Now, the thing about blended families is that you are constantly compromising. I don't mind that in itself — I'm actually rather good at it. But at times it feels like there's just too many variables that won't quite gel...
Originally I'd planned to go to the London Researchers' Meet on 8th July. I really really wanted to go. But then there was a bike rally that Dai really really really wanted to go to, that same weekend. So I agreed to go along to that instead, even though it was a camping event and at my age I get rather grumpy if I don't have a decent night's sleep on a proper bed.
And then there was the following week to maximise, with its brace of public holidays for denizens of Northern Ireland. And my two teenagers to entertain. And I'd decided I wanted to show them Kerry. Ideally, we'd leave after coming back from the bike rally on the Monday. But when I started investigating rented accommodation in Kerry, the problem transpired that rentals only go from Saturday to Saturday. What to do?
We reached a compromise: I would give the biking and camping a miss (yelps of joy from my back and knees!) and I managed to persuade one rental company to let us have a student flat in Tralee from a Sunday to a Sunday, where Dai would join us on the bike from the Monday to Friday.
Pack Up Your Troubles
We spent an awful lot of time planning and packing — as Dai was coming straight after a camping weekend, I had to take his clothes for the week in the car with me. Oh, and his diving gear, as he planned to do some dives off the Maharee Islands. Oh, and my bike gear in case I wanted a quick spin. Oh, and the laptop, as I was working on an application form that had a looming deadline. Oh, and the weather in Kerry is very unpredictable, so warm woolly jumpers as well as sandals and shorts. Oh, and hiking boots for our planned ascent of Ireland's highest peak.
Amazingly enough, myself and the two terrible teens did fit in the car with all our luggage and an apparently indispensable electric guitar, and off we set at 9.00am on the Sunday morning. After the compulsory 'Did I leave the immersion heater on?' worry and loop back, we set off again at 10.00am. The going was good until we got south of Newry and got completely tangled in traffic heading for a GAA match at Croke Park. In a bid to escape the mad lane-hopping, I foolishly elected to go through the city of Dublin rather than on the ring road. What a mistake! Dublin is one of those cities that is so large it has its own gravitational field and the only way to escape is to drive around in circles faster and faster, until you eventually reach orbital velocity and escape, which we did at about 2.00pm. The remaining 200 miles passed uneventfully with a quick stop for kebabs in Kildare and ice cream in picturesque thatched cottagey Adare. We finally reached our destination just before 6.00pm, and I was very glad I'd invested in that portable DVD player to keep the troops quiet.
We finished the day with a stroll into Tralee town centre, where we found a place to eat and settled down to watch the World Cup final. Tralee is famous as the home of the contest held each August to crown a young woman of Irish descent from around the world as that year's 'Rose of Tralee'. During that week the place goes mad and accommodation prices double. In July it's rather sleepy and quiet.
Monday morning dawned damp and overcast, but we were off horse-riding in Kilarney National Park. This is a gorgeous setting to take any type of non-motorised activity (cars and the like are banned), and it was certainly very romantic to be riding by ruined castles, misty lakes and through lush forests. Took me a while to get into the rhythm of the 'rising trot', mind, and my knuckles still bear the blisters from where I was holding on too tightly to the saddle. Back at the flat, Dai had arrived and we spent the afternoon on the Dingle peninsula, the most northerly of the three sticky-out bits that make up Kerry: Iveragh in the middle is the largest, with the southernmost Beragh being full of some amazing rock formations. We checked out diving times, crossed the breathtaking Connor Pass and strolled around the Aran sweater and mountain boot shops that line the streets in the little village of Dingle, famous for its resident dolphin, who failed to make an appearance for us.
By Tuesday, the weather was brightening and we went for the famed scenic drive around the Ring of Kerry. I'd been warned that this gets very overcrowded with tour buses, especially at this time of year, but we didn't experience many hold-ups at all. We stopped for coffee in an old church now converted to a café-cum-art-gallery in Cahersiveen, where a stroll among the shoe shops led me to some fabulous embroidered baseball boots. Of course I bought them in all available colours!
Next stop was the beautiful Waterville, said to be a favourite holiday spot of Charlie Chaplin. Round we went to the south side of the peninsula, where even the teens occasionally dragged their heads up from their iPods to admire the stunning headlands, beaches and seascapes. On to Kenmare, which I've always found charming, where a delightful little bakery provided us with cheese'n'olive baps and huge moist slabs of carrot cake. Back in Tralee, we explored the local pub, Nancy Myles, and enjoyed a very tasty evening meal there.
Wednesday was diving day: Dai had insisted on being independent and fitted all his gear into the panniers on the bike so that I could enjoy my cup of tea in bed without having to taxi him over to Castlegregory. At lunchtime, I took my son over to the dive centre, where part of his birthday treat was to be a trial scuba session. The rest of us went over the Connor Pass again, but this time carried on round the very dramatic Slea Head drive, Ireland's most westerly point, past the beach where Ryan's Daughter was filmed. Today it is usually heaving with surfers.
In the evening, we visited Tralee's Aquadome, an indoor water park, and had races to see who could come down the chutes fastest. We stopped off for a pizza on the way home.
On Thursday, after having done some research on the internet about our proposed mountain climb, and suitably warned of the dangers, I was on a mission to find a map of the peaks and a backpack. So we found Kilarney Outlet Centre and indulged in a bit of retail therapy. I realised I'd be lynched if I suggested yet another scenic drive, so in the afternoon we found the mile of golden strand that is Inch beach and relaxed there. Bit too jellyfishy to tempt me into the water, mind! Thursday night was Dai's last night with us, so we went back to Nancy's for some fab steaks and a pool contest.
Top o' the world, Ma!
Friday morning dawned bright and sunny. We waved goodbye to Dai and set off with our trusty map to find Cronin's farmyard, the best place to start climbing Carraun Toohill, Irelands highest mountain. Too long to give all the details of the climb here, but suffice to say it was a tough old climb and were very proud of ourselves for making it all the way to the top and back down safely1. To celebrate, we had dinner in Tralee's finest eatery, The Cookery. I have to say, the stuffed mushrooms with blue cheese and hazelnuts were absolutely amazing — one of the best meals I've ever eaten.
We took it easy on Saturday, to give our legs time to recover and pack all that gear plus the extra shopping we'd bought into the car, but we did manage a visit to the cinema to catch Pirates of the Caribbean 2.
Our journey home on Sunday began at 9.00am, when I filled the car up with fuel, put the foot to the floor and just watched the needle fall. Made it back to Belfast in under six hours, with only one stop, which just goes to show: never ever drive through Dublin!
It was certainly a week of firsts and superlatives: highest peak, most westerly point and a pub which boasted 'Ireland's most famous view'. Without a doubt, it is one of its most memorable.