Review: Shannon Princess II
Cruise - River Cruise
River cruising in Ireland
River cruising is booming and it’s a world away from mega-ship ocean cruising. It has grown 14% since last year, compared to stagnation in the ocean cruising market. The main reasons for growth in its popularity are down to its unique features – the experience is on a more personal smaller scale, you won’t get seasick, you’re always in touch with the local landscape, you get off to explore most days and you’ll often see places that the tourist crowds miss.
Riverboats range from the relatively large 300 passenger boats plying the Rhine and Danube down to four-person drive-your-own family cruisers. But at the top end are luxury hotel barges with just a handful of passengers, 5 star pampering and gourmet dining.
I’ve explored Ireland many times but have never seen it from the Shannon – Britain and Ireland’s longest river, flowing through the heart of the Emerald Isle. I’ve previously cruised the Thames and France’s Burgundy canal with European Waterways (www.gobarging.com) so I also booked this trip with them.
The skipper of the luxury hotel barge, the Shannon Princess II, picked us up at our hotel in Dublin in his stylish minibus. Along with our fellow passengers we were transferred to Killaloe in Co Clare, about 10 miles north of Limerick.
With just five cabins for a maximum of ten passengers, this trip is set for gourmet dining, daily-guided excursions and a relaxing glide through a beautiful landscape.
The Shannon Princess is beautifully designed. Lovely cabins, well equipped with decent sized bathroom and cabin length windows for natural light and good views. The open plan lounge-dining room has sofas and armchairs and its 24-hour complimentary bar is an attractive draw. But the real stars are skipper and guide Ruairi, our consummate chef Olivia and our two hostesses Kasia and Karina.
As well as being a glorious way exploring the Irish landscape and culture the Shannon Princess is a gourmet foodie trip. Our onboard chef Olivia Gibbons trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, made famous by celebrity TV chef Rachel Allen, and Olivia’s table is as good as food can get. An example of Olivia’s take on the traditional bacon and egg breakfast is duck egg topped with crispy Palma ham which I just had to have it every day.
Olivia cooks everything on board including bread, biscuits, cakes, petit fours and as far as possible all produce is sourced from farms and market gardens within a few mile of the river. our first evening’s dinner was: Chicken liver pate Passion fruit sorbet Roast sea bass, sprouting kale, leaf salad Irish farmers market cheeses, walnut bread and vintage port Vanilla crème brulee Tia Maria Irish coffee and petit fours Good red and white wines accompanied our meals after which more liqueurs were served and I frequently had a rummage through the complimentary bar.
The riverside scenery constantly changes, there’s fascinating human and wildlife activity on and around the river but the optional daily excursions took us further afield.
A 40-minute trip to Craggaunown castle – the classic Irish fortified Tower House was well worth it, as the woodland was full of primroses, bluebells and unfurling ferns. In the grounds they’re recreated a traditional crannog – Iron Age era artificial islands built as a defence from marauding neighbours.
Tim Severin’s boat, The Brendan, is on display here. He sailed this ash and cow hide boat to America in 1976 to show that St Brendan could have reached America in the sixth century as implied in a ninth century Irish manuscript – beating Columbus by a thousand years and Leif Eriksson by 400 years – although not the frequently ignored native American Indians!
One evening we moored at Banagher, a small seventeenth century town with a lovely 10 arched bridge. Surprisingly there was a Martello tower beside the bridge – someone in London obviously thought Napoleon was likely to rampage through Ireland. For such a small town it has some big literary connections – Anthony Trollope lived here whilst he was deputy postal surveyor – whatever that is? In 1854 Charlotte Bronte honeymooned in Banagher after marrying the Rev Arthur Bell Nicholls, sadly she was dead within a year.
Castles galore Ireland has any number of castles and it would be easy to visit several everyday – if we were that obsessed. Portmna Castle and Priory in Co Galway has a typical Norman history of the clan Ricard de Burgh. It’s a fabulously grand manor house but with an extraordinary level of defences – a great wall, sometimes double built, large gun emplacements, musket slits, iron grills and a machicolation overhang for defending the front door. As you might guess they were an unpopular and oppressive family that had to constantly defend themselves from local people. The fifteenth Earl was a classic absentee landlord, squeezing every penny from local tenant farmers and living the highlife in London’s Belgravia off the backs of the rural poor.
Leap castle in Co Offaly was a totally different experience. The O’Carroll family built the original stone castle in the 1300s, it was extended with additional Renaissance style wings in the 1600s but was burned down in 1922 during Ireland’s Civil War.
Sean Ryan bought the Leap castle ruins in 1991 and has made many renovations and now lives there. He’s a great storyteller as well as being a marvellous whistle player of international repute.
Leap has a reputation of being the most haunted building in Europe although I’m sure there’s plenty who would dispute the claim. For more background listen to a Radio 4 Excess Baggage programme: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/excessbaggage/index_20040228.shtml
On our second to last morning we moored beside the ruins of the Anglo-Norman Clonmacnoise (Clon-mac-noise) castle in Co Offaly. We strolled up the hill, passed the wildly tilting castle and came to the huge sixth century monastery ruins of Clonmacnoise. We arrived by boat, long before the coach crowds, so we had the place to ourselves and on a windswept morning it’s an atmospheric and haunting place.
Founded by St Ciaran, Clonmacnoise became one of Europe’s most important seats of Christian learning, a key pilgrimage site and the burial place for the High Kings of Tara.
Outside the main enclosure is the Nun’s Church, erected by Dervorgilla, the medieval femme fatale that many historians consider precipitated the Norman conquest of Ireland 800 years ago.
If one place encapsulates a thousand years of Irish history it’s Clonmacnoise. Its wealth was also its bane and Celtic kings regularly pillaged it, there were constant Viking raids, a Norman land grab and finally the British looted and destroyed it in 1552.
Another excursion was to one of my favourite cities – Galway; home to the 14 tribes and ferries to The Aran Islands.
Our trip ended in Athlone and we moored in the centre of town, in the centre of Ireland. This has always been an important crossing point of the Shannon and somewhere nearby there’s a 4,500 year old megalithic tomb. Athlone’s impressive thirteenth century Anglo-Norman castle is an indicator of the age-old importance of this location, linking east and west Ireland – Leinster and Connaght.
My last pint of Guinness was in Sean’s Pub, confirmed as Ireland’s oldest pub (circ 900 AD) by the Guinness Book of Records. It’s a pretty good pub but to be honest there’s not much of the original building left, probably just the foundations, still the Guinness was top notch.
Our final excursion was to the Kilbeggan distillery in County Westmeath – created in 1757 and deemed to be the oldest licensed distillery still producing Irish whiskey (note the extra e which differentiates Irish Whiskey from Scotch whisky). It was a fascinating visit with some great whiskey to sample at the end.
Although not cheap this was a 5 star week and what made it special was the quality of the food, the accommodation, the high level of personal service and the well organised excursions.
Prices for a 6 night cruise aboard the 10 passenger hotel barge 'Shannon Princess' are from £2,540pp in a twin/double en suite cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full boat charters are also available.
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.