Wednesday 21 February 2018

Once upon a time in Westport: A magical family break in Mayo

Short breaks in Ireland

Westport House: Walking up the main entrance feels like entering the set of a Jane Austen novel
Westport House: Walking up the main entrance feels like entering the set of a Jane Austen novel
Liadan and Sarah in Westport
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

When my daughter, now three, was six weeks old, I was foolhardy enough to venture as far from home as Dingle for a family holiday.

Obviously at that stage, with only one child to look after, I should have been firmly ensconced on the couch at home receiving visitors and cake. Such are the mistakes new parents make. Of the seven hours that the car journey took to complete, she screamed for six. Unsurprisingly, it has left its mark, and since then I have refused to venture further afield than Cork.

The recent purchase of a handheld DVD player has, it is not overstating the case to say, changed our lives. The drive to Westport took about four hours. If your child is too old or too bloody-minded to nap, the charger stretches from the plug in front to their seat. Like I say, revolutionary. We barely heard from her.

Westport has many of the things I love about Kilkenny. Just right, it's big enough that there's loads to occupy you when pottering about, lots of eating-out options, plenty of shops, yet not exhaustingly big-city big. Also, extensive greenery is literally five minutes away at all times.

Liadan and Sarah in Westport
Liadan and Sarah in Westport

Our hotel, The Wyatt, is situated right in the centre of the town, on the Octagon, an open area. For parents, on a practical note, a large SuperValu is situated just across the way, providing both parking and all the snack essentials you need to get through a day with small children. There is a playground to the rear of the hotel. The Wyatt is a three-star boutique hotel, so there is an intimate feel to the place. It's very relaxed and child-friendly. Both our double rooms were studio apartment size.

When holidaying with herself, my first eating-out requirement is a restaurant informal and lively enough that I will not spend the entire time fretting about how any meltdown, minor or major, may be affecting other diners' experiences. There are three eateries at The Wyatt - a traditional Irish bar, a brasserie, and a more formal restaurant. It is also possible to eat in the lounge/bar area, a space populated with comfy couches; exactly what you need after a long drive.

Great old country houses do not typically make for ideal toddler destinations, but Westport House is a truly special day out for young children. The family rate, a ticket for the house and adventure park for two adults and up to four children, costs €75, and if you're deciding to spend big on one item, it would be hard to find a day out that offers more. Walking up the main entrance feels like entering the set of a Jane Austen novel. Little ones will be instantly entranced by the sheep and attendant baby lambs on either side of the drive. The house itself has been fashioned in a manner that makes it robust enough to withstand the most boisterous of toddlers.

Originally, this was the site of one of Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley's castles. The current owners have used this as inspiration in their overhaul of the dungeons, which have been recreated as a pirate's cave, complete with fairground distortion mirrors. Off this is a cafe set in the original kitchens. Upstairs, there are 30 beautifully preserved rooms on show in what is one of the few still privately owned big houses left in the country.

It is the grounds though, 480 acres in total, which will entrance your children. As well as the expected - nature trails, riverside walks - there is a pirates playground and indoor soft play area, a bouncing castle, water attractions, a birds of prey show, a train that runs through the forest, a swinging ship attraction, bumper cars, go-karting and a carousel.

Most impressive are the swan pedalo boats. Spotting them from the window of the house, herself carolled "this is the Swan Princess's castle", referencing one of Disney's most awful movies. It's surreal but great fun to take a toddler out on an oversized swan boat.

This next won't be an option for any children in the party, but Matt Molloy's pub on Bridge Street is legendary for its nightly traditional music sessions.

For shopping, there's something refreshing about the fact that Westport hasn't been transformed into yet another replica of a British high street, and there are plenty of small boutiques and shops selling assorted bric-a-brac.

Carraig Donn is the town's largest store, stocking both clothes and interiors.

It rained for a large part of our trip, tricky when you have toddlers who need entertaining. Our hotel had pointed us in the direction of nearby indoor play village The Wild West, which opens seven days a week from 10-6. It was one of the largest I have come across. There is also a proper cafe adjacent to the play area, with comfortable couches. As well as the play area itself, the village was hosting several events for children throughout the week.

At 42km, the Great Western Greenway is the longest off-road walking and cycling trail in the country. It follows the route of the Westport to Achill railway which closed in 1937. Clew Bay Bike Hire offer various packages, including options of outbound or return shuttles, children's bikes or trailers for toddlers, electric bikes, roadside assistance and a return boat trip via Clew Bay,

The Gallery Wine and Tapas Bar, in Brewery Place, just off Bridge Street, has the pleasant atmosphere of a restaurant in someone's living room - the walls are lined with books and vinyl, and customers are welcome to make use of the chess or Scrabble sets. It's exactly the relaxed atmosphere you want if you are attempting dinner with a tired toddler.

Due to said toddler, most of our eating out took place during the day. The Willow Cafe tearoom was a cute lunch option minutes from the hotel. Further down on James Street, Curry's Cottage is a family-run home bakery and a perfect spot for a cosy afternoon tea.

So much did we enjoy ourselves in Westport that we are booking to return later this year to celebrate an important family birthday.

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