Q: I'm traveling to Ireland with a friend next week who wants to spend some time on the Aran Islands. Is there anything to do there besides stare at the ocean (hiking? biking?)?
Trail trimmings: a winding stonewall in the Aran Islands
Alex Cohen, San Francisco, California
A: The Aran Islands have a reputation for being small and sleepy. But what they lack in pint-swilling opportunities they more than make up for in trails. On Inishmor, the largest of the three, a double-track path runs 14 or so miles around the island. It's a beautiful place, but there's none of the lush, green landscape you'd expect from other parts of Ireland. Dark slabs of smooth limestone spread out across the middle, bordered by walls of tightly stacked stones. In spring and early summer, bright clumps of wildflowers poke out between the rocks. Along the trail, markers point to ruins that date back a few thousand years. Grab a map when you get to the port town, and maybe a bike, and you'll find plenty of ways to fill your time.
Since the peak tourist season hasn't quite hit, Inishmor will probably be free from the boatloads of day-trippers that clog the streets and some of the trails later in the year. But come July and August you're better off heading for one of the smaller islands. Both have day hike opportunities and bike rentals (though you'll only need a few hours to take a thorough two-wheel tour).
Other Inishmor highlights: white sand beaches, the seal colony, and the daily Man of Aran screening. End the day with a plate of fresh salmon at the waterfront Aran Fisherman, and you might decide staring at the ocean isn't such a bad thing.