After inhaling The Land of Stories, Chris Colfer’s children’s series about twins who slip into a fairyland where Red Riding Hood has her own kingdom and Mother Goose is a babysitter, my 12-year-old daughter Brette made a request: Could Ireland top the list for our annual summer trip? Its picturesque landscape—castles on craggy cliffs, mossy woodlands potentially enchanted by sprites and trolls—was the stuff of fantasy fiction. To her credit, she broadened the appeal to really land the pitch: “Mom, I looked and there are fancy hotels.” Those family members entrenched in reality, my husband and 16-year-old daughter, ratified the proposition. It helped that the mystical land of Yeats, James Joyce, U2, and spectacular bacon-infused breakfasts was made even more appealing by affordable fares on Aer Lingus.
Our summer tradition is to take lengthy vacations that often make no sense on paper. Instead of being driven by what’s nearby, our choices are guided by new experiences—often offbeat—and the goal of getting the kids to 21 countries by the time they are 21 years old. It starts with brainstorming in October (“Venice is sinking—we need to go!” “Hiking in Switzerland sounds fun—I read that you can have lunch in an alpine hut and swim in green rivers of glacial water.” “Where are the San Juan Islands? You can kayak with Orcas there!”) By late December, we have enough of a framework to book flights (during the year, we stockpile credit card points and airline miles to apply toward plane tickets), and then we fill in the blanks along the way.
Here’s the kicker: The kids are our designated tour guides. To prep, they have to plot out the itinerary on a map—an actual paper map!—and complete Mom-made worksheets that require investigation into local cuisine, attractions, regional peculiarities (like later dinner times in France and Italy, and seafood for breakfast in Scandinavia), and the designated region’s historical significance. Sure, the research produces eye-rolls and teen-sized groans. But the prep work is non-negotiable and delivers a quantifiable payoff: nods of recognition and appreciation for real-life contact with a landmark or experience baked into the master itinerary.
For Ireland, the focus was Dublin and a country estate in the Midlands. Here’s how our itinerary looked:
Family-friendly activities are almost all just a short walk from the city center—near St. Stephen’s Green, up to Temple Bar, and over to Trinity College—so we made it our goal to stay in the middle of it all.
Stay: The Merrion
As Brette predicted, this glamorous hotel—four restored Georgian townhouses with an exquisite interior garden and crowd-pleasing 60-foot swimming pool—was the perfect perch.
Not to be missed: the Art Tea, served in the grand drawing room, which riffs on the hotel’s extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century Irish paintings. Whimsical pastries (like an abstract Madonna and Child by Mainie Jellett interpreted as a pouf of passion fruit and orange cheesecake encircled by cubist-style white chocolate panels) are displayed alongside mini cards of the paintings, plus tiered platters of traditional Irish sandwiches, scones, and Battenberg cake, a colorful checkerboard sponge cake.
On top of exploring the medieval tower-house of Ashtown Castle and the Dublin Zoo, catching sight of the resident fallow deer is the draw at this 1,700-acre walled park, a former royal hunting ground. “The deer remind me of the Patronus Charm in Harry Potter,” said Brette, referring to the silver doe conjured by Severus Snape. According to Irish lore, the bush-like hawthorn trees on the park perimeter are where the fairies meet.
Originally created as a Viking fortress, this 13th-century castle (with additions in later centuries) has functioned as a prison, treasury, court of law, and royal residence. Its vibe—part Hogwarts, part Beauty and the Beast (post-curse) palace—is fully appreciated after a visit to the elaborate state apartments that are still used for state functions.
Old-School Book Shops
With Dublin’s rich literary heritage, it’s no surprise that independent book shops abound. We popped in to a few—The Winding Stair, The Village Bookshop, The Gutter Bookshop—each buying a book by an Irish artist. Brette picked Spellbook of The Lost and Found, a tale of magic and friendship by Moira Fowley-Doyle; Doyle and I scooped up Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín, who also authored Brooklyn, the book behind the recent film starring Saoirse Ronan.
A morning spent with Context Travel investigating the historic nooks and cobblestoned crannies with a local expert. A family favorite is the group’s 2.5-hour Book of Kells tour, exploring the history of the ninth-century manuscript with a visit to Trinity College’s Old Library and the National Museum of Ireland. I opted for a custom tour—also a 2.5-hour experience—to incorporate historic and literary sightseeing (visiting Oscar Wilde’s home and a few James Joyce haunts) as well as food experiences, like trying Durrus Ógb cheese and soda bread.
My husband picks a sporting activity for most places we visit (baseball in Tokyo, soccer in London, hockey in Sweden). In Dublin, it was hurling, a gladiatorial form of field hockey played with a wooden stick and small ball. Attending a match makes for a thrilling family activity.
BALLYFIN ESTATE, CO. LAOIS
Next up? Ballyfin, the Regency mansion of Sir Charles and Lady Caroline Coote turned 20-room hotel on 614 acres of parkland and wildlife-filled ancient woods. The kids channeled their inner aristocrat by horseback riding, trekking through the demesne, interacting with eagles, hawks, and owls during a falconry session, boating, fishing, picnicking alongside the property’s lake, and playing croquet on the meadow. Kid-sanctioned highlights: an Agatha Christie–style secret door hidden in the bookcase of the library; a Roman-looking grotto “folly”; and a fantastic dress-up experience where guests pluck period costumes from a selection culled from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and sport them a la Downton Abbey throughout the evening.
A morning at the nearby Slieve Bloom Mountains to hike and visit Birr Castle, pictured, an Anglo-Norman fortress (celebrated for formal gardens and a landscape of rare trees and plants) still used as a private residence by the Earls of Rosse.
This Story Originally Appeared in Condé Nast Traveler