Hit the road and enjoy the year of the campervan
Imagine this. You fall asleep counting the stars in the canopy of the night sky, wake to a sunrise supplied as standard, where all rooms have a view and meals are al fresco, at whatever time you decide. And a berth for two for the night will cost you between €25 and €32. That’s freedom and fun that is affordable. That’s van life.
Camping and campervans have always had a niche following but the pandemic has given it mainstream appeal – travelling under your own steam, in your own bubble with your own accommodation on board, it’s tailor-made for safe travel. Home is where you park it.
But the sky-high demand has put pressure on places, pitches and prices.
All the signs for July and August are that Connemara has put up the full-house sign, West Cork is choc-a-bloc and Clare is booked out. So what options remain for July and August holidays?
There are hundreds of campsites and camping spots to choose from in Ireland, or you could go off-grid by wild camping. I prefer to mix and match, booking ahead where possible, but always leaving some slack in my plans for an impromptu stop-off in a secluded spot.
We’ve been camping for years and have travelled most of Ireland’s roadtrips – from the famed Ring of Kerry, the Causeway Coastal Route and the Antrim Glens, to the Dingle Peninsula, the Surf Coast from Enniscrone to Bundoran, Galway to Clifden and the Sky Road Loop, and more. And the ultimate road trip – the 2,500km and nine counties of the Wild Atlantic Way.
I’ve stored up golden memories. I remember the sheer joy of rocking up to the Beach Bar Camping at Aughris Head in Sligo with Ben Bulben holding court across the bay and hearing a troupe of musicians and uileann pipers strike up a Sunday evening seisiún stoked on by creamy outdoor pints.
Or the time a man known only as ‘Laddie’ in Goosey Island in Kerry dropped off two fresh trout for the barbecue just because I had the good fortune of being his neighbour for the weekend. Or chatting to a man in the square in Sneem about how he found the Puck goat with a beard to rival ZZ Top.
Or in Donegal, when we woke up for a dawn surf after a wild camp at Falcarragh Beach to be joined by two curious seals, and afterwards went back to the van for a fresh brew of coffee. Later on, there was a sing-song at the campfire at Sleepy Hollows and bumping in to Máire Ní Bhraonáin in Leo’s Tavern up the road.
In Cork, haggling for provisions at the farmer’s market in Bantry on a Friday morning before making our way to one of the best located campsites in the world, Eagle Point, on the shores of the Bay.
In Mayo, foraging for field mushrooms in the sparse vegetation of sloping fields above the Deserted Village in Achill before frying them up with fresh mackerel at the Seal Caves campsite in Dugort.
We came back each time with our batteries recharged. That’s the landscape, the joy, the adventure, the freedom of camping.
How to get on the road
A word of caution, if you don’t like camping, you’re probably not going to enjoy the close quarters of a campervan. It is after all camping on wheels. We were veteran campers, pitching our tent everywhere from Ballyshannon to Biarritz before we invested in a campervan conversion in 2017.
We traded in our second car, purchased a Ford Transit van and had it professionally converted and customised to our needs by Ennistymon-based company Vanderlust.
It now seats four, sleeps two adults and two grandchildren and comes with a solar panel, shower, toilet, gas cooker, sink and the all-important fridge.
Our only regret is we didn’t do it 10 years sooner, as the only time a campervan is costing you is when it’s parked up idling in your driveway. The total cost from new for the van, bespoke conversion and 13.3pc VRT was €55,000.
It’s worth every penny. But no, it’s most definitely not for sale.
A brand new top of the range 4-berth motorhome will set you back €90,000. The surge in demand has also made it a seller’s market when it comes to second hand campervans or caravans, which have never been in such demand.
There are at least a dozen companies specialising in campervan hire and motorhome rentals. We list many of them below in this article and they are all easy to find online.
Secret spots and special places
With many of the campsites fully booked for the high season, more and more first time camping enthusiasts are resorting to ‘wild camping’. But keep in mind that there a lack of public facilities at many beaches, popular viewing points and car parks.
For example, the Wild Atlantic Way is an unrivalled marketing success but, in most cases, the route offers little more than Instagram opportunities with a strategic rustic signage. Not much use to someone who wants to go to the loo or dispose of a dirty nappy.
Poor behaviour, littering and suspect waste disposal on the part of a minority led to tensions last summer in places like Terryglass and Westport, and this year, local authorities in Sligo and Wexford are considering more restrictions and headroom barriers to curb what they consider as unwelcome overnight parking at beauty spots like Curracloe, Strandhill and even Hook Head and Dunfanaghy which were previously very camper friendly.
Other councils take a more positive perspective and value the commercial spin-off from the campervan and motorhome community with their disposable income and appetite for groceries, refreshments and entertainment.
Towns with a warm welcome for campers offering French-style Aire facilities include Portumna, Cobh, Bantry, Sneem, Carlingford, Graiguenamanagh and Castlegregory.
The camping renaissance has also spawned new business opportunities. Colaiste Uise, a Gaeltacht school and water sports centre, unable to take students again this summer has pivoted to meet the demand for camping and has opened a 12-bay motorhome park with basic facilities at the water’s edge in Elly Bay. Aire Cuan Eilí in the idyllic setting of Blacksod Bay is 14km from Belmullet and charges €15 a night, and it seems likely that this new family enterprise will develop the facilities further over the next few years. Similarly a new facility has just opened at Sliabh Liag Camping within a stone’s throw of the famous cliffs and there are great reports coming from Bannow Bay Seaside Farm which has opened up to campers this summer in south Wexford. Similar facilities are sprouting up across the country on farms and roadside pubs and taverns. You will find all of the above on Facebook.
Many campsites are heavily booked for the peak season. Some are requiring a minimum stay, while others are open only to self-contained units like motorhomes, and won’t accept tents because shared facilities such as toilet and shower blocks and camper’s kitchens are still closed.
Campsites charge per night for a pitch and many levy extra costs for additional people, awnings, showers and electricity. More are offering a range of accommodation options apart from your campervan or caravan pitch to make provision for glamping pods, bell tents, yurts and mobile homes.
When camping with children it is important to consider on-site activities or attractions in the vicinity. With that in mind, five family-friendly camping options are Hidden Valley (irelandholidaypark.com) in Co Wicklow; Sexton’s Caravan & Camping Timoleague (sextonscamping.com), Co Cork; The Apple Farm, Cahir (theapplefarm.com) and Parson’s Green (parsonsgreen.ie), Clogheen, Co Tipperary; and Nore Valley Park, (norevalleypark.com) Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny.
Prices range from €32 to €35 for two adults and two children per night with extra levies usually for any additional people, showers, electrical hook up and awnings.
If you are taking a child-free break, book into Sleep Hollows Camping (www.sleepyhollows.ie ) in Crolly, Donegal, an oasis of calm by the river’s edge, ideal for walks or a spot of trout fishing. Pets are welcome. A unit with one adult is €18, €24 for two people.
For an authentic camping experience on the edge of the Atlantic in the heart of Connemara, it’s hard to beat Clifden Eco Beach Camping (clifdenecocamping.ie). The facilities are first class and the layout less fussy and informal than most with direct access to the beach. This is kayaking and oysters and Guinness country, or you can try yoga on the beach on Saturday mornings.
If you fancy a base in Donegal, Corcreggan Mill (corcreggan.com), on the outskirts of Dunfanaghy, is a fantastic spot offering lodge and glamping options as well as a motorhome park. It’s an ideal base for surfing, wind surfing, pony trekking and kayaking and for the legendary Dunfanaghy Jazz and Blues Festival each autumn.
Surfing enthusiasts won’t want to pass The Beach Bar Camping (firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook) in Sligo. This spot saved our summer last year and is within easy striking distance of both Strandhill and Easkey. No tents, no booking ahead, it’s all on a first-come, first-served basis, for €15 a night per unit with €5 extra optional for electricity.
But when it comes to camping, the Ring of Kerry reigns supreme. Four of the best places include Mannix Point (campinginkerry.com) in Cahirciveen with Valentia Island just out the road as the Skelligs reopen to visitors Valentia Island Caravan & Camping is an ideal base on this paradise island (www.valentiaislandcamping.com ); Wave Crest (wavecrestcamping.com) in Caherdaniel is in a majestic setting, a paradise for outdoor pursuits; and Goosey Island in the middle of Sneem where you can set out on a kayak adventure in Kenmare Bay. No bookings, you just turn up; €10 for a motorhome, with €5 extra for electricity.
One of the best spots from which to explore the Burren or take a ferry to the Aran Islands is Nagles Camping & Caravan Park (doolincamping.com), just across the road from Doolin Pier with the Cliffs of Moher as your backdrop. Units from €31 to €34 for two adults and two children, including electric hook-up, metered showers, €1 with a token at reception.
Or, go off grid – and discover some beauty spots for yourself. One of the noticeable trends this summer is people going online and looking for recommendations. That’s all understandable but some of the requests are tall orders indeed: ‘Anyone know of a good secret spot, along the coast, not far from Dublin, near a good beach, beside a pub with a playground if possible, where we can wild camp for a few days from Friday?’ That’s the flavour of some of the big asks. But secret spots are called secret spots for a reason and once revealed, well, that’s it. Part of the fun is discovering your own favourite spots. Investing in a good map, proper research and reconnaissance when you are on the road will yield great results, but you have to put in the effort. I’ve already eyed out a few good new off-grid places in Kerry and the West of Ireland this year and the summer is still young. With a bit of look the season will run right on into Halloween this year.
Some hints and hacks for happy camping
The Instagram posts of campervan culture along the US Pacific Coast Highway show young couples working remotely from their vans between sun-drenched surf sessions and make it easy to fall for the romance of the open road. However, you will be spending more time in Connemara, West Cork, Clare and the Causeway Coast than California.
Bring a raincoat, torch, barbecue, bike, a bottle opener, toilet paper and a good map. Pack and prepare properly.
Make sure you know where the water refill is on the motorhome and have a container with a funnel to do it. I have met people at the Electric Picnic who didn’t know either.
Be aware that many campsites have a strictly no dogs allowed policy. You will be refused entry even if you have a reservation.
Don’t spend all your days driving. Take time to explore and enjoy the locality. That’s what the bike is for.
You must be over 25 to hire a motorhome, and expect to pay up to €250 a day, with a minimum rental of five or seven days during high season. You will be required to sign a pre-authorisation payment to cover what can be a significant excess on the insurance in the event of any damage.
Rental options include Buckled Wheel, Vanderlust, West Coast Campervans, Space Ships, Camp & Cruise, Mc Rent, Bunk Campers, Wild Atlantic Campers, Celtic Campers, Let’s Go, Campervan Ireland Rentals, Causeway Campers and Camper Hire 4 U, all which you will find online.
Wherever you go respect the countryside and the community where you are visiting and Leave No Trace.
The Camping Ireland Guide is a useful resource with over 100 listed campsites, available free from tourist offices or €5 from www.campingireland.ie
Lonely Planet’s Ireland’s Best Trips features routes and recommendations for 34 road trips.
Take the Slow Road – Ireland by Martin Dorey charts inspirational journeys around Ireland by campervan and motorhome. Published by Conway, €23.99, it is indispensable.
This article was previously published in the Sunday Independent, People & Culture supplement on July 4th.
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