My Aran Islands adventure began aboard the Happy Hooker last week. (I know what you’re thinking, but the Happy Hooker derives its name from the red-sailed Galway Hooker, a fishing boat, and not the other thing.)
True to form, I got my sailing time wrong–10:00 a.m. instead of 10:30 a.m.–and nearly missed the boat. Luckily, I double-checked the reservation and discovered my error at exactly 9:45. I happened to be enjoying my morning coffee at the time and immediately dashed back to my room, threw everything into a suitcase, dashed to the car, and then sped to Doolin Pier as fast as the narrow Clare roads would allow. After parking like a lunatic, I ran like one to the ticketing booth, suitcase swerving wildly behind me. Jet-lag isn’t an excuse; it’s simply who I am–always running, always sweating and out of breath when I board any bus, airplane, or boat. I made it with minutes to spare and snagged a seat outside in the sun.
The Happy Hooker, a passenger-only ferry, sailed from Doolin Pier to Inishmore in an hour and a half with stops on Inisheer and Inishmaan. Ininshmore is the largest and most popular of the three Aran Islands and is best known for Dun Aonghasa Fort even though there are over 50 monuments of Christian, pre-Christian, and Celtic mythological heritage. After recovering from the initial stress of the morning, I was ready to see them all!
There were three basic transportation options on the Big Island to accomplish this: bus, bike, or horse and buggy. Having arrived on the nicest day of the year, I chose bike. I hadn’t been on one in about 26 years but could imagine cruising down coastal roads with the wind in my hair, stopping to photograph a seal here and a horse there. What freedom!
I wasn’t the only one with that romantic notion. Three ferries arrived at approximately the same time, flooding the narrow arteries of Kilronan Village with people who surged into the bike shops and then receded into the hills, leaving the shops desolate. (Friends from Bellingham: think Canadians at Costco when the milk has been set out!) Not a huge fan of crowds or queuing up for things, I opted for lunch first at Bayview Restaurant.
This turned out to be a great decision; the restaurant was empty because every other tourist was on the road. Waves of them rolled by as I ate lunch–families wearing helmets, young couples, and one lone girl with stubby legs whose feet kept slipping from the pedals.
Waiting also gave the shops time to set out more bicycles, and I was able to get one with a basket in front like I wanted. The shopkeepers don’t ask for your name or a deposit. They simply charge 10 Euro for the day and send you on your way. (I don’t suppose there’s much risk of bike theft–there’s only one way off the island.)
“You want to check the fit first?” the bicycle shop employee called after me.
“It’s grand!” I called back, wobbling away and then straightening when I gained my balance. It’s true! You never do forget how to ride a bike.
Tip One: Do NOT go to Dun Aonghasa first. That’s where everyone else is going. Head southeast to Teampall Beannain first, and you’ll be one of only a few.
God knows how to find Teampall Beannain, though. On the map it makes sense; but there are so many rocky roads on the island, everything looks the same and all the markers are in Gaelic. I found some other things to explore, like this cemetery.
Around 3 o’clock, after a nap, I took off for Dun Aonghasa and the Seven Churches (Na Seacht dTeampall) along the coastal route, which my host at Seacrest B&B told me was flatter and easier to cycle than the main road.
Having successfully waited out the crowds and feeling clever, I pedaled along at my own pace as horses peered over stone fences and calves nuzzled their mothers. I already knew this was going to be one of the most memorable days of my life, and I soaked it up, committing every small detail to memory.
After a while (time seems irrelevant out there–maybe an hour and a half), I came across a beach, and beyond it construction blocked the coastal road. This meant biking a different route and traveling uphill for a while. I had been fighting the wind and my arse hurt, so I started feeling less romantic about the whole cycling thing.
Tip Two: Unless you’re an experienced cyclist and your bum doesn’t bruise easily, consider finding some extra cushion.
Kilmurvey Craft Village waited on the other side of the hill, and it was a nice break. Tea at the cafe gave me enough of a kick to keep going to the Seven Churches.
The Church ruins were devoid of tourists except for one quiet photographer who kept appearing like a specter in front of my lens. Maybe he was? Some portions of the Churches date back to the 8th Century, so 1,300 year’s worth of souls rest within that ground.
I’ve noticed that anything worth seeing in Ireland requires a walk uphill over rocks; Dun Aonghasa was no exception. After a short ride from the Seven Churches, I hiked 20 minutes to the top of a hill to see it, which isn’t that bad considering some sites take hours on the mainland. (Really, I welcomed any activity that didn’t involve a bicycle at that point.) Close to the top, I encountered a family who told me, “It’s worth it. Keep going!” Strangers tell me this a lot. I must have look of complete agony on my face without meaning it.
They were right about the hike. With striking cliffs, walls of interlocking stone, and fingers of limestone reaching towards the ocean, the climb was worth every rocky meter. Excavations in the 1990’s revealed that people lived on top of the hill in 1,500 B.C., and I walked the grounds wondering about those ancient inhabitants.
When I returned to the visitor’s center, the ticketing agent gave me a free guide as a “present” along with his phone number. He used words like “quite taken with” and “radiant” to describe my wind-blown, sunburned appearance as he tried to convince me to go out with him that evening.
Flattered as I was, I was more concerned with the 45 minute bike ride over bumpy roads to get back to Kilronan Village. In fact, I had to give up another attraction because of the growing pain in my behind. There’s something called the Worm Hole that is apparently very spectacular, but I didn’t give a feck with my arse being in a miserable condition.
Tears pricked my eyes when I lowered myself onto that bicycle seat for the last time, which somewhat surprised me; I had expected the long hike up Dun Aonghasa to ease the discomfort. I cycled on anyway, determined to power through the pain and overcome the temptation to hitch-hike. My pride wouldn’t allow anything less, and when I rolled into Kilronan Village I cheered like a Viking conquering a new land. The bike was still a good choice, though, and I regret nothing; I got a lot of exercise, sun, and the gift of so much breathtaking coastline.
At dinner, the host at Bayview Restaurant schooled me on the Worm Hole. Filled by the ebb and flow of the ocean, the Worm Hole is a natural, rectangular-shaped pool that attracts daredevil cliff jumpers. Red Bull even sponsored a cliff jumping event back in 2012, which everyone on the island still talks about. After Googling pictures, I decided to go before my ferry the next morning. Cycling no longer an option, however, one of the servers at Bayview Restaurant arranged for a horse and carriage to pick me up at 9 a.m. (To that end, let me say that the people on Inishmore were some of the nicest people I’ve met in all of Ireland. Seriously, if you need anything, they’ll find a way to get it for you.)
My arse thanked me for the horse and carriage. Patrick, whose family roots reach back 400 years on Inishmore, arrived promptly at 9 a.m., and I was grateful for a tour guide who knew the island so well. I wouldn’t have found the Worm Hole without Patrick—or, at least, not quickly enough to catch my 11:30 a.m. ferry. Painted red arrows on rocks point in its direction, but you still need to know on which road to turn and where to start the hike.
I only scheduled a single night on Inishmore, but I’d love to return again this summer and give myself more time. Considering I saw only a half-dozen of the 50 monuments, I see no other choice. Of course, stops on the other two islands are essential as well. I’ll work on my biking skills and bring some padding along for the next trip.