Close in distance yet distinctly quieter than the mainland, these bastions of traditional life offer a unique window into the country’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage.

Ireland’s indented, craggy coast has more than 300 outlying islands, 30 of which are inhabited. Close in distance yet distinctly quieter than the mainland, these bastions of traditional life are places to breathe in the untainted sea air and soak up the spectacular scenery, and many offer a unique window into the country’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage.  

Tiny Heir Island -- one of the many isles that are scattered across County Cork’s Roaring Water Bay in Ireland’s southwest -- is one of the country’s go-to gourmet spots. So you will need to book months in advance to dine at Island Cottage, a restaurant run by the husband-and-wife team John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton. Reached by a four-minute ferry ride from Cunnamore Pier on the mainland near Skibbereen, the quaint, whitewashed building is one of the many traditional-style cottages that still outnumber the bungalows blighting much of the Irish countryside.

Desmond, who also worked in the kitchen of the celebrated Ritz Hotel in Paris, crafts a simple menu that changes daily and is dictated by local seasonal produce. For example, locally caught, herb marinated salmon could be followed a duck leg with béarnaise sauce and gratin dauphinois. The couple also runs one-on-one cookery courses at Island Cottage throughout the year.

This June saw the opening of a second cookery school on the island, The Firehouse, which specialises in bread making and was set up by Heir Island native, Patrick Ryan, co-author of the book Bread Revolution. During the one-day courses, students learn the art of making cinnamon swirls, soda bread and pizza -- all cooked in a wood fired oven. Students also get a bag of baked goods to take home.

Further north along the southwestern coast are the Skelligs, two islands that poke dramatically skywards out of the flinty waters of the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 12km off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.

Try not to look down at the crashing waves as you gingerly climb the vertiginous steps that cut into the face of Skellig Michael, an uninhabited Unesco World Heritage-listed monastic settlement that was established sometime between the 6th and 8th Centuries. Three routes – each as vertigo inducing as the next – lead visitors to the top of one of western Europe’s most important early Christian settlements. Its very existence on the twin peaked crag is awe-inspiring, as are the six well-preserved dry-built beehive-shaped cells that were once inhabited by monks. Despite the wind and waves, an otherworldly calm pervades. Local boat companies such as Casey’s offer trips from the town of Portmagee, with a journey time of about an hour each way, depending on the weather.

On the way to and from  Skellig Michael, visitors are afforded fine views of the neighbouring Little Skellig, home to some of northern Europe’s most important native and migratory seabird colonies. The island is alive with the constant fluttering and cacophony of cawing, flapping and squabbling  of more than 70,000 gannets as well as kittiwakes, Arctic terns, puffins, razorbills and shearwaters.

The Aran Islands off the country’s western coast offer one of Ireland’s most recognisable island landscapes, with towering Atlantic-bashed cliffs and a mosaic of velvety green fields starkly contrasted by dry stonewalls and rugged limestone terrain. These three islands, part of the Gaelic language-speaking region of Gaeltacht, seem stuck in a time warp as a symbol of the Ireland of yesteryear. Most day-trippers head for the largest island of the group, Inis More, with its spectacular Dun Aengus fort, a pre-Christian monument built in the 2nd Century BC.

But for real solitude, head instead to the middle island, Inis Meain. Here you can still see the quaint 300-year-old thatched cottage where Irish literary heavyweight J M Synge used to stay  on his frequent visits to the island and where he penned the play, The Playboy of the Western World. Inis Meain is also home to the unique Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites. Owned by native islander and chef Ruairi de Blacam and his wife Marie-Thérèse, this architecturally cutting-edge restaurant (built with dry stone walls similar to those found all over the Aran islands) features a brief, seasonal menu, while the three bedrooms and one suite are sparsely decorated, letting the views speak for themselves. The island is also home to the family’s Inis Meain Knitting Company, whose factory shop offers discounts on its garments like the famous Aran sweater re-imagined in luxurious fabrics such as merino and cashmere wool that are stocked in the likes of New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. Get there on the Aran Island Ferry from the village of Ros a Mhil, 38km west of Galway. Or take the 10-minute flight from Connemara Airport, west of Galway City, an option that comes with spectacular views.

Further north, 11km off the coast of the scenic Connemara region, with its dramatic, cloud-shrouded mountains and Atlantic coastline is the diminutive Inishbofin Island, whose name roughly translates from Gaelic as “Island of the White Cow”. Inhabited since ancient times, its treeless, windswept landscape is fringed with stunning, pale sand beaches and water that takes on a distinctly Caribbean-blue hue in the right weather.

The fort at the mouth of the island’s Bofin Harbour, Cromwell’s Barracks, was built by the Cromwellian army in the late 1650s and served as a prison a few years later for exiled Irish Catholic priests and monks when Catholicism was outlawed by the British. A long-time haunt of artists and writers seeking inspiration amid its tranquil surroundings, Inishbofin’s traditional music scene is best experienced during one of its Traditional Music Weekends held during the summer season and which feature the island’s home-grown Inishbofin Ceili Band, which features  fiddles, a guitar, an accordion and the traditional Irish bodhran.

Another must-do are the island’s three looped walks, ranging from 3km to 8km in length. Enjoy stunning vistas, wild flowers and the haunting sounds of one of Ireland’s rarest birds, the corncrake, on these bracing Atlantic hikes. Get to the island via the ferry from the village of Cleggan on the Galway mainland, and stay at the Inishbofin House Hotel and Marine Spa, a contemporary hotel that overlooks the bay with its bobbing fishing boats. The hotel’s spa offers therapies derived from seaweed harvested on Ireland’s west coast.

Ireland’s largest island, Achill Island, located off the coast of County Mayo, 130km north of Galway, is a windswept outpost with beguiling charm. Reached from the mainland’s Curran Peninsula via a bridge over Achill Sound, the island has an undeniably special atmosphere fuelled by a magnificent landscape of spectacular beaches, heather-blanketed bogs, lakes and rivers, haunting, deserted villages emptied during the Great Famine in the late 1840s,  and some of the highest cliffs in western Europe. The island is also home to one of Ireland’s oldest summer schools, Scoil Acla, established in 1910 to celebrate traditional Irish arts and culture. The school offers workshops and special events from the end of July each year. Cycle or drive the island’s 10km Atlantic route, which skirts the coast like a hem with far-reaching panoramas of the ocean, or spend an afternoon on the secluded sands of Keem Bay on the island’s western tip, one of the most picturesque beaches in the entire country.