Life In The Slow Lane: Cycling Inishmore
It’s a 45 minute ferry trip from Rossaveal to Inishmore (Inis Mór in Irish), and as the Atlantic tips the boat from side to side I’m starting to really feel the few pints of Guinness I had the night before. It’s about 10:45am at this stage, and the fresh-faced tourists standing around my travel buddy and I are all just a little too wholesome and chirpy. The sky’s overcast, but my sunglasses are on for reasons other than UV protection and my hood is up. Try as I might, I really can’t fathom how I’m going to manage cycling around an island for a whole day. But just as the boat pulls up to the pier, the sun burns through the clouds and Inishmore is bathed in that rarest of pleasures – uninterrupted Irish sunshine.
It would be rude not to make the most of this.
When you arrive at the pier on Inishmore you’re presented with a number of different options for getting around the island to see its most famous sights. The mini-bus and pony and trap tours both look…easy. And tempting. But bike hire on the island is just a tenner for the whole day (including a map of the island and a helmet if you want one), and the whole point of us coming here was to cycle – so we pass the ponies and head for Aran Bike Hire.
From the pier, it’s just over 8km to the island’s main attraction; the ancient Bronze-Age ring fort, Dún Aonghasa. There’s a slightly shorter inland route that’ll take you there too, but the coastal cycle offers a really scenic route, takes you past the island’s seal colony, and – crucially – it doesn’t have many hills. We head off to see the seals.
To my great disappointment, there are no seals to be seen – or at least that’s what I think, until two of the rocks I’ve been staring at flip their tails in my direction. Sure enough, I start to spot them now, wonderfully camouflaged among the damp, moss covered rocks. They’re great. Big fat things, just basking in the sun and occasionally turning their heads or going for a little dip – it’s relaxing just looking at them. If you like wildlife, you’ll love Inishmore – you can often see dolphins and porpoises swimming off the coast, and bird watchers are regularly treated to sightings of rare species. Pretty, rare wildflowers poke out from the unlikeliest places, flourishing against all the odds. There are a fair few donkeys standing around too – not exactly wild, but a pleasure to encounter. Even with all the other tourists around, the whole place just feels totally untouched by the modern world, and it’s beautiful. This is the Ireland from postcards, the one that people get misty-eyed over.
Blessed with a clear day, you can see the mainland over on the horizon, including Connemara’s 12 Bens mountain range. The ocean is vast, and a deep, rich blue, and you can only imagine how far away everything must have seemed for people who lived here when there wasn’t a twice-daily ferry service or a shop. Close-up things are just as interesting – the island is a blanket of hundreds of ludicrously tiny fields, their walls painstakingly built by hand, stone by small stone. Apparently there are around 1000 miles worth of ancient stone wall altogether on the three Aran Islands (that’s a thousand miles of wall on around 16 square miles of land). That’s a lot of wall. I’m sure they had their reasons, whoever built them – but the fields are so tiny that it’s difficult to see what their purpose was. Still, you’ll have a nice time sitting on the roadside trying to figure it out, especially if you encounter a particularly charming donkey while you’re doing it.
You’d easily reach Dún Aonghasa in a half an hour if you wanted (and it’s not a very challenging cycle) but if you’re the kind who likes to befriend donkeys, spend ages watching near-catatonic seals, and take beaks to contemplate walls as you go, you could stretch this journey out to at least an hour. There’s a visitor centre and café when you get to the site; the sandwiches look okay but we had brought a packed lunch with us (which is advisable, even to avoid waiting at the busy cafe), so we just had coffee. Admission to the fort is just €3. The walk up to the actual fort is impressive in itself – it’s quite a steep hill, and you can’t help but to marvel at the sheer effort that went into building this thing. What was life like for these people? How did they end up here, and what on earth possessed them to traipse up and down a steep hill carrying rocks to build their fort in the most difficult spot they could have possibly chosen? I can only assume that this is the kind of thing that happens when people don’t have YouTube to distract them.
After spending some time exploring the fort and the ancient cheval de frise surrounding it, eating our picnic, and terrifying ourselves on the perilous cliff edge at Dún Aonghasa, we go in search of the ‘worm hole’. We’d heard about this perfectly rectangular pool, carved by nature in the limestone along the southern coast of the island, and we have only a couple of hours to find it before the ferry leaves.
We try, but faced with an expanse of karst landscape, no signposts, no 3g signal, and a couple of fields containing sinister looking bulls who we have no interest in getting close to, we have little hope of getting there and back in time to catch the ferry to the mainland, so we just enjoy the expansive karst and the sunshine instead. If you want to find the wormhole yourself, I would suggest asking some of the locals for detailed directions, and also, spending less time feeding donkeys who are more than capable of finding their own grass, as this will eat into your time on Inishmore. Keep your eye out for the directions left by previous intrepid wormhole explorers, and please be really careful if you get there and the sea is wild; you can easily be overpowered by rogue waves.
The island is beautiful, and its one of the nicest days we’ve had on our mini-tour of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. We promise to come back here to stay for a night or two, to find the wormhole and explore the two smaller Aran Islands – but this time, we have to give up and cycle back to Kilronan with just enough time for a wonderful, well-earned pint of Guinness before the boat leaves.
You can get a ferry to Inishmore from Rosaveel for €25.00 return with Aran Island Ferries.