Enchanting isle: Inishmore's untamed beauty
INISHMORE, Ireland -- It's rush hour on the Aran Islands, our mini-bus, a horse cart, two pedal bikes and the cause of delay -- a white pony leaning over a limestone wall seeking handouts.
No room to pass on this remote road, but the only snapping is done with cameras, framing the hungry hoofer in his pasture with Galway Bay as the backdrop. A fellow visitor asks our guide, Liam, where the widest road on 14-km-long Inishmore might be.
"You're on it," he says cheerfully as we resume our day trip, one of many that RailTours Ireland runs on the rugged Western coast with Dublin and Galway as starting points.
Inishmore, and its smaller kin Inishmaan and Inishmeer, are accessible by a 10-minute prop plane ride or ferry. But it wasn't easy getting out here centuries ago, an isolation that kept the Arans a bastion of Celtic language and culture. Without much to work with, generations scratched a living and reclaimed land from seaweed and sand.
Liam freely converses in Gaelic and English while greeting his neighbours among Inishmore's 800 citizens, who today split time farming, fishing and guiding. The local and visiting population doubles in the summer to cater peak season crowds, so time your trip accordingly.
Departing an airstrip near Galway, the approach is a striking contrast of Emerald Isle green, grey burren boundaries and the dramatic 91-metre cliff drop protecting the Iron Age fort of Dun Aonghasa.
Fickle Atlantic fog can force a change in transport to the half-hour ferry, but Railtours easily adjusts for weather on short notice.
Inishmore ferries and those sailing here from Doolin further south, disembark in Kilronan, handy for rental bikes, leisurely carriage tours, motorized sight-seeing or supervised walks. It's also first stop to shop for the distinctive wool and cable stitching of the Aran sweaters, The different patterns are a nod to ancient clans and popular myth says they aided in identifying the home ports of sailors' bodies recovered from Atlantic storms.
The hardy Aran sheep, source of the islands' staple, provide lots of photo ops, grazing at the side of the road.
The sweaters can be purchased from shops in town or in craft huts around the islands from artisans insisting theirs is the true hand-made version. Hats, dolls and just about anything made of Aran wool are popular souvenirs.
Any outer protection from the elements comes in handy atop Dun Aonghusa. Hardy hikers will have no trouble with the final steep leg of the ancient stone path, though others are advised to watch their step.
The reward is an unhindered view of the roaring ocean at constant war with the cliff base. Crawling on the ledge for just one peek over the precipice is sufficient for some, but the more daring seek footholds right on the edge for dramatic photos, encompassing the coast, pounding surf and various bird colonies tucked amid rock niches.
The fort itself rests on the highest outcrop, the oldest of many such strongholds dotting the Arans and Western Ireland. Parts of its four concentric walls survive, mainly because visitors comply with requests not to remove the tightly packed limestone carefully laid centuries ago to form gates and towers. Larger slabs still remain fixed into the ground at angles meant to deter attacks on horseback.
The conversion of the islands to Christianity is marked by the Celtic crosses at the Seven Churches, actually a collective limestone ruin of churches, a monks' refuge and a graveyard, dating from the seventh century. Islanders who passed more recently share the burial ground, while cattle wander in the adjoining pasture.
Many visitors start or end their visit at Kilronan pubs such as The Bar, sipping a creamy Guinness beneath classic posters of New York. Asked why an Irish tavern would feature King Kong and the Brooklyn Bridge, it's explained Manhattan is the next big town in reach if exiting the back door.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Aer Lingus flies direct between Toronto and Dublin.