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Southern Exposure: An Excursion to Cape Clear Island

Cape Clear Island, 13km (8 miles) off the mainland, is the southernmost inhabited point in Ireland. It can be bleak, with a craggy coastline and no trees to break the rush of sea wind, but that very barrenness appeals to many for its stark beauty, rough and irregular, but not without solace and grace. In early summer, wildflowers brighten the landscape, and in October, passerine migrants, some on their way from North America and Siberia, fill the air. Seabirds are present in abundance during the nesting season, especially from July to September. At any time, Cape Clear is unforgettable.

The first step (obviously) is getting there. In the high season (May-Sept), the Cape Clear Xpress is undoubtedly the quickest way to make the journey, with a crossing time of just 20 minutes (most ferries take more than double that). Sailings are frequent, but service is always subject to the seas and is more limited off season, so it's essential you call ahead first to confirm times for that day. The passage takes 20 minutes, and a round-trip ticket costs €15 for adults, €7 for children, and €40 for families. For inquiries, contact Cape Clear Island Ferry Service (tel. 028/39135 or 087/282-4008; www.capeclearferry.com). The Karycraft (tel. 028/28278 or 086/237-9032; www.capeclearferries.com) departs Schull daily in June, July, and August at 10:30am, and 2:30 and 4:30pm; and departs Cape Clear at 11:30am, and 3:30 and 5:30pm. In September, service is limited to one crossing daily, departing Schull at 2:30pm and Cape Clear at 5:30pm. The schedule for the rest of the year varies according demand and the weather, so call for details. Round-trip tickets cost €14 for adults, €5 for children, and €35 for families. Bikes are carried free.

Once you're on Cape Clear, there is much to see, including birds galore, seals, dolphins, the occasional whale, and ancient "marriage stones."

There's also a lot to do apart from hiking and sightseeing. Cléire Lasmuigh, Cape Clear Island Adventure Centre (tel. 028/39198; info@lasmuigh.ie), offers outdoor programs, from snorkeling and sea kayaking to hillwalking and orienteering. Coastal cruises -- for sea angling, scuba diving, or bird-watching -- are the specialty of Ciarán O'Driscoll (tel.028/39153). There's no shopping mall, but local art, crafts, and books can be found in Harpercraft and the Back Room in Cotter's Yard, North Harbour. While you're at it, pick up a copy of Chuck Kruger's Cape Clear Island Magic. There's no better introduction to the wonder of this place.

Modest hostel, B&B, and self-catering accommodations are available by the day, week, or month. The island's An Óige Youth Hostel (tel. 028/41968; www.anoige.ie/hostels/cape-clear) at the Old Coast Guard Station, South Harbour, is open year-round. Dorm accommodations cost from €17 per night adults, €15 children. They also have four- and six-bed private rooms from €80 and €116 per night. Most B&Bs are open year-round. They include Ard na Gaoith (contact Eileen Leonard, tel. 028/39160; ardnagaoithe@hotmail.com). For self-catering cottages by the day or week, contact Ciarán O'Driscoll (tel. 028/39153). You can't miss the town's three pubs and two restaurants, which will keep you well fortified. (Also, the fruit scones baked at Cistin Chléire on North Harbour are fabulous.)

Cape Clear has a helpful website at www.oilean-chleire.ie, with further details on the history of the island, things to do, and accommodation.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.