Weekend Break: Boating bliss on the River Shannon

Susan O’Shea went in search of the happy time she spent on the Shannon as a 13-year-old and found her halcyon memories were not misplaced. As a 13-year-old, I managed to tag along when a neighbouring family went cruising on the Shannon and to this day I have great memories of the trip, back-flipping off the back of the boat, getting burned to a crisp sunbathing on deck (this was the 80s, it was baby oil all the way), and that wind-in-the-hair sense of freedom that comes from a leisurely cruise on Ireland’s largest waterway.

To celebrate hitting the big 40, the hubby and four of his friends did likewise a number of years ago, soaking up the sights (ie the local pubs) along the way, and they had an equally great time. So, eager to do something a bit different for a recent weekend break with our clan (aged 8 and 11) we booked a 6-berth cruiser for three nights.

There are a number of different operators you can hire boats from, including Emerald Star, Carrickcraft, Riversdale, Waveline, to name but a few.

We opted for SilverLine, based in Banagher, Co Offaly, a family-run business operating for 35 years, and a pleasure to deal with. Our original booking had to be hastily abandoned, as it became clear that the weather was going to be Baltic, and there was no hassle in pushing it out to a later weekend, where we were rewarded with glorious sunshine (obviously, the price rises as you head into peak season).

We picked up our cruiser at 4.30pm on a Friday and, after watching a short safety video, we were given a quick but straight-forward explanation of how the boat worked and were ready to cast off. If you have no nautical experience under your belt, don’t fret.

The boats are easy to operate, and, while you do need to have your wits about you navigating the waterways, and the loughs in particular, it was a case of plain sailing.

Our boat, a Silver Crest, had a double bedroom with ensuite, forward-facing cabin with two narrow bunks for the kids, plus a separate bathroom, and a seating area in the middle that doubles as a bed, so it was more than adequate for us four. Full linen is provided, as are towels and toiletries.

There’s a small fridge and cooking facilities, but the fancier models, which can accommodate up to 12 people, include microwaves, coffee machines, LCD TVs, seating areas on deck, where you can enjoy an al fresco lunch, and a canopy if you are unlucky with the weather.

As well as families, the boats are extremely popular with groups of fisherman, mostly from abroad, and the occasional stag party. Our original plan was to head south from Banagher to Lough Derg, taking in Portumna, and its national park, and the picturesque villages of Terryglass and Dromineer, which offer a host of water-based sports, including stand-up paddle boarding.

However, while the scenery on this route is breathtaking, is great for anglers, and the craic in the pubs is mighty (so I hear), we thought a better family option would be to head north, where there’s a bit more ‘action’ on offer. From Banagher, Shannonbridge is about 90 minutes upriver and we berthed there for our first night. Navigating the boat into a busy berthing spot can be tricky (our boat didn’t have bow thrusters, which basically park the boat) but most other boat owners/users are willing to help.

Shannonbridge is a small spot, but it has a gem in Killeen’s, a traditional Irish pub without any of the fake nonsense usually associated with that term. Part of the pub includes a big old-fashioned shop counter where you can buy anything from a piece of famous Shannonbridge pottery to live bait. The pub serves decent bar food up to 9pm (we had lovely pizzas at €10 each), the kids were delighted with the pool table, and there was a session kicking off as we made our way back to the boat. We slept like logs, and our fears that it would be cold or cramped, proved unfounded.

The next morning after breakfast we headed for Clonmacnoise. There were groans from our lot when we explained that this was the ‘cultural/historic’ part of the trip and they showed little interest in the monastic ruins which date back to the 6th century, but it’s worth a visit. Adults are €8 to get in, kids are free, there’s a berth right on the doorstep, and a good coffee shop on site.

From there, we headed to Athlone, safely through the lough (there’s a €1.50 fee), but as it was a busy bank holiday weekend all the public berths were gone, and we anchored instead at Athlone Marina for €12 overnight. For that, you get safe, 24-hour access and on-site toilets and shower facilities should you want to save water on board. (The boats come with a full supply of water, but that needs to be replenished on the journey, with a warning light to tell you if you are running low.)

It was a glorious evening, so we sat on deck, enjoying chilled white wine, and smugly saying: “Who needs the South of France when you have this?” There was no wifi (an option on other boats), and no TV, so we played cards, and Cluedo, and read before turning in for the night.

On Sunday morning, as a treat, we strolled into Athlone and enjoyed breakfast in the Galway Roast. A mix of bagels, pancakes and french toast was all excellent and reasonably priced, and the staff were super friendly, making for a great start to the day. Well-sated and sun-creamed up, we headed to Bay Sports (baysports.ie), a 40-minute sail away, next to the Hodson Bay Hotel.

We had rang in advance to book, but there was no need, as the sessions run every half hour. For the uninitiated, this is an inflatable fun park on water. You don’t need to be able to swim as buoyancy aids are provided, as are wetsuits (€3 each). It’s exceptionally well supervised and great fun for those aged 6-60.

The water was cold, initially, but because you are kept moving by hauling yourself up and throwing yourself off floating objects, you quickly warm up and the hour flies by. It includes the Guinness World Record Tallest Floating Slide (I went down twice for the craic) and it opens 10am-6pm during peak summer season, weather dependent, obviously. Adults are €17 and children are €12 for an hour session on the water park. Other activities include stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and paddle-boat hire, at various prices.

The boat should be returned by 10am after your three nights, so we decided to head back to Banagher and spend Sunday night there to avoid a Monday morning river rush.

From Hodson Bay to Athlone, it’s about four hours of relatively plain sailing, but there are a lot of other river users, especially on a bank holiday weekend, so slow down when passing any fishermen in boats or on banks, keep a watchful eye for rowers, and follow the navigation aids on the map. Safely back in Banagher, which is a small but attractive town, and seemed particularly popular with hens that night, we enjoyed some excellent pub grub in Flynn’s Bar. If you have smaller kids, there’s a playground and some safe spots to do a bit of fishing and, if you have an interest in the historical, it was once home to such literary greats as Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, and William Wilde, father of Oscar, with several walking trails.

Once the keys are handed back to the SilverLine staff, and they are happy you haven’t left a great gash in the stern, then your credit card deposit of €800 is returned. Prices start a €500 for three nights. We paid €750 in May, and you can expect to pay more in peak season. Diesel is an extra charge, €100 in our case. A good option might be to hire a slightly bigger craft between two families and share the cost. All in all, it was a glorious weekend, one of the best we’ve had in Ireland, and proved my memories as a 13-year-old were not deceptive.

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