I love sea trips. Particularly ones that end at the pier of an offshore island. There's a stillness and timelessness about islands that washes gently over you as soon as you step ashore.
Whenever I asked people about Inishbofin, I found their answers were always a bit intriguing. They didn't use superlatives such as "fantastic", "unbelievable" or "amazing", but everyone I asked had nothing but warm memories of their time on 'Bofin', with some citing it as their favourite offshore island.
That whetted my appetite. As soon as the weather broke into summer mode, I was Bofin-bound.
As the ferry pulled away from the pier in Cleggan on a lovely summer's day, it felt as if all of Connemara's legendary landmarks had come out to bid us farewell. The Twelve Pins were lined up, looking hazy and groovy in the middle distance, as our boat motored past craggy headlands, small islands, sailboats and fishing boats - all looking like a Paul Henry painting in the veiled sunshine.
To top it all, a small school of dolphins appeared, sending ripples of excitement through the good-natured passengers, all of whom appeared to be Irish, with a seemingly strong representation from within the Pale. All on board were required to mask up and sanitise their hands like a conference of surgeons, but it's the kind of thing that most of us take in our stride at this point.
One of the first things to catch your eye as you pull into the harbour on Inishbofin is the Cromwellian fort overlooking the sea. Its brooding presence speaks of darker times, the gaping holes of its crumbling 400-year-old edifice staring back at you.
As the jolly passengers stepped ashore, we were glad that we'd followed advice and booked our bikes in advance. It saves a lot of time queuing up on a busy day such as this one. We'd also taken the option of electric bikes. The extra cost is worth it. Inishbofin is a small island, measuring only 5.5km by 3km, but there's a surprising amount to see here. If you're going on a day trip, it's virtually impossible to explore the entire island - but having the speed and energy-saving advantage of an electric bike will at least give you a fighting chance.
Even though the island's three hotels were allowed to reopen on June 29, they weren't quite prepared and took another two weeks before welcoming guests back. There was, seemingly, a feeling of additional caution because of their island nature. From a mainlander's point of view, islands might appear to be happy-go-lucky havens of loose restrictions, but islanders know that just one Covid case could virtually close the place down.
According to Tara McMahon - Inishbofin's Tourism Officer - lockdown was a very strange experience for the islanders, but people pulled together to ensure a well-managed and safe environment before it would open up to tourism again. "Everyone bought in straight away," she says of the strong sense of community that kicked in during the island's darkest Covid-19 hours. "We're all looking out for one another here."
Over the road west from the pier, you arrive at the snugly-situated Doonmore Hotel (doonmorehotel.com). Its owner Andrew Murray is carrying on a catering tradition that began when his mother (an 'immigrant' to Bofin at the age of five) opened the hotel in 1969. It was a business borne of necessity, he explains, after his father was forced to retire from fishing. Today, his own offspring work at the hotel, and his youngest daughter was the one to serve us a superb lunch of Inishbofin open crab sandwich and pan-fried scallops with black pudding.
Sitting in front of his establishment is a comfortable suntrap from which to observe mid-summer island life. The place was buzzing with walkers, talkers, strollers, cyclists, families, fishermen, the odd car, the odder tractor, occasional Gaeilgeoirí and lots of children.
I wondered what exactly there was to attract families and children to Inishbofin. Its peace, solitude and charming views are appreciated by an older generation looking to unwind, but what is there for the younger generation?
"There's nothing," says Andrew, before immediately adding: "They love it!"
In a normal year, about 75pc of their custom is repeat business. This year, that figure is more like 85pc, he says. People of all ages love Inishbofin and want to come back. He told me of two separate families whose children (in the 8-10 age bracket) had voluntarily foregone a trip to Disneyland in America to return instead to Inishbofin; a place where the fun and freedom to be a child is unlimited.
Back in the saddle, we had some fun exploring of our own to do. Our first adventure was to discover the eastern end of the island. The undulating road climbs from the pier, past another pier and the tempting Beach Bar (also open, as it was serving food). After a short, steep climb (this is where the electric bike really comes into its own), the road curves around to offer superb views of lovely Dumhach Beach below to your right. When you continue a little more, you come to the very charming fisherman's village - a long line of low houses overlooking the magnificent horseshoe-shaped Cloonamore Strand and harbour with crumbling remains on the shore of a previous existence in Inishbofin, when all commercial life revolved around fishing.
Cycling through the centre offers rewarding views at every turn. Towards the western end, the reed-bordered Loch Bó Finne backs on to the alluring North Beach. A short distance after that, we had to temporarily abandon our bikes and continue along the walking trail, diverting through spongy bogland to check out the blowholes at the craggy promontory on the northernmost section of the West Quarter. The sea was too calm to create any dramatic action but the non-blowing holes were highly impressive features nonetheless.
Continuing the walk all the way around, you end up on the southwestern end of the island. Here, Inishbofin is arguably at its most dramatic, where steep cliffs give way to Trá Gheal beach, making you feel like you've landed on some hopelessly romantic desert island.
As we awaited the evening ferry on the main pier, watching groups of delighted teenagers jumping into the water, I wondered what makes this small but perfectly-formed craggy island so unique. One pub/restaurant owner told me of his fear that Covid restrictions would turn the atmosphere of his establishment into that of a doctor's waiting room, but there's a warmth and charm about Inishbofin that seeps through, even when you remove the traditional pub scene with its nightly summer music sessions and impose frigid social distancing.
Inishbofin defies all that, just as it defies comparison with other islands: its own unique character leaving you with a sense of longing to get back as soon as possible.
Island days of old
Don't miss the fisherman's village at the eastern end of the island; not only is it as pretty as anything, it gives you an atmospheric flavour of what Inishbofin was like in the days before tourism.
The West Quarter perfectly illustrates this little island's ability to absorb visitors and still make you feel a million miles from modern civilisation. On a sunny day, Trá Gheal looks like a Caribbean shore.
Take time to stop at the 'Inishwallah' for a snack. Where else would you find a double-decker bus serving superb island turf and surf with an exotic twist? Find it on Facebook or (087) 287 4139.
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