Young Thais are drawn by the big city lifestyle
Taking to the inland waterways is a wonderfully leisurely way of seeing Ireland's hidden corners. Flanked by lush riverside pastures, crumbling castles, quaint villages and an increasing number of gastropubs, cruising the River Shannon is the perfect way to sit back, relax and pile on the pounds.
A leisurely crowd of boaters, landlubbers and bon vivants make a pilgrimage here each summer, keen to try out the Guinness and the spoils of the countryside at pubs and restaurants along the riverbanks. The region's culinary credentials have come a long way in recent years and although talk of the Celtic Tiger may be dead, a host of artisan cheese-mongers, organic farmers and enthusiastic restaurateurs have been left in its wake.
The Midlands are still something of a tourist backwater though, which means that along with good food you will find a genuine welcome, dusty old pubs, lively music sessions and of course, that legendary Irish charm.
Kick off your culinary adventure in Carrick-on-Shannon, a charming riverside town with a lively buzz. Head for The Oarsman, a traditional pub given a contemporary makeover. Championing local producers and organic suppliers, it is an enormously popular place and a great spot to meet the locals. For something more exotic head for Victoria Hall for some superb Thai food in the modern but minimalist surroundings of an old parochial hall.
Next glide calmly down the placid waters to the marina at Tarmonbarry, a sleepy little village home to the much-loved Purple Onion, an old-world pub with plenty of knick-knacks strew about the dark wood interior. The solid but interesting food draws the crowds but it can get packed, in which case go next door to Keenans.
Head south along the river to Glasson, a beautiful old estate village with an epicurean vibe. Despite its diminutive size, Glasson has a far-reaching reputation as a gastronomic hub with pubs and restaurants vying for space along the tiny main street. For excellent seafood, wild game and a convivial atmosphere, the Glasson Village Restaurant (090-648-5001), set in an atmospheric old stone barracks, is a great choice. Just up the road is the Wineport, a cedar-clad lodge overlooking Lough Ree that serves up ambitious modern Irish cuisine and has a wine cellar to match.
Tear yourself away and you are soon mooring up in Athlone, a bustling town smack-bang in Ireland's centre. Among the colourful buildings and twisting streets on the western side of the river, you will find The Left Bank, an informal deli-bistro with bare tables, white-washed walls and a loyal local following. Across the river the stylish Olive Grove has a riverside terrace and massive windows overlooking the Shannon. Its chic decor and buzzing atmosphere are matched by accomplished but unpretentious food.
At Shannonbridge the river is guarded by a hefty Napoleonic bridgehead, now reincarnated as the Old Fort Restaurant. It is an atmospheric place with exposed stone walls, wooden floors and a globally-inspired menu. Once sated, head across the 18th-century bridge to Killeen's Village Tavern (Main St; 090-967-4112) a 350-year-old pub and shop where you can buy beer, maggots and crisps in one transaction. Plastered with business cards and renowned for its warm welcome, it is a great place to end your journey with a quiet pint or a raucous sing-a-long.
Boats can be hired in Carrick-on-Shannon, Banagher and Portumna. Prices for a two-berth berth cruiser start from about €600 per week.
Etain O'Carroll was born and bred in the bogs of the Irish Midlands and is co-author of Lonely Planet's latest Ireland guide.