River Shannon barge makes relaxing, cozy cruise

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ATHLONE, Ireland -- I can think of no more relaxing way to explore the Irish countryside than aboard a river cruise on the Shannon Princess II.

This deluxe, 10-passenger barge offers a series of six-night cruises running Sundays to Saturdays from late April to early October along the River Shannon, between the towns of Athlone and Killaloe.

Launched near the end of the 2002 season, the Shannon Princess II combines superb cuisine and spacious accommodations with visits to historic sites and craft shops. There are also performances by musicians and storytellers who come onboard one or two nights of the cruise.

The 10-passenger Shannon Princess II barge, afloat on the River Shannon near Athlone, Ireland. Getting to the barge was a simple process involving a 30-minute taxi ride from Dublin's airport to the Aberdeen Lodge, in the city's embassy district.

There, I met the three couples who would be my fellow passengers. A van transported us to the harbor at Athlone -- a two-hour drive away- where we were welcomed aboard the Shannon Princess by owners Ruari and Olivia Gibbons.

Dynamic duo

The Gibbonses handle all onboard duties, with the assistance of a hospitable crew of three 20-something Irish lasses, who go out of their way to make every guest feel at home.

Ruari Gibbons pilots the boat and is at the helm for the entire 95 miles of the cruise. The barge travels 15 to 20 miles each day, stopping at least once -- and often twice -- for sightseeing excursions along the way.

Meanwhile, Olivia Gibbons is in the galley much of the time, concocting an assortment of gourmet dishes along with a variety of delectable desserts.

As a "virgin" barger accustomed to sailing primarily on giant megaships carrying upwards of 2,000 passengers, I soon discovered why cruising in a cozy, intimate vessel like the Shannon Princess is so pleasurable.

Cabins are more than adequate in size and comfort, as each contains a queen-size bed convertible into twin beds; ample storage space; a bathroom with shower; and panoramic windows with excellent views.

After unpacking my bags, I made my way into the lounge to join my fellow passengers in a welcome glass of champagne.

The only public area inside the barge, the lounge is big enough that one half is set up as a living room -- where guests gather to relax, chat, read and listen to music -- while the other is occupied by a table where all three meals are served.

Barging tends to attract well- traveled, professional, upscale couples ranging in age from 55 to 75; however, an entire barge may also be chartered by a family or several couples.

The passengers on my cruise were retired couples from San Francisco; Tampa, Fla.; and Boston.

Sites to see

There are daily shore excursions to sites of historical interest, as well as stops at several picturesque country villages and an excursion to the bustling city of Galway.

Some sites were located on or near the river, while others required a 60- to 90-minute ride in a van that meets the barge en route; upon arriving at a site, our group was taken on a guided tour.

All shore excursions are included in the price of the cruise.

Two of the most intriguing places that we visited were the Clonmacnoise ruins and Birr Castle and Gardens.

Set on the river, Clonmacnoise, founded in the sixth century, is one of the most renowned monastic sites in Ireland.

Once a major center of learning, the settlement gradually expanded into a cluster of stone churches, several dwellings and a stone tower. Many well-preserved remnants of these buildings still stand, along with two high crosses.

Another special place was Birr, the seat of the Parsons family -- the earls of Rosse -- for 14 generations; a castle has stood on the site since 1170.

Among the Parsons' many accomplishments was the construction of a telescope in 1845 that attracted astronomers here from as far away as Australia. Thanks to a restoration, the telescope operates as it did more than 150 years ago.

We also got to spend a full day on an excursion to Galway, Ireland's fourth-largest city and a lively university town.

I spent some time exploring the medieval core of the city, which contains several important structures.

These include the 14th century Church of St. Nicholas, dedicated to the patron saint of sailors.

According to legend, this church is where Christopher Columbus prayed before setting off for America.

Getting on board

Cruises aboard the Shannon Princess II are bookable through the Barge Lady, a U.S. operator that also books barge excursions and holidays in Belgium, England, France, Germany and Holland.

For its part, the Shannon Princess II can be booked on an individual basis or chartered by groups of up to 10 people. Per person rates for 2004 are $3,200, while chartering the entire barge costs $31,000. Rates include the cruise; all meals with wine, both onboard and on shore; an open bar; and chauffeured, guided sightseeing.

The Barge Lady pays travel agents 10% commission on individual bookings and 12% on entire barge charters. The first departure in 2004 is slated for April 25, and the last departs Oct. 3.

Contact the Barge Lady at (800) 880-0071, e-mail to [email protected] or check out www.bargelady.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

Many gourmet meals afloat

ATHLONE, Ireland -- Gourmet chef Olivia Gibbons, who dazzled everyone aboard the Shannon Princess II with her assortment of innovative dishes, trained at Ireland's Ballymaloe Cooking School, credited with saving and updating Irish cuisine.

The following is a sample of what one might find on- board a typical cruise:

Breakfast: Guinness crepes with raspberries and champagne sauce; French toast flavored with Bailey's liqueur; griddle pancakes with cherries; chanterelle mushrooms and scrambled eggs with hollandaise sauce; freshly baked scones and oat biscuits; and poached fruits.

Lunch: Asparagus risotto with Galway Bay prawns; scallion and tuna pie; a seafood platter with gravlax, prawns, trout and mussels; roast lamb with chickpeas.

Dinner: Rack of lamb with warm gooseberry and ewe's cheese tartlette; balsamic-marinated duck breast with melted organic onions; grilled asparagus with buttered pastry parcels of smoked oysters and organic tomato and mint coulis. -- J.S.

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