What's it like to visit Ireland's top tourist attractions, splash about on a surfboard, or even take time out at a museum in the new normal? From Tayto Park to the Cliffs of Moher, our writers share their experiences.
Tayto Park, Co Meath
Few thrills are more satisfying than screaming on a roller-coaster. Yet visitors at the recently opened Fuji-Q Highland theme park in Japan are now being asked to "keep your screams inside" while riding the Fujiyama rollercoaster. It's just one of many new protocols being adopted by amusement parks around the world in a bid to stay open and help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
There was no sign of any 'screaming on the inside' as we arrived at the recently reopened Tayto Park to the soundtrack of the Cú Chulainn Coaster at full throttle (screams included). But safety measures were clearly visible throughout the park as staff and visitors adjusted to the new normal, starting with a temperature check at the entrance gate.
Inside, everything is programmed around two-metre social distancing - with decals on attractions, in the toilets and restaurants. This is further enforced by roving 'marshals' who offer friendly reminders to keep apart. We found staff excellent overall, but on some bigger attractions such as Viking Voyage and Flight School, marshals were sometimes absent as we lined up, and customers began to ignore social-distancing measures as they got tired of queuing. The fact that rides are not running at full capacity can be frustrating at times, as you watch a near-empty car pass by, but equally it's comforting to know you won't be squeezed into a seat next to a total stranger as you both try to contain those thrilling screams.
Masks are not mandatory and, while some visitors were wearing them, most were not. Cleaning procedures, however, were top priority: hand-sanitiser stations are dotted throughout the park and at the entrance and exit to all rides with masked staff reminding us to use them at every opportunity. Toilets are restricted to six people at a time with every second hand basin in use and while there is restricted capacity in the restaurants, there's also plenty of picnic areas around the park to encourage outdoor eating - so do bring your own food.
Unlike museums, parks like Tayto might be better suited to handle crowds since they have the space to spread out. One of the day's highlights was the World of Raptors show - an extremely impressive birds of prey exhibit where eagles whizzed just over your head in a huge outdoor seating arena organised by staff filtering people in and out. Social-distancing measures, however, meant some facilities such as the Pow Wow playground, Superhero Climbing Wall, Extreme Climbing Wall, 5D cinema, Sky Walk, Sky Glider, Tayto Twister Slide and Lemur Woods were closed. The care-free days of sharing popcorn on crowded rides may be gone for now but, if you can handle the queues and the ramped-up sanitising, there's still plenty of thrills. taytopark.ie
Ardmore, Co Waterford
Pól Ó Conghaile
Our paddles are roughly two metres long. At last, something in our age of Covid-19 feels like it makes sense! "Two metres is the distance we need to stay apart," Jack Collier reminds us. "So just think of your paddle. Easy!"
Jack's an instructor with Ardmore Adventures, a brilliant little business doing sea-kayaking and stand-up paddling, among other outdoor activities. His sunny attitude is a tonic in a time when many feel nervous getting out and about - unsure what to do and how to prepare for interactions we took for granted just a few months ago. And he's in control at all times, even when teaching us "an essential life skill"… how to splash each other with those paddles.
We meet by the company's blue trailer at Ardmore beach. It's squirts of hand sanitiser all round, before changing into wetsuits (on the beach, in the public bathroom, or in your car) and grabbing kayaks, paddles and bouyancy vests - all of which are now thoroughly cleaned between uses - and heading for the water.
One of the joys of an outdoor activity like this is that you don't need to wear face coverings, something that makes the fresh air feel even more invigorating.
On the beach, we run through safety briefings and basic paddle strokes, and are soon nosing out into the bay - my 10-year-old son squealing with delight as he pushes his kayak over the lip of a breaking wave. Jack keeps a distance, but issues clear instructions, steering us out of the wind, past the pier and along a coastline riddled with surprising coves and caves. There are stops for games, like leaning forward to 'Eskimo kiss' the front tip of the boat (designed, of course, to make us tumble into the water). There are lessons about seaweed, local legends and, of course, chats about the weirdness of our brave new world.
After this brief freedom, landing on the beach brings us back down to earth - as we haul our kayaks up onto the sand and leave the gear in designated areas for sanitisation.
On its website, Ardmore Adventures requests that people do not attend if they have symptoms of Covid-19 or are awaiting test results (now standard precautions). They also ask people to arrive at allocated times, to prevent mixing of groups and maintain social distancing.
All told, the measures reassure me. It's an ugly pandemic, but a two-hour paddle reminds me that it's still a beautiful planet. ardmoreadventures.ie
The Cliffs of Moher, Liscannor, Co Clare
There are few places more iconic in Ireland than the majestic, awe-inspiring Cliffs of Moher. Even though I live within a 40-minute drive however, I haven't visited in years. So last week, I decided to put that right and together with two of my sons, headed out to our beautiful coastline.
Obviously, the cliffs remain as they have been for over 300 million years, but now there is also a visitor centre, car park and online booking facility. During these strange times, visitors are asked to book in advance in order to keep numbers down, so with ticket in hand, I was waved into the car park, where surprisingly, for peak season, there were plenty of spaces.
We had planned to check out the centre before heading to the cliffs, but the lure of the stunning vista was too great, and our first view of the 700ft rock formation was completely breathtaking. With waves crashing against the cliff face and sea birds circling near its base, we were captivated, and could have stayed put if it weren't for the fact that there was so much else to see.
The visitor centre, built into the hillside, is slightly reminiscent of the Teletubbies base camp. But once inside, similarities ended as we enjoyed a scientific exhibition and short film offering a birds' eye view of the cliffs - followed by some excellent tea and cake in the café. In these Covid times, health and safety is taken very seriously - with hand sanitiser at every turn and gloved and masked staff disinfecting surfaces on a reassuringly regular basis.
While it is impossible to police people on the cliff paths, measures, including signage and ground markings, have been taken to encourage visitors to keep a two-metre distance from each other.
During the summer, this site is usually packed with up to 10,000 visitors a day. But numbers have been significantly reduced due to the pandemic (currently only 2,000 visitors daily), so it is a great time to visit as it never felt crowded while we walked along the trail and up to O'Brien's Tower. Tearing ourselves from the view, we reluctantly left this little corner of our wonderful county, vowing that we wouldn't leave it so long before returning. cliffsofmoher.ie
National Museum of Ireland — Collins Barracks, Dublin
Museums can be a tricky affair in summer. You know how it is - battling throngs of tourists and gaggles of kids, all jostling for the best viewing spot (or Instagram shot). But when I visit the Decorative Arts & History museum one Wednesday in July, there are no crowds to be seen. Instead, there's an almost eerie silence and a scant dozen visitors, their footsteps echoing in the stone hallways.
And while it's spooky in places (I'm convinced that one of the mannequins in 'The Way We Wore' exhibit winked at me) it's a pleasure to see the exhibits without a stranger's elbow digging into your side. I can crouch down and look at the mud splattered on the coat worn by Michael Collins when he died, for example - noticing the missing button on his lapel, without fear of blocking someone's view.
Booking isn't necessary at Collins Barracks (though free ticketing systems are now in place at the National Museums of Natural History and Archaeology in Dublin). By the time I get up to the third floor, I'm the only person there, bar a security guy in the distance with a book of crossword puzzles. It's so quiet that I'm almost overcome by the urge to climb into the 1933 bedroom in the Reconstructed Rooms exhibit, flop on the narrow bed and flip through the copy of Vogue that's plopped on top of the duvet.
There are a few reminders of our new world, as you walk around the place. All of the interactive screens are out of action to avoid the cross-contamination that comes from germy fingers. Any of the touch and audio exhibits have also been either covered or removed, decal stickers remind you to keep a two-metre distance, and hand-sanitising stations are set up throughout. In line with Government guidelines, visitors are also asked to wear face coverings in National Museum retail spaces and ticket-check areas.
It's a similar story at the National Gallery of Ireland - there's a one-way system, hand-sanitising stations and limited numbers in exhibition spaces, but so few visitors midweek that it didn't affect my experience. The café and cloakroom remain closed, but the 'Moment in Time: A Legacy of Photographs' exhibit is not only open, but free for guests (tickets were previously €15). The collection was assembled in the 1960s and the work is astounding. As I walk between the photographs, there's not another soul to be seen. museum.ie; nationalgallery.ie
Muckross House, Killarney, Co Kerry
Since our children were small, Muckross House, Gardens & Traditional Farms has been a regular favourite for a day out. Its expansive, beautiful gardens provide wide-open spaces that are just perfect at any time for allowing youngsters to let off steam while older ones stretch their legs - a particularly useful aspect for citizens emerging after months of confinement.
Unsure what to expect in the time of Covid, it was heartening to arrive and see that the place was actually busy. Coach tour buses were conspicuous by their absence, but the car park was as full as ever. The countrywide cycling craze was very much in evidence too, with a large amount of visitors arriving by pedal power. Overall, it was like a busy weekend in the shoulder season rather than mid-summer and it felt a little eerie walking around a Killarney tourist centre in July without hearing a single American accent. The jarveys of the parked jaunting cars touted for business, the café and shop were quite busy, and the gardens teemed with families and people of all ages, enjoying the outdoors and taking walks - all seemingly relaxed in keeping social distance.
Of Muckross's seven elements, all were open except for Muckross House itself. The attraction (88pc of whose visitors would normally come from overseas) is expected to open in the next few weeks, however, once the facility and its staff are fully geared up for Covid-tourism. When open, visitors will trickle through along a one-way system at a slower rate, with tours largely self-guided, complemented by tour guides placed at different points in the house at a distance from visitors.
Inside, all the staff have face coverings, most opting for plastic visors. A one-way system in the restaurant keeps people at a safe social distance and wall-mounted 'no-touch' hand sanitisers abound.
The toilets were well marshalled with a staff member controlling the flow of visitors, but an even longer queue was ever-present at the ice-cream machine. The social-distancing measures didn't make the place look empty and a large marquee took the overflow into the garden, protecting diners from both sun and rain.
Most people seemed to be opting for the outdoors. I'm not surprised. One of the best little gifts that this virus has given us has been to turn us into a nation of hardy outdoors types. Here's to hoping our al fresco enthusiasm prevails. muckross-house.ie
Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal
The smiles on their faces said it all. Standing on a surf board and riding a wave for the first time, my two children felt like they'd conquered the ocean.
We'd booked a surf lesson with Narosa Life, a surf school in Dunfanaghy, where coaches bring groups to Marble Hill or Maghera beaches, both a short drive away from the surf shop on the town's main street. Wearing our masks into the shop, we were provided with wetsuits (you can bring your own, but the surf shop ones keep you toasty warm in the water). Covid-19 means you now change at the beach, however, to allow for proper social distancing, and both boards and wetsuits are cleaned between uses with antibacterial wash. There's also hand sanitiser at both the shop and the beach - the instructors provide it for you.
After driving out to Marble Hill in our own car (something they encouraged us to do), we met our instructor - Newcastle-born Dave Crozier - and made our way to the surfboards ready and waiting for us on the sand. As an outdoor activity, it's easy to maintain social distance while surfing, and you return your wetsuit to Narosa's hut on the beach after your lesson rather than having to go back to the shop.
Before getting in the water, Dave gave us a few tips about the board and about paying attention to the ocean. His enthusiasm and kindness to smaller surfers a bit nervous about getting in for their first taste of surf was infectious.
The day was perfect - wave after wave rolled in. Dave showed us how to handle the board, never holding it side on to the wave so it's hard to control. Before long my two boys Dallan (11) and Oirghiall (8) were on their way - Dallan riding a wave towards shore with arms out like Dave had showed us; his little brother catching his own mini-wave and screeching with excitement as the adrenaline kicked in.
There's no room here for preening surf-dude culture. Narosa wants to open up surfing to every level, and though we wipe out more than we actually ride waves, that's all part of the fun. There were a lot of people on Marble Hill beach on the day we went, but there's so much space it never felt crowded. On the way home, all my kids wanted to know was when I was booking their next lesson. narosalife.com
Voya, Strandhill, Co Sligo
A soak in a seaweed bath has always been one of my go-to fixes for stress. And let's face it - the past few months have been pretty damn stressful. So nabbing a booking on a recent trip out west felt like a win.
Two days before my appointment at Voya Seaweed Baths, I got a text linking me to a consultation form that now has to be filled out prior to arrival. As well as the usual health questions, you're now asked if you've travelled in the last 14 days, been in contact with a confirmed case, had a fever and so on. The reception desk is also now surrounded by high Plexiglass, the staff are in masks and they've implemented a one-way system, so you exit at the back door rather than the main entrance (so long, Voya product samples…).
But it all works seamlessly, and the tangible part of the treatment hasn't changed a jot. It still feels like slipping into a cocoon of tranquillity, and the slippery seaweed and piping hot seawater was just the tonic I needed. voyaseaweedbaths.com
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