DUBLIN — Sitting in a Pizza Hut, near a McDonald's, a Hollister bag at our feet, we could have been at any mall in America.
The foreign traveler who craves the exotic, the rare, the undiscovered will cringe. The parents among us will understand. For our children, it was oddly comforting, a nice break from all the newness.
When families travel, the kids will be all right — if you don't push them too far.
Ireland, I've found in two visits with the family, is an excellent place to discover this. Everything is "not too": not too different, not too expensive, not too foreign.
There's an accent barrier but not a language barrier. Irish and English are both official languages, and signs on roads, government buildings, transit and such are required to be in both, as are announcements on the trains. It reminded our kids they're in another country, but the English, of course, makes it easier to be here.
Our first trip here, last year, was the first real trip to a foreign country for our two children, Grace, 12, and Jack, 8. (Let's not count two nights in Vancouver, British Columbia, nice as they were; I'm not sure the kids even realized they'd left the States.)
They've enjoyed exploring Dublin, but they're also kids, and after a couple of days of hotel living, Irish breakfasts and historical sites, I thought they could use a little time at the mall — Dundrum Town Centre, to be exact, a mere 10-minute tram ride from downtown.
It's all about balance, and Ireland is a good place to find it. Here are a few of the reasons it's a great place to whet your child's appetite for travel.
Walkability: We don't have a car, and with rare exceptions, it will be little if any hassle. Our village of Dalkey, near Dublin, has everything we need five minutes away: the bus, the train, a grocery store, pubs, coffee shops. Also, the kids now know we're carrying everything we buy, which has made our trips to the grocery studies in minimalism, a real education. Central Dublin also has plenty of good sights within walking distance of one another.
Good public transportation: It's more than just a ride; it's free entertainment. It's also typically cheaper and easier, with less time stuck in traffic and no parking hassles, which means less time for the kids to get bored and whiny.
A transit train system, the DART, runs through the city center and hugs the shoreline north and south of the city. A newer tram, the Luas, runs west and south from downtown. If you spend a lot of time on transit, you'll want to get a card. It is accepted on DART, Luas and Dublin Bus.
There are two child Leap cards that work just like the others but deduct the lower fare. Cards for children younger than 12 can be bought in person. Cards for ages 12 to 16 must be personalized. You apply by mail and include a passport photo. It took less than a week for Grace to get her card. Visitors coming for less time will want to go online (leapcard.ie and have it before they leave for Ireland.
Weather: Even an unseasonably cold Dublin January seemed a refreshing change from winter weather in the northern U.S., warmer by maybe 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with no snow in sight. From a kids' comfort standpoint, Ireland usually is neither too cold nor too hot. Bring layers and a good raincoat, and you'll be fine. Besides, in Ireland, it's nice to have an excuse to buy a sweater.
Small country: The whole place is a little smaller than Indiana; you can be almost anywhere in just a few hours. Day trips to many other cities, by rail or car, are doable, so families can concentrate on having fun while leaving most of the luggage behind.
Trains on some routes are nicer than on others, I'm told, but most have cars serving snacks, and some have seating areas with a small hot-food menu. An employee also pushes a snack cart through some trains once in a while (my son loved it; it evoked Harry Potter for him). There also are first-class seating options on some routes. You can book online (irishrail.ie and printing the tickets out at the station takes mere seconds.
We've traveled by train often in the States, and I find them perfect for families with children. Kids can get up, use the restroom, eat a meal and walk around, and parents arrive rested, not stressed from driving. Families traveling together sometimes can buy a family fare, a significant discount from separate tickets.
CityLink and GoBus are two commercial bus lines serving Ireland. Cheaper than the train, they do have their drawbacks. Our GoBus from Galway to Dublin felt cramped to my 6-foot frame. Still, there was a restroom onboard (crucial with an 8-year-old, who did indeed need it), as well as Wi-Fi.
I noted family tickets in many places: movie theaters, museums, even a four-meal-deal at a burger joint. A friend tells me this has become a bit more common since Ireland's economy crashed.
Food: There were no food worries. We had hoped the adventure of being somewhere foreign, as well as eventual hunger and desperation, would force the children to be a bit more adventurous in their diets. We've had some success, but it hardly matters. The kids menu is everywhere. We're never far from chicken nuggets, pasta, pizza or fish sticks ("fish fingers" here). This will comfort parents of picky eaters but may dismay those who want a foreign experience to be truly foreign. It is a small world, after all.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times