Imagine this. You fall asleep counting the stars in the canopy of the night sky, wake to a sunrise supplied as standard, where all rooms have a view and meals are al fresco, at whatever time you decide. A berth for two for the night will cost you between €25 and €32. That’s freedom and fun that is affordable. That’s van life.
Camping and campervans have always had a niche following but the pandemic has given this mainstream appeal – travelling under your own steam, in your own bubble with your own accommodation on board, it’s tailor-made for safe travel.
But the sky-high demand has put pressure on places, pitches and prices.
This July and August it looks like Connemara has put up the full-house sign, that West Cork is chock-a-block and Clare is also booked out. So what options remain for the summer holidays?
There are hundreds of campsites and camping spots to choose from in Ireland, or you could go off-grid by wild camping. I prefer to mix and match, booking ahead where possible, but always leaving some slack in my plans for an impromptu stop-off in a secluded spot.
We’ve been camping for years and have travelled most of Ireland’s road trips – from the famed Ring of Kerry, the Causeway Coastal Route and the Antrim Glens, to the Dingle Peninsula, the Surf Coast from Enniscrone to Bundoran, Galway to Clifden and the Sky Road Loop, and more. And the ultimate road trip – the 2,500km and nine counties of the Wild Atlantic Way.
I’ve stored up golden memories. I remember the sheer joy of rocking up to the Beach Bar Camping at Aughris Head in Sligo with Ben Bulben holding court across the bay and hearing a troupe of musicians and uilleann pipers strike up a Sunday evening seisiún stoked on by creamy outdoor pints.
Or the time a man known only as ‘Laddie’ in Goosey Island in Kerry dropped off two fresh trout for the barbecue just because I had the good fortune of being his neighbour for the weekend. Or chatting to a man in the square in Sneem about how he found the Puck goat with a beard to rival ZZ Top.
Or in Donegal, when we woke up for a dawn surf after a wild camp at Falcarragh Beach to be joined by two curious seals, and afterwards went back to the van for a fresh brew of coffee. Later on, there was a sing-song at the campfire at Sleepy Hollows and bumping in to Máire Ní Bhraonáin in Leo’s Tavern up the road.
In Cork, haggling for provisions at the farmer’s market in Bantry on a Friday morning before making our way to one of the best located campsites in the world, Eagle Point, on the shores of the Bay.
In Mayo, foraging for field mushrooms in the sparse vegetation of sloping fields above the deserted village in Achill before frying them up with fresh mackerel at the Seal Caves campsite in Dugort.
We came back each time with our batteries recharged. That’s the landscape, the joy, the adventure, the freedom of camping.
But a word of caution: if you don’t like camping, you’re probably not going to enjoy the close quarters of a campervan. It is after all camping on wheels. We were veteran campers, pitching our tent everywhere from Ballyshannon to Biarritz before we invested in a campervan conversion in 2017.
Campervan holidays gives you freedom on your road holiday
We traded in our second car, bought a Ford Transit van and had it professionally converted and customised to our needs by Ennistymon-based company Vanderlust.
It now seats four, sleeps two adults and two grandchildren and comes with a solar panel, shower, toilet, gas cooker, sink and the all-important fridge.
Our only regret is we didn’t do it 10 years sooner, as the only time a campervan is costing you is when it’s parked up idling in your driveway. The total cost from new for the van, bespoke conversion and 13.3pc VRT was €55,000.
It’s worth every penny. But no, it’s most definitely not for sale.
A brand new top of the range four-berth motorhome will set you back €90,000. The surge in demand has also made it a seller’s market when it comes to second- hand campervans or caravans, which have never been so popular.
There are at least a dozen companies specialising in campervan hire and motorhome rentals.
With many of the campsites fully booked for the high season, more and more first time camping enthusiasts are resorting to ‘wild camping’. But keep in mind that there is a lack of public facilities at many beaches, popular viewing points and car parks.
For example, the Wild Atlantic Way is an unrivalled marketing success but, in many cases, the route offers little more than Instagram opportunities with strategic rustic signage. Not much use to someone who wants to go to the loo or dispose of a dirty nappy.
Poor behaviour, littering and suspect waste disposal on the part of a minority led to tensions last summer in places like Terryglass and Westport, and this year, local authorities in Sligo and Wexford are considering more restrictions and headroom barriers to curb what they consider as unwelcome overnight parking at beauty spots like Curracloe, Strandhill and even Hook Head.
Other councils take a more positive perspective and value the commercial spin-off from the campervan and motorhome community, with its disposable income and appetite for groceries, refreshments and entertainment.
Towns with a warm welcome for campers offering French-style ‘aire de service’ facilities include Portumna, Cobh, Bantry, Sneem, Carlingford and Castlegregory.
The resurgent camping scene has also spawned new business opportunities. Coláiste Uisce, a Gaeltacht school and water sports centre, unable to take students again this summer has pivoted to meet the demand for camping and has opened a 12-bay motorhome park with basic facilities at the water’s edge in Elly Bay. Aire Cuan Eilí in the idyllic setting of Blacksod Bay is 14km from Belmullet and charges €15 a night, and it seems likely that this new family enterprise will develop the facilities further over the next few years.
Many campsites are heavily booked for the peak season. Some are requiring a minimum stay, while others are open only to self-contained units like motorhomes, and won’t accept tents while shared facilities such as toilet and shower blocks and camper’s kitchens remain closed.
Campsites charge per night for a pitch and many levy extra costs for additional people, awnings, showers and electricity. More are offering a range of accommodation options apart from your campervan or caravan pitch to make provision for glamping pods, bell tents, yurts and mobile homes.
When camping with children it is important to consider on-site activities or attractions in the vicinity. With that in mind, five family-friendly camping options are Hidden Valley (irelandholidaypark.com) in Co Wicklow; Sexton’s Caravan & Camping Timoleague, Co Cork; The Apple Farm, Cahir, and Parson’s Green, Clogheen, both Co Tipperary; and Nore Valley Park (norevalleypark.com) Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny.
Prices range from €32 to €35 for two adults and two children per night with extra levies usually for any additional people, showers, electrical hook up and awnings.
If you are taking a child-free break, book into Sleep Hollows Camping in Crolly, Donegal, an oasis beside the river’s edge, ideal for walks or a spot of trout fishing. Pets are welcome. A unit with one adult costs €18, €24 for two people.
For an authentic camping experience on the edge of the Atlantic in the heart of Connemara, it’s hard to beat Clifden Eco Beach Camping. The facilities are first class and the layout less fussy and formal than most, with direct access to the beach. This is kayaking and oysters and Guinness country.
If you fancy a base in Donegal, Corcreggan Mill, on the outskirts of Dunfanaghy, is a fantastic spot offering lodge and glamping options as well as a motorhome park. It’s an ideal base for surfing, windsurfing, pony trekking and kayaking and for the legendary Dunfanaghy Jazz and Blues Festival (though not this year).
Surfing enthusiasts won’t want to pass The Beach Bar Camping (firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook) in Sligo. This spot saved our summer last year and is within easy striking distance of both Strandhill and Easkey. No tents, no booking ahead, it’s all on a first-come, first-served basis, for €15 a night per unit with €5 extra optional for electricity.
But when it comes to camping, the Ring of Kerry reigns supreme. Four of the best places include Mannix Point in Cahirciveen. And with Valentia Island just down the road, as the Skelligs reopen to visitors, Valentia Island Caravan & Camping is an ideal base on this paradise island (email@example.com). Wave Crest in Caherdaniel is in a majestic setting, a paradise for outdoor pursuits, and Goosey Island in the middle of Sneem, where you can set out on a kayak adventure in Kenmare Bay. No bookings, you just turn up; €10 for a motorhome, with €5 extra for electricity.
One of the best spots from which to explore the Burren or take a ferry to the Aran Islands is Nagles Camping & Caravan Park, just across the road from Doolin Pier with the Cliffs of Moher as your backdrop. Units from €31 to €34 for two adults and two children, including electric hook-up, metered showers, €1 with a token at reception.
Or, go off grid – and discover some Irish beauty spots for yourself.
John Whelan is the author of camping and campervan blog Vanhalla – Camper Heaven; vanhalla.ie
Keava Blaney in the van she converted with her dad Brendan and her fiancé Joel
“There are people doing their vans to the highest spec but mine is basic because, really, it was just a fun project for me, my fiancé and my dad,” says Keava Blaney. “We went to an old salvage yard and there was junk everywhere. It was nice to use repurposed stuff. For the insulation, the guy in the yard was throwing it out so we got that for free.” The money you spend kitting out the interior depends on the standard you hope to achieve, and Keava estimates they have spent £500 making the inside comfortable. “We made up our own manual pump system. We’ve fairy lights that are battery powered. We’ve done it really, really basic but it works.” Having the van has helped Keava and fiancé Joel to embrace a simpler way of living.
“It teaches you to slow down. If I want a cup of tea or anything, it takes me the guts of 15 minutes to prepare that. “We went up Slieve Binnian in Co Down a few weekends ago and a man had opened up his field for overflow parking. He had a wee sign saying £3 for day or £5 for overnight parking. Imagine going away for a night for £5!”
Me and my campervan: ‘It’s something we both fell in love with instantly’
Stephen Coughlan and Lisa Cooke converted their van 'in record time'
“It was when the Wild Atlantic Way started to gain traction. We priced B&Bs all along the way and it was going to work out as a €3,000 trip for just a week,” says Stephen Coughlan.
Skip forward two weeks, and he and his partner Lisa Cooke were in Galway buying a Sprinter van. “We said if we’re going to do it, let’s just do it. We converted that van in record time because we knew we had a deadline.”
Stephen says that “van life” was something he and Lisa landed on accidentally, and were hooked from the beginning. “It’s something we both fell in love with instantly. I used to race mountain bikes and I had a bad accident in 2017 where I sustained a spinal injury. Sadly, that put the bikes to bed for me.”
Stephen had been training to represent Ireland in the Masters World Championships in downhill mountain biking before it was all taken away; van life gave him a new passion to pursue. The couple now spend all of their spare time travelling around Ireland.
“If I don’t have some sort of output, I can suffer. Now I know I can just hop in the van and go somewhere,” Stephen says.
Dos and don'ts for newbie campers
The Instagram posts of campervan culture along the US Pacific Coast Highway show young couples working remotely from their vans between sundrenched surf sessions and make it easy to fall for the romance of the open road. However, you will be spending more time in Connemara, West Cork, Clare and the Causeway Coast than California.
Bring a raincoat, torch, barbecue, bike, bottle opener, toilet paper and a good map. Pack and prepare properly.
Make sure you know where the water refill is on the motorhome and have a container with a funnel to do it. I have met people at the Electric Picnic who didn’t know either.
Be aware that many campsites have a strictly ‘no dogs allowed’ policy. You will be refused entry even if you have a reservation.
Don’t spend all your days driving.
Take time to explore and enjoy the locality. That’s what the bike is for.
You must be over 25 to hire a motorhome, and expect to pay up to €250 a day, with a minimum rental of five or seven days during high season. You will be required to sign a pre-authorisation payment to cover what can be a significant excess on the insurance in the event of any damage.