Vacation once again: A night at a campsite, a five-star hotel and a full-Irish B&B

Gary Cahill, food and beverage director at the Shelbourne, serving coffee in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge. Photograph: Alan Betson
Irish Times journalists sample the post-lockdown tourism experience in a range of accommodation options

The east-coast campsite 

Strolling around the sprawling grounds of Hidden Valley Holiday Park in Rathdrum in Co Wicklow this week is like stepping back to a pre-Covid era. Combining with the roar of the Avonmore river is a prevailing sound we had all become weirdly unaccustomed to over the past four months: children laughing and screaming as they run around playing together.

It’s hard to believe given all the bustle around the site, but just 24 hours before I arrive on Tuesday morning, the park’s sprawling campsites, aquapark and activity areas were completely empty. Within days of opening for the 2020 season in March, Ireland went into lockdown, and the heavy wooden gates at the entrance of Hidden Valley were pulled shut for almost 16 weeks.

Hidden Valley Holiday Park in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Hidden Valley Holiday Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

On Monday morning, they reopened and hundreds of families arrived in their cars and caravans to set up camp.

“We had 200 check-ins on Monday,” says Molly Williams, who owns Hidden Valley with her husband Lloyd. To ensure social distancing, staff greeted guests at the gate to check them in from the comfort of their cars.

“It was all hands on deck. This is the first time we are going from nobody here to high season with the park full [to 70 per cent capacity; they have reduced the number of tents allowed in the free-camping area]. We were quite stressed, but it went so smoothly.”

Reopening under the Fáilte Ireland Covid-19 guidelines has been a mammoth task. All 70 staff members had to undergo special hygiene training. A “small fortune” was spent on hand-sanitising stations, social-distancing signage and additional cleaning staff to keep the facilities and equipment germ-free.

On check-in, guests are given a leaflet advising them to socially distance with anyone outside their own household.

“We did get some people asking for sites beside their friends, and we have had to remind them about the rules,” Williams says. “But we can’t police it. Individuals have to take responsibility for themselves.”

All 29 “glamping cabins” are full this week. Most pitches for caravans and camper vans are occupied too. Hidden Valley booked out for the whole summer within two days of the system reopening on May 1st, when Leo Varadkar announced the phases of reopening after lockdown. “We didn’t know how it was going to go, would people want to go on holidays? But they were clearly so eager to get out,” says Williams.

A bridge over the river leads to the open green area for tents. To ensure the toilet blocks remain queue-free, they have halved the number of tents allowed.

“The bathroom facilities are purely for shower and toilet now,” Williams explains. “No more drying your hair or putting makeup on or brushing your teeth here. All that has to be done back at your pitch. We have a cleaner on site from 7am-11pm, continually cleaning all the touch points at both toilet blocks.”

Molly and Lloyd Williams, owners of the Hidden Valley resort in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Molly and Lloyd Williams, owners of the Hidden Valley resort. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Over at the boating lake, 16-year-old Jess Kenny is checking a young boy’s wristband. He has booked a kayak for an hour. Usually, the boats are rented out on a first-come, first-serve basis, but to prevent a queue, customers now book in advance. Once he’s set up, Kenny picks up her sanitising spray to disinfect a lifevest. Behind her is a box of balls and clubs from the mini-golf, which also need to be sprayed between uses.

“We have to take extra precautions, and there’s been more training,” says Kenny, from behind her blue facemask. This is her first summer job. “But it has been fun too so far. It’s nice to see all the kids enjoying themselves.”

About 30 children in helmets, wetsuits and life jackets are bumping and sliding around the inflatable obstacle course in the Splash Valley Aqua Park behind reception. Twelve-year-old twins Conor and Nicole Phelan are wrapped in towels having just finished their session.

“It was really fun,” Conor says.

“It was really cold,” Nicole says.

The family of five arrived from Clonmel on Monday, and are staying in a tent for three nights.

“It’s our first time here,” their dad Tony says. “Friends were here last year and recommended it. We hadn’t realised there were so many places in the country like this you could go.”

The family would usually go abroad on holidays, to Spain or Portugal or the United States. “We should definitely be holidaying at home more,” he says.

At lunch hour, the large Lakehouse restaurant is quiet, with just four tables occupied. A waitress greets customers with hand sanitiser and a reservation list at the door. Red floor stickers spaced two metres apart point diners towards ice cream and coffee to the left, or hot food to the right.

Mark and Ella Collins (back left) with Ciaran and Ciara Halpin, with children (from front left ) Emma Halpin, Jack Halpin, Ruby O’Brien and Darragh Halpin, on a camping holiday in Hidden Valley Holiday Park in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Campers Mark and Ella Collins (back left) with Ciaran and Ciara Halpin, with children Emma Halpin, Jack Halpin, Ruby O’Brien and Darragh Halpin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Supervisor Mariusz Kaminski says customers have been very understanding of the new rules. “I was concerned about how to explain, but most people are used to it by now,” he says.

When he’s working at the ice cream counter, the kids can lean in to look at the colourful array of sprinkles and marshmallows behind the glass, and he has had to ask them to step back. But overall, it has gone smoothly.

“It is nice to see the same faces that we had here last year,” says Kaminski, who lives in Arklow having moved from Poland 17 years ago. It’s his second summer at Hidden Valley. “It’s great to be back at work again. I can’t look at my garden any more!”

From behind a Perspex screen at the till, waitress Georgina Reid is also delighted to be back for her fourth year.

“It’s great for Rathdrum too. There was no business in the town lately. I had a part-time job in Centra during the lockdown and it was very quiet. But when the park opens up it brings business to all the local shops. It’s good to see.” Ciara Kenny

The Wild Atlantic Way B&B

It’s strange not to shake hands,” Karen Mannion says apologetically as we arrive at her family B&B, which is so close to the Atlantic ocean that sea foam sometimes sprays the gable wall.

The directions to her home in Cloonagh, Ballinfull, were simple enough. She could have said hang a left just after Yeats’s grave, drive past Lissadell House and when you come to the spot on the coast where you can gaze directly out at Innishmurray island and the Sliabh Liag cliffs , you’re there.

Instead she said , when you get to Lissadell follow the signs for “Ocean Heights B&B”. That’s apparently what some Brazilians did back in March when the country started going into lockdown and they couldn’t find a bed for the night or even a restaurant open.

“I felt so sorry for them. It was lashing rain and they couldn’t get anywhere open,” she recalls – and yes she did put them up for one night. “There wasn’t a word about Brazil at that stage”, she said referring to that country’s Covid nightmare since.

We are the first guests since the pair from Brazil found sanctuary there more than three months ago . And despite the hype about the country reopening this week, and the rave online reviews, she hasn’t been inundated with bookings just yet.

Karen Mannion, owner of Ocean Heights B&B, serving Marese McDonagh breakfast. Photograph: Brian Farrell
Karen Mannion, owner of Ocean Heights B&B, serving Marese McDonagh breakfast. Photograph: Brian Farrell

“Normally I am fully booked for July and August,” she ponders. Instead it has been “a trickle”. On Tuesday night she was fully booked for this weekend, mostly with people from Dublin and Wicklow. By Wednesday morning there had been a cancellation, something that has been happening frequently even since restrictions eased.

“Maybe it’s the weather,” she ponders. She is also wondering if it’s something to do with the well-publicised reports of a cluster of cases in Sligo this week, which followed several Covid-free weeks in the county.

She currently has bookings from France, Germany Austria and Spain but given the current agonising about foreign travel “I’d say I will lose those”.

“Everyone is nervous,” she said. “When people ring they ask what precautions we are taking. They want to be reassured.”

It’s a fine line between taking all necessary precautions and keeping the welcoming atmosphere.

Inside the front door there is a “Céad Míle Fáilte” message over a sign asking guests to use the hand sanitiser. “I would normally never leave the key on the bed,” she says, apologising again for not handing it to us.

“I like to leave cotton wool and cotton buds and little hand creams in the bathroom,” she added pointing out that they have been replaced by wipes and hand sanitiser, which is strategically placed all around the house.

As well as the elaborate breakfast menu (“laminated and wiped down after every use”), her “Covid-19 response plan” is left on the bed, detailing the safety measures being taken such as social distancing, the removal of the breakfast buffet and the removal non-essential bedding such as cushions from rooms.

For now she opts not to wear a mask and serves breakfast at the table, careful not to stay too close and to limit all encounters to less than 15 minutes.

“When we’re full I will stagger the breakfast times,” she says. The two-metre rule means one table at least will be unoccupied if there is a full house “but I’m hoping they might go back to one metre”.

The breakfast menu, Covid-19 information sheet, and guest registration in a bedroom at Ocean Heights B&B. Photograph: Brian Farrell
The breakfast menu, Covid-19 information sheet, and guest registration in a bedroom at Ocean Heights B&B. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Another frequently asked question by those who ring to make a booking is whether she still has tea and coffee in the rooms. “I do because Irish people love their tea and coffee, and the continentals do too, but I only leave two tea bags and two sachets of coffee because if they are not used they have to be dumped. If people want more that is no problem.”

Ocean Heights is normally open throughout the year apart from two weeks around Christmas. When the taoiseach made his St Patrick’s Day pandemic -related state of the nation address in March “the phone stopped ringing – and then it started to ring and ring with cancellations”.

Mannion was nervous about reopening but “you could go down to the supermarket and get it there. My attitude is we have to get on with life at some stage.”

Her mother Maureen has been in the B&B business in the nearby village of Grange for 34 years and she is preparing to reopen as well. Others along that part of the Wild Atlantic Way have decided to hold off. At least until August and some until next year.

But having an approved Covid-19 plan gives Karen Mannion confidence. “We have to things like take guests’ contact details in case contact tracing is required, and we have a plan for dealing with a suspected case of the virus ,” she explained.

Leonard Cohen gave the Sligo woman her start as she opened the B&B 10 years ago to coincide with his concerts at Lissadell House. He didn’t get back but she’s hopeful many will continue follow in his footsteps. “We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes over the next month.” Marese McDonagh

The Dublin five-star hotel

It’s so long since I used my Leap card that I clean forget to tap off the Luas at St Stephen’s Green. I’m going on my holidays in Dublin for the night. Specifically, at a hotel less than 3km from my home: the Shelbourne.

I’ve done countless interviews in the hotel’s Lord Mayor’s Lounge over the years. Brought my nieces for afternoon tea there. Drunk a lot of (excellent) Martinis in the No 27 bar. Met people during pre-Christmas madness. Gone to celebrate very good times – and, once, to attend a post-funeral reception. But staying there on a Monday in late June is not something I have done before.

So what does a five-star hotel reopening look like post lockdown? Covid-19 has not gone away, as we know. So all the staff are wearing black masks. It says something about how much life has changed since March that I catch myself thinking, Oh, they look quite elegant compared with some I’ve seen, including the one I wore on the Luas.

Rosita Boland at the reopened Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin: ‘The prevalent (and not unpleasant) smell throughout the entire hotel is of cleaning products’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Rosita Boland at the reopened Shelbourne Hotel. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“We would usually be at full capacity at this time of year,” JP Kavanagh, the Shelbourne’s general manager, tells me. The hotel has 265 rooms. Tonight just 40 will be occupied, all by people from Ireland rather than abroad. “I’ve never been so excited about having only 80 guests before,” he says. The hotel has not dropped its prices, but they are prices usually found only out of season: a double room tonight with breakfast and parking is €299.

We are talking at a table in the No 27 bar, which no longer has the stools I normally sit on at the counter. They’ll be back some day, but not for the foreseeable future, alas.

Also gone are the squashy couches and armchairs in the lobby by the fire, where you’d sit and wait for your tardy friends to arrive. They’re gone from the reception area too. To compensate for the lack of furniture, the lobby has an astonishing wall of flowers; it’s like a botanical artwork.

Gary Cahill, food and beverage director at the Shelbourne, serving coffee in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge. Photograph: Alan Betson
Gary Cahill, food and beverage director at the Shelbourne, serving coffee in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge. Photograph: Alan Betson

My brain temporarily collapses when Kavanagh explains the complicated technology behind the new gadgets that sanitise the bedrooms, but the message is that everything is very, very clean. In fact, the prevalent (and not unpleasant) smell throughout the hotel is of cleaning products.

“And we have a toilet butler,” Kavanagh says.

“A what?”

“Toilet butler.”

Perhaps only the Shelbourne could transform the job of ensuring not too many people go into any of the hotel’s main bathrooms at once into something that sounds glamorous. So the toilet butler will ensure social distancing is maintained in the bathrooms that serve the restaurant, lounge and bars.

In my room – named after the writer Elizabeth Bowen, which pleases me enormously – every cushion, throw and end-of-bed decorative fabric has vanished. This may be the best thing about postpandemic hotel accommodation. No more spending the first five minutes shoving a million extraneous cushions into a wardrobe. (I am certain these items were laundered regularly at the Shelbourne, and equally, queasily certain they were not at some other hotels I have frequented.)

Throws and cushions have been removed from bedrooms. Photograph: Alan Betson
Throws and cushions have been removed from bedrooms. Photograph: Alan Betson

The spa is temporarily closed, but you can opt for a DIY treatment: the spa will arrange to leave some products in your room, with instructions – on an easy-to-sanitise laminated sheet – on how to apply which potion and lotion and what important things they do for your lockdown skin.

I have brought a friend on my Dublin holiday 3km from my own home, a friend I have seen only once in the past six months. We sally forth for dinner in the Saddle Room, unsure of what to expect.

It turns out that a booth, of which the Saddle Room has several, is a perfect place to socially distance from other guests. The menus are on paper, and service comes two ways. You can choose for a waiter to bring your food in the usual way – which is to say like in the Olde, Prepandemic Dayes – and put it in front of you at your table. Or you can be served tableside, where the waiter will put your food and glasses on a tray, for you to take and replace yourself.

Fabulous as it is to again experience the novelty of being served a top-notch dinner in an actual restaurant, it’s even more wonderful to be able to spend real time with a friend, instead of doing it virtually, via Zoom or FaceTime.

In the morning I am the only person in the hotel’s pool. I notice that in one respect the Shelbourne still thinks it is prepandemic times: the pool’s clock is still on winter time, the time it was back in March, when this extraordinary “new normal” era first began. Rosita Boland