Value in the Valley: Inside the campsite you voted Ireland's Favourite Small Stay
What does it take to impress our readers in a campsite? Nicola Brady talks to the Wicklow winner of 'Ireland's Favourite Small Stay'
After a stonker of a summer last year, we all realised that a holiday at home can be a brilliant idea. Two people who knew that already, however, were Lloyd and Molly Williams, owners of Hidden Valley Holiday Park - newly crowned as Ireland's Favourite Small Stay in this year's Reader Travel Awards.
"We started the business back in 2005," Molly tells me by phone from Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. "When my husband and I took over, the holiday park was a little bit run down. So the goal was to come in, upgrade the facilities, and turn the place around."
That involved a complete overhaul of the entire park, which brought the category up from 2-star to 4-star. When that process was complete, the customer base really started to grow. That was around 2008, which was a critically tough year for Irish tourism. Why did Hidden Valley thrive when hotels were closing around every corner?
"The type of holiday we offer isn't expensive," Molly says. "A lot more people can afford to go camping, even for a night or two." And she's right - pitch prices for a family of four range from €32 to €38 per night, or from €60 for one of the glamping cabins (which sleep up to six - see panel), making a holiday here pretty much recession-proof.
And there's a good bit of variety in what they offer, too. You can pay for a fully serviced site for your tent, caravan or motorhome, or you can stay in one of the self-catering log cabins or glamping mini lodges if you want a more solid roof over your head. There are Loft House glamping lodges with an en suite too, if you don't fancy making midnight dashes to the toilet block.
Molly and Lloyd aren't newcomers to the outdoorsy life. "I'm from Colorado, so I'm used to nature and camping, and my husband is from Redcross. His family have the River Valley Holiday Park over there, so he was born into the camping business."
So what kind of guests do they get through the doors? Predictably, the family element is huge, some with young kids, and some with teens. There's a strong contingent of retired couples in the low season, too.
And it's not just a campsite - there are a huge amount of activities on offer, from kayaking to archery, water balls to rock walls. This year is going to see a very exciting new addition, in the form of their brand new Splash Valley Aqua Park. So what will that entail?
"It's an inflatable water park. It's on our second lake, and according to the supplier it should be one of the top five largest water parks in the UK and Ireland."
Keeping things fresh has been a recurring theme, with new glamping cabins opening every few years, alongside the new activities and themed events set around Easter and Halloween (their sell-out Christmas Island is hugely popular, too).
"It's busy every year! We keep saying we need to slow down a little bit, but every year we're re-investing back into the park. Our customers are delighted to come back every year and see what's new, and it keeps everyone excited and interested. You have to keep re-investing to keep everything going."
With the opening of Center Parcs' €233m Irish resort at Longford Forest this summer, smaller holiday parks could be forgiven for feeling anxious. But Molly sees the new addition to the Irish scene as a positive, rather than a threat.
"I think it might encourage more holidays like this. Center Parcs doesn't offer camping, so I don't think it's really going to affect us. And every place offers something different."
With a good few years' experience under their belts, and a contingent of regulars among annual newcomers, Molly sees thousands of guests coming through their gates in Wicklow each year. But what makes it all worthwhile?
"The one thing that gets us every summer is the families who come into reception when they're leaving, to make a point of saying what a great time they had.
"The kids come in with their little thank you cards, and they're crying when they leave. For us, that makes it really special. I know that sounds a bit mushy, but it's lovely to see! It's all about the kids down here, and making memories for the children."
In a world where kids (and adults) are increasingly addicted to technology, perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments of Hidden Valley is its ability to lure guests away from their screens.
"I have so many families who say, 'You know what, we came down for a few days and put the phones away, and just had the best weekend'. They're barbequing, roasting marshmallows, reading stories; the kids are racing around with their torches each night. The kids meet new friends, and families are happy for them to run free. So many parents say their kids just come out of their shells."
How to do it
Hidden Valley is located in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, about an hour's drive from Dublin. Camping for a family of four ranges from €32 to €38 per night, with glamping mini-lodges from €60 for families of six (or four adults). If you're renting a lodge, bring your own towels and bedding, including duvets and pillows. Call 086 727-2872 or visit irelandholidaypark.com for more.