Lori Young, our Senior Cruise Consultant, was delighted to explore the inland waterways of Ireland on a longtime Barge Lady favorite, the 4-star, 10 guest Shannon Princess. She came back raving about the superlative service, handcrafted cuisine, and gorgeous scenery. Sip a nip of whiskey and join her on an intimate journey through the heart of the Emerald Isle.
My Irish journey on the Shannon Princess began with a warm welcome from Captain Ruairi at the pickup hotel in central Dublin, the Brooks Hotel. The Brooks Hotel offers comfortable rooms, efficient front desk service, a helpful concierge, a boutique whisky bar, and a wonderful restaurant. The hotel is perfectly situated on a quiet street yet near to everything!
Shannon Princess was moored in Killaloe, the most southerly town on the route, approximately a 2.5 hour drive from Dublin. Upon arrival, we excitedly boarded the barge, enjoying a festive champagne welcome in the spacious salon with Captain Ruairi and his wife, Chef Olivia. With the tasty bubbles flowing, the warm ambiance and relaxed atmosphere for which the Shannon Princess is celebrated was wonderfully evident.
The lovely introduction to the good life onboard the Shannon Princess extended to the five adorable cabins. Smartly appointed with clever layouts, the many onboard amenities include luxury linens, fluffy towels, and comfortable robes. The spotless bathroom offered more storage than needed and even a hamper was provided!
Of course, the dining program on any barge cruise is, arguably, the apex of the experience; accordingly, the gastronomic games on the Shannon Princess began with a sumptuous multi-course dinner. A candlelit feast for the senses, Chef Olivia presented course after course of creative Irish cuisine, relying on farm fresh produce, handmade breads, and boutique cheeses to ensure her dinner menu was well received. The high quality of the meal’s flavors and textures was bested only by the generously poured fine wines. On barges plying the waterways of the United Kingdom, both Old and New World wines are served, expanding the palate of pairing food and wine. It was a most delicious welcome to the Emerald Isle!
While most tourists visit Ireland and drive the periphery, this cruise affords the opportunity to immerse inland on a series of “loughs” or lakes. Connected by petite rivers, the cruising itself is a lovely, languid affair, all set against an attractive blend of rolling hillsides, verdant woodlands, and manicured farmland. Fun fact: Ireland has 1.5 million more cows than people!
MONDAY commenced with a morning cruise. We meandered north to Mount Shannon, about mid-way on the lake. Swans were plentiful and all had a brood, they were precious and picture perfect! In fact, if birding is a pastime, these waterways will not disappoint — no wonder each cabin is supplied with a pair of binoculars! Mount Shannon is a quaint village with a beautiful park to stroll in at the marina.
This afternoon our guided tour was to “Craggaunowen, The Living Past”, a reenactment of a traditional Bronze Age Settlement, which portrayed everyday life in the pre-historic and early Christian Eras. Nestled within beautiful pine forest the exhibition was very well-done. I had no idea so many artifacts have been preserved in the many bogs throughout Ireland and many have only recently been excavated. On the way back to the barge we made a brief stop at a local weavers studio, McKernan Woollen Mills. We had an intimate tour of the looms and the studio provided by the owner, Eugene McKernan. Eugene is currently working on the most spectacular scarfs for his upcoming winter orders through the National Geographic catalog. We also had a chance to visit their small and exclusive retail shop.
TUESDAY morning we cruised to the top of Lough Derg to Terryglass. After three tranquil hours on the water it was time to set off on foot and stretch our sea legs, so we headed up the hill into the village to have lunch ashore at The Derg Inn, a traditional pub. I ordered my first Irish pub version of Fish and Chips – it was fresh, simple, and scrumptious!
Now I was ready for our drive to Leap Castle, reputed to be the most haunted castle in Ireland. The crew, including 14 year old Ross, Olivia and Ruairi’s son who was on summer holiday and on board with us this week, forewarned me to take heaps of photos as some guests have had mysterious orbs appear. Well, I took a ton of photos, thank goodness for digital cameras, but no orbs. I think you need to bring an offering of Guinness and a dram of whiskey to stir them! Captain Ruairi is sure to let his guests know in advance not to expect a fancy or refined visit of Leap Castle and he was right! The castle is mostly in ruins but its owner, Sean Ryan, is very much alive and a colorful character in his own right. Sean captivates his audience with ghostly tales and the gruesome history of the O’Carroll clan, a brutal bunch and eventually put on a boat to America by the British. Sean delighted us with a serenade from his Irish Tin Whistle, the visit is really such a treat!
WEDNESDAY Captain Ruairi switched our routine and we headed off in the bus after breakfast to Portumna Castle. This castle plays an important role in our cruise as Olivia’s delicious and creative cooking can be attributed to the herbs from the Kitchen Garden here. This property is dated from the early 1600s and felt modern with geometrically laid out “ladies gardens” in the front and a back lawn that led down to the lake. The Irish Government has done a wonderful exhibition here, you can see from the detailed accounts of its history that the Burgo Family who held residence for over 200 years had great wealth. The town of Portumna has a significant trade history as it’s the crossing point between Lough Derg and the Shannon River, and the counties of Galway and Tipperary.
Back in the bus and off we went to the port city of Galway. Wow! Galway was so alive as compared to the sleepy villages near which we had been mooring. Lunch ashore, which is included in the cruise fare, was with Captain Ruairi at an authentic Guinness and Oyster bar. Try a pint of Porterhouse Stout for an authentic Irish brew! Free time in the afternoon meant I could explore the bustling pedestrian areas. The antique shops are not to be missed, as the prices are very good and the selections of housewares in silver were abundant, a little bit of heaven! Returning to the barge, a hot pot of tea or freshly made cocktails awaited, and we cruised the remainder of the late afternoon and early evening. Catching the changing colors of the landscape on the Shannon River as the sun began to wane was just exquisite! We moored this evening along the river in the quiet village marina of Banagher.
THURSDAY was a big cruise day as we followed the river north. Enroute we stopped dockside at Clonmacnoise, a 6th Century Monastic site that is situated on an esker ridge overlooking the bog. In earlier times this was the crossroad for official communications, religious learning, regional trade, and local politics. There are still pilgrimages that take place to this well-preserved site. To access the monastery from the docks and to maintain its authenticity one still needs to walk through the cow pasture!
The tour here was kicked off with a short movie, allowing more insight into this very special place. We eandered through the graveyard, marveled at the towers, and, in hushed tones, held a VERY quiet conversation at the whispering wall (it really works!), a means of communication to avoid consumption.
Back onboard, we make our way through the “callows” to Athlone, slipping into the large lock in the city center. A busy town with its castle standing guard over the harbor, there was ample time to walk about on out own, enjoy a pub, window shop, visit the castle, or tour the art museum. Some of the guests on my cruise asked Captain Ruairi to arrange a gillie for the afternoon to go fishing, and they had a marvelous expedition!
FRIDAY we transitioned from the Shannon River into Lough Ree passing what seemed like hundreds of tiny uninhabited islands. Eventually we arrive to our final mooring in Glasson, but not before a water view tour of the stunning Glasson Country Club! Wow, were those greens green! After lunch we set off for Kilbeggan Distillery because you can’t come all this way and not sample the whiskey. Killbeggan dates from 1757 and is still manufacturing today. We enjoyed a private tour and guided tasting.
I asked Captain Ruairi if we could stop in Glasson on the way back to the Shannon Princess which he happily accommodated. It’s such a lovely village and while my peers popped into a pub for Irish coffees with Ruairi, I visited the local art gallery, which was teeming with top quality artisan pottery, small batch soaps, and handcrafted textiles. Back onboard, the Farewell Feast served this evening saw Captain Ruairi join the dinner table as the guest of honor! This was an extravaganza of the senses; once again Chef Olivia ensured every element of the meal was sheer perfection. Captain Ruairi was a fine story-teller in his own right, and the crew made us all feel so special this final night with their own toast to our well-being!
SATURDAY was a sad farewell but I know I will return to the Shannon Valley’s rich and diverse culture. It was a memorable week filled with laughter and learning. The hospitality of Captain Ruiari and Chef Olivia can’t be beat, as they were extraordinary from start to finish!
I returned to the Brooks Hotel to soak in some more of Dublin. You simply must embark on purchasing a ticket for Hop-On Hop-Off tour bus. First, the drivers are a treat, they are funny and full of charm and wit. I had the good fortune to enjoy a sunny day with stunning blue skies and took advantage of the top deck, what an fantastic birds eye view of this ancient city! This is without a doubt the way to begin your stay in Dublin and get a lay of the land. A ticket is good for two days and you will use it!
First do the entire route, it takes about an hour and a half. Then simply hop-on hop-off. I visited Trinity College since seeing the Book of Kells was high on my list. Next I was off to St. Patrick’s and Christ Church. Back on the bus I made my way to the National Museum, I had a hankering to delve into some Viking history and view their display of gold, including the Ardgh Chalice and the Tara Brooch. The docents there are marvelous and at the ready to take you underarm and personalize your visit. From the museum, it’s a short walk to Merrion Square or St. Stephen’s Green where the ample street art speaks to the talent of the city’s youth. Of course, the rooftop views and the Guinness Tour are always a hit (but there are entry lines, so plan for the extra time).
While I passed on Temple Bar in the evening, during the day I found it vibrant. The performance art is incredible! What talent these tricky masters have at their craft, one after the other I was convinced were statues. The musicians offer all types of genres and the vibe was safe and happy! Eateries are everywhere and you can have anything you fancy. I opted to stick with everything Irish and dined at the Hairy Lemon, a pub only steps from the Hotel Brooks. It did not disappoint but it could not come close to my fabulous memories of Olivia’s cuisine all week on Shannon Princess.
I found the people of Ireland to be genuine, warm, and welcoming. If they see you standing on the street with a quizzical look on your face, they not only ask if they can help, they take you to your destination and then go about their business. They want to know where you’re from, where you’re visiting, and what you think! They are interested and interesting! Shannon Princess and both your time pre- and post cruise will delight your travel senses. Welcome onboard, bon voyage, and, on behalf of the Barge “Lassies”, Slainte!