Updated: Mar 9
We wanted to drink in Ireland’s audaciously green spring but do as much of that
as we could from the water, the gorgeous flip side of the views from land.
So two adventurous souls took inflatable standup paddleboards to Ireland a few Aprils ago, stowed them in a honking big camper van and then negotiated the narrow roadways to spots where they paddled Games of Thrones’ seas, rivers and canals as well as waters plied by St. Patrick on his mission in Ireland. This is not for the faint of heart in either element. On land, the almost 23-foot-long, 7-foot, six-inch wide and 10-foot-high Bela Mauritius dwarfed most other vehicles and on country roadways, village streets and under old bridge spans proved tricky to manoeuvre. And on the water, choppy lakes, surging ocean swells and rivers doubling as wind tunnels often made the going sketchy. Still, in 13 days we notched eight bodies of water, imagining ourselves paddling in the wake of St. Patrick at several points and reliving episodes from Game of Thrones at others.
Both the RV and paddling communities offered warm welcomes and understanding when we veered into misadventure, like a losing battle with a stone abutment protruding into a narrow roadway or headers into frigid water in Lough Neagh, the River Foyle and off the north coast near Portrush. For John, the trip was also a celebration of 50 years in journalism that started in Armagh in 1969. For Pam, a marine biologist/standup
paddle board instructor/photographer, a first visit to Ireland wowed her with its engaging people, verdant landscape and brilliant photographers’ light.
For the adventure traveller, whether in Eire or Northern Ireland, there is an embarrassment of riches. And sometimes, it’s dawdling delightfully in pastures hard by the roads — curious fluffy lambs and shiny muscled beef cattle closer than you would ever see in North America.
Travelling in the hulking Celtic Campervans’ top model, which we nicknamed Maury, meant we could overnight close to water and nature, like our first night in Leitrim Village at Battlebridge Caravan and Camping Park. The setting was ridiculously pretty, close to the Shannon River where a dozen swans played in the current under an ancient stone bridge.
Our Journey Begins
But we needed to get on the water and Northwest Adventure Tours out of Sligo obliged with a jet lag-busting paddle across Lough Gill and down the Garavogue
River to Sligo’s city centre. The lake was choppy and Northwest tour leaders Barry Hannigan and Melanie White suggested we paddle it on our knees until we got the wind at our backs. The effort of hand-pumping the inflatables and crossing the lake called out for a food break, so we ducked into a little bay and tucked into some healthy snacks from Sweet Beat Cafe in Sligo. Then it was up on our feet and easy going on the placid Garavogue, perhaps Ireland’s shortest river and surely one of its prettiest with
the Ox Mountains and Dartry mountain range flanking us. A section of it ran along the ancient Hazelwood Estate and featured a stone roundhouse battlement near shore, a vestige of times when attacks by water were repelled by gun fire through slotted openings in the stone. But the peace was only shattered, and agreeably so, by the strong trill of birdsong, a soundtrack that played wherever we travelled.
That night we missed getting into one campground by five minutes, called another 30 minutes away and had our accident en route to it as an oncoming driver hogged the centre line on a curve and wide Maury simply ran out of road. Our arrival at Lough Arrow Touring Park was a master class in Irish hospitality. We pulled up near the campground’s community room, the gaping wound from the stone wall exposed to all. Folks poured out offering sympathy. Women hugged us and the men consoled with “it’s only a flesh wound” and “ah now, no one died.” A bottle of wine was produced and helped mend the driver’s wounded pride.
The glistening Lough Arrow beckoned in the morning but we were headed to a restorative visit the VOYA in Strandhill, Sligo, where owner Neil Walton would introduce us to the spa’s seaweed bath treatments. Walton, a former elite-class triathlete, discovered seaweed’s benefits when he was seeking ways to recover faster from the punishing trio of swim, cycle and run events.His fellow pro athletes told him about the qualities of seaweed, how it drew toxins from the body. That led to a plunge into seaweed research and the renewal of baths that used to dot Ireland in the early 1900s, nine in tiny Strandhill alone. That work emerged as VOYA and also begat a seaweed cosmetics company run by brother Mark that now ships product around the world. A seaweed bath is beguiling, relaxing as the tentacles of the marine vegetation gently glide around you. It can be used as an exfoliant, too.
Afterward, Walton suggested we find a quiet beach area to relax as our bodies would initially feel tired. This also showcased the flexibility of our Celtic camper van. We found an uninhabited beach just off the Wild Atlantic Way route and negotiated a rocky beach roadway until we could go no further. Some lunch, a little wine and the seaweed magic set in, blissful naps with a cool ocean breeze flowing through Maury.
We woke invigorated and spent the night at Strandhill Caravan and Camping Park, where we could watch the surfers drawn to the coast’s big waves and marvel at the standup paddle boarders handling the big surf, too. The waters of Lough Derg, Donegal called out to us the next day as we imagined paddling out to Station Island, site of pilgrimages honouring St. Patrick for 1500 years.
The reality was crushing, a biting wind driving whitecaps that only the most skilled paddler would dare try. Still, it is an astonishing location with the big welcoming statue of Patrick, the view of St. Patrick’s Purgatory on the island and the knowledge people have worshipped here since the 400s.We moved on to the gentler Lower Lough Erne in Fermanagh and a soft landing at Finn Lough, a beautifully-appointed resort on a 75-acre peninsula thrusting into the lake. Maury was comfy enough, but this was being spoiled with a deep mattress, massive bath area and excellent cuisine.
Lower Lough Erne, part of a lake system that covers one third of the county, was tranquil the next day as we pumped up the boards and did a circuit of a section of lake near the resort. It was accompanied by the usual musical birdsong backdrop and was easy on the eyes with green hills rolling away from the lake’s edge.
Next up was Derry and as we wended our way there we remarked on how vital we felt after adjusting to a new time zone. Surely, the seaweed treatment was part of that, but we felt the air, water and food were purer than at home and our skin and hair felt better.
We had another two nights of fine hotel accommodation at Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry and two paddles planned with Far and Wild’s Lorcan McBride, who goes by Lawrence. The first Pam took on in wild wind tunnelling through the city on the River Foyle. Beforehand, we enjoyed a pre-paddle nosh at Pike ’N’ Pommes, a quaint wee fish-and-chip stand set in a shipping container melded to a light-bejewelled double-decker bus and planted conveniently near the Derry City marina we launched from. Deliciously fresh squid tacos turned out to be the fuel Pam would need that day as the tail end of Hurricane Hannah buffeted her every which way but straight on the River Foyle’s fascinating urban stretch.
History came alive as Lawrence recounted century-spanning stories of monasteries, garrisons, plantations, civil wars and sieges all witnessed by the ancient stone and earthen fortifications encircling Derry, the only city in Ireland whose defensive walls remain complete. After battling the wind and rain, losing the fight once when sudden gusts dumped Pam in the water, the paddlers hauled out and up onto the impressive stanchions of the Derry Peace Bridge.
This elegant architecture reaches out in a symbolic handshake unifying the communities from opposite sides of the river. Boards secured from the whims of the current, Lawrence ceremoniously produced fruit and a thermos of hot tea from his dry bag, providing a much needed rewarming before the boards were turned to home. A much speedier paddle, with the tide, back to the marina where John, a clearing sky and sunshine met the paddlers for the final stretch culminated what was altogether an exhilarating ride in the land of myth and magic.As Lawrence stated with a mischievous smile, “It was just good craic!”
The second outing was on Lough Foyle, starting in the harbour at pretty Moville, Donegal and heading into the wind towards Derry. Lawrence drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of local history, noting we would likely bisect a crossing St. Patrick would have taken some 1500 years ago. He recounted the legend of Manannan McLir, a mythical Irish sea god who travelled waters on a chariot or horse.Fictional myth-making took place on the west side of Lough Foyle where Lawrence pointed to a bench land below the summit of Binevenagh mountain.
It was used for a number of different Games of Thrones’ scenes, including the most memorable. Daenerys, having been rescued by her dragon Drogon above the city of Meereen, is spotted surrounded by a huge Dothraki horde. Meantime, there was some magic at work on this paddle as shortly into it a border collie appeared and tracked us along shore for some time before we put in for lunch. The Atlantic mackerel with local potato bread, Broighter rapeseed oil and Dart Mountain Cheese was a welcome repast as the wind picked up.
The dog stayed close, often in herding pose, enjoying some mackerel and then selecting a piece of driftwood and setting it in front of John. It was playtime and she wore out his arm before, working on some inner clock, abruptly took her driftwood prize and headed off. Lawrence denied arranging this encounter,
a charming interlude before heading into an accelerating wind that eventually turned us around to glide back to Moville.
It was a short run from Derry to Portrush on Northern Ireland’s compelling Causeway Coast, our next stop, where preparations for the British Open were already underway. The plan was to paddle the blustery coastline, where winds bedevil even the best golfers. We pulled into the huge and pin-neat Carrick Dhu Caravan Park for a two-night stay.
But wild conditions ruled that out initially, so we settled for our first Game of Thrones’ sites, Ballintoy Harbour, which was well protected and offered a mini-archipelago of rocky islets to play around. It was the setting for several scenes portraying the Iron Islands, including Theron’s return and where he first met sister Yara.
We were led by Ricky Martin and Hanno Windisch, owner and instructor at Alive Surf School, two standup paddleboard comedians who kept up a lively patter as we eased out of the harbour and skirted the skerries, as the small rocky islands are called, playing in the ocean swell as it rose between them. The real challenge would come the next day when the weather shifted and a window opened for the planned seven-kilometre run from Portballinatrae to Whiterocks. There are no escape routes on this paddle as it is entirely along cliffs, including those brooding with the ruins of Dunluce Castle, another Game of Thrones’ backdrop as Pyke Castle, home of the House of Greyjoy, ruler of the Iron Islands.This was a day for pro paddlers, so Pam tackled it while John clambered on the cliffs above with a camera.
Portballintrae, a quaint seaside fishing village filled with holiday homes, was a cautious launch but thanks to Ricky and Hanno’s meticulous planning and forecasting, Pam was in for the paddle of a lifetime. Surfers here call it the “cold paradise”, a seemingly endless stretch of crenelated coastline eroded deeply into caves, rocky arches and curious sea stacks composed of the skeletal remains of microscopic marine organisms. Hanno, paddling with an elegance that revealed a man finely in tune with the sea, danced close to the rocks and led us into darkened caves echoing with the crash of waves. Entry and exit had to be timed with the undulations of the ocean swell.
Rising dramatically above us, 14th century Dunluce Castle, once the stronghold of the MacDonnell chiefs of Antrim, provoked images of sea goers, smugglers, and the adventurous who had explored these caves some searching for treasures from a downed Spanish Galleon not far offshore. Ricky, who's humble humour belied his obvious swimming and surfing expertise, entertained with stories of wild escapades coasteering and free diving (whilst roped to boulders) with the seemingly fearless Hanno. He was the first to jump in and cool off in the icy waters of a vast cathedral cave, sunlight beaming through an opening in the ceiling.
Paddling westward, once around Giant’s Head and through the soaring volcanic formation of the Wishing Arch or the Elephant Rock, the chalk cliffs gloriously give way to the ancient sand dunes and soft white beach of Whiterocks. It is not a sight one expects to find on the coast of Northern Ireland, but surfers and now standup paddleboarders appreciate the soft white sand, beach breaks and magnificence of the stunning vistas all the way east to the Giants Causeway, west to Donegal and on a clear day, far across the North Channel to Scotland. Having reached our final destination, Ricky led the charge to a wee bit of play in the surf, before we reluctantly gave in and dragged our boards to shore. The entire experience rendered one breathless in wonder and begging for more. By contrast, Lough Neagh was calm, but not so quiet that a rogue wave driven by an uptick in wind didn’t catch John unaware and send him tumbling into the drink.
The thought of eels resident in the lake, the United Kingdom’s largest, didn’t cross his mind until later, after we had learned about the local eel fishery. The eels make a remarkable two-way migration from the Sargasso Sea and back, accessing the ocean via the River Bann. They come from the massive and unusual North Atlantic sea of free-floating sargassum, a seaweed, then head back to spawn as adults between the ages of 11 and 25. We put in at Toome lock, a stone-walled canal that is another Game of Thrones’ site, this time representing Old Valyria, Essos in season five. It is here where disgraced Jorah Mormont spirits the fugitive Tyrion by boat in an effort to bring him to Daynerys Targaryen.
It was scarcely that moody a scene on this visit, again with Far and Wild’s Lawrence as guide, as we paddled down the tranquil canal and into broad, sunny Lough Neagh. Afterward, we tried eel for the first time and favoured the smoked variety, which simply tasted like very good seafood wrapped in potato farls and dressed with rapeseed oil. Then it was a matter of skirting Belfast on our way to St. Patrick’s Country, or perhaps Game of Thrones’ territory to fans of the mega-hit, and the Dufferin Coaching Inn in lovely Killyleagh.
It’s on the main street, just down from the imposing Killyleagh Castle and a short walk to the village’s quaint harbour. That’s where pastel-painted row houses form a crescent around the appendage of Strangford Lough.
Fortified by a big three-course meal at the Dufferin Arms and a bracing breakfast at the immaculate Inn, which is housed in an old Ulster Bank building, we met our guides. John Keating of Life — One Great Adventure and Eddie Hawkins of Wild Rover Adventures were another pair of bantering bros who took us out on Strangford Lough to follow the paddle strokes of St. Patrick to the mouth of the River Slaney, where Patrick set foot on his mission to pagan Ireland in 432.
Folks down in Skerries, near Dublin, protest this good-naturedly by the way, noting Patrick first landed in an island near there and boast a giant and mythical footprint on their beach to prove it.
Whatever, the Strangford location was lyrical with emerald drumlins rising and falling around the lake, which we seemed to have all to ourselves this day. We launched from Delamont Country Park, a short drive from Killyleagh and explored just a small part of this, the United Kingdom’s largest inlet, sometimes leaning into a stiff wind and lake chop before a restorative picnic repast from Fodder, a trendy gourmet food supplier, on Delamont’s shore.
The Games of Thrones in Real Life
Next up, and purely by chance, we hit upon the intersection of St. Patrick’s travels and the mad-keen devotions of Games of Thrones’ fans as we toted the boards from the Quoil River, where Pam and Eddie facilitated this visit’s money s
hot as they paddled towards Down Cathedral, where St. Patrick is buried.
A massive Game of Thrones’ tour bus had just decanted fervent fans who suited up in capes and swords and swarmed Inch Abbey, whose majestic remains serve as a backdrop on the series for the camp of the Houses of The North and The Riverlands. Pam, brandishing her paddle, broke into mock swordplay with a Thrones’ fan as the group fanned out to take photos of the scene.
We spent that night at tidy Delamont Camping and Caravan Park, right beside the big public park and enjoyed the latter’s trails and the towering Strangford Stone, a megalithic peace monument erected in 1999 which overlooks Strangford Lough. The whirlwind tour finished up at Castlewellan Forest Park and a night in Maury under a tree in a pristine pasture, followed the next morning by a tour of the park in electric bikes provided by Keating’s Life Adventure Centre. In the spirit of the pace of our visit, we shifted them to turbo mode.
As always, Ireland summons us back with the roads and waterways not yet explored.
This 13-day trip was definitely one to remember and we are so excited that Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures is open for travel this summer. Our Canada wide Multi-Day Trips are created to inspire and excite you. Come explore with us this summer as we level up our SUP skills and gently push boundaries, creating memories to last a life time.
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