Glamping: Live like a royal while pretending to be Bear Grylls

Conor Pope experiences how much camping has come on since soggy 1970s summers


It is 7am and I could murder a wood pigeon. I’m not normally inclined to violence when it comes to woodland creatures, but the bird has been perched outside my fancy tent in this fancy glampsite in downtown Portumna, hooting or cawing or shrieking or whatever it is wood pigeons do since before dawn, and it has driven me to the brink.

I don’t mind early-morning starts but 4am is not early morning, it is late night, and the wood pigeon should know that. Its only defence is that it may have been disturbed by the other thing keeping me awake: the rain bouncing off the tent.

The pitter-patter of enormous raindrops takes me back – Proustian style – to the grim 1970s, when all the Pope children spent their summer holidays dressed in unfortunate nylon clothes fighting with each other under damp canvas. Back then the most glamorous thing about in-tent living was the brightly coloured air beds, which offered so much bouncy support in the early evening before gradually deflating in the dead of night.

Eventually I surrender to the wood pigeon and the rain. The camping gods have determined that I am done with the sleeping portion of my night, so I open my eyes and look around me. Memories of 1970s canvas holidays fade away.

I am in a bed, for starters. A bed on a proper platform. And I am under a duvet. And my clever phone is plugged in beside the bed. And my tent is festooned with bunting and some class of weird Arabic lightshade.

Camping has come a long way since the 1970s. Now, when we see people splashing out six-figure sums on decommissioned jumbo jets so they can convert them into campsite accommodation, we don’t think it overly strange.

Canvas palaces
Upmarket camping has a lineage that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Persians, Arabs and Ottomans who lived the high life in canvas palaces, but the notion as we understand it is pretty new. In fact, the very first time glamorous camping earned itself a mention in The Irish Times was only 10 years ago. And, unlikely as it may sound, this paper was somewhat ahead of the curve as, according to Google Trends, the word “glamping” only appeared on its list of commonly searched terms at the beginning of 2007.

Back then the question most likely to be asked was, presumably, “What the hell is glamping?”

The basic premise is simple. You pretend to live like Bear Grylls while surrounding yourself with Kardashianesque accessories. You have direct access to the great outdoors and can fall asleep listening to the rhythm of the falling rain and wake up to the dawn chorus (grrrrrr!) But you can do it all without having to actually pitch a tent or sleep in a damp sleeping bag on a porous air bed.

Even five years ago, there was only a handful of clued-in operators in Ireland affording the well-heeled the chance to sleep under (five) stars. Today glampsites are much easier to find.

They are not much easier to book, however. To describe availability at virtually all the glampsites we contacted in recent weeks as limited is an understatement up there with describing water charges as a bit unpopular. Most of the sites are booked out at weekends for months ahead.

Some are so busy that they reckon coverage in national newspapers is an intrusion.

“As much as we’d love to be part of the series, by July and August we’re full anyway so wouldn’t really appreciate the extra emails and phone calls it may generate,” came one response to our initial inquiries.

Sorry for troubling you, ma’am.

A warmer welcome
Dick Ridge of Pod Umna Village in Portumna is much more welcoming. He has only been in the glamping game for two years, having previously served as an Army officer and worked in finance. He seems delighted by the new course his life has taken and is as chatty a man as you could ever hope to meet.

“This is the only urban glampsite in Europe,” he tells me, although calling Portumna “urban” might be a stretch.

Most of the accommodation options in Pod Umna Village are, well, pods – dome-shaped wooden structures with names such as Lillie’s Podello and Pod Almighty – but I have gone for the tent. It has a double bed, two single beds and a lot of bunting.

Some 100m way is the indoor living and cooking space. There is a fully equipped catering kitchen, showers, a diningroom and an empty room that children are irresistibly drawn to. They can skip there and play football and generally run wild. When the rains come it is a godsend. There are three or four grand restaurants within a stone’s throw of the site and one of the finest Supervalus you will ever find 20 paces up the road, which makes barbecues much more attractive.

Portumna is a sleepy sort of place, off the beaten track – or at least off the motorway that now connects east to west. Although I grew up in Galway, just a 45-minute drive away, I have been in Portumna only once before, to cover a hurling match for the Connacht Tribune. It was the one and only time in my life I did such a thing and all I remember about the experience was the driving rain and the burning shame after I wrote what must surely be the worst GAA match report ever written.

Having spent three gloriously sunny days in the place, I know how special it is and how much more it has to offer than incomprehensible Junior B hurling matches.

As I and my fellow glampers sit on a grassy knoll overlooking the swimming area a five-minute cycle from the town centre, a kayaking class takes place. Kids paddle in the warm lakewater and a handful of fishermen cast flies in the hope of landing a brown trout – or maybe even a salmon.

There is also Portumna Castle, the impressive ruins of Portumna Abbey and a glorious forest park.

It is nearly the death of me.

After a couple of hours of aimless cycling through the woodlands, I realise we are completely lost. With two small children following in my wake, one of whom is only just coming to grips with the perils of off-road cycling, this is not great news.

Strips of sunlight shine like lasers through the heavy leaf canopy we are cycling under. It is hot, and everyone is thirsty. We have about four mouthfuls of water left. And my phone has no signal. We’ve been cycling along the shoreline for a good 30 minutes but I have no idea if this path stretches for miles or will come to a sudden dead end. Or maybe it will lead to a more travelled path just around the corner.

Inner Bear Grylls
I channel my inner Bear Grylls and try to use the position of the sun to work out where we are heading. My inner Bear Grylls isn’t playing ball. I can’t work out which direction we are going and I have no idea what direction we need to be going. I decide that we will press on for five minutes, and if things don’t become clear by then we will turn back and retrace our steps along the narrow, rocky forest path.

Four minutes and 55 seconds later I am all for turning. Then the trees thin out and we hit a path. There is a signpost pointing the way towards the carpark from whence we came. I have never been so happy to see a sign for something so dull. There is a spring in my pedalling as we make it back to civilisation and our campsite. The rains of the night before are gone, so we have a barbecue and eat on picnic benches overlooking the pods and the tents. It is all so chilled out.

Pod Umna is a place beloved by those who have been here. Out of its 109 Trip Advisor reviews at the time of writing, 103 rated it excellent and five said it was very good. One person was disappointed because they wanted a pod but could only get an en-suite room in the main house.

The site is popular among two very distinct groups: families and hen parties. Ridge makes sure the two don’t mix.

“I have an oil and water approach,” he tells me. “If we have a hen party then we won’t take any family booking, and if we have family booking then we don’t take any hen party bookings.”

A kidnapped groom
I know the family holiday option is great having experienced it, but the hen party deal sounds awesome, too. Ahead of the party arriving, Ridge and his family festoon the place with bunting featuring the face of the bride-to-be. With the help of the bridesmaids and others in the know, he can also organise audio and visual displays and can even go as far as staging a kidnapping of the groom for a film shown to the bride-to-be on her first night on site.

The parties are served food and offered chaperoned visits to local pubs, where shots and finger food will be waiting. There are treasure hunts and all sorts of other capers. The site does not take bookings from stag parties. It is probably for the best. At the risk of generalising, it is probably true that the male of the species is more likely to disgrace himself on such occasions.

Hens aside, Pod Umna is a lovely, laid-back place and, with a tent costing about €100 a night, it’s not dear for a family of four. And if the sun shines, it can be quite magical – and makes the warbling of the wood pigeon almost tolerable.

At Pod Umna, guests have the option of staying in Eco Pods, wooden cabins that can sleep up to five. Each is fully insulated and comes with mattresses, power and heating, and its own deck area with table and chairs. The cost is €80-€140 per pod per night.

The bell tents are canvas, cone-shaped tents supported by a central pole. There are three different ones – Asia, Arabia and Vintage – which are raised off the ground and fixed to decking. Each bell tent sleeps a family or group of friends up to six. They cost €100 per tent per night.

And then there is Shepherd’s Hut, which sleeps two and comes with a double bed, wall lighting, electric socket, electric oil heater and a raised decking area. The cost is €100-€120 per night.

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