Travelling My Way - Achill Island
Achill Island - where clouds embrace the earth
Do forgive me this rather poetic subtitle, but the vision of candyfloss-like clouds hovering beneath mountain peaks, seemingly touching the ground, is the most vivid mental picture I've brought back from my recent trip to Achill Island, Ireland, Co. Mayo. I have many more pictures and memories to share, so if you want a sneak peek, stay with me for a while.
Photos by Tiggered, unless marked otherwise
Destination: Achill Island
Why would anyone want to visit Achill Island? When deciding on destinations for my travels, I don't need reasons more elaborate than 'Why not?' or 'I haven't been there yet', but you may be less free when making your choices. What could draw you to this island on the Irish West Coast? If you are a record collector, you may be glad to know it's the largest island in the whole country. Who else is it for?
- water sports fans
- seekers of solitude
- admirers of 'sea+mountains type' views
- beach lovers
- carnivorous plant spotters
Finding Achill Island
Actually, it's not difficult at all. Get to Westport and from there simply follow roadsigns. Easy as pie.
I wanted to show you a Google Map to give you a clearer idea, but unfortunately here at Squidoo Google Maps work only for US addresses. You'll have to do your own browsing :)
I've been to Achill Island. Have you?
Achill Island is a place...
Colours of Achill Island
I have yet to visit a place where weather makes as big a difference to its beauty as in the Irish Connemara. Little sunshine transforms it from a dull, greyish affair into a sparkling gem of vivid colours. Numerous mountain lakes reflect the azure sky and almost shine with deep blue, and the greens... Well, no wonder why they call Ireland 'the Emerald Isle'. In cloudy weather (which, in Ireland, unfortunately means 'often') it is not so impressive - after all what's so great in masses of red, dull green? But let the sun come out and all that greenness becomes alive and fresh. Emeralds can go and hide.
The above is also true of Achill Island. I've been there twice; in early spring, on a glorious sunny day and again in the summer, with the weather not being so clement anymore. Funny how different the two trips felt, although both were charming in there own special way.
Achill Island on sunny day
Achill Island - Sheep Island?
Have you ever seen a picture of an Irish traffic jam? Postcard manufacturers love it, so there's a good chance that you have. If you haven't, let me explain: Irish traffic jam means a road blocked by sheep. Haha.
Guess what, funny as it may sound, it's completely true and particularly visible on Achill Island. The sheep there are numerous, bold and often wander around completely unrestricted. They often graze on the roadside, so please be careful when driving around - you never know when there's a sheep around the corner.
If you follow my example and visit Achill Island in early spring, you will be greeted by many delightful sightings of ewes with their little lambs in tow. Newborn lambs are unbelievably funny, enjoyable creatures and I must have snapped a hundred pictures of variations on the same theme: lamb and its mummy. The young animals follow their mums everywhere, explore the world around them and generally provide a charming spectacle.
And there's hundreds of them.
Running is what's life all about!
If, after you arrive on Achill Island, you keep on the main road, you'll eventually get to the place where the road ends and one of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland begins. The sand is white and fine, the ocean tropical blue, with white-crested waves racing towards the shore. Mountains and cliffs surround it from three sides, the fourth being the ocean, which gives this little beach curiously intimate atmosphere. Water drains from the hills around and flows into the sea in little rivulets crossing the sand. Someone pointed to me that those tiny streams are better to watch than lava lamps, with their ever changing patterns of water-borne black and white sand particles, and I couldn't agree more.
Climb the hill and view the beach from above or stay within the water's reach - choice is yours.
Bathing is safe on Keem Beach and there are lifeguards (for some reason wearing shades even on the sunless days - is it just me or does it look INCREDIBLY stupid?) present during the season. The water itself is, well, cold. Or refreshing, if you prefer. So refreshing, it makes marrow in your bones freeze, but I saw with my own eyes numerous fans of such refreshment. Tip: how about a wetsuit?
The nasty thing about this beautiful spot is the fact that many people know about it... It tends to be crowded, regardless of the weather, with the little parking lot being unpleasantly full and beach-crap sellers (you know, the inflatable plastic bananas, pink sand buckets and neon-coloured frisbees) hawking their wares from their car-shops. If tranquility is what you seek, arrive early in the morning or very late.
All the facilities are there, good access road, free parking and even a free public toilet nearby.
If you fear cold water, a wetsuit can help
Where to stay on Achill Island?
Can I confess to something? I am an unrepenting criminal. Despite grim signs forbidding overnight parking and camping on the Keem Beach, I did both, enjoyed it immensely and will do it again if such an opportunity presents itself. I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but we were not bothered in any way during our 'illegal' stay and I cannot for the life of me think of any logical reason for NOT camping there. Apart from the fact that by doing so, you avoid filling coffers of local hotels and B&Bs which, apparently, is an offence these days.
Keem Beach is generously fitted with rubbish bins so potential campers wouldn't pose a littering problem and there's simply not enough flat surface for the place to be overrun with rioting tent-dwellers. Besides, what constitutes 'overnight' parking (and why is it so bad?)? If I arrive at 3 am to watch the sunrise, am I breaking any laws? As I said, if I ever again happen to stay on Achill Island in the warm-ish weather, I will re-commit my crime, with no remorse.
If you want to go by the rules, you shouldn't expect any problem with accommodation, as seemingly every second house on the island is turned into a B&B. There are some hotels and restaurants, evidently opened with tourists in mind, so if this is your thing and you can afford it, the options are there. In the introduction to Travelling My Way I've promised never to review a place I haven't personally tested and I'm going to stick to this promise right now by leaving the exploration of hotels and restaurants to you.
Warning! Bad coffee zone!
I can forgo all the restaurants in the world, but lack of a good, take-away latte on the road makes me suffer. To the point where I'm able to stop at every single service station for kilometres until I find a decent (plastic) cup. I had to stop many times on Achill Island and I did not find anything drinkable. Ouch.
An advanced tip for coffee lovers: watch out for coffee machines with rectangular capsules (you insert them into the machine to activate it). The remotely coffee-flavoured liquid they produce is foul and probably contains less caffeine than milk you add to it. From the fridge. Cold. Good bye, good latte.
After testing pretty much every single shop and station on the island and further, I finally found a decent coffee machine and thus my suffering ended. In Westport. Which is something like 50 km of winding road away. Consider yourself warned.
Fellow coffee lovers, if you're travelling to Achill Island, bring your thermos flask with you.
Thermos flask can save you from coffee hell
Achill Island - Deserted Village
My favourite way of travelling includes driving around and taking random turns, usually following the brown and white tourist's board signs. This is exactly what I did when I saw a sign pointing to the Deserted Village (easy to spot from the main road).
The 'attraction' consists of a handful of roofless, crumbling stone cottages adjacent to a modern cemetery and one information board that completely fails to draw your attention unless you are an archeologist. I'm not, so I found the place rather boring (although the walk around green meadows with ever-present sheep was pleasant enough).
Yet, the spot holds a few unofficial attractions which I accidentally discovered and, since I'm feeling generous today, am glad to share with you:
1. Unbelievable amount of wild mint. Just a few young shoots in the spring, it grew into whole meadows in the summer. I'm a bit of a forager, so I came home with a whole bag of fresh leaves, but even if this is not your style, snap a twig or two. Fresh mint tea is delicious and fresh leaves make your car smell heavenly, if only for a while.
2. Sundews!!!!! (I agree with Sir Terry Pratchett who said that multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of an unstable mind, but in this case I simply couldn't stop myself). Carnivorous plants do turn me on, and when I saw all the sundew plants growing around the Deserted Village, I jumped sky high. If you're a sundew expert, skip the next paragraph and track them yourself - I don't want to spoil your treasure hunt.
For the rest of the world... Sundews are tiny, maybe an inch across, so it's not so easy to spot them. Let me help. When you'll walk along the road from the cemetery towards the ruined houses, notice a ditch on your right hand side. There's some water trickling at the bottom, and the opposite bank of the ditch is a 'miniature cliff' built of blackish soil. Here, on the vertical wall of this ditch, sundews grow and grow aplenty. I hope you'll be able to share my excitement.
Megalithic Tomb of Achill Island
If I was an archeologist, I may have felt otherwise, but as it is, the megalithic tomb of Achill Island was one big disappointment. It is signposted by the brown and white signs I mentioned before, but the very last sign appears to be pointing at somebody's fenced garden. Only after closer inspection you may notice a little muddy path going up the hill right alongside the fence. You can leave your car at a little parking on the opposite side of the road - and that's about it when it comes to good news.
You need to climb a hill to get to the tomb, and the climb is long, rather steep and most certainly not worth the meagre reward you get at the end of your path. The megalithic tomb may be something more to an expert, but to laymen like me and most of the world, it's just a big stone lying on top of two other stones, all rather small and tumbled down, with no visible passage underground. And an offering of sheep dung proudly displayed at tomb's flat surface. One word sums it up - OVERRATED.
The only bright ray in this otherwise gloomy escapade was the abundant wild sorrel growing along the path to this unimpressive monument. We've picked enough for some delicious soup!
An ancient and mysterious offering on the megalithic tomb...
Flora of Achill Island
Fauna seems to consist mainly of sheep, but flora is worth a paragraph or two. Sundews (see above) are my personal favourite, but if you look closely, you will find many more beauties.
In macroscale, there's plenty of wild Chilean rhubarb, which I've heard is becoming a pest on the island, but is nevertheless quite impressive with its giant leaves and pineapple-like fruit (flower? seed pod? whatever the hell it is).
Medium sized plants I spotted include the decorative thistle, plentiful, pretty heathers and some ferns, although I'm sure there's many more species out there.
Funny enough, the most beautiful flowers take some looking for because they are tiny. Look closely at cliffs and meadows of Achill Island (I recommend the Keem Bay area) and you'll find a whole microcosmos of shapes and colours, rich, vibrant and diversified.
PS. I might have found another species of carnivorous plant on a cliff on the Keem Bay, but I know too little about them to be sure. If you happen to be able to confirm it, do let me know.
And now for something completely different...
This space is for you. For raves, rants or anything you want