Emerald isles: Ireland’s most beautiful islands

CNN  — 

The coastline around Ireland is scattered with hundreds of islands, from tiny, unpopulated mounds to grand, mountainous isles.

While plenty of them are home to dazzling white sand beaches (which could easily pass for a tropical scene when the sun shines), inland you’ll find a distinctly Irish charm, whether that’s from a cozy thatched pub or an ancient monastic settlement.

Here are 10 of the most beautiful when you travel here:

Skellig Michael, Kerry

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Rocky islands get 'Star Wars' boost
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If you’re a “Star Wars” fan, you’re likely familiar with Skellig Michael – it was the location for Ahch-To in the most recent movies (in fact, the resident puffins inspired the creatures known as porgs, mostly because it was easier for the special effects team to work with them than remove them with CGI).

With its jagged peaks and ancient monastic settlement, you couldn’t ask for a more fitting location for the Star Wars universe. This southwestern island is only accessible in the summer, and even then you’re at the mercy of the elements. But if the ferries are running, you’ll discover an incredible island as you step off the boat.


Rathlin Island, Antrim

Just a few miles off Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, Rathlin Island is a place shrouded in myth and legend, from tales of banished kings to the shipwrecks surrounding its shores.

It’s also a haven for wildlife, particularly seabirds, which is why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a nature reserve on the island. Your best chance of spotting puffins is from April to July, but at other times you can see seals in Mill Bay or spot gannets dive-bombing into the sea.


Clare Island, Mayo

Stand on the top of the sacred mountain Croagh Patrick on a clear day, and it’s said that you can see 365 islands dotted throughout Clew Bay. The largest of those is Clare Island.

Though only a 25-minute ferry from the mainland’s western coast, this is the kind of island that feels a million miles away from the everyday world. You can rent a bike and head out to explore the island’s mountains, cliffs and bays – the swimming cove on the east of the island will take your breath away (both with its beauty and its staggeringly cold waters).


Achill Island, Mayo

Dooagh Beach, Achill Island, Ireland
Beach reappears years after being washed away
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The largest island off the Irish coast, Achill is a cinch to get to: You just need to drive over the bridge. Or even better, cycle the Great Western Greenway, a route of 42 kilometer (26 miles) along the old train line from Westport.

Once there, there’s a wealth of gorgeous spots to discover, such as the crumbling stone cottages in the Deserted Village or the cute little Lynott’s Pub.

Keem Bay is a beach of almost ridiculous beauty, with a crescent of white sand and a calm bay often visited by basking sharks. But it’s the island’s sheep who really own the place, wandering over the road whenever they please, plopping themselves on the edge of cliffs to have a little doze.


Inis Oirr, Galway

Farther south, the three Aran Islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr – all share a distinctive, otherworldly look, with honeycombs of stone walls, swathes of limestone and teeny beaches. But the smallest of the three, Inis Oírr, has an unparalleled charm.

It even has its own ale, Inis Beer, and a feisty island dolphin, Dusty, who swims into the bay almost every day (and doesn’t appreciate tourists getting too close to her). It’d be a mistake to leave without sampling the fresh fudge from the Man of Aran shack – their tiger butter flavor is the stuff of legend.


Cape Clear, Cork

Eight miles off the coast of West Cork, Cape Clear is one of the most southernmost islands in Ireland (the actual title goes to the nearby Fastnet Rock, a little rocky outcrop also known as the teardrop of Ireland).

Its southerly location means the weather is often far fairer than on other islands, and it’s a paradise for nature lovers, with regular spottings of dolphins and whales off the shore, as well as the odd shark and leatherback turtle. It’s a Gaeltacht island, meaning Cape Clear’s inhabitants speak Irish, so learning a cúpla focal (couple of words) in the native tongue will be sure to earn a few smiles.


Innisfree, Sligo

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.”

The fabled words from poet W. B. Yeats make a visit to this tiny island on Lough Gill a pilgrimage of sorts for poetry lovers. But they may be surprised to discover that this northwestern island is far smaller than described, with definitely no space for a “small cabin” or even a “hive for the honey-bee.”

The island isn’t accessible by foot so the best way to see it is by paddling around with Sligo Kayak Tours, who lead trips on the lake that are often punctuated with (excellent) coffee breaks on one of the lake’s many little islands.


Lambay Island, Dublin

Wallabies in Ireland? You can see them on Lambay.

Of all the creatures you might expect to find on an Irish island, the ones who call Lambay home may take you by surprise. On this wild isle off the Dublin coast, a “mob” of nearly 400 wallabies hop around the fields.

You can visit this private island on a day trip, or stay as part of one of the regular retreats held there. The 16th-century castle is supplemented by the large country house designed by legendary English architect Edwin Lutyens, and visitors can enjoy stays tailored to everything from foraging to yoga to literary pursuits. There is also a six-bed cottage available for private hire.


Great Blasket, Kerry

The Blaskets, like many of Ireland’s islands, have the kind of dazzling white sand beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean. The largest, Great Blasket Island, is the most commonly visited, and is a hiker’s paradise – bring a picnic and explore the trails around the island, ducking into old abandoned cottages and dipping your toes into the sparklingly clear sea.


Tory Island, Donegal

One of the most remote islands off the Irish coast, Tory is a magnet for creatives, which explains why it has its own art gallery, Gailearaí Dixon. Wander around this northwestern island and you can also find a monastic cross, the Dún Bhaloir fort and a gorgeous lighthouse. Stroll along the sea cliffs and you might even hear the cry of the rare corncrake birds.