Thatched cottages, stone fences, horse-drawn carts, a mysterious ancient fort plus traditional music, language and clothing. These are the elements that set the scene for one of the most popular destinations on Ireland's west coast.
The Aran Islands consist of three small islands that stretch across the mouth of Galway Bay. You can reach them from Galway in 90 minutes by using the Aran Ferries service.
The good news for travelers on shoestring budgets is that, in order to boost ticket sales in shoulder seasons, Aran Ferries has purchased two of the three hostels on the islands. This enables the company to entice budget travelers to use their ferry service by offering packages that include low-cost or even free accommodations.
The stopping-off point for trips to the Aran Islands is usually the city of Galway, which is a three-hour bus trip from Dublin. You can find the Aran Ferries booking desk in the tourist information office at the corner of Victoria Place and Merchants Road in central Galway.
The company offers a 90-minute ferry service from Galway, or a 30-minute service from Rossavel (a 30-minute drive west from Galway). The round-trip rates are about $20 for adults and $16 for students. Aran Ferries also offers a year-round package that includes the ferry service and a night at one of the hostels for $24. A package could be a wise choice in July and August when the islands are packed. During the quiet seasons, when business is slow, Aran Ferries has on occasion offered free hostel accommodations.
The ferry lands at Kilronan on Inishmore, the largest island. The Aran Islands Hostel is within easy walking distance; you can see it from the dock. A free Land Rover shuttle service transports new arrivals to the second hostel, which is four miles down the road--within walking distance of the Dun Aengus fortress.
The 12-by-3-mile island has little traffic and is ideal for cycling. At the end of the ferry dock you can find three bike rental companies. Rates average $3-$6 per day. If you don't feel like riding, or if it's raining, you can hop on the mini-tour bus, which meets the ferry, for $6.
The nearby Aran Islands Hostel can accommodate up to 40 visitors. It's atop a small pub, where it's not uncommon for spontaneous music sessions to evolve on summer evenings.
At the local community center (about a five-minute walk from the hostel), the classic film "Man of Aran," by Robert Flaherty, plays several times a day. Cost is $3. The film offers visitors a good insight into the challenging lifestyle that island residents--fishermen and farmers--have had to face. Challenges have ranged from farmers trying to create farming fields by covering a rock surface with seaweed, to fishermen fending off sharks and dealing with gale-force storms.
Members of the community also earn money from crafts, including the world-famous Aran fishermen's knit sweaters. Originally, the patterns represented different families and were made with untreated wool, which is more waterproof. Sadly, it was by these patterns that drowned fishermen were able to be identified. By the way, don't expect the sweaters to be less expensive than they are on the mainland.
It is because of the islands' isolation that other aspects of the traditional lifestyle have been preserved. As you travel along the stone-fenced roads, investigating ruins of early Christian churches and seeing some of the fishermen still using their canvas-and-tar boats, you are likely to hear them speaking the traditional Irish language. English is a second language, though known to most.
The most popular site on Inishmore is the pre-Christian fortress Dun Aengus, which is perched on a cliff 295 feet over the sea. Guides still are not sure why it was built or from whom the builders were protecting themselves. The fort, now a national monument, is composed of three enclosures guarded by a field of sharp stones set at all angles--a barrier to attacking forces. It's a half-mile uphill hike from the road, but you are rewarded with an interesting site and a terrific view of the countryside, the sea and the cliffs.
If possible, try to visit the Aran Islands before or after July and August, when ferries unload up to 2,000 visitors a day.
The Irish Youth Hostel Association has negotiated a 10% discount for all members of the International Youth Hostel Federation on round trips to the Aran Islands with the Doolin Ferry Co., Doolin Pier, County Clare.
For more information on travel to the Aran Islands, contact the Irish Tourist Board, 757 Third Ave., 19th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10017, (800) 223-6470.