Ireland

Exploring Achill Island, Ireland’s Hidden Gem

Oh Achill Island.

A place where sheep rule the roads.

The biggest of the Irish Islands, and the most populated, likely because of easy access between the island mainland.

Lest we forget to mention, one most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in Europe.

Achill Island was a place I didn’t even know I needed to visit until I moved to Ireland.

Planning a west coast trip in early July 2020 was a bit of a last minute affair.

COVID-19 cases in Ireland had been on the decline for months, and holding steady at only ~10-20 new cases per day for weeks.

Things appeared to be going so well, the government moved up reopening plans. And, mid-July, we decided to plan a trip West, committing to take every possible precaution to avoid contact with others.

// 10 Tips for Traveling Safely in 2020 //

Over the course of a week, we drove from Westport to Doolin, then further south to Dingle and the Ring of Kerry.

Was it a lot to see and do in only a week?
Sure was, but when there’s sunny days in Ireland and sunset at 10:30 pm, you take full advantage.

From Dublin, we left early morning and drove straight to Achill, arriving just in time for lunch. As you drive onto the island, road signs alert you to the fact you’re entering an Irish Speaking Region: An Ghaeltacht.

Achill is virtually unknown to tourists. It’s often omitted in the tourist guides about Ireland, and there are no tours available from Dublin.

But, it’s got so much to offer- natural beauty with rugged coastline, mountainous peaks, and in my opinion, the most spectacular beach in Ireland.

Cresting over the hill adjacent just beyond Keel Lough, when a small town (Dooagh) came into sight, it was immediate Scandi vibes- Norway meets Faroe, but Irish.

Those vibes only intensified in our time exploring Achill- more than once I remarked how the ruggedness of the island reminded me of photos I’ve seen of the Faroe Islands, and parts of northern Norway.

Achill is without a doubt one of the most spectacular spots in Ireland. It’s the beauty of the ‘wild Atlantic way,’ but without the crowds.

Driving onto Achill, we knew our first stop would be at the far end of the island- Keem Bay. With the sun peaking through intermittent clouds, we were keen to get to Keem.

Coming over the hill that leads to Keem Bay, it’s hard not to do a double-take and ask yourself if you’ve been transported out of Ireland to somewhere far more tropical.

Aloud, I compared the water colour and mountain silhouettes to that of which I’d savoured from a hammock on an Indonesian island.

Once you arrive in Keem Bay, pull off and park in the overhead lot. Take in the views, use the restroom if you need to, and then walk down to the beach.

Here, you’ll find the postcard perfect view Achill is famous for.

Beyond being a beautiful place to sit on a beach or stroll the water’s edge, you can also hike around the bay for incredible coastline views.

After a picnic lunch and an afternoon lounging in the sun, we backtracked across Achill Island to visit Keel Bay.

Different to Achill, Keel Bay’s beach is long and flat. The waves in this part of the island are perfect for surfing, and we really enjoyed strolling the beach, watching surfers catch the last afternoon breaks.

The beaches and walking trails on Achill may be great, but it wouldn’t be Ireland without castle-esque ruins. Before leaving Achill for the day, of course, we had to visit Grace O’Malley’s Castle, Kildavnet Tower.

From Achill Island’s tourism site, the place name, Kildavet, literally means ‘the small church of Davnet’ and refers to the 7th Century saint Dympna, who built a small church here.

 

People believe the current remains of a small church at Kildavnet were built on the site of the original. Some of the current ruins are thought to date from the 12th Century, though there has been much renovation since.

Nonetheless, a beautiful sight to see before ending your time on Achill.

When we visited Achill, we lucked out with the weather- that’s for sure. We’d originally planned 2-3 days in Achill, not knowing if we’d see blue skies- even in summer, weather can be finicky because of proximity to the ocean.

Since we had such great weather on our first day and spent the better part of the day roaming beaches and walking trails, we moved on to other parts of the west coast on our second day. However, I’d definitely return to Achill for a full weekend- it’s an incredible place.

Leaving Achill, we stopped for a stroll through Newport, because no such thing as too many small Irish towns.

Our destination for the night was Westport.

Only an hour from Achill, it’s a great option if you want to stay near amenities- stores, grocery shops, restaurants and cafes. You could stay on Achill- there are a few b&b’s, but we chose to stay in Westport because more places were open with COVID restrictions just beginning to lift.

If you do decide to stay on Achill, restaurants and pubs that came recommended to us:

  • Pure Magic Lodge: Wood-fired pizzas
  • The Amethyst: Quality pub
  • The Annex: Perfect for post-beach pints
  • The Valley House: Lovely outdoor beer garden

Westport’s town centre is a prime example of Georgian-style – read: beyond charming.

We loved wandering the town’s streets, spotting all of its treasures- a bubbling river with a stone arched bridge; a tiny house covered in ivy; vivid flowers in dotted throughout the streets; and bright, coffee shops with gorgeous design details.

If you’re in the mood for pizza, we dug Westport Woodfire. And, for morning coffee, This Must Be the Place is absolutely lovely.

We didn’t stop in any pubs, because COVID, but I’ve heard Matt Molly’s Pub is famous for its Chieftains-member owner. Michell Henry’s restaurant also came highly recommended for its home cooked Irish food.

Lodging wise, we stayed at a hotel on the quay, outside of city centre and would 10/10 recommend the area.

There’s a cute street full of shops, but inarguably, the best part of the quay are the walking paths with mountains in the distance and waterside views.

Westport’s been voted Ireland’s most liveable town, and it’s easy to see why after only a few hours exploring town and its quay.

If I ever return to Achill, or to Westport to cycle the Great Western Greenway, I’d love to see more of Westport, as well as Ballycroy National Park with its panoramic views of the Nephin Beg Mountain Range.

Have you ever heard of Achill Island? Would you visit this dreamy island on a trip to Ireland?

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4 comments

  1. Like Diana wrote, I would’ve never imagined that the beaches would be from Ireland; the beautiful, blue-sky weather and deep blue waters would’ve made me guess that it was located somewhere more tropical! All the same, it certainly pays off to visit this corner of the country, and it looks like I’ll have to return to Ireland to find out!

    1. I really couldn’t believe it was Ireland myself. In a way, I’m glad it’s a bit harder to reach because it’s means the area is less frequented by visitors, which you really feel in the area’s charm.

    1. Right? Truly an exceptional place, and somewhere I wouldn’t have likely seen on a quick trip to Ireland, based on the places popular blogs and tour books recommend visiting. A ‘hidden’ gem if there ever was one 🙂

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