15 July 2015

Irish Times Journalist - John Collins

“I can't do this!”. It's the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every parent.

It's one thing hearing it when your offspring are sitting down doing their homework, but when you hear it uttered in the middle of the Killarney Lakes with a squall blowing in your face and your first born coming to terms with her first outing in a kayak, it's another thing entirely.

Before anyone rings social services it should be pointed out we were in the extremely safe hands of Jason a guide with Outdoors Ireland, the well-regarded Killarney based outdoor pursuits company.

Outdoors Ireland had put together a two day program of activities that would appeal to both adults and kids and hopefully show us a side of Killarney that we wouldn't normally see on a family break. Let's face it many of us have highly active lifestyles until we have kids but once they arrive our weekend's start revolve around ferrying them to activities.

If you fancy a combination of family holiday and a little bit of adventure possibly only Westport can claim to have anything approaching the facilities of Killarney. The Kerry town is one of those quintessential Irish holiday destinations. Those aged 30 or over probably have some rose-tinted memory of a family outing to the lakes, Kate Kearney’s cottage or Muckross House.

But with such rugged scenery, easy access to the highest mountain in Ireland, a growing network of bike and walking trails of all grades, and those lakes, Killarney has recently been branding itself as the adventure capital of Ireland. These days you’re as likely to be asked if you want to go climbing in the Gap of Dunloe as go on a jaunting car tour when you visit the Kerry town. The annual Killarney Adventure Race, which attracted a couple of thousand competitors to cycle, run and kayak across the local hills and lakes last October, has both capitalised on and cemented that reputation. And later this year Killarney will host something called the Adventure Travel World Summit when hundreds of rugged types who make a living selling outdoor holidays will hit town.

So much for the context. Is it actually possible to combine what Killarney has to offer as a family destination with its more strenuous activities and have a break that appeals to the kids as well as the parents?

We stayed at Muckross Park Hotel, which is actually inside the boundary of Killarney National Park and is ideal location for quick access to the great outdoors. The five star hotel with its adults-only Cloisters spa, is probably considered more of a couples’ break destination but we found it worked well for a family. The traditional hospitality – from roaring open fires to eager to please staff – was certainly what the doctor ordered when we arrived in Kerry on a wet and wild Autumn evening.

We began the two days gently enough by heading out to Donie O Sullivan's Killarney Riding Stables. Established by Donie in 1968 he still plays a hands on role in the running of the business and like nearly all his county men who work in tourism, he has an easy patter that is extremely popular with visitors. The stables offer a range of multi-day trail rides but with an 8 and 10 year old in tow we opted for something a bit more sedate. Going for a trot in a paddock wouldn't normally be my idea of a great way to spend a morning. But with the lakes and mountains as a backdrop – the girls amused themselves trying to identify Caurantoohill – it turned out be a fun couple of hours for everyone. The horses were docile enough so we weren't worried about the girls being able to control them but they were also happy to trot along when the front horse picked up the pace.

After a quick pitstop at Murphy's Ice Cream – for hot chocolate rather than anything from the freezer – it was down to Ross Castle to embark on the aforementioned afternoon on Lough Lein. It being Ireland we'd already experienced sunshine, rain, sleet, and dramatic gusts of wind, and grey clouds were gathering as we struggled into our wetsuits.

Sure enough when we put the boats into the water the sky turns black, the wind whips up and large drops of rain start falling. This is not the introduction to kayaking for the kids that we imagined when planning this trip. Fortunately Jason has a leash which he attaches to one of the girls kayaks so he can tow her, while the other is in a double canoe with me.

Less than an hour later as we pull the boats onto the shoreline on Innisfallen to inspect the remains of the 10th Century Abbey and refuel on Jason's much-neeed tea and chocolate the winds have died down and the rain has stopped. With no one else on the island and having approached under our own power rather than a motorised boat we haven't disturbed the native red deer that live here. While the smaller deer take to their heels a large stag ambles off stopping now and then to stare at the human invaders.

For me it's a special moment, cheering everyone up and suggesting this is not going to turn into an endurance test. In reality though it's probably the chocolate that turns the kids mood. Back on the water the breeze is behind us and Jason has the chance to show us the sights such as where the white tailed eagles were re-introduced to the park or the remains of the eighteenth century copper and lead mines.

Although the sun peaks out on our way back to Ross Castle, we are still glad to wriggle out of our wet wet-suits and get back to the warming comforts of Muckross Park. The kids content themselves browsing the selection of DVDs provided by the hotel, their mother heads off to the spa for a massage while I take up residence in front of a massive open fire in the library with a good book and an even better glass of red wine.

The next day Jason decides to postpone our rock climbing session in the Gap of Dunloe until the afternoon when the weather forecast is significantly drier – flexibility is the key to success of an Irish outdoor activity break. One leisurely traditional full Irish breakfast later we're trudging up through the heather to one of the many climbing crags that dot the picturesque valley. Jason has been up earlier to fix ropes for us so after a quick reminder of the safety drills our youngest is scampering up the rock face.

The sun is out, we're all together getting fresh air in one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland. What more could you ask for a quick break only a few hours drive from home?

Soon its my turn and the girls are keen to see how their father fares. Before I know it I'm about 10 metres off the ground and faced with an awkward leg movement if I'm to make any further progress. Over my shoulder I can see the spires of Killarney, below my feet my smiling family shout up encouragement. A desperate thought crosses my mind but as soon as it does I smile and push upwards. “I can't do this,” I think for a fleeting moment.

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