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Island getaway that bridges the generation gap

Liadan Hynes juggles family holiday dynamics, forest fairy walks, exotic wildlife and beach trips to discover some perfect moments in East Cork

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Fota Island Resort

Fota Island Resort

Lifeguards Carolyne O’Connor and Karen Sheehan at Claycastle beach. Photo: David Creedon

Lifeguards Carolyne O’Connor and Karen Sheehan at Claycastle beach. Photo: David Creedon

Ring-tailed lemurs in Fota Wildlife Park

Ring-tailed lemurs in Fota Wildlife Park

Fota Island postcard

Fota Island postcard

Lia and her six-year-old daughter

Lia and her six-year-old daughter

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Fota Island Resort

Do you know what is a sure-fire way to have an excellent holiday with a small child (given that all parents know that holidaying with small children is, well... not really holidaying)? Repeat a holiday you took with them when they were a small baby, a time when holidays involved a veritable convoy of extra paraphernalia. Monitors, travel cots (which said child would inevitably refuse to sleep in), buggies, bottles, special food.

Even as you pack up the car, you'll feel the gentle high of comparison, of not having to think of all of this stuff. Just the absence of all of the above means from the outset, as your now six-year-old child hops into the car and plugs themselves into their dvd player, you're basking in the warm glow of how much easier it is this time around.

If you are lucky enough to get to go on a holiday this year, or staycation as we're calling them now, you will be faced with a special kind of 2020 conundrum.

Obviously you're going with your family. But have you ever more needed to see people beyond your family, with whom you have been locked down for the previous months.

When we considered our trip, there was a moment where we looked at each other and wondered, is there any point? Will it just be more of the same, only elsewhere? Luckily, we rallied from such absolute nay-saying. Any kind of change of scenery was to be welcomed after several months at home.

We also came up with the perfect solution for having reached peak quality family time. More family time, but with the extended on this occasion. My mother is from Cork, and I have numerous aunts and cousins there, who have themselves numerous wonderful children whom my daughter adores. We always holidayed in Cork when I was a child, and I have taken my daughter there on various occasions, with varying success. But everything gets easier as they get older.

Our destination was Fota Island in Co Cork, home of the Wildlife Park, hotel, as well as Fota House and Gardens.

For the uninitiated, Fota Island Resort is the kind of place you will find yourself telling each other, on repeat, 'if we got the weather, you would holiday here every year'. You're roughly 25 minutes' drive from Cork city (there is also a train from the city centre), but in the middle of the countryside.

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Lifeguards Carolyne O’Connor and Karen Sheehan at Claycastle beach. Photo: David Creedon

Lifeguards Carolyne O’Connor and Karen Sheehan at Claycastle beach. Photo: David Creedon

Lifeguards Carolyne O’Connor and Karen Sheehan at Claycastle beach. Photo: David Creedon

Accommodation is a mixture of lodges and hotel rooms; we stayed in both on this trip. If you can, look for a lodge at the edge of the small development, sitting in your garden looking out at a field which ends in forest is a particularly calming way to start your day. The lodges are fully self-catering, and the hotel includes several restaurants which serve takeout.

We booked breakfast in the hotel each morning. Covid-related adjustments mean it's no longer self- service, a fact we at first worried might put a stop to our gallop (read restocking); it didn't. They also mean that breakfast now stretches until 11, to allow for spaced out bookings.

For after breakfast, the playground sits just at the end of the site of houses, a minute's walk from where we were staying. Fota's grounds are a mixture of the manicured, and the untamed. For kids, this means a fairy trail through the forest, which we undertook on our first evening. Maybe it's just my daughter, but for any long walk that doesn't involve a scooter, children need to be distracted from the reality that they are, in fact, being made to go on a walk.

This is perfect, every few feet you will happen upon a new fairy abode; before you know it, you've walked a couple of kilometres.

Should it be needed, the hotel grounds also offer up lots of smooth, scooter- suitable tarmac.

We happened to be holidaying that one week when the weather behaved as if we were in Spain, so day one we decided to go to the beach. The hotel recommended Garryvoe Beach, which is just off the road from Ladysbridge to Shanagarry, approximately. Parking was plentiful (it was busy), and there is a shop right beside the beach where we spent a ridiculous amount of money on ice creams and beach toys.

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Ring-tailed lemurs in Fota Wildlife Park

Ring-tailed lemurs in Fota Wildlife Park

Ring-tailed lemurs in Fota Wildlife Park

East Cork offers up plenty of beach options. Ballycotton, with the cliff walk and chips afterwards at Skinny's Diner, is particularly spectacular, beside Garryvoe there is Ballynamona, Redbarn beach in Youghal, and Inch Beach, which sometimes plays host to yoga classes.

The beach was busy but long enough that we still easily found a spot that felt distant enough from others. Garryvoe is a mixture of stones and sand, and the water that day was completely clear and jellyfish-free too.

A first-time sea swimmer, my daughter's screams as she entered the water were quite possibly heard by the entire beach, but within minutes we were jumping waves and boogie boarding.

Fota Island is home to what might be the most Covid-friendly child amusement in the country, the Fota Island Wildlife Park. The 100-acre park now requires pre-booking, but once there, wandering around the open-air park, as a kangaroo hops across your path, it is entirely possible to forget our trying new normal.

Fota itself, as well as a golf course, includes an adventure centre and activities include archery, combat archery (billed as The Hunger Games - for real life), bushcraft (survival skills), find the sniper, an obstacle course, target practice, orienteering and field games.

Given my travel companions were under seven and over 70, we opted for the slightly tamer kayaking.

The daughter and I shared a vessel, "you row Mommy, I'll captain", she shouted imperiously as we were pushed off, having disdainfully refused all offers of a paddle just in case she wanted one (we both knew she wouldn't).

Our party was all families with kids, and our instructor, having let us get our bearings, led us in several games.

By the end my daughter, who started out the expedition admitting to slight nerves, was contemplating jumping off the kayak. Instead she compromised, swinging her legs over the side and trailing them through the water as we made our way back to shore.

One activity a day on a holiday with small children is enough, so we had taken to having one outing, before going back to base to relax, ordering takeaway, then strolling around the grounds. Halfway through our trip we moved from our lodge to hotel rooms, suites with huge balconies, which allowed us to entertain the family safely outdoors.

On our last day, we met up with the aforementioned cousins at Fota House, Arboretum and Gardens, a 19th-Century structure designed by Richard and William Morris, and like the wildlife park, a five-minute drive from the hotel.

For now, rather than a cafe, double doors have been opened and a temporary shop set up with coffees, cakes and crisps, so my cousins and I sat on the grass while the six children ran about us. As every parent knows, a holiday with children is not a holiday. If you get even one or two minutes where everyone is completely in the moment, no one is whining, asking what you're doing next, can they have a snack or an ice cream, you're winning.

On our trip to Fota, we had them daily.

A luxury three-night family retreat in one of Fota Island Resort's self-catering courtyard lodges for two adults and two children includes movie night, with your choice of family films and a basket of treats plus a two-course dinner on one night delivered from the resort's clubhouse. Consistently voted a family favourite, Fota prices start from €950. For more details, see www.fotaisland.ie

Sunday Independent