When you hear about peoples’ bucket list travel ambitions, consider whether some of those places made the list because the tourist industry knows that they simply are where it’s easy to get people in and out. Compared to other similar and perhaps even better locations, the ones on the list could be just more convenient. Maybe the tourists, and the bucket lists they’ve adopted, are being managed.
The Cliffs of Moher are firmly planted on the Irish mainland, shading the southern shore of the mouth of beautiful Galway Bay. They are one of the top tourist attractions in Ireland. People going to Ireland are asked whether they plan to go there, and when they come home are asked if they went. “Wasn’t it fantastic?”
They are indeed spectacular. The limestone escarpment, which just to the south results in the wierd and otherworldly landscapes of the Burren, terminates abruptly at the sea creating towering cliffs that plunge straight down into the typically wave churned ocean. The horizontal slabs of limestone of the Burren simply end here without warning.
These cliffs have become so popular that paved walkways have been constructed along much of its trailway on top, and its custodians have found that they need physical barriers to keep kids from running over the edge. Parking lots have been built for all the tour buses and cars and an admission fee to the cliffs is charged to pay for all those improvements. Yes, the Cliffs of Moher are not free. (Pro tip, pass right by the paid parking lot and follow gps directions along tiny country lanes to an alternate parking lot at a farm house at the other end of the cliff’s walkway, there drop a Euro coin into the farmer’s metal box and walk up the hill through pastures and sheep gates; same cliffs.)
And another thing to note, these cliffs are conveniently located about an hour away from Galway which is where virtually every package tour of the west coast spends a night on its way from a day in Connemara south to Killarney and the Ring of Kerry.
Now there is no denying that the Cliffs of Moher are worth seeing. My point is not to tell the would-be Irish tourist not to go. I mean, just look at them.
If you have the energy, they go on for a few miles and the cliff-top trail provides great vistas, if your tour bus driver will give you the time.
And even seen from afar at the ferry terminal at Doolin, they are a sight.
My point only is to suggest that the hype around these cliffs, as opposed to many other sea cliff candidates, is due to their easier-to-access location right astride the well beaten package tour path and convenient for the bused day-trips coming out from Galway.
Let’s look at a different set of cliffs, the terminus of yet another patch of Burren limestone before it falls into the sea. Let’s go offshore to the three Aran Islands blocking up the actual mouth of Galway Bay.
The largest of them is named Inishmore (anglicized from Inis Môr). And the first thing to note is that you have to get out there. This isn’t actually all that hard, regular ferries depart for the islands and the crossing doesn’t take much more than an hour, or a bit more. (You can fly, but why?)
But tour busses don’t go there. And if someone wanted to make a day trip there and back from Galway, the hour long drive to the ferry terminal and the hour-plus ferry ride would make for a pretty long day. Doable, as testified to by summer crowds, but long and not really ideal.
When you arrive on Inis Môr you still will need to get out to the site of the Iron Age fort, Dún Aonghasa (doesn’t roll off the tongue like Moher, and the c in cliffs is not capitalized). Bicycles can be hired, horse drawn buggies (pony and trap) make their way there (I didn’t say that tourists don't come here) and a couple of taxi drivers make regular trips the few miles out and back. Either way try and arrange for a couple of hours on site.
Last April my sister and brother and I spent two nights out there, staying at the cozy B&B inn Clai Ban. Our host was Bartley Hernon. He had lots of information, served a great breakfast and the rooms were great. It was just up the path from a pub serving meals, and within easy walking distance from the village and ferry pier. But there is a good range of accommodations on Inis Môr, including a hostel. This isn’t a guidebook. Based on the friendly reception we always received in Ireland I expect you will do fine almost anywhere you book. Find whatever fits your budget. But staying over at least one night really is best for seeing the cliffs right.
Noel Mahon, the taxi driver we arranged the night before, picked us up in his van and enthusiastically showed us the whole island, including some interesting historical sites. He was friendly, knowledgeable, proud of his island and, significantly, arranged for us to be at the fort and cliffs for much longer than the normal visit. I walk very slowly.
Now the Iron Age fort itself is a heritage site and the informative visitors center at the entry point charges a fee, so these cliffs are not free either. Here the admission fee goes to the ongoing preservation of an historical site.
From there you now have to climb the stone wall lined path up to the fort itself.
Here is how the Heritage Ireland webpage describes getting there. “Visitor safety information: The [site] is about 1km form [sic] the Visitors Centre and is approached over rising ground. The last section of the path is over rough, natural rock and care is needed, especially when descending. Boots or strong walking shoes are recommended. There is no fence or barrier at the edge of the cliff.”
Once on top you will be greeted with views of the fort and, if you can overcome your fears and manage to inch your way close enough to the edge, the cliffs.
And the vistas extend back along almost the length of Inis Môr and the other two Aran Islands.
Whether you may have a preference for one or the other, what I think can be said is that the cliffs of Dún Aonghasa are every bit as deserving to be on someone’s bucket list as the far better known Cliffs of Moher. As originally used, I thought, the term bucket list implied a difficult to get to, out of the way place. Convenience wasn't a criteria.
Yet most likely you (Americans at least) will never have heard of the cliffs at Dún Aonghasa. Because they aren’t easy to get to when making your way from somewhere to someplace else. It takes some work. Worth it, but time and energy it still is.
You may, however, have seen them before. The ending scene of the movie Leap Year was filmed at Dún Aonghasa. It stood-in for some cliffs that were supposed to be in Dingle. Here Amy Adams finally got the Irish marriage proposal she was seeking. Her (spoiler alert!) husband-to-be’s pub is down below outside the visitors center. I wonder if she walked up that hill? I hope that she did, and happily.
©️ 2019 D Abbott