A new generation of cruiser has hit Ireland's longest river. Thomas Breathnach takes Horizon 3 into the waters and wild...
Engine switched to off, I lie across the bow of our cruiser.
My golden retriever's wagging tail is a fanning relief from the summer swelter. Water gently laps to a ripple, cattle swish through the riverbank bullrushes, and a kingfisher bolts a flash of blue across the reeds like a Celtic macaw.
Where else would you get such unabridged peace but on Ireland's finest waterway? I'm on the Shannon, in blissful tranquillity, aboard the river's newest holiday vessel.
My journey began a few days earlier in Portumna, headquarters to boat hire company Emerald Star. I was skippering its fleet's newest vessel, Horizon 3 - a Miami Boat Show-class cruiser that would turn the heads of every fisherman and lock-keeper from there to Carrick-on-Shannon. Crafted like a futuristic barge, the spacious, 45ft vessel sleeps up to seven passengers, so I brought along a few friends for the voyage and, as cabin cruising is one of Ireland's pet-friendliest getaways, my dog, Vipp (left), too.
Far from the days of aged, damp river boats with rickety bread-toasters, Horizon 3 is very much a next-gen cruiser. Along with three cabins (all ensuite), the lower deck contains a showroom kitchen-dining salon with flatscreen TV, mp3 station and waterproof speakers. Upstairs, plus points included a spacious fun deck with sunbathing area, wet bar, BBQ hotplate and deck shower. The design brief reads a little more 'Barbados' than 'Banagher' - but with a scorching forecast on the cards, we do it justice.
Cruising on the Shannon requires no previous boating stripes, something that often comes as a surprise to novices and landlubbers. All Emerald Star passengers are given an instructed dry run aboard their vessel before they leave, allowing them to master controls, navigation and mooring (often the most daunting task) before setting off. Another highlight of Horizon 3 is the addition of a bow thruster - a rookie-proof feature which allows us to steer into marina berths as easily as smart-parking at Tesco.
There's a dreamy timelessness to cruising the Shannon, and it doesn't take long for the river to spellbind. Journeying north from Portumna, the fertile flood meadows of the Shannon Callows pop with flora and fauna. Blooms of whitethorns blot the river banks; swans and cygnets glide through the irises and rushes; pairs of moorhens wade as if on a weekend date night. They're the kind of bucolic scenes you'd imagine in the works of Kenneth Grahame or Seamus Heaney. We're cruising through poetry - in slow motion.
Our first night's moorings come at Shannonbridge, straddling the border between Offaly and Roscommon. Like many minnow settlements along the river, passing tourist trade has given Shannonbridge some surprising culinary chops; having expertly navigated to make last orders, we disembark to visit the panoramic restaurant at Luker's Bar (facebook.com/LukersBarShannonbridge), tucking into a perfect summery menu of steaks, salads and Eton mess while watching a fireball Shannon sunset.
The meal itself was only surpassed by a chaser downstairs at the original grocer's bar, which dates back to the 1750s. Perhaps Ireland's most photogenic pub (and it's got competition), proprietor John Joe Ryan guides us through the memorabilia stacked around an old-world bar infused with sweet, turfy smoke from a Victorian fireplace.
Aside from its waterway appeal, the River Shannon also forms the natural border for Ireland's Ancient East (irelandsancienteast.com), making an ideal portal for meandering history buffs. The next morning, after a leisurely Full Irish on board, we soak up the dramatic draíocht of arriving at Clonmacnoise (above, heritageireland.ie, €8) by water: the round tower of Temple Finghin acts as a kind of medieval beacon as we journey through the wetlands. The OPW allows dogs on the sacred site too, which means Vipp can ramble along with us through the magnificently preserved early Christian ruins.
Continuing north, we're more immersed in the Shannon's relaxing slipstream with every passing mile. From Athlone to Lough Ree, Longford to Leitrim, this adventure is less about epic crescendos and more about peaceful pace and the enamouring characters we encounter en route. For us, that means the friendly Roosky lock-keeper who offers us Cadbury's Roses for wearing our life jackets; for Vipp, it's Cindy - a yellow labrador he buddies up with in the beautiful village of Dromod.
Surprisingly, perhaps, just 50pc of Emerald Star's cruisers are Irish. Over the course of our weekend, we meet a convoy of beer-swilling Austrian fishermen, an English family aboard a vessel named Cirrhosis of the River, and a party of American couples whose stern reveals a flapping Confederate flag. All are drawn to one of Europe's wildest rivers.
Should more of us join them? In 2014, a report for the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation found cruise holidays "underperforming", with a 50pc drop in demand over the previous decade. Lying back on the high-tech bow of our Horizon 3, soaking up a timeless calm, I reckon the River Shannon remains our great uncharted wonder.
1. Stay safe on lakes
Grab those binoculars! Cruising the Shannon can mean navigating some of Ireland's largest lakes (including Lough Ree and Lough Derg). Navigation markings aren't as obvious as on the river so keep your eye out as lakes can be surprisingly shallow, and groundings are common.
2. Book smart
If budget allows, book two berths larger than your party — this saves you having to convert the shared living spaces come bedtime.
3. Bring a foodie guide
Hungry? Georgina Campbell and Waterways Ireland publish the free guide A Taste of the Waterways (email@example.com). See also waterwaysireland.org.
1. The Derg Inn, Terryglass
This postcard gastropub on the banks of Lough Derg is worth a downriver detour to Tipperary alone. Kitchen highlights include their on-point cod and chips and steamed mussels with lashings of garlic and vin blanc. Mains from €14; thederginn.ie.
2. Wineport Lodge, Glasson
Like a cabin mansion on the Great Lakes, Wineport Lodge brings an air of wilderness luxury to the Shannon. Try their daily specials like duck confit or Toulouse sausage (€19) for dinner and if you dine here, you can moor overnight for free, too. wineport.ie.
3. Cox’s Steakhouse, Dromod
With seared sirloins, buttery fillets (and veggie options) at their best, this postcard Leitrim locale sates the most ravenous of wanderers. Take the scenic nature trail from the marina to the pub to work up your appetite! Mains from €15; coxs-steakhouse.com.
Emerald Star’s rates for a six-berth Lake Star cruiser start from €241 for three nights. Rates on the new seven-berth Horizon 3 start from €1,422 for seven nights. Planning on cruising one way? Emerald Star can transfer your car from Portumna to Carrick-on-Shannon for a fee of €160.
See emeraldstar.ie for more.