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Top 10 family cycles in Ireland - where you don't have to worry about traffic

Cycling has taken off during lockdown. So what are the options for those who want to pedal a little further in Ireland? Pól Ó Conghaile picks 10 traffic-free trails...

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Great Western Greenway

Great Western Greenway

A route along the Suir Blueway

A route along the Suir Blueway

Cycling the River Suir Blueway

Cycling the River Suir Blueway

Cycling at Lough Key Forest Park

Cycling at Lough Key Forest Park

Horse and carriage ride through Phoenix Park, Dublin. photo: Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland

Horse and carriage ride through Phoenix Park, Dublin. photo: Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland

Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland

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Great Western Greenway

Lockdown has made hikers and bikers of us all.

With less traffic on the roads, and more time on our hands, all over the country bikes have been dusted down and squeaky chains oiled.

"It's like Center Parcs," one parent told me, nodding to the car-free holiday campus in Co Longford.

Travel restrictions have reconnected us with family time, nature and the outdoors (I've had the same tank of petrol in my car since Paddy's Day). But it feels like drivers have been more considerate too, giving way to a nostalgic feeling of freedom as we wobble about our 2km, 5km and 20km circuits.

Cycling is cheap (if not free); it's healthy, sustainable, takes us away from crowds, and talk has begun about how to make city streets more bike-friendly, with numbers limited on public transport. Its popularity only looks set to continue.

A note of caution, of course. We cannot travel now - under the Government's roadmap, cyclists must confine themselves to within 5km of home.

But bike shops are open, as are Coillte recreation sites for local visitors, and restrictions loosen to 20km (on June 8) and then entirely (June 29), if public health guidelines permit. At that point, your mini Tour d'Irlande could commence.

Here are 10 trips to look forward to, when it's safe.

Greenways

1. The Great Western Greenway

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Great Western Greenway

Great Western Greenway

Great Western Greenway

Where: Westport to Achill, Co Mayo (42km)

Why: The original of the species. It's hard to believe the Great Western Greenway is now over 10 years old - its success blazed a trail for greenways all over Ireland. The 42km route is largely on the flat, but does require some fitness to complete, so consider picking a section if littler legs are involved. The 18km stretch from Mulranny to Newport brings smashing views of Clew Bay and an arched bridge over the Black Oak River, while the link from Mulranny to Achill Island whisks you up over the Currane Peninsula, with breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, and some cool public art, along the way.

Trip notes: Local bike hire companies can drop and collect at various points, once the trail reopens to visitors. greenway.ie

If you like this, try: The 7km Carlingford Omeath Greenway in Co Louth is part of a 'Great Eastern Greenway' project earmarked for the old Dundalk Newry & Greenore Railway, with views across the lough to the Mourne Mountains.

2. The Waterford Greenway

Where: Waterford to Dungarvan (46km)

Why: Just three years old, this reboot of an old railway line has been another stunning success. Highlights include big hits like the Victorian railway tunnel near Durrow, Ballyvoile viaduct and Mount Congreve Gardens, and small pleasures like pastries at Coach House Coffee in Kilmacthomas or the sweet counter at O'Mahony's Siopa Beag in Durrow. The 46km won't trouble a serious cyclist, but it may give beginners saddle sores, so take your time, start with a section, and feel your way into it. Before Covid-19, the trail had been developing lovely little touches - like adding bottle refill stations to reduce plastic waste. We can't wait to get back out there... when it's safe, of course.

Trip notes: Bike rental companies (e.g. thegreenwayman.com; waterfordgreenwaybikehire.com) can drop and pick up at agreed points by arrangement. See visitwaterford.com for more information.

If you like this, try: A 6km stretch of greenway links Clifden and Ballynahinch in Connemara. Next steps will see it link to Oughterard, and, ultimately, Galway (we hope!).

3. The Old Rail Trail

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Cycling the Old Rail Trail, between Athlone and Mullingar. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Cycling the Old Rail Trail, between Athlone and Mullingar. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Cycling the Old Rail Trail, between Athlone and Mullingar. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile


Where: Co Westmeath (40km)

Why: Cycle through the heart of Ireland on the Old Rail Trail, traversing some 40km of the former Midlands Great Western Railway between Athlone and Mullingar. The route opens up a gentle countryside that drivers whizzing by on the M4 or M6 rarely get to see - farmscapes, the stone arch bridges at Streamstown, a stretch of the Royal Canal and old station houses at Moate and Castletown, for starters. There isn't much by way of twists, turns or ascents and descents, but that (along with the smooth, tarmac surface) could be seen as a plus for smaller cyclists, and there's a surprisingly good shot of folk history with a playground at Dún na Sí amenity & Heritage Park (dunnasi.ie) - closed for now, but one to mark for future magic in the Midlands.

Trip notes: Start at either end, or do sections in between - Castletown to Mullingar (11.5km) for example, or Athlone to Moate (14.5km). Athlone.ie has a map highlighting entry and exit points. Find bike hire with buckleycycles.ie and mullingarbikehire.com, among others.

If you like this, try: A 5km off-road cycle path connects Crosshaven and Carrigaline in Cork, while the Comber Greenway is an 11km, traffic-free trail running from Belfast to Comber. Along the way, you'll see the Harland & Wolff cranes, Belfast Hills and a statue of CS Lewis.

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Parks, Estates & Canal Paths

4. Phoenix Park

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Horse and carriage ride through Phoenix Park, Dublin. photo: Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland

Horse and carriage ride through Phoenix Park, Dublin. photo: Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland

Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland

Horse and carriage ride through Phoenix Park, Dublin. photo: Rob Durston/Fáilte Ireland


Where: Dublin

Why: Good news. The OPW has bumped up the space available to cyclists and walkers in the Phoenix Park - testament to its place in the hearts of Dubliners, and its heavy use in lockdown. Paths on either side of the main Chesterfield Avenue are now pedestrian-only, doubling walking space to facilitate social distancing. The hard shoulder is a new cycleway "25pc wider than the existing inside cycle lane", giving an extra 7km of recreational space either side of the avenue. There's a new shared recreation space on Furze Avenue for walkers and cyclists, too. We all know about the wild fallow deer, Farmleigh and the zoo, but did you know Beyoncé once raved about a cycle in Phoenix Park, too?

Trip notes: Phoenix Park Bikes (phoenixparkbikes.com) does bike hire and tours. Head in an anticlockwise direction from the entrance and slopes will be in your favour. The walled garden is reserved from 10am-1pm for people who are cocooning. See phoenixpark.ie for more.

If you like this, try: Local families can also take to trails in the grounds around Malahide Castle (irishcentreforcycling.ie) and Ardgillan Castle (ardgillancastle.ie), and there is a 3km cycle lane along the prom at Clontarf - but check websites for Covid-19 restrictions beforehand.

5. The River Suir Blueway

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Cycling the River Suir Blueway

Cycling the River Suir Blueway

Cycling the River Suir Blueway


Where: Clonmel to Carrick-on-Suir (21km)

Why: The Suir Blueway stretches 53km along the river from Cahir to Carrick-on-Suir, with kayaking, walking and cycling just a couple of options along the way. Cyclists can follow the towpath from Clonmel to Carrick - a 21km route with something for all ages (though clearly, young peddlers should steer clear of the water). The route is divided into four stages, so you can pick a distance - from Carey's Slip to Kilsheelan (7km), for example, or Kilsheelan to Carrick (11.5km). A gentle, 4km tar and chip path also connects Cahir with the lovely Swiss Cottage.

Trip notes: Car parks are closed, but the route is open to local users within their 5km to June 29. For more info, and bike rental options, visit tipperary.com.

If you like this, try: Cycling is possible along stretches of the Royal Canal (its 130km greenway, once finished, will be Ireland's longest; bluewaysireland.org). Arthur's Way, a 16km heritage trail tracing Arthur Guinness's life in Co Kildare, includes a stretch along the Grand Canal from Hazelhatch to Cliff at Lyons (intokildare.ie).

6. Lough Boora Discovery Park

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Lough Boora, Co. Offaly. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Lough Boora, Co. Offaly. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Lough Boora, Co. Offaly. Photo: Fáilte Ireland


Where: Co Offaly (22km)

Why: This gorgeous park, scattered with sculptures and threaded with trails, was once a commercial bog. Today, it's reimagined as a discovery park, with three of five routes - the Mesolithic Route (9km), the Farmland Route (6km) and the Turraun Route (16km) - accessible to cyclists (you can combine all three in a 22km circuit). It's impossible not to learn something along the way - from industrial heritage reflected in the sculptures, to wildflowers, bird-watching and the cut-away bogs themselves.

Trip notes: Lough Boora is closed to visitors, but routes are open for locals within 5km. Normally, bike hire is available on site. loughboora.com

If you like this, try: Curragh Chase Forest Park in Co Limerick has a 3.6km family cycling trail circling Glenisca Lough, where cyclists pass big old yew trees, cliff walls and a cave - it's good for all ages.

7. Lough Key Forest Park

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Cycling at Lough Key Forest Park

Cycling at Lough Key Forest Park

Cycling at Lough Key Forest Park


Where: Boyle, Co Roscommon (8km)

Why: Lough Key Forest Park is a fab resource, with activities ranging from Zipit aerial adventures to a tree canopy walkway, adventure playground and segway tours. The 8km of traffic-free bike trails are suitable for families with kids, child seats or tag-a-longs, and a bike hire base (electricbiketrails.com) has regular and electric bikes as well as tandems, child seats and even rain ponchos in case of showers. There are no steep hills, a short loop on the lakeshore or a longer one heading into the woods. Watch out for the 250-year-old 'Big Tree' on the Bog Trail.

Trip notes: Visitors are limited to within 5km for now, but Lough Key looks forward to welcoming us in future. See loughkey.ie or facebook.com/loughkeyforestpark.

If you like this, try: Discoveries at Co Kildare's Donadea Forest Park range from a castle ruin to a 9/11 memorial - a scaled replica of the Twin Towers in limestone.

Mountains, Lakes & More

8. Ballyhoura Country

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Ballyhoura

Ballyhoura

Ballyhoura

Where: Co Cork, Limerick & Tipperary (98km)

Why: Haven't heard of Ballyhoura Country? You soon will. The area straddles three counties, a new website has launched under lockdown (visitballyhoura.com) and the Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Trails are the largest network of their kind in Ireland. The 98km of fun includes forest roads, rollercoaster single track, loads of twists and turns, wooden boardwalk and technical rocky bits. Choices range from a moderate 6km loop to a 50km stormer.

Trip notes: Bring coins for the car park barrier. Facilities at the trailhead include map boards, toilets, showers and bike wash facilities. Snacks, tea and coffee are normally available, and bike hire is with Ballyhoura Trailriders (trailriders.ie).

If you like this, try: Ticknock Mountain Biking experience starts off at Co Dublin's Three Rock Mountain. The official route is 13km in total, but you can do smaller loops or repeat sections if you wish (biking.ie).

9. Muckross Lake

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Ross Castle, Killarney. Photo: Deposit

Ross Castle, Killarney. Photo: Deposit

Ross Castle, Killarney. Photo: Deposit


Where: Killarney, Co Kerry (10km)

Why: This flat route follows traffic-free paths as it loops around Muckross Lake in Killarney National Park. Ancient oak forest and Nat Geo-style lake and mountain views are on tap, with photo ops at Muckross House - and Ross Castle (above), if you fancy extending a bit further. Dinis Cottage Tea Rooms near the midway point is a good snack stop. Watch out for Ireland's only herd of red deer, and the 'Meeting of the Waters', where the three Killarney lakes coalesce.

Trip notes: Watch out for walkers and jaunting cars when travel resumes. Cyclists are asked to follow the route around the lake in an anti-clockwise direction.

If you like this, try: Coillte's Portumna Forest Park has two 'easy' grade mountain bike trails suitable to almost all riders, as well as a 1.5km family cycling loop suitable even for toy bikes and tag-a-longs. Visit coillte.ie.

10. Center Parcs

Where: Longford Forest

Why: It's not open to the public, but Center Parcs Ireland fans rave about its idyllic, self-contained, car-free campus (critics compare it to The Truman Show). The layout allows a network of roads and paths to circle lake, lodges and central village, and once traffic clears off on changeover days, toddlers to teens take off with abandon. Prices show no sign of discounting (ranging from €499 in September to €1,399 in August for four days in a two-bed woodland lodge). But I could see its self-catering lodges, outdoorsy vibe and known brand benefiting from a pent-up demand for family breaks and reunion holidays after lockdown.

Trip notes: Holidaymakers with bookings cancelled were offered the option of rebooking with a €100 incentive, or a refund. Bookings are available from July 20. Bike hire costs €35/€25pp for three or four days (with helmets at €5 a pop), but you can save by bringing your own. centerparcs.ie

If you like this, try: Blessingbourne Estate in Co Tyrone has 13km of mountain bike trails designed by Architrail's Phil Saxena, who also designed trails for the Beijing Olympics and the Downhill World Cup. See blessingbourne.com.

NB: All prices subject to availability/change. Opening times, dates and restrictions will all be subject to public health guidelines. See also discoverireland.ie for more tips on bike hire, tour operators and where to cycle.

5 family-friendly cycling tips

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Family cycles in Ireland - on yer bike! Photo: Deposit

Family cycles in Ireland - on yer bike! Photo: Deposit

Family cycles in Ireland - on yer bike! Photo: Deposit


1. Safety first

Public-health guidelines require that we stay close to home for now, confining travel to within 20km (or our county) until June 29. See hse.ie for full details and hygiene advice.

2. Plan ahead

With distancing rules in place, we'll need to plan ahead even more for future outings. Check the weather, prepare to travel off-peak, and consult websites for the latest updates on opening hours, parking and capacity restrictions. Have a back-up route in case your first choice is too busy. And check that all bikes are all in good repair before heading out. For saddle height, the balls of kids' feet should be able to touch the ground.

3. Pack smart

Even for short trips, pack water, snacks - such as fruit and energy bars - and layers that are easy to shed and put back on. Helmet, sunscreen and hand sanitiser are essentials. Take a pump, puncture repair kit and a big enough lock (or locks) to cover every bike when you hop off to explore. I've also found gardening gloves helpful for fixing oily chains. The ultra-prepared can up the ante with a proper picnic... remember, keep it fun!

4. Keep your distance

Ring the bell to warn pedestrians if approaching from behind, travel in small groups, and remember to keep a two-metre distance from other people at all times. If you are driving first, park considerately, leaving room for locals, farmers and emergency access.

5. The little things

Many forest car parks require coins to operate barriers (e.g. €4 or €5 per car), so dig this out before you arrive - cash and coins are something we've all gotten used to carrying less of. A basic first-aid kit isn't a bad idea, either.

Cycling Tours

Want to step up your cycling with a tour? KilkennyCyclingTours.com, electricescapes.ie and Sligo's northwestadventuretours.ie are just a few Irish companies doing bike hire and guided tours.

Reading and resources

Cycling in Ireland by David Flanagan (threerockbooks.com) covers everything from gentle, family-friendly routes to more challenging trips. You can find more info on cycling at cyclingireland.ie, coillte.ie, mykidstime.com or, of course, right here on independent.ie/travel.

NB: This article has been updated to reflect the accelerated Roadmap dates.

Sign up for our free travel newsletter!

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to 'Travel Insider', our free travel newsletter written by award-winning Travel Editor, Pól Ó Conghaile.

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