Weekend Away: The Caprice, Shannon-Erne waterway
A holiday boating on the Shannon-Erne waterway was something I'd always been a little afraid of. I assumed that cruising would be like camping: you rough it, but get a lot wetter in the process. The four days we spent on the river proved this prejudice to be wholly misplaced.
Sailing along Ireland's inland waterways, you travel down some of the oldest trade routes in the country, passing islands dotted with ancient ruined churches and crumbling pagan sites, yet in control of a boat with all the mod-cons, tying up at night at berths with pubs and restaurants within easy grasp -- you genuinely have the best of both worlds.
We took two leisurely days to travel from Belturbet to Enniskillen, a distance of 45km by road. My cousin, who lives locally, informed me that the journey can be negotiated in half an hour by car, but where's the adventure in that?
Room to book
We had a Caprice, which should sleep six, so we decided to put that to the test. My 10-year-old daughter Marnie, my wife Deirdre, her Uncle Ted and Aunt Phil, our dog Millie and I made up the crew.
At first sight I did wonder if we would all fit comfortably on the boat, and there was some concern about stowing our luggage, but it proved to be wonderfully designed. We had two en suite cabins towards the front of the boat, and the sofas at the rear converted into a double bed.
The glass sliding doors in the sitting area led on to the aft deck of the boat, and steps brought you up to the fly-bridge (open upper deck) and the secondary steering position. The boat never felt crowded, even though the six of us were on board for most of the trip.
A river cruise offers plenty of options for the gourmet. Deciding to keep with the spirit of these thrifty times, we brought lots of groceries. Hearty cooked breakfasts, ample cups of tea, coffee and hot chocolate, and lots of doorstop ham and cheese sandwiches were the order of the day. There is no coffee finer than a freshly brewed mug supped at the wheel of a boat, with the wind lashing about you and a soft rain just starting to fall.
We did eat out a couple of evenings, and our favourite was in The Horseshoe Bar in Enniskillen, where succulent steaks, freshly made bowls of champ and crispy beer-battered onion rings were served to us at very reasonable prices -- £8.95 (€10.20) for a sirloin with all the trimmings.
The greatest luxury was the sheer peace and quiet. You can travel for hours without passing another boat, and drifting off to sleep at night with the sound of the water lapping against the hull is simply delightful. Deirdre and Aunt Phil said that lounging on the couches, reading and listening to Lyric FM as the riverscape unfolded was bliss. On a more physical note, the showers on board were excellent (although the water needed to be pumped out of the bathroom when you were finished) but most of the berths had shower facilities if you preferred to use those.
What to do
The simple process of sailing -- getting used to steering and navigation -- is a constant activity. Don't for a moment think it's a chore, though -- we had wonderful fun. Fishing is, of course, readily available. Perch, trout and carp are all easily tempted from the waters. There are wonderful walks everywhere: we stopped off at Crom Castle, near Belturbet, and spent a glorious few hours walking Millie about the beautiful grounds.
As we travelled, I counted 40 species of bird, from a pair of majestic Golden Eagles to the ever-present Crested Grebes. Amateur botanists can enjoy the amazing proliferation of flowers along the canal and riverbanks -- purple loosestrife and marsh marigold were everywhere, but we passed places where lilypads seemed to form a kind of floor across the surface of the water. Magical.
Bring rain gear -- you will get soaked! The bedrooms proved an issue: they had single beds that could be combined to make doubles, we were told; the problem was that a degree in engineering seemed to be a prerequisite for this adaptation. Marnie, my daughter, did find the toilets a bit of a chore, too. Nautical toilets do not flush; the contents need to be pumped out. As the sound of dogged pumping can be heard throughout the vessel, it seems privacy is something one must sacrifice when sailing.
A week-long cruise, leaving from Belturbet and travelling North on a Caprice, which sleeps six, costs €2,110. However, if you book during June you will qualify for a 20pc discount, and during July and August a 10pc discount is on offer. There is a non-refundable damage waiver of €110 and a fuel deposit for the trip costs €200. If you would like your car transferred from Belturbet to your desired destination, the charge is €125.
Emerald Star, The Marina, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim. Tel: 071 962 7633; emeraldstar.ie.