Ideally located on the famed Ring of Kerry, spend your vacation where Irish families chose to go.
From the moment that you arrive at this 500-acre estate atop a high plateau overlooking Kenmare Bay along Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, you can feel a “céad míle fáilte,” which translates to a “hundred thousand welcomes." Opened as a railway hotel in 1895, Parknasilla Resort and Spa attracted notable guests including Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, French president Charles de Gaulle, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Princess Grace of Monaco - all pampered by a dedicated staff, many of whose families have worked at Parknasilla for generations. Here, you’ll find that old-world charm and elegance mix seamlessly with contemporary comforts and luxuries.
In the travel world, the term “family-friendly” gets throw around… a lot. However, as I started to walk around this four-star property, I was immediately struck by just how many families were staying here, and in particular, families with very young children. Even though I now travel with teens, I can imagine having brought my young sons here and what an adventure just the walk from our villa to the manor house would have been. We visited in late May, just as the summer season was beginning to ramp up. As opposed to American tourists (of which there are a tremendous number in Ireland), we actually were surrounded by many families from Ireland and the UK. Parknasilla is the kind of place that families return to year and year as part of their own family traditions.
My family and I stayed here as part of a 10-day trip that encircled the entire Emerald Isle. However, if your family is looking for a more relaxed Irish vacation, you easily could use Parknasilla as a base for exploring southwestern Ireland including the Ring of Kerry, Killarney National Park, Skellig Michael or a long day trip to the Dingle Peninsula. Just be sure to build enough time into your schedule to fully experience all the activities that Parknasilla has to offer. It’s a destination in itself.
In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “A place of long sea views and intricate walks between ferns and fuchsias, rock and rhododendron, to burnt out castles lost within the woods and along the various fingers of land that point southwest into the warm Atlantic, this place does not belong to any world that you or I have ever worked or lived in. It is a part of our dream world.”
Photo courtesy: Parknasilla Resort & Spa
Where to stay?
Families have three choices for accommodations: the Parknasilla Hotel, Courtyard Lodges, and Woodland Villas.
My family stayed in one of the 38 self-catering Woodland Villas, located a short 7-minute walk from the main hotel. Click here for a tour. Check-in occurs in a small cabin amongst the villas, so there’s no need to run up to the main hotel. Set in the forest and flanked by the Kerry Mountains, the spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom villa couldn’t have been more comfortable. Anchored by a stone fireplace, the living room - bathed in beiges, tans, and browns - led to an outdoor patio where our family could dine al fresco. While we didn’t use the lodge’s kitchen, it was fully equipped. The beautifully-appointed bedrooms accommodated a total of six guests, though you likely could sleep two additional children on the living room sofas. The Woodland Villas have the added bonus of being next to the playground and flying fox (a small zipline). Rates start at about $196/night during low season and $319 during high season, depending on the exchange rate. There’s a five-night minimum during July and August; it’s a two-night minimum the rest of the year.
KidTripster Tip: Repeated walks to the manor house can get tiring for little legs. For the very youngest children, you’ll definitely want to bring a stroller. For preschoolers and even early elementary-aged kids, consider packing a foldable scooter. It’s worth it to not hear the kids complain!
KidTripster Tip: The villas are equipped with highchairs and pack-n-plays, so there’s no need to ask in advance.
KidTripster Tip: Kind of strange, but if you want to use the fireplace, you need to bring your own wood.
The Courtyard Lodges are another roomy option for families with two bedrooms and two bathrooms; a third child can be accommodated with a camp bed for an additional fee. These self-catering units share walls with neighboring units and are situated within a 5-minute walk to the manor house. Rates start at about $190/night during low season and $308 during high season, depending on the exchange rate. There’s a five-night minimum during July and August; it’s a two-night minimum the rest of the year.
In the main hotel, you’ll find a limited number of rooms that will fit a family of three or more including the manor triples and family rooms. Manor triple rates start at about $200/night during low season and $335/night during high season. Family room rates start at around $268/night during low season and $290 during high season, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: The resort runs frequent specials and package deals. You’ll find discounts for 5- and 7-night stays. Make sure to check the website.
Parking and WiFi are included, however know that you’ll be unable to access large download sites.
KidTripster Tip: When your child checks in, he or she will be given a welcome activity pack which includes maps to the Fairy Trail and PJ’s Treasure Trail. More on that later.
Photo courtesy: Parknasilla Resort & Spa
What to do at the resort?
The list of possible activities at Parknasilla Resort and Spa is nearly as long as the Wild Atlantic Way! Let’s start with those activities that are included in your stay.
The resort has a heated, indoor swimming pool with spectacular views of Kenmare Bay. Do pay attention to the pool times. Children and their parents may use the pool from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. only; sorry, no after-dinner swims. The pool is adults-only (ages 16 and up) from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There also are two outdoor hot tubs that boast the same sea views.
KidTripster Tip: Aqua aerobics and other fitness classes are offered for free. Check the weekly activity planner for specific days and times.
Families can embark on two magical scavenger hunts while staying at Parknasilla: the Fairy Trail and PJ’s Treasure Trail. On the Fairy Trail, you search for the most enchanting little houses hidden among the woods. At last count, there were 18 miniature abodes to find. They’re seriously Instagram-worthy. When your child finds one, he or she is supposed to leave the fairies a little gift - a shell, flower or stone. Watching the little ones make these discoveries was downright adorable! A journey down PJ’s Treasure Trail is bit more involved. Here, you’re looking for hidden letters in the woods. When you find all nine, they spell a magical word, which earns you a special certificate. And just so you know, everyone can join in the fun. I dragged my 19-year-old son and husband along on both trails, and the whole affair quickly became quite competitive! My husband claims to be a “fairy whisperer.”
With 500 acres to explore, the resort has eight other marked trails on the property. The hikes range from 30 minutes to 1-1/2 hours in length. While I advocate making time for all of the them, I especially enjoyed the Castle Trail around the golf course to the ruins of Derrquin Castle and the walled gardens and the Heron’s Trail which links three offshore islands. A trail map is available at check-in.
KidTripster Tip: The resort offers free guided hikes, too. Just check the weekly activity planner for times.
During the summer and holiday periods, Parknasilla has a full slate of free kids’ programming - everything from crafts to baking to movies - in the PLAYZONE. The resort also has The Hideout, a space for older kids to hang out with ping pong, foosball, and air hockey tables.
I’m a sucker for an authentic falconry experience! If you’re lucky, Andy from Ring of Kerry Falconry will be visiting the resort with his parliament (yes, I had to look that one up!) of owls and falcon. If you ask nicely, he may even let you hold one of the birds for a photo op!
Looking for a Game of Thrones moment (Season 1, Episode 1)? You can find resident archer Dan Cahalane at the archery range ready to share his expertise. 45-minute session cost: Group about $17 per person; Private $34 per person, depending on the exchange rate. Participants must be at least 10 years old.
With this stunning County Kerry coastline, it would be a shame not to spend at least one morning or afternoon on the water. The resort concierge can arrange kayak or inflatable boat rides with on-property Sunfish Explorer. 1-1/2-hour kayak tour cost: Youth about $17, Adult about $28. 1-hour inflatable boat tour cost: Youth about $17, Adult about $28, depending on the exchange rate.
Are you a fisherman? Want a chance to catch a mackerel, pollock or Ling and Conger eel in the North Atlantic? Sign up for an angler trip. Cost: starts at around $73, depending on the exchange rate.
If you have a golfer in the family, he or she can take a swing at the resort’s 12-hole course (yes, you read that correctly). Set along Kenmare Bay beside the ruins of Derryquin Castle, you’ll find a combination of open and narrow fairways. 12-hole cost for guests: about $28, depending on exchange the rate.
KidTripster Tip: Looking to play one of Ireland’s bucket list courses? Waterville Golf Links is about an hour’s drive from the resort. Of all the courses that our KidTripster dad played in Ireland, Waterville was his favorite!
The resort has two outdoor courts near the Fairy Trail. You’ll find complimentary racquets and balls just inside the entrance of the manor house.
What to do near the resort?
County Kerry (and beyond) has much to offer families.
Ring of Kerry
The resort is perfectly located to use as a base for exploring the famed Ring of Kerry. We’ve put together a stop-by-stop itinerary for the drive. Click here.
KidTripster Tip: Weather along the Ring of Kerry can be unpredictable. If you get a day with blue skies and sunshine, stop and take photos. The most photogenic stretch is between Caherdaniel and Waterville. Look for the designated turnouts. We had perfect picture-taking weather one morning, but since we were late to a tee time, we didn’t stop. And as luck would have it, we never had another sunny day while in the area. I’m still kicking myself for not taking those photos!
One of our favorite experiences in Ireland was a boat trip to Skellig Michael with The Skelligs Force Awakens out of Ballinskelligs. Skellig Michael is a small island about seven miles off the coast of Ireland. From the sixth to the thirteenth century, it was the remote outpost for a group of Irish monks who built impressive stone staircases and beehive-shaped shelters on the craggy isle. Today, you can visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site but only on an organized tour with a permitted operator. The tickets can be hard to come by. Besides its ancient past, Skellig Michael also was the refuge for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and now draws fans from around the world. Finally, the island and its sister island, Little Skellig, are home to a puffin colony. As you hike the 600+ stairs to the monastery, you’ll see the puffins popping in and out of their burrows.
KidTripster Tip: A trip to Skellig Michael is not for younger children. The hike up with no guard rails can be dangerous. Sadly, people have fallen to their deaths. Most boat operators will have a minimum age requirement, but I wouldn’t recommend it for any kids under 10.
KidTripster Tip: When you get to the top, make sure to find one of the Skellig Michael guides who live on the island. It’s only by listening to his or her presentation that you’ll get a full appreciation for what you’re seeing.
The island visit is fantastic. What’s not so great is the boat ride there. From Ballinskelligs, it’s about an hour to the island through choppy, unprotected waters. If you’re at all prone to seasickness, make sure to medicate before the trip. I, myself, get seasick, and while the ride wasn’t pleasant, I will say that it was worth it for the chance to visit this very unique spot.
Several boat companies make this trip, but they don’t make it every day. They’re assigned permits in late March, meaning you can’t book a trip until then. While we left from Ballinskelligs - the departure point closest to Parknasilla - most of the operators depart from Portmagee. Know that trips are often canceled or delayed because of weather. Believe me when I tell you that you wouldn’t want to be on the water during a storm!
KidTripster Tip: If your trip gets delayed, spend your time taking in the sights along the Skellig Monks Trail. Grab a coffee and a trail map at charming Cafe Cois Trá just minutes from the dock.
The Ring of Kerry is not only a famed car tour, but it’s also a legendary cycling route. The resort can arrange to rent road cycles for you, but this activity really should be reserved for experienced cyclists. The roads are narrow and thick with traffic.
Whale and seal watching
Ireland has its share of whales and seals. Seafari runs a 2-hour, guided nature cruise around the peninsula’s rivers and islands from April to October. The boat departs from Kenmare Pier, which is about a 30-minute drive from Parknasilla. Cost: Youth (under 12) about $14; Youth (under 18) about $17; Student (must show ID) about $22; Adult about $28; Family (2 adults, 2 kids) about $67, depending on the exchange rate. Snacks included.
For the more active family, Derrynane Sea Sports offers sailboats lessons and rentals, windsurfing lessons and rentals, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, bodyboarding, water skiing, wake and knee boarding, and surfing. Phew! The sports facility is a 35-minute drive from the resort. Cost: varies by activity and duration.
Experiencing Ireland on horseback is downright magical. Your family has two options near Parknasilla: Eclipse Ireland Riding Centre and Blackwater Stables, both about a 15-minute drive from the resort. Each stable has rides tailored to different skill levels. And the terrain is varied, too - from moorlands to meadows to forests to riverbeds. 1-hour Eclipse ride: about $34; 1-hour Blackwater ride: about $28; longer rides also available. 20-minute Blackwater pony ride: about $11, depending on the exchange rate.
While the Ring of Kerry may be the most well-known drive in Ireland, some say the Dingle Peninsula - about two hours from Parknasilla - is even more breathtaking. Plus, it has a resident dolphin! Read more here.
Where to eat?
Pygmalion is the resort’s signature restaurant, named for the play written by George Bernard Shaw, who was a regular visitor to Parknasilla. Starting at 8 a.m., the sun-bathed restaurant with views of the sea serves breakfast. You can choose the makings of a full Irish breakfast from the buffet - eggs, sausage, bacon (which is more like what Americans would call “ham”), grilled tomatoes, baked beans, and potatoes. You also have the opportunity to try Irish black or white pudding. A pudding is a patty of onions, herbs, and spices bound with oatmeal or barley. Black pudding includes pigs’ blood; white pudding doesn’t. Or you can select from more continental choices like cold meats, cheeses, fruits, yogurts, and fresh-baked pastries.
KidTripster Tip: The resort does have a coffee shop, but during our stay, it was only operating on the weekend - meaning you don’t really have an alternative for breakfast unless you’d like to utilize your villa and lodge kitchen.
In the evening, the restaurant takes on a more elegant glow. Chef Paul O’Loughlin’s menu highlights modern Irish cuisine, mostly sourced for local farms, fishing boats, and butchers. Our favorite part of dinner was dessert. My pistachio cake with green apple ice cream was light and refreshing and plated with finesse.
KidTripster Tip: Dinner at Pygmalion is a more upscale experience better suited for well-behaved, older children. Plus, dinner service doesn’t start until 7 p.m. which may be too late for little ones.
KidTripster Tip: I’m not going to lie. A meal here isn’t cheap. The restaurant does offer a three-course meal including your choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert (or cheeses) plus tea or coffee for around $56 per person, depending on the exchange rate.
A better choice for families? Head to Doolittle Bar, a nod to Shaw’s fictional character Eliza Dolittle in the play Pygmalion. It serves lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner in a casual and welcoming environment complete with leather-bound chairs and sofas. The service here leaves a little to be desired, but your kids will be comfortable with familiar offerings. Highchairs and kids’ menus are available. If you need bottle or food warming for your little one, just ask.
The bar itself has a long list of Irish beers, ciders, gins, and whiskeys plus an extensive menu of wines from around the world. George, the resident sommelier, is happy to help you make a selection.
KidTripster Tip: Children are allowed in the bar but only until 9:30 p.m.
The very best option for families? The Tram food cart that sits right next to the playground in between the Lodges and the Villas serves freshly-baked pizza and fish and chips to eat on outdoor picnic tables. The kids can play, and parents can enjoy a leisurely dinner and drink. Days and hours are limited, so ask about it when you check-in.
KidTripster Tip: There’s a 13.5% VAT tax on food in Ireland. Taxes on food and accommodations can’t be claimed and refunded at the airport.
Photo courtesy: Parknasilla Resort & Spa
Parknasilla Resort and Spa is about a 4-1/2-hour drive from Dublin. Located south of Kenmare, the resort sits along the famed Ring of Kerry route.
For tips about renting a car and driving in Ireland, click here.
Note: We tacked a free stopover in Iceland onto this trip. We booked the tickets on Icelandair through a KidTripster partner called AirTreks. The tickets were $450 cheaper than booking directly through the airline! If you book through this link, KidTripster gets some coffee money from AirTreks at no additional cost to you. Thanks in advance for your support!
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah now finds herself looking for fairy houses on every hike - no matter what corner of the world she’s in.
This writer received a complimentary stay for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.