One of West Cork’s most distinctive features is its rugged, frayed coastline – that smattering of rock formations and small islands that reach just a little further out into the Wild Atlantic Way. These geological qualities are ancient – tied into the land’s glacial history, thousands of years of erosion and tectonic activity and weather lunging in from the open sea.
These islands are arguably one of the area’s most profound ties to history. While they are not man-made features like castles and historic towns, they have presided over countless arrivals and departures by sea. The mass emigration of Irish citizens to the Americas in the nineteenth century, in particular, meant that West Cork’s southernmost points – Fastnet Rock most of all – represented the very last glimpse of this homeland. A homeland that, in many cases, wouldn’t be revisited for generations of an entire family tree.
While West Cork’s waters are most alluring to travellers for their promise of whale watching, along with dolphins, sharks, and some unusual fish, taking advantage of the boat tours and sea taxis for the opportunity to explore the islands of West Cork is not something you’ll regret…
Heir Island - Inis Uí Drisceoil
Located in Roaring Water Bay, this is an island not to be missed. If you’re coming to us in the summertime, then the PizzHeiria is a must-visit – a fascinating meeting between Irish and Italian cuisine largely served by their on-site garden is the perfect complement to a never-ending, dreamy summer’s day. This is a very popular spot, so book well in advance.
Heir Island is also home to Island Cottage, a romantic little slice of Irish food and culture run by husband-and-wife team John and Ellmary, who both have extensive experience in some of the world’s most renowned restaurants. While John was Chef at the Ritz in Paris, Ellmary managed the restaurant at the Hôtel de Crillon – and now their incredible experiences have come home to roost in West Cork.
But this is so much more than a restaurant. While their incredible, seasonal menu may have you fooled, it’s also a retreat for creatives where countless words have been written and paintings conceptualised – or completed.
There is also a cookery school on-site, and a gallery where you can soak up the creative atmosphere that envelops Island Cottage. John himself has been exploring painting as part of his own creative process for many years, and visitors have a chance to witness that unique viewpoint for themselves.
You can catch the ferry from Cunnamore Pier (about 25 minutes’ drive from our holiday home in West Cork) and dock on Heir Island in under five minutes. Be sure to make a booking in advance of your trip.
The rest of the island is a real draw for wildlife photography. West Cork is home to so many stunning animals, and this island really is a good place to witness them for yourself. It’s also got some fascinating history to offer ancestry tourists, particularly those with ties to the O’Driscoll clan.
On the island, you’ll also find the Sailing School, which runs classes for novice sailors of all ages and skill levels, along with some great beaches and coveted fishing spots.
Sherkin Island (Inis Arcain)
With a small population and some of the best views in West Cork, Sherkin Island is a great way to while away an entire day at your own pace, taking in the surroundings and exploring the island’s hotspots. Dún na Long, the site of Wedge Tomb, and the ruins of the Franciscan Friary are all well worth a visit. The island is just 3 miles long, so walk-lovers will have no trouble navigating between one site and the next on foot.
The Jolly Roger is a quintessentially Irish pub and a great lunchtime destination for hungry explorers. On sunnier days, be sure to take a seat outside and enjoy the panoramic views over Baltimore Harbour. And no trip to the area is complete without a visit to Sherkin North Shore Restaurant, which enjoys stunning views of the sunset – so be sure to book for dinnertime.
Like Heir Island, Sherkin Island is a real haven for creatives. You will often find artists’ studios open to visitors, where you can witness the inspirational powers of the Island taking shape on the canvas. You can find out more about Sherkin Island’s resident artists here.
The island also hosts an experimental music festival, Open Ear – a great addition to the calendar of any music lover.
For inhabited Islands, Cape Clear is as far South as it gets. If you’re in Ireland to trace your family history, then the heritage centre of Cape Clear Island Museum will prove to be one of your greatest resources, boasting an incredible archive. This is a real labour of love for the island’s residents, curated on a voluntary basis to help reconnect visitors with their roots. Cape Clear’s position at the very edge of Ireland’s inhabited landmass means it oversaw many goodbyes during the Great Famine.
While you’re on the island, be sure to look into a boat tour to Fastnet Rock – one of the very last glimpses of Ireland by water. When you know the history, it’s an emotional sight to behold, so consider leaving your camera in your pocket and just soaking up the countless stories that begin and end with Fastnet.
Cape Clear also features a Goat Farm – great for families with younger kids – and a bird observatory for photographers and enthusiasts. You’ll also find a few good fishing spots and seasonal walking guided tours around the island, along with the annual Storytelling Festival. This is a real celebration of Gaelic traditions – incredibly poignant if you are descended from a family that once called the area home.
This island is just a little north of Ringarogy, where Gortadrohid resides. A bridge located along the Skibbereen-Baltimore road (R595) gives you easy access to Inish Beg. It’s just ten minutes by car – and only a little longer if you bring your bikes.
The island’s biggest draws are the Gardens and Trails covering a total of 97 acres, with open, green spaces and ancient woodlands brimming with fascinating flora and fauna that represent the area’s unique climate and ecosystem. There are so many trials suitable for all different ages and fitness levels, including the Pirate and Fairy Trails – popular with younger visitors. Thanks to the area’s proximity to the Atlantic, it enjoys a warmer climate compared with areas further north, so you’ll find some more exotic trees and plants at Inish Beg Gardens along with Ireland’s native species.
A note to the wise – check ahead, as events and weddings can impact the gardens’ opening times. Inish Beg is always worth a visit, whether it’s bright sunshine or cloudy skies.