You don't need the luck of the Irish to plan a vacation to the Emerald Isle that the whole family will enjoy. More than 50 percent of Ireland's population is under the age of 25, which means you'll find plenty of activities and destinations for families with children. "The beauty of Ireland is everything is very family-oriented," says Ruth Moran, a communications executive for Tourism Ireland.
Ireland is only about the size of Maine, but you still have lots options so planning is important. Moran suggests visiting Tourism Ireland's website, www.tourismireland.com, or calling 1-800-223-6470 to request free literature about Ireland in general or specific regions or activities you're interested in. You can also ask for a list of "shamrock specialists" in your area. These travel agents have completed a series of courses on Ireland and visited the country at least once themselves. This experience will help them answer your questions and plan a trip that fits your family's needs.
Moran, who has taken her own children to Ireland, recommends getting your children involved in the planning process. "Sit with the kids and ask what they're interests are," she says. Looking through the travel brochures with them will help you find out if they're more interested in seeing castles or going biking. Another way to get your kids excited about the trip is reading them some Irish folklore before you leave. This will help them appreciate some of the sights more. "They get more of a kick out of it," Moran says.
You can do a ten-day tour of the island's highlights, but depending on the age of your children and how much you want to travel you might choose to concentrate on a specific area. July and August are the busy season, so however much group you plan to cover, Moran suggests starting to plan the previous fall if you want to go to Ireland in the summer.
Here's a closer look at two areas where you can start your Irish vacation.
The East: Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains
Dublin, Ireland's capital city, is home to over a million people, or roughly a third of the country's entire population. This makes the city a hub of culture and activity, so your family will have plenty of entertaining options.
Phoenix Park is Europe's largest public park. Located 4 km from the city center, the park houses the Dublin Zoo and Ashtown Castle. At the zoo, your children can see over 700 different animals in five different kingdoms, including the new African plains. A family ticket for two adults and two children costs 29.40 euros. Ashtown Castle is a medieval manor house where you can learn more about the history and wildlife of Phoenix Park. A family pass to the castle and visitor's center costs 6.30 euros. Of course, the park also has plenty of walking paths, flower gardens and even a few palm trees you can enjoy free of charge. For more information visit www.heritageireland.ie and www.dublinzoo.ie.
Dublinia takes you back to see what the city was like during the middle ages. The exhibit follows the city from the arrival of the Normans in 1170 to the Reformation era in 1540. Your visit to Dublinia includes an interactive medieval fair where you and your children can try on period clothing and armor, sample food, listen to live music, visit a medieval bank and a scribe's booth with pardons for sale. Dublinia is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A family ticket costs 15 euros. For more information visit www.dublinia.ie.
Viking Splash Tours
One unusual way to see the sights in Dublin is with Viking Splash Tours. Onboard a reconditioned World War II amphibious military vehicle, or a "duck," you'll get to see the city by land and water. A costumed Viking tour captain will show you Dublin's landmarks, such as St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Stephen's Green, the Georgian doors of Merrion Square, and Trinity College. Your captain will also explain how Vikings first settled in the area 1000 years ago. The water portion of the tour splashes through the Grand Canal Basin, just south of the River Liffey. The tours depart every half hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer. A family ticket for two adults and up to three kids costs 47 euros. No children under 2 are allowed on the water portion of the tour. For more information visit www.vikingsplashtours.com or call 353-1-453-9185.
Dublin had plenty of other things for you to see. The Gaelic Athletic Association Museum at Croke Park explores the uniquely Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football. The exhibit includes an area where your children can try their hand at both sports. The Chimney viewing tower in Smithfield Village offers a panoramic view of the city. The Guinness Storehouse provides a high-tech explanation of how the traditional Irish beverage is created. In part of the display, you get to walk under a giant man-made waterfall. For more information on these and other Dublin sights visit www.visitdublin.com. The site includes a page of special discounts for North American visitors. For example, a hotel room at Bewleys Hotel Newlands Cross for one to two adults and up to three children for 79 euros.
A trip to Ireland wouldn't be complete without seeing some of the countryside. Consider heading south of the city for a day trip to the Wicklow Mountains.
Powerscourt Gardens and Waterfall
Heading south on N11, look for signs for Enniskerry and the Powerscourt Gardens. The Powerscourt Gardens were started in 1740 and now cover 45 acres. As you explore the grounds, you can see formal gardens, terraces, ornamental lakes, statuary and walled gardens. The 398-foot Powerscourt Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Ireland, is just 5 kilometers away. After a short walk on the trail to the waterfall, your family can have a picnic or goof around on the playground equipment. The gardens are open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily during the summer, and waterfall is open from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Entrance to the gardens cost 6 euros for adults and 3.50 for children. Separate tickets are required to see the waterfall. These tickets cost 4 euros for adults and 3 euros for children. For more information visit www.powerscourt.ie.
Wicklow Mountains National Park
From Powerscourt Gardens, drive south and you'll come to Wicklow Mountains National Park. This park covers over 49,000 acres and includes a wide variety of mountains, forests and bogs. The park's visitor information center is located in the Glendalough Valley. Several guided walks leave from the visitor's center. A short drive past the visitor's center is the Upper Lake where you can find several marked hiking trails. These trails a divided by length and difficulty, so you can decide which trails will be right for you and your children. For more information visit www.heritageireland.ie. or call 353-404-45425.
The Mid West: County Clare and County Galway
The Mid West of Ireland is nothing like the American Midwest: It's on the coast, and with dramatic seaside cliffs, green rolling hills and plenty of mountains, it's anything but flat. The Irish Mid West is known for it's strong ties to Irish cultural traditions. Some of the best traditional music and dancing can be found in this part of the country, and the area is home to many Gaeltacht communities where "Gaelige" is still the primary language.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is one way to introduce your family to some of these Irish traditions. Located east of Shannon Airport on N18, the folk park and its costumed characters bring Victorian Ireland to life. Your family can explore ten farmhouses, a schoolhouse, a mill, a church, a walled garden, a typical Georgian residence of the upper class, and a village street full of traditional shops. Many of the buildings, such as Ardcroney Church, were brought piece by piece from other parts of Ireland and rebuilt in the park. You can also take a tour of Bunratty Castle, which was built around 1425 by the MacNamara family. In the evening, your family can attend a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle or watch a performance of both traditional and contemporary Irish music and dance at Bunratty Folk Park. The Earl's Banquet at Bunratty Castle includes a four-course meal and has sittings at 5:30 and 8:30 nightly. The traditional Irish night at the folk park starts at 7 p.m. every night from April to October. Admission to the folk park costs 9.50 euros for adults and 5.30 for children or 25 euros for a family. For more information, visit www.shannonheritage.com or call +353-61-360788.
The Cliffs of Moher
Rising over 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, the Cliffs of Moher provide a scenic view of the Aran Islands, Galway Bay and the Maumtauk Mountains. Tourists have been coming to see this 8-kilometer stretch of County Clare coastline for hundreds of years, and in 1835 Cornelius O'Brien built an observation tower to provide a better view of the cliffs. You can still go up in O'Briens' Tower during good weather. The cliffs are open to the public March to May 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; June to August 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; September to October 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information visit www.shannonheritage.com or call +353-065-7082565.
An unusually rocky landscape known as the Burren covers the northwest corner of County Clare. Limestone pavements eroded in a distinctive pattern and crisscrossed with cracks make up this 300-square-kilometer area. The Burren is also known for rare wildflowers that bloom here even in the winter. You can explore the Burren in the car or by foot on part of the Burren Way, a 22-mile trail running between the Cliffs of Moher and the village of Ballyvaughan. In Kilfenora, the Burren Centre explains the landscape and plant life of this unique region through models and audiovisual displays. Admission is 3.17 euros for adults and 2.54 for children. For more information on the Burren visit www.tourclare.com or call the Burren Centre at +353-065-7088030.
The Aran Islands
Famous for hand-knit wool sweaters, the Aran Islands are also known for their ruggedly beautiful scenery, ancient stone forts and religious ruins. Inishmore is the largest and most popular of the three islands located in the Atlantic Ocean 30 miles from Galway. The ferries stop in the town of Kilronan on the east end of the island. From here you can get a tour of the island by minibus or horse-drawn cart. You can also rent bikes for about 10 euros per person. The most inexpensive way to explore the island is on foot. The Inishmore Way runs 21 miles around the island. Follow part of this sign-posted walk west from Kilronan to the village Kilmurvey where you'll find Dun Aonghasa, a spectacular cliff-top stone fortress. The semi-circle fort dates back to the 5th century and looks down 300-feet into the Atlantic. The fort is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 1.20 euros for adults, 0.50 for children, or 3.80 for a family ticket. For more information visit +353-99-61008.
If you want to find out more about the traditional Aran sweaters, visit the Aran Sweater Market and Museum back in Kilronan. Every stitch holds a specific meaning, such as the cable stitch representing a fisherman's ropes or the diamond stitch that symbolizing the fields of the islands. Each family used a unique combination of stitches, and the patterns were closely guarded secrets. The museum has recorded many of these clan patterns, so if you have Irish ancestors you might be able to order a sweater using your family's pattern. Visit www.aransweatermarket.com or call +353 27-63201.
Two ferries run to the Aran Islands from the port of Rossaveal, about 20 miles west of Galway City. Round-trip tickets on both Island Ferries and InisMor Ferries cost 19 euros for adults and 10 euros for children, with special family rates available on request. Both companies also provide a shuttle from Galway for an additional cost. From April to October, Island Ferries leave for Inishmore at 10:30 a.m., 1 and 6:30 p.m. and back to Rossaveal at 9, 12 and 5. Ferries run less frequently from November to March. InisMor Ferries leave for the island at 10:30 a.m., 5 and 7 p.m. with return trips at 8:30 a.m., 4 and 6 p.m. Additional afternoon times are offered on the weekends. For more information on these ferries visit < www.aranislandferries.com and www.queenofaran2.com.
Where you decide to stay will help shape your experience in Ireland. Tourism Ireland offers catalogs of self-catering homes, bed and breakfast and hotels, which you can use to find accommodations with family-friendly features such as baby-sitting or children's playrooms.
Self-catering houses are one budget-friendly way to stay. These homes are rented out by the week and come with a fully-equipped kitchen so you can save money by cooking some of your own meals. For example, in County Clare near Ballyvaughan and the Burren, you can stay in one of eight traditional cottages overlooking Galway Bay. Each cottage comes with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a private garden. You would be 4 miles from the beach and 4.5 miles from town. These cottages cost 380 euros per week from April to mid-June. Prices go up during the busier summer months, reaching a high of 640 euros per week in late July and early August. For more information on these cottages visit www.thh.ie. You can find out more about other self-catering properties at www.iscf.ie or www.self-cater.com.
Bed and Breakfasts
If cooking your own dinner doesn't sound like vacation, consider staying in a bed and breakfast. Bed and breakfasts give you a chance to get to known an Irish family better by staying in their home. Each night's stay comes with a home-cooked meal in the morning. Full Irish breakfast usually includes tea, juice, fruit, cereal, toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, fried mushrooms, cooked tomatoes and sometimes black pudding (blood sausage). Some bed and breakfasts offer three-day or seven-day rates with both breakfast and dinner. Reduced prices for children and families are also available at some B&Bs.
One variation on this type of accommodation is the farmhouse bed and breakfast. These places give you an opportunity to stay on a working farm and get a taste of rural Irish life. At some farmhouse B&Bs you can even help out with the farm work. For example, at the Kyle Farmhouse in County Wicklow you can milk a cow or visit sheep grazing in the hills. You can also go hiking on the Wicklow Way walking trail, which passes through the farm's fields. This bed and breakfast costs 26.50 to 30 euros per person per night with a 50 percent discount for children. For more information vist www.kylefarm.com or call 059-71341.
For a price, you can keep the conveniences you're used to having at American hotels, such as a television in your room and an ice machine down the hall. These hotels are usually only in the larger cities and cost about 100 euros per night. Jury's Inn is one chain that has locations in both Dublin and Galway. For more information vist www.jurysdoyle.com.
To book a trip to the Emerald Isle, visit www.ireland.com/travel or call 800-896-4600