In full retreat on Inis Meain
GO IRELAND:The least inhabited of the three Aran Islands has the most to offer those in search of peace, quiet and tasty food, writes JOHN HOLDEN
INIS MEÁIN is both spiritually and geographically the middle child of the Aran Islands. Both the larger Inis Mór and smaller Inis Oírr – which straddle each side – receive far more attention and visitors each year than their middle sibling and both islands happily rise to the occasion with plenty of tourist attractions on site.
But like playwright John Millington Synge so many years ago, those in search of real solace and untainted Atlantic beauty choose the black sheep of the Aran family.
Inis Meáin is the perfect retreat destination at any time of the year. While the winter months might see some accommodation and restaurant options shutting down, the self-catering holidaymaker will be more than happy with the solitude on offer.
We stayed in a beautiful cottage known simply as Teach Philomena (those planning on self-catering should bring everything they need – food, alcohol and toiletries – required for the duration of the trip). This renovated stone cottage fits perfectly into the surrounding stony landscape that encapsulates Inis Meáin.
Look anywhere on the island and you will see one grey stonewall followed by another. With a self imposed embargo on iPhone use while on the island and nothing but time on our hands, the party spent a large section of the first day musing as to why the islanders built so many stone walls.
“Division of the ownership of land” was the first, most obvious suggestion made, followed by more radical observations such as “protection from Atlantic winds”, “keeping sheep and goats separate”, all the way to “maybe these people just really like stone walls”. In the end the truth was somewhat disappointing: the walls were built as the islanders had to find something to do with all the stones they removed from the land to make it tillable.
While the reasoning was less romantic than we might have hoped, the walls themselves do add something special to this unique landscape. In a place where issues such as traffic, queues and urban sprawl do not exist, it’s almost as if the walls give the island a sense of energy or movement.
Aside from wall enthusiasts, the island does bring in some tourists for its other understated attractions. Dún Chonchúir (Connor’s Fort) stands at the highest point on the island and is well worth a visit. With little or no information as to when it was built or by whom, it remains in remarkably good shape considering it gets little attention from the Office of Public Works. Then you have Teach Synge (the house JM Synge stayed in when he visited) and Cathaoir Synge (Synge’s Chair), a spot located on a cliff face adjacent to Inis Mór where the writer found inspiration.
Like everything else on the island, accessible, sandy beaches are in short supply. But the main beach located by the old port is a breathtaking vista onto the Atlantic. Depending on the weather, swimming can be tricky on account of the rough seas. But “faffing” around on the edge is certainly an option, even in winter.
In recent times, Inis Meáin has become a popular destination for diving enthusiasts because of its abundant marine life and clear waters.
Those who wish to stay dry can pay a visit to the puffing holes (gaps in the ground at the top of the cliffs with tunnel-like channels leading down to the water). When the sea is at its most energetic water rushes up through the channels, almost like the exhale of a whale. Cliff climbing is also a popular tourist option.
The social lifeblood of the island is the pub, Teac Osta. Owned and run by islander Pádraig and his American wife Meg, this beautiful thatched building has seen some pretty raucous evenings. The owners are big music lovers so often invite a variety of musicians from the mainland to come and entertain the locals.
Inis Meáin is also home to the winner of the 2011 National Hospitality Awards Best Boutique Hotel. The Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites is as understated in its beauty as the rest of the island, something the designers were keen to achieve when constructing it. It’s currently closed for winter but it is worth looking into for a spring break.
With some other accommodation and eating options also closed for winter, the relative lockdown experience only serves to heighten the sense of retreat for those seeking solitude. Even in the middle of the summer season, Inis Meáin remains pretty chilled. Go there in winter and it’s one of the most relaxing places on Earth.
* Stay An Dún BB, 099-73047; Teach Philomena self-catering, 087-6203426; Teach Angela BB, 099-73012
* Eat Tig Congaile BB, 099-73085, Ostán Inis Meáin Hotel 099-73020
* Websitesaranislands.ie, inismeainaccommodation.com
Aran Island Ferries (aranislandferries.com) run twice a day, seven days a week to and from the island, weather permitting. Take note, the ferry will not make the crossing if the water is too choppy. So be prepared for the possibility of having to stay on the island longer than you might have planned. Flights with Aer Arann (aerarannislands.ie) to and from the island are also available from Connemara Airport.
Isle go there . . . three islands to see
This small island in Cork Harbour is already a popular destination for a variety of reasons. Its proximity to Cork city makes it an accessible holiday destination.
Fota is home to a wildlife park where 70 exotic species live in open surroundings. There’s also the Fota Island Resort and Spa Hotel. Its 18-hole championship golf course has reportedly been attracting golfers to the island since the 1800s.
Fota House and Gardens were home to the Smith Barry family who were granted the island in 1185. The gardens have some unique features, including an arboretum, walled garden and terraces.
Off the coast of Donegal, this island has attracted walking, fishing and extreme sport enthusiasts for decades. Because the island is mountainous, it has excellent hiking trails and great viewing spots.
Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy Arranmore also. Good lake and shore fishing is available on the island and the western end is home to a number of marine caves and sea stacks. This makes for a spectacular coastline.
Accommodation options are varied including BBs, self-catering and a hotel. There is even a lighthouse to rent. The island also has six pubs.
Located on the eastern outskirts of Waterford city, Little Island is encircled by the River Suir and the King’s Channel. With evidence of the first settlements on the island dating back to the 6th century, it became a home from home for the Fitzgerald family for eight centuries.
The castle which remains has been a luxury hotel since 1988 with an 18-hole golf course on site. This private island is only open to residents staying in the Waterford Castle Hotel and Golf Resort, which offers four-star hotel accommodation and holiday homes.
Aside from relaxation options, such as walking and fishing, the hotel also has facilities for some real fun: clay target shooting, archery, tennis and boules.