I’ve never been particularly fond of green, but after a visit to the Emerald Isle, I am a changed woman. It’s everywhere, and it’s magnificent, highlighting some of the most spectacular landscapes that I’ve ever seen in my life. Imagine rolling green hills and mountains overlooking a vast and resplendent sea punctuated by jutting cliffs, stunning vistas, and historical sites. You’ve seen the raw, natural beauty of Ireland on the screen - Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - but nothing compares to discovering it for yourself. It’s enough to leave even your teenagers awestruck.
When planning a trip to Ireland, you’ll likely piece together several stunning locations. For ideas, click here. I’d suggest adding family-friendly Dingle, located on the “Wild Atlantic Way” along the western coast of Ireland. It’s also near other must-dos, like the Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, and Killarney National Park. In Dingle, your family will be able to experience Ireland’s natural beauty on a beach, boat, kayak or back of a horse.
If you’re traveling from the U.S., you’ll likely fly into Dublin. My family’s trip to Ireland actually was the backend of a 17-day vacation across the British Isles. We took the high-speed Stena Super-Fast X Ferry from Holyhead, Wales, to Dublin, which takes a little over three hours.
KidTripster Tip: If you do take the ferry, I would advise traveling in Club Class. It’s obviously more expensive, but you get a front row seat in an upgraded lounge area with plenty of food (some at additional cost) along with free movies and free WiFi. If you suffer from motion sickness, do come prepared, just in case. Cost: Family of four $189; add $45.63/person for Club Class; child discounts available.
In you’re staying a night or two in Dublin before setting off to explore the rest of Ireland, I’d suggest renting a flat on a website like VRBO. We rented a two bed-two bath flat in the centrally-located Temple Bar section of the city. This bustling area is filled with hotels, restaurants, pubs, and shops. It can get very noisy when the bars close down, so opt for a space with bedrooms off the street, if that’s a concern for your family. Overall, we find renting a flat to be cheaper and roomier; it makes us feel as though we are really living in a place rather than simply visiting.
Dingle is a 4-hour drive from Dublin (if you take the most direct route across the island as opposed the scenic route). Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, given that you’re driving on the opposite side of the road often down narrow, cliffside roadways with limited visibility. But it does offer your family more flexibility than a bus tour. Rental cars with automatic transmission are more expensive than manuals, but if you don’t regularly drive a stick, it’s worth the money so as not to have one more thing to worry about while driving. And I can’t stress this point enough: be certain that your vehicle comes with a working GPS, as many roads are unmarked.
Where to stay?
Two blocks from the center of Dingle overlooking Dingle Bay, you’ll find the lovely Heaton’s Guest House. Within walking distance to everything, the accommodations are homey and inviting, the suites comfortable and spacious, and the hotel staff very obliging. We rented a junior suite with king bed and ensuite bathroom for my husband and I and a room with twin beds and ensuite bathroom for my 18-year-old daughter and her friend; both rooms had views of the bay. Rates start at $165/night and include a positively delicious breakfast. Note: no other meals are served except afternoon tea and cake. When it’s gone, it’s gone, so show up early.
What to do?
Dingle is the epitome of a festive, family-driven, seaside town, speckled with quaint buildings, quirky boutiques, pubs, and restaurants.
Be sure to book a Dingle Dolphin Tour, which is great fun for the entire family. The one-hour tour (which ended up being more like an hour and 40 minutes) got us out on the gorgeous waterway, offered spellbinding views of the sea and shoreline, and provided ample opportunities to see Fungi, a playful Bottlenose dolphin, who has been living in Dingle harbor and entertaining visitors for some 32 years. Although we were stopped for good portion of our time waiting for Fungi to appear, he didn't disappoint. Your kids will be delighted! Cost: Youth $9; Adult: $18.
If you have younger kids, head to Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium. Showcasing Ireland’s largest collection of sharks, it also features juvenile saltwater crocodiles, iguanas, bearded dragons, corn snakes, pythons, and a boa constrictor. The aquarium isn’t big, but little ones will appreciate the touch tank, underwater tunnel, and adorable sea otters. Cost: Family of four $43.
For older kids, consider a half-day or sunset kayaking trip with Irish Adventures. You’ll paddle through sea caves and get a chance to see Fungi close up! Cost: Teens $50; Adults $56; kids 8 and up can go, if they’re in a double kayak with parent. Or if you’ve ever wanted to ride a horse on the beach, you can in Dingle! Dingle Horse Riding offers 1-1/2-hour treks for beginners, starting at $67/person, or more advance rides where the horses are allowed to gallop on the sand! To ride, kids need to be at least 11 years old, unless they are strong immediate riders with previous experience.
Just a 25-minute drive from Dingle, Inch Beach showcases three miles of endless golden sand with panoramic views of the Dingle Peninsula and surrounding County Kerry countryside. If your kids are water sports enthusiasts, you’ll likely spend the entire day here surfing, kayaking, windsurfing, or kitesurfing, plus kite flying and fishing. Consider Dingle Surf; the outfitter will even transport you from town to the beach. Cost: Family surf lesson (2 adults, 2 kids) $111.
Or you could choose to simply take a long walk down this gorgeous stretch of sand. When you get hungry, hit up Sammy’s Restaurant Bar and Cafe offering everything from oysters to steak sandwiches to Cajun chicken salad along with kids’ options, right on the beach.
By far, our favorite activity was embarking on the mesmerizing car tour of the Dingle Peninsula Loop, also known as the Slea Head Scenic Route. Although the roads are narrow, curvy, and often drop to one lane, it’s an absolute must-do. The route follows the southern coast of the peninsula out to Slea Head and then heads north through Dunquin and Ballyferriter before winding its way back to Dingle. I would allow a full day for the entire tour to stop, take pictures, explore, and eat. Best advice, leave very early before the tour buses show up, as they cause mind-blowing havoc on the narrow stretches overlooking the ocean, or go around dinner time, when traffic has died down. Keep in mind that in the summer, the sun rises at 3:45 a.m., and it isn’t fully dark until 11 p.m., so there’s plenty of daylight for exploring. Sites to look for along the way include: Dunbeg Fort (Stonehouse Restaurant across from the fort is a great spot to eat.), Beehive Huts, White Marble Crucifix, and Dunmore Head, which is the westernmost part of Europe and great vantage point for viewing the Blasket Islands.
KidTripster Tip: Go with the flow when driving the Slea Head Scenic Route. In other words, drive the direction that the majority of cars are driving; if you go the opposite direction, you may come head to head with a tour bus, forcing you and everyone behind you, to back down the cliffside road until the next pull-off (Yes, it happened to us!).
Where to eat?
Up the hill from Dingle Harbor, Grey’s Lane Bistro serves local produce and fresh fish in divine combinations. And while it doesn’t have a formal children’s menu, the staff is more than happy to split dishes or concoct something suitable. We were so taken by the warm and welcoming atmosphere, diverse menu, and enchanting surroundings, that we ate here every day. It definitely gets our vote for “Best Restaurant in Dingle,” based on food, price, service, and ambiance. Note: reservations are a must during high season almost everywhere.
After dinner, head to Murphy’s Ice Cream (two locations: Strand Street and the Pier). This delicious handmade, artisan ice cream comes in unusual flavors like chocolate whisky, Dingle gin, and sticky toffee pudding. Samples are encouraged. The coffee is second to none, and the staff is phenomenally fun! Be sure to check out the joke jar on the way out – pick a joke or leave a joke. Either way, it’s good for a laugh!
There are some other family-friendly restaurants that we liked. The Boat Yard Restaurant and Bar on the main street offers outdoor seating away from the crowded sidewalk. The Diner is a great casual dining choice for families. Fenton’s Restaurant is little more formal but still accommodating of kids. And An Chonair Bar, referred to as Danno’s Bar by locals, is good restaurant, bar, and beer garden with music.
Located up the hill and about a 10-minute walk from the harbor, you’ll find our favorite pubs in Dingle: Paul Geaney’s Bar and The Dingle Pub B & B. We visited both of these pubs after dinner on our last night in town. They are lively, entertaining, and family-oriented with many parents and little ones. The bands are terrific, and for the most part, folks are sitting around sipping beer, chatting, and singing along. At Paul Geaney’s, the lead band member could hear how well my daughter was singing in the crowd (She’s pretty fabulous, I must say.) and invited her up to sing a solo! What a brilliant memory!
Marcia Carroll Burzair lives outside of Dallas with her husband and daughter. When she's not writing, she's performing in plays, planning her next trip abroad or fantasizing about buying a cottage on a cliff overlooking the ocean in some faraway land.
This writer received some complimentary activities and meals for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.