Walking Ireland's Western Isles: A Photographic Tour
|SCENIC PERFECTION: A pint of Guinness waits at the pub on Inish Turk after a long day of hiking (Nathan Borchelt)|
Check out our photo gallery of Ireland: Walking the Western Isles
With the amount of ink justifiably being spilled over Dublin's rise as one of Europe's most cosmopolitan cities, finding the Ireland of old requires that you leave the orbit of that thriving metropolis. But to truly penetrate the land of rolling hills, sheep farmers, and fisherman requires a bit more legworkquite literally. And a trip with Walking Connemara may be the best avenue into the real Ireland.
Twelve times a year, from June to September, this small outfit runs five- and seven-day walking safaris across the small isles off the mainland's western coast led by an affable guides and a professionally-trained geologist. Starting in the small, utterly charming port town of Clifden, you start with one night of regal accommodation at the Abbeyglen, a castle built in the 1830s that's been fully renovated into one of Ireland's most unique accommodations. Complete with restaurant, pub, and even a helicopter landing pad, this castle just outside of Clifden's town square lures you into the mythological character of Ireland, thus serving as an apt leap-off point to the surrounding islands.
You start with an hours-long, six-mile meander on the mainland, along the Killary Harbor, only fjord in the United Kingdom. Hiking along an old road built during the Great Famine by locals in dire need of work, this route hugs the fjord's coastline, the glass-smooth water punctuated by mussel farms bobbing in the wake. Mid-route, you stop for a lunch of fresh smoked salmon (from Ireland, naturallyand likely some of the best you've ever tasted), sandwiches, and wine, all carried by the guides without a hint of burden. After that, you head to the islands, traveling by fishing boat to places like 180-resident Inishbofin, the unpopulated isle of Inish Shark, and landing on Inish Turk, population around 80. Here you bed down for two nights in a local B&B, and spend a full day crawling across this small island's spectacular geography, a landscaped defined by rolling green hills that lead to abrupt cliffs so austere it looks as if God himself took a hammer and chisel to the island. Below, the frothing ocean splashes against the vertical rock, observable from countless vertiginous perches along the hike.
And each night, the walks culminate in that true, unmistakable Irish locale, the local pub, like the one in Inish Turk, founded by a former Irish president to serve as a gathering place for to its loyal residents. Here you'll find that the Ireland of clichés is alive and well. But unlike most clichés that clutter the world of travel, this one exceeds expectations in its simplicity. Called the craic, it's sipping on chocolate-colored pints, joking, and waiting for someoneanyone, reallyto start singing. Here, performance betrays expectation, a place where a surly Irish lobster fisherman can sing in a voice so gentle and warbled that you'd suspect possession if the passion wasn't so pure. And while you may not be able to match their talents, you won't feel out of place as the next round is poured, the instruments come out to accompany the singing, and everyone joins in on the infectious chorus.
A full overview of this unique trip will soon make its way to the virtual pages of this site. But to whet your visual appetites and inspire you to start planning, we offer this all-too-brief photo tour of Ireland's western else.
Oh, and did we mention the champagne?
Access and Resources
Connemara Safari (+095.21071 ; www.walkingconnemara.com) runs 12 five-day walking safari tours of the Western Isles starting in June and ending in September. Prices for the 2008 tours are 599, including food, accommodation, guide service, and transportation once you arrive in Clifden.
Tourism Ireland (800.223.6470; www.discoverireland.com) is a great resource for all things Ireland.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication