How this trip came to be…
I hadn’t been to Europe for several years and wanted to go again, and not by myself. A villa rental for eight in Umbria a few years ago having turned out so well, a villa rental in Provence was what I’d been hoping to find the energy to arrange. That energy, for some reason, had not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, travel buddy Nancy wanted to mark an important birthday this year with yet another trip to Europe. Kris, another travel bud, is always up for any trip to any place in Europe. Due to travel companion Terry’s stroke last November (which he’s still recovering from), Kris, Nancy, and I wanted to go somewhere Terry had already been, hoping he can travel with us later on to somewhere he’s not seen before. And, last September, I’d met Roger, a seasoned traveler who said he might be up for joining a group trip sometime in the spring.
A few years ago, Nancy had met a couple who’d spent their retirement floating through some of the continent’s numerous canal systems, which sounded like great fun to Nancy (who used to own a boat herself). Canal-cruising had always sounded like great fun to me, too, ever since I’d first read about it decades ago. Kris had been to Ireland twice already, but was fine with traveling there a third time. And Roger seemed game for any sort of trip the rest of us ended up concocting – as long as we exempted him from any of the planning!
At some point early in 2012, the four of us settled on planning a week-long road trip through a couple of segments of Ireland’s southwest coast, followed by another week on a rented narrowboat on the Llangollen Canal – reputed to be not only as one of the UK’s most scenic canals, but one of the easiest for amateurs to navigate. A colleague at the library where I work who had taken three trips to Ireland with his family recommended Kenmare (just south of Killarney, but not as large or as touristy) as our Ireland countryside base, so we decided to research B&Bs in that town, and that town only, so we’d need to unpack only once during that leg of the trip. Of all the narrowboat rental places Nancy researched on the Internet, we liked best the photos of the boats provided by Andersen Boats in Middlewich, about forty miles by water from Llangollen.
Once we’d booked our airline tickets and rented our car and our narrowboat – and decided to fly from Ireland to England instead of taking a ferry and also decided to book taxis rather than use mass transit of some sort to get from various points on our adventure to various other points – we had the basic logistics of our trip settled, and the four of us began several months worth of fantasizing about meandering along Ireland’s southwest coastline and floating in a leisurely fashion through bucolic landscapes on a what we assumed would resemble a waterborne Airstream Trailer. Eventually, Nancy and Kris decided to fly over a few days before Roger and me, so they could explore Dublin and take a couple of day trips from there; they picked up Roger and me at the Dublin airport in the car they’d already rented.
…and how it turned out a bit different than imagined
The bucolic landscape-laden part of our trip fantasies turned out to be completely justified. The lollygagging aspect of our imagined trip? Well, there turned out to be very little of that. After two long days of exploring two different Irish peninsulas by car, we decided to forego exploring yet another peninsula (the Dingle) as well as several Irish towns (Cork, Galway, Sligo) that we had initially hoped to include on our itinerary. We still ended up spending too much time in our rental car getting to (and returning from) the parts of the Irish coast we wanted to see. And next time we decide to rent a canal boat, we’ll do that closer to our destination, so we don’t end up exhausted from steering the boat for up to twelve hours a day in order to get our boat back on time. Or perhaps we’ll choose a circular canal route instead of a linear one…and/or choose a canal with fewer locks!
In any case, suffice it to say that of the four books I took to read on our trip, I finished reading only one of them (and the shortest), and I didn’t work my way anywhere close to the end of the book of New York Times crossword puzzles that I’d bought specifically for the (imagined) “relaxing” portion of this trip.
Other than our collective miscalculation of the car-riding and boat-steering fatigue factor, we had a good – and certainly memorable – trip:
- We gawked at great swaths of gorgeous scenery, much of it including – or actually gazed at from – water (which, despite having lived my entire life in one of the few water-bereft cities in the Western Hemisphere, is one of my favorite things). Featured along both the roadsides and the canal: all the sheep, cows, horses, ducks, birds, and wildflowers one might ever yearn to catch glimpses of. (On the other hand, very little farmland did we see. Plenty of pastures, but nary a single row of vegetables, in either Ireland or in England!)
- We struck gold with our Internet-based choices of our two (and, on purpose, only two) Bed & Breakfast places. Ditto with choosing, for our final night, a modern hotel located at our departure airport (Manchester).
- We enjoyed consistently interesting and tasty meals, including several meals (and all the breakfasts) we prepared from our three grocery-shopping trips and ate on the Bergen Fjord, our narrowboat.
- We all had fun collectively and separately exploring on foot the only two towns we spent time in: quaint and walkable Kenmare in Ireland and, in England, the Tudor extravaganza surrounded by a Roman wall that is Chester.
Once we left the motorway that took us out of Dublin and into the interior of Ireland, remembering to drive in the tiny left-hand lane (when there was a marked lane at all) of the narrow country roads proved to be easier than navigating a comfortable distance between oncoming cars (and the occasional lorry or tour bus) and the frighteningly nearby shrubbery- or gorse-covered stone wall. (Before we even drove it off the lot, we noticed an ominous scratch on the passenger’s side of our rental car.) And, despite the unexpected strenuousness of the boat-steering – some of which probably resulted from our inadvertently bending the rudder early on – we all remain glad we did the narrowboat rental thing: the scenery was as spectacularly bucolic as advertised, and boating – especially boating at two miles per hour, punctuated with lots of stops for lock-handling – is an unusual and therefore unusally memorable way to travel.
There are more trip photos (with captions) at Cal Gough’s and Roger Park’s Facebook pages; readers who are Facebook friends of either or both of us can take a gander at them there. In 2016, I added to this blogpost several photos that Kris took. And (mostly as a memory aid for myself, but also for anyone else who cares to read it), the text of Roger’s detailed journal of our trip is located here.
- Unexpectedly and amazingly pleasant weather! As in many actually sunny days – some of them even warm, or warmish. Yes, it did rain, but mostly at night or for short periods during a few of the days. The canal narrowboat came equipped with full-body parkas, so steering the boat when it was raining wasn’t impossible (even though it could be very cold at times). I used my umbrella maybe once in two weeks? Surely – despite the two three-minute hailstorms (one in Ireland, the other along the canal) we four enjoyed one of the best streaks of good luck, weather-wise, in the history of Anglo-Irish tourism!
- Noticing repeatedly, in addition to how beautiful it is, how eerily quiet – and sparsely populated – the southwest coast of Ireland is. (The population of sheep, however, is quite large, and parts of it can get rather noisy at times.)
- The gorse everywhere (in Ireland, that is). Even the more barren parts of the Irish countryside were generously splotched with these brilliant yellow (though disappointingly thorny) shrubs.
- Liking as much as our B&B proprietress predicted we would the under-publicized Beara Peninsula. (She was born there, and we all enjoyed touring it far more than we did our following day’s destination, the Iveragh Peninsula’s fabled Ring of Kerry.)
- The food, everywhere, was consistently good – even according to the higher standards of my fellow travelers. (I’m notoriously indifferent to just about everything about restaurant food except its price and the atmosphere in which it’s sold.) The food was not, however, cheap. Nor did the atmospheres of the various pubs we ate in jive with my pre-established notions of such establishments. Except for one intentional splurge – at Chez Jules in Chester, the Victoria Lodge B&B proprietor’s favorite eatery there – we usually sought out pubs to eat in, assuming their fare would be simpler and therefore less expensive than restaurant food. Apparently, however, most Irish and English pubs, whatever other functions they serve, are also restaurants now, each with a fairly extensive menu! On the other hand, no matter how much it cost me, we were always thrilled to get out of the car – or off the boat – and simply sit down for awhile. (We all especially enjoyed the soda bread served with almost every Irish meal; Nancy and I loved the mussels we ate (at different meals) in Kenmare; Kris ordered “bangers and mash” sometime early on in the trip and never stopped raving about it/them; Roger, the native-born Brit in the bunch, started out every single meal with a pot of tea.)
- Speaking of tea, one simple unexpected pleasure was being served evening tea in the cozy common room at the Rockcrest House, the Kenmare B&B we based ourselves in for our weeklong tour of southwest Ireland. (Loved the friendly proprietors’ double-decker tea-table, even though I found the wife’s obvious mania for collecting Waterford crystal a bit excessive…although I confess to having regarded with no little avarice several Victorian-style lamps included among her treasures.)
- The luxuriant moss on the path to the Torc Waterfall in the gigantic and spectacular Killarney National Park. Even the smallest limb of every tree was covered in green fuzz, and there were ferns galore all the way to the foot of the (rather underwhelming) waterfall.
- Walking nervously for the first time onto our rented narrowboat and discovering how clean and comfortable it was. (We were only the third set of people to rent it, so there was nothing groady about it, and it was loaded with plenty of modcons, including two bathrooms (one with a hot-water shower), refrigerator, gas stove, central heating, etc.)
- The cheerfulness and helpfulness of our fellow canal-cruisers. (Waiting one’s turn at many of the two-dozen-or-so locks provided opportunities for numerous pleasant chats…and for practicing how to properly pronounce Llangollen, our canal-trip destination.)
- The almost heartbreaking sublimity of the mug of hot tea one of my boat-mates graciously made for me in the middle of one particularly chilly, blustery morning of solo boat-wrangling.
- The shadows cast on the ground (126 feet below us!) by the graceful arches of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (and the shadow of our tiny little narrowboat creeping along the top of it).
- Buying a book from a closet-sized self-service canal-side bookstore located adjacent to the rather formidable “staircase” series of canal locks.
- Discovering, to my amazement and fatigue-worn delight, that the city of Manchester provides free bus travel throughout its city center (and to and from the trains that connect the town with its international airport).
- The afternoon I spent marveling at Manchester’s magnificent (and hitherto-unknown-to-me) John Rylands Library(which I found out about during one of those friendly chats with a native-born canal-cruiser).
- The cloud-like down pillows and down comforter on my bed in the luxurious, amazingly convenient (and, compared to the narrowboat, outrageously commodious) Manchester airport hotel Roger had booked for us for our final night in England.
An especially tranquil (though non-canal-related) moment for me: standing alone at the back of the exquisitely-sited Muckross House (now part of Ireland’s KillarneyNational Park), gazing across its immaculate grounds at the lake beyond and at the ring of mountains in the distance. Gardens,water, mountains, near-perfect weather, the prospect of afternoon tea in a café (adjacent to a gift store) staffed by people with British accents – what’s not to like?
Memorable Misadventures of the Four Amateur Narrowboat Travelers
- After warily tiptoeing across what seemed like acres of a muddy, manure-ridden pasture (aka “the public footpath”) to reach an allegedly “canal-side” pub for supper, we left the place without ordering because the service proved to be (as Roger put it in his travel journal) so glacially slow that we were afraid if we stayed we’d be forced to re-trace our slog back to the narrowboat in the pitch dark.
- Earlier that same day, I’d bought a supposedly indispensable (and not cheap!) canal guide, then left it behind in the aforementioned pub. (Would I go back to the pub later to retrieve it? Reader, I refused.) We were therefore forced to navigate our entire weeklong canal trip without the benefit of the copious information in the guide! Luckily, I’d also purchased from our boat rental place a detailed map of the canal, which at least told us each day how many locks we’d be contending with, how many bridges we’d be at risk of crashing into, and how many miles we’d traveled or needed to travel.
- Our first day on the canal, one of us (it doesn’t matter who, as it could’ve happened to any of us novice boat-wranglers) somehow bent the boat’s rudder. That made our steering the boat (a task we took turns at) more strenuous than it would’ve been otherwise. (Fortunately, the boat company didn’t charge us for the damaged rudder, telling us they could easily repair it.)
- On the final (!) morning of our canal trip, while helpfully untying one of our boat’s mooring ropes, Kris dropped her rented cell phone into the canal. Despite Kris’s valiant attempts to retrieve it with a soup ladle from the boat’s kitchen, that cell phone (as Kris phrases it in a post-trip email) now “swims with the fishes.” (Although it’s difficult to imagine the filthy waters of that canal supporting any wildlife, although we did encounter several fisherpersons along the way – a pair of them using the longest fishing poles I’ve ever seen.)
In addition to these high and low moments (and I very much doubt I’m remembering all of them just now), I was also:
- Relieved relieved to learn that the earplugs Roger brought to protect himself against Calvin’s snoring actually worked for him!
- Glad to find how well the four of us got along throughout the trip. We’re all still on friendly terms, despite the close quarters of our rental car and all those days together confined to the designed-for-sleeping-six-persons narrowboat. (They call them narrowboats because they’re only seven feet wide – and 65 feet long!)
- Surprised to discover that, for several days after turning in our rental boat, some of us, whenever we sat down and tried to sit still, still experienced the odd sensation of the world gently rocking back and forth! Surprised, too, at how tan (as well as a bit windburned) the four of us got during our week on the canal. (I didn’t think it was possible to get tanned in England!)
All things considered, I’m definitely glad we took this particular trip together. With a couple of tweaks in the planning, mostly having to do with maximizing the relaxing and minimizing the to-ing and fro-ing, I would gladly do it again. There’s just something perennially magical about vacationing in the United Kingdom. (Or, for that matter, vacationing virtually anywhere in Europe.) And although recovery from transatlantic jetlag seems to take longer the older I get, I’m hoping that – once I retire from my job like Kris, Nancy, and Roger have already retired from theirs – there’ll be plenty more trips there, and most of them with friends who enjoy traveling as much as I do.