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Nestled in the heart of Northern Ireland, Lough (Lake) Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. Covering over 96,800 acres with beautiful water for exciting outdoor recreation and sightseeing, the lake is popular with tourists from around the world. In addition to tourism, eel fishing has been a major industry for centuries, and eel fisheries export the lake's eels to fine restaurants throughout Europe. Sand is also a valuable lake product with tons of sand being extracted from the lake annually for use in the construction industry. The lake also supplies much of Northern Ireland with crystal clear drinking water.
Stretching over 18 miles long by nine miles wide at its widest point, Lough Neagh is a surprisingly shallow lake. The average depth in the main body of the lake is 30 feet with its deepest point measuring only 80 feet. The level of the Lough has been lowered four times, the first in 1846 and the last in 1959. The water levels are now managed by three sets of flood gates on the Lower Bann River in the city of Toome. Six major rivers flow into the Lough and only one, the Lower Bann River, flows out northward, eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near the city of Castlerock. In the late 19th century, three canals were constructed on the lake to link various ports and cities. Lough Neagh quickly became a major economic hub transporting linen, timber, coal, and livestock through the canals. The Lower Bann River was also made navigable to cities along the Atlantic coast. The canals were all closed by the mid 1950s and have been converted to scenic walkways and tourist attractions. Today, only the Lower Bann waterway remains open.
According to an old Irish legend, Lough Neagh was formed when Ireland's legendary giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) scooped up a section of the land to throw at a fleeing Scottish rival. He missed, and the chunk of earth landed in the Irish Sea, thus creating the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh. Scientists tell a less interesting, but more probable story. In the early Tertiary period of the Earth's history, a fault line occurred and the area of land sunk and slowly filled with water, creating what is now Lough Neagh.
Although important to the economy of Northern Ireland, Lough Neagh's pristine beauty is a major draw for visitors. With nearly 78 miles of shoreline, many secluded and tucked away bays, and several large islands, Lough Neagh is a wonderful holiday destination. The area is also a haven for wildlife. The sparkling blue water attracts bird watchers from many nations due to the number and variety of birds which spend the winter and summer on and around the lake.
Vacation rentals and holiday accommodations on Lough Neagh are numerous. Bed and breakfasts, hotels, guesthouses, cottages, lodges, and private real estate can be found on and around the lake. Caravan parks and campgrounds are also available. The vibrant and historic city of Belfast is located 20 miles west of Lough Neagh, and the charming borough of Antrim is located on the northeast bay of the lake. Both towns offer a wide range of accommodations and tourist attractions.
Water-related activities on Lough Neagh are almost limitless. Paddlers can explore the numerous bays and inlets around the shoreline or the vast expanse of the open water. Motorboats, sailboats, banana boats, cruise boats, fishing boats, water-skiers, and windsurfer all share the massive body of water. Several marinas can be found on the lake which offer lake access for large boats as well as boat rentals of all sizes. The lake has two major Islands, Ram and Coney, both of which have significant historic interest and beautiful flora and fauna. Both islands can be visited by boat in the summer months. Sandy beaches, public parks, and picnic areas around the lake are available for daytime fun and relaxation. The Lower Bann River is also great for boating, fishing and exploring.
Anglers will find fishing Lough Neagh both exciting and challenging. Fish in Lough Neagh include roach, bream, perch, pollan, brown trout, dollaghan trout (a species specific to Lough Neagh), salmon and eel. The rivers feeding into Lough Neagh are popular spots for dollaghan trout which are a must-catch for visitors. Fly fishing is often the most successful way to catch these unique fish. Guides and fishing boats are available to take guests out onto the lake and to the best fishing holes. For those who prefer sea fishing, the ocean is just a half hour's drive away.
For bikers, hikers, and walkers, numerous scenic trails surround Lough Neagh. Much of the lake's shoreline is wooded and untouched and the perfect place for observing wildlife and waterfowl. Mute swans, great crested grebes and tufted duck are permanent residents of the lake. Over 100,000 wintering wildfowl fly in from as far away as Canada, Iceland, Greenland and Russia. The Lough Neagh Cycle Trail connects a number of parks, nature reserves, marinas, and major sites of interest to include the Lough Neagh Discovery Center in the Oxford Island National Nature Reserve, the second most visited tourism attraction in Northern Ireland. For golfers, there are several famous fairways near the shores of Lough Neagh and championship courses within a short drive of the lake.
Visitors to Lough Neagh will find the surrounding Northern Ireland countryside a remarkable place for exploration and sightseeing. Belfast is the largest city and the capital of Northern Ireland. Historical sites to see include the Belfast Castle, Stormont Castle, Inch Abbey, Bangor Abbey, Ballynoe Stone Circle, the Belfast Zoo and the Giant's Causeway in nearby Antrim. Highlights of Northern Ireland not to be missed should include its stunning beaches, scenic walking trails, cultural museums, many historic landmarks, monuments, festivals, carnivals, and wonderful shopping and dining opportunities. For the more adventurous, a day of pony trekking along the seashore or backpacking in the Mournes might sound more appealing.
Despite its turbulent past, Northern Ireland and the breathtaking, rural countryside of Lough Neagh are today a fantastic place to visit. Beautiful emerald green forests, sprawling lakes, and dozens of charming towns and fishing villages all cater to and welcome tourists. Because Northern Ireland is only 5,500 square miles in area, you are never more than a half hour from the ocean. With rivers and lakes full of fish, friendly hotels and bed and breakfasts, and hundreds of places for a family adventure, consider a trip to Lough Neagh for your next holiday or vacation getaway.
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