Four trains, five hours of travel time and one excitable seven year old in tow – honestly could any Christmas experience be worth it?
Frankly, for the Fota Island Resort’s Beyond Christmas Experience, the only answer is yes.
Fota Island’s expansive woodland sets the scene for a Christmas production that even adults can immerse themselves in the magic of.
With a blanket of snow coating the ground and trees, more fairy lights than even the most enthusiastic festive decorator could come up with, and a trip to the Snow Kingdom ‘25 levels underground,’ the Beyond Experience brings a whole new dimension to your usual ‘meeting Santa’ gig.
The trip from Galway to Cork was taxing with my little sister Isabella, but finally, after many stereotypical cries of ‘are we there yet?’ we hopped off the train at the oh-so idyllic Glenthough station and made our way to the resort.
The concierge informed us of the many activities provided at Fota Island Resort, and detailed the various walking trails we could pursue while there, including the Fairy Walking Trail, at which point Bella’s excitement levels intensified.
Despite arriving ahead of check-in time, our room was ready. We were shown to our double room, with a cot handily set up in the corner for her nibs.
Waiting for her on the bed was a take-home puppy teddy, and exceptionally cute touch, from the ‘adopt me’ work sheet rolled up beside him to the ‘Fota Island’ stitched to the bottom of his paw.
I managed to hang up a few of our bits and bobs while she filled out the sheet, and we were ready to descend from our temporary second floor home in search of food.
Dining in the Amber Lodge was a bit of an expedition for Isabella, who questioned why anyone would employ the use of cloth napkins rather than paper to the extremely accommodating waiting staff.
The kids menu featured all of the usual suspects, and she settled for the Irish beef burger and chips. I went for the grilled halloumi, red cabbage and beetroot wrap, which was steep at €17.00 but undoubtedly good.
On our way to the dining room, herself had spotted the sign for the swimming pool, and made it her mission in life to squeeze in a swim before seeing Santa that evening.
With kid’s pool hours being from 9am-11am and 4pm-6pm, it was perfect timing, so we donned our swimming togs, robes and slippers, and took the separate elevator down to the spa. We got about an hour of swimming (me) and attempting to swim (Isabella) in before we dashed back up to the room for a quick shower, change, and scrub of the teeth to make our appointment with Mr Clause.
The stroll into the festive experience was an experience of it's own, with the entrance to the Beyond Christmas Experience hosting a surrounding Christmas market, which anyone can attend.
Once we handed our tickets over to the first two of many elves we would come across, Bella was led through the maze of snow filled forest to Santa's grotto by a third elf, who helped her give Santa's front door a loud knock.
The man himself was waiting to see Isabella, who was top of his nice list (at which I suppressed laugh) and he made sure she got the perfect present and delighted in her news about losing teeth and learning to ride a bike with no stabilisers.
Once our appointment with Santa drew to a close, it was on to see the real-life reindeer in their paddock, which awarded an opportunity to create your own reindeer food to sprinkle on the grass at home for Rudolph and co to consume.
Mrs Clause was also on hand to chat to the children about their year.
Candy Cane lane, decorated with fairy lights, the aforementioned candy canes and acres of festive cheer led us to the Gnome Mine, which allowed us to descend underground through the ice tunnels to the Snow Kingdom.
The Snow Kingdom was a fairytale playground for the kids, who had the chance to get their sleigh driving licences, dress up as princesses, and sit with the Snow Queen on her Frozen-esque ice throne.
There were the usual ball pits and soft obstacle courses, as well as free elf-made ice cream for kids (and adults) and games hosted by the elves. As a chaperone, you could just sit back, enjoy your ice cream and let the kids off if you wanted.
At this stage Isabella was itching to open her present, and having been on the experience for two hours at this point, she was ready for her bed.
The next morning, the same bright and bubbly waitress who had served us our dinner the night before brought us our breakfast car, and kindly asked Bella how she had gotten on with meeting Santa and all the elves last night, which added to the personal and friendly tone of the entire trip (and definitely made Bella feel extra special once again).
Breakfast (a medley of continental and full Irish) was wolfed down – Bella particularly sang the praises of the hot chocolate and fruit salad – and we contemplated our plans for the day.
Unfortunately, the rain that had been threatening to fall the entire trip had arrived, so the Fairy Trail expedition was delegated to ‘next time’ and we opted for a second swim and very quick adventure around the grounds instead.
All too soon it was time to pack our bags and leave the warm, festive atmosphere of Fota Resort and head back to the scenic beachside train station that serves the hotel and grounds.
To sum up how much Isabella was enthralled by the experience, I'll leave you with this - we weren't on the train for five minutes and she was already begging to return next year.