One of Our Favorite Experiences: Biking in Killarney, Ireland with Kids
When you have a few days to explore the Irish countryside with your kiddos, there are a few ways to go about it. When you’re in Killarney, Ireland you have a few very specific options. Walking, hailing a “jaunting car” (horse carriage), biking, renting a car and driving, and my least favorite (at least at this point in our live) the tour bus. The one thing that became abundantly clear to us when we arrived during the “off season” of October, is the town of Killarney is probably a completely different beast during the summer months. What we found to be a relatively quiet town, but one that still had the lingering energy of long lines of tour busses from not that long ago. It did seem the restaurants and pubs were getting ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief from the tourist season. Yes, Killarney is a major tourist destination complete with busloads of salt and pepper hair touring the Ring of Kerry (for which Killarney is a major destination, as well as a starting point for many tour groups) but it does have a quieter side and one we intended to discover. It fit the bill perfectly of traveling off the beaten path with our kids.
Biking with Kids when Traveling: A Solid Choice
Our chosen method of transport when given the chance is always bikes. There are several reasons why biking with kids can be a good idea, but for me there’s one great reason. Biking is a game to our kids. Who is leading the pack, who is passing on the left (err the other left), whose legs aren’t tired yet, and who discovered that one really cool thing first. Biking provides the one means of transport where we can cover large amounts of distance in a relatively short amount of time while having a great time together. Killarney is the perfect place to play this “game” with your kids. Bonus points: Everyone gets great exercise while exploring. It also totally helps to deal with jet lag on both ends of any trip.
Welcome to Killarney, Ireland! Land of Ample Biking Opportunity.
Our research prior to coming to Killarney was admittedly on the weak side. However, upon reaching the small town it was abundantly clear that it was a very bike friendly region. The town itself doesn’t perfectly lend itself to biking around with little ones with the exception of some great bike lanes in the southern part of town. There are roads where sidewalks narrow, bike lanes disappear, and pedestrians with no clear destination take their time while congesting the narrow sidewalks. However, once you enter Killarney National Park, everything changes. Wide paths and smooth pavement make for some happy kids. The fantastically beautiful scenery makes for some happy parents.
Choosing a bike rental establishment is a fairly easy proposition in Killarney. Our personal style is to not overanalyze trivial things like bike rentals, that is saved for beer lists and helping the kids choose yet another small stuffed animal. With that being said, we walked past O’Sullivans Bike Rental on our way to our hotel, ducked our head in, liked what we saw, and were quite happy with the daily rate of $10 and $15/day for kids and adults. The rental was all-inclusive with helmets and locks. They had a great selection of bikes including bikes with seats for toddlers, a must for our family of 5. We told the owner we’d be back right away the next morning and that was that. After a quick breakfast the next day we were fitted onto well-maintained bikes and the friendly folks at O’Sullivans eased us out the door as we eagerly anticipated the day’s exploration.
Day 1: Biking to Ross Castle in Killarney + Playground!
The first day’s agenda was fairly straight forward; one, find a playground and two, find the closest castle. A Google Maps search uncovered a playground en route to the Ross Castle. The Ross Castle is a true Killarney landmark, and one that is quite close to the town center. A jaunting car will take you directly to the castle in about 10 minutes from the town center. Bikes with children who wish to get some playful energy out at a playground before seeing anything historic will easily add an hour or two to the trip. We elected to stop at the playground first in an effort to ensure that once tired of the unbelievably fast merry-go-round, a leisurely bike ride to a castle might sound like a good idea. (For those of you thinking a playground might be a good idea, it is the Knockreer Playground located about a quarter mile northwest of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and it does not disappoint.)
We chose to eat a picnic at the playground, and once I convinced the kids that a real life castle was in their immediate future we were off. Entering Killarney National Park is a simple affair. Enter the one of several entrances and proceed. We followed this protocol and were whisked away on some truly beautiful paths. In the first 15 minutes we encountered two stags jostling for control of the herd (at least that’s what I told the kids, I’m probably wrong), we saw waterfowl in crystal clear streams, and sheep happily grazing the day away. It was quintessential Ireland.
After a very pleasant ride we arrived at Ross Castle. I’ve got to say the feeling of arriving at this amazing landmark as a family, taking our helmets off, and stowing the bikes was a completely different experience after quietly roaming the countryside as a family. Compare that to the sterile nature of pulling into a parking spot or hopping off a bus (obviously unavoidable at times). I’m sure arriving by jaunting car would be pretty great too, but alas I’m allergic to horses. Arriving somewhere on the beaten path but getting there off the beaten path makes the experience special and much more memorable.
Ross Castle was great and our timing was awesome! The last tour had just left and the wind started whipping across the lake. This left us in the company of very few, and made me feel like I could truly imagine what this place must have been like in the 15th century. Built for the ruling O’Donoghue clan at the time, the castle has seen its share of beauty and drama. Battles over decades involving swords and later artillery contrasts with the beauty of its setting. While I was imaging what this place must have been like hundreds of years ago, the kids were busy finding precarious locations to climb. Once I left my imagination behind we all had a great time discovering the exterior of the castle while wind and a light rain helped us to keep the castle grounds to ourselves. There’s always a silver lining to crummy weather.
Day 2: Biking to Muckross Abbey and Torc Waterfall
The next day we ventured south. For those with older kids or small kids with Lance Armstrong legs, going south is a great idea. We stayed with the gentle hills around Muckross Abbey and ventured to Torc Waterfall, but apparently some fantastic cycling exists even further south. Our kids do great on bikes, but significant hills and prolonged periods of riding on highway shoulders steered us away from venturing further away. With that being said, it’s only about 7km from the town center to Torc Waterfall, all on nicely paved paths through the woods. You can certainly take most of a day on this stretch. You may bump into the occasional jaunting car, but just pull over to the side and let them pass. Sometimes you’ll even get high fives from the drivers and passengers. Winning!
Our first stop was at Muckross Abbey. This was one of the biggest highlights of the trip for the kids. Large castles are cool, but if you have complete access to something with multiple levels, hidden rooms that feel like something out of the Game of Thrones set, our kids can get behind that. We took some time first to discuss how to respectfully explore burial grounds. Muckross Abbey has a beautiful cemetery out front, and crypts inside the main chamber. We found ourselves again at another location with a colorful past. Frankly if the walls could talk there, I’m not sure I’d want the kids to listen. Many a friar met a violent end there at the hands of marauding forces. All of this you can explore at your leisure. Again, access to this experience was made possible by two wheels. The odds of driving to the nearest congested parking lot, and convincing our kids to walk several kilometers is typically never in our favor. However, the fact that this was a stop on our grand tour emboldened the kids to explore where they would probably be hesitant otherwise.
When asked what their favorite thing was on this trip, everyone seemed to say that bike riding was at the top of the list. Independence, physical activity, exploration, and time together made riding bikes in Killarney a highlight. When we go back again some day, we’ll grab the bikes put on helmets and venture out. Maybe next time the kids’ legs will be ready for some steeper hills and some major kilometers. Either way, a family day on bikes in Killarney followed by a dinner at a sweet little local pub will always hold a special place in our hearts. As will the pastoral views that you can easily discover while biking through the Irish countryside. Our kids were able to experience a different side of Ireland all because of bikes.