Think you know Ireland? It’s a whole new world on the river, says Jill O’Sullivan
LIKE you, I’ve criss-crossed Ireland’s rivers hundreds of times in cars, buses, trains and on foot. Now, I’ve experienced our waterways in a whole new way, by river boat — and it’s another, beautiful world.
Driving a boat along our waterways is a very special experience that may well be on your bucket list, as it was on mine. What really hits you is the pace — it took us over two hours to putt-putt our way up a stretch of the Shannon and along the River Boyle from Carrick-on-Shannon to Lough Key in Co Roscommon — a journey that takes a scant 10 minutes by car.
In those two hours, we had leisure to appreciate the summer-blooming riverbank, scores of water birds, the sun on our faces and the penetrating quiet of the countryside as we inched our way up through a necklace of river lakes. All along the way, the river narrowed and expanded from intimate stretches to wide-open lakes — and there was the added zest of navigating ourselves.
Driving a boat’s not so tricky, but it’s different to a car’s instant response. Each turn of the wheel takes about 10 seconds to be registered by the boat, with our hosts confirming everybody over-corrects at first, sending the boat all over the river.
Just as well it’s at a slow pace — max speed is 8mph. Once you find your groove, you can relax and look about you a bit more, and enjoy a cuppa on the open-air top deck — with one hand always on the wheel.
There’s the novelty of getting through a river lock too — parking the boat between two massive wooden gates on one level of the river, and closing the gate behind you to allow the water rise up under you so you can move to the higher level ahead. There was help with all that at the one lock we met on our river journey, thanks to chatty lock keeper Richard.
And then there was the fun of exploring the boat — who doesn’t love a boat’s peculiar use of literally every nook and cranny for storage and living space? Our nifty Emerald Star Horizon cruiser was well kitted out with a modern kitchen, sit-down dining space and ensuite bedrooms (everything within arm’s reach of right where you’re standing, naturally). There’s a CD and flat-screen DVD player (handy for younger crew), a top-deck barbeque, and of course safety equipment including life jackets and a life ring.
Outside, the top deck has a steering wheel — there’s one inside too — so you can drive while getting the best views of the riverbank, along with a table and chairs and retractable parasol to shelter from any squalls.
I can attest the bracing top-deck air will have you in perfect form for a sound night’s sleep on deeply comfy beds as you listen to water gently lapping the dock outside.
The fantastic thing about this trip, apart from learning how to drive a boat, was the sense that traversing the river this way puts you in touch with much that might otherwise go unexplored. Once you moor your boat, you can start to explore that spot, before getting you and your crew aboard to move on again, all at a pace to suit yourself entirely.
But back to our trip — having begun our journey in spotless Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim, we arrived in Roscommon’s Lough Key in somewhat choppy weather. This lovely lake was unknown to me before, and gave a sense that there’s a whole other Ireland out there to be discovered by river.
The Lough Key forest and activity park is a great place to start.
On the grounds of the old Rockingham House (sadly burned to the ground in the 1950s), the lakeside centre houses a great playground, cafe and its centrepiece — the Boda Borg experience, where small teams navigate mini-quests in closed rooms before progressing to the next of 15 challenges. It’s described as real-world gaming with mental and physical challenges and is great fun, ideal for families (€18 for 2 hours, €25 for all-day pass).
Then there’s the tree canopy walk and many acres of forest trails through ancient, beautiful woodland. An alternative way to explore the forest trails is under the expert guidance of Colm, who runs 75-minute Segway guided tours.
Colm is a history buff of my favourite type — we learned all we needed to know through stories and anecdotes about the family and servants of Rockingham house, with just a garnish of relevant dates.
After our Segway (another first for me — piece of cake, honest), it was back to the boat for a quick change and aperitif before dinner in sumptuous Kilronan Castle, just a short taxi hop from our berth in Lough Key.
The next day left a bit more time to enjoy Lough Key before we headed back to Carrick-on-Shannon, now much more confident in our boat-handling skills. Carrick is fairly bursting with great pubs and restaurants and is a charming mix of old and new. Definitely worth a stop on your river journey.
I’d never seen Ireland from the river before.
Now that I have, I think of the map of Ireland a bit differently, as being fretted through with beautiful waterways ripe for exploration.
Our boat was a Horizon 3, which has three cabins and sleeps up to seven people. It was designed on foot of a user survey that asked for sunbathing spots on the top deck, a light-filled cabin and other modern touches that add a dash of luxury to the experience.
Short breaks of three to five nights and longer cruises are available on the River Shannon, River Erne and connecting waterways from Emerald Star. No experience or licence is necessary - the company’s base staff will provide a boat-handling cruising demonstration on the river before you take off on your boat, and will suggest routes for you to take. There’s no minimum or maximum age — we saw one family heading off with toddlers in lifejackets — but from age seven is recommended.
However, all that’s fixed when you book is where you start and where you end. The rest is entirely up to you.
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