Belfast Telegraph

Athlone: Discover one of Ireland's best kept secrets

It's time to try this charming little gem in the Irish midlands

By Martin Breen

For years I have driven through Athlone without stopping as I made my way to Galway or somewhere around there.

Now I realise what a major mistake that was because this town in the Irish midlands is a hidden gem (well, it had been to me at least).

I was completely bowled over by its beauty, the warmth of its people and all there is to see and do.

Staying at the stylish Sheraton in the centre of the town, next door to Athlone Towncentre shopping complex, I discovered a new hotel (which has free car parking) that is now riding high in my list of favourite hotels I have ever stayed in.

I was lucky enough to be in an 11th floor suite, with warm and striking contemporary decor, at the very top of the hotel’s high-rise tower, which gave a panoramic view across Athlone, thanks to its floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

The room had a spacious en-suite bathroom and seating area, and one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in. Little wonder then I have since discovered that the Sheraton sells its beds online, such is the demand from customers to relive what the company calls the “Sheraton signature sleep experience”.

Food at the hotel was so good we never felt the need to try anywhere else in the town, though friends have and tell me there are great restaurants that cater for all tastes.

I dined in the hotel’s La Provence restaurant. There was not one single fault with any of the food. Service was among the best I have ever experienced, with the staff knowledgeable about the food and drink on offer. While the menu offers wine pairing suggestions beside meals, the staff can also guide you through what would work best for your choices.

For starters over two nights I sampled the salt and chilli squid and seared Carlingford scallops with butternut puree, peas and pancetta. Both were superb and just writing about them is making my mouth water.

My medium-rare sirloin steak was cooked perfectly (it still surprises me how many restaurants fail to do this) and came with skinny fries and pepper sauce. The plate was polished off, which speaks for itself.

The other main was probably the most succulent chicken I have ever tasted — a supreme of chicken cooked on the bone and served with grilled sweet red peppers and sweet potato fries.

Even though we were stuffed, the dessert menu was too good to ignore. The chocolate hazelnut brownie with chocolate creme brulee gateau and black cherry sauce was as lovely as it sounds.

If you are ever anywhere near Athlone or take my good advice and spend a few days there, make sure to make a dinner reservation for La Provence.

Food in the newly-refurbished hotel bar was also faultless. I have a weakness for chicken wings and their maple and chilli-glazed wings again hit the spot.

But my weekend away wasn’t all about food because facts — historical ones —also played a big part as this is a town with plenty of Viking tales to be told.

A tour of Athlone Castle, with its turrets on the banks of the Shannon in the town centre, should be a must.

Built in 1210 to aid the Norman advance into Connacht, it offers state-of-the-art multi-sensory visitor experiences.

These tell you about the town’s role in the history of Ireland, including Viking raids and the Battle of the Boyne.

The great Siege of Athlone is relived in a 360-degree cinematic experience that transports visitors to the centre of the 1691 battle.

Just a few doors down from the castle, there is another tourist attraction which is worth visiting, purely for historical reasons only. Sean’s Bar, which dates back to the year 900, is officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as being the oldest bar in Ireland.

For research purposes, I tried a pint of Guinness, something dozens of American tourists were also keen to do.

The bar, which has a raging open fire and sawdust strewn around the floor, has clearly become a tourist mecca as Sean’s do their own line in whiskey and T-shirts, among other things. It is also full of character with locals bursting into song as we sat enjoying our drinks. Be warned, though, it can get very busy at weekends and during holiday periods.

A walk around the town and to and fro over the bridge in the middle of the town will give you a great feel for this fabulous area.

After a day taking in the sights, it was time to relax at the Sheraton’s Sirana Spa.

Due to a litany of back problems over the years, I have had many massages, but the one I had at this spa was amazing.

A niggling shoulder problem was fixed during the deep-tissue massage session, and I must give a special mention to the therapist, Sinead, who is so knowledgeable about her profession and one of the most talented therapists I have met. Inspired by the sand, heat and colours of the Sahara desert, the Sirana features signature spa treatments coupled with luxury Elemis spa treatments. Their Elemis facial treatments are a particular speciality.

After the treatment, I was placed in a relaxation suite with reclining beds, magazines and refreshments, including fruit smoothies and chocolate-covered strawberries.

I finished my visit to Athlone with a superb afternoon tea at the Hodson Bay Hotel, a beautiful property right on the riverside.

Travelling there on Lough Ree in style courtesy of a Viking Tours longboat-style boat, the boat’s captain, Mike was the perfect tour guide, letting us know about all that has happened on the lough dating back to 842, when the Vikings first arrived by river to this part of the world.

He told us about the many battles on the lough and the many Viking chiefs who took part, including the memorable Olaf the Scabby Head.

The terrific tea at Hodson Bay included freshly baked scones, pastries, bagels and sandwiches.

Little surprise then that the entire contents of the tray were gone, as were a few pots of tea, within an hour.

While I didn’t partake, you can’t miss the Bay Sports complex on the water beside the hotel.

Children and adults alike looked to be having a ball at this watersports haven, which holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s tallest floating slide.

They do seem to hold a lot of world records in Athlone, so maybe I should have taken more notice of it before, but I am certainly hooked now.

Travel factfile

Autumn offers at Sheraton Athlone: Rooms from £80 for two.

- Shop, Spa & Stay from £107 per room for two (Includes B&B and discount vouchers for Spa, Dining and Shopping)

- Over-50s breaks: Two nights B&B & two dinners from €165pps

To book visit www.sheratonathlonehotel.com or call 00353 906451058

Viking Tours: www.vikingtoursireland.ie

Athlone Castle: www.athlonecastle.ie

Sean’s Bar: www.seansbar.ie/home

Afternoon tea at the Hodson Bay Hotel (from €17.50 per person): www.hodsonbayhotel.com/afternoon-tea-athlone

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