Escape Cruise control on River Shannon
Rebecca Lee takes to the water for a boat trip on the River Shannon - stopping off for ziplining and e-biking, it proved the perfect iso-cation
Holidays, they're all about making new memories and escaping the stresses of everyday life. When that main stressor, however, is a pandemic and your previous five trips abroad get cancelled, it is time to think outside the box.
Like many, with social distancing and staycations ingrained on my brain, when planning my holiday in Ireland and in need of serious escapism, I did lots of research. Eventually the wannabe sailor in me decided taking to the River Shannon for some much-needed relaxation could prove a good option.
With Ireland's longest river flowing through 11 counties, it meant our options would be endless. After much googling I came across Emerald Star, who offer boats of all shapes and sizes. The cruise company is one of three main providers of boats on the River Shannon, perfect for eager holidaymakers like me, who harbour a more adventurous side.
Sailor's hat in hand, my sister and I arrived at the company's Carrick-on-Shannon base to embark on my vessel, a sparkling white Consul craft which, although cosy, could sleep up to four people and featured a decent sized saloon area. The 10-metre boat is part of Emerald's Star's budget range and although traditional décor-wise, it contained all the essentials needed for our three-night boating break.
It was my second time cruising the River Shannon, which spans 360km in length and, after watching safety videos virtually, masks in hand, we boarded our fully-sanitised boat alongside our instructor, Marcus, who took us on a cruising crash course. Emerald Star recently rolled out its 'Covid-19 Safety Charter' programme which, we were happy to learn, meant our boat would be sanitised, cleaned and inspected before our arrival. Ex-race car driver Marcus was satisfied we could cruise confidently and, with Christy Moore's The Voyage taking helm of the ship's built-in speaker system, we made our way to our first port of call, Lough Key Forest Park situated on the enchanting outskirts of Boyle, Roscommon.
There are many highlights to hiring a cruiser, it is essentially a mobile home on the water and is undoubtedly a unique way to experience the unspoilt landscapes Ireland offers. It also means you can visit a different village each day and it is traffic free. It truly is the ultimate social distancing getaway - no driver's license required! If you choose to take to the water, I recommend hiring a boat with a sundeck so you can soak up some rays and inhale the freshest of air along the way.
Be warned though, if you fancy your home comforts such as long hot showers, hair straighteners and more, you may need to prepare yourself as crew life is a hands-on-deck experience. There is no time for slacking, particularly when mooring (i.e. parking) at marinas or gracefully gliding through locks. Prepare to tie ropes, fill tanks with water and fuel and ration the electricity. Trust me though, it's all part of the fun.
We arrived at Lough Key at sunset, digesting the most instagrammable views along the way. Once moored, following some assistance from a lifelong boater on shore, in the spur of the moment we took a taxi to Boyle village eatery Open Table. As one of only two restaurants welcoming bookings in Boyle at the time, we still had the craic, with many regulars chatting away to us at a two-metre social distance.
No rest for the wicked, our second day was spent exploring the grounds of Lough Key Forest Park and the beautiful 12th-century abbey ruins that graciously dominate the plush green landscape.
We set out wanting adventure and what better way to make the most of social distancing than by ziplining? We visited Zipit Forest Adventures based in the heart of the park.
It was my first time taking to the wire and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Following a socially distanced induction with our instructor, we took to the skies. With over 900 metres of ziplines and activities aplenty, the sheer adrenaline rush we got from going from orange lines (basic level) to white lines and blue (for the most advanced) made it an enjoyable, pandemic-friendly activity.
With adults and kids' courses, Zipit also has parks in Cork and Dublin. Just make sure to book before you go as I was informed it can be a full house in Lough Key at the best of times.
Following an action-packed day, we cruised to the quaint village of Leitrim, a famous boating hub. There we moored our boat for the night with the assistance of two fishermen. There truly is a beautiful sense of comradery from boat to boat. Unfortunately for us, due to Covid-19 the marina's facilities were closed, and there was no shore power for electricity.
Not all marinas have shore power points yet - queue the awkward visit to the Leitrim Marina Hotel nearby, who kindly let us plug in our hairdryers and charge our phones in exchange for a beautiful meal and some Sauvignon Blanc! Situated on the banks of the Shannon, The Leitrim Marina Hotel is a famous hotspot for boaters of all capabilities.
Before embarking on our staycation that enabled isolation, I was advised it would be a sin not to experience the Shannon Blueway by bicycle. We hired bikes from local family business Electric Bike Trails, sandwiched in the heart of Leitrim Village. The joy of the electric powered bicycles is that they have motors which assist pedalling, making cycling an almost effortless experience.
Owned by local husband-and-wife team Eileen and Seamus Gibbons, passionate cyclists, our e-bikes saw us whiz along the Shannon and soak up our beautiful surroundings sweat-free.
Luckily for us, Eileen provided us with a map that led to Leitrim's newest attraction, The Shed Distillery - home to Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin. The newly opened €3m development set in an old jam factory features an almost mythical distillery tour with optimum opportunities to learn about and sample a range of in-house freshly distilled gins, vodkas and whiskeys.
The lush facility oozes charm and plans on attracting over 30,000 visitors over the next year.
After cycling back to Leitrim village and leaving our bikes with our newfound friend Eileen, we cruised back to Carrick-on-Shannon that evening.
Our last mooring completed smoothly (we were pros at this stage), we watched the sun sink below the water before venturing off to find pub grub.
Known for being a prime location for hen and stag parties, despite the crisis, Carrick-on-Shannon continues to be a busy spot with eateries and shops aplenty.
Boarding our boat for one last night, we slept to the rhythm of the river and were woken by some quacking mad hungry ducks. Another joy of boat life is that you never know what you'll wake up to!
Although you may not be able to travel abroad right now, you can take to the water, and that, in my experience, is out of this world. As Christy Moore puts it: "Life is an ocean, love is a boat, in troubled waters that keeps us afloat."
● Rebecca cruised the River Shannon with Emerald Star. Cruising season runs until October 31 and resumes in spring. A seven-night self-catered holiday on the Consul boat starting and ending at Carrick-on-Shannon's base in October costs from €639 per boat. Check out emeraldstar.ie or call 071 9627633.
● Zipit Forest Adventure Parks, Lough Key costs from €15 for children and €35 for adults. For more, see zipit.ie.
● Rebecca rented e-bikes from Electric Bike Trails in Leitrim village. A full day's e-bike hire costs €40, and they also offer hybrid and kids bikes. See electricbiketrails.ie for more.
● A tour of The Shed Distillery Drumshanbo costs between €15-19 per adult, with children under 10 costing €10. Check out thesheddistillery.com