Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland. Once the seat of the Guinness family, it’s now a five-star hotel.
Every year, Daddy, Aunt Dee, Uncle Jim and usually one of my three sisters gather for what I have affectionately termed “The Redneck Road Trip.” It generally takes place in Ohio and Kentucky. I or my sisters usually drive (since, otherwise, it’s terrifying), and it’s always a heck of a lot of fun.
This year I decided to shake it up a bit. Last October I met Ciaran Collins, who runs The Adventure Islands, a tour company in Westport, County Mayo, Ireland. I mentioned it to my dad, who said wistfully, “You know? I’ve never been there. I always wanted to go.” Aunt Dee and Uncle Jim, who’d been to Ireland 10 years earlier and had always wanted to return were on board, so I called Ciaran, booked our tickets, and we were off. (None of my sisters could come this year, which was a little stressful. When Daddy, Aunt Dee, and Uncle Jim get together, they are like a band of slow-yet-determined-to-get-lost cats. Herding those cats can drive a person mad.)
I realized pretty quickly that Ireland was the best idea EVER for a family vacation.
We speak your language. Do not be afraid!
1. The Irish speak English
This is key. Especially when traveling with older people who may be hard of hearing, stubborn, and skittish about travel. “What if I can’t understand them?” my aunt asked when I brought up Italy as a possibility. “Or what if they don’t know what I’m trying to say?” In Ireland, this is not a problem. While many people do speak Gaelic, they all speak English, much to my family’s relief.
2. It’s not that far away
My family is pretty old — the average age of Daddy, Aunt Dee, and Uncle Jim is 82 — and air travel isn’t comfortable for them, especially since they are all around six feet tall and no one is shelling out for a business-class seat. So a flight to, say, Asia, is out of the question. Ireland is only five hours away from New York, which is a two hour flight from Cincinnati, Ohio, my hometown.
3. Irish people are really, really nice. As in, OH, MY GOD, HOW ARE YOU THIS NICE???
On one night out, we went to see some live music at Matt Molloy’s, a local pub in Westport, and closed the place down. Aunt Dee, Uncle Jim, and I took a taxi back to the Westport Coast Hotel, but when we got there, we realized no one had any euros.
“Not to worry, it’s fine,” said the cab driver.
“It is not fine!” Aunt Dee said. “We need to pay you!”
“That’s OK. You can get me next time,” the cab driver said.
“There won’t be a next time,” she said.
“Well, that’s OK, too.”
The next day, Aunt Dee noted, “If that had happened in the States, we’d be in jail right now.”
4. It’s beautiful
Case in point: Croagh Patrick — Ireland’s holy mountain, where Saint Patrick, according to legend, spent 40 days and nights before driving all the snakes out of Ireland — hovers above Westport at 2,507 feet above sea level. Pilgrims climb it barefoot, which is harsh, since the trail is made of sharp rocks and pebbles. The weather is also unpredictable and can change every 20 minutes. Or, you can do what my family did and enjoy a pint at one of the numerous bars in the area, look up at the mountain and say, “Oh, that’s beautiful! We should climb it one day…”
5. There are oodles of things to do
I don’t know how we did it, but we:
- Went sailing on the Atlantic in a boat
Turn left and head straight for 3,250 miles … America!
- Got massages and steam baths and took a traditional hot seaweed bath at Kilcullen’s Bath House in Enniscrone (technically in County Sligo but close enough!), which has been open since 1912.
It may look old-fashioned, but you feel like a noodle when you leave.
- Met a local brewer and tried the beer. (The Irish are major beers snobs, so IT WILL BE GOOD.) Ian and Caroline Price of Hilltop Farm (Info@westmillbrewery.com) met me and my family at the Cobbler’s Bar, where we tried their Irish golden ale and Irish red ale. The Prices were so nice — not only did they bring us beer, as well as fresh duck and chicken eggs and gooseberry jam, they invited us to their farm the next day to see the actual brewing process.
The Prices are lovely and make even lovelier beer.
- If you are the active sort (and my family definitely is NOT), Ciaran has a private island, from which you can go kayaking, sailing, diving, rappelling, horseback riding and … pretty much anything you can think of!
Related: How to Hunt for Buried Treasure
6. Everyone will talk to you — even royalty
Westport House – home of the original Pirate Queen.
Westport House was built in 1730 on the ruins of one of the castles of Grace O’Malley, the original Pirate Queen. Lady Sheelyn Browne, the 14th great-granddaughter of the pirate queen, still lives on the grounds, and if you’re lucky, she’ll stop by and give you a personal tour.
The Pirate Queen.
Grace O’Malley is one of the more fascinating people in Irish history. Her father was a ship captain, and she dressed as a man to steal away on a ship. She started off as a deck swabber, ended up running the ship, and eventually became captain of a fleet of ships whose crews robbed and pillaged up and down the western Irish coast, earning her the name of Pirate Queen. She built castles all over Ireland and eventually was bestowed protection by the queen of England because the British were afraid of her.
7. There’s a bar … and a distillery … everywhere
The family Guinness shot!
OK, so technically the Guinness factory is in Dublin, but if you happen to fly in and out of Ireland’s capital city, it’s worth a stop.. The factory is a small, self-contained city with its own church, shops, and a little tram that ferries ingredients around. Beer has always been popular in Ireland — probably because, back in the day, it was safer to drink ale than water. While most people assume that Guinness is just a brown stout, there are actually 24 different kinds of beer made at the factory … and you can taste them all.
And, if you miss it, that’s OK. County Mayo has hundreds of local beer makers who are happy to show you around and let you sample their wares.
Related: London Punk is Not Dead
8. The food is delicious
Unlike the British, the Irish will not boil everything till it falls apart. Nor is their fare solely comprised of potatoes (though there is a lot of lamb, which is delicious). If you’re offered salmon, lamb, or stew, eat it! Between the food and the beer, I think I came home five pounds heavier than when I left — and it was worth it.
9. You can stay in a real-life castle. And go falconing. And have tea.
Ashford Castle dates back to 1228, and you can tell everything about the different owners just by looking at it. There’s the “French” chateau wing, the Norman architecture, and a few other styles mashed in. Once owned by the Guinness family, it was turned into a hotel in 1970. In 2013, it was bought by Red Carnation hotels and given a multimillion dollar renovation. Today, you can spend the night in one of the palatial suites, play golf or tennis, fish, or try your hand with several falcons that live on the estate. Or you can do what we did and just go have afternoon tea. It’s delightfully pleasant … and delicious.