“This island has a real sense of place,” Mary Nally tells me later in the garden outside the Tigh Ned pub. It’s the closing night of her festival and the party has spilled out onto the rocky beach. The tangerine sunset is glorious, the Guinness is flowing, and the mood is euphoric. I find myself nodding in agreement as the DJ flips on another disco track.
My last stop is Inishmore, where I set off by bike from the port town of Kilronan, leaving the themed pubs and tourist shops behind. Known locally as “the big island,” Inishmore—in Irish, Inis Mór—is the largest of the Arans both in population (800) and size (31 square kilometers). It also happens to be fresher and greener, with rolling meadows and breezy coastal roads plied by horse-drawn carriages.
At the Cáis Gabhair Árann goat’s cheese factory, I talk with owner Gabriel Faherty, a former deep-sea fisherman who turned to cheese making a couple of years ago. “It’s a new concept to the island,” he explains, adding that he sells his farm-to-fork range of fromages in local shops and guesthouses. I sample a gouda flecked with native dillisk seaweed. It is utterly delicious.
Tucked away by the entrance to Dún Aonghasa, a cliffside fort that dates back to the Iron Age, Sarah Flaherty runs a small shop that sells hand-knitted Aran sweaters. Thick cream-colored cardigans are displayed next to baby hats and booties and hipster-worthy sweaters. “I’ve been here for the best part of 40 years,” she tells me with a lilting Irish accent. But when I probe her about Inishmore’s knitting traditions, she keeps mum. “It’s private business,” she says, refusing to reveal anything about the age-old craft that is still central to the local economy.
The Arans’ farthest point from the mainland is on the lonely west coast of Inishmore, where fractured limestone cliffs plunge 90 meters into a drumroll of foaming waves. As I stand there taking in the elemental scenery, I figure these islands are entitled to keep a few secrets to themselves.
From Galway City on Ireland’s west coast it’s an hour’s drive to Ros a’ Mhíl, where Aran Island Ferries provides a year-round passenger service to all three islands, though not between them. For inter-island transport, your only option is Doolin Ferries, a family-run business that only operates between March and November. Flying is also an option: Aer Arann Islands’ fleet of light aircraft services the islands from its base at Inverin.
The award-winning Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites (353-86/826-6026; doubles from US$690 for two-night-minimum stay) is the island’s best base, pairing innovative, locally focused cuisine with five sleekly designed suites. Note, however, that it is open only from April through September, the Arans’ tourist season. Be sure to visit the Inis Meáin Knitting Company for a look at the factory’s handsome knitwear.
A five-minute walk from the pier, South Aran House (353-87/340-5687; doubles from US$97) has four rooms and a whitewashed cottage built in the 1800s. Its restaurant and cooking school are excellent. Other Inisheer attractions include the Áras Éanna Arts Centre, Mairead Sharry’s delightful crafts shop Teas (353-99/75-101); seaweed-infused body treatments at Aran Seaweed Baths and Spa (353-87/760-0684); and, once every other spring, the Drop Everything biennale.
Stock up on local cheeses at Cáis Gabhair Árann (353-87/222-6776) outside Kilronan before checking into the stone manor that now houses Kilmurvey House (353-99/61-218; doubles from US$68). The prehistoric ruins of Dún Aonghasa are just a short trek away.
This article originally appeared in the December/January print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Wild Ways of the Arans”)