Hello! We are Four Acorns and we are just back from the ultimate Ireland camping holiday.
With 5 days in 4 counties of Ireland's Ancient East, the perfect opportunity to explore and discover 5000 years of Ireland's history and culture, and with a jam-packed itinerary of tours and outdoor activities, this family road trip in a campervan was undoubtedly one of our best adventures to date.
The acorns, i.e. Jedi (11), Mermaid (9), Squirrel (6) and Pebbles (4), are already asking when we can do it again!
This post covers the first half of our road trip, i.e. counties Meath and Westmeath.
It all started near Dublin Airport, where we picked up a 6-berth motorhome from Celtic Campervans for our Ireland camping holiday.
This was only our third time in a campervan, and we already were totally sold to the idea of the camper life, but this motorhome exceeded all our expectations. It was by far the best we've had so far.
Acting manager Damian explained, "We're in the process of renewing our entire fleet with 171 and 181-registered vans. We'll soon have 35 units available." As it turns out, July and August are already fully booked. "If we had 70 campers for those two months, they would all be on the road!" Damian said, before adding that 10 of them will travel next winter to the Skelligs, Co Kerry, for the shoot of the next Star Wars movie.
With the keys to our Bela Mauritius (Group D) motorhome, Damian handed us the Ireland 2018 Caravan, Camping & Motorhome Guide (available to order from Camping Ireland), as well as The Celtic Campervans Cooking Masterclass, a cookbook written by Dublin chef Derry Clarke while holidaying in a campervan.
An Ireland camping holiday certainly provides the perfect opportunity to stock up on the best ingredients this country has to offer, but cooking these mouth-watering recipes in a campervan would be a tall order indeed!
With an icy wind blowing and dark clouds rolling over the Boyne Valley, the conditions were far from ideal. Yet once Goodleaf instructor Luciano ("Luchio") showed us the ropes (literally!) and talked us through the health & safety procedures, we spent two hours of exhilarating fun hanging off the branches of a mighty oak tree. How fitting for my four acorns!
From the get go, Pebbles decided he didn't want to go up – which was just as well, as tree climbing is only suitable for children aged 8+. Squirrel however, not quite 7 yet, wasn’t going to pass on this opportunity (he is nicknamed Squirrel for a reason!). On his second attempt, he climbed all the way up to the anchor point, some 10 metres above the ground!
Tree climbing uses a combination of rock-climbing ropes and smart knots so you can heave yourself up into the canopy, using both your hands and feet. It can be hard work, especially when branches get in the way, but you can stop any time and hang in there to take in the incredible views over Slane Castle and the Boyne Valley.
Four little whitewashed cottages with coloured doors and windows under a thick thatched roof surround a small courtyard of dark flagstones with, here and there, an old rusty bike leaning against a white wall.
Welcome to Loughcrew Megalithic Centre – a hidden gem located at the foot of the eponymous cairns, and so much more than a camping park.
It all started with Maggie Heaney's Cottage, the inspiration for the megalithic centre. Built in the 18th century and named after owner Niall's great grandmother, it remains an authentic Irish home, now turned into a small heritage museum.
Niall gives guided tours of the carefully restored cottage, which was the home of his dad until 1967 – "I learn a lot from visitors. The older generation would still be familiar with some of the implements we have here. For instance, I thought this ceramic jar was a flower pot, until an older lady said it was a crock to keep milk." His love for the place and the Loughcrew area is simply infectious.
The other buildings around the courtyard used to be old farm sheds, which were knocked down and rebuilt as cottages. One now houses the campsite's facilities; Benny's Workshop is an events room cum exhibition space; and Nelly's Kitchen is a beautiful café showcasing many stunning paintings by local artists, all inspired by the fascinating Loughcrew cairns.
As well as the campsite, Loughcrew Megalithic Centre also includes a hostel and a glamping yurt, with two more going up this year.
The sun was shining when we arrived at Loughcrew Megalithic Centre around 7pm, but the wind was still bitingly cold. Hearing about the cold weather warning for that night, we were thankful to be in a campervan, complete with programmable heating.
After our first dinner in the motorhome (campervan-made pasta bolognaise, if anyone asks), the acorns tried out the lovely playground, before retreating to the games room. I shot my first live video on the Camping Ireland Facebook page (which you can still see here), then went in for a game of draughts with Mermaid while Brian and Jedi played pool.
The next morning, Niall had arranged a guided tour of the Loughcrew Cairns. At 10.30 we met freelance guide Malachy Hand in the courtyard, before a group of six hikers joined our party. In the bright spring sunshine, we made our way to Carnbane East, or Sliabh na Caillí ("hill of the witch" in Irish).
The Loughcrew Cairns comprise 32 so-called passage tombs, named in alphabetical order and scattered over four hills in north Meath. The best known is Cairn T, on top of Carnbane East, which, at 276m (905ft), is also the county top, from where the views are said to extend over 18 counties, no less.
Much smaller in scale than Newgrange, which it predates by some 500 years, Loughcrew is freely accessible. We had actually visited the site nearly 4 years ago, but going with Malachy, a guide who is both highly knowledgeable and clearly passionate about the site, gave us a new insight into this fascinating Neolithic wonder.
At the summit, the stone circles around Cairn T are actually Cairns R1, R2, S, U and V, all featuring an inner passage and a cross-shaped chamber. Now roofless, they made an ideal hide-and-seek playground for the acorns.
Malachy retold the legend of the witch who gave her name to the hill, and also to the Hag's Chair, a large kerbstone at the base of Cairn T, which faces due north and looks like a seat. But the centrepiece of the site is undoubtedly Cairn T's inner chamber.
The entrance stones of the low, narrow passage into the cairn are richly decorated with megalithic art – cups-and-rings, circles, spirals, etc. Under the cairn's corbelled roof, the inner chamber is surrounded by 3 small cells, with the central one facing due east.
The magic of Loughcrew happens twice a year, when the sun rises for the spring and autumn equinoxes. For about an hour, the beam of sunlight travels along a quarter circle on the wonderfully carved backstone of Cairn T, illuminating in turn the seven solar symbols.
Practical information - Day 1
Celtic Campervans to Rock Farm Slane – 35 minutes, 38km
Rock Farm Slane to Loughcrew Megalithic Centre – 1h20mins, 88km
Guides from the OPW are on attendance every day from late May to late August. The rest of the year, the key to Cairn T is available from the Limetree Coffee Shop, at Loughcrew Gardens.
Or you can book a guided tour with Fáilte Ireland approved guide Malachy Hand +353 (0)87 9672435; email email@example.com. In collaboration with several other experts, Malachy co-authored in 2016 a wonderful book, Loughcrew Cairns – A Visitor's Guide, which you can buy directly from him or from Loughcrew Megalithic Centre, the Limetree Coffe Shop at Loughcrew Gardens, bookshops in Tara and Newgrange and most newsagents in the Oldcastle area.
On the second day of our Ireland camping holiday, we headed in a southwesterly direction to Athlone, Co Westmeath.
Our first stop was Athlone Castle. The mighty medieval fortress dominates the town centre on the bank of the Shannon. Inside the thick stone walls, the Athlone Castle Experience offers a dramatic journey through 5,000 years of history.
The acorns got to try shooting from a long bow and a crossbow, as well as dress up as medieval characters, before going upstairs to the centrepiece of the Athlone Castle Experience – the 1691 siege of Athlone.
Athlone has always been a strategic crossing point on the Shannon, and in the late 17th century, the Anglo-Norman army of King William besieged the Irish-held town. The castle withstood the heaviest bombardment in Irish history, with over 60,000 cannonballs fired at its walls. The siege left the fortress in ruins, and ended with the defeat of the Irish troops at nearby Aughrim.
Viking Ship Cruise
Viking Mike has been plying the Shannon on his 1923-built heritage ship for nearly two decades. His Viking river cruise is the top attraction in Athlone, and a valid ticket comes with a discount voucher for a host of other tours and activities in the Midlands.
While the acorns sipped on their hot chocolate, Viking Mike skipped his ship on the slow-flowing waters of the Shannon, pointing at a swan’s nest among the reeds, recounting Olaf Scabbyhead’s Viking raids on Lough Ree and beyond, and explaining the ecology of Ireland’s longest river.
All children on board, and there were quite a few, received a scroll certifying them as “active members of the Viking horde of Scabbyhead”.
All passengers but us alighted at the Hudson Bay Hotel, which means we had the Viking ship to ourselves on the way back to Athlone. Squirrel got to drive the ship under Viking Mike’s watchful eye, while the rest of the crew broke into song using the ship’s microphone.
Back in Athlone, it was only a hop and a skip to Lough Ree (East) Caravan & Camping Park.
Although the clouds had rolled in during the course of the afternoon, the tranquil lakeside setting of the campsite, complete with a wooden jetty and graceful swans, made it an instant hit with the acorns.
With the campervan parked under the tree by the lake, the acorns immediately donned their wellies and went splashing in the shallow water at the submerged end of the boat slip.
What better way to end the second day of our Ireland camping holiday?
After a night of relentless rain, we drove on the next morning to Kilkenny for another day’s adventures. Read all about it in Go on an Ireland camping holiday (Part II)
Practical information - Day 2
Loughcrew Megalithic Centre to Athlone Castle - 1h20mins, 99km
Athlone Castle to Lough Ree (East) Caravan & Camping Park - 15 minutes, 7km
Viking Ship Cruises
Contact Viking Mike +353 (0) 86 2621136 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Viking ship departs and returns to quayside Athlone Castle unless otherwise started. Tickets purchased on board. Daily sailings from Easter until early November – please check here for sailing times.
Get out there go camping – Camping Ireland, over 100 Failte Ireland approved caravan & camping parks.
Four Acorns / Quatre grains de chêne
Annette is French, married to an Irish man, and they live in Co Wicklow with their four bilingual children. She blogs in English and French about their family adventures to inspire families to unplug, go outside and reconnect with nature and each other.