Ireland's Aran Islands
The Aran Islands, along Ireland's west coast, are a Gaelic treat. They consist of three limestone islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. The largest, Inishmore (nine miles by two miles), is by far the most populated, interesting, and visited. The other islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, are smaller, much less populated, and less touristy. While extremely quiet, they also have B&Bs, daily flights, and ferry service. For most, the big island is quiet enough.
The landscape of all three islands is harsh: steep, rugged cliffs and windswept, rocky fields divided by stone walls. During the winter, severe gales sweep the islands; because of this, most of the settlements on Inishmore are found on its more peaceful eastern side.
There's a stark beauty about these islands and the simple lives its inhabitants eke out of six inches of topsoil and a mean sea. Precious little of the land is productive. In the past, people made a precarious living from fishing and farming. The scoured bedrock offered little in the way of soil for farming, so it was created by the islanders — the result of centuries of layering seaweed with sand. The fields are small, divided by several thousand miles of "drystone" wall (made without mortar). Most of these are built in the Aran "gap" style, in which angled upright stones are filled with smaller stones. This allows a farmer who wants to move stock to dismantle and rebuild the walls easily.
Nowadays, tourism boosts the local economy. The 800 residents of Inishmore (literally "the big island") greet as many as 2,000 visitors a day. The vast majority of these are day-trippers. They'll hop on a minibus at the dock for a 2.5-hour tour to Dún Aenghus (the must-see Iron Age fort), then spend an hour or two browsing through the few shops or sitting at a picnic table outside a pub with a pint of Guinness.
For a closer look, consider spending the night. As in Dingle, people on Inishmore rent rooms inexpensively. Rent a bike or hire a horse and buggy, and explore. Like the rest of Ireland, the Aran Islands have a deep and mysterious history. The islands are a Gaeltacht area. While the islanders speak Irish among themselves, they happily speak English for their visitors. Many of them have direct, personal connections with America and will ask you if you know their cousin Paddy in Boston.
Inishmore's famous Iron Age fortress, Dún Aenghus, is the most impressive of its kind in all of Europe. For 20 centuries, angry waves have battered away at its black foundation, 300 feet straight down. Even with nothing to guard, it still stands strong, overlooking the sea from a cliff-edge perch. While Inishmore's residents are outnumbered by day-tripping tourists on some summer days, if you arrive early or late, you can be completely alone in Dún Aenghus. Spread-eagled on the slate, beak in the wind, gawking straight down at the point where Europe crashes like an egg into the Atlantic — you become part bird.
Getting to the Aran Islands
By ferry from Rossaveel and Galway: Ferries sail to Inishmore from Rossaveel, a port 20 miles west of Galway. The company sells tickets at the Galway TI and runs a 45-minute shuttle bus from Galway to the Rossaveel dock (40-minute crossing, WCs on board). Shuttle buses depart Galway one hour before the sailing and return to Galway immediately after each boat arrives. Island Ferries has two offices in Galway: across from Kinlay House on Merchants Road, and on Forster Street near the Park House Hotel. Tickets are also sold at the TIs in Galway and Salthill.
Drivers should go straight to the ferry landing in Rossaveel, passing several ticket agencies and pay parking lots. At the boat dock, you'll find a convenient pay lot and a small office selling tickets for Island Ferries. Check to see what's going when and for how much.
By Ferry from Doolin: Boats from Doolin to the Aran Islands can be handy, but they are often canceled or run late. Even a balmy day can be too windy (or the tide can be too low) to allow for a sailing from Doolin's crude little port. If you're traveling under tight time limits, don't risk sailing from Doolin.
Two ferry companies in Doolin have similar schedules and compete hard for your business. Although they all promise to get you to Inishmore in under an hour, every one of my trips in the past few years has included a stop on Inisheer en route, making the actual crossing time about 1.5 hours.
By Plane: Aer Arann Islands, a friendly and flexible little airline, flies daily, stopping at all three islands. These flights get booked up — reserve a day or two in advance with a credit card. Their nine-seat planes take off from the Connemara Regional Airport (not the Galway airport). It's 20 slow driving miles west of Galway, so allow a solid 45 minutes to get there, plus 30 minutes to check in before the scheduled departure. A minibus shuttle runs from Galway an hour before each flight.