Two weeks in Ireland?
Doing it with a four-year-old and an 18-month-old?
Not so sweet. Actually, never mind. Really. I’ll just stay home.
Those were my first thoughts when a friend invited my family and me to Ireland. She and her family live on Inis Mor (pronounced Inishmore), one of the rugged Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. They had room for us. Our kids were similar in age. They would keep us fed. We could stay as long as we wanted. We could tour the rest of the country and come and go as we pleased. She advised us to come in March, when tourism is low and the weather is sorta decent. Many towns have parades for St. Pat’s Day. How fun would that be?
I was intrigued. It sounded simple enough. After all, my husband and I had done some traveling abroad, and it was important to us to give our kids the same experience. Maybe this was the time to start.
Buoyed by the good airfare we found and the quick manner in which our daughter’s passport arrived (complete with a picture of her looking not a little bit bewildered), my husband and I committed to the trip. I was still reluctant, but I wanted to reunite with my friend, see Ireland, make some nice memories for the kids. I went to work researching and came up with a tentative itinerary. But, having not visited the country before, there was a lot to learn. Quickly I started spending all my free time reading up on doing family-friendly Ireland. Quickly I got overwhelmed.
There was the flight from Seattle. Would my usual tricks work on the plane? (Both kids had flown across the U.S. several times, but not across an ocean). Once there, could we rent car seats? Would B&Bs provide a crib? What were some kid-friendly activities to do? Were there places to stay away from? Was my itinerary family-friendly enough? My friend in Ireland helped where she could, but outside of Galway and the Aran Islands, she couldn’t offer advice.
In the midst of drowning in information and questions, one night I came across Ireland Family Vacations, and its owner and one-woman show, Jody Halsted. An American, Jody bills herself as a “vacation coach.” While not a travel agent, she has relationships with many B&Bs and inns in Ireland. She also has a lot of experience navigating the country with her own small children. I contacted her. And she was invaluable.
Over the phone, I gave her the itinerary I had put together: fly in, spend three days in Dublin, head north to Belfast (note: different country, different currency), then meander west and south to Counties Mayo and Galway (Ireland is divided into counties, all of them quite large), and then ferry out to the islands to see my friend. After a few days there, ferry back, stopping for a night somewhere on the way back to Dublin.
Her feedback: “You’ll be spending a lot of time in the car.”
With my permission, Jody re-did my itinerary, relaxing things a lot and building a better family-friendly trip, with lots of opportunities for parks and activities. She gave me names of accommodations that were particularly kid-friendly. With my input that we weren’t particularly city people, she steered us away from Dublin and Belfast in favor of smaller towns. She answered my numerous questions about renting a car in Ireland (it is not a straightforward process), gave me the name of a mobile internet company (i.e. a pocket-sized travel modem for our smartphones), as well as sailing times to the Aran Islands. She stayed with me through the entire booking process. She also introduced me to other services that would make our trip a heck of a lot less stressful.
As our departure date grew closer, I was still reticent, although overall feeling much better than I had before Jody stepped in. My husband and I mentally prepped the kids with bedtime stories about leprechauns, coloring activities involving four-leaf clovers, and an outing to purchase sturdy rain jackets. We talked about long walks in airports and fun things we could do on the plane (my bag of tricks included coloring books, pocket games, reading materials, and an iPad as a fallback for our four-year-old). We took off from the Seattle airport on a gray Tuesday morning in March, bound for Pittsburgh. From there we’d get the red-eye to Dublin.
Those tickets seemed like a good idea at the time. Red-eye flights are good when traveling with little ones, right? They’ll sleep the whole time, right?
It’s a nice theory. Our eighteen-month-old was awake the entire flight to Dublin. Content, drowsy, but awake. Because she was traveling as a lap infant and didn’t have her own seat, my husband and I took turns holding her, and I nursed her quite a bit. Our four-year-old slept the entire flight, but not before vomiting all over himself and his blanket before takeoff (a combo of anxiety and something he ate I think). Midway through the flight, over the Atlantic, he yelled for me in his sleep.
We landed in Dublin the next morning. After clearing customs without incident, we headed to pick up our rental car (called “car hire” in Ireland). I had made arrangements through Auto Europe, as well as reserved two car seats and a portable crib from a company called The Stork Exchange. Manager and co-owner Bartek met us at the car rental station at the airport with products in hand. He installed the car seats for us and made sure we knew how they worked. From there we headed south to begin the Irish adventure. The travel modem I had reserved was waiting for us there; a company called Travel WiFi had shipped it to the B&B where we were staying. So far it was smooth sailing.
There was one factor that Jody could do nothing about, something that every traveler wrestles with: jetlag. The standard advice is upon arrival to stay up in order to adjust to the new time. We walked around and saw the sights to try and stave off the sleepiness, but ultimately all of us ended up doing some hard napping that day, our son between me and my husband on our king-sized bed, my daughter in the provided crib.
We spent anywhere from two to four nights in a single place. I found Enniskerry to be a charming little village with lots to see (which, in Ireland, usually means castles or natural, green beauty). I happened into a little bookstore and bought what would become one of my favorite books. It was also in that village that the kids tasted bangers and mash for the first time, had their first of many stews for dinner, and got used to having meat at breakfast.
From County Wicklow we traveled southwest to Counties Limerick and Claire, spending multiple nights in small villages near kid-friendly parks and chatting with innkeepers about the Irish economy and the Troubles of the 1950s. I found the stereotype of Irish friendliness generally true. I found people warm in manner and candid in conversation. We laughed along with our innkeeper in Kinvara as we celebrated St. Pat’s Day by doing laundry and listening to the wicked rainstorm slapping against the windows.
Overall Ireland felt both big and small at the same time. The amount of open land made it feel big, and the small towns and villages made it feel…well, small. That was probably the most surprising thing to me. I also found that things were not as well signed as they are in U.S, so sometimes B&Bs, parks, and restaurants were hard to find. This is where Jody’s instructions and our navigation system came in particularly handy. In general B&B owners and restaurants were inviting and accommodating to our children. Every place we stayed at provided a crib (I had rented a portable one just in case).
As expected, the kids were a bit out of sorts at first, being away from their beloved routines, food staples, and time zone, but within a few days they found their footing. It was the little things that made them smile: finding a leprechaun figurine in a restaurant, seeing sheep and castle ruins on the side of the road, running their legs at a park (many times we had playgrounds to ourselves).
Slowly we made our way northwest. We bought rings at the original Claddaugh store in Galway, and navigated to the ferry terminal to see my friend in the Aran Islands. Our kids learned what a “sea saw” at a park is (think teeter totter), saw their first street signs in Irish, and learned to stay seated during rough sails (the 30-minute ride out to the Islands left me and my husband green).
My friend met our boat at the dock (the ferry being walk-on only, we had left our car at the ferry terminal outside Galway), and we reunited after 12 years. I got to meet her husband and two children. The kids got silly with each other right away. We felt at home in their cozy house, a warm and snug shelter from the raw weather that battered the rocky island of Inis Mor, their home for the past three years as they operated The Bayview Restaurant. It was in that restaurant where my husband learned how to properly pour a Guinness. It was on Inis Mor where we hiked up to an abandoned castle, navigated narrow, hilly roads passed herds of sheep, and heard Irish spoken (a requirement if you want to purchase land on the historical, protected islands). Too soon it was time to depart.
As we made our way back to Dublin for our flight, I thought how surprisingly well our trip had gone, no doubt because of Jody and the vendors she had introduced me to. I was proud of my kids, who had adjusted well and had taken their new experiences in strides. Sure, we all lived in altered states of wakefulness these two weeks. Yes, our daughter had been up a few times at night. But we survived the trip intact. And late night talks with my friend over wine, getting to know her again in her new world, watching our kids laugh together….those were nice treats.
We had a few surprises in store for us, however, albeit predictable.
Our travels from Dublin took us through London’s Heathrow airport, where we boarded a ten-hour flight to Seattle. We allowed our three-year-old to watch a show on his iPad during boarding. Since boarding a 777 takes a while, he was well into his show when we had to turn it off during takeoff. (You see where this is going). The biggest meltdown of his life ensued. Think having to restrain him in his seat, his kicking and yelling, flight attendants offering help, and the poor gentleman seated next to us looking like “I chose poorly.”
The flight got underway, and my son calmed down.
That ten hours was the longest part of the entire trip. Despite our best efforts, neither kid slept. My husband and I took turns napping, passing our daughter back and forth. Once again, I nursed her quite a bit. We rotated both kids between activities of coloring, reading, and walking the aisles. Our son took rotations on his iPad.
He happened to be on one of those rotations during the descent into Seattle. Once again he had to turn off his show, and once again a meltdown ensued, this one with added fervor from exhaustion. He had been a trooper the entire time in the air, so it was hard to be mad.
Somehow we fumbled through the landing, the disembarking, and luggage collection. Then came the customs line. By then our daughter was fast asleep in her carrier on my front. Once more our son melted down. The customs officials were accommodating, if not a bit frayed by the preschooler kicking and screaming on the floor. They opened another lane for us. As we approached, my husband containing our son in his arms as best he could, our exchange went something like this:
“Passports please. You’re American, yes? Here’re your stamps. Now go. Please go.”
And out the door we went, to spend the night at a hotel before the three-hour drive home (which we started at 4 a.m., it being 11 a.m. in Ireland).
For a long time afterward, if you had asked me, I’d have said that the trip wasn’t worth it. I’d have told you to stay home, that it wasn’t worth the hassle. It took me about a year to be able to look back and smile, to say that it was worth it, that our kids are better travelers for it, that now any domestic trip is a piece of cake.
Two weeks in Ireland?
Doing it with a four-year-old and an 18-month-old?
Think twice before saying no. It’s doable, even a little enjoyable.
- Jody Halsted is with Ireland Family Vacations. She is friendly, responsive, incredibly insightful. Regardless of where you are in your planning process (even just thinking about a trip to Ireland with small children), she is an invaluable resource.
- Many airlines carry what’s called a “bassinet seat” or a “cot” for traveling with a baby. I was very excited about this, and in fact clawed, pleaded, and screamed to get one reserved (i.e. called the airline several times). Here was my experience: the seat is really a bouncy seat, made for infants no more than nine months or so. Since it sits atop a foldout table, your seats need to be at the bulkhead (e.g. the first row of your section of the plane). Airlines seem very wishy-washy about the bassinet seat. In my research I learned that each airline has different procedures for reserving the seat, and even if you do reserve one, you don’t always get it. My 18-month-old wanted nothing to do with the bassinet seat. If I could go back, I would have spent the extra money and purchased her a regular seat.
- We rented our car through Auto Europe, and I was satisfied with them. Keep in mind that many rentals in Ireland have manual transmissions. You can get an automatic, but it usually costs more. Auto insurance is somewhat complicated. Your U.S. insurance will not cover your rental. Be sure and read the fine print and understand the process.
- We rented car seats and a portable crib though The Stork Exchange. Because they have a relationship with Auto Europe, upon returning the car, we were able to leave the car seats installed and the portable crib in the trunk.
- We rented a travel modem through Travel WiFi. Having navigation on our phones was critical, and having the modem saved us international charges. When we were finished with it, I simply had the hotel mail it back.
- The most kid-friendly place we visited was the Burren Nature Sanctuary. Located in County Galway, the Burren has a large indoor play area, an outdoor animal sanctuary, as well as a kid-friendly nature hike, complete with ferry doors. We visited twice.