Shhh! Don’t tell. This seaside town that you likely have never heard of is the perfect base for your family’s Irish adventure.
Ireland: it’s a country that I know very well. It’s the birthplace of the love of my life, where I eventually married him, and still home to half of my Irish-American daughter’s family. It’s a truly special place, whether you’re as closely connected to it as I am or not.
Home to windswept rolling hills dotted with sheep, imposing craggy cliffsides, and a picturesque patchwork of fields in varying shades of green, you just can't help but fall in love with this majestic island. The scenery, though varied throughout Ireland, rarely disappoints, and neither do her people.
I’ve heard Ireland referred to as being “like a dear old friend,” and I think that’s the perfect description. When you arrive, you feel like you’re home, or at least I did my first time and every trip since. And when you leave, you look forward to the next time that you’ll see your dear friend again. With their warm, welcoming, laid-back style, ready humor, and affinity for “good craic” (craic is an Irish term for good times), you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier, more genuine, and optimistic bunch of people.
Situated in County Waterford, or what the Irish call “the sunny Southeast,” Dungarvan is truly a hidden gem. While Ireland is famous for its greenery and scenery, its music and literature, its people and pubs, and of course, its rain, you may be wondering, “why go to this obscure little town that I’ve never heard of?” And to that I say what I always say to people about traveling – get out of the big cities and away from the tourist traps, and you’ll experience what a country is really like. Dungarvan is picturesque, completely underrated, and super family-friendly. And this sleepy seaside town is the perfect home base for side trips to some of Ireland’s most famous sites.
Where to stay?
I’m completely enamored with The Park Hotel. I had my wedding reception here and the vast majority of our guests stayed here, too. The staff couldn't be more friendly, accommodating or family-oriented. With clean, spacious family rooms and lovely water views, it’s just a short walk from the center of town. The on-site facilities will keep the kids (plus Mom and Dad) happy with a pool, kids’ pool, whirlpool, sauna, steam room, and fitness center.
The hotel also has a kids’ club that runs from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. during the summer months. Geared towards children ages 3 and up, the club organizes fun activities like arts and crafts, game night, karaoke, cupcake decorating, pizza parties, and more. Drop the kids off for a couple of hours and have a grown-up meal alone in one of the hotel’s two restaurants or have a few pints in the pub. Rooms start at $150/night.
KidTripster Tip: There are two large and really fun playgrounds just a short walk from the hotel. One is west of the hotel across from the McDonald’s in town; the other is in Walton Park, which is across the water in Abbeyside. If you have little ones, they’ll want to be there every day when the weather is nice.
The Park Hotel also has 15 self-catering homes on the grounds of the hotel. The fully-furnished, fully-equipped townhouses have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, laundry facilities, and free WiFi. Each sleeps five comfortably. And while you don’t get housekeeping everyday, you still get access to the pool and fitness center. Starting at $180/night, these homes are a great value and allow larger families to stay together without having to book adjoining rooms. You also can save money by cooking for yourself. Besides it’s always kind of fun to go to grocery stores in foreign countries and see all the fun things they have that we don’t. Note: these homes book up quickly, especially in high season and over the weekends when the hotel hosts weddings.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re like me and prefer staying in an Airbnb or VRBO-kind of place, I highly recommend these holiday homes as there aren’t many places listed on those sites that are right in the heart of Dungarvan or neighboring Abbeyside. If you do look to rent a place online, be sure you check the map on each property carefully, as many will say they’re in Dungarvan but are actually miles away in rural areas. It’s not ideal if you’re hoping to keep driving on the left to a minimum.
Home to an award-winning restaurant and cooking school, the location of the Tannery Townhouse can’t be beat. Just as the name suggests, this boutique hotel is situated in an old leather factory near the marina in Dungarvan. It has 14 rooms, offering visitors the perfect base to explore the town on foot. Each morning, a light continental breakfast is available in your room or you can have a full Irish breakfast at the Tannery Restaurant. Rooms starts at $56/person if sharing a double room.
KidTripster Tip: Rooms and bathrooms here are stylish but compact. Rooms have either a double bed or two single beds in them, so a family of 4 would have to book two rooms. There’s also no elevator. I don’t recommend this hotel for those traveling with very young children, lots of bags, and strollers.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re staying here with teens, be sure to check out the Tannery Cookery School. From three-hour demos to full-day master classes, the Tannery’s owners, chef Paul and Máire Flynn along with a roster of guest instructors offer a range of courses to suit all tastes and abilities. Cost: $56 to $200/person.
Many traveling to Ireland envision staying at a quaint, cozy B&B. For those looking for that experience while still being a quick, 10-minute walk to the center of town, I recommend the Cairbre House B&B. On the water’s edge in the picturesque village of Abbeyside, it’s an oasis situated on an acre of beautifully-maintained gardens. This stately Georgian Manor built by the Duke of Devonshire in 1819 offers guests striking views of the Colligan River estuary and its wildlife. Inside, guests can relax in the Inn’s conservatory or cozy lounge complete with working fireplace. This award-winning property has been family-run for more than 100 years, and the owner is an excellent host, cooking up a wide variety of breakfast options (including vegetarian) each morning with fresh, local ingredients. He even uses vegetables, herbs, and flowers from his own garden. There’s one family room; all rooms are en suite and rates include breakfast. Rooms start at $45 to $50/person if sharing.
KidTripster Tip: Harbor seals are regular visitors in the waters beside this property, so have your kids keep their eyes peeled for them.
What to do?
There’s only one thing better than driving around Ireland and seeing its natural beauty, and that’s cycling around Ireland. The roads are so narrow in Ireland, there really are only a couple of places that you can do this safely, and one of them is on the Déise (or Waterford) Greenway. It’s an off-road, paved path that stretches 28 miles from Dungarvan to Waterford City. The route follows the old Waterford to Dungarvan railway line and could eventually stretch farther west along the old railway line to Lismore. There’s only one other car-free path of this kind in Ireland, and that’s the 26-mile Great Western Greenway in County Mayo.
I have been to Ireland many times, but this was - without a doubt - the single most enjoyable thing that we’ve done here as a family. Don't believe me? Take a look at this video. We rented bikes from Waterford Greenway Bike Hire in Abbeyside, just across the bridge from the center of Dungarvan. The Greenway starts by the bike rental shop. The bikes are new and top quality; the shop also has baby seats, kid trailers, and tag-along bikes for rent. The friendly staff will make sure your bike is fitted properly and provide you with a helmet and fluorescent green safety vest. They’ll also give you a map with their phone number on it, because they provide free roadside assistance if you get a flat and a free shuttle bus service should you get half way to Kilmacthomas or all the way to Waterford and find you’re too tired to get back to Dungarvan.
Cycling with a two-year old who doesn’t sit still for very long, we only made it about 18 miles before someone needed lunch and a nap. Still, it was a fabulous ride, and the views were spectacular. I can’t count how many times that we’ve driven around Ireland, and I’ve missed a great photo op simply because there was nowhere to safely pull over. Going by bike allows you to take your time, pull over as often as you like, and get those Instagram-worthy shots. And if you and your kids like to cycle, it’s worth the trip to Dungarvan for this attraction alone. Cost: full-day bike rental (child seat included) $22; child trailer $11.
KidTripster Tip: Even if cycling isn’t for you, at least take a walk on the Greenway. Head east a couple of miles, and you’ll come to a bridge that stretches over Dungarvan Harbour. When the tide is in, the views are amazing, and when the tide is out, it’s teeming with tide pools and wildlife to explore.
The best way to see the town of Dungarvan and neighboring village of Abbeyside is on foot. Grab breakfast, check out the town square, and then wander over to Dungarvan Castle which dates back to the 12th century. Make your way along the water’s edge, or the "quay" (pronounced "key") as the locals refer to it, and you’ll pass by several restaurants and pubs along the way. Then follow the path across the causeway (bridge) over to Abbeyside. Stay on the path along the harbor, and eventually you’ll come to St. Augustine’s Church and the ruins of the 13th century abbey for which the village is named. Beside the church, you’ll find a lovely beach and gorgeous boardwalk with water on one side and a green pasture with horses on the other. We love to walk here and feed carrots and apples to the horses; my daughter, nieces, and nephews never get sick of it and neither do I. The owners don’t mind either.
KidTripster Tip: Dungarvan is the only town that I’ve been to that looks drastically different depending on the tide. When the tide is in, the views of Dungarvan and the harbor are gorgeous; when it’s out, it’s one big mud flat with boats sticking out of it. Check the tide table if you want the perfect picture of the town and harbor.
Go for a walk or a picnic in the Colligan Wood, a lovely wooded area along the Colligan River or take a spin up to Mahon Falls in the Comeragh Mountains. After a short hike to the falls, be sure to check out what is quite possibly Ireland’s most famous magic road. As this video shows, if you stop your car in the right spot, it will proceed to roll uphill; the kids love it.
Located about three miles outside of Dungarvan is Clonea Strand, a wide sandy beach overlooking the sea. With fantastic views from Ballyvoile Head to Helvick Head, it’s a beautiful walk or bike ride via the Greenway. On your way home, do like the locals do in the summer and grab a bag of chips (that’s fries to us) from Gordon’s chip shop near the entrance to the beach.
KidTripster Tip: Be aware that when you enter “Clonea” on Google maps, it sends you about 18 miles away to another Clonea; that’s not the one you want. Clonea Strand is near the Goldcoast Hotel and Golf Club.
Sailing, fishing & other water adventures
Dungarvan and West Waterford have a long history of being home to sailors, fishermen, and seafaring families. So it’s no wonder some of the best sailing and deep sea fishing can still be found here. Dungarvan Sailing Adventures offers people of all ages and abilities the chance to enjoy the beautiful Dungarvan Bay from the deck of one of its traditionally-built sail boats. Black Water Cruises out of Youghal (pronounced like “y’all”) will take you on a 90-minute historic tour from the Celtic Sea up the River Blackwater to Lismore. Several local fishermen offer half and full-day deep sea fishing excursions on boats out of Dungarvan, Youghal, and Helvick. Dungarvan Bay Charter Boats offers a wide variety of trips from bass fishing in Dungarvan Bay to wreck fishing on one of the many WWI shipwrecks near Helvick Head. They also do whale and dolphin watching trips.
For those brave or crazy enough (thinking teens, here!) to put a toe into the icy waters of Ardmore Bay or the Celtic Sea, Ardmore Adventures offers kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding excursions for ages 8 and up. Cost: 2-hour family sea kayaking trip (2 adults, 2 youth) $110. The company also offers rock climbing, abseiling, archery, surfing, and snorkeling for adventure-seeking families.
Dunmore Adventures in Dunmore East has similar offerings including kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding but also offers sailing, windsurfing, and caving adventures for families. And then, there’s this thing which looks amazing. The Wibit Wipeout is definitely on our Ireland bucket list once my daughter is old enough - and in summer, of course!
The Emerald Isle has a long, established horseback riding history, and it’s no doubt one of the best ways to see Ireland’s beautiful beaches and countryside. Monatrea Equestrian Centre in Youghal and Lake Tour Stables in Tramore offer lessons, short rides on quiet country lanes (1 to 2 hours), and longer treks on beaches or through mountains (4 hours). Cost: Varies.
Dungarvan is perfectly positioned for several short day trips. Here are a few of my favorites.
Just 20 minutes outside of Dungarvan is the picturesque seaside village of Ardmore, which is believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland. St. Declan is thought to have introduced Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, well before St. Patrick arrived. These days, it’s one of Ireland’s quaintest fishing villages complete with thatch cottages and sandy beaches. It also boasts a five-star hotel, the Cliff House, and its Michelin-star restaurant. Just beyond the grounds of the hotel is the start of the three-mile cliff walk with stunning sea and countryside views. The walk passes by a shipwreck as well as many monuments and relics like the 95-foot-tall, 12th-century Ardmore Round Tower and ruins of a 13th century cathedral. It’s a stunning way to see this part of the country, even if you do it in December, when it’s freezing cold like we did!
KidTripster Tip: While the Cliff House Hotel may be a little too fancy for some families, its bar area is a nice, casual spot to stop in for lunch or coffee. In the winter, we love tea and biscuits here after the cold cliff walk, and in the summer, we sit out on the (hopefully) sunny patio overlooking Ardmore Bay and the Irish Sea. It even has a kids’ menu.
Just a couple of miles past the village of Ardmore overlooking Whiting Bay, you’ll find Ardmore Open Farm and Mini Zoo. Kids can get up close and personal with a wide variety of animals; there’s also ziplining, go karting, and a large indoor play space. Cost: Youth (over 2) $11; Adults $10.
With stunning views of the Comeragh Mountains on your left and the sea on your right, the 40-minute drive on N25 from Dungarvan to Waterford City is well worth the trip. Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city dating back to Viking times and is, of course, the home of Waterford Crystal. While it’s now owned by an American company and makes most of its products in Eastern Europe, the company’s high-profile commemorative pieces, trophies, and even the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball are still made at the House of Waterford. Take the 50-minute tour of the factory. Your kids will love watching these master craftsmen mold, blow, and cut crystal the way it’s been done for nearly two centuries. End the tour with a walk around the opulent retail store which houses the largest collection of Waterford crystal in the world. Cost: Youth (5-18) $4; Adult$14; Family (2 adults, 2 children) $33.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to hold onto little ones' hands in the shop. Toddlers can be like bulls in a china shop!
Just seven miles from Waterford City, this lovely seaside town is the Coney Island of Ireland and great for kids. The wide sandy beach of Tramore (Trá Mhór in Irish, meaning big beach) and its boardwalk have the same sort of nostalgic, kitschy charm with amusement park rides, old-school bumper cars, and brightly-lit arcades filled with typical boardwalk games. If you’re not too full on cotton candy, check out one of the many lovely restaurants in town like The Vee Bistro.
KidTripster Tip: On your way there or back to Dungarvan, drive the Copper Coast Drive (R675) and take in some beautiful panoramic seascapes and cliffside views.
Located along the Blackwater River about a 30-minute drive from Dungarvan, you’ll find the lovely, little town of Lismore, one of the most historic in County Waterford. The main attraction here is Lismore Castle and its gardens. Once home to Sir Walter Raleigh (after whom the state capital of North Carolina is named), it’s now the Irish residence of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. (Fun fact: Adele Astaire, sister of the dance legend Fred Astaire, married the 9th duke and lived in the castle from 1932 to 1944.) While the castle is not open to the public, the gardens are the most popular attraction in County Waterford. A visit to them and this charming town make for a great little day trip.
Dungarvan is also a 1-hour drive from Cork City, 1-1/2-hour from Blarney (home of the famous Blarney Stone) or Kinsale, and 2-hours from Killarney and the Ring of Kerry.
Where to eat?
There’s an old saying in Ireland that one should “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” And while the Irish are known for their massive breakfasts, traditionally, many Irish families have “dinner,” the largest meal at midday, and “tea,” a lighter meal in the evening. So lunch is dinner, and dinner is tea. Confused yet? Well, never mind the semantics, just walk into any one of these fine establishments when you’re hungry, and you’re sure to get a nice meal and friendly service.
No trip to Ireland is fully experienced without the sublime wonder of the traditional Irish breakfast. And there’s no better place to get one than at The Shamrock. A “Full Irish” or a “fry” consists of one fried egg, sausage, rashers, black pudding, white pudding, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans, a grilled tomato, toast, and tea. Let me translate some of that – rashers (or bacon) are not at all like your typical, streaky American bacon; they're more like a cross between Canadian bacon and ham. And black and white pudding – no, we’re not talking Jello here, people. Pudding is a type of sausage around these parts, and lucky for you, the white pudding in Dungarvan is of the Clonakilty variety which, in my opinion, is the very best in Ireland. This no-frills, family-owned restaurant has great service, tasty Irish comfort food, and reasonable prices. It also serves lunch and dinner, and you can get a Full Irish all day long. Or try the steak pie or fresh fish specials, and you won’t be disappointed. Tell Una that we sent you.
Interlude is one of my daughter’s favorite places for a date with her granny. This cute, contemporary spot on the quay has a very simple approach: serve locally-produced food with minimum fuss. It has a lovely lunch menu with homemade soups, sandwiches, and a yummy, warm pesto chicken salad or more substantial options like fresh mussels caught in the waters just outside the restaurant in nearby Helvick Head, steamed in local beer, and finished with bacon. Or try the 8-ounce, grass-fed Irish beef burger with Irish cheddar on a floury “blaa” or “bap” (a super-soft bun lightly dusted with flour unique to this area). The restaurant also has a “beag” (which is Irish for small) menu that includes picky-kid favorites like “goujons” (chicken strips), penne pasta with tomato sauce or cheese pizza.
KidTripster Tip: Snag the cozy little corner booth with a window seat on the right as you enter Interlude. It’s the best seat in the house where the kids can watch the sailboats in the harbor, if the tide is in.
There’s also Interlude Too, the restaurant’s expansion and bakery side which is a great spot for morning coffee or afternoon tea and treats like homemade fruit scones or orange drizzle cake.
Located right in the town square, Meades Cafe is the perfect spot for a pick-me-up cup of coffee or tea. It claims to have the best coffee in town, and I don’t disagree. The folks here make a mean cappuccino in a part of the world that is, generally speaking, more into tea. The cozy cafe has yummy baked goods, fruit smoothies, ice cream, and milkshakes. It’s cute and lively, and there’s even a kids’ corner with books and toys for little ones.
For casual atmosphere, reliable pub grub, and of course, a fine pint of Guinness, take the family to the bar in The Park Hotel. Remember, you’re not in Kansas anymore - kids are allowed in the bar area. Serving both lunch and dinner, this dark, cozy pub serves everything from soups, salads, and sandwiches to traditional favorites like fish and chips and roast beef with potatoes and vegetables. If the soup of the day is cream of mushroom, get it because it’s incredible! Served with Irish brown bread on a rainy day, it’s true perfection.
For a dinner that’s on the fancier side, try Crew’s Steak & Seafood Restaurant on Church Street. Situated in a building that dates back to the 16th century, this cozy, cavernous stone-walled spot serves up tasty, fresh fish and grass-fed beef options that the whole family will love. They also have vegetarian, gluten-free, and other diet options available on the menu. The service is excellent, the portions are generous, and it’s great value for your money.
KidTripster Tip: Kitty-corner from Crew’s is Merry’s, one of my favorite pubs. It’s particularly nice here in the winter when a fire is burning and the Guinness is flowing. The food has been hit or miss as of late, but the atmosphere and beer can be counted on.
Music is as much a part of the fabric of life in Ireland as potatoes, Guinness, and rain. Just like no visit to the Emerald Isle is complete without a Full Irish, no one should visit without hearing the lively sounds of traditional Irish music at least once. The Local in Dungarvan’s town square is the perfect place to find a traditional music seisún (pronounced “seh-shoon”) every weekend all year long. Kids are allowed, but they shouldn’t be here much beyond 10 p.m.
From the USA, the best way to get to Dungarvan is to fly into Shannon or Dublin. Then it’s a 2 or 2-1/2-hour drive, respectively to Dungarvan. If flying from an airport that has flights into Cork, that’s an even easier option, as it’s only a 1-hour drive from there.
Want to drive the picturesque RIng of Kerry. Read how here.
Marcia Breen is an American writer who went to London, met an Irishman with a Russian name, and followed him to Bermuda. Nearly a decade later, they are married and living in New York City with their 3-year-old daughter and extremely lazy cat. Marcia is now fluent in Irish (yes, it’s different than English!) and addicted to Tayto, Jacobs Fig Rolls, and Barry's Tea.