A weekend away used to be the chance to seek peace, relaxation and culture. But now that our lives are ruled by a toddler, we look for adventure, noise, good changing facilities and exotic animals to point at excitedly.
Katie, 2, had never been to Dublin before, so my husband and I were looking forward to seeing the city through little eyes, having been countless times ourselves. Gone are our days of having a pint in Temple Bar (thank gawd), now it was time to see what Dublin offers in terms of 'small' fun.
Our base for the weekend was the Carlton Hotel in Blanchardstown, a great spot for many reasons. Firstly, its location, less than 10 miles outside the city centre, but also just two hours door-to-door from Belfast in the car. Secondly, it has oodles of free parking (many's a parking nightmare I've suffered in Dublin city centre) and, thirdly, it prides itself on being child-friendly. Our family room was superb – spacious, stylish and modern with an extra sofa area.
The three of us arrived at the four-star hotel late on the Friday night, had a peaceful night's sleep before getting up early the next morning to make the most of the sunshine and the city.
After a hearty breakfast in the hotel's Time restaurant (which offered everything from a full cooked breakfast to fruit and yoghurt, if you're healthier than me), we set off for Dublin Zoo, which was less than a 15-minute drive away.
The zoo, one of the world's oldest, takes up 28 hectares of the Phoenix Park and was very easy to get to. It boasts more than 400 animals from every corner of the planet – from the small and quiet to the fierce and loud. We had an idyllic morning, strolling in the sunshine from one enclosure to the next, pointing excitedly at various beasts, from lions and tigers, to a snow leopard, flamingos, zebras, penguins and a very loud sea lion.
As we walked along, we were transported from Ireland to the Asian forests, African savannas and rainforests. Our favourite part was the African savanna, a dry and dusty plain where the giraffes roamed around munching on trees, mingling with zebras and looking right at home in the blazing sun. We watched in delight as an adorable baby rhino frolicked around her mother's feet nearby. Katie couldn't believe her eyes.
We could easily have stayed all day, but we wanted to go in to the city centre for lunch, which we found at a lovely Italian restaurant close to the bustling O'Connell Street. After a bit of shopping and pointing out important landmarks to an oblivious two-year-old, we headed back to the hotel.
Dinner that evening was again in the Time restaurant, where the staff offered to set up a table in the garden on account of the hot weather. We had a lovely spot in the fading sunshine where we dined like lords on a three-course meal – topped off with a much-needed ice cream. The children's menu was particularly impressive as it offered only healthy options. The staff in the restaurant were typical of the rest of the hotel – attentive, friendly and good at making you feel well looked after.
Some of the other families having dinner outside were also from Northern Ireland, there to take advantage of Carlton's Mini Explorers Kids Club, which it runs at six of its hotels across Ireland. This involves taking the kids off your hands and tiring them out while you have a bit of a break. For youngsters between the ages of four and 12, they are collected from your room in the morning (if you want a lie-in) and are fed and kept busy with the likes of arts and crafts, a nature trail, treasure hunts and mini-Olympics. By all accounts, they (and their parents) love it.
We had another early start on the Sunday. Belfast was calling us home – but not just yet. We were headed for Tayto Park, a huge theme park close to Ashbourne, in Co. Meath, which was just a short detour off our way home.
It's a strange concept – half fun park, half exotic zoo, all themed around Tayto crisps (the southern ones, not our own legendary cheese and onions). The 55-acre park packs in a lot of family fun. It has adventure playgrounds for all ages as well as an animal park, with residents including chickens, rabbits, cougars, mountain lions and even an entire herd of buffalo. We were allowed to pet lambs and kid goats, which made Katie's day. You don't have to eat any crisps, but they are lovely and you can tour the factory. We even tried a Tayto cheese and onion chocolate bar – nowhere near as yucky as it sounds.
The extreme adventure zone boasts the longest and fastest zip wire in Ireland. From a platform 20 metres high, Chris and I both flung ourselves off and flew 230 metres across a field – ridiculously good fun. We ended up lingering at the park for five hours and still didn't get round everything, which of course is a great excuse to plan another trip back. Purely for Katie's entertainment, you understand.
Staying there: Claire Harrison stayed as a guest of the Carlton Hotel, Blanchardstown. For information on room rates and offers, log on to carltonhotelblanchardstown.com
Visiting there: Entry to Dublin Zoo costs €16 per adult. Children under three go free. For more information see www.dublinzoo.ie
Entry to Tayto Park costs €12. Children under three go free. Log on to taytopark.ie/park/ for more information.