Travel

Our First Campervan #Staycation

Apparently we were right on trend with our decision to hit the road in a campervan this August, prepared to enjoy the natural beauty of Ireland rain or shine. We were given a loan of a spacious motorhome large enough to fit 4 of our children (ages 3-15). The two oldest boys (ages 18 and 22) declined coming along or we would have brought a car and another tent.

If we had rented a campervan of a similar size it could have cost up to €1400 for the week. As it stands, it’s near impossible to rent them at the moment- even if one can afford it- because they’re all booked out! This is The Summer the World Went Camping after all…

Last December I participated in a month long writing project focused on manifesting goals for the coming year. (Back then who could have predicted all of the twists and turns 2020 had in store for all of us?!) In a post about vanlife, I wrote about my desire to buy a campervan and begin exploring places near and far with my family. I spent time researching my ideal vehicle and thought I wanted a VW Transporter. Well, I was wrong. At this stage of life we need a 5 or 6 berth so most converted vans will either be too small or out of our price range. It turns out our dream vehicle is a factory build German motorhome with a Fiat Ducato engine.

The only problem is I can’t drive it… yet. The size is intimidating, especially on narrow Irish roads, and I’m too nervous. However, if Christy decides to buy it, I hope that in time I will become brave enough to face my fears and get behind the wheel too!

3 happy campers and one mortified teenager

Our week away was timed perfectly. By some stroke of luck we caught The Good Weather. It didn’t last the entire week, but we enjoyed the warmest, sunniest days of the summer on beautiful beaches in Cork and Kerry. There was no overcrowding and it was easy to practice social distancing. I even braved the water on one occasion! (I’ve only swum in the ocean 3 times in my 19 years of living in this country because it’s so cold).

Beaches in Allihies & Ahakista, Co. Cork and White Strand, Co. Kerry

There were some truly magical moments. We spent one night camping at our friends’ beautiful house in Sneem, Co. Kerry. The following evening they joined us at the beach for al fresco dining under the stars. I cooked a vegetarian chili for everyone and our friends provided an array of delicious salads from their garden. We sat around the bonfire chatting and listening to music and the waves crashing. When it was dark enough, we were able to see the marine bioluminescence.

It just so happened to be August 11th- the start of the annual Perseid meteor shower! Usually the sky is cloudy, but that evening on the beach it was crystal clear. There was no light pollution to block the starlight. The 10 of us laid back and watched as meteors flew through the sky. It was so peaceful relaxing into the sand and a sense of Oneness overcame me.

Game of Dobble beside the beach bonfire

We brought the kayaks along which meant some of us could explore by boat while others swam or sunbathed. One evening a pod of dolphins were spotted. Christy impulsively jumped into a kayak and paddled towards them. He was thrilled that he came within 20 feet of them. My 15 year old bio daughter watched longingly from the rocks and tried to take photos of the dolphins with her phone. She would have liked to go out in the other kayak, but a couple of other teenagers took our remaining kayak without life jackets or asking permission. I wasn’t impressed.

Pod of dolphins spotted in the distance

As with most family holidays, there were plenty of ups and downs. At our first campsite in Allihies we loved the location. It was in close proximity to the beach with beautiful views. Plus we were permitted to light fires in the evenings. We had a group of friends there which was an added bonus. We ate together in the evening and had more friends visit us for a picnic the following afternoon.

The down side was that there were no facilities provided for campers. We were charged €30 to basically park in a field (and that was with a significant discount because the owner felt bad charging us for so many children). We had to walk to the public toilets which weren’t very clean, and there was no soap in the bathrooms. During a pandemic that seemed negligent.

My bio daughter (soon to be 16 this autumn) struggled because she wanted to take a shower and wasn’t satisfied with a quick dip in the sea to refresh herself. Within less than an hour of our journey, she had vomited due to car sickness on the windy roads. (Something I honestly hadn’t considered! Both of our girls suffer from car sickness so next time I’ll come better prepared with Dramamine). Miss E wasn’t feeling great overall and the lack of facilities sent her into the depths of despair. She doesn’t enjoy camping at the best of times (despite having been a girl scout) and would much prefer a luxurious hotel. Needless to say, I think that was the last family staycation I’ll be able to force her to go on…

Unfortunately my bonus son and daughter were unable to stay the entire week. Their bio mom collected them on the day the weather changed. The remaining four of us carried on driving along the ring of Kerry as fog hung over us. Some of the campsites were booked out as I had feared. We didn’t pre-book anything which caused some stress and anxiety for me. I’m a planner while Christy prefers to be spontaneous. It worked out ok, but next time I think we’ll have to compromise and meet somewhere in the the middle!

In the end we were able to get a pitch at Mannix Point Camping & Caravan Park in Cahersiveen. We were all hungry when we arrived so we parked the campervan at one end of the long track to the campground. We planned to check in after our meal and thought it was safe to leave the campervan outside of the nearby school (closed for the summer). From there we walked 10 minutes into the town centre. We weren’t sure how much parking space would be available near the restaurant we had booked so it seemed like a good solution (until it started to rain).

Pizzas at The Oratory, a church in a former life

We had a lovely meal at The Oratory Pizza and Wine Bar. The pizzas were delicious and I was so happy to take a break from cooking! When I had trouble deciding what to order, the server suggested I could have half of each of the pizzas I was interested in. She neglected to mention I’d be charged €2 for my indecisiveness.

We enjoyed our food but it felt a bit rushed. They were busy and it took a while for the food to arrive, plus I eat slowly. I hadn’t quite finished when the next family arrived for our table. Under the current Covid-19 regulations for dining out, each table can only be booked for 105 minutes. I quickly finished eating when we realized our time was up and asked for the bill. It wasn’t until later that we had a good look at the receipt and discovered we had been charged a €9 “open drink” charge, bringing the bottle of wine up to €28. I’ve never seen this charge anywhere else. Is it a Kerry thing?

We walked back separately so Miss E and I could pick up a few items at the supermarket. We’d eaten most of our food and needed more coffee for the morning. We reunited at the campervan only to discover that a drama had unfolded in our absence. Miss E and I missed half of it but Christy quickly filled us in.

Apparently some wise guy working for a sand and gravel company thought it would be a good idea to block our camervan with his machinery. He was annoyed that Christy had inadvertently parked a little too close to his trailer. He didn’t appreciate our Cork licence plates either and laughed when Christy said as much to his face when the man finally reappeared. (Seriously… the rivalry between the two counties is actually that ridiculous).

A local guy out walking his dogs saw Christy’s predicament as he passed. “What a dick move!” he said. He offered to help guide him out. Christy strapped our 3 year old into his car seat and proceeded to maneuver the motorhome outside of the trap. He’s worked with machinery his whole life and felt confident that he could do it. The shock on the Sand Man’s face was satisfying when he returned.

Imagine our 4 wheels were placed where the red X’s are

“How’d you do it?” he demanded. “We were eventually going to let you out…” he said halfheartedly. There was no apology. He didn’t seem to see a problem with what he had done. He didn’t take any notice of the children- rain soaked and tired- or feel bad about trying to ruin our family’s fleeting trip to his town. “That’s what you call a warm Kerry welcome,” I couldn’t help remarking. It wasn’t the only time we felt locals thought of tourists as more of a scourge than a blessing during our Ring of Kerry staycation.

Fortunately the campsite was great. When we pulled in there was a trad session in full swing. The music was welcoming and the other campers were friendly. We were happy to have hot showers and clean bathrooms after wild camping for a couple of days. We only stayed one night but it was great to refresh ourselves, empty our toilet waste and grey water, refill our clean water, and enjoy having the electrical hookup.

The following day we rented bikes in Cahersiveen before boarding the ferry for Valencia Island. Cycling around the small island was one of my favorite activities of the week. There were a lot of hills but the bikes were great quality making it easier. We stopped for ice cream along the way and were pleasantly surprised. Honestly it was the best I’ve ever eaten in Ireland! (I consider myself somewhat of an ice cream expert…) The friendly woman in the shop explained that she’d just made the chocolate batch (with fresh cream from her cows) and didn’t advise eating it on a cone because it was still a little soft. I thought it was perfect in a cup. Wish I had ordered 3 scoops!

Cycling around Valencia Island

My photos don’t do the landscape justice. The views were stunning everywhere we cycled.

A Kerry cow

The campsite on the island was full so we were undecided about what to do. We’d worked up quite an appetite and thought about checking out one of the restaurants. We had been advised to park beside the playground. While our little one played on the equipment we chatted about what to do next. We had the option of returning the bikes by 8 pm or by 11 am the following morning.

Just then a young man pulled up in his car and rudely said we needed to move on. He said there were no campervans allowed to park where we were and that we’d get a yellow ticket if we stayed. There were no signs indicating that what he said was true. I’m sure it would have been fine if we’d stayed there as long as we wanted but the incident left yet another bad taste in our mouths. We decided to take our money elsewhere. Quickly we boarded the next ferry and made it back to the mainland just in time to return the bikes. In all honestly, it was a relief to leave behind that particular location! No one wants to experience hostility from locals when they’re on a family holiday.

Christy made a booking but was secretive about where we were headed next. I absolutely loved being surprised when we arrived at Kells Bay Gardens. It was magical arriving at the huge waterfall. The tree ferns were also remarkable. We regretted that we couldn’t walk around because it was so late in the day. We will definitely be back to explore this amazing garden soon!

We dined in the Conservatory Cafe where they serve authentic Thai food. The flavors brought back memories of traveling throughout the Krabi Province last year. I was very happy with my food, the attentive service, and the tasteful decor. We enjoyed a relaxed, stress-free meal, and the owner made us feel very welcome. I’d highly recommend a visit to the restaurant.

Thai food in the conservatory
Dining at Kells Bay Garden

The last campsite we stayed at was Fleming’s White Bridge in Killarney. We thought it was clean and spacious. The location suited us although it was a bit far for walking into town with a 3 year old. It’s a short taxi ride or else you can rent bicycles at the campsite for a reasonable price.

There is a lot to see and do in Killarney. Our primary reason for visiting the town was to facilitate Miss E visiting a few shops, which was the only thing she’d asked to do the entire week. Ironically she ditched us as soon as we arrived. There was an afternoon bus which arrived back home just in time for her to get dolled up for an end of summer party with her classmates. Luckily for them it was before the new restrictions came into place, limiting our indoor gatherings from 50 to 6 people in Ireland.

We’ve been to Killarney many times before but this was our first time visiting Ross Castle. Unfortunately we were too late (at 4 pm) to rent a rowboat. We’d like to go back another time to explore the lakes by boat. (Since we’d been sea kayaking we couldn’t bring our kayaks into the lake without first cleaning them properly. There’s fear of cross contamination).

It was wet for hiking and our little man had developed the sniffles. In the end we opted to eat dinner at Milanos and just relax at the campsite. With only 3 of us left the campervan suddenly seemed quite spacious!

During the final leg of our journey we stopped in Kenmare to browse through the shops. I bought a mug (photographed in my last post), a cute raincoat for the little one, and some cozy candle holders.

What was the biggest take away from the week? Family camping is work! It’s not like a package holiday on a beach where you can just relax in the sun and read a book. There are still meals to be prepared and dishes to be done.

“I’m actually advising people to hold off on buying a campervan at the minute as there is a dearth of supply on the market, but that could all change later in the year. Camping is not for everyone. It’s not like booking into a hotel where everything is handed to you. It’s all down to yourself and you can’t do anything about the weather. You often have to pitch up in the rain and empty the toilet from your campervan. I always tell people, ‘if you don’t like camping you are not going to necessarily like a motorhome’, it’s camping on wheels,” sage advice from David Hanley of Vanderlust in Ennistymon, Co. Clare.

The Summer the World Went Camping

Will we do it again? Yes! In fact, we’re headed out today for one last adventure before school starts on Monday. Christy and I love the freedom of being on the road and the sense of possibility it offers. We both enjoy camping, nature, and most of all being together. Being confined to a small space does have its challenges- and we had plenty of bickering during our staycation- but good memories were made. It’s impossible to please everyone (in our family), although I think there were moments each of us will treasure for years to come. I can only imagine what exciting adventures await!

Have you been camping recently? What was your staycation experience like during this crazy Covid-19 summer? If you’re experienced at Vanlife, I’d love to hear about any tips or groups you’ve joined to help you on the road.

Allihies Campsite

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* All photos are my own.

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