A boat trip on the Shannon is a holiday every family should experience – and it’s right on our doorstep, says Vickie Maye
We sit around the breakfast table and unfold the map. We need to choose a destination for the day – it doesn’t matter if we actually get there though. A rough goal, a vague direction is all we need.
First though, it’s time for a swim. The kids unfurl their pyjamas, throw on their togs, slide open the door – and dive in.
Welcome to a morning on a boat cruise along the Shannon.
They say life is about the journey, not the destination. The advice doesn’t usually apply to holidays – more often than not you lose hours to gruelling road trips or airport security.
Unless you opt for this kind of trip.
You glide along the water, traversing through reeds and lily pads, spotting swans and cygnets along the way, waving at fellow cruisers in their boats as you go.
Turn a corner and there are lush fields, forests, castle ruins, stone bridges. And always, everywhere around us, the open sky and the deep water of the Shannon.
Not that it’s all plain sailing, of course. There are locks to manovere, putting mum and the teenager through their paces as we quickly learn how to tie knots and secure our temporary floating home.
It was one of the unexpected bonuses from our holiday. To get from A to B we had no choice but to pull together as a family if we were to master the rules of the waterways. As each lock approached, the call would go out. As one of us sat at the wheel, two others scurried front and back of the boat to manage the ropes.
A chance to really bond is the ultimate aim of every family break, and it’s not something you ever really achieve on a traditional sun holiday. Here, we were giddy, exhilarated as we made it through each lock, working together as a team. We have had years of holidays abroad, yet these three days on the Shannon would be our best family trip yet.
The captain’s hat we picked up at check in, a €10 joke souvenir, was the investment of the holiday, the smaller kids taking turns wearing it as they helped steer the boat.
Breakfasts and dinners were eaten on deck in the sun. There was a TV on board, but we didn’t even check if it worked. Instead, we played cards in the evenings.
We booked our break with Emerald Star, picking up the four bedroom Shannon Foyle at Carrick-on-Shannon, signing up without hesitation for the €48 damage collision waiver – we were new to this sailing lark. An hour’s training session, and we were ready to take to the water.
The 4pm pick up meant we kept our journey to a minimum on night one. Really, this was just a chance to learn the ropes and get accustomed to a new way of travelling.
The first lock was a challenge as we passed our ropes to the lock keeper, paid the €1.50 toll and watched the gates slowly pull apart. The kids were enthralled.
That first lock keeper guided us through the process, and she was just one of dozens of others who helped us on this three day adventure. As we got to grips with mooring a boat, without fail and without judgement, fellow, more experienced cruisers would jump to assist – just throw the ropes, they would shout out, it’ll be grand. People chat across decks at the locks, offering tips and advice. There’s a sense of comradery on the water – it was hard to imagine just a few miles away from our meandering boat was the bustle of towns and traffic.
Here you work to the boat’s pace – a town might be 10 minutes away by car, but it could be an hour by boat. All you can do is relax, and take in the view. If the lock keeper is closed for lunch, you just have to stop and wait. And isn’t that what a holiday is all about. You are in awe that this little waterworld, this little oasis, has existed right on our doorsteps, there for the taking.
That first evening we made our way about an hour south east to Drumsna – a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tiny Irish village. Travelling by road you’d barely notice it – yet we could have spent days here moored by the water.
Drumsna translates as the ‘ridge of the swimming place’ - there was even a statue of a woman about to dive in to the water. It was apt then that it was here the kids had their morning swim from the boat.
We had breakfast on deck (the kitchen was fully equipped with utensils, an oven and fridge – towels and bed linen are also provided), then we took a practice run to Lough Boderg where we could steer with ease on the wide open lake.
From there we moved north again to Tara’s Marina, near Knockvicar, for the night.
Lough Key and its adventure centre was our destination the following morning and this would mean our journey time was just an hour the next morning.
The restaurant, named after the marina, had come recommended so we made it our base, safe in the knowledge we could relax with a glass of wine, without having to venture back behind the wheel.
Tara’s Marina is quite the find. A one minute walk from the boat, this restaurant has recently been taken over, the ambitious chef learning his trade at Dublin’s Bang and Chapter One. It’s billed as simple pub grub – but the chicken burgers and the home made slaw we were served were so much more. The chocolate mousse for dessert was a five-star undertaking. The decor was ever so slightly dated, but we heard whispers of a planned renovation. Even the hand made lavender soap in the bathrooms hinted at the small details and the greatness of what’s to come.
Outside a playground – with a roof of course in case of a rainy Irish day – kept the smaller kids happy.
The other little bonus at Tara’s Marina was mobile coverage. This was our compromise to keep the teenager happy. We checked maps from our phone provider in advance to suss the best areas to access 4G in the evenings, and it helped us to plan our route in advance (charging phones was no issue with power points connected to the boat battery). Most families travelled with older kids – a few commented on our ‘brave’ decision to bring a four year old on board – so access to WiFi or coverage was often a talking point across the boats at locks.
Truth be told, it was tricky to travel with smaller kids, but strict safety rules – life jackets were a must – meant everyone eased in to it.
The next morning we made our way in blissful sunshine to Lough Key Adventure Centre. We stepped off our boat, and the sprawling green campus lay before us. This, you realise, is the way to travel.
First up, we tried Boda Borg - a Scandinavian invention where families work their way through rooms of mental and physical challenges. Just like the boat, we had to pull together and work as a unit to win. There was more unexpected bonding. Lough Key is the only Irish venue to host Boda Borg – get in the car (or boat) and experience it. It’s another of the country’s hidden treasures.
Zipit is also on site so while the older kids were challenged by zip lines, the smaller members of the party opted for the woodland safari, little cars they could drive slowly through the fields.
The playground isn’t called The Adventure Play Kingdom for nothing. These were no ordinary swings and slides – the kids could have lost the day here. We just about found time for the Lough Key Experience, a self guided tour through old servants’ tunnels, ending with the tree canopy walk through the forest. We ventured further to find the tree we could walk though (recommended at check in), leading to the 19th century fairy bridge. If there was time we could have rented electric bikes, or even segways, to explore more. Instead it was back to the boat – before the locks closed for the night – to make our way back to Carrick-on-Shannon for the evening for our 9am check out the following morning. We ate in one of the many Italian restaurants on the main street, our first taste of town life in days. It was like stepping back to the real world again. Back on the boat, there was a livelier vibe at the busier Carrick-on- Shannon base. After two quieter evenings at Drumsna and Tara’s Marina, here there was chat and banter as families and crews played cards on deck, with lamps and candles to illuminate.
You can make this trip anything you want it to be – you can choose to stay remote, with no electricity, or in a town and listen to your neighbours on deck. It’s like a different holiday each night. Just together, as a family.