Cycling in Ireland’s Aran Islands

 

Every time I built up speed on my bike, I slammed on the break, seduced to stop and stare at the local wildlife. It was spring in the Aran Islands, and baby swans (called cygnets, I learned), ponies, and calves were enjoying the warm weather as much as I was. Roosters didn’t seem bothered by the visitors cycling around the island; it seemed to me they were waiting for the pub to open.

This day began in the port of Rossaveal, in County Galway, along the western coast of Ireland. I had visited this part of the country many times before, but I never had enough time to visit the Aran Islands. There was so much to explore on land – why take a 45-minute ferry ride and spend a day on an island with roughly 800 inhabitants? I was about to find out.

Renting Bikes in the Aran Isles

When the ferry pulls into the harbor, most passengers have one thing on their mind: renting a bike. During my spring visit, the summer crowds hadn’t yet arrived and I was the first one at the counter handing over 10 euros to rent a bicycle for the day. After being handed a map, we were off. The map was helpful in building a general itinerary, but the best thing to do on the island of Inis Mor (the largest of the three Aran Islands) is to simply ride in a large circle. It is possible to finish this cycling journey in a day, although some visitors prefer to arrive in the afternoon, enjoy a few pints of Guinness, and get started bright and early the following day.

The Charm of the Aran Islands

After pedaling past shops selling Aran sweaters (they’re famously warm) and a pub or two, we were beyond the main village and zooming down a narrow paved road with stone walls on both sides. At first when a small car or horse and buggy came in the opposite direction, I panicked, but everything was OK when I remembered to stay left (they drive on the left in Ireland – not on the right side of the road).

Crisp air was blowing off the Atlantic as I slammed on my breaks to watch a few grey cygnets swim close to their mother swan. Cows chomped on grass and gazed at me curiously, probably wondering what I had stopped so frantically to look at. Soon we reached a small look out point and a few people were gazing through telescopes. At first I wasn’t sure what they were looking at, but putting my eye to the lens I saw seals basking in the sun about 100 yards off the shore.

This is where I met Tony Faherty. I noticed his striking blue eyes from a distance as he minded his horse and buggy, waiting for a group of visitors to finish snapping pictures of the rugged landscape. If you aren’t up for cycling around the islands – spend the day with Tony and tell him Jessica the American writer sent you.

Dun Aengus

The biggest attraction on the island is a prehistoric fort called Dun Aengus. It sits at the highest point of the island and allows views of the cliffs that plunge 330 feet down to the ocean. But first, we had to hike there. Parking our bikes (no locks required – the honor system works well here) we paid our small entry fee and began the hike to the top.

Although the cycling was only half finished, I could already feel my legs burning. Luckily the slope wasn’t too steep, and after a leisurely climb we began to approach the fort. Unlike other historic sites in Ireland, in Dun Aengus, the fort definitely takes second place to the sweeping views.

In America, there would be a rope warning you of danger, preventing you from approaching the edge. On the Aran Islands, there is no such precaution, and you can creep as close to the edge as you dare. We continued exploring the fort for different and varied views, each one more impressive than the last. We also poked around the fort and learned about its history in a small museum back near the bike park.

Guinness is Good for You

Back on the bicycles, we rode back towards the port. With more time, there are a few other attractions to see on Inis Mor, but during this trip, we were trying to catch the last ferry back to Galway. Before we departed, there was one more important thing to take care of: sitting down to a pint of Guinness.

An old Guinness ad simply states, ‘Guinness is Good for You.’ Back in the village, Tony Faherty and the other tour guides were gathered outside the pub having a chat. We sat down at a picnic table overlooking the harbor and raised a pint of Guinness, the perfect reward for a day of cycling.

As the ferry pulled away from Inis Mor, I wished I was staying in one of the cozy inns to continue my bike exploration the following day.

Written by and photos by Jessica Colley for EuropeUpClose.com

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