Kathryn Thomas has just left Fota Wildlife Park. It was the TV presenter’s day off from filming a new RTE series about staycations,, so she took her two year old to visit the animals.
Giraffes, leopards, lemurs — her daughter, Ellie loved seeing such exciting creatures living locally in Ireland. The film crew are already en route to Dingle, the show’s next destination, and there will also be broadcasts from Dublin, Limerick, Kilkenny and Galway.
Thomas’s new series is the outcome of an idea she had about wanting to take her daughter on the road with her, for the whole camper van experience. Originally she wanted to call the series— and then Covid happened, which pushed staycationing to the forefront of everyone’s summer plans, not just Kathryn and Ellie’s.
Pootling around Ireland in a camper van has never been more timely — because for now at least, there really is no place like home. Her husband, Padraig, will be joining her for some of it.
“We’ve been to Mayo, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Kerry will be the final leg,” she tells me.
Thomas’s mother is from the Blaskets, so she feels an affinity with island life and island people. She last visited the Blaskets twenty years ago with her grandmother, on another road trip.
“There’s something about island life that I’ve always loved,” she says. The Blaskets are her next port of call, although this time doing it with a small child will be quite a different experience. “I’ve roped family members in to give me a hand,” she says. “There are some things that Ellie can’t do with me — like scuba diving.”
Now 41, Thomas began her ten-year stint on the travel programme,, when she was 21. She was on the road extensively until she was 31, visiting 82 countries, from the Arctic Circle to Australia via dozens of fascinating countries in between (places like Papua New Guinea, Namibia, Syria, Ethiopia, Zanzibar) as well as more traditionally favoured Irish holiday destinations. Like Spain, our number one destination.
In 2019, according to the Irish Travel Agents Association, two million of us holidayed abroad — one million to Spain, and the rest mostly to Portugal, the US, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The average cost per individual holiday maker was €550, with a family of four paying on average €2,000, including flights and accommodation.
Such cheap holidaying abroad is now off the table, unless you want to risk cancellations, quarantine, disruption and general headachery. Which is why Thomas is so keen on Ireland this summer, and all it has to offer.
“One of the highlights so far was kayaking off Hook Head and Fethard in Wexford,” she says. “Exploring south Wexford, and remembering idyllic childhood holidays further up the coast. I love getting to know new places that are right under our noses.”
To make the most of what is on our own doorstep, however, we first need to decolonise our heads regarding the traditional fly-and-flop Spanish holiday, and make friends with what is in front of us. The biggest issue for Irish people holidaying in Ireland is the weather. Also we seem to prefer hotels to camping — although being outdoors is probably a lot more appealing during the pandemic.
“We’re obsessed with the weather” says Thomas.
“I think we need to refocus on the experiential, to make the most out of staycations. Start by thinking about what you enjoy doing and then researching what’s available, so that you tailor your activities to what you like, because the weather cannot be a deciding factor. Whatever you’re into — paintballing, hiking, kayaking, food, bee keeping — tailoring an itinerary that works for you, irrespective of weather, is key. That’s how we’ve been going about it, and it really works.”
Obviously it’s vastly different being a solo traveller somewhere far flung to doing a family road trip in Ireland. Thomas admits she will miss all the things that make faraway travel so compelling: “Sunshine, experiencing different cultures and different people, new food, new smells, new landscapes, different ways of living, they all excite me.”
She has perennially itchy feet, she says, and will be off again as soon as the current situation changes. But for now, she is embracing what is, and learning as she goes along about the joys and pitfalls of road trips with small kids. (As a seasoned practitioner myself, I can only nod in empathy — I’ve been taking my kids camping and on long road trips since they were tiny, as well as solo long haul travelling with them. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of fun, and a lot of fantastic memories).
“So much stuff when you’re travelling with a small child!” she exclaims. “Scooters! Nappies! Teddies!”
But she loves the freedom of it all: “The most brilliant aspect is the lack of having to be anywhere at any time. We have a filming schedule, but even so, it just feels so free. There’s a real sense of making it up as you go along, and if you’re in a camper van you can pull over anytime, you can stop and take your time, or keep going, and you have no idea where you will be tomorrow. It’s such a great adventure for kids. Although I am starting to realise that camping is something you need to practice – you learn from your mistakes, you learn what works, what you need, what you don’t need. It seems to be quite an art.”
Thomas is in a fairly fancy motorhome, which — from experience —can be tricky on country lanes, the downside of their spaciousness and comfort. You don’t always need a motorhome to enjoy a great road trip — a car and a good tent will do, if all the holiday cottages/hotels are booked up/overpriced, or there are traffic tailbacks to traditional beauty destinations. (This summer I treated myself to a luxury 4m canvas bell tent with a wood burner, which is easier to put up than a regular tent, and will spend August zigzagging with friends around coast and woodlands. Bliss.)
“Mankind has slept in tents and congregated around campfires from the very beginning,” writes Matthhew De Abaitua in his wonderful book. “Our physicality is largely unchanged since the Neolithic era. Our bodies evolved to camp….the more advanced and complex our lives become, the more we need a temporary vacation in the simple life.”
“I run fitness bootcamps all over the world,” says Thomas. “Thailand, California, Spain —my biggest passion is being outside, and being outside in Ireland is beautiful. Our amazing scenery exists because of the rain, and running in the rain is one of the most invigorating things you can do. It’s an incredible feeling. I was running along Downpatrick Head in Mayo in the pouring rain and I felt so alive. It’s so moving, so grounding. So Irish. All you need is the right gear and the right attitude.”
RTÉ1, Sunday 6.30pm