Life Ireland

Saturday 23 August 2014

Lay of the islands

Tanya Sweeney tracks down the best getaways on the hidden corners of our country

Tanya Sweeney

Published 28/07/2013 | 05:00

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Dalkey Island - Our islands offer more than Peig Sayers-flavoured quietude

No matter what the following weeks hold, it's fair to say that we've at least had something approximating a summer. As soon as the whistle blows on the factory floor, we've been making haste to enjoy those blue skies while they last. And it's on our coastlines and islands that they've arguably looked their best.

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If you're in the market for an action-packed staycation, our islands offer much more than Peig Sayers-flavoured quietude. Here's our rundown of the best escapes on offer.

DIVE IN

Those with a thirst for seaside adventure should make their way west, where scuba-diving expeditions off the coasts of Galway and Mayo are bountiful. Islands West (087 222 7098; islandswest.ie) has diving centres on Clare Island and on Inishbofin, and are open to greenhorns and seasoned veterans. From sea angling and island hopping to angling and night diving, Island West leaves no stone unturned when it comes to making the most of the sea.

Down south, the Skellig Islands – a Unesco heritage site – in Kerry are ripe for discovering. Ballinskelligs Watersports (086 417 6612; skelligboats.com) knows the waters better than most. Expect sheer drop-offs and coral as far as the eye can see.

A WHALE OF A TIME

During the 1990s, the Government declared the coastal of waters of Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary, and the opportunities are ripe for encountering these majestic marine mammals just a few kilometres offshore.

Off the coast of west Cork, head to the Bere Islands and Cape Clear to experience the real deal. Come late summer, minke whales, Atlantic sunfish and dolphins are in plentiful supply. Whale Watch West Cork (086 120 0027; whalewatchwestcork.com) regularly organises dolphin, seal and whale-watching encounters, and other marine wildlife tours.

WALK THIS WAY

After a raucous night out in west Cork, a hearty walk is one way to blast off those cobwebs. Again, Bere, Dursey and Cape Clear islands offer superb scenery for a short and gentle amble – or, for the more robust, lengthy hiking trails.

If you find yourself in Donegal, Tory Island – yes, the one with a goat as king – boasts an old pirate smuggling route on its shoreline, and you might just get to encounter royalty.

Predictably, there is much to appreciate off the Connemara Coast, too. Connemara Safari (walkingconnemara.com) runs island-hopping walking holidays to Clare Island, Inishbofin and Inishturk with local guides, including archaeologist Gerry McCloskey, who fill walkers in on the cultural, historic and natural sites along the way. And, if the weather holds up, it's a great way to see those unspoilt spots that are off the beaten track.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

Kerry's Skellig Islands don't just provide good diving opportunities; there are also 27,000 pairs of gannets that take up residence there over the summer. On Donegal's Inisbofin Islands, you might get to encounter some endangered species if you're lucky.

Birdwatch Ireland (birdwatchireland.ie) has the lowdown on all enthusiasts need to know about organised expeditions to spots as far flung as the Wetlands of Wicklow and the Cape Clear Bird Observatory off the coast of Cork.

And, if you happen to find yourself on holiday in Wexford, head across to the Great Saltee, about five kilometres from Kilmore Quay, where puffins abound and guillemots make an almighty racket.

See salteeislands.info for details on what wildlife to expect.

HISTORY LESSONS

Just because you're on your summer holliers, doesn't mean that you can't brush up on your history. Inis Meain, off the coast of Galway, is home to a fort that's said to be more than 4,000 years old, while the Skellig Michael in Co Kerry is where monks carved hundreds of steps and beehive huts into sheer rock almost 1,000 years ago.

You'll have heard plenty about Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry, during your school days – there, you'll find tetrapod tracks from 385 million years ago.

And for those who want to get their hands dirty and get properly stuck in, the Achill Archaeological Field School, off the cost of Mayo, has been training students in field techniques for two decades. They are running a two-week course on the island from July 29 onwards at a cost of €1,750. Tel: 098 43564 or see achill-fieldschool.com.

GASTRONOMIC ADVENTURES

Given the bounty of seafood and natural resources, it stands to reason the islands off west Cork make great spots to rustle up some local fare. Learn the ropes at the Island Cottage Cookery School (028 38102; islandcottage.com) on Heir Island, off Skibbereen in west Cork. Under the tutelage of John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton, guests learn to cook local dishes and enjoy scenic walks and dinner with wine as part of the package.

The cost of the course is €350 per person, and they run regularly until November.

Baking is definitely having a moment, and Heir Island's Firehouse Bakery offers a one-day course in bread and stone-baked pizza baking. The course costs €110 per person and includes bread-making classes, lunch with wine and an artisan-baker goodie bag. Tel: 085 156 1984; thefirehouse.ie.

If you'd rather combine your cooking with some yoga and meditation, make your way to the Clare Island Retreat at Ballytoughey, off the coast of Co Mayo, where participants cut their own seaweed spaghetti and learn to turn it into a feast. Courses at the centre cost from €280, including accommodation and organic vegetarian food. Tel: 098 25412; yogaretreats.ie.

ART IN THE OPEN

People have been mining artistic inspiration from the vistas of Ireland's islands for hundreds of years, and it makes for a relaxing and creative weekend. Sherkin Island lies southwest of Cork alongside a group of islands in Roaringwater Bay. A tiny island with a population of just 100 people (including Americans, Australias, Danish and Russian settlers), it is teeming with character.

According to lore, the population make their living from island craft, painting and book writing, so if you want to explore your creative side, it's as good a place as any.

The Sherkin Island Arts School (sherkinisland.eu) offers five-day residential painting courses in July, starting at €750. For information, call Cora Collins on 087 831 9929.

Elsewhere, artist Trudi Doyle (trudidoyle.blogspot.com) runs residential art workshops and painting holidays on Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands off Co Galway.

The next workshop, priced at €430 (€370 for non-painting partners), runs from August 25-29 and includes full-board in the renowned South Aran Cottage. Suitable for beginners, improvers and accomplished artists, there is plenty to do for plus-ones who'd rather not pick up a paintbrush.

Email Trudi at trudiart@eircom.net to book a place.

HORSERIDING

All those tourism adverts from yesteryear often featured fresh-faced types horseriding through the surf – and with good reason. An island such as Omey Island, near Claddaghduff on the western edge of Connemara, is best seen on horseback. Cleggan Riding Centre in Co Galway (083 388 8135; clegganridingcentre.com) runs horse-riding treks there, where there's a race against time to access the island via a sandbridge.

On Achill Island, Calvey's Equestrian Centre (calveysofachill.com) offers daily pony treks to the Keel beach and sandy banks. Once you're there, you can enjoy the scenery from the award-winning Calvey's Restaurant. Call 087 988 1093 for details.

CLOSE TO THE CAPITAL

Time-poor city types needn't be left out of all the fun, either. Rural isolation can be found within an hour of Dublin's city centre, not least on Dalkey Island, an uninhabited island about 16km from Dublin. The remains of houses, a church and the Martello Tower are still there, and can be reached in just five minutes by boat from Coliemore and Bulloch Harbours.

Northsiders often escape to Rockabill Lighthouse and Lambay Islands, courtesy of Dublin Skerries Sea Tours (086 304 3847; skerriesseatours.ie). Passenger trips cost €35 per person to Rockabill Lighthouse, and €50 per person to Lambay Island on an eight-person boat.

ON YOUR BIKE!

Biking is a great way to cover plenty of ground in a short space of time. Aran Bike Hire (0996 1132; aranislandsbikehire.com) offer bikes and tandems for visits to the island of Inishmore, a Unesco world heritage site.

Conveniently located at the pier as you jump off the boat, the Aran Bike Hire team provides cyclists with free maps detailing the ancient artefacts, forts, lighthouses and man-made stone fences within the area.

If you prefer less exertion, Segway Adventures (046 907 3905; segwayadventures.ie) does Segway Safaris around Inis Oirr and Inis Morr, off Co Galway (at €130 per person), as well as Surf'n'Turf Segway and Sailing adventures (from €100 per person). Fun, fast, easy to master and fairly eco-friendly – what's not to like?

For more information, see discoverireland.ie

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