Catherine Mack takes the ferry from Ros a' Mhíl (Rossaveal) port on the west of Ireland to visit the inspiring Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites.
In a nutshell: A luxury hotel and restaurant on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.
Rooms: 5 suites
Price: From €960 for 2 nights, including breakfast and lunch, transfer to/from the island (when travelling via Rossaveal Ferryport)
Meals: Island Dinner (4 courses) is €80 per person
Open: Mid March to end of October.
Good to know: It's very much a private retreat, run personally by the owners and their small team. The island is just 5km by 3km and is easily explorable by bike or on foot - there are lovely coastal hikes from two to eight hours to see sea-cliffs, wave cut platforms, puffing holes, beaches and dunes.
Good for green: The restaurant specialises in island ingredients, including lobster and crab from local fishermen; vegetables from kitchen garden. There's a rainwater harvesting system and mains water is supplied via the island’s wind-powered desalination plant.
Catherine's Review of Inis Meáin:
The Setting: No one describes Inis Meáin, one of the least visited of Ireland’s Aran Islands, better than John Millington Synge, Ireland’s most celebrated playwright, who spent four long summers here, between 1896 and 1902. His journal of these visits, The Aran Islands, is a poetic study of life on the island, the people he met, their struggle to survive through fishing or minimal farming, and is packed with local fables and fairytales. I recommend buying the book here before you go. Today, the island’s natural heritage is relatively unchanged, with the same Atlantic waves pounding on perilous cliffs, soft waters still flowing into secret coves, and karst limestone headlands as sparsely populated as they ever were. Visitors can’t bring cars onto the island, which is only three by five kilometres and yet, when you walk around it, you can get totally lost in what feels like another world, with thousands of stone walls, ancient forts tucked behind more stone walls, and thatched cottages protected from winter winds by yet more stone walls.
The Rooms: There are five luxury suites tucked into the limestone terrace, all camouflaged by the building’s limestone façade, which segues seamlessly into the island’s same native stone. In Suites 1-4 also known as The Burren Suites, windows stretch the length of each room, giving a cinematic perspective on the surrounding sea and landscapes. In the larger Suite 5, the Connemara Suite, there is both a living room and bedroom, the former boasting a beautiful wood burning stove. All of Inis Meain’s suites ooze contemporary luxury, with enormous white beds, draped in locally knitted alpaca throws, all in shades of grey, to reflect the surrounding karst limestone. The mini-fridge is stocked with fine wines, salamis, local cheeses, and Fairtrade chocolate. Each room has a lobby where they store bikes, fishing rods, and swimming towels for each guest. There is a wooden bench and bar stretching the length of this vast room, so that you can eat, drink and watch the wild Atlantic world go by, until the island's magic finally calls you out there to join it.
The Food: It is hard to know which can take the highest credit here - the restaurant or the suites. However as islander Ruairí de Blacam, who founded this island idyll with his wife Marie-Thérèse, is also the chef here, I think he may have opted to have ‘Restaurant’ come first in the credits. The kitchen is clearly his kingdom, all open plan in the heart of his 16 seater restaurant, where he stands centre stage producing the likes of lobster with golden beet, John Dory with baby carrots to the most simple and stunningly prepared dry aged sirloin. All while his guests sit around him, taking in more panoramic views of sunsets, storms or pure and simple stillness.
There are no pretensions or preciousness about food here, with menus kept simple yet sublime and revolving around two main elements, usually with a big bowl of spuds to boot. However, everything is clearly and carefully planned, from planting to plating, as they also successfully farm this tough land to grow their own vegetables, salads and fruit. All other ingredients are from the Atlantic or locally reared.
Dinner is the only meal served in the restaurant, with breakfast delivered to your suite, and left quietly in the suite’s lobby, so that you can help yourself when you rise and shine. Another feast, I tucked into a cleverly concocted mélange of goodies, including freshly baked scones and bread, boiled eggs, salami and cheese, fresh fruit, muesli and yoghurt, all in copious quantities to allow you to pack up the leftovers for picnic while out on a trek or a cycle. Not that you will go hungry, as they also leave a backback with a flask of homemade soup and bread to make sure you get out on those trails, rain or shine.
Activities: Bikes, fishing rods and swimming towels are provided with each suite, and I highly recommend availing of all three. If you think it is going to be too cold for a dip, pack a wetsuit, as the water is so soft and transparent, it is worth experiencing. I hadn’t fished since I was a child, so was delighted to catch some Pollock off the old pier. Ruairí had insisted I bring back my catch if big enough, which he presented later at dinner, beautifully prepared in raw sashimi style slices, sprinkled with sesame seeds and ginger, and a bowl of wasabi sauce.
Pack your hiking boots too, as the walking is spectacular, and each suite also boasts ash walking sticks to help you manage the uneven ground. There is a lovely booklet which describes the local walks. My favourite was the wild, mostly uninhabited south west coast, which took almost four hours and that was going at a pace. Most of this is an uncharted mass of limestone, some parts jagged and rough, other patches of smooth slab, all leading to scary cliff tops with waves pounding over the edge, sending sea water all around my feet. I kept my distance from the edge, and followed the stone walls which line the coast, feeling protected by their history of staying power.
The Green: As well as growing their own fruit and vegetables, (all fertilised with seaweed which is the traditional island method), rearing chickens, pigs and cows, they have an impressive rainwater harvesting system and mains water is supplied via the island’s wind-powered desalination plant.
As visitors can’t bring cars onto the island, cycling and walking are the only options while you are here, although the de Blacams meet you off the ferry in their minibus when you arrive.
Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites is also an important employer on the island where work opportunities are limited as well as bringing good business to the island’s pub, just a limestone’s throw from the hotel. As Irish speakers, the de Blacams are also keen conservationists of island culture and heritage, promoting all aspects of this through literature and art in the suites, as well as sharing their own extensive knowledge of island history.
Get to Inis Meáin the low carbon way: Travel by ferry (a 45-minute crossing) to the island of Inis Meáin with Aran Island Ferries from Ros a' Mhíl (Rossaveal) port, 37kms west of Galway City centre (where you can pick up a shuttle bus at Queen Street). You need to get the shuttle bus 1.5 hours before your sailing time. From €30 return for the ferry and €9 for bus. For those coming from outside Ireland, see our guide: How to travel to Ireland without flying.
Verdict: Inis Meáin, the island, is a place of great solace and, in some ways, still harbours a mysterious sadness. It feels as if every stone wall, and there are thousands, tells a story of survival or loss. It is remote and rugged, wild and mysterious, and it is easy to see why it has inspired artists, writers, photographers and musicians. Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites is also a work of art, in that it sustains and celebrates all of this natural and cultural heritage while still managing to wrap guests up in a cocoon that is chic but not pretentious, warm but not in your face, and with hospitality that exceeds all expectations of what we have grown to expect of an Irish welcome. And it is, quite simply, one of those places, which makes me very proud to be Irish.
Top Tip: Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites’ reputation has spread far and wide. Which is not surprising given its status as one of Ireland’s most unique and exquisite places to stay if you want to get back to the elements. So, you need to have the finger on the pulse when it comes to booking. As it is only open between mid-March and mid-October, suites book up a year in advance, with bookings opening at the end of one season for the next. Priority is given to returning guests and then to guests signed up to their mailing list. So sign up and treat yourself!
Green Traveller's reviews have been written with the support of one or more of the following: accommodation owner, activity provider, operator, equipment supplier, tourist board, protected landscape authority or other destination-focussed authority. The reviewer retains full editorial control of the work, which has been written in the reviewer's own words based on their experience of the accommodation, activity, equipment or destination.