Saturday 27 December 2014

10 Best: Island escapes

Pol O Conghaile goes offshore for a taste of his favourite islands

Published 29/07/2012 | 06:00

Sunlight
Inishbofin
The High Road, Inis MAr, Aran Islands, Ireland
Dalkey Island
Sherkin Co Cork
Saltee Islands

The literary island

Great Blasket, Co Kerry

Dublin has its Bloomsday; Kerry has its Blasket Islands. Given their tiny size, the literary legacy of these wild rocks is remarkable.

Authors such as Peig Sayers, Tomas O Criomhthain and Muiris O Suilleabhain have all chronicled life amidst the ferocious storms and constant hardship of the Atlantic Ocean.

Both islanders and authors are long gone now, of course, but ferries to the Blasket Islands from Dun Chaoin offer a trip back in time, a brief taste of deserted villages and beautiful beaches such as Tra Bhan -- the perfect place to break out your literary picnic.

Details: Blascaod Centre: Tel: 066 915 644. Ferry: €20/€10. Tel: 066 915 6422; blasketisland.com.

The sailing haven

Inishbofin, Co Galway

It may be home to just 200 souls, but Inishbofin's hostelries, pubs, community centre and, as of late, a fab new website have contributed to a legendary status among sailors.

This is an island not only boasting ancient monastic sites, holy wells and the star-shaped Cromwell's Barracks, after all, but its own ceili band and summer concert series.

Bofin cossets one of the calmest natural harbours in the west, meaning boats can travel most days of the year, and many stay the night, singing and imbibing into the wee hours.

Clear waters make for happy divers and snorkellers, too, and, if you don't have your own boat, three ferries depart daily from Cleggan.

Details: inishbofin.com. Ferry: €20/€10. Tel: 0954 5819; inishbofinislanddiscovery.com.

The island for all seasons

Arranmore, Co Donegal

Recent reports highlighted its falling population, but Arranmore remains one of the most vibrant of Ireland's offshore communities and a place you can visit year-round.

Arainn Mhor was home to 487 people -- and six pubs -- at the last count, so you can combine the solitary walk from sandy beaches to inland summit with a blast of socialising.

The birdlife, Irish language and brilliant views over Gweedore and Glen Head are all reasons to visit, as is the scenic 15-minute ferry ride from Burtonport.

You can stay over as well. Options range from the former lighthouse-keepers' dwellings to the Glen Hotel, where author Liam O'Flaherty spent his honeymoon.

Details: arainnmhor.com. Ferry: From €15/€6pp. Tel: 087 317 1810; arranmorefastferry.com.

The city escape

Dalkey Island, Dublin

The silhouettes of Dalkey Island's Martello Tower and St Beignet's Church are an iconic image of Dublin Bay. But how many Dubliners have made the short trip to this offshore haven?

There are plans to improve the slip at Coliemore Harbour for a summer ferry service. In the meantime, sailors can see it under their own steam, or you could paddle out during a discovery course with Deep Blue Sea Kayaking.

Deserted today (save for the rabbits), the island offers killer views over Killiney Bay, and keep an eye on passing paddle surfers, too -- the Dublin Bay dolphins regularly follow behind.

It's the dream island in Dublin's back yard.

Details: visitdublin.com/dlr. Ferry: None. Sea kayaking from €40pp. Tel: 086 820 5627; deepbluesea kayaking.com.

The artists' retreat

Sherkin, Co Cork

It's no more than a 10-minute ferry ride from Baltimore, but the empty expanses of Sherkin Island feel like another world.

Perhaps that's why it has attracted so many artists (check out their work at the Island Crafts Centre or West Cork Arts Centre on the mainland).

The ivy-clad O'Driscoll Castle, 15th-century Franciscan Abbey and iconic island lighthouse are all sights to see, and July brings the highlight of the social calendar in the shape of the Sherkin regatta.

Don't forget the beaches, either. Reached via fuchsia and mombrisha-strewn bohareens, strips such as Silver Strand, Tra Ban and Horseshoe Bay are doubly dramatic when you have them all to yourself.

Details: sherkinisland.eu. Ferry: €10/€4. Tel: 028 20218; sherkinferry.com.

The hidden gem

Inishmurray, Co Sligo

Roughly five miles northwest of Sligo's Streedagh Point, Inishmurray is at once one of Ireland's most historical and least-known offshore islands.

St Molaise founded a monastery here in the 6th century, which went on to become a pilgrimage site visited by St Colmcille, among others.

The last of the modern islanders left in 1957. Given the inclement weather, hour-long boat trip and lack of a pier, not many have been back since.

The Christian ruins, beehive cells and deserted houses make it worth persisting with, as Jean Kennedy Smith found out when she finally managed a visit on her fourth attempt.

Details: sligotourism.ie. Ferry: From €35pp. Tel: 087 254 0190; inishmurrayislandtrips.com.

The fresh prince

Saltee Islands, Co Wexford

Wexford's Saltee Islands aren't just home to a princely number of bird species, they're also home to an actual prince.

How so? Well, back in 1920, 10-year-old Michael Neale vowed to his mother that one day he would own the islands and become their first prince.

In a testament to boyhood dreams and adult determination, he went on to buy the Saltees in 1943, and receive his eccentric title in a coronation ceremony in 1956.

Neale's son, Michael the Second, is the prince today, and though the islands are privately owned, daytrips are permitted to Great Saltee between 11am and 4.30pm.

Even if you don't make land, boat trips from Kilmore Quay give a great sense of the gulls, gannets, puffins and razorbills teeming about the rocky outcrops.

Details: salteeislands.info. Ferry: €25/€12.50pp. Tel: 087 252 9736; declanbates@eircom.net.

The historical hub

Whiddy Island, Co Cork

Bantry Bay is Europe's deepest natural harbour, and its strategic position has led Bere and Whiddy Islands to play several bit-parts in history.

During the First World War, seaplanes from a US navy base on Whiddy patrolled Fastnet Rock. As an oil terminal, it was also the site of the biggest maritime disaster in Irish history when the tanker Betelgeuse exploded in 1979.

But it's not all about the past, as a 15-minute ferry ride from Bantry reveals. Yellow markers map out a walking route, the ruins of an old stone church and ring-fort are hidden by the Kilmore lakes, and there's a little local enterprise too. Last time I visited, I spotted a sign for free-range duck eggs.

Details: discoverireland.ie/ islands. Ferry: €6.50/€3 (single). Tel: 086 862 6734; whiddyislandferry.com.

The adventure island

Achill, Co Mayo

Achill isn't just the biggest of Ireland's offshore islands, it's also one of the country's biggest adrenaline hubs. Five Blue Flag beaches, great lumps of ocean-blasted mountains and endless supplies of surf are just some of the toys in the playground.

Cycling has been given a big boost in the area since the opening of the Great Western Greenway, a 42km route following the old Westport-to-Achill railway line, but, if truth be told, you'll find adventure here no matter how many wheels you roll in on.

The Achill Summer Walks Festival, a three-day event on Achill, Achill Beg and the Curraun Peninsula, runs from August 24-27.

Details: achilltourism.com; greenway.ie. Ferry: None. A road bridge connects Achill Sound to the mainland.

The middle man

Inis Meain, Co Galway

Inis Mor is the largest and busiest of the Aran Islands. Inis Oirr is the baby brother, and the most accessible from the mainland.

But Inis Meain? For some reason, the middle Aran is the least visited, meaning you can soak up the wild Atlantic atmosphere without the summer crowds.

As an outcrop of the Burren, the harsh limestone landscapes have made an impression on many — not least JM Synge, who drew inspiration here for classics such as ‘The Playboy of the Western World’.

Inis Meain won’t stay a secret for long, however. The reputations of Inis Meain Knitwear, and the classy Inis Meain Restaurant & Suites, are growing by the year.

Details: discoverireland.ie/islands; inismeain.com. Ferry: From €20pp online. Tel: 065 707 5949; doolin2aranferries.ie.

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