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Have dog, will travel – why pet-friendly trips are booming during the pandemic

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Nothing says adventure like a dog in the back seat of your car.

It’s that tongue-out, twinkle-eyed panting in the rearview mirror, anticipating the next road-trip stop. Ireland has become an increasingly dog-friendly nation of late – not least in 2020, when so many of us are staycationing and the availability of kennels and would-be dog-sitters has slumped. Keen to see how pet-friendly travel has changed during the pandemic, I took my own canine sidekick, Vipp, for a trip out west – for a bit of adventure and, hopefully, to enjoy a little bonding along the way.

Vipp, a seven-year-old American golden retriever, was rehomed with my family in 2015, his career as a guide dog having been cut short at puppy school. With that early retirement, he quickly adapted to having a travel writer in his pack and, as I’m always keen to promote a dog-friendlier Ireland, he’s had to deal with me being a bit of a “stage dad” over the years, too. He’s appeared on everything from Ireland AM to Today with Maura and Dáithí – a leash slip-up outside RTÉ studios once even saw him run amok down the set of Fair City.

Beyond the razzle-dazzle, Vipp lives his best life as my travel buddy, tagging along on everything from wild camping in West Cork to cruising on the River Shannon or Northern Lights-hunting in Donegal. I couldn’t ask for a more faithful plus-one. He’s a great wingman, is always up for an activity and makes a great hot-water bottle replacement in a tent. A recent trip took us to the Burren to try our hand (and paw) at stand-up paddle boarding.

Venturing west, our first pit-stop is at Moher Cottage in Clare’s cliffside townland of Liscannor. The café was a finalist in this year’s Irish Independent Reader Travel Awards, in the Best Irish Welcome category – and, fortunately for us, that fáilte extends to four-legged customers too.

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All aboard: Thomas and Vipp paddleboarding together in Kinvara harbour. Photo: Julia Dunin Photography All aboard: Thomas and Vipp paddleboarding together in Kinvara harbour. Photo: Julia Dunin Photography

All aboard: Thomas and Vipp paddleboarding together in Kinvara harbour. Photo: Julia Dunin Photography

All aboard: Thomas and Vipp paddleboarding together in Kinvara harbour. Photo: Julia Dunin Photography

“We love to see people arrive with their pooches,” owner Caitríona Considine tells me. “So many people have been bringing their dogs with them on their staycations to Clare this year.” And while many businesses I encounter still appear unaware that dogs are now permitted in Irish cafés and restaurants (a repeal of the 1950s rule prohibiting dogs from places where food is served now limits that to places where food is prepared), Caitríona wants all guests to feel at home.

“Now that so many locals are working remotely, we even have regulars popping in at lunch, too,” she adds. “We have Saoirse, a Bernese Mountain pup born in lockdown, and Prince the sheepdog, who often pops over from the neighbouring farm while his owner is busy milking.” Vipp’s eyes are on her own golden retriever, Sadie.

After a bracing stroll along the Cliffs of Moher, our journey continues through the karst to Gregans Castle Hotel. Gregans is a dog-friendly, luxury accommodation, but minus the bells and whistles of the pet-pampering packages we see in many hotels nowadays. “We’ve always found that properties that welcome and respect pets tend to be ones that we personally like to stay in, as they tend to be less overtly formal,” says owner Simon Haden, an animal-lover himself. “But, acknowledging that we’re at the luxurious end of the hospitality sector, we wanted to do this in a way that complemented the ethos of the hotel.”

For Vipp and I, that means staying in the Burren Suite, one of the hotel’s five pet-friendly rooms, where French doors open out to an idyllic laurel-hemmed garden. “This year, we’ve definitely seen an increase in pet owners staying with us,” Simon adds, “but that’s somewhat explained by the fact that normally we have a high foreign-guest occupancy – and they rarely bring pets.” And while Gregans do limit the number of pets in-house (like most hotels, for example, they are not allowed in the bar or restaurant) they remain proudly dog-friendly. “We make no secret of our pet-friendly stance and hope to continue welcoming them in the future,” says Simon.

The next morning, following a breakfast of local Burren delights (me) and a helping of low-calorie kibble (Vipp), we are both fully fuelled for our offshore adventure. Finding a dog-friendly activity in Ireland can be tricky: golden retrievers on kayaks may be a big hit on Instagram, but they’re a little tougher to find in real life. But one such outfitter is Wet Mongrel Adventures, who offer dog-friendly paddle-boarding lessons in Kinvara, on the Galway slab of the Burren.

“Why wouldn’t I be a dog-friendly business?” asks Ian Walsh, who has a nine-month-old Newfoundland puppy, Mena. “I don’t think Ireland is dog-friendly enough yet and paddle boarding is the perfect activity for both dog and owner to enjoy together. A young dog will learn to be calm and an old dog will enjoy the ride!”

After Mena and Vipp acquaint themselves with a lively romp along the quayside, it’s SUP time. Safety and comfort (it’s a frigid 7°C when we visit) come first: I’m cosied up in my wetsuit and life jacket, while Vipp is fitted with his own doggy life vest. We start off with some drills on the pier to set our rookie minds at ease: first, hopping over the board together like an agility-course obstacle, then sitting Vipp on the board as I walk around it, then a little paddle motion-mimicking.

“Forget human mindfulness-preachers,” Ian says. “Dogs are the original beings who live in the present. So when you’re paddling with your dog, there’s no better teacher – they just seem to know what to do!”

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Vipp at Moher cottage Vipp at Moher cottage

Vipp at Moher cottage

Vipp at Moher cottage

It’s then time to put our practice to the test and, kneeling on the board with Vipp in front of me, we lunge off the slipway and into the harbour. And we’re off. The first 20 yards go well. But then, gliding further out into the blue, Vipp swishes his tail into the sea and dunks his back leg underwater – in a manoeuvre that suggests he’s about to jump. It’s time to act quickly: I hoist his hindquarters back on to the board with a reaffirming pat. He’s back on board and we seem to reach a mutual understanding that if one of us is going into this harbour, we both are.

Nerves settled, we’re soon arcing our way around Kinvara Harbour, with Ian offering supportive instructions (“Stay centred!”) from his own board with Mena. Already feeling like I’m riding a unicycle, now I just have to juggle that stand-up part. But juggle I do, and, after engaging my core and quads to tensions previously unknown, I’m fully upright. Perhaps instinctively trying to lower our centre of gravity, or perhaps currently more engrossed in birdwatching, Vipp’s now steady and relaxed – giving a cursory side glance to Ian and Mena as they glide up beside him.

Through trust and teamwork, we are finally now paddle boarding. I guess, just like on dry land, myself and Vipp keep each other afloat.

Take three: Doggy must-dos

Moher Cottage

Moher Cottage’s panoramic terrace near Liscannor makes a great spot to take a road-trip break with the madra. Caitríona’s homemade fudge is a must-try too – you’ll also find the dog bowl stocked with fresh water. mohercottage.com

Gregans Castle Hotel

Gregans in Ballyvaughan is offering an ‘Autumn in the Burren’ deal with two nights’ B&B and gourmet dinner on one evening from €269pps. It’s requested that dogs are kept away from common areas; €25 charge per dog per stay. gregans.ie

Wet Mongrel

Ian Walsh welcomes all-level paddle boarders in Kinvara, with two-hour sessions from €35 and dog lessons from €40 per hour. Gear and boards are provided and beginners can do a practice run without their dog first! wetmongrel.ie

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