Camping it up is pretty normal for a fashion designer, but putting up a camp is not. The idea of camping in a tent rather than booking into a Starck-designed, chi-chi Schrager hotel room would normally put off the most adventurous of my fellow professionals. But I have developed a passion for shared family experiences that don't make the children feel that they have wealthy parents. This passion usually manifests itself in holidays that stay well clear of posh hotels plus business-class flights. My children may well grow up with all the consumerist traits that I had as a teenager but for now they seem happy with a no-frills airline and a trip to Blacks and Millets.
No camping trip is complete without a trip to an outdoorsy shop. The massive strides that have been made in manageable, portable comfort may seem low-tech compared with the myriad hi-tech gadgets with which we are bombarded, but they are often far more useful. Give me a self-inflating bed that folds up to the size of a rolled-up broadsheet any day over a pocket-sized DVD player with a screen so small it ruins the movie experience.
You may end up coming out of the shop with nifty packets of malaria tablets and pocket water purification systems when you're only going to Ireland, but the New Forest on a wet, humid summer's night could pass for the jungles of Borneo (with a Hemingway imagination, anyway).
It's also far cooler to wear a Peter Storm cagoule than a Liam Gallagher-style leather parka from Prada and a good old pair of Hi-Tec trainers for £30 have that ironic appeal that a £120 pair of Nikes will never have. And anyway, you can't buy balaclavas, fingerless gloves, sneaky snorkel parkas, polar fleece sweatbands and socks like your auntie would knit on Bond Street. Blacks Leisure is the new black, darling.
Our latest expedition was a Ryanair cheapie (£39 plus tax) to Shannon. The Ryanair experience always begins with a laugh. At this price you put up with the inevitable mini-delay and I would gladly pay to see everyone manoeuvring for their seats. Ryanair allocates seats but not seat numbers, so some saddos queue for ages to get their preferred position only to see grinning bastards like me move to the front when they announce: "Families travelling with children first." The trick then is to sit in different rows, just for the hell of it. There were four adults and five children in our group this time, all with window seats and cheeky grins.
On arrival we all piled into a 14-seater minibus we'd hired from Hertz and set off for our planned first stop, Killarney. We did a quick tour of all the campsites and the only one that gave us anything like the feeling of freedom for which we go camping was the White Bridge site.
Rather than being shoved between a petrol station and those ugly little pebble-dashed bungalows that keep being built in Ireland, White Bridge is next to a river, with tree swings and slippery stepping stones ensuring blue bruised bums. But there are acres of space where you can pretend you're not on a campsite. The site itself was curiously full of shellsuited, moustachioed Germans with mullet hairstyles who looked as though they had stepped out of a low-budget porn movie. Trying to get the children to keep their comments to themselves while Helmut paraded his helmut around the communal shower block was a real test of my parenting skills. I failed.
Putting up tents tests the strongest of family relationships. Big tents take a team effort and there's always someone who isn't in the mood. (The threat of sole washing-up duty after tomorrow's breakfast fry-up usually does the trick.) There is, however, always a great sense of family achievement once everything is erected, the sleeping bags and nightlights are in position and it's time to treat ourselves to dinner in a restaurant.
Killarney is not short of places to eat, and it is not short of wonderful souvenir shops featuring lots of leprechauns in snowstorms, leprechauns on donkeys, leprechauns on swings probably leprechauns in chilli sauce. After a bowl of traditional Irish pasta, we headed back to camp. Then it began. At first it was a few drops, then a persistent drizzle. There's something satisfying about lying in your sleeping bag, listening to the rain bouncing off the roof. There's something less satisfying when the four-year-old needs the loo at 4am and the rain is torrential and you trip up going out of the tent into what seems like a sodden peat bog.
Two hours later after listening to the incessant downpour and expecting it to stop, I couldn't resist the lure of my £4.99 Forrest Gump-style poncho from Millets and decided to "run, Forrest, run". Running is my hobby (OK, pretty sad but not as sad as collecting mini pot shoes and hats from the Debenhams giftwear department.) I explore every place I visit by running for hours before the children get up. It's the best way to spot likely activity places, to find the local restaurants, to find the local kitsch gift emporium to buy a mini pot shoe (for a friend who's game for a laugh, of course) and to get a taste of a place. Plus it doesn't half piss off the family when I say: "I ran here at 6am this morning while you were all asleep. In fact, if you count your life in the hours you are awake, I am likely to live 10 years or more than you lazy lot." More than that it allows me to eat, eat and eat.
I ran to Killarney National Park to see Lough Leane and the views to Inisfallen Island and the Purple Mountains. Seven bloody miles and I couldn't see a damn thing. The rain was unbelievable.
Twenty hours later, after frayed tempers and visits to "not-our-scene Aqua Domes" and mutterings of "wish they'd never invented tents", the rain stopped and it was time to move on. The sun came out as we drove through the Sueve Mish Mountains heading for Brandon Bay and spirits lifted as we all gazed at the stunning mountains and Tralee Bay.
The Ireland that we had hoped to find was everywhere on the Dingle Peninsula. There were 12-mile-long sandy beaches at Brandon Bay with great surf and breathtaking mountain backdrops. The elder children surfed, hiring equipment from wonderfully equipped beach facilities on the Castlegregory back beach. The younger children went horseriding, galloping through surf with not a soul in sight, while mum and dad walked past charming farms and along beautiful beaches. Time flew collecting driftwood for a fire, and it's wonderful how rockpools and their contents can excite even the most cynical teenager. We drove to the amazingly silent and deserted secluded coves at Smerwick Harbour and found rural charm at Ballyferriter, where picture-book Ireland, filled with pubs with fiddle bands and old men speaking Gaelic, really exists.
There was the terrifying and stunning Conner Pass, with sheer drops and barely room for cars to pass and the fear that mum (who is shit scared of heights) could cause a rockfall while screaming at the children to stop winding her up about the distance down to the lake below (only a couple of thousand feet).
Back at sea level a local farmer told us that if we didn't mind the lack of facilities, we could camp in the dunes on the narrow spit facing the Magharee Islands. It was warm and remote. We collected more driftwood, lit a fire, watched the stars, ate a fantastic fry-up cooked on our little camping stoves and thanked the person who invented tents.
The Hemingways flew to Shannon on Ryanair. Flights cost from about £45 per person plus tax but they can vary widely in price depending on the date (0870 333 1231; www.ryanair.com). Minibus hire is available through Hertz (0870 599 6699; www.hertz.com).
Fleming's White Bridge Caravan and Camping Park (00353 64 31590).
Irish Tourist Board (00353 1 602 4000; www.ireland.travel.ie).Reuse content