“This is like a scene out of Disney’s Jungle Cruise!”
Captain Zac was right. As we gently cruised along a narrow stretch of inky water surrounded by lush vegetation that was so very, very green it almost looked fake, it did feel like we were on a Disney ride. Or perhaps in a Disney film.
Instead, we were on a self-drive boating holiday on the River Shannon in Ireland and we were all grinning at each other and the scenery around us.
While I may have been on a few boats and ships over the years in the past they have always involved a professional captain and crew. So, what happens when a novice decides to go on a self-drive boating holiday with a group of fellow beginners? I’m glad you asked.
After flying into Dublin with four friends and getting a bus transfer to Carrick-on-Shannon where we would be collecting our boat I’ll confess I had a moment of terror. Before booking, I’d read Le Boat’s ‘New to Boating’ advice and it had said that it was easy, you didn’t need a license or any experience and they’d show us how to drive the boat when we were there.
When we arrived Zac reminded me that he knew his way around one and I was greatly relieved. We all quickly decided he would be Captain Zac but, here’s the thing, as the week went on we all took turns at the wheel and all thoroughly enjoyed it, so don’t let a lack of experience scare you off the idea.
Instant guide to boating
We were given a book of large maps showing the different sections along the Shannon that was easy to follow, as well as a guide to the towns and villages we’d see along the way so we could decide where we’d stop to see some sights, have a bite to eat and spend the night.
Before we were set free on the Shannon we were also given a manual and a mobile phone with the base numbers locked in so that we could call with any questions. Which is nice when there’s a strange beeping sound and you don’t know if it’s serious or not (turns out it was not, it was just to let us know the bilge pump was working after we crossed some choppy water).
It may have all been very new to us but it was fun to figure things out as we went along. Within a few days it felt so natural to be living that boating life that we were already talking about where we’d do it again next year.
While Le Boat has a range of different sized boats for different sized groups, ours was a Vision 4 which can sleep up to eight adults in four double/twin bedrooms with ensuite toilet and shower, a separate living area and a large deck above with space for lounging, eating and drinking with a view.
The kitchen had a full-sized fridge with a freezer compartment so powerful it turned vodka into slushy ice, as well as an oven and cooktop, coffee machine, kettle and toaster and all of the plates and cutlery we needed.
The showers had surprisingly great water pressure, even temperatures and were roomier than I’d expected. A plastic screen with press-studs helped keep the rest of the bathroom dry as we were splashing about.
Towels, linen and blankets are provided, and the beds were so comfortable we all slept like logs. While a starter pack of groceries can be pre-arranged, we were very happy to discover that the lovely people at the Kelly’s grocery stores deliver to the boat.
We first discovered this at Carrick-on-Shannon, the absolutely charming town with friendly people who can’t do enough for visitors. When one woman overheard us in Kelly’s debating how we should get to Tesco’s to buy a few extra things (oh, okay, drinks) that Kelly’s didn’t sell she insisted on driving us there and back.
We then returned to Kelly’s with our extra bits, loaded them into their delivery vehicle with all of our Kelly’s groceries and then had them delivered to the boat.
Within a couple of hours of arriving we’d had our introductory boating lessons and done enough shopping to feed us for days. So we did the sensible thing and headed straight to the pub.
Ireland’s country pubs
Ah yes, Irish pubs. Over the week we cooked quite a few of our own meals on board but those Irish pubs are so good you’d be crazy not to tuck into some of their food along the way.
Two absolute standouts from the week were the Oarsman in Carrick-on-Shannon and Keenan’s Hotel at Tarmonbarry which both serve award-winning pub food. Then there was the unexpectedly outstanding Thai meal when we happened across the little Thai restaurant Kin Khao in Athlone.
The biggest town between Carrick-on-Shannon and our destination at Portumna, Athlone is also home to the oldest pub in Europe according to the Guinness Book of Records. Sean’s Bar has been around since 900AD and has a beer named just that, which we popped in to try on the way back to the boat after our delicious Thai.
Castles and crosses
Over the week we had the chance to see the beautiful crosses at Clonmacnoise, the ancient monastery where people from all over Europe would come to be educated in the Middle Ages. Some of the High Kings of Ireland are buried in this old graveyard and, as I have always loved a Celtic cross, this was a special stop for me.
Another highlight was Lough Key, which was technically a little bit north of where we were starting our south bound journey, but there was still plenty of time to head up for a visit before coming back down river again.
At Lough Key there is a beautiful castle on an island in the middle of the lough, and you can spend the night moored with it in sight. A wonderfully dramatic backdrop to see last thing at night and wake up to.
Lough Key is also home to some very unusual trees, like nothing we’d ever seen before, and well worth wandering around and admiring. There’s also all sorts of outdoor exercise equipment dotted around the walk for those who would like to get the blood pumping.
50 shades of green
As we explored the Irish countryside we kept being blown away by how beautiful it is, and how many shades of green you can have in one scene. The colours are so rich and vibrant with all of those greens against water that’s so dark and inky blue it’s almost black at times.
As we travelled along we passed white swans and their little cygnets, the occasional horse and cow, and at one point we cruised alongside a golf course, so close that we could say hello and smile at the golfers out enjoying their day.
Throughout the week the weather kept us on our toes, switching from blue skies and hot sun on our skins to rain so cold it almost felt like sleet. I’d go from putting on 30+ sunscreen one moment to covering up with a jacket, scarf and beanie the next. So it’s best to be prepared for all conditions.
As well as meeting lovely locals it was fun to chat to fellow boating travellers along the way, and we soon discovered most of our fellow Le Boat-ers in Ireland were from Germany – which made the English and German translations for things along the way make more sense!
That said Aussies like Zac and I are cottoning on to how much fun it is to see Ireland and other parts of Europe this way, and so the number of Australians is also increasing.
The long goodbye
When the trip sadly had to come to an end we returned our boat to Portumna and made one last meal on board. We had decided to pay the cleaning fee before we left which meant we could simply pack, straighten things up and enjoy our last hours on board.
While two of our friends returned to Germany, Zac, Thomas and I stayed on a few extra days to see more of Ireland by land, including the fascinating Birr Castle which was just a half hour’s drive away. But as we farewelled our boat I said a little thank you to it for introducing me to a new way of travelling with friends, and remembered the words of a wise water rat who once told a mole (in the children’s book Wind in the Willows) that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
NEED TO KNOW
- Le Boat rentals are by the boat not per person and often in packages of three nights or more making it a budget-friendly option for families or friends travelling together.
- Sound can travel between cabins so you might want to pack earplugs.
- Slippers are also a good idea to wear on board and leave shoes at the door.
- Check the cupboards before you shop as there may be supplies left from previous guests (such as toilet paper, dishwashing liquid).
- Kelly’s grocery stores deliver to the boat.
- Bikes can be hired as an option for further onshore exploration.
- Hertz can deliver rental cars to the boat depot, so there’s no need to try to get a taxi to the nearest pick up point. We were then able to drop the car off at Dublin Airport before jetting out.