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WALK ON THE WILDSIDE: MEMORABLE HIKES ON THE WEST COAST OF IRELAND
 
(2023 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: SEAN MALLEN



We could tell that Cyril Ó Flaithearta was a native Aran Islander by the way he briskly and nonchalantly strode across fields of cracked limestone. Hands behind his back, barely looking down to check his footing, he kept up a pace that I and my fit teenage daughter struggled to match, all while he regaled us with tales of this storied and magical place.

FRONTIER LANDS

Taking care to avoid stepping into a crevasse, we marvelled at haunting landscapes like none we had ever seen before. Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands, has almost no trees. There are scattered patches of farmland created by the resilient and resourceful locals who hauled in soil and seaweed by hand. Cyril was leading us across a field of limestone to the rugged Atlantic coast, the far western edge of Europe. Our reward was a spectacular view of vertiginous cliffs facing the ocean.

The stunning settings and unique culture have been irresistible draws for filmmakers, starting with the celebrated Man of Aran in the 1930s and more recently for the hit comedy The Banshees of Inisherin.

There is evidence of human settlement on the Aran Islands dating back to the Bronze Age. Cyril brought us to the ancient stone fort Dún Aonghasa, the largest of several scattered around the islands. These half circles of dry stone hovering atop a 100-metre cliff are over 3,000 years old.

As we stopped for a bowl of delicious Guinness-infused stew, Cyril greeted his fellow islanders in Irish. The Aran Islands are a Gaeltacht, one of the areas of Ireland where the native tongue has survived as the first, and predominant language. A good word to learn for visitors is sláinte (slant-yuh), which translates as “health,” useful when raising a pint in an Irish pub.

IRISH ORIENTATION

The Aran Islands, reachable by ferries from several spots, are one of the most famous attractions of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, the island’s spectacular west coast of cliffs and beaches, grand houses and rocky islands.

Galway makes a great base for exploring the west coast, with a lively arts scene and great restaurants. We stayed at the stately and friendly Park House Hotel, just off Eyre Square in the city centre. As this is Ireland, there are plenty of pubs like McSwiggan’s that serve a fine pint and filling servings of stew. We also had a memorable meal at Kai Restaurant, with a rustic setting and a hearty welcome from the husband and wife owners.

FAMILY TRAVEL TIP

A scenic 90-minute drive northwest of the city is the breathtaking vista of Connemara National Park. (En route, beware of road-crossing sheep.) In the park, you can choose from an array of walking trails that vary from a 15-minute stroll to a 2.5-hour vigorous uphill hike. All offer panoramic views of mountains, bogs and the ocean. Afterwards, you can reward yourself with a coffee and cake at the appropriately named Hungry Hiker Café beside the visitor centre.

On our return, we made a stop at elegant Kylemore Abbey, a 19th century castle on a lakeside setting that seems drawn from a fairy tale. You can tour the preserved rooms for a taste of Irish nobility life, and stroll through the manicured walled Victorian garden.

Farther south on the Wild Atlantic Way is the historic Armada Hotel on Spanish Point. Owned by the Burke family, it has deep roots in the community and shares with visitors the many charms and attractions of this corner of Ireland, including brisk dips in the ocean on the nearby beach, surfing lessons and seaside hikes. Or you can take a short drive north to walk along the fabled Cliffs of Moher. After your exertions, try sampling an Irish brand of wellness: a bath in water suffused by seaweed collected from the shore, a treatment reputed to offer many benefits for the skin. 

BUYING LOCAL

The islands’ most famous product is the Aran sweater, created to keep fishermen warm while on the open sea.  They are widely available in shops on the islands and the mainland, mostly factory-made. You can find the hand-knit versions, made by locals, at the An Túirne shop on Inishmore.  More expensive, but worth it.

Travel Planner

For more travel information about Ireland visit ireland.com/en-ca


 

 
 
 
 
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