Off the beaten path on the Aran Islands: two teachers have built an unforgettable Co Galway visitor experience
A stay at The Galmont in Galway leads our writer to a surprising adventure on Inis Mór...
“You’ve not really seen the Aran Islands like this before,” Pádraig Hernon says as we cut through the steep mountain paths of Inis Mór in two big black Jeeps.
Brothers and secondary school teachers Pádraig and Aonghus Hernon know the Co Galway island like the back of their hands. Coming from a long line of jarveys, or horse cart drivers, they’ve worked with their father and grandfather before him in the tourism industry since the age of 15.
Three years ago, they set up the Aran Off-Road Experience to help visitors see the island the way they see it.
“We’re going off the beaten track and seeing parts of the island that you wouldn’t otherwise,” Pádraig says.
“The whole aim was to go back to the idea of slow tourism – to slow down the experience for the visitor and see more than the main attractions and get into destinations where you can really see the essence of the island.”
I met the brothers as part of a stay at the Galmont Hotel. Pitching itself to guests as “your personal tourist office”, its team can recommend and help book all kinds of insider experiences in Galway city and beyond.
The four-star is perched over Galway Bay just a quick walk away from Eyre Square. After arriving, we grabbed lunch at Marinas Restaurant – where dishes such as wild Atlantic salmon and slow-cooked Irish beef made with locally sourced ingredients can be paired with an extensive wine and cocktail list.
Through the hotel’s team, guests can book local experiences ranging from Corrib river cruises to city sightseeing – and so the next day I joined a group taking Aran Island Ferries (you can also travel to the islands from Doolin, Rossaveal, or even book a flight with Aer Arann Islands).
On Inis Mór, the Hernons have replaced the horse carts with converted Land Rover Defenders – the only tourism vehicle that can access roads of the island that are unspoilt from a century ago. We slip away from the crowds and onto roads familiar from films such as The Banshees of Inisherin – they even show us the remains of one of the little thatched cottages that the lead stars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell walked in and out of.
We’re surrounded by stunning views of the smaller Aran Islands – Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin – and the sea spreading around them. As we make our way, Aonghus swerves the Land Rover through a narrow bend that he jokingly calls the ‘M1’: “This is our main highway. If you see any big vehicles coming the other way, breathe in and close your eyes!”
“There’s nothing out here but stone,” he says. “Before we had commercial fishing or tourism, men and women of the island spent their whole lives trying to build this land with seaweed and sand from the sea. On the south side, we have a big cliff that shelters mainland Ireland from the Atlantic. If you get hit by storms on the mainland, it’s twice as bad here.”
The brothers jump out of the vehicle at certain locations – walking visitors through the history and culture of the Islands. We stop and trek towards Poll na bPéist, or The Wormhole. A naturally created phenomenon on the islands, this gaping hole on the edge of the cliff was made popular lately by Red Bull’s World Cliff Diving Series. The brothers don’t encourage swimming on their tours, however, and they request their guests to look over the cliffs as safely as possible
We make a stop at the renowned Dún Aonghasa. “It’s an amazing prehistoric Celtic fort that has stood here for more than 3,000 years – it’s the oldest monument that stands on these islands,” Aonghus says.
The path is dotted with hazelnut bushes and miles of limestone. We see little troughs on either side that have been set up to catch the rain.
“We need a lot of rainwater out here because it doesn’t rain every day – it keeps the animals going. There are no dairies here, we have three old fellas who milk the cows. Each family would have seven to eight cows at most and they stay outside all year feeding on grass. They’re all organic – there are no mad cows in Aran, they only eat what they’re supposed to,” Aonghus says.
The brothers shout quick notes to each other in Irish as they guide us in groups. If their guests speak as Gaeilge, they’re more than happy to sprinkle some Irish into the guided walks.
“A lot of our culture has been preserved on the islands – Irish is still the living language for most of us. More than the language – the culture, the old style of music, sean-nós singing and the traditions are what we’re really proud of. Both my brother and I are raising our children to speak Irish,” says Pádraig who teaches Irish and history to students in Inis Mór.
“It’s a beautiful place to grow up. It has an atmosphere that’s welcoming and you can de-stress in the amazing scenery; you’ll have this new sense of freedom. For all my siblings and anyone else who grew up here, the sense of freedom and being one with nature is difficult to replicate anywhere else.”
After a long day of exploring the islands, I was thankful for The Galmont’s Spirit One Spa. It wasn’t hard to unwind – as there’s a large heated pool, a sauna, jacuzzi or a hot tub to dip your toes into. If you’ve really worn yourself out, the spa also offers massages and targeted treatments.
There couldn’t have been a better way to end a trip that took me deep inside one of our most beautiful islands.
How to do it
Azmia travelled as a guest of the Galmont Hotel. thegalmont.com
Stays at the Galway four-star, including B&B, a three-course meal from the table d'hôte menu in Marinas Restaurant, and access to the leisure centre with swimming pool, gym, sauna, jacuzzi and outdoor hot tub, start from €248 per room.
The hotel can make suggestions on things to do and arrange bookings for experiences such as visits to the Aran Islands or city sightseeing tours, a Corrib Princess River Cruise and more (prices extra).
For more on the Aran Off-Road Experience, see aranoffroadexperience.ie