Irish coasting

Sat, Jul 18, 2009, 01:00

Aren’t cruises meant to be in exotic places, and for the over-60s, asks an initially sceptical ORLA TINSLEYas she embarks on a cruise around Ireland

WHEN I mentioned that we were going on a cruise around Ireland, people’s first response was: “Where? On the Shannon?” No, wise guys, on a cruise ship in the Atlantic and Irish seas.

Spirit of Adventureis not really a cruise ship, though, it’s more like a luxury yacht. The concept of a mini cruiser sailing around Ireland was conjured up by John Galligan, the travel operator, who wanted to offer people a slice of Ireland as part of a larger cruise.

The ship sailed from Scotland, and was able to navigate its way along the canal into Derry to pick us up, unlike other colossal cruise ships that have to tender 40km from port because of their size. Now my mother and I were spending five days sailing around the coast of Ireland on this sleek cruiser.

I was sceptical at first. Weren’t cruises for the over-60s retired crowd? This cruise was for the older generation, but it also wasn’t for the faint of heart.

On the first night, our Australian captain held a champagne reception and said that it was his first time sailing Ireland’s coastline. His words were met with a laddish roar from the crowd of some 158 passengers (more than 50 of whom were repeat passengers).

The destination didn’t really matter, as two frequent cruisers – a retired lecturer and an IT specialist from Scotland – told me. It was their fourth cruise with the ship, and it’s the ship that keeps them loyal. Each night a pamphlet was left on our bed detailing the on-board and offshore activities for the next day. From 8am to 10.45pm there was something to do, but everything was optional, including the copious luxury food.

Spirit of Adventureholds up to 350 passengers, but only half that number were sailing, and we had a crew of 170. The ship operates a cashless system where, upon boarding, you register your credit card. During the cruise you can charge your ship identification card to clock up the drinks at the bar.

It’s a sneaky way to drain your bank account but, when a Guinness costs £1.25 (€1.45), an Irish coffee £1.75 (€2) and a Shirley Temple £0.80 (€0.93), it doesn’t turn out so bad. The fact the ship is duty-free takes the sting out of the swipe card. There is also a no-tipping policy.

In the shop on board there are crisps, sweets and ball gowns with matching Swarovski crystal for sale. If you wanted to take the three formal dinner nights seriously and arrive dressed like a Cluedo character, one swipe of the card would do it. On our first formal night we were greeted at reception by a woman in a purple debs dress and dripping silver that put the fear of God into us in our black ensembles and tights. Inside, most passengers were more relaxed, thankfully, apart from one woman in her 60s wearing a black, diamante-covered jumpsuit.

We were also greeted by a disinfectant gel dispenser. Amid a sea of pamphlets in each room, there is one about the contagious norovirus or gastroenteritis that, according to the pamphlet, there had been an increase of. This disinfectant was a priority even before swine flu and, at the entrance to each eatery, along with the maître d’ and several members of staff, who wait until you use it before escorting you, arm-in-arm, to your table.

Each day there is a choice of three inclusive daily excursions and the option to explore the area independently – as long as you are back for docking time at 5pm. Some days there is a fourth optional excursion at extra cost. There are seven-hour day-long excursions, and less gruelling four-hour, morning ones.

Our first full day on board begins at 8am as the boat docks in Killybegs, Co Donegal. A day in Yeats Country is our chosen full-day tour. We drive through the Donegal countryside in a Mercedes bus, as our guide entertains us with her tales of Countess Markiewicz. After a quick leg-stretch in Mullaghmore we travel past the looming presence of Ben Bulben on our way to Yeats’s grave at Drumcliff. The seven-hour tour excludes a previously advertised trip to Lissadell because of the controversy over land. We end in Sligo with a prebooked meal in The Glass House before driving past Queen Maeve’s burial tomb at Knocknarea on our way back to ship.

When we return to walk the gangplank, crew members are painting a fresh coat of white on the side of the boat. As we swipe our cards to gain entrance to the ship a waiter hands each passenger freshly squeezed hot facecloths with a tong. It refreshes our withered brows in preparation for afternoon tea, where the diningroom tables sprout Union Jacks and a special English tea of various muffins and teacake in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

The food on board is fresh, sumptuous and immaculately presented. The executive chef prepares menus four days in advance, leaving room for a special of the day. Specials are chosen to correlate with the port the ship is in. There is haggis from Scotland, where the ship set sail from, and in Donegal the crew sources fresh shrimp from boats in Killybegs harbour. There is a vegetarian option on the six-course meals and the menu also caters for coeliac, fat-free and diabetic diets.

The night before Galway I decide to try out the gym, situated in the bowels of the ship. There is one treadmill, a cross trainer and other machines and equipment – but very little space. This is clearly not the ship for the fitness-conscious, with two freshwater swimming pools more suited to soaking than swimming.

Afterwards, my mother and I sit in the library, the most calming place on board, which has daily newspapers, more than 3,000 books and a DVD collection. The captain’s voice booms over the intercom: we are experiencing “swirls” and will most likely continue to throughout the night.

Dancing on deck is the entertainment for the night, and there are 20 or more people outside swinging with the crew, oblivious to the rocking and rolling beneath them.

On our second full day, the information pamphlet informs us that our sailing into Galway is by tender because the bay is too shallow to enter. We walk down the gangway to the small yellow tender boat. In the open sea I mention to a woman beside me about the rough night and how so many people had complained about their two-hour sleep. As a frequent traveller she tells me that her love of the sea makes the rocking and rolling a calming experience.

On the way to Kylemore Abbey our bus stops at Killary Fjord, the 14km-long inlet, surrounded by dumbfounding scenery and refreshing country air. Our guide treats us to an unusual eulogy to the brave sheep who live in the wilds of Connemara, and the different ways sheep like to rest in the grass. The Scottish and English eat it up. We arrive in Kylemore Abbey at 11.50am and are disappointingly told that our tour has been cut an hour short and that we must be back at the boat by 2pm. There is no real explanation and, as a result, people choose between the castle, the neogothic church and the gardens. Some brave women manage to race to the gardens for a quick survey and back to the abbey to look inside, but for most it is impossible and the tour bus is not running within our timeframe to take people to the gardens. On the way back, a woman mumbles that Galway was not as romantic as she imagined. During dinner we can see the Aran Islands from our tables. That evening an Irish dance troupe come on board for entertainment.

On Monday morning, the ship docks in Foynes, on the southern bank of the Shannon Estuary, and we decide to skip Bunratty Folk Park and Irish coffee for a day on board. We eat breakfast, spend the morning on deck and eat lunch in the informal restaurant, which offers salads, hot dishes – succulent Irish stew and Scottish pie, for example – and features an outdoor grill with a choice of meats.

In the two free hours, my mother and I visit the spa for back massages. There is a tour of the galley afterwards, which introduces each passenger to the executive chef and his second-in-command. The woman quizzing the staff in front of me asks what the big deal with Irish soda bread is, so the chef sends someone off to make it for her. The galley is a small area of stainless steel sections, and it has a staff of 31. They start preparing for breakfast at 6am, and it is almost inconceivable that they have time to rest with the amount of food and various decorative settings they display in both restaurants for each of the four daily meals.

During the 15 minutes we’ve spent in the galley, the dining room tables have been adorned with sandwiches, cakes, delicacies and drinks for afternoon tea. There are four tables where catering staff are showing off their talents and, while we eat, one waiter uses multicoloured cooking sauces squeezed from a funnel to create flower and butterfly shapes on white plates.

We stand on top deck, huddled with our complimentary binoculars beside the Organisation Cetacea (ORCA) group, as we sail out of Foynes. ORCA, a charity dedicated to protecting and surveying marine wildlife, has spotted at least four minke whales and 11 bottlenose dolphins around the coast of Ireland. They are on deck from when the ship sails at 6pm until dark, and then again at 5am until the ship docks at 8am, scanning the waters. We sail past Scattery Island and the intercom tells us the history of the 10th-century round tower and healing well on the island.

The ship offers a selection of escape, adventure and distraction, with the option of being completely lazy if you so fancy. If you don’t want the wind whipping in your face, you can always lie in bed and watch the TV channel aired from top deck, which constantly shows the view from the boat’s helm. There are documentaries on the television and talks in the lounge from on-board historians. If you want nothing to do with history, there is a dailymovie playing at four different times during the day and 24-hour room service.

Room prices depend on what floor they are on and whether they have a window or are located further in on the ship. Our rooms were both facing out on to the deck, which was beautiful when the sun shone in, but mildly terrifying when the boat crashed against the waves amid the period of “swirls”. Each room is en suite with a fridge, a TV and DVD player, phone and copious wardrobe space.

On Bloomsday we sailed into Cobh along the heritage centre berth and decided to take an independent day. We strolled around the picturesque village and enjoyed the sunshine in Kennedy Park. The Cobh Brass and Reed Band played us out of port and, as Cobh got smaller, it looked like a postcard of colourful houses. People all along the coastline waved, even as they became dots.

On our final night on board we were treated to the Filipino Cultural Show by the largely Filipino crew and watched our waiters, butlers and bartenders as they danced and sang their native songs, and a little Abba, adorned in colourful costumes made on board. The size of Spirit of Adventureallows for an intimate on-board experience and provides a personalised feel to the ship, where a crew member smiles around every corner. It rained as we disembarked in Dublin, but it didn’t dampen our experience.

Cruises may be stereotypically for retired folk, but with more than 40,000 Irish people opting for a cruise holiday each year on a variety of ships, we returned after our mini-break with a whole new view of sea travel, not to mention Ireland.

** John Galligan Travel Agency, 01-2076555,