What’s it like to holiday on Ireland’s waterways in a pandemic? Conor Power finds out with a staycation on the River Shannon
I have an admission to make: I absolutely love river cruising.
There is nothing more addictive, more tranquil and more fun. You take a slow-moving vessel on the water and you just go and visit a series of towns. It’s a simple idea, and you may have visited some of these places before, but even villages that seem mundane to drive through are transformed into exquisite little pieces of paradise when you arrive into them by boat.
For the most part, this is how these places were built to be explored — from the water. Virtually all of the villages along the River Shannon were developed during an era when the waterways were the highways. In between, you’re cruising through fields, but you’re also seeing them anew. Instead of seeing them from the roadway at 80kph, you’ve got a completely different, almost inverted, view of it all, and at the much more sedate pace of about 5kph.
It’s a bit like going into a time warp and getting the perspective of a traveller from the 19th century. You’re away from the busy roads, and everything slows down to the pace of a horse-drawn carriage.
Clearly, in the world of Covid-19, this trip was a bit different. After travel restrictions ended in Ireland on June 29, we were the very first to set out from Emerald Star’s base at Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim. That was the day river-cruise companies were allowed to open up once more, in Phase Three of the national reopening plan.
This year, after being locked down for the earlier part of the season (which would normally have kicked off in April), the season has begun with a bang, with many companies reporting heavy bookings.
John Beirne, manager of the base in Carrick-on-Shannon, was delighted to be welcoming tourists back. Even though there is no sign yet of foreign visitors, the home market has been making up for it.
“Before the season started, we thought that we might have a 30pc take-up,” he says. “But we’re very busy and we’re almost fully booked for the coming weeks. We’re very glad to see it. We’ve spent a lot of money in making all the changes that have been necessary to keep our clients safe and us safe.”
Beirne showed me around the reception area of the base. Like all of the other staff, he was wearing a plastic visor. Behind the desks, the usual staff were there with their friendly welcome, this time behind a glass screen, and the now-familiar markings to help people maintain a two-metre social distance were evident on the floor. In addition, customers were requested to wear masks while in the office, and holidaymakers signed in for their holidays at staggered times throughout the day so there wouldn’t be any significant build-up of people.
Between clients, each boat is scrupulously sanitised and disinfected, Emerald Star says — from the linen to the seating, the kitchen appliances and utensils, binoculars, life jackets and every surface. They also leave a sealed package of disinfectant spray and a mask for those who wish to go a step further.
Normally, cruisers on the Shannon pay to get through locks with a pre-paid card system, but for the Covid period, all the charges have been waived to reduce the level of contact involved. In the locks, all the lock-keepers wear gloves and masks — though we were a very safe distance from them, and it was sometimes difficult to hear what they were saying through the muffling effect of cloth over their mouths.
Onboard our boat — a 13.1m Elegance craft sleeping six — we had everything we needed. The small kitchen (or galley, as we sailors say) comes with all the cutlery, ware and utensils you’d expect, an efficient fridge, an oven and a microwave. Also, the days of physically pumping water in and wastewater out in the toilets seem to be over in most boats — ours had the simple electric button that you press to flush the loos.
The cabins are very comfortable and all the freshly cleaned linen and bedding is provided. There is heating and air-conditioning too.
From Carrick-on-Shannon, we decided to head south on a three-hour cruise to Roosky. There’s just one lock to negotiate on this part of the Shannon, which has a really nice level of variety about it in terms of the fauna and wildlife. Amidst the forests of reeds along the flooded banks, you’ll see glimpses of Redwing, Curlew and Sandpiper, while swallows, ducks and cranes abound and kingfishers flit across the narrower stretches. The only section involving a lock is on the Jamestown Canal — a 2.6km-long waterway built in 1848 that cuts through a meandering, non-navigable loop of the Shannon, and whose powerful timber gates were replaced only last winter.
Roosky occupies a commanding position on Ireland’s premier river. A well-maintained, clean riverside area has seating and quayside facilities. There is also a campervan park with a good few residents on the evening we pulled in. There were no pubs or restaurants open, aside from a Chinese takeaway. Just a few kilometres upriver in Dromod, it was a similar story. Here, we moored in a nice sheltered harbour, but the local pub/restaurant was not due to reopen until the following day.
Navigating upriver the next morning, we retraced our watery steps, going past Carrick-on-Shannon and continuing our course northwards. The number of boats we met increased significantly — so much so that by the time we got to the Clarendon Lock on the Boyle River, there was a bit of a traffic jam. We had to wait for three boats coming downriver to go through the process of descending the lock while we joined two more boats going upriver. The good thing is that, even though your vessels might be cheek-to-jowl in a lock, you can easily enjoy the banter while effortlessly maintaining your social distance.
The weather had been better than the two days of solid rain that had been predicted and as we entered the wide expanses of a perfectly calm Lough Key, the sun had come out.
The village of Leitrim is another of those places whose very existence I was unaware of until this trip and, even though it looks tiny on the road map, it turns out that this is at a major junction of waterways — the final post before a 13-lock section heading northwards through the Shannon-Erne Canal and from where you can also divert into Lough Allen (only with smaller vessels).
In spite of at least three official mooring areas, space was tight and we went for a spot in front of the Leitrim Marina Hotel. It was open, with people sitting outside eating and drinking on the terrace in the evening sunshine, as they were by Carthy’s pub just a short stroll away.
We opted to stay onboard as we were well stocked with food and drink. We hadn’t brought any fishing rods with us on this anglers’ haven, but to be gathered with other boats around the beautiful courtyard of the marina with views of lambs frolicking in the fields on the other side of the river, you had just about as much as you could have wished for.
The post-Covid world was looking very well so far.
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A seven-night self-catered holiday on the Elegance (pictured), sleeping up to six, ranges from €1,819 for a week in October to €3,289 for a week in July. Three days off-peak from €679. Conor was a guest of Emerald Star. 071 962 7633; emeraldstar.ie
1. Carrick-on-Shannon to Belleek
The northernmost and the longest (54 hours) of available cruises, you cross an international frontier, many locks (32) and enjoy the expanses of Upper and Lower Lough Erne.
2. Carrick-on-Shannon to Belturbet
This is usually a one-week cruise with plenty of locks and gorgeous places to stop, ending up in one of Cavan’s most unsung gems.
3. Carrick-on-Shannon to Athlone
With some of the best fishing spots south of Carrick, this cruise encompasses a lot of territory in a week-long return trip. Also, Athlone is positively regal when approached by boat.
4. Portumna to Killaloe
A lovely trip that involves a lot of lake cruising on Ireland’s third-largest lake (Lough Derg) and taking in counties Galway, Tipperary and Clare. Outstanding lively villages en route.
5. Portumna to Athlone
A beautifully meandering trip through fertile country that takes in a nice variety of settlements too, from majestic Athlone to charming historical villages (such as Shannonbridge) to the truly spectacular Clonmacnoise.