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HomeDestinationsWestmeathGo car-free in Hodson Bay ...
How to explore Hodson Bay and Lough Ree without a car
Explore stunning waterways in Westmeath.
Nicola BradyNicola Brady is a travel writer based in Dublin. She writes regularly for the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and Condé Nast Traveller, and has contributed to books on Dublin and Ireland for DK Eyewitness.
You’re never too far from the water in Athlone – after all, the River Shannon cuts right through the middle of town. But make your way just a few kilometres north and you’ll find Lough Ree, a vast lake dotted with 52 islands, a smattering of sailboats and a shoreline of jetties and swaying rushes. Head in the other direction and you’ll find the ancient stone ruins of Clonmacnoise, right on the shores of the Shannon.

Hire a bike, hop on a boat or paddle out on a kayak and experience it all for yourself car-free.

Photo credit: @life.of.gerk

Head to Hodson Bay

Lough Ree’s most accessible point from Athlone is Hodson Bay, and there are a couple of ways to get there. The easiest approach is to catch one of the public sailings with Viking Tours (40 minutes, 2-3 sailings a day) that leave from the middle of town, just behind Athlone Castle. This replica Viking ship sails up the Shannon and out onto the lake, with great views of the water along the way – and the seats all face outwards, rather than forward, so there’s no scrambling for the best spot. Your captain, Viking Mike, is all part of the fun – be prepared for historical stories and tall tales as you drift up the Shannon, as well as some spirited roaring at passing vessels. These sailings stop at the small harbour by the Hodson Bay Hotel, with the daily return times posted on the wall.

A group of people enjoying a Viking Tour on Lough Ree in Westmeath.
Raid the River Shannon with Viking Tours.

If you’re feeling a little more energetic, hire a bike from Buckley Cycles and ride to Hodson Bay (8km, 25 minutes). Rental includes a helmet and a lock, so you can secure the bike and explore at your leisure. The route does go along the N61 but there’s a generous hard shoulder, so you’re not too close to the traffic, and it’s an easy, flat road. In the summer, you can pull over for fresh strawberries and apple juice at the Greenhill Fruit Farm stand, opposite Mulveys Garden Centre.

The main attraction at Hodson Bay is hard to miss. Baysports is home to Ireland’s largest inflatable waterpark, with giant slides, castles and a climbable Viking helmet floating on the lake. As you get closer, you’ll hear the squeals as people fling themselves off the inflatables into the water, splashing around the lake as they swim to the next challenge.

If you want something a little more sedate, rent one of the kayaks lined up on the water’s edge and head out for a paddle around the lakeshore. You do have to stick to the vicinity of the waterpark, but all around the edges there are tiny little bays with smooth pebbles, moss-covered trees and crystal-clear water. If you catch it on a sunny day, you can lie back on the kayak and soak up the rays as you bob around on the gentle swell of the lake. There’s even a tiny beach you can park up at for a bit of a Robinson Crusoe vibe. 

Kayaks resting on the shore of Hodson Bay in Athlone, County Westmeath.
Drift along the shore of Hodson Bay in a kayak from Baysports.

You can also paddle around one of the little islands just off the shore, surrounded by thick reeds and covered in trees, with an old stone tower poking out from between the branches.

Want to see the lake without the effort? The River Run offers a cruise from Athlone to Lough Ree and back again on their comfy passenger cruiser, which has a full bar on board (75 minutes, once daily). You’ll sail under the Shannon Bridge (look up when you do, to spot the scratches underneath left by boats who misjudged their distances) and out into the lake, learning interesting facts along the way. Did you know, for example, that there are still cannonballs on the riverbed from the Great Siege of Athlone in 1691? Or that there are two perfectly preserved Viking ships at the bottom of Lough Ree? You’ll hear all the stories on this round-trip boat ride.

A River Run cruiser sailing in Athlone in County Westmeath.
Learn new facts about Athlone whilst cruising Lough Ree.

Where to eat in Hodson Bay

When you’re good and hungry, nothing hits the spot like an old school carvery. And the one in the Waterfront Brasserie in Hodson Bay Hotel is hard to beat, with slabs of rare rib of beef and juicy roasted turkey served up alongside spuds, veg and gravy. If you fancy something lighter, they have wraps and sandwiches too, and you can eat everything on one of their outside tables overlooking the lake.

Over at Baysports, the Baycafé airstream food truck serves up the kind of grub designed to satisfy after a spell in the water – think wood fired pizzas and chicken goujons. You can also pick up ice creams and coffee at their main café, then grab one of the picnic tables to lounge around and soak up the lakeside vibes.

A pepperoni pizza.

Photo credit:

Order a wood-fired pizza after an action packed day at Baysports.

Sail to Clonmacnoise like a Viking

Head down the Shannon in the other direction and you’ll reach Clonmacnoise, one of Ireland’s most important monastic sites. There are a few ways to get there, but the easiest is to hop on board the Viking Tours boat and sail all the way there, approaching the island from the water for an extra special entrance. The sailing takes 90 minutes, but they only go a few times a month; be sure to check the website for precise details of departures.  

As you arrive you can imagine yourself one of the marauding Vikings that were the bane of the monks’ lives from the 9th century onward, although these days there’s nothing to plunder amid the beautifully located ruins, which include two round towers and a cathedral. There are also three intricately carved high crosses here, but they’re replicas – the originals are in the museum by the entrance.

Four people exploring the Clonmacnoise monastic site in County Westmeath.
Wander the Viking-torn monastic site at Clonmacnoise.

The sailings allow for 90 minutes on the island, before a bus takes you back to Athlone. If you’re not shy of a good cycle, you can also hire a bike and pedal your way down (24km, 75 minutes).

Explore the Shannon Banks Nature Trail

Back in Athlone, the Shannon Banks Nature Trail (5km, 1 hour) is a walking route that takes in the different local landscapes in one loop, from the still waters of the canal to the wild blooms in the Big Meadow. It’s made up of two routes – Brown and Green – but they link up together to form one big circle.

Start off at Luan Gallery and follow the road out to the Athlone Boat Club, which is where the Brown Route begins. This wide footpath runs along the edge of the river, which laps at the shore in ripples whenever a boat goes by.

The walk continues along the riverbanks, with benches and jetties along the way where you might spot some local fishing action. But they’re also nice points to stop for a little break – it’s not a strenuous walk, and you can sit and watch the local rowers or holidaymakers navigating their river cruisers as they make their way along the Shannon.

The riverbanks of the Shannon Banks Nature Trail in County Westmeath.
Stroll along the riverbanks at your own pace.

As the riverside stretch of the brown route reaches its end, there are two prime lookout benches with a great view of the river. At this stage, the path veers left to meet the Athlone Canal, built in 1757. You can learn about its construction on one of the signs dotted along the walk, which tell you all about the native wildlife, local sights and even the poetry written about the canal. You’ll find the latter at a suitably poetic spot, with wooden rowboats propped against the canal banks among the lily pads and draping willow trees.

You’ll need to keep an eye out for the trail signs when the brown route meets the green, which is roughly where the railway bridge crosses overhead. Make sure you cut in and follow the path along the edge of the canal, and you’ll soon be on the green route of the trail.

While the brown route follows a wide gravel path, this one is a little wilder, the fields along the edge thick with tall grasses, hedgerows and wildflowers. It’s good for bird spotting, too – you might see cormorants, tufted ducks or the brilliantly-named wigeons, and the signs identifying local birds will help you figure out which is which.

Birds flying above the Shannon Banks Nature Trail in County Westmeath

Photo credit: @life.of.gerk

Look out for an array of birds flying above.

By the time you reach the end of the trail, the meadow landscape could easily pass for a spot deep in the middle of the countryside. The Shannon flows right past the edge of the grass, and the only sounds you can hear are of local birdsong and the passing of slow-moving boats. It’s only when you turn back that you realise how close you are to town.

At the moment, the very end of the trail at Big Meadow is inaccessible due to flood relief works. But it’s no hassle – you just turn around at the end of the path and follow your footsteps back to the trail head, cutting through Deerpark Road and Lyster Street to make your way back into town. An added bonus? You’ll walk past the old home of local legend John McComarck, the famous tenor who lived on Goldsmith Terrace between 1896 to 1905.

Grab a historic pint

The end point of the Shannon Banks Nature Trail brings you almost to the door of Sean’s Bar, Ireland’s oldest bar. On sunny days, you can sit in the outdoor beer garden at the back or on the stools set around barrels by the front door of this 900-year-old watering hole. Otherwise, make your way through the warren of snugs, booths and rooms inside and find a spot to sit – one of the best areas for people watching is in the main bar, with sawdust on the floor and a front row seat to the live music, which happens several times a week.

Relax in a snug at Sean's Bar.
Relax in a snug at Sean's Bar.
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