Ireland Day Trip: Bicycling on the Aran Islands (Or: How I Almost Killed My Sister)

The Aran Islands are known for their rugged beauty.  They are isolated, primarily undeveloped, and evoke a more traditional era in Ireland.  My sister, husband and I planned to spend an afternoon leisurely biking around Inis Mór, one of the three islands collectively known as the Aran Islands.

Image of an Inishmore Road

Island Bicycle Route

There are three primary methods of exploring Inis Mór: car, pony cart, and bicycle.  Based on my research, most tourists opt for a pony cart to enjoy the scenery of this compact, but hilly, island.  A fair number, however, navigate the island by bicycle.

My sister has many fine attributes, but athleticism is not among them.  She is a bit of a sensitive flower when it comes to extended periods of physical activity.  Understanding her limitations, I convinced her the solution was to rent electric bicycles.  These bikes allow you to partake in moderate exercise while using a battery to go up hills.  Brilliant!

Image of a church ruin on Inishmore

Beautiful Sights in Inis Mor

Before we arrived on Inis Mór, I confirmed that at least one bike shop on the island rented electric bikes. Here was my flaw: I didn’t ask them how many electric bicycles they rented.  It wasn’t many.  They were gone by the time we arrived on the first ferry of the day.

Normally, Ireland’s greatest asset is the people themselves.  They are the nicest, friendliest people on the planet, and act as if you have brightened their day simply by walking into the room.  Not so on the Aran Islands.

Aran Islanders, based on my brief observation, are a bit chillier.  It is clear that they are putting up with you, but nothing more.  I don’t blame them.  Hordes of tourists invade their sheltered island every morning, and then swarm back out on the last ferry.  If it weren’t for the tourist dollars, they probably would slap a big “KEEP OUT: THIS MEANS YOU!” sign on the pier.  They were highly dismissive of the my-sister-doesn’t-regularly-exercise plight.

At this point, I told my sister to hop in a pony cart.  My husband and I would bike to meet her at the island’s most popular tourist site, the Dun Aonghasa stone fort.  She, being a good sport, said, “No, no.  I will ride with you guys. We will stick together.”

Foreshadowing: This  is where we made our critical error.  She absolutely should have taken the pony cart.

Image of a sign with a horse and cart.

The Pony Cart My Sister Should have Taken

The ride was spectacular.  We passed by cows grazing on hills, ruins of churches, gorgeous landscapes, and picture-postcard homes.  The joy in this adventure was simply being outside and alive on a beautiful Irish island.

The only problem was the soundtrack to the ride, which sounded something like this, repeated on a loop every three minutes.  “How long is this ride?  My butt hurts!  Wow, that is really hilly!  I need to stop and take a break.  I need water.  I can’t do this anymore.  It’s too windy.  Do you think a pony cart will stop and pick me up?”

My sister is my best friend.  I love her.  So, I did not: 1) Tell her to stop whining; 2) Ride ahead and pretend I didn’t realize we had left her behind; or 3) Throw her into the ocean.  Obviously.  That would be mean.

Image of an Inishmore Cow

My sister made friends with this cow on one of her many rest breaks.

We finally arrived at Dun Aonghasa, which was well worth the ride.  The large fort was built approximately 3,000 years ago, and its ruins provide a glimpse into the life of Ireland’s ancestors.  The afternoon was warm, the sun was shining, and the view of the dramatic coastline of Ireland from the fort was breathtaking.

Image of the coastline of Inishmore

View from Don Aonghasa Fort

When we arrived at Dun Aonghasa, my husband had approached one of the million pony cart drivers there.  They said it would be no problem to return my sister to the ferry.  We could arrange for the bike shop to pick up her bike.  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to depart, there were no available pony carts left.  Not one.  I started to feel really bad for my sister.  For some inexplicable reason, we decided to soldier on rather than calling someone to come out and fetch her.

Image of Inishmore Landscape

Perhaps pretty views like this addled my brain so I neglected to call for help for my sister?

The bike shop provided us with a map of the island, which showed two primary routes back to the ferry.  The first path, the one we rode to the fort, meandered flatly along the shoreline.  The second path cut straight through the middle of the island.  In hopes of shortening the torture for my sister, we took the second path, because it was supposed to be shorter.

You know the saying, “What goes up, must come down?”  Not so on the Aran Islands.  After a few miles, the path ahead of us starting climbing and simply did not stop.  We thought we were reaching the top, and, yet, the top was always out of reach.  I regularly bike 20 miles at a time, but usually on flat beach paths.  This ride was difficult–even for me.

Image of a Road on Inishmore

It doesn’t look very steep. It seemed vertical.

My sister stopped and walked her bike often.  Several times, I walked beside her.  She weakly and gratefully croaked, “You are just walking your bike to make me feel better, aren’t you?”  Trying not to wheeze when I spoke, I said, “That’s right.  I only want to make you feel better.”

Image of Inishmore Landscape

I had time to take this pretty picture, because I was walking my bike.

Just when I thought I might have to call my sister an ambulance, she perked up, gritted her teeth, and became quite peppy.  Almost a cheerleader, really.  You know when someone is about to die and has a last burst of energy?  That is what I think happened to my sister that day.  I was proud of her.  This new zest for biking lasted until we thankfully, finally, reached the entirely downhill portion of the  bike ride back into town.

We stopped for a well-deserved meal at the famous Tí Joe Watty’s pub, which was within healthy walking distance of the ferry.  We toasted our newfound athletic prowess as we sat on the patio.  The waiter told us that our weather on this October day was better than any they had seen the entire summer.  It had been the perfect day for a bicycle ride.

Image of Joe Watty's Pub

The Pub at the Bottom of the Hill

Practical Information:

Getting to the Aran Islands:
The Aran Islands are located off the west coast of Ireland.  We visited Inis Mór as a day trip from Galway.  A shuttle bus leaves at 9:00 am in the city center, and arrives with plenty of time to catch the 10:30 ferry to Inis Mór.  The passage was a bit rough, but my seasick-prone sister did all right.  (See, I told you she was delicate!)  We purchased our tickets from Aran Islands Ferries.

We returned to Galway on the 5:00 pm ferry, which was the last ferry of the day in October.  This departure left enough time for the bike ride, a visit to Dun Aonghasa, lunch at the fort, a post-bike trip drink at Joe Watty’s, and souvenir shopping!

Please note: You may also catch ferries to the Aran Islands from the town of Doolin, Ireland.

Renting a Bike:
There are several bike shops as you exit the pier.  The shops had many bikes available.  Except electric bikes.  So, book those in advance.

My husband and I estimate that the ride to the fort took one hour each way.  The brochures on the island say that the ride should take only half an hour each way.  I think that is a wee bit optimistic.  Also, don’t forget that you bike on the left side of the road in Ireland.  I kept forgetting.

No sisters were hurt in the making of this blog.  At least not that much.

To read more about my adventures in Ireland, please see:

Ireland: Living on the Edge at the Cliffs of Moher

Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery – Stories of a Lifetime

Ireland: A One-Week Itinerary

Travel After Loss: Beauty in the Shadow of Grief

Ireland Reading List

Ireland: Can an Irish-American Go Home Again?