When you picture paradise, what do you see?
Each to their own, but it’s fair to say that pristine blue water skirted by a golden crescent beach, beneath a towering cliff capped with windblown heather… makes for a decent description of paradise.
So it is on Achill Island in county Mayo.
At around 57 square miles, it’s the largest island in the Irish archipelago, and as pretty as anywhere on Earth, in the rugged Irish sense.
Literally, ‘paradise with an edge’ refers to the sheer and majestic cliffs that edge Achill’s Atlantic shoreline.
At Slievemore to the north and Croaghaun to the west, those cliffs reach to well over 600 meters, making Achill home to the highest cliffs in Europe.
‘Edge’ also refers to Achill’s history.
Life in such remote and exposed parts of the world is invariably hard. Pirates and invaders are woven into the long Achill story. But here, and all along this marvelous coast, the Irish spirit prevails; and, as we’ve noticed on our travels worldwide, people who have endured much are the most hospitable.
Slievemore House in Dugort nestles under the mountain it takes its name from. It has decor to match its stunning setting, TVs in some of the rooms, clean sheets, and comfort throughout. The bathrooms are well stocked, the breakfast tasty as you’ll find, and your host Carol Ann is most informative about her beloved island.
If you find you prefer the west coast, the Achill Cliff House Hotel in Keel is your go-to. It overlooks Keel Bay… so the views are quite stunning. No en-suite TVs, unfortunately, but the rooms are huge. Wanting your space, you won’t be left wanting. There is Wi-Fi, parking, a sauna and a restaurant. For a 3-star place … great value.
I associate Achill with chowder, mainly because I had a superb seafood chowder in a bistro in Keel called the Annexe Inn. It sticks in my mind, as it stuck to my ribs.
But great chowders are found all over Achill. It’s a local specialty. On and if you go to Dugort, try the seafood pizza at Pure Magic. The name says it all.
Achill has 5 Blue Flag Beaches. One of them – Keem Beach – made it to our Best beaches feature, and is covered there. Also make a point of visiting Silver Strand, Dooah and Dugort beaches: havens for watersports, and also perfect for paddling, buckets and spades, and making sand forts.
Achill’s big daddy beach is Keel Strand: an unbroken ribbon of sand that stretches for miles. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the beaches on the Wild Atlantic Way are on a different scale.
Inland from Keel is the gorgeous Keel Lake, a freshwater playground for kayakers, windsurfers, anglers… and nature lovers. Our favorite island pastime (mine and Maria’s that is – not so much our son) sees us tramping through a heathery wonderland around a lake that teems with flowers and creatures you simply don’t see outside of Achill.
The landscape is studded with relics and ruins – lasting imprints of Achill’s past generations. Slievemore’s iconic Deserted Village is the crown jewel in what is literally an archeological treasure chest.
The village is the remains of 100 or so dry-walled cottages, on the mountain slopes, all facing the ocean. Built and rebuilt through the ages, the village was finally abandoned during Ireland’s great potato famine. It’s open to the public, and a must-do on the to-do list. The historic sites include the old castle at Kildavnet, St Thomas Church, prehistoric forts, and cairns, each with a story as colorful as the people who tell them.
Bird lovers and beach lovers will love the boat trip to Clare Island. And for the foodies out there… some say Achill’s seafood festival is the gastronomic event of the year.
The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge across Achill Sound, so is easily reached by car or by coach, from the town of Westport.