by Jen Lumanlan
I’ve been a hiker for a decade and a half, and one reason I put off having a kid for so long was because I didn’t know how I was going to reconcile my lifestyle with being a parent. Yes, I have a day job that involves a computer, but I try to do a big hike each year. How would I do that with a kid?
I got off on the right foot by hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc with my daughter Carys in September 2014 when she was eight weeks old, and after that I started thinking about the location of my next trip. In March 2015 a friend mentioned that the Euro was really cheap, which lit a fire under me to find a good European destination for the year. I briefly considered the Cinque Terre hike that Jennifer Fontaine recently did with her family but ultimately decided that Ireland was a better fit because; (1) I found a reasonably- priced, direct flight, (2) I speak the language and didn’t want to have to manage Carys plus difficult communications, (3) there’s established infrastructure where the B&Bs shuttle luggage along the route, and (4) I wanted to hold a low-mileage destination (like Cinque Terre) in my back pocket for future years when (I assume) Carys will be even heavier than she was in Ireland.
Carys mostly slept on the TMB but hiking was a whole different ballgame at 10 months. She was 10lbs heavier for one thing. She had opinions. She napped twice a day, not ‘all the time except when she was eating.’ And we were by ourselves for the first time and for a long stretch.
May and September are great months to hike in Ireland. While the absence of rain is never guaranteed there’s a decent chance of good weather and you miss the summer holiday crush. When schools are out in the U.K. the B&Bs book up weeks in advance, but I wanted the flexibility to be able to not hike if the weather turned. We booked in May because I had my eye on a hike in Colorado in September.
The trip didn’t get off to an amazingly auspicious beginning. Although Carys slept OK in her Aer Lingus ‘bassinet’ (aka ‘cardboard box’) we were both very jetlagged, and she woke several times for long periods during our first few nights. Luckily I had given us one night in Dublin before we drove across the country the following day but in retrospect I should have allowed more time for us to acclimate.
We didn’t start out until noon(!) on our first day of the hike, which ended up working out well because it had rained all morning. It was spitting on and off as we headed up the (small) hill dividing the Dingle peninsula and as Carys plopped her head down for a nap I wondered whether I was crazy to attempt this trip alone with her. When she woke up we shared lunch and looked down on Inch Beach. A sign on the beach shouted that we should SURF HERE but I think it would have been pretty frigid.
The on-again, off-again rain continued for the next day or so. We met an American couple who were annoyed that they would not get to use the bikinis and trunks they had brought for their summer holiday, but we were quite comfortable with Carys bundled in warm clothes under the rain cover as long as it either stopped raining or we could find shelter when she needed to nurse.
Fabulous weather was in the forecast for our third day, which was really the highlight of the trip: walking around Slea Head. Visiting the Famine Cottages along the way was quite sobering, especially upon reading that there actually was plenty of food being grown in Ireland at the time of what we call the Great Famine: it was all being exported to England to pay rents, which is why the Irish call the episode the Great Hunger instead. Doubly ironic that there is now a smart restaurant on the site (in the former landowner’s house!) to serve the busloads of tourists who regularly pass through. All those dry stone walls disappearing up to the top of the hills in my photos were public works projects, and were never intended to be useful.
The trail continued above a stone wall skirting the slopes of Mount Eagle and paralleling the coast for several miles. We passed the remains of several clochans, also known as ‘beehive huts,’ built sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries. The views got better and better as the Blasket Islands appeared around Slea Head, and were only improved by a fortuitous food find: an American woman selling baked goodies in a parking area. She even took dollars! The Blasket Islands are a huge part of the cultural identity of the people on the Dingle Peninsula. Inhabited until the 1950s but with no shop or church and confounded by persistent emigration of young people, most of the residents packed up and went to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Rain was forecast for the next few days and emerged in full force, causing us to take shelter in the Blasket Islands Heritage Center one day, and to unfortunately skip the Brandon Pass crossing two days later. Our penultimate day dawned clear and while the weather forecast described the conditions as “fresh” I would have used the words “gusty” and “rather strong” – not a great combination for a beach walk. We got absolutely sandblasted, and cut across the peninsula to Castlegregory instead of walking around – some Germans whom we’d seen several times on previous days showed up at the town bistro while we were having dinner having done the whole walk and they looked absolutely shattered. The last morning of the hike was sunny and breezy (tail wind!), and as we wandered down lanes and along another beach I reveled in how proud of us I was for doing the best we could do in difficult weather circumstances, and having a good time along the way.
Hiking the Dingle Peninsula: If you go
When to go
Hiking with kids requires flexibility, which is much harder to find in the height of summer. Check the dates of the UK school holidays here, and plan around them. May and September are good bets for reasonable weather but this is Ireland and you should come prepared for rain.
Aer Lingus offers reasonably-priced flights from several American gateways. It is possible to get around Ireland on the bus but rental cars are cheap (make sure your American insurance covers you as the cost of adding insurance when you get there is several times more than the cost of the car itself) and much more convenient. Make reservations for your first day or two of accommodations before you arrive, and be sure to confirm that your first B&B (in Tralee or Camp) will let you leave your car there while you hike.
B&Bs can be found in every town and village, and the owner of the one you’re staying in tonight will be happy to help you call around the next town to arrange your subsequent night’s accommodation. Book ahead in Dunquin, where options are limited. The B&Bs will either shuttle your bags for you themselves (for a fee) or may help you arrange a taxi shuttle instead, so you only need to carry with you what you need for the day. This site has a wealth of information about B&Bs as well as the walk itself, although its B&B list is not exhaustive. If there is nowhere to stop for lunch your B&B will usually pack a lunch for you. I found the B&B owners to be very welcoming of my (fairly well-behaved) child; I think all but two had travel cots/cribs available. I took the Baby Bjorn Travel Crib with us which was shuttled each day along with our duffel bag of clothes and other gear.
Signage is generally excellent on the trail and I mostly used maps for planning purposes. A good portion of the route (I’d estimate 30%) follows roads rather than trails but many of them are quiet to the point of being almost disused. The official route starts/ends in Tralee and is lollipop-shaped so the last day repeats the first. This section is apparently rougher the rest so consider skipping it (as we did) and starting in Camp if you have young kids in tow.
The Dingle Peninsula is just one of four peninsulas that are each amazing hiking destinations in their own rights. The Ring of Kerry on the Iveragh Peninsula is always jammed with tour buses and the hills are larger, making hiking more difficult than the pastoral Dingle Peninsula. I also hiked a couple of days on the Beara Way on the Beara Peninsula, which was very different (quite lonesome and barren) in character again. Sheepshead is the smallest but also has its own loop. Do one of the loops and then follow up with some day-hiking on another.
The view looking down onto Inch Beach was spectacular, as was the whole day of walking around Slea Head.
It would be fabulous to visit the Blasket Islands if you have time; there are ferries from Dunquin and Ventry. You could even stay over if you were really determined – make sure you have scheduling flexibility in case you get stuck there due to bad weather.
The Castle House B&B was the nicest one we stayed in on the trip; be warned that if you don’t cut the day short (like we did) there is no signage advertising the house coming off the beach. Make sure you know where you’re going.
Eat all the roast dinners you can, especially if it’s lamb. The most tender lamb we had was at An Bothar Pub, and they also had pillow top mattresses. Major win.
- Full rain gear for all hikers who are walking independently.
- Waterproof shoes
- Hiking poles (for balance in sloppy trail conditions)
- For hikers who are carried, be sure you have a good rain plan. I use a Deuter Kid Comfort II (which carries everything I need for a day; I am limited by weight not volume) and purchased the Deuter sun/rain cover separately. You can buy a full rain cover as well (the sun/rain cover is of limited use in Ireland because you need full-body wind protection even if it isn’t raining) but I made mine by sewing a couple of clips to an old backpack cover.
Jen Lumanlan lives, hikes, and dreams about backpacking trips from a lovely spot in the San Francisco Bay Area. She recently started blogging about her adventures in hiking – and parenting – at www.NotJustForChristmas.net.