THINK islands and your mind will drift away to sun-soaked paradises in the Caribbean, Greece or the south Pacific. OK, replace the sunshine with blue-grey skies and bracing brine-battered cliff-tops, and you could be off the coast of Scotland, Ireland or perhaps in the Faroes.
You might be surprised to know however that Wales is a haven for island lovers. The country boasts 53 in all, of which 12 are nowadays inhabited, a number having been deserted down the decades in favour of modernity and convenience.
The largest by far, and the easiest to get to, is Anglesey – known in Welsh as Ynys Môn, with the Roman hordes who invaded in 60AD naming it Mona. It has a population of 70,000, including its northern twin of Ynys Gybi or Holy Island, to which it is linked by road and rail via causeways. Indeed, getting to Anglesey is so simple by road, rail, ferry from Ireland or scheduled air link from Cardiff that, although with much to offer the visitor, it often hardly feels like an island at all.
However we wouldn’t recommend that you offer that opinion to a true Monwysyn, a native of the island and in all probability a Welsh speaker, who’ll feel very attached to their status as an islander. To state that they live “on the island” is usually sufficient to denote where they’re from, without any time-wasting specifics.
But we’re hopeful the Monwysyn will forgive us if we eschew his or her home from our bucket-list of Welsh islands to visit. You’ll doubtless encounter it countless other times in our blogs. Similarly we’ll also be eschewing its smaller southern cousin of Barry Island, a seaside resort setting for popular TV series Gavin and Stacey, also encumbered with a subdued feeling of being an island due to a road and rail causeway linking it to the mainland.
However, seeing you’ve already donned your weatherproofs and hiking boots and packed your victuals, let’s brave those churning waters. And if you keep seeing the word ‘ynys’ (pronounced uh-niss) on your travels, just remember that it’s Welsh for ‘island’, just like the word in our fellow Celtic language of Irish is Inis.
YNYS ENLLI (Bardsey Island)
Wales’ sixth largest island. Once home to a farming and fishing community in excess of 100 hardy souls who eked out an existence here until the 1950s, it still maintains a small population. The old school where the island’s kids used to be educated is still open for community use.
You can cross the notoriously choppy two-mile wide Swnt Enlli channel on regular crossings from Pwllheli or Porth Meudwy for day visits of some three hours, or you can spend extended periods in some of the spartan but fastidiously clean old farmhouses that pepper the island’s northern end. Just don’t expect all mod cons such as a regular supply of electricity or wi-fi.
Ynys Enlli famously used to appoint its own king, who declared his island’s neutrality during World War I when he was turned down for military service on account of his age. It is a markedly spiritual place, still with its own nonconformist chapel and the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. Three pilgrimages here were once deemed to be equal to one to Rome. It is reputed to be where 20,000 saints have been buried, and some claim it to be the Avalon (from the Welsh Afallon, island of apples) of Arthurian fame where the heroic Celtic monarch was laid to rest. Indeed the rare Bardsey apple or Afal Enlli has recently been given a new lease of life through propagation from cuttings taken from the only two remaining ancient apple trees on the island.
It is a haven for wildlife, teeming with more than 300 species of birds and a large group of fat grey seals that usually lounge nonchalantly but noisily on the rocks by the jetty. You can usually grab a coffee and a cake in one of the farmhouses, but primarily you’ll be here for the glorious isolation.
YNYS ECHNI (Flatholm Island)
Wales’ southernmost point, lying smack in the middle of the Bristol Channel 4.5 miles south of the capital, but rather more importantly and quirkily also the home of the country’s southernmost pub.
One of the first residents here was the 6th century hermit St Cadog, but by the 18th century its central position between the coasts of Wales and England made it a superb hub for smuggling operations.
Flatholm is also a designated nature reserve, and the island’s wardens will gladly show you around. You’ll be astounded by the abundance of wild plants and flowers, including the extremely rare Wild Leek, birds, rabbits, and Soay sheep, plus numerous historic military structures and gun batteries, the remains of a cholera hospital, a Victorian barracks and a lighthouse.
It has a visitor centre, a shop, but most intriguingly the Gull and Leek pub. The pub offers a full bar service plus snacks. Dormitory and self-catering accommodation are available on the island, as are camping facilities.
YNYS BŶR (Caldey Island)
Many islands have religious and spiritual histories, but this one has maintained its holy role for 1,500 years. From the days of the early Celtic Church that our patron saint St David belonged to, right up to today, it has been a centre for prayer, solitude and contemplation.
Lying less than a mile off the Pembrokeshire coast, it has about 40 permanent residents, including a number of Cistercian or Trappist monks – the Cistercians actually own the island – who live in the impressive early 20th century monastery that dominates the skyline. And while they earn their living these days largely through tourism rather than off the land as in the past, you’ll still come across the monks in their white robes as they dutifully plod about their business.
The island has a rich wildlife, with native red squirrels re-introduced in 2016 following a rat eradication project, and features a number of rare agricultural breeds. It has a stunning coastline and is criss-crossed by well-marked paths. You can watch the monks making their famous chocolates, which can be bought along with the monks’ own brand of perfumery in the island’s shops.
It can be reached by boat (information here) from the popular resort of Tenby between Easter and October, except for Sundays. Accommodation is available at St Philomena’s retreat house, where the diet is strictly vegetarian but payment is made by donation.
Other Welsh islands you can visit include:
Ynys Llanddwyn off the south west coast of Anglesey. Really a tidal island only cut off from the mainland at the highest of tides, other than by boat it can be reached on foot across Newborough Warren. It was formerly where the local ships’ pilots resided at the entrance to the turbulent Menai Strait, and their cottages can still be inspected. It is named after St Dwynwen, the patron saint of Welsh lovers, the remains of whose church still stand there.
Ynys Cribinau near Aberffraw on Anglesey’s western coast, approachable on foot over a causeway at low tide. Famously known as the Church in the Sea, its only feature is the remarkable little 12th century St Cwyfan’s church.
Skokholm Island in Pembrokeshire is a major sanctuary for birdlife, but not open to day trippers, meaning you are guaranteed solitude. However it does mean you must opt for the self-catering accommodation available for a minimum of three nights.
The nearby Skomer Island can be reached by a short boat trip from Martins Haven near Marloes, and lies within a Marine Conservation Zone. It has one of Wales’ largest populations of the comical and colourful puffin, and is known for its spectacular display of bluebells in season.
Ynys Gifftan is a small tidal island at the estuary of Afon Dwyryd, opposite the Italianate village of Portmeirion. While largely wild and overgrown, the island still hosts an eerie farmhouse deserted in the late 20th century, and is surrounded by beautiful tidal sands and marshland. Approach it from Talsarnau railway station on the Cambrian Coast line.