Island hopping in Clew Bay

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WILL YOU MEET ME ON CLARE ISLAND? The stunning Mayo island is central to the exciting new Clew Bay Bike Trail.

There are few better places to while away a summer’s day than Clare Island

Edwin McGreal

A jaunt from Achill Island to Clare Island and back last week could just as easily been a holiday in the Mediterranean.
With the hot weather, picture postcard views and the ferry trip across the bay, you could have been island hopping on the Greek islands. Instead of Corfu, we were going to Cliara and with none of the hassle.
It was a half day trip for myself and my son Éamon (three in September) and he loved it as much as I did.
We set off from An Chéibh Bheag in Cloughmore under the shadow of one of Gráinne Uaile’s castles and arrived at the quay in Clare Island right underneath another of the Pirate Queen’s abodes.
So the trip from Achill to Clare Island is not a new one, but one with hugely historic resonance.
Its 2021 incarnation is made possible by increased ferry runs brought about by the recent launch of the Clew Bay Bike Trail, a tourism offering with huge potential – more in the adjoining piece.
But it also opened up Clare Island for day trippers from Achill, be they locals or the ever increasing numbers of tourists on the island. We met plenty of tourists doing the same as us, while more were planning to cycle the full route around Clew Bay.
Everyone we spoke to were mesmerised by the experience.
The trip is worth it for the ferry journey alone. O’Grady’s Sea Sprinter was as fast as it was smooth and the views of Achill, Currane, Achill Beg and Clare Island in the foreground and views in the distance to the likes of the Bills Rocks, Croagh Patrick, the Nephin Beg range and down to Mweelrea form just the most spectacular panorama.
The cliffs of Knockmore on the north-west tip of Clare Island form the horizon for the view from our home in Dooega on the south of Achill Island and going over to experience the view from the other side was an enticing draw.
We were blessed with the weather too, in the low 20s, although I felt every bit of that heat cycling the hills on Clare Island.
I had been there before but to my eternal shame, never made it past the eastern end of the island. When you’re at a certain age, revelry is your priority.
Times change and with Éamon on board, it was time for a more immersive experience and a bike trip was the only way to go.

Up to the lighthouse
Top tip though – if you’ve a young child, don’t bring them to the playground first if you want to see the rest of the island. Only the promise of seeing a real lighthouse up close for the first time got Éamon away from the playground near the Quay.
Off we went on our bike and cycled up past the Community Centre and O’Grady’s for a short little loop around the eastern shore before getting onto the main circular loop around the island.
We diverted off from that to go up to the lighthouse and the word ‘up’ is appropriate. It’s quite the climb and I won’t lie, I had to get off the bike a couple of times.
But the trek (roughly 2km off the main loop) is worth it not alone for the old lighthouse (now an opulent guesthouse) but also for the views across to Achill, taking in everything from Keem to Cloughmore.
Back down we went and headed on the loop through the heart of the island.
This was such a blissful journey across a lovely, tranquil road where the only noise you could hear, apart from your own heavy breathing, was the melodic sounds of gentle streams and little waterfalls meandering along the road beside you. The most beautiful backing music to your trip and it felt as if you had the place to yourself.  
Get to the apex of that road and the horizon opens out in front of you as the island drops off to reveal stunning views of Inishturk and Caher islands. Pictures of it are amazing but nothing beats experiencing it for yourself, breathing it in, stopping and just being utterly consumed by it. Every direction you turn in from this point takes the breath away.
On we go down the hill towards the 12th century abbey. The old abbey is a delight.
We stopped off at Pádraig O’Malley in the shop for a much needed ice-cream for Éamon and sure it would be rude to leave him eating one on his own.
With more time we might have went due west from the shop to the Napoleonic signal tower but it’s always nice to leave something new to come back to.
We finish back where we started, at the Quay, and stop off at the Community Centre for a bite to eat and a drink. Neither of us left hungry.
We even had time for a trip back to the playground before getting on the boat again.
Any fears I had of Éamon being afraid on the boat proved unfounded – he even managed to fall asleep in my arms on the way home. The sign of a good and busy day.
We’ll be going again soon, waving all of our cares goodbye.


Harnessing the best Mayo has to offer


Edwin McGreal

The Wild Atlantic Way demonstrated what can be done with branding and marketing.
There was no massive infrastructural investment needed – the route was there, it was about packaging it and communicating the experience to people.
It has been a riproaring success and, at a local level, it is hard not to see similar potential with the Clew Bay Bike Trail.
It builds on the success of the Great Western Greenway from Westport to Achill to create a loop of Clew Bay incorporating a jaunt to and from Clare Island.
Cyclists will journey from Westport to Louisburgh and onto Roonagh. From there they will take the ferry to Clare Island, stay there for a few hours or overnight and then get a ferry to Achill. From there they rejoin the Great Western Greenway back through Mulranny, Newport and back into Westport.
Infrastructural investment is needed – the greenway is being build from Westport as far as Lecanvey while Mayo County Council have a route identified for its extension from Lecanvey to Louisburgh.
There are plans also to extend it to Roonagh, using the existing main road and some side roads. From Achill, plans are afoot for a spur to the pier at Cloughmore off the main Greenway currently being constructed from Achill Sound to Cashel. There is no denying the trail won’t be family friendly until those greenway extensions are complete.
The other key link in the chain are the ferry services to and from Clare Island, which have been put on for July and August to assess demand.
But the route exists; it is all about highlighting it and improving it.
“It seems to be very well received and is appealing to day trippers just looking to go to Clare Island and cyclists looking to go the full route,” Anna Connor, Tourism Development Officer with Mayo County Council told The Mayo News.
In total it’s 80km of cycling plus whatever cycling people decide to do on Clare Island  – it’s well worth your while doing the loop of the island in this writer’s opinion.
Eva Costello is Team Manager for Fáilte Ireland for the Mayo/Sligo region and says the hope is the trail will expand on the potential of the Greenway and get people to make a longer, more fulfilling trip.
“The idea is to slow people along this route and get them to experience hidden gems in the area and perhaps stay for three to four nights along the way. What we found is with the Greenway, it is a one day or even a half day experience,” she told The Mayo News.
As Anna Connor detailed from itineraries she is drawing up from visitors, there are any amount of activities and experiences along or nearby the trail – climbing Croagh Patrick; visiting the beaches at Bertra, Old Head, Carrowmore, Carrowniskey, Clare Island, Achill’s five blue flag beaches and Mulranny; visiting the Ballycroy National Park; taking in all that Achill and Clare islands have to offer and so much more besides.
Ms Connor added that a group of ten or more people can charter their own ferry service and build their own tour.
There is huge potential for a very immersive experience along the trail and just off it and Ms Connor sees the possibility for three, five and week long tours.

Clew Bay development plan
It’s described as a ‘catalyst project’ for the Destination and Experience Development Plan for Clew Bay which will be launched later this year.
Eva Costello says the plan is a ‘shared vision for the bay’ and is a collaborative effort with Fáilte Ireland, Mayo County Council, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Office of Public Works and businesses and communities in the area.
“It’s a 3.5 year development plan for tourism in the area focusing on creating jobs, increasing bed nights and improving the tourism economy,” she said.
The trail came into being after a workshop set up by Mayo County Council with Fáilte Ireland, the ferry operators on Clare Island (O’Gradys and O’Malleys) as well as bike hire companies such as Travis Zeray from Clew Bay Bike Hire and Paul Harmon from Electric Escapes.
The price is the same on either ferry with the only proviso being that if you travel with one company onto Clare Island, you must also travel with that company when departing.
It costs €25 per person with a bike from Roonagh to Clare Island and onto Achill, or vice versa, or simply from Achill return or Roonagh return.

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For more details see www.clewbaybiketrail.ie.