Charting a family adventure on the Shannon-Erne Waterways

A family holiday cruising on the waterways of Ireland comes stuffed with adventure

Waterways Ireland

Our home on the Shannon: The Waterford cruiser from Carrickcraft – a three-cabin 6+2 berth cruiser


It’s a humbling experience to start the engine of a cruiser for the first time and push out into open water. The River Shannon is magnificent in the early morning sun and barely a sound rises from the pretty town of Carrick-on-Shannon as it watches us take our first journey out into the wild. It’s a remarkable place. This bustling Co Leitrim town, long the gateway to the Shannon-Erne waterways, is a seasoned host to families like ours, dreaming of adventure along the banks of Ireland’s most dramatic river. There’s a calmness to the town that marries well with the slow pace of the river that supports it, and as its restaurants, bars and businesses fall away behind us we’re inspired to relax and let the river do its job. 

We turn a bend and the wilds of the Irish countryside surprise us – lush green fields, woodland, wildlife, huge open sky and the deep dark water of the Shannon. We’re piloting a three-cabin luxury cruiser en route for Lough Key, a three-hour journey north. We’ll pass beneath stone bridges and pass ancient villages, navigate locks and practice the rules of the waterways. All of Ireland seems to be spread before us and with my family around me we’re as one against the world. It’s a great feeling. We were trained in piloting our boat the day before by Carrickcraft, one of Ireland’s most experienced cruise hire companies. Forty years in business has allowed them a quiet confidence in their training and they have equipped us with everything we need to know to get us safely and enjoyably to our destination.

The boat is fantastic. A Waterford class, each of the three double cabins are en suite including showers. There’s a full-size kitchen, an internal dining area and a large upper-level deck open dining area. The boat can be piloted from two places - inside or on the top deck. As we’re experiencing near-perfect weather this is where almost all our time is spent. The kids are delighted to see there’s a TV and DVD onboard but, as it turns out, it never gets switched on.

There are two teenagers and a nine-year-old on the boat and their understanding of adventure is very different to ours. My wife and I could easily soak up the landscape from the deck of the boat all day long but there is so much to experience on these waterways that we’ve had to plan carefully. There are countless experiences on offer: cycling, fishing, kayaking, bird watching, stand-up paddling and coasteering. Every village we pass offers its own slice of adventure and most of them come with traditional pubs and restaurants too. A trip on this great body of water reveals a truly mature tourism experience where instilling a sense of freedom is everything. The providers and hosts we meet are all top-class too: qualified, experienced and totally flexible to our needs. It’s a refreshing experience.

In the driving seat: heading towards Lough Key
In the driving seat: heading towards Lough Key

From the huge menu available to us our teenage team have chosen three half-day land-based adventures centred around Lough Key, an 800-hectare forest park that surrounds a beautiful, 30-island lake that links with the Shannon-Erne via the Boyle river. 

Heading into its 10th year in operation, Lough Key Forest Park has become a fantastic tourism destination and to pilot a boat into its very heart is incredible. Its modern, fully-serviced moorings are free to the public and give unprecedented access to the park. It has 50 berths, private toilets, showers and electricity charging.

Frustratingly addictive
Our land-based adventures begin with Boda Borg, a frustratingly addictive physical and mental team-based challenge that’s been imported from Sweden. The Borda Borg concept is a huge hit in the Nordic country and the Lough Key version is the only one outside Sweden. We enter the maze of rooms to the screams and laughter of adults and children alike. It’s hard to imagine an attraction that can generate an equal amount of participation and excitement from a five-year-old as from a fifty-year-old. Working in teams you enter a maze of small rooms and try to solve mental and physical puzzles. It sounds simple but as an attraction it’s a triumph that almost defies description. We stand and watch groups of men and women, presumably on wedding parties and groups of children, presumably on birthday parties, queue up for the exact same experience and with the exact same level of enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful attraction and perfect for our unpredictable weather as the whole thing is indoors and can last for hours. My wife and I manage two hours and have to promise a return journey with the kids to convince them to leave after three.

Navigating one of the highline challenges in Zipit in Lough Key
Navigating one of the highline challenges in Zipit in Lough Key

Adrenaline rush
But the adventure was only beginning – just a stroll from the main visitor centre is Zipit, a woodland complex of zip lines, climbing walls, tightropes and rope bridges. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure and offers that perfect mix of adult and child adventure that teenagers can feel totally in charge of. With five skill levels strung across 1.5km of zip lines and rope bridges it will consume an afternoon in an apparent instant. The adrenaline rush of climbing high into the treetops and strapping yourself in and facing your fears is thrilling. As a parent it was really satisfying to watch each of my children engage with the instructors one-on-one and lose themselves to the challenge of ever-more complicated climbs. It’s hugely popular and really well run. The training given and the safety system employed makes it extremely safe but refreshingly challenging. A minimum of three hours is needed to really lose yourself to what it offers and you’ll emerge happily exhausted. A definite reason to return.

We’ve had a full lunch in the restaurant at the park centre – great, home-cooked food with terrific service from young professional staff that make us feel immediately at home. So the evening is all about our boat. We can’t help feeling full of pride as we approach the lake and see it lit by the evening sun at the mooring. Some tourists are taking pictures as we approach and we invite them to climb on board and take more. It’s made their day they exclaim as they leave and we’re stuffed with pride even though we’re only temporary owners of this great vessel. 

The kitchen is full of food and wine and we bring it all up onto the deck and settle in to watch the setting sun turn the sky red, orange and pink. At least 10 swans drift up to the boat and we wrap ourselves in blankets as stars start to appear overhead. Eventually the jet black of the night sky rewards us with an incredible view of the constellations. We’re feeling truly privileged.
Island hopping
The next morning adventure is scheduled again. Kevin Currid from Lough Allen Adventure Centre has arrived with canoes in tow to take us on a tour of the islands on the lake. The sun is shining and as we get kitted out for the water he talks us through his plan. We’ll do some training, some games, take a tour of the islands and more. It’s easy to follow Kevin’s lead – his years of experience and knowledge of the water and what young people want on a trip like this shines through. His tales from the lake, its history and the courses he has led on it are fascinating and open a whole world of ideas for return trips in our minds.

Return is definitely central as we prepare to take the boat back to its base in Carrick-on-Shannon. Although only 24 hours have passed since we arrived on Lough Key we leave with layers of experience on our shoulders. As a family it’s been a really unifying and positive experience that we’ll grow from. Passing back through the lock, under the bridges and around each bend in the river is a slightly more familiar experience this time – this is a place we feel we belong to. 

Back in Carrick we have one more treat to experience. As with all of Ireland, the food and drink scene has blossomed over the last decade along the banks of the Shannon. We’ve a table waiting in the Oarsman, an award-winning gastro pub in the centre of Carrick. One of the owners, Ronan Maher, welcomes us in. He’s the seventh generation of his family to work in the hospitality industry and the generations of practice show through. There’s a quiet confidence to his welcome and menu and the meal he presents to us is one of the most thrilling culinary experiences we’ve had in a very long time. Celebrating everything that is great about what the Shannon-Erne has to offer he and the rest of the team at the Oarsman have created a wonderful taste of all that this region has to offer: originality, freedom and a journey into the real Ireland. As a family it’s been a journey worth more than we can say.

Ireland’s inland waterways are managed by Waterways Ireland.

Waterways Ireland manages, maintains, develops and promotes over 1,000km inland navigable waterways principally for recreational purposes. These include the Barrow Navigation, the Erne System, the Grand Canal, the Lower Bann, the Royal Canal, the Shannon-Erne Waterway and the Shannon Navigation. Waterways Ireland's headquarters is in Enniskillen, and regional offices are located in Carrick-on-Shannon, Dublin and Scarriff. 

The author travelled with Carrickcraft.
Sample cost of hiring a Waterford class three cabin, 6+2 berth boat with Carrickcraft in mid May (leaving and departing from Carrick-on-Shannon):
Three nights: €1,124
Seven nights: €1,704


The Oarsman gastropub
Bridge Street, Carrick-onShannon, Co Leitrim. Tel: 071 962 1733
For more see theoarsman.com

Lough Key Forest Park and Marina
Boyle, Co Roscommon.
For more see loughkey.ie
Adventure activities include: Boda Borg; Zipit; Tree canopy walk; Camping; Cycling

Lough Allen Adventure Centre
For more see loughallenadventure.com