2020, truly the year of the staycation you have been meaning to do forever, and the whole of the country seems to be heading for the west coast. The Wild Atlantic Way is the gift that keeps on giving, whether it’s the scenic towns of Kinsale, Skibbereen or Bantry in West Cork, a trip through the mountains and lakes of Kerry, taking in the incredible views at the Cliffs of Moher, going on a culinary adventure through Galway or finding some of the most tranquil beaches in Europe on the coast of Donegal, it’s no wonder the Irish people head west for their Holidays at home.

The town of Carrick on Shannon often pops up on lists of “Ireland’s Top Stag & Hen Destinations” but the clue is in the name for some of the more wholesome reasons to visit. The River Shannon is Ireland’s longest river and flows from Dowra in County Cavan all the way into the sea in Limerick city. It runs through 11 counties and takes in 3 of Ireland’s major lakes (Derg, Ree & Allen). Boat Rental along the Shannon is extremely popular and after a bit of research, we decide Emerald Star is the provider we will opt for on our cruise. Pick up locations are in the town of Portumna on the Galway – Tipperary border or in Leitrim’s Carrick on Shannon.

On arrival to the harbour you are greeted by the super friendly and efficient staff, then without delay, brought straight for a tour of your vessel (nothing bugs me more than waiting around, clueless to the to hold up). We are shown in detail every working nob, dial and lever onboard
before being given a swift driving lesson around the marina. The boats although large, are easy enough to manoeuvre with little or no experience. When docking, you will require your fellow sailors to direct you in and tie your ropes secure, but generally, the driving aspect was fairly painless.

From Carrick, many cruisers will head south travelling to Lough Ree and the town of Lanesborough, Tarmonbarry and Athlone. Further south again and you will meet the picturesque Lough Derg. We decide for our 4-day journey will voyage North and enjoy the riverside beauty of
Leitrim and Roscommon, starting with a short 1-hour cruise to Leitrim Town.

After a little effort, and some guidance from one very helpful resident, we dock at the Leitrim Marina Hotel and are even get a round of applause from the few guests enjoying evening drinks while watching us manoeuvre into the last available spot in the small Marina.

Just down the road from the hotel, we stop off for some refreshments at Carthy’s Bar, a sleepy roadside pub with an adjacent chipper. A Monday night in Leitrim meant it was just us and another group of Dublin accents in the bar but the pints are delicious and the menu is straight from next door so the perfect evening unfolds with tasty burgers, fried chicken and a couple of rounds of Guinness. Just be aware, we were strongly warned off the taco chips by the barman when ordering, lol. A thoroughly enjoyable first night on the Shannon.

Early morning start and we are cruising again, our destination is Lough Key Forest & Activity Park in Roscommon. After a beautiful couple of hours on the Shannon including negotiating our way through Claredon Lock at Knockvicar, we are pulling up at the new 50 berth marina with all the facilities to go with it, including toilets, showers and electricity charging areas.

The marina is directly in front of the visitor centre and there you can purchase unit cards.

The Park itself is home to a host of activities, one of the standouts being Zipit Forest Adventures. “Climb high into the treetops, swing into cargo nets, even ride a bmx across a bridge, before zipping down one of our many ziplines.”

Other activities on offer include a lovely Tree Canopy Walk and viewing platform at Moylurg Tower, Orienteering & Wheel-O (Wheelchair Orienteering), Adventure Play Kingdom, Walking and Cycling Trails and Boda Borg. The Swedish entertainment facility consists of multiple interactive quests and puzzles requiring “teamwork, ingenuity, trial & error and skills you probably didn’t know you have to allow you to progress through its 47 rooms! It contains fun-filled activities, imaginative puzzles and enjoyable tasks but no instructions”.

The park is not the only attraction on Lough Key though, the lake is several kilometres across and contains over thirty wooded islands. Notably, Trinity and Church Islands each have the ruins of medieval priories standing on them. The standout visual attraction of the lough is most certainly Castle Island, home to McDermott’s Castle. 

A castle has stood on the island since 1184 and has been the backdrop of a number of conquests and sieges over the last 800 odd years. According to The Steeple Times the island isAssociated with the Legend of Una Bhan – the tragic story of a girl who fell in love with the son of the clan chief owner of the island – McDermott’s Island also featured in the works of W. B. Yeats and was visited by Sir Bob Geldoff when he made a BBC film about the Irish poet in 2016. It was previously used for the Sky One sitcom Moone Boy starring Steve Coogan and Johnny Vegas in 2014.”

Emerald Star provided us with a petrol engine dingy that trails behind the larger boat, it’s main purpose being for exploring shallower waters (or so we think). We set off on our second boat to go island hopping, taking in the ancient ruins of Church Island and setting up camp on Castle Island to do some exploring. The Castle is in ruins but still has an air of mystery when walking around with a colony of bats whizzing around overhead. No sign of Geldoff or Alan Partridge but very much a scene from an ancient fairytale.

Just off the Lough Key, another marina awaits us, Roscommon’s third most populous town of Boyle. Places of interest include King House and Boyle Abbey but we are here to eat. Options are limited with bar restrictions still in place so we find ourselves in Tai Chi Court Restaurant  for a Chinese feast. Bang for your buck. 

Our final journey brings us back down to Carrick-on-Shannon as we have been highly recommended dinner at The Oarsman. Killary Harbour Mussels in MacIvors cider cream sauce  and an incredible plate of succulent lamb show why this is an award-winning gastropub.

Doing any trip during the pandemic means many of the cosy pubs with traditional music are closed but the beauty of the boat is, you make your own craic. Daytimes spent on the top deck playing music while cruising down the Shannon, sipping a glass of wine and waving at each and every boat you pass is what it is all about. Our boat is Vision 4 and the sundeck is the perfect place to enjoy the Shannon. Equipped with a steering position, BBQ, bar fridge and plenty of seating, the deck is the star of the 4 cabin boat which sleeps up to 9 people and has 4 separate bathrooms with showers. A full kitchen dining area means you can make breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and enjoy the Shannon without ever leaving the boat.

The Vision 4 is one of the Premier range of boats and cost in and around €2000 for 4 nights with all the extras included in the price. Each cabin has two beds so with 8 people it works out at €250pp which is really good value. There is more budget friendly boats available too and of course smaller cruisers for smaller parties.