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 selected a VBT biking vacation: Ireland: Galway & Connemara Coast. The luck o’ the Irish was surely with us, because this 7-day guided tour included an overnight stay on one of the stunning Aran Islands 30 miles off the western coast of Ireland.
The three Aran Islands — Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, and Inis Oírr — live up to their charming nickname: “The Islands of Saints and Scholars.” They’re famous for rugged landscapes, quaint stone cottages, and those distinctive low stone walls.
We took a passenger ferry (no car ferries available) from the Irish town of Rossaveal to the Inis Mór (also spelled Inishmore), the largest of the three islands with a population of 800. This breathtaking island has a lot to offer, and I found joy everywhere. Here are some highlights.
1. Bike The Coastal Road With Panoramic Vistas
We had a clear and sunny day to ride the easy 5 miles from Kilronan Harbor along the low coastal route to our overnight lodging. We shared the simple rural road with other bikers, walkers, and rented horse-drawn carriages, past classic low stone walls that “fenced off” cattle, sheep, and horses.
2. Eat At The Charming Tigh Nan Phaidí Cafe
A quaint thatched-roof cottage is home to Tigh Nan Phaidí (also spelled Teach Nan Phaidi), an adorable little cafe that serves up what many (including me) say is the best food on the island. It’s a tiny place with plenty of “made from scratch” eats, where you order at the counter and then grab a table, ideally outside to enjoy the weather and the views.
Pro Tip: When you go, you won’t go wrong with ordering the Guinness Special (which is “Guinness goodness” times three):
- Authentic Guinness Irish stew
- Guinness chocolate cake
- And, of course … a glass of Guinness!
3. Stay At The Delightful Kilmurvey House
Many visitors come to the island just for the 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 that overlook the gardens or the sea. Formerly the home of a family nicknamed the “Ferocious O’Flahertys” (oh, if those walls could talk!), it’s been renovated in keeping with the old-world charm of the property, area, and island. 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 atop a 300-foot cliff with towering views and steep drop-offs, Dun Aenghus (also spelled Dun Aonghasa) is a sacred Druid fort.
There’s some discrepancy on the age (2,000-3,000+ years old) of the fort. The fort is made of a series of four concentric half-rock wall circles. The original shape was likely oval, but because it sits right on the brink of the cliff, experts say part of the fort has collapsed with the cliff into the sea over time.
There are also varying theories on 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. Because Dun means “fort of a king or chieftain,” they say Dun Aengus is a great example of how Aran Island natives lived in “chiefdoms.” With its impressive cliff location, it’s easy to imagine how powerful and wealthy Aran Island chiefs could control the western sea passages from this vantage point.
Outside the walls, we saw a system of stone slabs with jagged edges, set up in a way that looked like it would surely be able to slow an enemy attack.
In any case, it makes for a fascinating tour (for a nominal fee), and the views here are incredible.
5. Enjoy Cliff Views: The Aran Islands To The Distant Cliffs of Moher
Just outside the fort, look southeast to see the dramatic cliffs of the Aran Islands and in the distance, Ireland’s iconic Cliffs of Moher. Earlier in our VBT trip, we had seen the Cliffs of Moher up close, but I loved getting this distant look at them again from Inis Mor, many miles away.
Pro Tip: The path to the fort and cliffs is about a 25-minute hike, and you’ll be glad you’re wearing sturdy boots or hiking shoes. The path starts as gravel and inclines, not steep but steady, eventually through and over rough, natural rock. While we’re talking safety, take caution on the cliffs, too, because there are no fences or guardrails.
Pro Tip: Want 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, Like Kids On Bikes
Walking these rural roads was a treasure. We saw four young children on bikes … such a simple, everyday thing. This is the kind of “slice of life” stuff I love. I captured a photo of the last little girl, pedaling after the older kids (siblings, friends?) on her bike, in the normalcy of their day. To them, this island isn’t a two-day vacationer’s dream, they just call it home.
7. Slow Down To See The Wonder (Even In The Rain)
On our second day on the island, we awoke to cloudy skies and rain. After breakfast, we had a choice to bike the 5 miles back to the harbor or to ride in the VBT support van. Dean and I, never ones to shy away from biking in the rain, decided to ride. Our guide said the low, coastal road was more sheltered, so we would ride back the way we had come the day before.
What surprised me is that, as we retraced our route, this experience in the rain — a steady rain decreasing to a sprinkle — was still wonderful. For starters, unlike the day before when the weather was perfect, there was no one else on the roads this morning. All this natural Irish beauty, all to ourselves!
See (And Hear) Barking Seals
The day before, we had passed a seal colony lookout. No seals. This time, we not only saw seals, we heard them barking and bellowing! They had a lot to say, and we stopped to listen for a bit. What a sound!
The Old Irish Goat
As we pedaled along, I saw verdant vines that had crept over the low rock walls around a field, a very typical scene on the island. But wait. What’s this? I noticed a nondescript white blob 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 close as I can tell from a web search, he’s actually called “the old Irish goat.” Perfect! Where was this guy yesterday in the sunshine when the roads were busy with other bikers, walkers, and carriages? Not one for crowds, he apparently made his debut today, and I was delighted to see it.
“Pray For The Soul”
As I mentioned, low rock walls are not unusual on the island; they’re everywhere. But on this rainy ride (more of a sprinkle by this time), I noticed a tombstone built right into one of the walls. I must have biked right by it yesterday, but today, in soggy conditions, I was biking more slowly and noticed more.
I stopped to read the moving inscription: “Pray for the soul of Lawrence McDonoch, shot by crown forces, Dec. 19, 1920. RIP.”
If You Go
Some of these experiences are common: If you take the passenger ferry to Inis Mor, you can find many sights and delights on the low coastal road. You can feast on Guinness three ways in the lovely thatch-roofed café with the flowering baskets and stay overnight at the charming Kilmurvey House. You can tour the Druid fort and see majestic cliffs that’ll take your breath away.
But … will you see Irish kids riding bikes, barking seals, an old Irish goat, or a hundred-plus-year-old tombstone built into a low rock wall? Perhaps not, but if you slow down and savor it, I’m sure you’ll see equally wondrous things that will surprise and delight you — and give you so much joy — on Ireland’s stunning Aran Islands.