Where can you stay in centuries old castles, kayak with a frolicking dolphin and learn a completely new sport all on the same vacation? It might surprise you, like it did me, that all of this and more is on offer on the Emerald Isle of Ireland.
Actually, when I first started planning a family trip to Ireland, I hesitated, wondering if there would be enough to do to keep my 15-year-old son, Aidan engaged. I needn’t have worried; it turns out Ireland is a no brainer for a family vacation. The Irish are famously friendly, family-oriented, and happy to share their gift of gab with adults and kids alike. And the small country the size of South Carolina with a population less than New York City is perfect for exploring, so you don’t have to stay in one spot. In fact, most Irish vacations follow a loop, starting in Dublin and then exploring the small villages and big scenery to the south and west.
Since it was my first time in the Emerald Isle I wasn’t sure where to start planning, so I called on the experts at Brendan Vacations known for creating custom family trips around Ireland. They presented unique activities I would have never uncovered on my own that thrilled my teen while still being a fit for me and my slightly less adventurous husband. Best of all, private tours include a chauffeured car. Not only did this let us bypass our usual “which way should we go” arguments, but our professional driver also acted as a personal tour guide and concierge, calling ahead to confirm reservations, taking us to off-the-beaten-track attractions and cafes, and even rescheduling our activities one day when I wasn’t feeling well. We all had so much fun that one night at dinner Aidan even proclaimed the magic words, "This is a really great vacation!" I couldn’t agree more.
Read on to discover everything from where to go and stay to what to do for an unforgettable Ireland family vacation.
There’s so much to explore in this compact ancient city that our 2-hour guided walking tour only skimmed the surface. Some of our highlights included lushly landscaped Merrion Park and its colorful Oscar Wilde statue (it also has a popular playground), and Trinity College’s Book of Kells and Old Library which made us feel like we had entered a real life Hogwarts.
Heading south from Dublin, our first stop was the medieval town of Kilkenny and its regal 12th century castle (don’t miss the massive, free grounds here with acres of carpet-soft grass where kids are welcome to play). After we had wandered the warren of streets that loop through the small town, we headed to our first unexpected adventure: hurling lessons. Although it’s the most popular sport in Ireland, it’s little known outside the country, which may explain why we had no idea what was in store.
At Lanigans, a pub that sports its own hurling museum, we met our guide who showed us a film of a match, which seemed like a frenetic mix of rugby, field hockey and lacrosse. Personally, I was ready to turn and run. But we received our hurley, a short wooden hockey-like stick, and headed off to try to hit a ball in the air, while running, on a real hurling field. Much to my surprise, our afternoon on the field is a favorite vacation memory; trotting along the lush grass under an incredibly blue sky, hitting (or, in my case, trying to hit) the ball to each other was a great adrenaline rush. Extra bonus: Our fabulous Brendan driver Mike is a hurling aficionado and presented Aidan with a ball from his home club as a souvenir, while also greeting us with water as we left the field.
The gateway to the most scenic part of Ireland, known as the Ring of Kerry, is also a family highlight, with a national park nestled against a bustling town full of shops, ice creameries, restaurants, pubs, live music and entertainment venues. It feels a bit like a classic summer shore town, but here it’s all about exploring nature, including lakes and waterfalls and Technicolor wildflowers, as well as castle ruins like the glorious Muckross Estate. One of the most popular ways to start a trip is with a jaunting cart ride (a horse drawn carriage) that bumps its way down dirt paths right into the park.
Instead of jaunting though, we met up with a private walking guide who surprised us by bringing her big fluffy golden retriever, a super perk since we always miss our dog on when we’re on vacation.
Courtesy of Melissa Klurman
Dingle is an easy-to-navigate harbor town with an array of indie stores, including the home base of our favorite ice cream in Ireland, Murphy’s (the sea salt caramel here is especially worth the calories). It was one of several spots we wish we could have spent a few more days exploring. It’s also home of a favorite of Irish schoolchildren across the island: Funghi the dolphin who strayed into the bay three decades ago and is now a permanent resident.
My family donned wet suits to kayak the bay with IrishAdventures to try and spot the flippered attraction. We headed out across the waves, watching cows graze on the cliff above us and maneuvering in and out of sea caves (note, this is really best for swimmers ages 8 and up). It was a magical moment when the fin we’d be waiting for appeared around the bend. Aidan hollered over the waves, “I’ve never felt more alive!” Another check in the bucket list book!
Cliffs of Moher
Although we skipped some of the more crowded tourist attractions in favor of more unique options, the jagged Cliffs of Moher hugging the Atlantic coastline are well worth the visit. The rocky croppings plunge 700 feet into the sea, giving you the impression that you’re standing at the edge of the world. You can follow them for nearly 5 miles, spotting seabirds, including adorable puffins.
We had to leave the cliffs to visit birds of another nature — birds of prey in Cong, the home of Ashford Castle (more details on that on the next page) and the oldest falconry school in Ireland. To say this was a trip highlight would be an understatement; all three of us were able to walk with our own Harris hawk. The stunning birds flew off our arms into the trees as we strolled through the woods, and with a flick of our wrists, landed back on us again in an exhilarating whirl of feathers. (Note: We had a highly trained falconry expert with us, teaching us commands and feeding the birds the dead mice and chicken parts they get as treats). I’ve never felt more like royalty, especially when our hour walk ended with hot chocolate (and a nip of Bailey’s) served from silver carafes under the cerulean Irish sky.
Courtesy of Cullen's at the Castle
We ate at friendly small pubs around the countryside, sampling our favorite Irish staples such as fish and chips and beef stew. In addition, here are a few special spots worth seeking out:
A jewelbox café that’s held the central spot on Dublin’s hopping Grafton Street shopping corridor for 180 years, it’s the perfect destination for breakfast, lunch or high tea. Kids can sip hot chocolate while you enjoy a tea or coffee, then nibble open sandwiches, decadent scones and elaborate pastries while you view the stained glass windows that cast a rainbow of light on the statues, towering plants, marble topped tables and tiled mosaics that adorn the historic dining rooms.
Cullen's at the Castle, Cong
With its thatched roof, white-washed walls and flowering garden paths, this cottage restaurant just outside Ashford Castle’s gates looks like a charmed home for fairies. Inside, the bright, spacious interior is especially comfortable for families; the seafood-heavy menu was one of our favorite meals in Ireland and they use all local products, including outstanding mussels, lamb and beef ribeye. There is a children’s menu available for pickier eaters. My family is still talking about the honeycomb ice cream sundae we had for dessert!
Cocoa Couture, Killenard
Stopping in the village of Killenard is worth it just for the sweet treats. We crafted chocolate with the owner of Cocoa Couture. For chocoholics, like me, it was as exciting as visiting Willy Wonka himself. We sampled handcrafted truffles and sipped rich cocoa before we each donned an apron and crafted chocolate butter creams from local cream, honey and butter under the watchful eye of shop owner Catherine. Then we packaged up our custom candies to bring home — the perfect remembrance of our Irish adventure.
Courtesy of Ashford Castle
Brendan found stellar family hotel options that always gave us a sense of place as well as a central location to explore our home bases. Plus, we stayed in a real castle!
Modern luxury combines with historical ambience at this 800-year-old castle that’s been operating as a hotel for the past 80 years. It's not a stretch to say it will make all of your royal dreams come true. And don’t worry about introducing the kids to the elegant property; not only do they welcome families, but the grounds are so expansive that that the kids will be able to work off any rambunctious energy they have. In addition to falconry, kids can walk with the friendly resident Irish wolfhounds in the morning, bike along the castle grounds, swim in the indoor pool, fish, play tennis, horseback ride or even zipline. There are standard family rooms with two queen beds, but I suggest the setup we had that included two spacious rooms with connecting doors. A four-poster bed and sitting room was ideal for the adults while the curved bricks of a turret next to a drapery swagged bed for Aidan gave him princely airs. The extensive complimentary breakfast is served in a dining room decked with chandeliers and fit for a queen, but kids will also love the pancakes served up at the new American-style diner, Stanley’s, on the lower level.
The Heritage Killenard
Modern and spacious, this resort about an hour west of Dublin will banish any thoughts you have of small, stuffy European hotels. Situated right on a verdant golf course, the spacious rooms here are great for staying with kids, especially the Family Rooms with two double beds and suites with king beds and couches. During school breaks, the Heritage ramps up the family programming with complimentary activities and movies. The restaurants use local produce (and serve up Cocoa Couture sweets) and have extensive kids menus with everything from grilled salmon to plain pasta (and one of the most detailed allergen menus we’ve ever seen).
Great Southern Killarney
Courtesy of Great Southern Killarney
Perfectly situated at the top of this scenic town, the hotel excels in combining old-world charm and elegance with family-friendly amenities, including a complimentary Kerry Cub Kids’ Club, a large indoor pool and lovely outdoor gardens with a playground. The hotel has family rooms big enough for four, although we went with the two-room Ambassador Suite, which meant double the fabulous deep soaking tubs, a family favorite amenity. Breakfast (complimentary) is an event worth rallying the family for, including platters filled with homemade scones and a massive bowl of fresh clotted cream, which easily made it our favorite meal every day of our stay.
By Melissa Klurman