The 'Emerald Isle' is also a brilliant blue – strung with beautiful stretches of clear, fresh water. Aoife O'Riordain immerses herself

Drift away

Ireland's countryside is emerald green thanks to the abundance of water; the island is blessed with numerous rivers, streams and lakes. An impressive concentration of these can be found in the Lakelands region, which contains a series of rivers waterways and canals that extends some 300 miles and links several of Ireland's best-known lakes.

The region stretches from the pretty town of Belleek on the banks of Lower Lough Erne in the North through Lough Allen and Lough Ree to the southerly Lough Derg, which is Ireland's third-largest lake and is a popular spot for holidays. Its banks are lined with pretty towns and villages including Terryglass, Scariff and Mountshannon as well as the likes of Portumna Castle, Holy Island and Portumna Forest Park.

A journey right through the Lakelands means meandering through nine different counties north and south of the border, ending at the Shannon estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. Many of Ireland's lakes, or loughs – from the Gaelic for lake – have become major tourist attractions in their own right, but for different reasons: there's the scenic splendour of the lakes of Killarney, while Connemara is known for its salmon fishing, and Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles.

Where to start?

At the biggest: Lough Neagh ( ). Its shores touch five of Ulster's counties, and the lake supports a diverse array of flora and fauna. It is home to more than 100,000 wintering wildfowl, as well as the largest commercial eel fishery in Europe.

Oxford Island – actually a peninsula now because of the lowering of water levels in the 1850s – on the lake's southern shore is home to the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre and Nature Reserve (028 3832 2205; ), which houses a café, information centre, temporary exhibitions, nature trails and several hides for birdwatching. A 113-mile cycle route, The Loughshore Trail, skirts the edge of the lake. Bicycle rental is available from several different locations: see for details.

The annual Lough Neagh Fest (21-30 August this year; ) has numerous events taking place at its main marinas, from family friendly days out to major sporting events, including Lap the Lake races for cyclists and sailors and the Ballyronan Festival of Lights.

Take the plunge

In County Fermanagh, also in the north, keen kayakers and canoeists can explore the Lough Erne Canoe Trail – a network of more than 30 miles of marked trails through both the Upper and Lower lakes joined by the Erne River and accessible from different points all over the lakes.

Corralea Activity Centre (028 6638 6123; ) offers canoe hire for £20 per half day. This is one of a number of operators that form part of the Greenbox (00 353 71 985 6898; ), a scheme that promotes environmentally friendly holidays throughout the Lakelands.

Perching on the edge of Upper Lough Erne, the Belle Isle Estate near Lisbellaw in County Fermanagh (028 663 87231; ) has been inhabited since the 12th century. The estate stretches across eight individual islands and offers several self-catering options in the main castle or the sensitively restored adjacent courtyard and coach houses. Double rooms start at £150 for a three-night break. Boat hire and fishing for pike are just a few of the activities on offer; the estate is also home to the highly regarded Belle Isle Cookery School ( ), which offers both one-day and longer courses from £120.

Peace and quiet?

One of Ireland's most revered places of pilgrimage is Lough Derg (00 353 71 986 1518; ), a small, lonely lake set in the far north, in the mountains of County Donegal. A cave on Station Island, called St Patrick's Purgatory, is reputedly the place where Ireland's patron saint fasted for 40 days and is said to have had a vision of the Otherworld. These days, barefoot pilgrims still flock to Station Island between 1 June and 15 August for two nights of fasting and prayers during the day. Lough Derg also runs a series of retreats and quiet days for visitors throughout the year.

The closest thing to England's Lake District?

The Lakes of Killarney comprise one of Ireland's most enchanting landscapes. They are set at the foot of MacGillycuddy's Reeks in County Kerry – the range that includes Ireland's highest mountain. The Lakes are contained within Ireland's oldest protected wilderness, the Killarney National Park ( ). This is a breathtaking mosaic of rugged, heather-flecked mountains, sparkling, island-dotted lakes, monuments such as the 15th-century Ross Castle, tropically dense vegetation and diverse flora and fauna.

At the centre of the park is Muckross Demesne, home to a friary and the 19th-century Muckross House, Gardens and Working Farm (00 353 64 667 0144; ), which occupies a picturesque spit of land between Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. The current house was designed by Scottish architect William Burn, in the mid-19th century, and hosted a visit from Queen Victoria in 1861. The house, grounds and gardens are open to the public; admission €7.

Some scenic roads thread through the National Park, but the best way to explore is by foot or by bike, making use of the numerous trails and pathways. Part of the long-distance walking trail called the Kerry Way ( ) threads its way through the park; an easy portion to tackle is the four-mile section from Killarney Town to the impressive cascades of Torc Waterfall.

An excellent time to visit Killarney is in April and May when there are fewer visitors and the landscape is ablaze with rhododendrons. Measures are in progress to control the spread of this non-native bloom introduced in the 19th century, but it still makes for quite a spectacle.

Cast a line

Ireland is widely regarded as one of Europe's best fishing destinations. The island offers a diverse array of angling opportunities (see the Inland Fisheries Ireland website at ), including fly-fishing for salmon. One of the best places for lake salmon fishing in Ireland can be found in Connemara at Fin and Doo Loughs, which is home to Delphi Fishery (00 353 95 422 22; ) near Leenane. It offers fishing holidays for around €2,000 per week and a three-day beginner's fly-fishing course for €695 per person. Prices include accommodation and all meals.

The same owners operate the neighbouring Delphi Lodge, spectacularly set by the lake in a valley folded into brooding purple mountains. This 12-bedroom 19th-century house, which attracts plenty of non-anglers, was the former sporting lodge of the Marquis of Sligo. It has lost none of the charm of an intimate house party. There are also five holiday cottages available to rent on the grounds. Doubles at the V C lodge start from €189 with breakfast; cottages start at €450 for a three-night stay.

Ready for a close up?

Lough Corrib in County Galway is Ireland's second-largest lake. It stretches in all its island-studded beauty from outside Galway City for 27 miles as far as the county border with Mayo. At its north-eastern edge is the pretty village of Cong, scattered with historical remnants such as the remains of Cong Abbey in the centre. But the village is best known for its role as a backdrop for many of the scenes in John Ford's classic 1952 film The Quiet Man.

One of Ireland's grandest places to stay perches on the edge of the lake just outside the village. Dating from the 13th century, sprawling Ashford Castle (00 353 94 954 6003; ) offers regal sumptuousness in spades and stunning views of the lake. Surroundings like this don't come cheap, but in August it is offering a special rate, subject to availability, of €275 per double including breakfast.

Tourism Pure Walking Holidays (00 353 94 902 7797; ) offers three-day guided walking tours around Lough Corrib and neighbouring Lough Mask in August, September and October. The trips cost from €250 per person, based on two sharing and include B&B accommodation and guiding.

A short splash from Dublin?

Glendalough, just over an hour's drive south from Dublin, is arguably one of Ireland's most romantic spots. It is set in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park ( ). The name translates from the Gaelic as "Glen of the Two Lakes". But aside from its breathtaking setting buried in a deep valley surrounded by mountains, Glendalough is also one of Ireland's most important early monastic cities. It was founded by St Kevin in the sixth century and suffered decades of plundering at the hands of the Vikings. A distinctive 103ft round tower pokes up through the trees.

Glendalough also forms one of the most scenic stages of the Wicklow Way, a long-distance walking trail that starts on the edge of Dublin and finishes 80 miles away in Clonegal, County Carlow. Those short on time could explore the nine way-marked trails around both the Upper and Lower Lakes that vary in duration and difficulty from half-an-hour to a challenging four-hour hike.

Room with a view?

There is no shortage of picturesque lakeside views to wake up to all around the country. You would be hard-pressed to find a more impressive setting than that of Enniscoe House, Castlehill, Ballina, County Mayo (00 353 96 31112; ). This handsome Georgian house with a dusky pink exterior sits on the shores of Lough Conn in the shadow of the brooding Nephin Mountain. Inside it's all four-poster beds and grand Irish country-house style, with doubles starting from €140 including breakfast.

Wineport Lodge, near Glasson in County Westmeath (00 353 90 643 9010; ) overlooks the tranquil shores of Lough Ree, which is fed by the river Shannon. As the name suggests, one of its major draws is its cellar; the food, contemporary style and peaceful setting are added benefits. Doubles start at €170 including breakfast.

One of County Kerry's most scenic and less well-known lakes is Caragh Lake, which sits in the midst of Magillcuddy's Reeks within easy striking distance of Killarney. Its shores, known for their superlative fishing, are fringed with secluded houses many of which were built in the 19th century as sporting lodges. Carrig House (00 353 66 976 9100; ), which dates from the 1850s, is one such example and is now a small country house hotel surrounded by verdant gardens, just yards from the lapping water. Doubles start at €180 including breakfast.

The Shannon Relics on the river

The Shannon, the British Isles' longest river, forms the backbone of the Lakelands region. It is a popular destination for boating holidays thanks to its peaceful waters and pretty villages, such as Killaloe, that line its banks.

Boating Holidays (01756 701 200; ) offers three types of craft; cruisers, narrowboat barges and French-style barges called penichettes to rent on different stretches of the waterway, with prices starting at around £550 per week for a cruiser sleeping two. For more details about boat rental also contact the Irish Boat Rental Association (00 353 1 284 6002; ).

On a stretch of the river between Lough Ree and Lough Derg, the sixth-century monastic city of Clonmacnoise (below – 00 353 90 967 4195; ) is one of the country's finest archaeological sites. It is home to a ruined cathedral and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe; admission €6.

Yeats Country How landscape inspired poetry

One of Ireland's most celebrated literary giants, William Butler Yeats, immortalised Lough Gill in County Sligo in one of his most-quoted poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. (Yeats is said to have been inspired to write the poem when he saw a fountain in a shop window as he walked along the Strand in central London, after the family had returned to the English capital in 1887.)

The writer and his brother spent many summers enjoying the watery delights of its picturesque island-scattered expanse, which is now known as "Yeats Country". Devotees can make the pilgrimage by boat out to the small island described in the poem. The Rose of Innisfree (00 353 71 916 4266; ) tour boat offers daily cruises from the 17th-century Parkes Castle to the island for €15.

Travel essentials: Irish lakes

Getting there

* Irish Ferries (08717 300 400; ), Stena Line (08447 70 70 70; ), P&O Irish Sea Ferries (0871 664 4999; ) and Fastnet Line (0844 576 8831; ) sail the Irish Sea from various ports in England, Wales and Scotland.

* The main airlines include Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ), Aer Lingus (0871 718 5000; ), Aer Arann (0870 876 7676; ), CityJet (0871 666 5050; ), easyJet (0905 821 0905; ), Air Southwest (0870 241 8202; ), FlyBe (0871 700 2000; ) and BMI (0844 848 0808; ).

Getting around

* The Republic of Ireland's rail system is somewhat skeletal, but connections are good between Dublin and the larger cities: Cork, Galway, Belfast, Waterford and Limerick. For details see Irish Rail (00 353 1 836 6222; – also the place to book cut-price advance tickets). For the rest of this year, travellers aged 66 or older qualify for free rail travel thanks to the Golden Trekker pass – see .

* Bus Eireann (00 353 1 836 6111; ) offers frequent long-distance services around the Republic.

* For bus and train services in Northern Ireland contact Translink (028 9066 6630; ).

* Car hire is probably the best option for those wanting to explore extensively. The threatened shortage of rental cars this summer does not appear to have materialised; if you wait until September there are some real bargains around: Argus Car Hire (0844 330 2581; ) offers one week from around £95 in September picking up from Dublin.

More information

* Discover Ireland (0800 039 7000; ). Waterways Ireland (028-66 323 0004; ).