50 ways to spend your summer: Things to do in Ireland before autumn arrives!
We've got around a month left before school kicks back in. Here's how to make the most of it...
As summer enters its final furlong, fuelled by a sudden rush of urgency - 'it'll be autumn soon!' - it's time to swap the lazy haphazard days for something more structured and ambitious.
We all need to make the most of what's left. And so, Emily Hourican and Andrea Smith have compiled a list of 50 brilliant things to do, places to go, activities to try, located right around the country and suitable for all.
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Whether you have small children, or teenagers, want to challenge yourself, relax, learn something new, or discover the unknown, here are suggestions of the best ways to spend the rest of the days of summer
If there is any one thing that seems to animate the kids these days, it is - and thank goodness! - climate change activism. So get down to Cool Planet in Powerscourt Estate, Wicklow, and immerse them in an interactive experience that tells the story of how we got here, and where we might go next. Through workshops and hands-on fun - think slime labs and rocket-making - children from 6-12 will be so entertained, they will hardly notice they are learning about climate change, and how to combat it.
* In the same part of the country, but for slightly older children (tweens and early teens) there is magic to be found in the idea of open air cinema. Outdoor Movies on the Beach at Bray are showing two good family options, Dirty Dancing on August 9, 10pm, and The Greatest Showman, August 16, 9.30pm.
It's hardly summer without a pony ride, and thanks to the National Stud, little ones can now discover what might just become a lifelong love for free as part of the regular entry ticket every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday through August. Resident ponies Dipper, Prince and Bertie will be saddled up for younger visitors, with a chance of some face painting while they wait. Add in all the usual, considerable, delights of the Stud and Japanese Gardens, including the Living Legends, the fairy trail route through St Fiachras Garden, the playground and the Horse Museum, and this is a very fine day out.
Now into its second year, Playstival, in the ever-excellent Airfield Estate, is a two-day festival (August 10 & 11) dedicated entirely to play, for children and the adults in their lives. Music from bands and DJs, a world food market and plenty of hands-on fun for toddlers to tweens, and no screens. A win.
* For three Sundays in a row, College Green is being pedestrianised by the city council, to test a long-term project to have the area permanently traffic-free. The last of these is August 4, and it will be marked with a City Carnival. Apparently, the first week of August is International Clown Week, and so College Green will give itself over to clown artists, an antique carousel, face-painters, stilt-walkers, jugglers and mime artists, along with workshops aimed at giving families the chance to try out some basic circus skills. All free. Let's put it this way: if you ever wanted to run away and join the circus, this is where to begin.
Westport House is a kind of one-stop-shop for families, particularly those with smaller children. From the miniature railway and swan pedalo boats, to the Pirate Adventure Park, new mini ferris-wheel and zipline, there is plenty to do here. There is also the house itself to explore, complete with dungeons and the ruins of Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley's original castle, all set in 400 acres of gorgeously landscaped gardens complete with waterfalls, terraces and ancient oak trees.
Throughout the summer, most OPW Heritage sites are free to visit on the first Wednesday of the month (that's August 7 by the way). Tickets are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so get there early. The choice is broad. From Donegal to Cork, there are many wonderful options, including personal favourites Ross Castle in Kerry, Glebe House in Donegal, Castletown in Kildare, Emo Court in Laois, the incredible centuries-old Dunmore Cave in Kilkenny - first mentioned in the 9th Century Irish Triads - and many more. Get cultural. Get visiting.
* Ireland now has a number of stunning greenways and blueways to explore; unspoiled trails of land and water to follow, including the stunning 46km cycle route along an old railway line that is the Waterford Greenway, the 42km route from Westport to Achill that is the Co Mayo Greenway, and the Shannon Blueway, a network of trails that will draw you right into the heart of the country by canoe, bike or on foot (try parts of the 64km Lough Derg Way along canal and riverside paths and country roads, taking in Clonlara, O'Briensbridge, and Killaloe, once home of Brian Boru, 11th Century High King of Ireland). There is no charge for these explorations, so bring your own bike, or walking shoes, and a packed lunch, and take full advantage.
www.waterfordgreenway.com; www.greenway.ie; www.irelandshiddenheartlands.discoverireland.ie
Summer on the bog is the very thing so many American visitors come to Ireland to experience. And no wonder. There is almost no experience quite so rooted in the country and its natural heritage. And it's not just for tourists. The Clara Bog Nature Reserve in Co Offaly is free to visit and has many free events for children. There is a 1km looped boardwalk that allows great views of the wonderful plants, birds and animals - including many protected species - the bog is home to, while the visitor centre offers organised walks, art and nature activities.
The joys of getting out of the city are many - peace, quiet, clean air and deep dark night skies. The Kerry International Dark Sky reserve is an area of 700 sq km that has been awarded one of only three Gold Tier awards by the International Dark Sky Association. On a clear night, there is no interference or distraction from alternate light sources, so that the sky above is the perfect velvety black canvas on which to pick out stars, planets and constellations.
The great outdoors
Kayaking and paddle-boarding are both wonderful ways to explore the coastal regions, allowing you to travel at a pace that perfectly suits the process of taking in somewhere beautiful. If that somewhere is Kenmare Bay, then the beauty doesn't end when the sun goes down. Which is why Emerald Outdoors have begun night trips, undertaken by starlight; a chance to move through the bay watching seals and homeward-bound seabirds, surrounded by mystical sparks of bioluminescence.
The Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Trails in the Ballyhoura mountains, Limerick, offer nearly 100km of trails, through all kinds of terrain, all planned so as not to destroy the beautiful surrounding forest. And thank goodness, as this is an area of gorgeous deciduous trees, home to red squirrels and deer. There are trails to suit all abilities, from a relatively easy 6km loop, to the demanding 50km Castlepook loop. If you are hiring bikes, Trailriders can be found at the Ballyhoura car park with a selection of mountain bikes, all less than four months old. Get out, get busy.
Now that 'adventure holidays' have become quite a thing here in Ireland, they need to mean far more than walking, swimming and surfing. At Killary Adventure Centre in Connemara, they have it covered. Along with the fairly sedate clay pigeon shooting and archery, there is rock climbing and abseiling, a high ropes course - a series of climbing and balancing challenges at tree-top level - and our favourite, gorge walking. Here, you make your way upstream, through a dramatic gorge cut into the mountainside, through sparkling plunge pools and rushing waterfalls, with the option to end with a leap into the Atlantic Ocean from the cliff jump.
The Keash Caves in Keash, Co Sligo, are set into limestone rock on the western side of Keshcorran Mountain. There are 17 desperately dramatic caves - in one of which, it is said, Ireland's legendary High King Cormac Mac Airt was raised by a she-wolf. Archeological investigations have unearthed bones of wolves, brown bears, red deer and even Arctic lemming, from the end of the Ice Age. These days, the caves are rather more bare, but beautiful and evocative. It's a bit of a scramble up a steep path, so bring good walking boots.
Ever since we watched Amanda Byram present the hilarious Total Wipeout, our enthusiasm for giant water-based inflatables has steadily grown. If this is your thing, head for Baysports, Athlone, Roscommon. With courses for adults and children, including the tallest inflatable waterslide (and that's according to the Guinness World Records), along with pedal boats, kayaks and paddle-boards, this is a whole heap of fun.
If you're a fan of glamping, you can expect to lounge in Mongolian yurts, and enjoy spectacular art installations, performers and chill-out areas at the Yurt City Music Festival on August 17 & 18. Located within the scenic grounds of the People's Castle in Tullamore, some of the best international DJs and producers will perform at the event. You can buy day tickets or opt for camping tickets and stay on-site to keep the party going.
For a truly lovely day out, head to Tullynally Castle in Westmeath and explore its magnificent gardens. There are over 12 acres, divided between walled gardens, woodland gardens and two ornamental lakes. It's perfect for children to explore, and there's a special treasure trail listing exciting things for them to look for throughout the gardens. While you're there, why not have lunch or coffee and cake in the tearoom or al fresco, or take a tour of "Life below stairs" in the castle's Victorian servants' quarters.
Those with an interest in archeology and geology will be entranced by Cavan Burren Park in Blacklion. It has a wonderful interpretative centre and five walking trails, all of which highlight the spectacular prehistoric tombs, fantastic geology and special stories that make the prehistoric park such a unique environment. Kids will love how stories of giants and moving glaciers come to life in the park, and seeing Neolithic tombs, 350 million-year-old fossils and ancient rock art for themselves will impress them more than any history book ever could.
Located close to the centre of Castleblayney, Lough Muckno Leisure Park is set on 900 acres of wooded terrain. It's built around Muckno, the biggest and most beautiful of Monaghan's lakes, and orienteering, nature trails, wakeboarding, water-skiing and fishing are offered at its two wooded islands. Wilbert's Enchanted Garden will keep children from two to 16 busy for hours, and is designed to allow them to use their imagination and keep active.
Burren Nature Sanctuary in Kinvara is the perfect place to discover the magical Burren landscape. Follow the nature trails, stroll through ancient ash and hazel woods and find fairies in ancient woodland. Visit the Burren Botany Bubble to get an introduction to the unique and diverse flora of the area and find out how to become a citizen scientist. The sanctuary is located on a 50-acre organic farm, and children will adore petting and helping to feed the animals.
The great indoors
The large-scale G2 Adventure Centre in Carlow will while away a good few hours, while also tiring you out, and possibly teaching you something new. Choose from go-karting (Ireland's fastest indoor go karting track, apparently, with specially made 270cc karts), bubble soccer (aptly called loopyball in Germany…), tag archery, roller skating (a 4500 sq ft disco space), wall climbing and zipline, or go really large and combine. This works equally well for groups of adults, and mixed groups of kids and adults.
Michelstown Cave, Co Tipperary, may seem an odd choice of 'indoor' adventure, but on a rainy day, you are protected from the elements in this large and complex cave system. Find fantastical dripstone formations, stalactites, stalagmites, huge calcite pillars and one of Europe's finest columns, the NINE-metre 'Tower of Babel'. The cave is occasionally used as a film location - for Vikings - a cinema, and concert venue, and is a fascinating, atmospheric place to discover.
Lough Key Forest Park, Roscommon, is the place to be on a day when the weather might go either way. Begin indoors with the innovative Boda Borg, set over two storeys; the kind of Crystal Maze-style, quest-based challenge that needs teamwork, ingenuity and a great deal of trial and error to progress through the 47 rooms. This is a time to call on all your reserves of imagination and enterprise. And, if you do make it through and the sun is finally shining, there is plenty to do outside in Lough Key.
For a full body-and-mind workout, practically nothing beats wall climbing, where one lapse in concentration, physical application or alertness will send you back to the bottom again. Awesome Walls in Dublin and Cork offers some of the largest indoor climbing in Europe, with plenty to beguile beginners as well as experienced climbers. Try rock climbing, bouldering, abseiling, lead walls and top roping.
* The meet-point of science and sport, Explorium has a host of interactive scientific discoveries and experiences. It also has tough physical and psychological challenges via climbing walls and blocks - including a 'leap of faith' on to a punching bag in mid-air and zooming downwards from the top of the famous parabolic slide. And - perhaps most challenging of all - the world's longest indoor caving experience. Take your chances in a penalty shootout against a robot goalkeeper, and hold on tight for the VR roller coaster.
A visit to a chocolate factory carries irresistible Willy Wonka connotations, and Hazel Mountain, in Clare, located in a cottage, is utterly charming and picturesque. Book ahead for the 45-minute tour and watch chocolate being made in small batches using rare Trinitario cocoa beans and raw sugar. The tour will take you through all the stages of chocolate making, including plenty of sampling. Or, just pop by the organic cafe where chocolate is used creatively (parsnip, cocoa butter and white-pepper soup for example). This is for families, but also chocoholics, and anyone who appreciates insight into a literal cottage industry.
Getting up to the Clear Lake in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, Co Laois, is an adventure in itself. It is off the Gortnameale Eco Trail walk, on top of one of the highest peaks of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, over 500m, in a 2,300-hectare nature reserve. The Clear Lake is in the middle of a bog and hard to find, but once you do, this almost perfectly-circular lake of fresh water, depth still unknown, is enchanting.
Dursey Island, at the western tip of the Beara Peninsula, is separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water, the Dursey Sound, across which is strung Ireland's only cable car. First opened in 1969, the cable car is still the most-used means of transport to and from the island, and the only cable car that crosses open seawater in all of Europe. There are crossings throughout the day, from 9.30am to 7.30pm during the summer months, and the journey takes eight minutes each way.
Ireland has just a small handful of coral beaches, of which the prettiest is perhaps at the tip of one of the longest peninsulas in the country, at St John's Point, Dunkineely, Donegal. As well as pinkish coral, the beach has stunning views across Donegal Bay, and one of the great lighthouses of Ireland, St John's, built in 1831. Beyond the lighthouse is one of the best diving spots in the country, known for crystal clear waters.
Last summer, I organised a busy cultural day out with my children that was long and packed and really interesting. and the bit they enjoyed most? The bus ride on the top of the 46a. So this year, make it a highlight. Today is the last day on which kids with a Child Leap Card travel free (as long as there is 1c on the card) on Luas, DART and bus services. So make the most at the last and take a long, leisurely bus journey, top deck if you can.
Despite having our hearts crushed time and time again by the weather, the national optimism that we will become master barbecuers remains charmingly undiminished every summer. If sizzling and chilling is your bag, head along to The Big Grill festival in Dublin's Herbert Park from August 15-18, to live out your cooking with fire and smoke fantasies. Europe's largest BBQ festival will have live music, tastings, demos and performances.
* If you have a penchant for wine and cheese, head to the stunning surroundings of the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin from August 8-11 for The Wine & Cheese Festival. As well as boutique vendors, this new celebration of food and drink has plenty of cheesy entertainment laid on while you quaff and nosh your way through the offerings. Highlights include a karaoke banquet, the Trinity Orchestra playing ABBA covers, and a live episode of the GastroGays' Chew the Fat podcast.
Enniscorthy will become a foodie paradise during the Bank Holiday weekend from August 2-5, when the Rockin' Food Festival takes over the streets. You can expect an impressive schedule of chefs, producers and special guests in the Food Marquee, and the place will be jamming as live outdoor music creates a fantastic energy around the Wexford town. There are also food and drink workshops, and events and classes for adults and children at the artisan food, drink and crafts market.
The Carlingford Oyster Festival (August 8-12) is a fun-filled treat for the whole family. Aside from delicious gastronomy, there are lots of children's activities, including the ever-popular Teddy Bear's Picnic. The Oyster Pearl competition is the festival's well-known 'lovely girl' competition, and there are musical performances to enjoy from The Fureys, Derek Ryan, Mike Denver, Bagatelle and Michael English. You never know, may even find romance - well, oysters are well-known aphrodisiacs!
Look, none of us need an extra excuse to make the journey north to Donegal, but aside from its unspoilt wild and wonderful scenery, A Taste of Donegal food festival is an added attraction. It takes place on the pier in Donegal town from August 23-29, and as well as music, comedy and juggling stilt-walkers, there are lots of masterclasses and tastings. Cookery demonstrations will be given by high-profile celebrity chefs, including Neven Maguire, Gary O' Hanlon, Catherine Fulvio, Kevin Dundon and Oliver Dunne.
The fabulous Dear Dot exhibition ends on August 12 so this is your last chance to see it. Dorothy Tubridy enjoyed a great friendship with the famous Kennedy family in America, and she used her involvement with them to benefit the country, ranging from her involvement in the planning for JFK's visit to Ireland in 1963, to the Northern Ireland Peace Process of the 1990s. The exhibition of letters, memorabilia and messages is on display at Trim Visitor Centre and admission is free.
As part of the build-up to Uefa Euro 2020, when Mick McCarthy's squad will cover us in glory (we hope), historical memorabilia from Irish football history and the Uefa European Championship will be making its way to Waterford City Hall from August 2-11. Football fans will love the touring Euro 2020 Football Exhibition, which has attractions for all ages and has already been a hit with school groups and families around the country.
* Art lovers will be in heaven everywhere they turn when the Waterford Walls Festival rolls into town from August 22-25. A host of world-class national and international street artists will paint the city's walls live with stunning large-scale artworks, and there's a fun-filled family-friendly programme of activities including live music, workshops, guided art trails and expert panel talks. If you have creative kids, the new children's street art programme will be launched this year.
If the idea of celebrating words in all forms appeals, check out a new festival that will take place in various venues around Abbeyleix in Laois from August 23-25. The Power of Words festival focuses on words that are written, spoken, acted and sung, from new and emerging writers as well as established ones. A selection of writing workshops will give participants a chance to explore fiction, song-writing and memoir, and open mic sessions will facilitate anyone who wishes to come along and share their work. Word trails, song and story-telling events will keep small ones and teenagers busy.
If you're a showband fan, why not head to Leitrim for a chance to relive your memories of tripping the light fantastic at the Rainbow Ballroom in Glenfarne? Taking place on August 21 from 11am-2pm with free admission, A Trip Down Memory Lane has an exhibition of pictures, music and stories from 1934 to the present day. And of course it's interactive in that guests can dance to a live band on the historic dance floor, and enjoy the sounds of the Ballagh Choir of Ages.
Love Island may be ending tomorrow but we still have Another Love Story to look forward to from August 16-18. This bespoke weekender of music, art and conversation will take place in the stunning 18th Century Killyon Manor in Meath. Artists and performers will seduce audiences in various parts of the manor, as well as on outdoor stages that sit among the leafy meadows and mysterious woodlands. And who needs Casa Amor, when festival guests can dance until dawn in The Shift Shack?
The Beara Peninsula in Cork is beautiful at any time, but it's of particular interest to lovers of visual arts and music during the Beara Arts Festival, taking place this year from August 3-11. Visitors can enjoy art exhibitions, music performances and workshops that include harmony singing, painting, writing, ukulele for beginners and poetry.
* We're a nation of talkers, and the island of Cape Clear, situated eight miles off the coast of Baltimore in West Cork, is the setting for the Cape Clear Storytelling Festival from August 30-September 1. It features accomplished tellers from around the world and the best Irish exponents of this most ancient of art forms. The venues are in various locations around the island, and a certain level of fitness is required to fully enjoy this festival. The stunning scenery, folklore and uniqueness of the island's flora and fauna are worth the effort though.
The summer's most colourful music and arts festival will take place at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin on August 17 & 18. Love Sensation is a festival for the LGBT+ community and its many allies, and Panti Bliss will host the main stage for the weekend. Acts include Lily Allen. DJ Jenny Greene and Clean Bandit, and there's The George stage, a Mother Dance Tent you won't want to leave and a host of RuPaul Drag Race Queens brought by Dublin drag legends, Dragged Up.
It hardly needs an introduction at this stage as it was founded in 1974, but Kilkenny Arts Festival is one of the leading festivals in Ireland for good reason. Taking place over 10 days from August 8-18, it has an electrifying range of events, staged in the city's historic churches, castle, courtyards, townhouses and gardens. From outdoor theatre to contemporary dance, with classical music at its core, there will be something for everyone to enjoy.
EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum gives visitors a fascinating insight into the far-reaching influence of Irish history, and the impact the 10m Irish people who left Ireland had on the world. The interactive museum on Custom House Quay allows visitors to see the world through the eyes of those who left by reading their letters to home. Find out how Irish music has influenced everything from pop to rock, while putting your feet to work following the steps of the world-famous Riverdance. You can check out the Rogues' Gallery of Irish outlaws, and check out the famous Irish authors in the Whispering Library.
* We're very lucky to have one of the best science museums in Europe, and its cutting-edge programme ignites creativity and discovery where science and art collide. Science Gallery Dublin encourages young people to learn through their interests, and its innovative exhibitions and events allow visitor participation. They always providing an element of surprise, and kids and hard-to-please teenagers will be enthralled.
* If the role played by women in Ireland's history fascinates you, head to the Little Museum of Ireland in Dublin for its twice-weekly Women's History of Ireland tour. It tells the story of famous female pioneers, from Mary Heath and Countess Markievicz to Maureen O'Hara and Mary Robinson. In addition, Glasnevin Cemetery Museum hosts a monthly guided walking Women's Tour, which focuses on inspirational women who played a pivotal role in shaping Irish history and culture, including Maud Gonne MacBride and Delia Larkin.
If you have a budding Banksy or Stephen Pearce on your hands, or indeed if you fancy a tilt at creating something yourself, why not check out Kinsale Pottery and Arts Centre's classes? Kids can channel their, er, creative energy into summer camps that offer activities like pottery, tie dye, theatre building and paper marbling. Meanwhile, adults can do half-day pottery classes or even attend a three-day ceramics summer school.
Located in the picturesque town of Granard, the Knights & Conquests Heritage and Visitor Centre is situated beside Ireland's tallest Norman motte at 544ft high. The centre brings our Anglo-Norman history to life for children who can dress up in costume and receive a Norman name and duties for their visit. They can also visit a recreated home from that time and dig for artefacts in the CSI room.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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