This is the first installment of a series of "Camping in Ireland" posts.
While planning for a major milestone birthday, Robert asked what I wanted to do. I suggested a trip to Ireland; he came up with the whole "camping in Ireland" idea and set the wheels in motion. He contacted an English friend who recommended Bunk Campers. They rent campers in different sizes to fit your needs and have locations in the UK (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland. Be prepared: they mostly have manual transmissions. The Aero+, Grande & Europa have an automatic option but it's based on availability.
For our purpose, we hired the Aero. It was perfect for the two of us and gave us more than enough storage. We probably would have been comfortable in the Nomad (a VW bus with a pop-top roof) but it was nice not to have to get the bed ready every night. Plus, it was nice to have a toilet without worrying about trying to find one while we were traveling. Being from the USA (with wide roads and most of Ireland having narrow ones), the Aero was just wide enough to make things interesting when meeting another van or a lorry.
When picking up the camper, Mark at the Dublin office went through everything we needed to know for the camper. Word of advice: Don't just let him show you, let him talk you through it as you do it. This would have saved us a couple of aggravating nights when we stopped. When we arrived, the propane tank was just switched so we had an almost full tank, as well as a full spare tank. There was an error message that Mark didn't know how to fix, so he called another guy over. He told us what to do if we got that error, but we misunderstood and thought we had to do the "fix it" each time we turned the gas on. That resulted in us getting the error message and Robert working through the reset for the first night or 2. Another word of advice: Also, make sure you can open all of the locked compartments (the toilet cassette and most importantly the fuel tank). We lost close to an hour (if not more than an hour) the first time we stopped for fuel because the fuel tank wouldn't open. Robert had a couple of people stop and try to help but they weren't able to open it either. The problem was exacerbated by the St. Patrick's Day Holiday and a lot of places were closed. Someone at the Circle K in Clifden called a mechanic who took part of his holiday to get us back on the road. While I'm on this subject, one more word of advice: Get a couple of numbers in case something happens and you need to contact someone. We only had 1 number and were at the mercy of that 1 person returning our calls, which again took time when we could have been driving to our next destination. The poor guy seems to work really hard and deserves a day off, so we felt bad calling him and leaving a message each time.
We didn't check everything in the camper for broken items. When we stopped for the first night, we discovered the side shades in the van were broken. Luckily the shades on the windshield were in good shape, as well as the side and back blinds in the camper. We also discovered that the screen over the table wouldn't raise. Word of advice: Check all of it before you get going. We made a list as we saw things and made sure they knew when we got back. We weren't charged for any of it, which is a good thing because we left the camper as we found it.
Word of advice: Before you take off on your adventure, check that the cruise control isn't on. After missing a turn in Dublin, Robert had some "practice time" to get used to the van as we drove around Dublin to get on the motorway. Once on the motorway, the van wouldn't go over 27 km. Once he figured out that the cruise control was on and set to 27, he was able to turn it off and we were able to speed up.
Now that you're up and running, you have to find someplace to stay. I made reservations for each night except the first one and the last two nights. The Bunk Campers website states that a "Safe Nights" temporary membership is included; however, we were steered more toward the Park4Night app. We weren't given a username or password to check out Safe Nights and I'm not sure how useful either of those 2 would have been. (We met an English couple toward the end of our stay who said that they found that the Park4Night sites are old and many of them are inundated with campers. He didn't find the app to be very reliable.) We picked up the camper a little later than I originally thought so Mark found a place for us to stay that was roughly halfway between Dublin and Galway. It turned out to be a fantastic place and a great way to start our adventure. We spent our first night in the parking lot of a lodge/marina. The barman called a cab so we could go into town for something to eat since the kitchen was closed by the time we got there. Long story short: we drove into town for "take away", ate in the camper, then went into the bar for drinks and talked with the barman and another couple until 2:00 a.m. (There will be a post on this coming up.) Word of advice: find a decent parking lot and ask the owner/manager if you can spend the night there. We heard that most of the time, as long as you go in and order some food or drinks, you won't be turned away. We did that one other time and both times we were really happy that we did. If you find a decent pull-off on the road, you can stay there as long as you feel safe. We were told you can even park in a field as long as you ask the owner. I'm not sure if you would have to pay; we didn't pay at the places we stayed. On this subject, another word of advice: Don't try to stay in Wicklow; every parking lot we found had a height-restriction bar over the entry to keep campers out.
Everyone told us to just go as fast as we're comfortable going and not be intimidated by the other drivers. We found the Irish to be extremely courteous drivers. We didn't have anyone honking their horn to try to get us to speed up. I couldn't see out of the side mirror, so I don't know if cars were on our tail or not. Robert just pulled off when he could so the other cars could pass. We just took our time and enjoyed the scenery. A word of advice to the passenger: There are so many beautiful sites. It took me a few days to curb my enthusiasm and to stop telling Robert to look to the right/left for ruins or for some incredible views. Another word of advice to the navigator: It takes a little bit of time to get used to the roundabouts and the different roads available. Be patient, take your time, and zoom in to the roundabout before you get there so you can tell the driver exactly what exit to take. Robert kept his Google Maps on; it was pretty reliable. We can't say how reliable the navigation in the van is since we didn't use it. Google Maps was less of a hassle since we're already familiar with it.
In our opinion, this was the best way to really see Ireland. We met amazing people and saw some incredible things that we wouldn't have seen if we had hired a driver, traveled on the motorway, and stayed in B&Bs or hotels. We definitely wouldn't have had some of the "white knuckle" experiences! The only times we saw tourists were when we were in the center of Killarney and when we went to Glendalough. If we ever get back to Ireland or the UK, we would definitely use Bunk Campers again.
Follow along with more recaps and pictures on my personal blog: Life in a Small Town. (The link will take you to a list of the Ireland posts.)