Achill, a chill out place to go. Get it? Achill, A CHILL out place!! Or Achill is sound. Achill Sound anyone? Apologies already. I was looking for these clever ways to sing the praises of Achill and I’m a glutton for word play, an addict to puns, I’m sorry. Now that it’s out of my system I am just going to come right out with it. Achill is amazing.
Without fear of contradiction Achill is one of the best places in the country to enjoy a camping experience. It’s got variety, lots of camping options, plenty of activities, an abundance of beautiful blue flag beaches, green-ways, villages, bars & restaurants, cafes, crafts and art galleries. I could go on and on…
After much discussion and debate, Achill was our designated main summer holiday location this year, for ten days and required pre-booking as it was spanning the August bank holiday at the height of this year’s busy summer.
Achill likes to style itself as Ireland’s Holiday Island and this would be difficult to dispute.
Blackfield’s surf school and hire double-decker HQ at Keel Strand next to the Sandybanks Campsite.
A view from the beach of Sandybanks Campsite at Keel.
The scenery in Achill is stunning and constantly changing and surprising.
Slievemore overlooks Seal Caves Campsite at Dugort.
Achill likes to style itself as Ireland’s Holiday Island and this would be difficult to dispute. Once you cross over the short bridge at Achill Sound from the mainland you are embarking on an experience which embraces every outdoor pursuit under the sun from Blacksod Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, the villages and beaches of Keel, Keem, Dugort, Dooagh and Dooega, places that boast of Silver Strand and Golden Strand; laying claim to the highest sea cliffs in Europe running from Achill Head to Saddle Headand a section of the 42km Great Western Greenway which runs from Westportout to Achill and again not to be too bashful, announces itself as Ireland’s longest off-road walking and cycling route. It may even be its most popular and busiest.
But even at that I don’t do justice to place. I have never come across any destination so geared up to welcome the visitor on board and with such a quality of tourist information guides and detailed maps all free of charge from not one, but two tourist offices on the island. There are angling, diving and island hopping charters, sightseeing tours, surfing lessons, wind surfing, kite surfing, snorkelling, seaweed baths and sub aqua diving, Granuaile Loop Walk, Gourmet Greenway, hang gliding, art, archaeology, photography and Irish language classes in this Gaeltacht area. I’m exhausted just listing them off. (Oh, there is also a 9-hole golf links at Keel Sandybanks if you fancy spoiling a good walk).
Keem Beach is special and never fails to mesmerise and is regularly voted as one of the best beaches in the world.
There are stand out spots like Keem Beach, a testing drive across the island and an even more challenging cycle, but doable if everyone displays some cop on and some common courtesy for other road users. The view is worth the effort and it’s just been voted one of the best beaches in the world…again!
Sheep graze amid the ruins of the Deserted Village.
There is the haunting poignancy of the Deserted Village, ruined and resting beneath the imposing Slievemore, a glance at which can give you your barometer and weather vane for the day or for the next couple of hours at least as this is Achill. On the slopes behind the neglected and abandoned cottages the mountain sheep were my only rivals for a feast of fresh field mushrooms. I eat them later with a selection of juicy cutlets from their cousins, with apologies to my vegetarian friends.
As Achill pays homage to its history so too does it look to the future and the Achill Experience Aquarium and Visitor Centre is a brand new string to its bow. It’s an immensely popular attraction which primarily celebrates the diversity and importance of its surrounding shores and sea life, a stark contrast to the days when the island operated as a whaling station. Entry fee is €16 for a family of four. www.achillexperience.ie
The smile says it all at the Achill Experience Aquarium.
After Achill Sound (which is a good place to shop and stock up on provisions) the busiest hub on the island is in Keel. Here you can have crepes, cones and candy floss and flash back to your childhood on the carnival hurdy-gurdies. There is a great beach here with lifeguards on duty, surf boards for hire and campers in the four star Keel Sandybanks Caravan and Camping Park have all this on their doorstep and a splendid view of the Minaun Cliffs. This is a most popular and convenient campsite but it’s a bit too open and exposed for my liking. www.achillcamping.com
There is another campsite on the opposite north side of the island, Lavelle’s at Golden Strand, a quiet and secluded beach which you might enjoy all to yourself. They have free showers and Wi-Fi. www.lavellescaravanpark.com
We opted for the island’s third campsite, also on the northern side at Dugort. Achill Seal Caves Camping is situated opposite Silver Strand beach. It is a caravan and camping park first established in 1968 which shut down about ten years ago and which re-opened this year fully refurbished under new owners. Apart from the camping options there are also seven modern mobile homes on site for hire. The new management have taken to their task with an energy and enthusiasm in this family enterprise and their vigilance and attention to safety, security and detail is commendable. We were pleased with our choice to stay here and it’s a great base. Its recent re-opening is a real seal of approval for Achill Island, the ongoing boom in the tourism sector and the appeal of unspoilt landscape, outdoor activities such as the greenways and blueways for which Achill is so suited.
Our set up at the Seal Caves campsite which has re-opened this summer under new owners with an entirely new services block and a sharp eye on safety and security.
The stunning Silver Strand beach is just across the road from Seal Caves Camping.
Seal Caves Campsite is snugly placed and sheltered between Dugort Hill and Slievemore Mountain on 7.5 acres. It’s just across the road from the sandy beach, pier and the Blueway kayak trail. The cost for our stay was €252, inclusive of EHU (which is ten nights for the price of nine, a nice touch) but the additional charge for an awning is annoying. There was a reasonable extra charge of €6 per night for another tent, as our daughter and granddaughter joined us for the bank holiday weekend. Good quality Wi-Fi is available free of charge throughout the site and showers are operated by a coin metre, costing €1 for 3 minutes. I never realised until now that 3 minutes is such a short time… www.achillsealcaves.com
Nevertheless, all this said, a great deal of Achill’s attractions are seasonal and there is quite of bit of dereliction and premises for sale around the island. Some hospitality businesses change hands quite a bit it seems, so it’s best to suss out your options as the service offering and quality fluctuates.
So in no particular order and no inference for other spots which we may not have even visited, here is a selection of places in Achill which Vanhalla is happy to recommend.
Achill Sound Hotel & Connaughton’s Bar on the way on to the island is an authentic, hands on, homely, family run spot where we grabbed a good breakfast on the morning of our departure. Achill Sound is also the best place to shop for your provisions and Sweeney’s Super Valu has the classic needle to an anchor selection of virtually everything you will need.
While Calveys Butchers based at Keel is world renowned for its mountain lamb we also found Kettericks Butchers at Achill Sound first class for fresh, quality meats and other produce. Wouldn’t pass them.
A cycle to The Valley House and some refreshments in their courtyard is a great way to while away an evening.
We got a tip for the Bayside Bistro in Keel on the Sunday evening before we departed and it was a treat. A delightful varied menu was good value. Cosy, casual spot and good for families. Impressed.
Something different out at The Valley House, a hostel, bar and restaurant steeped in history and wears its shabby chic vibe very well. A lovely courtyard too and a smashing spot to while away an evening. And for bonus points it’s also within about 20 minutes cycling distance (4.5km) of the Seal Caves Campsite. (I also got good reports of Lynott’s Bar but will have to wait until the next time to check that one out in person). Also in Keel is the Amethyst Bar & Grill. Another place that has got a new lease of life since being refurbished and reopened. I liked the energy here and the young staff were sharp and friendly. Across the road is a more traditional haunt, The Annexe Inn. Creamy pints and have enjoyed a few good music sessions here in the past too.
Pure Magic on the Slievemore Rd, near Dugort still on the north side of the island started out its life as an adventure sport centre and hostel for kitesurfing, stand-up paddle & surfing but these days is as popular for its pizzas, for which they are travelling for miles.
That’s Pure Magic for you and so too is Achill pure magic.
Like I said at the outset, seriously sound and a chill out place to take yourself camping, to a seriously camping friendly place.
John Whelan is a vastly experienced midlands based journalist and editor who has contributed extensively to the country's leading national and regional titles, as well as broadcast outlets. He runs the media services company, Communicate Ireland www.communicateireland.ie.
John is a keen camping and campervan enthusiast with an interest in music, culture, heritage and outdoor pursuits. He has written for the Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and the Woman's Way on these topics.
He is also an author, and his latest book, The Last Beekeeper, reflects his love of nature, the landscape and our shared responsibility to protect the environment. The Last Beekeeper is available to preview and purchase at www.thelastbeekeeper.ie.