Ireland is a bucket list destination and for good reason. My husband, Dean and I wanted to combine a trip to the Emerald Isle with our love of cycling so we chose a VBT Cycling Holiday: Ireland: Galway & Connemara Coast. Luck of the Irish was certainly with us as this 7 day guided tour included an overnight stay on one of the stunning Aran Islands 30 miles off the west coast of Ireland.
The three Aran Islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr – live up to their charming nickname: ‘The Isles of Saints and Scholars’. They are famous for rugged landscapes, quaint stone houses and those characteristic low stone walls.
We took a passenger ferry (no car ferries available) from the Irish town of Rossaveal to Inis Mór (also spelled Inishmore), the largest of the three islands with a population of 800. This stunning island has much to offer and I found joy everywhere. Here are some highlights.
1. Cycle the coastal road with panoramic views
We had a clear and sunny day to drive the easy 5 miles from Kilronan Harbor along the low coast road to our overnight accommodation. We shared the easy country lane with other cyclists, hikers and hired horse-drawn carriages, past classic low stone walls ‘closing’ cattle, sheep and horses.
2. Eat at the charming Tigh Nan Phaidí cafe
Housed in a quaint thatched cottage, Tigh Nan Phaidi (also spelled Teach Nan Phaidi) is a delightful little cafe that serves what many (myself included) consider the best food on the island. It’s a tiny place with lots of freshly made food where you order at the counter and then grab a table, ideally outside to enjoy the weather and the view.
Pro tip: If you go, you won’t go wrong ordering the Guinness Special (that’s “Guinness goodness” times three):
- Authentic Guinness Irish Stew
- Guinness Chocolate Cake
- And of course… a glass of Guinness!
3. Stay at the lovely Kilmurvey House
Many visitors only come to the island for a day; We were thrilled to spend a night there. Dating back to the 18th century, Kilmurvey House is a wonderful place to stay with 12 rooms overlooking the gardens or the sea. Formerly the home of a family nicknamed the “Ferocious O’Flahertys” (oh, if these walls could talk!), it has been renovated to retain the old world charm of the property, area and island. The bountiful breakfast options included homemade granola, scones, porridge (with just a drop of Irish whiskey), smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, bagels and more.
4. Hike to the impressive Dun Aengus Hillfort
Perched on a 300-foot cliff with formidable views and sheer drop-offs, Dun Aenghus (also spelled Dun Aonghasa) is a sacred Druid stronghold.
There are some discrepancies as to the age (2,000-3,000+ years old) of the fort. The fort consists of a series of four concentric semicircles of rock walls. The original shape was probably oval, but because it’s right on the edge of the cliff, experts say that over time, part of the fort collapsed into the sea with the cliff.
There are also different theories about the purpose of the fort. Artifacts found on site support the theory that the fort was a center for spiritual and ceremonial events.
Others believe it was used for military advantage. Since dun means ‘fortress of a king or chief’, they say Dun Aengus is a great example of how the native people of the Aran Islands lived in ‘chief’s domains’. With its impressive clifftop location, it is easy to imagine how powerful and prosperous the chiefs of the Aran Islands could have been from this vantage point in controlling the western sea passages.
Outside the walls we saw a system of stone slabs with jagged edges, set up in a way that looked like they could safely slow down an enemy attack.
Either way, it’s a fascinating tour (for a small fee), and the views here are incredible.
5. Enjoy the Cliff Views: The Aran Islands to the distant Cliffs of Moher
Just outside the fort look south-east to see the dramatic cliffs of the Aran Islands and in the distance Ireland’s famous Cliffs of Moher. We had seen the Cliffs of Moher up close early on our VBT trip but I loved seeing this distant view of them again from Inis Mor many miles away.
Pro Tip: The walk to the fort and cliffs takes around 25 minutes and you’ll be glad you’re wearing sturdy boots or walking shoes. The trail starts off as gravel and climbs, not steeply but steadily, eventually becoming rough natural rock throughout. Also, be careful on the cliffs as there are no fences or crash barriers.
Pro tip: Fancy a break after the hike? If you dare, take a dip (or just dip your toes) in the Atlantic Ocean at Kilmurvey Beach. We traveled in June and the water was still a bit chilly. Some might call it refreshing!
6. Enjoy slice-of-life opportunities such as: B. Children on bicycles
Walking these rural roads was a treasure. We saw four little kids on bikes… such a simple, everyday thing. That’s the kind of slice of life stuff I love. I snapped a photo of the last little girl pedaling after the older kids (siblings, friends?) on her bike in the normalcy of their day. For them, this island is not a two-day vacationer’s dream, they simply call it home.
7. Slow down to see the miracle (even in the rain)
On our second day on the island, we woke up to overcast skies and rain. After breakfast we had the choice of biking the 5 miles back to the port or riding in the VBT support van. Dean and I, never afraid to ride our bikes in the rain, decided to ride. Our guide said the low coastal road was more sheltered so we would drive back the way we came the day before.
What surprised me was that as we retrace our route, that experience in the rain – a steady rain falling to a drizzle – was still wonderful. Unlike the day before when the weather was perfect, nobody was out on the streets this morning. All that natural Irish beauty, all to ourselves!
See (and hear) seals barking.
The day before we had passed a seal colony lookout point. No seals. Not only did we see seals this time, we heard them bark and roar! They had a lot to say and we stopped to listen a little. What a noise!
The Old Irish Goat
As we cycled on I saw green vines creeping over the low cliffs around a field, a very typical sight on the island. But wait. What is that? I noticed a nondescript white speck in the distance, so I stopped my bike, pulled out my camera, and zoomed in…
A goat? Yes, a goat. A magnificent Irish goat. As far as I can tell from a web search, his real name is “the old Irish goat”. Perfect! Where was this guy yesterday in the sunshine when the streets were busy with other cyclists, hikers and carriages? Not one for the masses, it apparently made its debut today and I was delighted to see it.
“Pray for the Soul”
As I mentioned, low cliff faces are not uncommon on the island; They are everywhere. But on that rainy ride (more of a splash at the time) I noticed a tombstone built right into one of the walls. I must have passed right by it yesterday, but today, in wet conditions, I slowed down and noticed more.
I stopped to read the moving inscription: “Pray for the soul of Lawrence McDonoch, shot by Crown Forces, December 19, 1920. RIP.”
when you go
Some of these experiences are common: If you take the passenger ferry to Inis Mor, there are many sights and delights to be found on the low coastal road. Enjoy three ways of Guinness in the lovely thatched café with its flowered baskets and stay in charming Kilmurvey House. You can tour the Druids Fort and see majestic cliffs that will take your breath away.
But… do you see Irish children on bicycles, barking seals, an old Irish goat or a tombstone over a hundred years old built into a low cliff face? Maybe not, but if you slow down and enjoy it, you’re sure to see equally wondrous things to surprise and delight you – and bring you so much joy – to Ireland’s stunning Aran Islands.