those playgrounds which suits everyone from a toddler to a 10-year-old.
Afterwards, we ambled over to the small lake with paddle boats (complete with lifejackets) which nearly gave this Mama a heart attack but was deemed great fun by my little one. Then we were on our bike to explore the grounds complete with a little trailer on the back for smallies.
However, the piece de resistance has to be the outdoor pool which overlooks stunning Lough Ree. I was sceptical at first – an outdoor pool in Ireland? But it was like a bath and we happily splashed away even when the sun wasn’t shining. I’ll admit that, when we got out, the run back to the room in our robes was a little nippy, but the fun was worth it. For adults who fancy a little more warmth, you can book one of the hot tubs which also overlook the lake. An hour is free of charge for hotel guests and it is the ultimate zen.
After all that, it was back to the room which has a quirky but stylish vibe. Our piece of advice – book a lakeview room. Opening the curtains to that stunning view will put you in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Richard Siberry and Michaela Dillon founded Roscommon’s Black Donkey Brewing in 2014. They craft unique and traditional beers, inspired by their rural midwest surroundings.
Favourite place to stay: Wineport Lodge in Glasson, just outside Athlone, will always be our go to spot for a relaxing break in Westmeath. After all, we did get married here many blissful years ago. It’s a fantastic spot to both stay and dine on the shores of Lough Ree. Comfort and relaxation on tap.
Favourite place to eat: The Left Bank Bistro in Athlone offers great contemporary cuisine in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Local suppliers feature on their varied menus, and their homemade cakes and desserts are not to be missed.
Get outside: Bay Sports in Athlone, adjacent to the Hodson Bay Hotel, another great place to stay and dine, is Ireland’s biggest inflatable water park, and it’s every bit as much fun as that description sounds. Bouncy castles in a lake, what’s not to love about that?
Your favourite bit of culture: The Midlands Craft Beer Festival is an annual event, and it takes place at Don’s bar in Moate on the 20th of August this year. Organised by local beer impresario Simon Broderick, it’s an opportunity to sample the best beers the region has to offer, served by the hands that made them.
Favourite place to shop: Uncharacteristically, Richard wanted to take the lead on this one with Super Asia Foods on the Old Dublin Rd in Athlone. As someone whose life revolves around food and drink, he never misses a chance to pop in to restock the larder with Asian staples and specialties, from noodles to smoked black vinegar and spicy pickled kelp. A visit is an exploration and an adventure, a (usually) delicious one!
Niamh Dooley from Ballykeeran in Co Westmeath is one of the Co-Founders of zero waste brand, BiaSol - a family-run startup focused on creating innovative foods that maximise nutrition and minimise waste.
Favourite place to stay: I’ve always enjoyed a trip to Mullingar Park Hotel. You can’t beat a relaxing hour or two getting a massage in the treatment rooms.
Favourite place to eat: It would have to be Thyme Restaurant in Athlone. John Coffey and his team create amazing dishes using ingredients that are in season and produced locally. If you’re looking for something a bit more casual, I recommend Dead Centre Brewing for one of their pizzas and pair it with one of their craft beers. The setting is also lovely as you can sit on a patio overlooking the Shannon and Athlone Castle.
Get outside: I quite enjoy cycling The Greenway from Garrycastle Athlone to Moate and stopping in Dun na Sí for a nice coffee or lunch and there is a nice Heritage park suitable for kids.
Your favourite bit of culture: Belvedere House in Mullingar – there are woodland walks by the lake, walled gardens and beautiful ruins with some great history.
Favourite place to shop: If I am looking to buy artisan food products I always pop into The Bastion Kitchen. Across the street the Bastion Gallery is great for gifts.
Most of their products are produced in Ireland and they support lots of local talented artists.