Walk on the wild side
Even if you're not the Bear Grylls type, you could still enjoy Ireland's natural playground, says Eoin Butler
Ever slept out under the stars? Foraged for your dinner? Observed bats or puffins in their natural habitat? Or gone fishin' in one of Ireland's many lakes and waterways? Well if not, why not? Ireland is a natural playground, with an abundance of options for any family willing to take a walk on the wild side.
Given the undependable nature of the Irish summer, outdoor adventuring here may seem a risky (if not downright foolhardy) pursuit to some. But as long as you're prepared to contend with an occasional shower or 10, there are holidays here to suit every age, taste and budget.
For avidly adventurous Bear Grylls-types, Bushcraft Ireland (bushcraftireland.com) offers a range of two-day courses in wilderness survival techniques. From a base in the woods of Co Louth, you and your family will learn to build your own shelters, start campfires and track wild animals, including foxes and deer.
As well as the basics of wilderness first aid, you'll be shown how to construct animal traps, locate water and make and operate your own pit oven.
Weekend courses here provide a fascinating insight into the existence our ancestors once had to contend with – an existence to which we may all soon be forced to revert in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. (What? You haven't seen 'The Road'?)
Holidaymakers of an easier-going bent may find birdwatching a more leisurely way to while away a day or two in the Irish countryside. Thousands of years ago, our forefathers anxiously awaited the appearance of the first swallow each year, as a sign that winter had ended and better times were ahead.
Today, birdwatching remains one of the easiest and most accessible options for anyone wishing to observe Ireland's indigenous wildlife in its natural habitat. Birdwatch Ireland's East Coast Nature Reserve at Newcastle Village, Co Wicklow (birdwatchireland.com) has fen habitats and water-bird hides, allowing you to get up, close and personal with our feathered friends.
Further afield, off the coast of Co Cork, is the bird observatory at Cape Clear Island, considered one of Europe's best locations for witnessing seabird migration in the late summer months.
Five kilometres out of Kilmore Quay in Co Wexford, meanwhile, are the Saltee Islands (salteeislands.info): a privately owned sanctuary that is home to thousands of gannets, gulls and puffins. Day trips are available.
An equally impressive range of species are to be found nesting on the spectacular Puffin Island, off the Co Kerry coast. The island, which is closed to tourists, can be observed by taking a boat trip out to the Skellig Rocks from Portmagee.
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre," wrote Yeats, Ireland's greatest poet, in the opening line of one of his most famous poems, "The falcon cannot hear the falconer."
If, like me, you have no idea what a gyre is, why not ask Trevor Roche at Dublin Falconry (dublinfalconry.com) in Balbriggan. His newly opened facility offers falconry for beginners, as well as a so-called 'hawk walk', where visitors can stroll the grounds with a trained hawk perched on their fist.
Of course, not all adventure holidays are about destinations. In some cases, the adventure is in reaching a destination. Orienteering lessons are run out of Lough Key Forest Park, near Boyle in Co Roscommon.
Camping facilities are available in the park itself, or you can try the nearby River Haven's Eco Cabins (riverhavenselfcatering.ie), built with sustainable timber and heated with green energy. Also check the Coillte website (coillte.ie) for a selection of maps showing permanent orienteering courses at Barnaslingan and Ticknock in rural south Co Dublin, Avondale in Co Wicklow and Curraghchase Forest Park in Co Limerick.
Or if you're city-based, there are courses located in Corkagh Park, Clondalkin and Griffith Park, Lucan (both in Dublin), as well as Marina Park in Cork City.
Whichever you choose, you'll need a map, a compass and a sturdy pair of boots.
Now, experienced anglers have been known to confide that, despite outward appearances, their hobby isn't really about catching fish at all. Sometimes they reel something in. Other times, they don't. But the real pleasure is derived from getting away from it all, casting out a line and waiting for the bite to come (or not) in the tranquillity of the open air.
Still, if you're going to dabble, you might as well give yourself a sporting chance. The Southern County Fishing Resort and Wildlife Park (southerncounty.ie) in Garyhill, Co Carlow, is the perfect place for beginners and experts alike to hone their fly, trout and bait-fishing skills. And with train rides, a wildlife park and petting zoo on site, there will be plenty to amuse the whole family.
For expert fly-fishing tuition, meanwhile, why not try the Clonanav Flyfishing Centre (flyfishingireland.com) in Ballymacarbry, Co Waterford, which is run by Andrew Ryan, one of the country's top exponents of the sport? Guides, permits, transport and equipment are all provided.
Next, how about this for an act of ecological rebranding? The Organic Centre (theorganiccentre.ie) in Rossinver, Co Leitrim, teaches families how to source wild herbs and edible plants in the wilderness. But perhaps the most coveted item on their outdoor shopping list – the marine algae hitherto known as seaweed – is now known as "sea veg" by advocates for its nutritional, preservative and restorative properties.
Accommodation nearby at the scenic Ard Nahoo Eco Retreat (ardnahoo.com), offers healthy foods and hot tubs – perfect for those forage-tired limbs. Seaweed foraging is also on the menu at Atlantic Sea Kayaking (atlanticseakayaking.com) in Skibbereen, Co Cork. Here, you'll be taught how to identify seaweed – and, of course, how to serve it up for lunch.
Finally, an encounter with bats provided Bruce Wayne with one of the defining experiences of his young life. But the good people at Bat Conservation Ireland (batconservationireland.org) want to dispel the macabre myths surrounding the nocturnal creatures.
This summer, they have organised events in venues including Dublin Zoo, St Anne's Park, Raheny Park and Marlay Park in Dublin, and at Belvedere House and Gardens in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
There are also evening bat walks in Glendalough (wicklowmountainsnationalpark.ie), as well as at Jenkinstown Park in Co Kilkenny, where the bats nest in an old church in the woods.
Needless to say, if any of your children grow up to become costumed crime fighters, management here cannot be held responsible.
ON A BUDGET
The Sunday lunch menu is very well-priced, with starters all around €7 and nearly all the main courses €15 or less. ON A BLOWOUT The way to spend money is to go for fish and steaks. The two most expensive starters are fish cakes and dressed crab, both €8.50. There’s a choice of two steaks, a 10oz rib-eye at €24.50 or an 8oz fillet at €26.50.
The sticky toffee pudding.
The vegetable selection.
For more information, see discoverireland.ie