Fishing port of Killybegs is now landing several cruise ships every year

The buses are waiting and local craftspeople have set out their wares when the big liners come calling

There is a very, very large bouquet of flowers in the back of Elaine Quinn's car, which is parked on the quayside at Killybegs in Co Donegal. She glances behind her at the bright, bold display of sunflowers and pink roses. "There was nearly an incident with the flowers on a hill," she confesses, shuddering.

It's 7am on a Sunday in July in Donegal, and should anything have happened to the bouquet that nearly came a cropper en route, we both know replacement flowers would be pretty tricky to source. The person for whom they are destined is somewhere aboard the cruise ship that is docked in front of us; the Seabourn Quest.

Quinn works for Sinbad Marine Services, who act as agents for a number of shipping companies who come into Killybegs. Among the many services they carry out for visiting cruise ships, delivering requested items to passengers is just one. Apart from the bouquet, Quinn also has orders for local craft beer, a particular brand of tea and some pharmacy items.

The Seabourn Quest is a relatively small ship as cruise ships go, with 450 passengers and a crew of 355

Killybegs has long been a port firmly associated with the fishing industry, but it is now also beginning to make a reputation as a popular stopping point for cruise ships. This year 15 international cruise ships will dock at Killybegs for a day as part of their itinerary. The biggest ships docking this season are the Queen Victoria, with 1,980 passengers and 981 crew, and the Queen Elizabeth, with 2,048 passengers and 996 crew.

I had gone to sleep in a nearby harbourside hotel and woken soon after 6am to see the ship edging into position alongside what’s known as “the new pier” at the far end of the harbour. Its arrival has transformed a busy working fishing port into something that suggests glamour. Fishing boats are essential to our industry, but there is definitely something thrilling about seeing a ship come into harbour that has been built for nothing more but the pleasure of those aboard.

It’s thus unsurprising to hear from Quinn that the arrival of the cruise ships are an event not just for the town but for people across the county.

"We knew when the Queen Victoria was coming to port that Killybegs would be very busy, because of the number of passengers and crew, but we didn't expect half of Donegal would turn out to see it," she says. The roads were jammed with traffic for the day.

Fortnight’s cruise

The Seabourn Quest is a relatively small ship as cruise ships go, with 450 passengers and a crew of 355. It's mid-way through a fortnight's cruise around Britain and Ireland. Like seven other ships of the 15 docking here this year, this is its first time in port at Killybegs; evidence of the growth in the cruise ship industry. More than half of its passengers on this cruise are from the US, with 70 from Britain, 43 from Australia and most of the rest from Germany.

There are four buses and some taxis lined up on the quayside. The buses are pre-booked by the ship to take passengers on a number of day-trips; Glenveagh National Park, Glencolumbkille, and Donegal town are all popular destinations.

Some passengers prefer to wander round the town, or hire a taxi to do their own exploring, but no matter where they are going everyone needs to be back on board by 4.30pm, as the ship sails at 5pm. If you miss the boat you'll have to travel onwards yourself to catch up, and as the next stop for the Seabourn Quest is in Staffa in Scotland, a taxi definitely won't get you there.

When the gangplank is down, Quinn goes aboard to do the necessary paperwork required by the port, and I follow.

“This is very nice,” she says, casting a swift critical eye around. As you’d expect of a ship where the ratio of crew to passengers is almost one per person, the interior and fit-out is at the tasteful end of hotel-like luxury, although it does have the smallest swimming pool I’ve ever seen. On the pool deck I initially mistake the pool for a hot tub, until noticing the actual hot tub on a dias above it.

We don’t see any cabins, but there is a cardroom, a lovely, well-stocked library and several attractive communal areas for lounging and dining, where several people are lingering over breakfast.

Smaller bus

Most people like to get off the ship when in port and explore the locality. When Quinn has completed the paperwork, we disembark, and I head for the Killybegs Information Centre, a short distance from the pier. This is where its Hidden Gems on the Edge tour will be departing from; a tour that operates independently of the tours the cruise ships offer. It also uses a smaller bus so it can navigate the roads of more remote areas that the big buses can’t get to.

Norma and Brent Waters from Tuscon, Arizona are among those at the centre waiting for the bus. "We chose this cruise because there are so many stops in Ireland," says Norma. Aside from Killybegs the Seabourn Quest is also putting into Bantry, Foynes, Galway, Belfast, Dublin and Waterford.

Moya McHugh is our guide for the tour. It emerges she worked for Druid Theatre in Galway as a stage manager for many years, which explains why she is such a terrific guide; she clearly understands the need to entertain an audience. We're heading to Slieve League, which really should be far more famous than the sister cliffs further south down the coast, the Cliffs of Moher, as they are twice the height.

“Donegal gets very busy this time of the year,” says McHugh explains. “Especially around July 12th.”

A passenger raises his hand. “Is that because school is out on July 12th?”

McMahon attempts to explain complex Northern Irish politics to the bus. “Catholics and Protestants would have had a very challenging time together in the past,” she says diplomatically.

Cliffside road

Being the hot, dry summer of 2018 that it is, rural Donegal is looking ridiculously picturesque under blue skies. We're high up, on a cliffside road, passing some gorgeous beaches, including one at Muckross. There is a GAA pitch in a field right beside a beach, and everyone twists in their seats to look down and wonder how many balls end up in the Atlantic.

"I'm amazed that it looks just like the movies," Patty Gerould from Florida comments, and although I'm normally allergic to cliches the truth is this part of Donegal is downright stunning in the sunshine.

“We have four million sheep in Ireland, and most of them are here in Donegal,” McMahon jokes, as the bus stops to allow four of the four million to cross the road.

Up at Slieve League cliffs an enterprising local is selling lobster rolls for €7, but the cruise ship passengers are only interested in the view. Some of them go in search of the purple heather McMahon had told them is lucky. One person triumphantly shows me a handful of tall purple something. I’m not great on botany, but I know this is not heather.

“They’re weeds,” McMahon says briskly. “No luck in them.”

McMahon has told me every Hidden Gems tour she has ever guided, the same two questions inevitably get asked by someone. I wait with my virtual Hidden Gems bingo card, and up they come on the leg back to Killybegs.

“How much is it to buy a house here?

“What do people work at here?”

Revenue stream

Cruise ship passengers – and crew on their time off – are slowly becoming an additional tourist revenue stream to the county. These tourists might not be staying overnight on Donegal soil, but they go on tours, shop for gifts, stop for lunches and coffees and drinks, and hire taxis. When they go home they spread the word. Everyone knows the dates the ships will come in, so everyone prepares accordingly.

Kathleen McGuinness lets local craftspeople know those dates, and on the days the cruise ships dock at Killybegs, they gather in a room at the town’s Bay View Hotel. The hotel gives the room for free.

By the time I turn up at the Bay View, Kathleen Meehan, the woman who sells hand-knit Aran jumpers made from Donegal wool, is gone home: already sold out of the 10 pieces she had brought in with her.

There are also stalls selling hand-made jewellery, soaps, flower pictures and calligraphy cards. Mara and Omer Kara also sell photographic prints of local scenes. "Anything with sheep sells," Mara says. "They all love the sheep."

Jack Breslin sells small items made from wood he turns himself; bowls, pepper mills, boxes. He used to bring along bigger pieces, but as he puts it "the days of travelling with steamer trunks are over. Even for people on cruise ships."

His biggest seller is a wooden pen that has an unusual fitting on it; to retract the biro you click a fitting in the shape of a gun. “The Yanks like their guns,” he says laconically.

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