Zip down to Kilkenny... and beyond!
A few years ago, on a family holiday in France, we came upon a Renaissance chateau near Cognac which in the 1990s had been converted into an activity park for children.
The centrepiece of Le Chateau des Enigmes - The Castle of Riddles - was a mystery game, or treasure hunt, which takes in the grounds and the castle and takes about three hours to complete. There was a mixture of riddles to be solved and challenges to be completed, with each correct answer taking you closer to solving the chateau's final mystery.
I remember thinking then that Ireland was a long way off other European countries when it came to children's activity centres and attractions. I was wrong.
In the last couple of years, we have become more aware of the depth and variety of amenities here which appeal to children. Our most recent experience was on a short break to Kilkenny when we again unearthed some treasures for enjoyable family days.
Take the 80-acre activity park in Castlecomer which is run by a local community enterprise group. It's only a little over 10 years old but has quickly made waves. We certainly thought it was one of the most impressive activity parks we've encountered.
Castlecomer Discovery Park is set in the grounds of the old Wandesforde Estate, and came about as the town tried to recover from the economic bodyblow it had been dealt by the closure of the coal mines and other businesses in the area, by attempting to grow new, sustainable forms of income to keep the town alive. When backs are to the wall, truly remarkable things can be achieved and hats off to the people of Castlecomer for what they have achieved.
For kids, the junior ropes course - for the smaller ones - and the tree top walk for the older ones and the adults, are the big highlights. But there's also an amazing ziplining experience, a climbing wall, boats and canoes, archery, a playground and several walking trails. There's also a craft village, and a museum devoted to learning about life in the mines. This park is a gem and is highly recommended for a great family day out.
We've been to Kilkenny a couple of times for short breaks, and tended to base ourselves in the city, so this time we made a conscious decision to spread our wings a little more.
Our base was Mount Juliet in Thomastown.
Where do you start? In my opinion, Mount Juliet is one of the top places in Ireland to stay. It has just about everything you could want.
We stayed in the Manor House, in adjoining rooms, which made our children, John and Eleanor, feel like the king and queen of the castle. The thing about Mount Juliet is that it is luxurious in every way, yet it is also relaxed enough to enjoy the company of children, and to allow them to be children. There are no airs and graces. The popular Hunter's Yard - the courtyard which once was the stables and groom quarters on the old estate - has just been given a major facelift too with the addition of new rooms.
There's a leisure centre and pool, plenty of walking trails and, of course, a world famous golf course - so there's plenty to do. Our favourite was a cycle through the grounds. The hotel will provide bikes and helmets, and although the terrain is hilly it's well within the ability of most kids. I recommend crossing the River Nore at the rear of the Manor House and making your way around Ballylinch Stud. It's a working stud farm, a hugely successful one in fact, and when we were there we encountered a Galileo foal - a possible star of the future.
Mount Juliet is also renowned for its dining, with the Michelin-starred Lady Helen restaurant in the Manor House, and the more casual The Hound restaurant in Hunter's Yard.
Jerpoint Abbey is a short drive from Mount Juliet, a ruined Cistercian abbey with an extremely interesting backstory, as we found out when we stopped there. And while it's hard to get two young children involved in the story of an old abbey, there's a clever twist here: children are given a sheet and asked to find various inscriptions and etchings on the tour - more than enough to keep them interested while the guide takes you through the abbey's colourful history.
It's hard to escape the food experience in the city with so much to choose from. We had a beautiful meal on our last evening in Rive Gauche, right in the heart of the city beside the castle. As the name suggests, there is a very French feel to this dining experience but what we really liked was how welcome our kids were made to feel. It struck me as the kind of restaurant that is confident enough in itself to adapt to its customers' circumstances - a quiet meal for two, or a family evening out... nothing is a problem. The food was everything you might expect; I don't often order steak but I felt this was one of those times when I wouldn't be disappointed, and I was right.
We also enjoyed a pleasant lunch at Zuni, a trendy restaurant, bar and boutique hotel in Patrick Street which, on a Tuesday afternoon, was teeming with life. It's clearly popular with the locals, which is always a good sign.
Back out in the beautiful open countryside of Co Kilkenny, and our next port of call was the ever-popular reptile zoo in Gowran, which doesn't disappoint. On then to Bennettsbridge, which is home to the Nicholas Mosse pottery factory and, not too far away, the Nore Valley Park, another big hit with the kids.
At the petting farm, they get the chance to cuddle rabbits, chicks and baby goats. There's also crazy golf, go-karts, a tractor ride around the farm and a very clever indoor 3D maze. And there's a camp site and lodges for those who are up for immersing themselves in the whole experience, or just for using it as a base to explore the area. There's no shortage of things to do.
Which is the moral of the story... as much as we love Kilkenny city, we have a greater appreciation now for what lies just beyond it. My advice is to get the best of both worlds. You won't be disappointed.
Visitors to Kilkenny’s medieval city will be captivated by its majestic castle, fairytale turrets and medieval archways as well as the unique character of its many cobbled streets and winding pathways. But dig a little deeper to discover mystical stories hidden among its city walls and a region brimming with historical twists and turns.
Mount Juliet — www.mountjuliet.ie; Castlecomer Discovery Park — www.discoverypark.ie; Nore Valley Park — www.norevalleypark.com; Reptile Zoo — www.nationalreptilezoo.ie; Rive Gauche — www.rivegauchekk.com; Zuni Restaurant — www.zuni.ie.
Visit visitkilkenny.ie to plan your Kilkenny trip.