In the darkest days of lockdown anyone with a grá for our offshore islands could while away an hour dreaming of cliff walks and salty dips on isolated strands. Now that the islands are open again, they’re the perfect place to make a break for it.
Prebook your ferry, and check accommodation availability before you go, as not everything is open yet, and please remember to respect social distancing and follow local guidelines.
CAPE CLEAR, WEST CORK
Twelve kilometres off west Cork, Cape Clear is Ireland’s most southerly inhabited island, with a stunning view of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, another 5km out to sea. Up on the cliffs overlooking that wave-battered rock you can sometimes catch sight of whales and dolphins. Boat tours to get even closer can be organised locally. Cape is also on migratory bird routes, and is a favourite with birdwatchers.
The Chléire Haven yurts at the South Harbour will be open but will take only two families at a time so each can have their own bathroom. “You can kayak in the harbour and you might see basking sharks from your deck,” says owner Lyndy Davies.
There are other self-catering options, and Ciarán Danny Mike’s pub is serving lunch and dinner. The journey out to Cape from Baltimore through Roaring Water Bay is an adventure in itself, and you’ll feel the tension in your shoulders disappear even before you land.
INISHMAAN, CO GALWAY
The quiet middle child of the Aran Islands group, Inishmaan rewards those willing to walk. Its wild southern coast can be challenging in windy weather, but this is the Wild Atlantic Way at its finest. It feels like an outcrop of the Burren, which is exactly what it is. The pleasures here are simple ones. Discover a flower you never noticed before, get lost within the maze of stone walls, and eventually find your way to Synge’s Chair, high on the cliffs, and the playwright’s favourite spot when he spent time here.
The lack of foreign tourists means you might even snag a room at the gorgeous Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites, which are usually booked up more than a year in advance. Otherwise check in with Vilma Conneely, the Guatemalan-born bean an tí at Tigh Conghaile. “I always used to wonder what the guests did all day, when they’d wander and lose all track of time,” she says. “But during lockdown, after 27 years here, I finally discovered it for myself. It’s the solitude and the peace, that’s what people find here.”
INISHMORE AND INISHEER
Inishmore’s main attraction is the prehistoric clifftop Dun Aonghasa, but there are other sights off the beaten track such as the Black Fort. Inisheer is the smallest of the three with rewarding walks to the lighthouse or the shipwreck of the Plassey. It’s the closest to Co Clare with views across to the Cliffs of Moher.
The Aran Islands are serviced by Aran Island Ferries from Rossaveal, and Aer Arann from Connemara Airport in Inverin. Inisheer and the other islands can also be reached by ferry from Doolin.
INISHBOFIN, CO GALWAY
The half-hour trip to ‘Bofin from Cleggan in Connemara can be flat calm or thrilling depending on the swell, and there’s a great sense of arrival in its inner harbour, guarded by a Cromwellian fort.
Renting a bike is the best way to explore. Don’t miss the turquoise Caribbean-style beaches of Dumhach and the East End, with their views back to the Twelve Bens. The three hotels – Inishbofin House, The Dolphin and The Doonmore – will be open from mid-July.
“We’ve all been through a rough time, we are all scarred in some way,” says Andrew Murray of the Doonmore. “Now we must heal together. Consideration for everyone, personal responsibility and fresh Atlantic air, and we will get there together.”
All the hotels serve food including local lobster and crab, as does the Beach Bar, which has an outdoor deck with sunset views. The Inishwallah double decker bus dishes up Keralan-influenced fusion cuisine by day, and The Galley at the East End is a great pit stop for a seafood salad or a decadent lemon meringue pie.
While the Doonmore has had to move its concert season to 2021, Murray used to sing with De Danann and reckons there will still be a few tunes to be heard here and there.
You can learn to sail or go kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding from the harbour. Some of the best things to do on Bofin are naturally socially distanced. Take a tour with island historian and archaeologist Tommy Bourke, covering sights like the Stags of Bofin and stories from the island’s past. Walk or cycle home at night under the moon and stars and you won’t want to be anywhere else.
ARRANMORE ISLAND, DONEGAL
It’s only a short trip from Burtonport in Donegal out to Arranmore but once you’re there it takes only minutes to slow down to a different pace of life. The island went into voluntary lockdown before the mainland, but is back welcoming visitors again to walk the beach at Leabgarrow as well as other smaller coves. It’s also a haven for snorkelers, scubadivers and rock climbers.
The local community centre organises kayaking and cycling and there’s also a holiday village owned by the co-op. Early’s pub, famous for many a Daniel O’Donnell session, is back serving food, and a new B&B and cafe called The Cove opens on July 20th near the harbour. “We’re delighted to be welcoming people back,” says Dominic Sweeney of Arranmore Ferries. “But we really ask people to wear their face masks on board and to respect the island and the islanders.”
RATHLIN ISLAND, CO ANTRIM
From Cape Clear to Rathlin is about as far as you can travel and still be in Ireland. It’s a journey Mary O’Driscoll from Cape knows well, as she and her husband now run the Rathlin ferry from Ballycastle. It’s the only inhabited offshore island in Northern Ireland and is spectacularly situated, seemingly adrift between Ireland and Scotland.
“What I love about it is there are places where you can see back to Fair Head on one side, and the Mull of Kintyre on the other with Islay and the Paps of Jura beyond it,” says O’Driscoll. “With good visibility you can see all the way to Inishtrahull lighthouse in Donegal.”
The RSPB West Light Seabird Centre is one of Rathlin’s main attractions, and it’s well known for puffins. Although the centre wasn’t yet open at the time of going to press, birds are everywhere on Rathlin, and you’ll spot them from the ferry before you even get there.
Several places have decided not to open at all in 2020. However, the Georgian Manor House is due to open in September, so Rathlin could be the place for a quiet autumn break. There are also self-catering options on the island’s community website. McCuaig’s Bar is open, as is the island shop. For those planning for next year, the island has some quirky options, including Sea Kips, a converted lifeboat.