Ireland's western coast is characterized by rugged coastlines dotted with ports, peninsulas & small islands, charming coastal towns, the vast and persistent Atlantic, and naturally, the ever present green that Ireland is known for. After months in large urban metropolises, a few days in beautifully green and quiet Ireland was a welcome respite. Here is how to spend one full day visiting the Cliffs of Moher and the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor (Inishmore).
WHERE TO STAY
Shabby Chic Airbnb - Centrally located between Galway & the Cliffs of Moher/Doolin in the small coastal town of Kinvara, this two bedroom cottage was a lovely place to stay for a few nights. Upon arrival, a basket of freshly baked goods was left in the kitchen as well as eggs and few other pantry items, a welcome and tasty treat! Kinvara has a cute main street, a handful of restaurants, and even a small castle to explore. You are also just 40 minutes from all the action in Galway City. The cottage can sleep 4 and is all chic and no shabby.
If you can manage driving on the wrong side of the road (by this I mean the left, hehe), renting a car is by far the easiest and best method to explore western Ireland. The Cliffs of Moher and the port of Doolin are about 50 minutes and 40 minutes respectively from the above mentioned Airbnb and about 1.5 hrs from Galway City. Parking is easy in all areas and the roads are generally easy to navigate.
THE CLIFFS OF MOHER
203 meters of sheer vertical cliffs topped with green that undulate along the Atlantic, the Cliffs of Moher are dramatic and worthy of the hype. Despite the cliffs being one of the most popular tourist attractions, particularly in the summer, arriving early in the morning can give you a head start on your day and allow you to visit the cliffs tourist free. Officially, the cliffs and visitor center are open from 9am-5pm (later in peak months), however, one can not only enter the parking lot before 9am, but you also get in free of charge at this time (I imagine the same would be true of the evening hours if you are trying to catch a late summer sunset, although I expect it would be busier then).
We arrived at around 7:50am, parked our car, and strolled in with perhaps 3 other people to marvel at the cliffs, essentially alone. Start by heading up to the highest point of the cliffs, where O'Brien's Tower proudly stands. When you've had your fill head back up the other side in the direction of Hag's Head and take the coastal walk as far along the coast as you want taking in sweeping views of sea stacks, cliffs, rocks, and green as you go.
If you're planning to go to Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands, as we did, hop in your car around 9:15 for the ten minute drive to the port in Doolin to catch a 10am ferry.
Various operators offer ferries throughout the day to each of the islands. Popular ones include Doolin Ferries, Doolin2Aran Ferries, and Doolin Ferry (yes, all the names are basically the same). Doolin to Inis Mor runs approx 25 euros/person. Ferries are also available from Galway at the Rossaveal port.
The Aran Islands sit at the mouth of Galway Bay, and are characterized by their limestone composition, their weather-beaten charm, and the fact that the population still speaks Irish (don't worry, they speak English to visitors). The largest of the three, Inis Mor is roughly 9 miles long and has the only real "town" on any of the islands, Kilronan. Hop on the 10am ferry and enjoy the approx 1.5 hour ride to Inis Mor - on a clear day you'll have a nice water view of the Cliffs of Moher at the beginning of the trip.
Upon arrival in Inis Mor, you will see several bike rental stands clustered around the harbor. Rent a bike for 10 euros each (plus a 10 euro deposit that you receive back when you return the bikes), as they are truly the easiest and best way to get around and see the island. The only grocery store on the island is SPAR, located just a few minutes from the docks. Fill up on water and some snacks if you need. Next take Cottage Road, running right next to SPAR and begin cruising across the island. After you pass Kilmurvey Beach and a small bay, you will come upon a collection of buildings. Stop here for lunch at Teach Nan Phaidi, a cozy cottage cafe with indoor and outdoor seating serving a variety of soups, traditional dishes, lasagnas, cakes, and coffees.
After lunch, walk your bikes the few steps to the bike lot and the entrance to Dun Aonghasa, the 2000 year old Celtic fort that sits precariously on the edge of 100m cliffs. The fortress consists of several concentric rings of stone walls, some portions 4m thick. There is no wall or fence separating you from the cliff's edge, so if you don't feel vertigo kick your legs over the edge and feel as if you're on the edge of the world.
From here there are a few options: check out the wormhole (a naturally formed rectangular opening in the rocks where you can see the ebb and flow of the water), explore the Seven Churches (a cluster of 7th or 8th century structures), or just lie on the strangely tropical feeling Kilmurvey Beach (in nice weather of course).
To return to Kilronan and the port, take the coastal road on the northern side of the island for lovely windswept scenery, wildlife, and views of the characteristic rock walls zigzagging up and around the whole island. You'll pass the Aran Seal Colony and some more former churches such as St Ciaran's. There is peaceful feeling on the island, with the locals going about their business just as they would have years ago.
Catch the 4 or 5pm ferry back to the mainland, or opt to stay in one of the b&bs or cottages on the island for the night.