When you’re on a road trip with the kids, you’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected. Which is why, when Jon Slattery was in Bundoran, he had to nip between the grassy dunes of the Fairy Bridges with his daughter for an impromptu (and al fresco) nappy change. It didn’t matter that they were high on the cliffs above the Atlantic, as the waves swept beneath the rocky arches and the sea breeze whistled through the wildflowers. When nature calls, Mother Nature takes a back seat.
That doesn’t mean the couple were in agreement about his choice. “Personally, I would have changed the nappy in the boot of the car,” quips Ciara Whelan. “But you weren’t willing to walk back to the car to do that!” says Jon.
It’s this kind of everyday family foible that makes the television series Are We There Yet? such a popular and relatable hit. Shot in five Irish counties over a period of four years, the Virgin Media Television programme shows Ciara and Jon exploring Ireland with their two (then three) children, Edie, Blaise and Bo.
“I have very itchy feet,” says Ciara. “I travelled the world from a very young age, and I wanted my kids to experience the same. Blaise travelled around Ireland as a bump, then a toddler!”
Their last family holiday overseas was a trip to Singapore and Thailand when their middle child, Blaise, was six months old. “Compared to that,” says Ciara, “getting into the car and driving around Ireland is just so straightforward.
“When our kids get in the car now, whether we’re going to visit my sister or driving to Donegal, they’re like: “What county are we in? What county are we in?” They’re able to see what counties look like from a very young age, and they’re just obsessed.”
It should come as no surprise to learn that Jon and Ciara have a few useful tricks up their sleeves when it comes to family holidays. Their first? You don’t need to plan every little detail in advance.
“What we try to do is avoid the trap that a lot of people fall into, and that’s overthinking everything,” says Jon. “You can sit there for a week planning all the logistics, but our ethos is: let’s just get into the car and go.”
Even though they both know Ireland well, on these trips they visited places they’d never been to before, even if they were right on their doorstep. “I like the fact that we went to places that weren’t that obvious,” says Ciara.
“Places like Newbridge House & Farm, which wouldn’t necessarily be on your radar unless you’re from here.” Home to a traditional working farm, complete with resident pygmy goats, pot-bellied pigs and Bengal owls, this spot was a hit with their animal loving children. But, to their parents’ surprise, the kids also loved touring the historical house.
Though they often veer towards playgrounds and animal attractions when they’re entertaining the kids, the family discovered that Irish museums cater well to the younger visitors. “The kids loved the interactive museums in Waterford,” says Jon. “I didn’t think they would enjoy them as much as they did. They were also blown away by the GPO Museum in Dublin. There’s a guy dressed up in the 1916 Rising uniform who meets you, and he was just so good at interacting with the kids.”
The family also loved the variety in Waterford, where they could visit a museum and be at the beach just twenty minutes later. There was also plenty to keep the gang entertained in Limerick, where they went kayaking on the River Shannon, explored King John’s Castle and visited Thomond Park, where Ciara had a hard time keeping the kids off the pitch.
While some people might be intimidated by the thought of a long car ride with young kids in the back seat, Ciara and Jon believe that the journey is all part of the fun. “I genuinely think the kids, whatever age they are, love the adventure,” says Jon. “Once you have enough stuff in the car, like plenty of snacks, books and toys, you can stop a few times and get them excited about what’s ahead.”
“Get them involved in the trip,” agrees Ciara. “That’s a really big tip. At that stage, our kids weren’t reading, but I could read to them from the Discover Ireland website on my phone and just give them a few child-friendly bits of information before we got to our destination. Then they’re interested and excited about where we’re going.”
But there’s one important caveat. “Do not say you’re going anywhere until you know you’re going to arrive there within a certain time, because kids don’t do well when plans change,” says Ciara. “Once you know you’re definitely going somewhere, you can get them excited on the drive.”
The promise of Glenveagh National Park was the source of much giddiness in the car, despite the slight confusion that the castle may have been of the bouncy variety. It ended up being a hit with the whole family. “Glenveagh National Park was just stunning,” says Jon. “It’s like another world.”
While up in Donegal, the family stayed in Fanad Lighthouse, which was certainly a highlight of the trip for Jon, who called it a “magical place”. But they didn’t stick to just one kind of accommodation.
“What I liked about our trip is that we stayed in all kinds of places,” says Jon. “From child friendly chain hotels to family run spots, glamping to self-catering.” And the children loved the variety, too. “They’re all such unique experiences,” says Ciara. “The kids just get so much out of staying in different places.”
As you might expect, the pair have some excellent advice when it comes to packing. Ciara’s top tip may come as a bit of a surprise, too. “You have to let the kids pack for themselves,” she says. “You might not like their outfits, but they’re so capable and they love it. They don’t overthink their choices, like I would.” No matter where the family go, they always have the wellies and waterproofs in the boot, along with wetsuits and a big flexible gardening bucket, into which they can fling all the wet gear to keep the car clean and sand free. “Pack a few big bottles of tap water too,” says Jon, “so you can wash the sand off before it goes in the car. Nothing worse than sand in the car!”
Always having those key items in the car is crucial for Jon and Ciara, who like to be able to change their plans and move where the wind takes them. “If you go somewhere like Donegal, our best tip is to not have a schedule. Have a rough idea in your head, but allow room to slow down and manoeuvre,” says Ciara.
“That’s another reason why you shouldn’t tell your kids where you’re going in advance. You can arrive somewhere like Glenveagh National Park thinking you’ll be there for an hour, but actually you could end up staying there for three days.”
Jon agrees. “We went to Fintra Beach for a quick look but the kids had a ball there, running in and out of the water, so we ended up staying for two hours. Once you have a schedule to stick to, everyone gets stressed and that turns into a problem.”
The other problems? “Tiredness and hunger are the two things that’ll kill you as a parent,” says Jon. As well as the bag of snacks in the car, Ciara thinks that flexibility is key when it comes to feeding the family. “We don’t need to be sitting down for a five course meal. Lunch can be a baguette on the beach, and to me, that’s the stuff the kids will remember. Having a sandwich in the boot of the car is the core memory – that’s what it’s all about.”
That’s why, despite the packing, the navigational disputes and the odd tantrum, it’s all worth it at the end of the day. “It’s not the big things, it’s the little things,” says Ciara. “We’re so lucky to live here. It’s so much easier to show the country off when you’re showing it to your kids, because you’re almost prouder of the fact that this is where we live and how lucky we are. I’m really so grateful to live in Ireland. You feel so proud”
“Ireland is just so diverse,” agrees Jon. “There’s so much to offer, and so much within each county. And I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s the people you meet that make it. That’s what I love about it – you never know who you’re going to meet or what’s going to happen.”