When you see the ghostly shapes of these islands floating 48km (30 miles) out at sea like misty Brigadoon, you instantly understand why the Aran Islands have been the subject of fable and song for thousands of years.
The islands -- Inis Mór (Inishmore), Inis Meain (Inishmaan), and Inis Oirr (Inisheer) -- are outposts of Gaelic culture and language. Life on the islands is deeply isolated -- to this day, many of the 1,500 inhabitants maintain a somewhat traditional life, fishing from currachs (small crafts made of tarred canvas stretched over timber frames), living in stone cottages, relying on pony-drawn wagons to get around, and speaking Gaelic.
They still wear the classic, creamy, hand-made bainin sweaters that originated here, as there's nothing better for keeping out the chill.
Sadly, though, the constant flow of tourists has had an impact on island life, and many islanders now spend their time running tourist-related businesses. In fact, visiting in the high season -- particularly in July and August -- can be a disappointment, since the small, rocky islands are not suited to being overrun by crowds, and at that time of year, visitors arrive by the boatload.
Most visitors debark from the ferries at Kilronan, Inishmore's main town and a very easy place in which to arrange or rent transportation. The mode is up to you: horse-drawn buggies can be hailed like taxis as you step off the boat, minivans stand at the ready, and bicycle-rental shops are within sight.
Of the islands, Inishmore is the largest and easiest to reach from Galway, and the one that best handles the large groups of tourists. Its easy transport means you can escape the crowds if you wish, or, if you play well with others, there are plenty of pubs and restaurants. If that all seems far too noisy, you might prefer Inishmaan or Inisheer, both of which are smaller and quieter, and arguably more beautiful than Inishmore.
All the islands are rather strange looking, with a ring of rocks around their outer edges and, inside, small farms surrounded by soft green grass and wildflowers. The most dramatic landscape is to be found on the western sides where huge cliffs plummet dizzily into the frothing sea below.
There are some excellent geological sights out here, including the magnificent Dún Aengus, a vast, 2,000-year-old stone fortress on Inishmore, on the edge of a cliff that drops 90m (295 ft.) to the sea. Its original purpose is unknown -- some think it was a military structure, others say it was a vast ceremonial theater. From the top, there are spectacular views of Galway Bay, the Burren, and Connemara.
Also on Inishmore, a heritage center, Ionad Arann, Kilronan (tel. 099/61355; www.visitaranislands.com), explores the history and culture of the islands. Exhibits examine the harsh landscape, Iron Age forts, and early churches. In addition, the 1932 film Man of Aran, directed by Robert Flaherty, is shown six times daily. The center is open April to May and September to October daily 11am to 5pm, and from June to August daily 10am to 7pm. Admission to the center is €4.50 for adults, €3 for students, €2.50 for seniors and children, and €9.25 for families. Discounted combination tickets to the center and film are available. The cafe serves soups, sandwiches, and pastries throughout the day.