I’m always excited to spend time in Ireland, for some reason the country and I just click. On my recent trip to the Emerald Isle though, I was excited for a special experience – a trip to the Aran Islands. I can’t explain it, but I love visiting small islands, whether it’s Fogo Island in Canada or the Westmans in Iceland. Not only do they normally feature incredible scenery and landscapes, but the people are generally friendly, fun and a little quirky. The Aran Islands promised all of this and more, but since I didn’t know a lot about them before visiting, I thought today I would share the basics on what they are, where to find them and what to do once you arrive.
What are they and how to get there?
The Aran Islands are a group of three islands located in Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Largely isolated throughout the centuries, their remote location has defined culture on the islands even up to today. Early Christian monks sought out the islands for that very reason, finding a quiet place removed from the world where they could pray and worship in peace. Today the islands are famous for their adherence to not only traditional Irish culture and lifestyle, but language. Irish Gaelic is the principal language, although naturally English is spoken as well. Students from around the country spend a semester or two on the Aran Islands if they want to improve their own language skills, guaranteeing that this almost lost tongue will continue well into the future. Getting there isn’t as difficult as I had imagined. There are a couple of different ferry choices depending on where in Ireland you’re leaving. I was in Galway, so I took the 45-minute ferry ride from Rossaveal. The ferries run several times a day depending on the season and you can even leave in the morning and return in the evening, which is how most tourists visit. There are three islands, but Inishmore is the largest and most visited and also has the most robust infrastructure for tourists. That being said, it’s a small place with just 900 residents, so the few B&Bs and hostels typically fill up fast, especially during the busy summer months. The ferries are passenger only – no cars – but once you get to Inishmore it’s easy enough to get around either through a tour guide, group tour or rented bikes.
Spend time in Galway first
My big regret was not spending enough time in Galway before leaving for the Aran Islands. Yes, I spent the night in Galway, but only arrived late in the afternoon and heavily jet lagged. So, while I did walk around the city, I didn’t get to know it as well as I should have. That being said, what I did see I loved and almost instantly fell head over heels for the community. I was late though because I had grand plans to drive the coastal road, segments of the Wild Atlantic Way that were new to me. I was excited to finally visit places like the Cliffs of Moher and other, lesser-known spots along the famed Irish coast. While I had good weather for most of the week, those first couple of days were rough and by the time I reached my first stop on the coastal road I could tell that the weather gods were not with me that day. Fog as think as I’ve ever seen followed me for most of the day, lifting only as I reached Galway city itself. I suppose that was a sign, I should’ve started there from the beginning, but I didn’t waste any time once I finally arrived and set out to explore as much of the city as I could.
Enjoying a hotel located along the waterfront, I started at the old Spanish Arch before meandering my way through the colorful city. Galway is famous for its artsy, laid-back vibe and even on a Monday afternoon the pedestrian streets were hopping with activity. Shops, bars and restaurants filled the downtown area, and if it was that active on a Monday I can only imagine how much fun the weekends must be. Traditional Irish culture also seeps out throughout the city, partly for the tourists I imagine but also thanks to the history of County Galway itself. The region is home to the largest population of Irish-speakers in the country, and that culture comes through loud and clear whether through the impromptu ceilidh jam sessions on the streets, or the many Claddagh ring shops lining the pedestrian way. I finished my evening the way I love to finish most of my evenings in Ireland, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of a pub and some light bites watching people come and go. There are seemingly endless choices in Galway, but I settled on McSwiggans Restaurant & Café Bar, which has both a relaxed pub as well as a more refined restaurant. With more than 30 years experience as one of the city’s top eateries, it was the ideal finish to a fun day in County Galway.
As much as I enjoyed my brief time in Galway, I was incredibly excited for my introduction to the Aran Islands. The drive to Rossaveal was quick and easy, and I joined a full complement of passengers onboard the Aran Island Ferry en route to Inishmore. Even though I was booked to spend the night on Inishmore, my time there was still sadly brief. When you visit be sure to spend at least two days on the island, not only to see everything but to just enjoy being there, taking it slow and easy and soaking up the culture. Regardless, I was excited to make the most of my day thanks to my guide for the day, Cyril o Flaherty. I dropped off my bags at the Pierhouse B&B and joined Cyril for a fun day exploring the island. Cyril’s family has lived on Inishmore for as long as anyone can remember, and his love of the island and the people who call it home is worn proudly on his sleeve. I plan on writing a more exhaustive look at Inishmore, so I’ll spare those details today, but suffice it to say that my day with Cyril flew by as we drove around the island, visiting his favorite spots. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a place as unique as Inishmore with a true local, stopping off to say hi to friends and trekking through fields to find that perfect photo spot.
After a long day of seeing the best of the island, I relaxed a bit before walking down the road, there’s really only one, to dinner at the Bayview Restaurant. There aren’t too many dinner options on the island, but no doubt this is the best with a sophisticated but tasty menu with kind and gracious service to match. It was the ideal end to a perfect day, and I never slept as well as I did that night.
Up early the next morning for the first ferry back to the mainland, the sun had made its appearance and I was sad to leave as Inishmore was bathed in that elusive sunlight. As with all such places though, I know I’ll be back. Not just to revisit those natural landscapes, but to spend time on what is without a doubt one of the most unique and interesting islands in the world.