Cycling on the Aran Islands
As the ferry pulled away from Rossaveal, in County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made the time before to go to the Aran Islands. When I was last in this part of the country, I peered off the Cliffs of Moher, drove through the rocky Burren, visited the most famous Dolmen in the area, and the whole time, the Aran Islands were there just off the coast, just out of reach for the time I had.
Then recently I was asked to write a series of articles on different outdoor adventure ideas in Ireland as summer approaches. My mind immediately returned to the Aran Islands and stories I’d heard about cheap bike rentals and historic sites. After a bit of research, we hit the road from Dublin to Galway last weekend to take our own little bike tour. A new motorway now connects Dublin and Galway, reducing the drive from over 3 hours to just about 2. Before we knew it, we were boarding the ferry bound for one of Ireland’s most intriguing destinations.
Although it was almost June a cool breeze blew off of the Atlantic. The 45-minute ferry ride brought us to the harbor of Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands. Right at the end of the pier was a hut renting bicycles for 10 euros a day. Like many things in Ireland, the transaction was completely informal, and we were pointed in the direction of rows of bicycles to choose our companion for the day. Handed a map, we were patted on the back and attention shifted to the next customer.
The Aran Islands is one of those places where its easy to feel like a voyeur. From the seat of a bicycle, you will whizz past senior citizen couples sitting outside drinking tea and reading the newspaper, a farmer feeding his cows, and children at play during an afternoon break from school. The 800 or so locals don’t seem to mind much though – many of them work in tourism and are used to the bicycles that endlessly circle the island, visiting attractions from one end to the other.
The Irish language is still very much alive in the Aran Islands. As we began our cycle, along the main harbor, up through the town, and finally zooming along the coast, the unfamiliar language was all around us. I was reminded of a comical advertisement for Guinness: there was a terrible rainstorm and 3 men in a boat were trying to row from the mainland to the Aran Islands. Lovingly packed into the boat was a keg of Guinness, and at the bottom of the screen was the Irish for, ‘it’s coming’.
A trip to the Aran Islands is transporting. Being spring, there were newborn animals all across the island, from calves to ponies to a mother swan leading her young across a still pond. I slammed on my breaks each time we came across one, simply munching on some grass or relaxing in the sun. The coastal route passes by a beach where we were told seals like to relax when the tide is out. When we arrived, the tide was out, but no seals. Upon taking a quick look in the provided telescope, we saw the spotted creatures playfully lounging a couple hundred yards from shore. In the first hour, I had already completely fallen for the islands.
We continued our trip to the heritage site of Dun Aengus. This prehistoric fort dates back thousands of years and is perched on top of a cliff at one end of the island. When we arrived, there was a place to park your bicycle, and no locks were provided. On such a small island you had to trust that your bike would be there upon your return. 3 euros later we were hiking up to the fort. While the structure itself was impressive, the highlight is definitely the cliffs. You won’t find ropes here – so hold on to your kids and creep as close to the edge as you dare.
After the hike down, we found our bicycles just where we’d left them. We faced a steep incline, but then we were once again whizzing downhill enjoying the fresh breeze. There are a few more sites to see across the island, but we had to head back to the harbor to catch the last ferry back to the mainland. After a quick glance in the Aran sweater shop, I got chatting with one of the locals who operates a horse and buggy tour company. He had the most striking blue eyes I have ever seen. They lit up his entire face – it was impossible not to be seduced by them from 10 feet away. After promising to let him tour us around on our next trip to Inis Mor, we drank a quick pint of Guinness, returned our bicycles, and boarded the ferry.
From those stunning blue eyes to the soaring cliffs off Dun Aengus, I was completely entranced by the Aran Islands. This little microcosm of history and culture is a good representation of Ireland as a whole: there’s always something to discover around each corner. If you’re ever in the Aran Islands, take a horse & carriage tour with Tony Faherty, and tell him Jessica, the American writer, kept her promise and wrote a piece on his home, Inis Mor.