Family Ireland: There's plenty to distract parents and children alike in this green and pleasant land

The ideal summer destination?

If your family crave sun-drenched beaches, Disney-style resorts, and Mediterranean cafe living, the island of Ireland may not be for you. But there's plenty in the Republic and Northern Ireland to ensure a fun-packed family break that will be memorable in a very different way.

The Irish culture is particularly welcoming to children, and the whole family will be mesmerised by the beautiful sea and landscapes. There are plenty of activities to keep everyone happy, including boat trips, open farms, forest parks, go-karting, fishing, sailing and pony trekking. And if the weather gets temperamental, you can visit characterful castles and absorbing museums.

Where should we start?

Ireland has some breathtaking landscapes and ancient monuments for families to explore, so you could make at least one of these a priority. The Burren in County Clare, for example, comprises miles and miles of imposing, bleak limestone pavement. Often likened to a lunar landscape, it is ideal for children wanting to let off steam. Inject an educational element by visiting The Burren Centre at Kilfenora (00 353 65 708 8030; theburrencentre.ie ) which explains its evolution, geology, plant and animal life using audiovisual displays, films and models. Open daily to 15 Oct, 9.30am-5.30pm June-Aug, otherwise 10am-5pm; admission free. West County Hotel (00 353 65 682 8421; lynchotels.com ) in lively Ennis is a good base in County Clare. This modern hotel with swimming pools and a children's play centre has family rooms from €54.

The beautiful Connemara National Park in County Galway displays rural Ireland at its best. The terrain includes arresting mountains, expansive lakes and an unseemly amount of bog, heath and grassland. For background on the history, geology, flora and fauna, head for the visitor centre (00 353 95 41323; connemaranationalpark.ie ) at Letterfrack, which is open March-May and Sept-Oct 10am-5.30pm, June-Aug 9.30am-6.30pm; free.

Located between Slane and Drogheda on the River Boyne, Bru na Boinne at Donore in County Meath is an atmospheric series of prehistoric monuments that will captivate youngsters. They include 5,000-year-old Newgrange – which, despite its name, is a huge burial mound with stone burial chambers. There is an on-site visitor centre (00 353 41 988 0300; newgrange.com) which is open daily 9.30am-5pm, longer hours in spring and summer; adults €6, children €3, visitors centre and tomb). Fincourt Guesthouse (00 353 49 854 1153; fincourt.com ) in Oldcastle, County Meath, is ideal for visiting Bru na Boinne. It has a self-contained apartment sleeping up to six for €100 per night.

Great outdoors?

Rural Ireland is peppered with open farms for children to sample. As well as all manner of farm animals, there are often play areas, wagon rides and the like.

Nore Valley Park Open Farm at Bennettsbridge, County Kilkenny (00 353 56 7727229; norevalleypark.com ) is a great day out for the family because as well animals there are play areas, pedal go-karts, crazy golf and other activities on offer. Open April-Sept Mon-Sat 9am-6pm; €5.50.

Glendeer Pet Farm at Drum, near Athlone, County Westmeath (00 353 90 643 7147; glendeer.com ) has a good range of animals, a play area, picnic area, nature walks and cafe. Open Easter-September Mon-Sat 11am-6pm, Sun noon-6pm; €7.

Forest parks are another fixture of the countryside, and often these have nature and walking trails, picnic and play areas.

Avondale Forest Park at Rathdrum, County Wicklow (00 353 40 446111; coillteoutdoors.ie ) is open June-Aug daily 11.30am-5pm, May & Sept Tues-Sun noon-4pm, April Sun noon-4pm, Oct Sat/Sun noon-4pm; adult €6.50, child €4.50. As well as a Georgian house to explore – a museum to the political leader Charles Stewart Parnell – the forested grounds have nature trails, a play area and café.

Rural Ireland offers many opportunities for outdoor sport throughout the country. Most touristic areas will have at least one adventure centre, and whitewater rafting, kayaking, boat rental, quad biking, horseriding, pony trekking, sailing, surfing, mountaineering and fishing are all very popular.

Coastal highlights?

The Troubles in Northern Ireland have meant that its coast has been neglected in recent decades, but that has saved it from overdevelopment and tourism overload.

A highlight of its rugged coastline is The Giant's Causeway in County Antrim, a World Heritage site, National Nature Reserve and the North's premier tourist attraction. This unmissable natural wonder, which consists of around 40,000 interlocking mostly polygonal basalt columns that resulted from an ancient volcanic eruption and act as stepping stones that lead into the sea, is often viewed by kids as a gigantic natural playground. Set against a dramatic backdrop of awe-inspiring cliffs, there is a visitor centre (028 073 1855; giantscausewaycentre.com ) which is open daily from 9.30am, closing times vary.

The southern coastline is no less stunning, not least the rugged Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, which features mountains, moorland and lakes, which can be enjoyed when traversing the waymarked 112-mile Dingle Way, where swimming, beachcombing, cycling and water sports are among the distractions. The beaches are sandy, but for a proper family beach resort try the "Irish Riviera", as the group of seaside resorts of Ballycotton, Cobh, Dungarvan, Ardmore and Youghal in County Cork style themselves. Don't expect the sophistication (or climate) of the Cote d'Azur, but you will find ample activities including watersports, golf, Blue Flag beaches and a good selection of hotels and restaurants.

Looks like rain...

Fortunately there's plenty to do on a wet day. There are a number of aquariums along the coast, including Exploris (028 4274 8062; exploris.org.uk ) at Portaferry in County Down. This has tanks displaying the local underwater population, but also a sanctuary for rescued seals. Open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 11am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm, and to 6pm from April-Aug; adults £7, children 4-16 £4.50.

Most cities have indoor adventure playgrounds. Leisureplex ( leisureplex.ie ) is a chain of leisure centres featuring such activities as adventure play areas, a toddler space, 10-pin bowling and a live action laser game. They are at Coolock (00 353 1 848 5722), Blanchardstown (00 353 1 822 3030) and Stillorgan (00 353 1 288 1656) in the Dublin area as well as Cork (00 353 21 450 5155).

Both Dublin and Belfast boast world-class museums and galleries: in the former there's the National Gallery (00 353 1 661 5131; nationalgallery.ie ), with around 500 major artworks on display. Open 9.30am-5.30pm daily; to 8.30pm on Thursday, from noon on Sunday; free. Meanwhile thousands of historical objects are on display at The National Museum (00 353 1 677 7444; museum.ie ), which is open 10am - 5pm daily except Monday, Sundays 2-5pm; free.

A trip to the city prison instantly focuses the thoughts of most youngsters towards times of old. Especially at Wicklow's Historic Gaol (00 353 404 61599; wicklowshistoricgaol.com ) as children were inmates here too. Built in 1702, it has costumed guides recreating the conditions that would have been present in the 18th and 19th centuries, including being fed only every four days. Open Mon-Sat 10.30am-4.30pm, Sun 11am-4.30pm; adults €7.30, children €4.50.

Any child-friendly cities?

Make a bee-line for Galway. Children will love the traditional beach resort, Salthill. With museums, an aquarium and watersports as well as a good choice of eateries and shops, Galway is a great base come rain or shine. Marless House (00 353 91 523931; marlesshouse.com ) is a comfortable bed and breakfast in Galway with family rooms from €38 per person – under 12s qualify for a 25 per cent discount.

You could also add an excursion to the Aran Islands, a trio of little gems in the Atlantic that offer superb beaches and a gentle pace of life. Aran Island Ferries (00 353 91 568903; aranislandferries.com ) sails to Inis Oírr island. Tickets cost €25 adults, €13 children aged six-12. Step off the ferry and a beach, fishing village and the remains of a castle are at your immediate disposal.

The charming port city of Cork has a good spread of distractions including a decent art gallery (00 353 21 490 7852; crawfordartgallery.ie; free) and cathedral. Cork City Gaol (00 353 21 430 5022; corkcitygaol.com ) uses V Cwax figures and sound effects to recreate conditions that the adults and children suffered here from the pre-famine era to the foundation of the Irish state. Adult admission is €7, children €4.

Of course, for greatest choice head for Dublin and Belfast. Highlights of the Republic's capital include sprawling gigantic Phoenix Park, home to Dublin Zoo (00 353 1 474 8900; dublinzoo.ie ). Open daily March-Sept 9.30am-6pm, Oct 9.30am-5.30pm, Nov-Jan 9.30am-4pm, Feb 9.30am-5pm; adult €15/child 3-12 €10.50). A rainy day option is the National Wax Museum (00 353 1 671 8373; waxmuseumplus.ie ), with its Chamber of Horrors, glimpse famine life, and chance to meet the Simpsons, Harry Potter and Bono. Open daily 10am-7pm; adult €10, child €7.

Alternatively travel on land and water in a Second World War amphibious vehicle on the 75-minute Viking Splash Tour (00 353 1 707 6000; vikingsplash.ie ) which has daily regular tours to see the sites. Adult tickets €20, children €10.

Bewley's Hotel (00 353 1 668 1111; bewleyshotels.com ) in the attractive Ballsbridge quarter near the centre currently has a €99 family offer with a room for two adults and two children under 12.

Belfast has enjoyed considerable regeneration in recent years, and of particular interest to families is Whowhatwherewhenwhy, aka W5 (028 9046 7700; w5online.co.uk ; adult £6.80/child 3-16 £5.50). It has nearly 200 interactive exhibits where you can try to beat a lie detector, fly a plane and much more.

At Cave Hill Country Park there's a zoo (028 9077 6277; belfastzoo.co.uk ; adult £8.50/child 4-17 £4.50) a Victorian castle (028 9037 0133; belfastcastle.co.uk ; free), and an adventure playground. Belfast's Ulster Museum (0845 608 0000; nmni.com/um ; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; free) reopened this year after a comprehensive makeover that has catapulted this exciting, child-friendly collection into the 21st century. Natural light infiltrates floors of intriguing exhibits, which include an Egyptian mummy, a steam engine and replica dinosaur skeletons. The Malone Lodge Hotel in the leafy southern city suburb of the Queen's University area (028 9038 8060; malonelodgehotelbelfast.com ) has comfortable apartments for five from £99.

Time for a drink

Fortunately, most traditional pubs will make children feel right at home too. One of the best is EJ Morrissey's Pub (00 353 57 873 1281) on the main Dublin-to-Cork road in the attractive town of Abbeyleix in County Laois.

Doubling as a grocer's shop (a common occurrence here) it is in a 70-year time warp. Decked out with ancient advertisements and antiques, it first opened as a grocery in 1775. Children are permitted until 7pm.

Nearby, Abbeyleix Heritage House (00 353 57 873 1653; heritagehousemuseum.com ;) has exhibits on the town's history and a playground. Open 9am-5pm daily, weekends from 1pm; adults €3, children €2. Also in the vicinity at Dove House there are sensory gardens (00 353 57 8731 325; 24 hour access; free admission) featuring powerfully scented flowers.

Travel essentials: Ireland

Currency

While sterling is the currency in Northern Ireland, the province issues its own bank notes – these are interchangeable with Bank of England notes in Northern Ireland, but are not easily spent in mainland Britain. The Republic of Ireland uses the euro. In practice, many accept the "wrong" currency, though may offer a disadvantageous rate.

Getting there

Plenty of ferries ply the Irish Sea. Stena Line (08447 70 70 70; stenaline.co.uk ) sails from Fishguard to Rosslare, Fleetwood to Larne, Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, Holyhead to Dublin Port and Stranraer to Belfast. If you plan a trip by train and sea, then check out the rail-and-sail deals on offer from Stena line from Britain to Ireland. P&O Ferries (08716 645 645; poferries.com) sails from Cairnryan and from Troon to Larne, and from Liverpool to Dublin. Irish Ferries (0818 300 400; irishferries.com ) sails from Holyhead to Dublin and Pembroke to Rosslare.

Air links between Britain and Ireland have never been stronger. They include Aer Lingus (0870 876 2021; aerlingus.com ) to Belfast International, Dublin, Knock, Shannon and Cork; easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com ) to Belfast; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ), which flies to Belfast City, Derry, Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Knock and Shannon.

Getting around

Ireland's rail network is patchy: while the main links from Dublin to Belfast and Cork have been upgraded and accelerated recently, many branch lines see few trains. Nevertheless, coastal lines such as those south from Dublin to Wexford and north-west from Belfast to Derry are spectacular journeys in their own right. Rail fares are reasonable. Trains are supplemented by excellent long-distance bus services, but these can get caught up in heavy traffic.

In the North, details of public transport services, including Northern Ireland Railways and Ulsterbus services are at translink.co.uk, while in the Irish Republic for bus and coach services visit Bus Eireann's website, buseireann.ie, and for rail, Iarnrod Eireann's site irishrail.ie. Details of Dublin's light rail tram system, Luas, are at luas.ie.

Ireland's roads are good on arterial links from Belfast and Dublin, but patchy elsewhere. Most road signs have place names in both Irish and English, and in Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions, Irish names only may be shown.

Spooky sites: Castles and caves

Ireland is teeming with spooky castles and cavernous caves. Recommended fortresses include Cahir Castle (00 353 52 744 1011; heritageireland.ie ) in County Tipperary, in good nick despite dating from the 13th-century in parts. Sitting on a rocky island in the River Suir, it is one of Ireland's largest castles, and has everything to let imaginative young minds run riot, including a trap door leading to a prison and vaulted chambers. Open daily 9.30am-5.30pm, later in summer, to 4.30pm winter; adults €3, children €1).

An exploration of the dramatic ruins of 16th-century Dunluce Castle near Portrush in County Antrim (028 207 31938; northantrim.com ) leads to a cave that goes right under the headland. Open daily April-Sept 10am-6pm, Oct-Mar 10am-5pm, adults £2, children £1.

Stuffed with stalagmites and stalactites, Dunmore Cave (00 353 56 776 7726; heritageireland.ie ) at Ballyfoyle in County Kilkenny, is thought to be the site of a Viking massacre. Well-lit and easily accessed, it has an impressive visitor centre with absorbing displays. Open daily Nov-Feb Wed-Sun, Mar-Oct 9.30am-5pm, open later in summer; adult €3, child €1.

A tour of Aillwee Cave (00 353 65 707 7036; aillweecave.ie ) at Ballyvaughan in County Clare, created in an ice age, reveals a frozen waterfall, chasms and caverns, and striking rock formations. Open daily 10am-5.30pm, to 6.30pm July/Aug; adults €17, children €10.

Crag Cave at Castleisland, County Kerry (00 353 66 714 1244; cragcave.com ) features a million-year old network of limestone caves extending two miles underground. It opens daily 10am-6pm March-Dec, Wed-Sun Jan/Feb; adults €12, children €5.

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