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'See puffins up close': 6 underrated islands on Ireland's west coast - and why you should visit

Paul Clements spotlights six islands that don’t get the tourist attention they deserve.

Cape Clear, Co Cork.
Cape Clear, Co Cork.
Image: Shutterstock

IN IRELAND, YOU’RE never too far from sea air, a stretch of coastline – and the view of an island out in the distance.

There are close to 80 islands off the coast of Ireland, along with hundreds of tiny islets. Some of them, like Achill and Inis Mór, have a constant stream of visitors and are as much as part of Ireland’s tourist trail as any towns on the mainland.

But not all of Ireland’s islands get the attention they deserve. This week, we sail off the coast of the Wild Atlantic Way, singling out six lesser-visited islands that are easily accessible and perfect for a relaxing day trip or overnight stay…

1. Inishbofin, Co Galway

Nature runs free on Inishbofin, 5km wide and perfect for swimming, horseriding, scuba diving or sea angling. There are forts to explore, a 16th century mottled-black castle, holy wells, cliffs and rocky outcrops known as The Stags. It’s fun to make your own way by walking or cycling along single-track roads to sheltered coves and secluded sandy beaches.

The best beach is in the southeast corner, while Trá Ghael, beneath Cnoc Mór – the highest point at 90m – is worth locating but has strong currents. Redolent of an older Ireland, the starting point for a visit to Inishbofin is from Galway’s Cleggan Quay where year-round sailings on the Island Discovery take 30 minutes.

shutterstock_601546304 Source: Shutterstock/Jim Schubert

2. Inis Meain, Aran Islands, Co Galway

A peaceful aura surrounds Inishmaan, the middle island in both size and location of the three Aran Islands. The island is best experienced on foot. Bring your camera for the vibrant displays of wildflowers, and make some time to stop at Dún Chonchúir (Conor’s Fort), a smaller version of Dún Aengus on the more crowded Inis Mór island.

Pick up a discounted bargain at a factory making high-quality handknit traditional Aran sweaters (though the locals call them geansaís, of course). Ferries to Inishmaan sail twice daily from Rossaveel in Co Galway and from Doolin in Co Clare.

6116057564_0228ecff6c_b Source: Shutterstock

3. Cape Clear Island, Co Cork

It’s a 45-minute ferry ride from Baltimore, off the coast of West Cork, to the North Harbour on Cape Clear Island, just 5km long and 1.6km wide. Crisscrossed by serene roads, the island will appeal to walkers. There are two looped trails: the Red Loop (7km) and the Green Loop (4km). Keep an eye on the sea, where it’s not unusual to spot whales, leatherback turtles and dolphins.

Cape Clear’s heritage centre is crammed with artefacts on maritime and farming life, and a Fastnet lighthouse display. Two ferries serve the island: one from Baltimore is all-year round while the ferry from Schull operates a summer service.

shutterstock_1413075545 The view of Fastnet Lighthouse from Cape Clear.

4. Tory Island, Co Donegal

There’s a sense of time warping, as well as a lot of sea spray, on the ferry to Tory Island, 12km off the northwest Donegal coast. Generations of islanders have eked out a living on the rugged landscape. If you like traditional music played by locals and nightly céilís you’re in the right spot – and as you walk around you’ll spot plenty of artwork displayed around the island by a talented community of painters.

If you spend a day or two on Tory, you will discover that it is islandness epitomised. Ferries leave from the pier at Magheroarty between April and October with a restricted service in winter and early spring.

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4639125481_8826477496_z Source: Flickr/Tir Na Nog

5. Great Blasket Island, Co Kerry

From the tip of the Dingle peninsula, ferries transport daytrippers to the Great Blasket, one of the most isolated and westerly islands in Europe. With its unique quality of light, there is an otherworldliness here… and be ready to get up close to puffins.

Bring walking boots (and raingear) as the island boasts excellent hiking trails. For sheer exhilaration it’s hard to beat the 600-metre-long white strand where frothy waves create a spectacular and Instagrammable backdrop. The beach is exposed to the full blast of the Atlantic and a visit here will remain indelibly imprinted on your mind. From spring until autumn, there’s a regular ferry service from Dún Chaoin pier which takes 15 minutes.

shutterstock_1328432270 Source: Shutterstock

6. Clare Island, Co Mayo

Guarding the entrance to Clew Bay, Clare Island is an alluring and energising place with breathtaking scenery. If you’re up for a day of hiking, a complete circuit of the island will take about six hours – or you can choose from five separate looped walks of varying length.

It is reputed that the pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, is buried in the ornate Gothic tomb at the Cistercian Abbey. You can mull over that one as you eat lunch at Sailor’s Bar (though outside of the summer months you’ll need to bring a packed lunch). Ferries leave from Roonagh Quay all year round although there is a limited service in winter.

shutterstock_1404777116 Source: Shutterstock

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Paul Clements

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