Could the Aran Island’s be Ireland’s ultimate staycation break? Is feidir!
The archipelago of dramatic karst landscapes, hop-scotching into the Atlantic Ocean remain an outlier bastion of Irish culture, language and tradition and while I may not have any islander blood, this week I travelled there to embrace my Celtic routes.
And my timing was perfect. While the islands have long been culturally tied to Connemara due to its maritime history, the new Spirit of Doolin vessel from Doolin2Aran Ferries is now halving crossing times from the Burren to the islands. 45 minutes to Inis Mór? You could say, the Aran Islands and Munster have never been closer.
Leaving Doolin, my journey began with a two hour stopover on Inis Oirr, the smallest and self-proclaimed more charming of the three islands. There’s an instantly jovial feel here; the island almost feeling like a family utopia with its quirky attractions, lively playgrounds and harbourside beach giving the air of an open-air sand pit.
Just off the pier, I hopped aboard Bríd Seoighe’s tractor-powered Wanderly Wagon for a whistle-stop island tour taking in cultural and sightseeing highlights not least the Plassy Shipwreck (offame). Back at Caife Una, owner Una McDonagh fixes me a cuppa while regaling me about island lore, from family knitting heritage to the Inis Oirr’s traditional Brideog dolls. What a brew of culture on this tiny island.
My journey continues on the relative big smoke of the islands, Inis Mór. And my carriage awaits. Islander Pádraig Hernon just started his Aran Off-Road Experience island tours this week and he picks me up in his hefty custom Landrover for a spin around the island. We soak in epic sights like Dun Aonghasa and the Poll na bPeist wormhole before ending at the almost incredulously abandoned Dun Dúchathair fort. “It definitely roots you”, claimed Pádraig. It was hard to argue with him.
My final stint took me to Inish Meáin where I checked in with my absolute diamond of a ban an tí, Vilma Conneely (from Guatemala, no less). “I’ve been running this B&B for 27 years and always wondered what people did all day out on the island!”, she jokes. “But now after lockdown and all my time exploring its beauty, I do!”.
Indeed Inis Meáin makes for incredibly untouched wandering from its spectacular sea cliffs to the fort of Dún Chonchúir. We made our ascent to the latter at sunset; negotiating paddocks of suspicious heifers as we mounted the wonder to reach Inis Meáin’s highest point. With a full moon marking the first night of Lúnasa and the traditional start of harvest, I was certainly reaping from this trip. Visit the Aran Islands - you’ll get a better sense of who you are.
I travelled with the Garrihy family run Doolin2Aran Ferries who operate several daily services from Doolin to the Aran Islands. The crew aboard their new Spirit of Doolin vessel were professional, fun-loving and Covid-safety savvy. And keep an eye out for wildlife - I saw a pod of dolphins on my crossing back to the mainland! Return fares are €25 for Inis Óirr and €28 for Inis Mór; check their website for crossing updates for Inis Meáin. doolin2aranferries.com
On Inis Óirr, Caife Úna offers teas, scones, chowders and sambos while also running butter churning and knitting classes. Joe Watty’s is the pub grub winner on Inis Mór, but with few other island options, have a ‘Plan B’ in the event of queues. We brought a bosca of staples (wine, crackers etc) and then stocked up on perishable items like cheese and salmon at Inis Mor’s decent Spar. Inis Meáin’s only public dining option this season is the lovely island pub (more recommended for its Guinness than its grub).
Hotel Inis Oirr is the best bet for Inis Oirr but as with all options, booking early is key. On Inis Mór, Aran Island Glamping have 4 pax pods from €150 per night. Inis Meáin is worth the visit for the hospitality at Tig Congaile alone. The stay was a highlight of the trip with Vilma’s home-cooking (think fresh mackerel and new spuds for €16) were a daily treat. B&B rates from €120 per night are pricey - but worth it (request a sea-view where possible). bbinismeain.com
Aran Off-Road Experiences offer an excellent insider’s guide to Inis Mór and even having been on the island twice before, they showed me byroads, boreens and views I’d never seen before (from €30; @aranoffroadexperience). Bríd Seoighe runs her Wanderly Wagon tours across Inis Oirr; rates vary due to group size but expect to pay around €10 for a great whistle-stop tour. On Inis Meáin, the island itself is your playground but keep an eye out for yoga retreats.