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Floridians explore the Emerald Isle

Couple charters a boat to explore the land of Guinness beer, rolling green hills and winding rivers

Couple charters a boat to explore the land of Guinness beer, rolling green hills and winding rivers

What do American boaters do when they go abroad? Look for yachts to charter of course. My husband and I have been boating since childhood and it’s become a lifelong passion. We’ve had large boats, small boats, powerboats, sailboats along with multitudes of dinghies and rowing shells. We live in Fort Lauderdale, the yachting capital of the world, but we still never get enough.

In planning vacations we always think of “water” first. We’ve taken our own boats to the Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and islands in the Caribbean, but sometimes extended cruising just isn’t practical. If distances are too great or there’s a time factor we think of chartering.

Recently, we were off to Ireland and found they have an extensive interior waterway system of rivers, lakes and canals. There are a number of companies offering charter boats and we opted to charter a cruiser from the Emerald Star Line — one of Ireland’s largest bareboat charter companies.

They have three locations where you can pick up a cruiser: Carrick-on-Shannon at the junction of the Boyle and Shannon rivers; Portumna on the Shannon; and Belturbet on the Erne.

It is possible to take one-way cruises but since we were driving that wasn’t practical for us. We opted for the Portumna location as there you can cruise both the Shannon and Lough Derg. If one is coming from either Shannon airport or another city, the Shannon Oaks Hotel on the grounds of PortumnaCastle makes an excellent start or finish for your trip.

We drove up from Killarney, arriving just before noon. First we filled out the paperwork and watched a captains’ instruction video. We were then given instructions on how the locks worked and a cell phone in case of problems. When we’d gotten all our instructions a representative took us down the dock to Carrick, our green-and-white 34-foot diesel cabin cruiser. He walked us through the boat, explained how everything worked, gave us a chart book, showed us the fresh linen and comforters they’d just brought down, and we were off.

We set off north along the Shannon. It was late May and the fields were rife with wild flowers. Thanks to a chart we’d seen in Emerald Star’s office while we were waiting I was able to identify pinky red rush, red valerian, lords and ladies, willow herb and common rushes and reeds, along with innumerable other varieties.

In many places narrow docks are built out into the river and most of them were occupied by fishermen. The fields run right down to the river without fences on the river frontage and cattle often come right down into the river. It wasn’t long before we rounded a bend on a narrow section of the river and were almost nose to nose with a cow and her newborn calf. The other cattle were peacefully lying down nearby amid the flowers.

Rushing below to grab my camera I noticed for the first time that Emerald Star had given us a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, a welcome addition to any larder. Beside it was their Waterways Hospitality Guide, which turned out to be invaluable, listing and rating places to eat and drink in every town. It was just one more example of how thorough Emerald Star is in outfitting their boats.

Locking through

The Shannon meanders along, always changing, widening in parts and narrowing in others and we passed several islands before arriving at Meelick Lock. It is a manned lock but there are both manned and automatic locks in the system. Swiping a card that is rather like a credit card, which can be purchased ahead at the marinas, operates the automatic locks. The locks we were using were manned with a lock keeper who operated the machinery and helped you through for the nominal charge of less than 2 Euros.

We stopped in Banagher that first afternoon, tying up at the municipal dock. We were pleasantly surprised to later find that dockage there was free. We had no trouble tying up, as the marina was practically empty and we walked into town, only a block away.

A persistent friend

We wandered around the town, visited the two churches and bought provisions at the local supermarket. Walking back to the marina in the late afternoon we saw the cruisers were now pouring in. Putting away the groceries we brought cocktails and hors d’oeuvres out on deck to watch the activity and enjoy the late-afternoon sun. We quickly attracted a feathered friend as a mute swan glided up to our swim platform. We’d seen many of these beautiful creatures along the river but this one was really very tame. We shared our crackers and nuts, both of which he seemed to enjoy enormously. He would daintily accept whatever treats we offered and then float elegantly off our stern. When our friend wanted more he would make a raspy noise in his throat and, failing that, he would rub or tap his beak quite hard on the swim platform quickly earning the name of Thumper.

We went ashore that evening for a couple of pints of Harp and a delicious salmon dinner at the ShannonHotel. They had local music after dinner and we finally ambled back to the boat about 10 p.m. It was only just getting dark. The fact that it stays light so late here makes cruising this time of the year even more pleasant.

We found Thumper waiting up for us and gave him a few more “nibblies” before turning in. Although it had been a warm afternoon it had cooled off considerably and we thoroughly enjoyed the comforter Emerald Star provided.

Continuing north the next morning our next stop was Clonmacnois, the ruins of a monastic city founded in the year 545. It sits in a splendid location on a ridge overlooking the Shannon. There was a light rain that morning on our way up, more of a mist really, but by the time we arrived the sun had broken through. A large rainbow framed the ruins and the droplets of moisture on the stone buildings glinted like diamonds in the sun. It is truly a magical place consisting of early churches, tall round towers, high crosses and a graveyard, all in remarkably good condition. We had a picnic lunch among the ruins before heading back to our berth at Banagher and points south.

Thumper was waiting for us at the marina and we again shared our hors d’oeuvres with him while I fixed a couple of delicious steaks braised in Guinness with onions and mushrooms, a recipe I’d found in the Waterway Hospitality Guide. Later we sat out on deck with Thumper enjoying a nightcap of Bailey’s.

We had the pleasure of meeting other cruisers who had told us the fishing was fantastic. Anglers are welcome throughout the whole of Ireland, however, if you wish to fish you should know that there are local differences in the regulations, seasons and licenses. While there is no closed season for coarse fishing, game fishing differs in various areas and it’s best to get the information from the Bord Fáilte (Irish Tourist Board) ahead of time.

Shades of green

Heading south the next morning we retraced our steps through Meelick Lock and then a low bridge at the top end of the magnificent Lough Derg. This is one of Ireland’s largest lakes, roughly 32,000 acres. It is aptly named “Ireland’s PleasureLake” and is really an inland sea set in a blend of mountain hillsides, woodlands, farms and villages. It is navigable over its total length of just under 25 miles. There are many places to visit, tie up or just anchor out depending on your mood. The lake is dotted with islands and provides amazing contrasting scenery. Once again we saw enchanting landscapes, historic monuments, castles, prehistoric sites, Celtic villages and took walks along the shore.

It’s impossible not to let one’s imagination run wild here in the home of Brian Boru, Ireland’s greatest king, and the heroes of old.

The “little people” are there too. You can almost feel them, especially at dawn and dusk. Even the light is different and the shades of green are too rich and varied to count.

It is a magical land and it was extremely difficult to return to Portumna and take our leave. By the time we turned the boat in we were already planning another trip and our next charter. There is too much to see and do in one visit. Besides, we have a moral obligation to come back and visit Thumper and make sure he’s well-fed. So “Sláinte” (Gaelic for “To your health”), Ireland, until we see you again next year.

Jennifer Rahel Conover is an author and photojournalist specializing in travel and yachting. Her book “Toasts For Every Occasion,” is in multiple printings. When not traveling she resides in Fort Lauderdale with her husband, Ted, and their Ragdoll cat, Sinbad.

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