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All Together IN AN Irish Cottage

May 21, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Mary McNamara is a staff writer for The Times' Southern California Living section

TOURMAKEADY, Ireland — My parents chose Knights Cottage in Tourmakeady for a few good reasons. It is in Mayo, which, after years of travel in Ireland, they consider the loveliest of the counties; it came highly recommended; has a red door and a thatched roof; is nestled in the velvety Partry Mountains overlooking Lough Mask; and is close enough to the city of Galway (40 miles) to be considered semi-urban.

But mostly they chose it because it has three bedrooms and three bathrooms. When planning a multi-generational group vacation, you can't have too many bathrooms.

The McNamara clan has learned this the hard way. Three previous trips to charming-but-one-bathroom rentals in Ireland made clear an essential tenet of family travel: Avoid any potential source of tension you can think of; there will be enough unexpected ones to go around.

And this trip last summer was the most ambitious of all, including, for various lengths of time, 10 of us: my parents, Jim and Jinx, coming from New Mexico; my brother, Jay, and his companion, Steven; me, my husband, Richard, and our then 14-month-old son, Danny Mac, all from Los Angeles; our friend Susan, also from L.A.; and, for a few days only, our cousin, Mary, and her husband, Joel, from Chicago.

That's a pretty big group, especially considering it contains more than a few people who don't like groups. Fortunately, we were of one mind--optimistic--about our destination: the West Country of Ireland. In June. When the yellow gorse that borders every field blooms and blows the air sweet, when the lacy apple blossoms turn country roads into floral tunnels, when the sun coaxes foxglove and wild iris and buttercups and bluebells from the emerald grass.

May, June and July are the fairest months for travel in Ireland, although even then there will be rain and clouds to darken the greens and golds. On those days, the hills and cliffs cut darkly against the sky and the wind wrinkles the skin of lake and river. Wet or dry, chilly or sunny, Ireland is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

And for travelers with a range of ages, interests, mobility and attention span, Ireland may be the perfect vacation spot. Everyone speaks English, the food is familiar and touring can be as simple as strolling down a country lane. For children there are lots of nifty ruins and walled fields to climb and explore, and for grown-ups there is much beauty and peace, free of the rush to beat the crowds to the museums or box office. Yes, the cities, especially Dublin and Galway, are bursting with theaters and restaurants, shops and pubs, but they are still small cities, manageable on foot, with plenty of public benches and places of respite for the less energetic among us.

Renting a house is practical, especially for the eldest and youngest family members. You don't have to eat out at every meal, and you have access to a washer and dryer. (Irish washing machines are slow by U.S. standards, but our whites will never be whiter.) There's also much more privacy and room to spread out than in most hotels, and you have the feeling of belonging, of being part of the landscape, that you don't get even in the most comfortable B&B.

And, especially if your party is a large one, it is easily the least expensive way to travel.

After almost 10 years of Ireland summers, my parents are veteran renters. With the help of a travel agency in New Jersey, they booked the Tourmakeady cottage for six weeks, paying about $3,000 (slightly lower than the normal rate because of the length of their stay). Arriving first, they informed us in the echoing stutter of international phone communication that the place was absolutely beautiful, the Staunton family who owned it was warm and friendly, the weather was fair and fine, and there was a crib but no highchair.

This is another thing we have learned about family traveling: It is always better if one subset agrees to get there first. Two people settling in, finding out where the grocery store is, how the heat works, where the sheets are, is a lot less chaotic than six people arguing over the biggest bedroom.

For those of us with somewhat controlling natures, travel with a group poses a challenge: Sooner or later you learn that all your helpful suggestions about airlines and airports and what to pack and how much money to change and where we should all meet up and remembering to bring Equal because the tea shops don't often have it are falling not only on deaf ears, but also on increasingly annoyed ears. Fortunately, this time around I was traveling with my toddler, which kept my obsessiveness fully occupied, from procuring his passport to debating whether to bring diapers or buy them there. (I brought, a coals-to-Newcastle move for which I was roundly ridiculed.)

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