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Review: Carlingford Ferry Summer Cruises

From the launch of the Carlingford Lough ferry service on 21 June 2017, owners Frazer Ferries have put an emphasis on the scenic nature of the route. This isn’t a shock when the crossing from Greencastle, Co Down to Greenore, Co Louth has a backdrop of the Moutains of Mourne and stunning Irish border countryside.

Although the company’s website heavily promotes the beautiful locations close to the ferry route, there is surely a limit to what you can offer on a cross-river type ferry?

Not so for this entrepreneurial company!

Giving Cruises A Try

There were some early attempts to provide additional reasons to travel, such as Santa appearing onboard to give presents to children travelling. However, it seems likely that the enforced suspension to the service during the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic gave the company some creative thinking time.

A variety of evening cruises were introduced during Summer 2020. Operating at the end of the normal day’s ferry sailings, passengers came onboard as foot passengers to enjoy scenery and entertainment. Such was the success that an expanded programme was offered during Summer 2021.  Irene Hamilton, Commercial Director of Carlingford Lough Ferry said:

“Last year was the first time we ran these cruises and they were a huge success so we are back – bigger and better. There are a number of great producers in this region and we are thrilled to be able to highlight Symphonia Gin and the Carlingford Oysters with two specialty cruises.”

https://www.dundalkdemocrat.ie/news/news/647512/sail-away-carlingford-ferry-has-additional-cruise-dates.html

Additional cruises had to be added to the schedule to cope with demand during summer 2021.

The cruises came to end for 2021 during the second weekend of September, having been running since June on weekend evenings.

The 2021 programme of cruises included;

  • Sunset Cruises – sailing Westbound taking in Carlingford and Rostrevor Bays to the backdrop of the majestic Mourne Mountains,
  • Lough and Lighthouse Cruises – sailing Eastbound along Carlingford Lough where the ferry cruises to within 400 metres of the Haulbowline Lighthouse.
  • Summer Gin Cruises
  • Oysters and Guinness Cruises
The stunning scenery on an AISLING GABRIELLE sunsets cruise. Image: Gary Andrews
The stunning scenery on an AISLING GABRIELLE sunsets cruise. Image: Gary Andrews

The well-considered organisation of the cruises sees them booked via the Eventbrite platform. This is accessed via the Cruises page of the ferry company’s website.

Sampling a late August cruise.

Unable to resist the opportunity to do something nice close to home whilst global travel remains difficult, the NIFS team took a trip on the last Sunset Cruise of August.

We joined the AISLING GABRIELLE at Greencastle to take in a regular crossing to Greenore an hour before our cruise. It is possible to join the cruises at either port. The cruise starts in Greenore, then picks up passengers in Greencastle.

The regular crossing is around 20 minutes. There has normally been an hourly service from both ports. At times two vessels have been used to offer a twice hourly service, However, Covid travel restrictions – especially difficult for a service that operates between the two legal jurisdictions of Ireland and Northern Ireland – have seen the service suspended at various points during 2020 and 2021.

The normal hourly service has been offered throughout the summer. Intending travellers are recommended to check the latest timetable on the company’s website.

On a regular AISLING GABRILLE trip pre-cruise. Image: Gary Andrews
On a regular AISLING GABRILLE trip pre-cruise. Image: Gary Andrews

After a pleasant evening walk around the harbour and seafront at Greenore we joined a happy crowd queuing to board the cruise.

Being a simple short distance ferry, we weren’t sure what to expect on our cruise. On our regular crossing we couldn’t even see a toilet, nevermind imagining how catering would work. However, what was already clear was the stunning scenery.

There are two types of ticket sold for the main Sunset and Lighthouse cruises. Main deck seats around picnic tables are sold for €15 and upper deck tickets are €20 (Summer 2021 prices). The picnic tables were being loaded gradually at Greencastle during turnarounds by ferry workers. It really is quite an operation as the ferry sails on the 1900 sailing from Northern Ireland as normal with cars etc, then is due to leave the County Louth side on her cruise at 1945.

We took upper deck seats on the “left side”.

The wonderful sunets on a Carlingford Lough cruise. Image: Matt Sudders
The wonderful sunets on a Carlingford Lough cruise. Image: Matt Sudders

Not your average short distance ferry experience

Whilst we were waiting, a food van drove onboard, as did a musician. Meanwhile, the crew busily placed picnic tables where vehicles normally are.

Boarding, we found a very organised system where all cruisers were allocated a specific table on the car deck or one of the upper deck seats. A very friendly lady purser couldn’t have been more efficient. Directions were provided to the location of seats for those who couldn’t work out which was the left or right side. More confusing than you might think!

An up-market food van soon opened to serve snacks and drinks. Following safety announcements, a one-piece musician quickly got playing. There was also a very upmarket mobile toilet block that had been loaded at Greencastle.

Although the majority of passengers boarded on the Greenore side, another 20 or passengers boarded on the Northern Irish side.

It soon became apparent that the cruises appeal to two different audiences.

One group is those coming onboard to sightsee who buy the top deck seats and perhaps have binoculars for wildlife and sea life spotting. The second is those coming onboard for an evening of fun with friends or family. A few birthday cakes even appeared!

Both groups of passenger get their own enjoyment from the trip. Those on a night out dance away to the musician as the sightseers simply enjoy an evening with beautiful backdrops, with the added bonus of food and drink available close at hand.

Food offering on our Sunset Cruise. Image: Matt Sudders
Food offering on our Sunset Cruise. Image: Matt Sudders

Thoughtfully the food truck is far from “greasy spoon”. The offering is limited but refined with options of Lobster Rolls, Anti-pasto boxes and Ndjuja Nachos. Beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks are also available as well as crisps and pastries All food orders are prepared fresh and delivered to seats. The Nachos and Lobster Rolls were excellent.

One small criticism was that the caterer ran out of some items long before the end of the trip. This seemed a missed opportunity to sell more. You are well recommended to eat early. Note that this is a service independent of the ferry operator.

By the end of the cruise, it was getting rather dark, giving limited opportunities for sightseeing. An earlier season trip is recommended for those especially keen on this aspect. If you are keen on just enjoying the trip with friends and family, a later season trip might even be recommended where the lighting adds to the atmosphere as darkness falls.

Evening sets in as the passengers dance aboard AISLING GABRILLE. Image: Matt Sudders.

Come back next year!

Overall, these cruises come highly recommended to anyone that happens to be in the Carlingford Lough area when they are running. They might even be worth a special trip if you fancy doing something a bit different.

We here at NIFS would love to see these trips return in 2022. It was interesting to speak to some passengers who had done both the up-Lough and down-Lough cruises, clearly the company is doing something right,

Frazer Ferries deserve the highest praise for their entrepreneurial spirit. One cannot imagine some of the larger operators of comparable ferries trying to make something like this work despite the clear commercial opportunity proven here.

Aboard the AISLING GABRILLE. Image: Gary Andrews
Aboard the AISLING GABRILLE. Image: Gary Andrews

About the AISLING GABRIELLE

The AISLING GABRIELLE is a regular short distance river / short distance ferry. She was built in Glasgow in 1978 as the SHANNON WILLOW for the Shannon Ferries Killimer (County Clare) – Tarbert (County Kerry) route. Replaced, she became the Lough Foyle ferry FOYLE VENTURE in 2003. Frazer Ferries took over the route and vessel in 2015, renaming the ship AISLING GABRIELLE for the new Carlingford Ferry service.

Tonnage324 tonnes
Built1978
Speed10 knots
Length47.9 metres
Passengers300
Cars44
RegistrySligo, Ireland
IMO Number7800033
Celebrating good times aboard the AISLING GABRIELLE. Image: Matt Sudders
Celebrating good times aboard the AISLING GABRIELLE. Image: Matt Sudders
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