ATHLONE, Ireland -- I can think of no more relaxing way to explore
the Irish countryside than aboard a river cruise on the Shannon
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
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
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.
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
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
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
All shore excursions are included in the price of the
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
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
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. --