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Sandy Guy discovers Ireland’s pastoral heartland on a cruise with boutique barge MV Shannon Princess

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to combine two passions – in my case, history and fine food – on one journey. And for one idyllic week, two of my great loves are united as I cruise the Shannon River on Ireland’s only luxury barge.

MV Shannon Princess travels for more than 150 kilometres along the Shannon, a system of lakes interconnected by the river that flows through the centre of Ireland, and stops off at many fascinating places along the way.

Everywhere across this landscape, you see reminders of the nation’s ancient, chequered history. Cruising the Shannon is an opportunity to view an untrammelled Ireland – minus tour buses and traffic jams – on a tranquil journey that traverses some of the country’s most glorious countryside.

I board Shannon Princess at Quigley’s Marina near the village of Glasson, 130-odd kilometres west of Dublin. While the marina, situated on Lough Ree, is home to many luxury cabin cruisers, the most splendid vessel is Princess, custom-built in 2003 to include every creature comfort. My cabin is excellent as river cruisers go: the deeply comfortable king-sized bed (convertible to two twin beds) bed is dressed in crisp Irish linens, there’s a small but well-appointed ensuite, and the toiletries provided include handmade Irish seaweed soap. The elegant lounge/dining area features comfy sofas and big windows, allowing you to sit back and watch the spectacular scenery roll by.

Owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Captain Ruairi Gibbons and chef Olivia Power, the five-cabin barge makes for an intimate, personalised experience, and voyages showcase some of the country’s finest produce.

Onboard dining concentrates on seasonal produce, with everything made in Olivia’s small, but impressively well-organised, galley. Expect the freshest fish, delicious game including wild duck and venison, organic vegetables, seasonal berries, and wonderful handmade Irish cheeses, from creamy Camembert to zesty blue.

After cruising amid some of Lough Ree’s 365-odd islands, we head to Athlone, passing the stone walls of the town’s castle, circa 1210, and Sean’s Bar, said to date from 900 AD and thought to be Ireland’s oldest pub. Here, Shannon Princess navigates Athlone Lock, one of several scenic locks we pass through during the journey.

Cruising south, the countryside is positively Arcadian: hillsides carpeted in wildflowers, trees heavy with blossom, and birdlife – including swans, ducks and kingfishers – prolific.

Enchanting round towers come into view. It’s Clonmacnoise, a monastic site founded in 548 AD. We disembark for a leisurely stroll around the ancient site, a hallowed collection of 10th-century churches and chapels, Celtic crosses, and the ruins of a castle.

Tranquil days roll by as we pass the ever-changing landscape. We visit the science centre at Birr Castle, home to one of the world’s oldest large telescopes (circa 1840) and glorious gardens, dating from the 17th century; and venerable Leap Castle. Said to date from the 15th century, it is reputedly Ireland’s most haunted castle and just so happens to be the home of musician Sean Ryan, one of Ireland’s foremost whistle players.

Disembarking in the vibrant city of Galway, famous for its Gaeltacht – Irish-speaking areas – and traditional music, we explore the city’s wonderfully well-preserved medieval quarter. From Galway, Princess cruises on to the picturesque town of Killaloe, once home to Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. It’s here that we must say goodbye to Ruairi and Olivia. After a week of culinary magic, unspoiled landscapes, rich history and utter tranquillity, it’s not an easy thing to do.

For more information, visit www.shannonprincess.com

More barging options

Barging is becoming increasingly popular in Ireland, along waterways including the Grand Canal, a 132km-long stretch of water extending from Dublin to the Shannon River; the River Barrow Navigation, linking Dublin and Waterford; and the Shannon River. The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland lists several companies that offer self-guided barge rental (www.iwai.ie).

The UK boasts a nationwide network of some 3,000km of canals constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, you can navigate your own barge, which typically sleeps somewhere between two and 12 people, through scenic countryside around England, Scotland and Wales. Some canals pass through major cities such as Bristol, London, Oxford, Stratford and Birmingham, the latter said to have more canals than Venice.

The beautiful Norfolk Broads are popular for barging, as are the Scottish Lowlands and Llangollen in Wales, which passes through stunning pastoral lands and across tree-lined lakes to the foothills of Snowdonia. Canal Junction is a good place to start planning a canal barging holiday in the UK. www.canaljunction.com