- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

DUBLIN, Ireland — River barge captain Ruairi Gibbons tells us we are not seeing Ireland like most first-time visitors. Our six-night cruise aboard the Shannon Princess II offers a different perspective of the Emerald Isle along the River Shannon.

“Most people who come to Ireland go all along the coast. What we offer is very unique in itself. We go right up the middle. You see Ireland from the inside — very few people do that,” says Mr. Gibbons, whose nickname, “Rory,” is also the way Ruairi is pronounced.

Consider Ireland’s turbulent past. Vikings, Norsemen, Romans, Normans, right up to the English, all invaded Ireland’s interior via the Shannon. Guests on Mr. Gibbons’ 119-foot luxury barge follow the same waters, but on a sojourn of enlightenment, education and entertainment.

The trip starts at Dublin’s Aberdeen Lodge, a spot often selected for a pre-cruise overnight because of its tony Ballsbridge address.

Innkeeper Pat Halpin tell us we’re in for a treat: “It’s a great time. Rory and his wife are a great team. She is a superb chef.”

Mr. Halpin also offers this quick Ireland overview: “It’s an interesting country. There’s something for everyone here. We’ve had the fastest-growing economy in Europe for the last 10 years.

“Of course, we have a great literary background in Ireland. Some of the greatest writers in the world are from here, and some of them are guests here. We’re the biggest manufacturer of computer software in the world. … I think Ireland is a great starting point for people from America. It’s easy to get to, you speak the language — and the Euro.”

Walkable from the lodge are the seaside, pubs, restaurants, shops and a metro stop to downtown Dublin and its museums, entertainment venues and night life.

At midday, affable driver-tour guide Paddy Kavanagh — his name really is Paddy — greets us with a big smile and Irish charm. Before we bid farewell to the Aberdeen’s attentive staff, he has efficiently loaded the luggage into the back bay of his Mercedes minibus, and we’re quickly under way.

Bustling Dublin streets give way to narrow country roads skirted by miles of rock walls, most of them dry — no mortar; only craftsmanship holds the rocks in place.

Mr. Kavanagh’s knowledgeable, fun commentary makes the hour-plus drive to Killaloe pass quickly. He sings “Molly Malone,” announcing, “We love singing in Ireland, so join in.” We instantly understand “Forty Shades of Green” as we look at the passing landscape, but we are surprised when Mr. Kavanagh tells us the songwriter was Johnny Cash.

Mr. Kavanagh deposits us into the capable waiting hands of Mr. Gibbons, his wife and barge chef, Olivia, and the multitalented Marina, Petra and Rana, who, we quickly learn, are deckhands, waiters, housekeepers and entertaining conversationalists.

In 2003, the Gibbonses refurbished the barge as a floating hotel to easily accommodate 10 passengers in the five cozy but comfortable staterooms, each with its own bath.

The salon runs the width of the boat — 19 feet — with an expandable table for dining and comfortable sofas and armchairs for reading or conversation. It’s a perfect gathering place, particularly with the open bar at one end.

The upper deck provides a great perch for observing the passing flotilla of pleasure craft; green fields with cows, sheep and horses; many ducks, swans and other waterfowl; and architecture — ancient and contemporary buildings on pastoral riverbanks along the way.

As we begin to appreciate the river and accompanying landscape, we experience a level of service that spoils us silly.

Even when we sleep through breakfast, the staff quickly produces delicious coffee and pastries to tide us over until the exquisite lunch of lamb, eggplant, watermelon salad with feta cheese, chicken wrapped in prosciutto di Parma, and also green beans and roasted peppers.

The meals are delivered by Mrs. Gibbons, usually wearing her blue-and-white-striped cook’s apron. She studied at Ireland’s longest-running private cookery school. Using ingredients bought each day at local markets to assure freshness, she skillfully prepares delicious dishes such as parcels of wild salmon.

The evening she offers her version of Irish stew, she serves it with shots of Guinness on the side. We opt for a second serving — with a second shot instead of dessert.

That’s not to downplay her desserts, which delight nightly, as does the cheese course, for which the staff take turns describing the various Irish farmhouse cheeses, accompanied, if desired, by after-dinner coffee or port.

TWO LOCKS, 120 MILES

During the week, our route takes us just 120 miles, crossing through two locks: Athlone and Meelick. The pace is very relaxed, which is what barging is all about. Passengers sit back, watch the river, look for approaching towns, explore them, then return to the boat for more indulgence, Shannon Princess II-style.

Mr. Gibbons, once a printer, isn’t surprised he ended up on the river.

“I’d always come down to the Shannon myself on holiday, and I loved it,” he says. He developed a plan “to go on full-time holiday. I found three guys I knew who had money, and they expressed an interest. Basically, what we had was four chiefs and no Indians.”

Eventually, he was able to go out on his own after finding his future wife. “I put out an ad for a chef; she was the only one to answer, so I had to marry her to keep her,” he says. Their adorable 5-year-old sails with them, with a teacher-nanny and Auntie Marina.

The Gibbons family operated the Shannon Princess I for seven years before selling it. They’re preparing for their fifth season on Shannon Princess II, which once was a day-trip ferry for 200 passengers. Now it is the only luxury hotel barge operating on the Shannon.

Though “it does get intense” sharing daily life with a new boatload of passengers each week, the youthful Mr. Gibbons admits, “I still get a big buzz out of sailing the boat.” He’s a captain at heart.

“I like the Lough Derg,” he says. “The river section there is so windy (as in winding), you have to work a little harder.”

About half the bookings on the boat, which is popular with Americans, are by individuals, and half for charters of families, friends and corporate groups. Mr. Gibbons is happy to customize the trip but says most passengers “just take this itinerary.” He’ll gladly arrange special excursions, such as horseback riding, fishing, biking or golf.

We delight at one night’s surprise on-board entertainment — a trio of Irish musicians. At each port (except Clonmacnoise), Mr. Kavanagh leads us on an excursion.

On the first day, we sail to Mountshannon, passing the remains of buildings on uninhabited Holy Island. On shore, Mr. Kavanagh drives us to the Craggaunowen Project, a Celtic Bronze Age settlement or crannog reconstruction. A crannog was an artificial or natural island used for a settlement in Ireland and Scotland.

Costumed guides explain dwellings from the Iron Age through the late Bronze Age and demonstrate farming and hunting techniques. Of interest are a ring fort, common in the fourth through fifth centuries, a wooden roadway and a cooking pit. The wild boars are not camera-shy.

Also on display is the Brendan Boat, a replica of the animal-hide boat supposedly sailed by St. Brendan the Navigator to the Americas before Columbus. In 1976, the boat was used to re-enact the voyage.

Another excursion is an all-day affair out of Terrytown, a two-time winner of Ireland’s TidyTowns competition, an annual event honoring communities that are neat and clean.

After a walk through the small village and its old cemetery, there’s a hearty lunch at Derg Inn complete with Smithwicks, an Irish beer. A souvenir T-shirt elsewhere addresses the Irish’s stereotypical love of brew: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.”

The afternoon stop is Leap Castle, reportedly Europe’s most haunted, owned by musician Sean Ryan and his family. Guests are treated to an Irish step-dancing performance by Mr. Ryan’s teenage daughter and a friend, with keyboard accompaniment and Mr. Ryan on traditional tin whistle. (He’s a well-known recording artist.) Mr. Kavanagh is coaxed into singing “Danny Boy.”

Yet for all the artistry in the performances, it is the upper-level “bloody chapel,” where a brutal murder occurred, that piques many visitors’ curiosity. The O’Carroll family were chieftains of the area, and a feud over control broke out.

One of the brothers, a priest, was saying Mass in the chapel when his rival brother stabbed him with a sword.

Compounding the possible evil in the room is the “murder hole,” a small shaft where victims would be shoved to fall onto spikes several floors below, left there to suffer as they awaited death. Workers doing repairs on the castle around 1900 discovered layers of human skeletons in the hole; reportedly three cartloads of bones were hauled away.

A day trip to Galway — the second-fastest-expanding city in Europe — offers a glimpse of modern city life, with streets closed to traffic and teeming with shoppers, street performers and musicians.

The crystal factory is no longer open to tours, but its showrooms attract discount hunters, and there is a small history museum. There, you’ll learn that the Claddagh ring — its design a pair of hands holding a heart bearing a crown — originated here. Its motto is “Let love and friendship reign,” and how the ring is worn — the direction of the heart and on which hand — signifies whether its bearer is taken or available.

OLDEST PUB

A day in Athlone allows a stop at Ireland’s oldest pub, Sean’s, but for the majority of the barge’s guests, the trip highlight is Clonmacnoise, “a very spiritual place,” Mr. Gibbons says, “one of the country’s most treasured early Christian monuments.”

Ruins of this sixth-century monastery rise ghostlike into view as the Shannon Princess approaches, then docks just steps away.

St. Ciaran chose this river spot, an important trading crossroads, in what was the Kingdom of Meath. Though he died at age 33, this testimony to faith and learning survived, becoming a precursor to university study.

The Clonmacnoise Web site describes it as a “Scriptorium from the 8th-10th centuries and many scribes toiled long and arduous hours learning the skills which were to become world renowned in works such as the Books of Kells and Durrow.

“Metal workers in gold, silver and bronze produced some of the world’s finest Celtic craftwork, not surpassed since the 11th century.”

Clonmacnoise had a violent past: It was destroyed 13 times by fire and attacked 40 times by vikings, Anglo-Normans, Irish and English. The monks rebuilt each time until 1552, when an English attack ended it entirely. There were no other monasteries in Ireland until almost 300 years later.

The impressive Celtic stone crosses that remain include the massive, rose-quartz sandstone North and South crosses now housed indoors nearby, with replicas in their original spots outdoors.

Our final outing offers a touch of elegance as a carriage driver in top hat and tails takes us through the grounds at Birr Castle, home to the world’s largest telescope when it was built in the 1840s. It’s still on display.

The castle itself is home to Lord and Lady Rosse and is not open to the public, but the grounds include box hedges and formal gardens, a lake and suspension bridge, a fountain, waterfall and winter garden plus an arboretum and wildflower meadows. A museum displays the family’s proud history of scientific pursuit, mainly in astronomy, engineering, photography and electricity.

All too soon, it’s time to pack for departure, and we find ourselves humming that Johnny Cash song, “Forty Shades of Green.” The lyrics now touch our hearts in a real way:

Close my eyes and picture the emerald of the sea,

From the fishing boats at Dingle to the shores of Dun-a-dee.

I miss the River Shannon and the folks at Skip-a-ree,

The moorlands and the meadows with their forty shades of green.

• • •

The Shannon Princess II’s season runs from late April to early October. Reservations are being accepted for 2007 cruises.

Six-night cruises cost $3,500 per person, including all food, wine, beverages and excursions; weeklong charters for 10 are $33,000.

For more information, visit www.shannonprincess.com; send e-mail to [email protected]; or contact the barge’s U.S. representative, Taylor & O’Neill, 888/708-1001.

For stays in Dublin before or after cruises on the Shannon Princess, Aberdeen Lodge has 18 rooms plus suites and offers comfortable accommodations in a notable neighborhood that includes a number of embassies. Rates start at about $125 per night; visit www.halpinsprivatehotels.com/aberdeen-lodge-hotel.htm or call 800/617-3178.

For a splurge, spend a few days at Dublin’s Merrion, a five-star property of four connected, lovingly restored Georgian town houses. The hotel has a guide that lists its artwork, including James Joyce’s life-sized statue in the gardens.

The Merrion is conveniently located near the National Gallery and Natural History Museum, with outstanding rooms, a full-service spa and excellent service ($520 per night. Visit www.merrionhotel.com or call 353/1-6030-600).

Barging the Thames

Another luxury barge experience awaits on England’s River Thames, courtesy of another friendly captain, Dominic Read.

Like Ruairi Gibbons of the Shannon Princess II in Ireland, Mr. Read loves working on the river. “It has been called 2,000 years of floating history,” he says.

His 116-foot Magna Carta is a labor of love. He built it, starting with its 1936 hull.

The result is elegant and spacious. The four cabins have air conditioning, in-suite bathrooms with underfloor heating, free-standing dressers and armoires plus king beds with white down comforters and linens. The open deck has a hot tub, table and chairs, plus two steamer chairs perfect for an English afternoon tea service or coffee and morning papers (which Mr. Read retrieves daily from the six stops). Bicycles for guests also are stowed here.

The main salon has blue leather settees, CDs and DVDs (each bedroom suite’s TV plays both), plus games and books, including a great regional selection. The well-stocked bar with complimentary drinks is always open. Oversized windows are perfect for watching the passing scene of picnickers, bikers, runners, walkers and soccer players sharing the shoreline and fields.

The salon’s large dining table is next to the galley. Wonderful aromas, such as bread baking, fill the air all day.

For lunch and dinner, complimentary white and red wines are presented by the staff. The dining table, which seats 10 comfortably for our farewell gala, gleams with china, crystal, silverware and candlelight. Background music and fresh flowers complete the mood.

Dinners feature starter, entree, dessert and cheese courses. You might coax Mr. Read into joining for the cheese course — he’s a cheddar fan — to recount his outings on the Thames. At 225 miles, it is England’s longest river.

Mr. Read welcomes guests in the wheelhouse anytime (candlelit at night).

“I think people coming on this cruise are surprised by the fact that it is so rural once you get outside of London,” he says. “You really get involved, don’t you, with the locks, the people passing by? You wave and talk to them.

“On this trip, you’re probably going to see all the things you think of when you think of England — old pubs, castles, cathedrals, thatched cottages, all of it.”

• • •

The Magna Carta’s season runs from April through October, but it is available year-round. The spring-to-fall season rates for six nights start at $3,500 per person, double occupancy; winter rates start at $2,950 per person. The Magna Carta also is available for charter. Visit www.magna-carta.co.uk; send e-mail to [email protected] or phone 44/0-1332-511-168.

London accommodations vary widely, but two sure picks are the Stafford Hotel, the Magna Carta’s pickup point, which was named by Gourmet magazine as “perhaps London’s best,” about $414 per night; visit www.thestaffordhotel.co.uk or call 800/554-5713. The boutique hotel 41 — 41 Buckingham Palace Road — with eye-popping,black-and-white decor has rooms starting about $404 per night with breakfast; visit www.41hotel.com or call 877/955-1515.


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