Friday, May 27th, 2016

Skellig Michael: Ireland’s Most Striking Destination

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Skellig Michael

I hate to say it, but after nearly four years of near-constant travel, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to be impressed. Of course, I love places and I appreciate them and I enjoy almost every place I visit — but being knocked over in marvel, so impressed I can barely speak? That’s incredibly special and incredibly rare.

Some of those destinations that have impressed me that much? The Alhambra. The Faroe Islands. Shetland. Everything in Japan.

But in Ireland, I experienced the single most impressive place I’ve seen in years: Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the southwest coast of Ireland that was home to monks for several centuries.

Skellig Michael

Getting to Skellig Michael is not an easy journey — due to rough seas and a challenging spot to moor the boats, boats are able to make the trip only about half the time.

I had one chance to make it to Skellig Michael — which, in retrospect, was poor planning on my part — but I lucked out. On the morning I was to head out, I called the captain whose boat I had booked, Eoin Walsh, and he verified that although it was a borderline day, it was still safe to go.

Fantastic!

Journey to Skellig Michael

The Journey

There aren’t ferries to Skellig Michael — you need to book a spot on a private boat, and most transfers cost €50 ($68 USD).

I wasn’t alone on Eoin’s boat, though — my fellow passengers were three very friendly fifty-something men from County Cork who had been friends since high school.

“We’ve always wanted to go to Skellig Michael, but it was so close by, we always thought we’d go someday. And it took us this long!” one of the men told me.

“I completely get that,” I told them. “I’m from Massachusetts, but I still haven’t been to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.”

“Martha’s Vineyard?” one of the others asked. “I’ve been there.”

“Exactly,” I replied.

Old Skellig Michael Photos

Eoin handed me some photos of Skellig Michael dating back decades. And that was the only time I looked down, because this was an extremely rough 90-minute journey to the island. I held tightly to a tire on the edge and wondered if we were going to be washed overboard!

The men were fairly nonplussed, and Eoin was calm. This was the wild north Atlantic; conditions were normal.

We first passed Small Skellig, the tiny island next door that is known for being a major ornithological habitat, and soon Skellig Michael came into full, beautiful focus.

Skellig Michael

We docked and scrambled up the landing to the base of the island.

Eoin wasn’t coming with us — we had a few hours to explore on our own and he’d wait in the boat until we got back.

Skellig Michael

I couldn’t imagine staying on those crazy waves for so long, but if you’re a sailor, I’m sure it’s nothing at all.

Skellig Michael

Climbing to the Monastery

I’m here. I’m here. I’m here!!! I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to visit a new destination. I had made it to Skellig Michael.

But here came the tough part: 600 steps to climb, most of them jagged slabs of rock.

I started slowly and continued at a snail’s pace, keeping my eye on every step. Speed doesn’t help you here. When I needed a break, I simply stopped — at times there was literally nowhere to stop but the steps themselves, as you’d pitch over the side of a cliff.

The scenery became more and more beautiful the further I climbed.

Skellig MichaelSkellig MichaelSkellig Michael

It’s good to know that there’s a helicopter pad on the island, just in case.

Skellig Michael

(As you can tell by the photos, Skellig Michael is not a place for kids. I wouldn’t bring kids under the age of 12 — and even then, only 12-year-olds who will understand the dangers and listen to you, do exactly as you say, and not go off on their own.)

Soon I had reached a big grassy clearing with plenty of space to sit down and enjoy the sandwich that I had purchased on the mainland. There is nowhere to buy food on Skellig Michael — nor are there even toilets on the island!

The final climb led to the monastery.

Skellig Michael

The Monks Who Chose to Live Here

Monks first came to Skellig Michael in the seventh century and they remained here until the thirteenth century.

Very little is known about the monks. They built six beehive-shaped huts and two boat-shaped oratories, plus walls and a small graveyard. They planted gardens and lived off the land: seabirds, fish, possibly sheep and goats. They were invaded several times by Vikings and ended up baptizing at least one Viking.

At the time, Skellig Michael was not only remote and inhospitable, but it was “the end of the world” as far as the Irish knew. The monks may have chosen that destination to be closer to God, or closer to Satan, so they could defend the rest of the world.

At the Skellig Experience, a museum on Valentia Island, an exhibit reads:

Was the back breaking work of monastery building a task of penance?

Or was it a joyous, fulfilling experience of marrying hands, skill, rock and fine design?

Did the imposed isolation by a stormy sea constitute an indefinite prison sentence to be endured bravely and silently?

Or was it a soul-thrilling experience to witness the massive power of ocean waves, and the unyielding strength of Skellig rock?

Was it a dulling, stupefying monotony to hear and see nothing but the endless wheeling, screaming seabirds all day?

Or was the word of God in every flimsy feather and every trembling wingtip?

Were they motivated by joy, or by asceticism?

Skellig Michael

When did they build the graveyard? Right away, or did they wait for someone to die first?

Skellig Michael

Did they gather these same flowers?

Skellig Michael

Did they sit back and declare that none of God’s creations could ever be as beautiful as this island?

We will never know the answers. But I loved wondering.

This monastery is the reason why Skellig Michael was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, Ireland has three sites, and as much as I enjoyed Bru na Boinne and loved Giant’s Causeway, neither of them could compare to Skellig Michael.

Puffin on Skellig Michael

After descending from the monastery to the big grassy area, I had my sandwich and wished I could get a particular photo I had seen — a photo of the staircase leading to the monastery with Small Skellig in the background.

By this point, very few people were left on this part of the island, making it an ideal time to take the picture. I scrambled up the path on the other peak and edged out to the side until Small Skellig appeared perfectly in the background:

Skellig Michael

Worth it. (Though please don’t do this unless you’re comfortable climbing. This part of the island is just a rough path, rather than a staircase, and climbing down is much more difficult than climbing up!)

Skellig Michael

And soon enough, it was almost time to meet Eoin at the boat. I climbed down the 600 steps as carefully as I climbed up them.

Skellig Michael

Back to the Mainland

As I met Eoin at the dock, I saw first-hand how this had almost been a no-go day. The boat rose and fell next to the steps and even though it seemed safe every 10 seconds or so, Eoin wouldn’t let me step on for a full minute, until a particularly boisterous wave gave him the signal to pull me on board.

How on Earth did the monks land here?! I thought, a sentiment shared by my three companions from County Cork. It was so difficult to land in modern times — how did they land on the rock in the middle of the stormy Atlantic with only ancient technology!

What an incredible test to live their chosen life.

Small Skellig

We took a quick spin around Small Skellig, home to more than 27,000 pairs of birds, then set off on the 90-minute journey back to the mainland.

Skellig Michael

Planning a Trip to Skellig Michael

I was lucky that I was able to go on my first day there, but you shouldn’t take the risk I did. Instead, rent a car and plan to spend a few days based in pretty Portmagee. Go to Skellig Michael when the conditions allow you to, and on the other days, there’s quite a lot to see in the immediate area, on Valentia Island, and throughout the Ring of Kerry.

One nice thing about Portmagee is that the roads are too narrow for big buses, so you don’t see any of the huge coach tours that dwarf the rest of County Kerry. Portmagee attracts intentional visitors, which is something you can’t say for, say, Killarney.

The Moorings

I stayed at the most delightful guesthouse — The Moorings. It’s a cozy place on the waterfront with nice rooms and incredibly soft sheets, and it has both a restaurant and a casual pub. The rates (starting at €60-70 ($81-95 USD) per night) are incredibly reasonable for this part of the world.

Gerard, who owns The Moorings with his wife, Patricia, offered to join me for dinner (and I nearly kissed him, I was so thankful! As a solo traveler, I eat alone all the time and while I don’t totally hate it, it’s so nice for someone to offer to join you once in a while!). If there’s any massively true stereotype about Ireland, it’s that the Irish are incredibly friendly and full of stories, their lilting voices like music. Gerard certainly fit this criteria.

“Is all your food local?” I asked him as I dined on oysters and scallops so fresh that I nearly weeped.

Gerard furrowed his brow for a moment. “Everything…except the mussels,” he told me. “We get those 15 minutes away.”

He said this without a trace of irony and was startled when I burst out laughing.

Amazing Scallops

Staying in such a cozy guesthouse, eating the best scallops of my life, enjoying great conversation with a new friend — it was the perfect coda to a wild day journeying to and exploring Skellig Michael. Days like this are what you dream of when you plan a trip to Ireland, and I’m so glad I got to experience a day like this on my trip.

If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, plan it around Skellig Michael.

I’m completely serious. Skellig Michael went far beyond my expectations and was the highlight of my trip to Ireland. If you’re interested in visiting, I recommend that you make it a high priority and build out the rest of your trip from there.

This is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Essential Info: Most trips to Skellig Michael, which are very choppy and take 90 minutes each way, are priced at €50 ($68 USD). I visited Skellig Michael with Eoin Walsh, whom I recommend.

There are no toilets on Skellig Michael, nor is there anywhere to buy food, so buy food in town beforehand. Due to the sharp cliffs and rough stairs, Skellig Michael is not for children or people with mobility challenges.

The Skellig Experience, a museum on Valentia Island, just across from Portmagee, is well worth a visit for learning about the history of the island. Tickets are €5 ($7) for adults. This is a good place to buy sandwiches and drinks to take to Skellig Michael.

Rates at The Moorings start at €60 ($81 USD) per night in low season and €70 ($95 USD) per night in high season.

Many thanks to Ireland Tourism for hosting my trip to Skellig Michael and my night in Portmagee. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Comments

72 Responses to “Skellig Michael: Ireland’s Most Striking Destination”
  1. Michelle says:

    Wow! Beautiful pictures. I would love to visit this place one day. Definitely on my bucket list.

    Also, it’s funny how you talked about not visiting popular places located near where people grow up. There are so many places located near me that I need to visit!

  2. Wow. I’d heard of Skellig Michael, but didn’t really know much about it before now. Seriously beautiful and awe-inspiring place though. Definitely somewhere I would love to visit. (I’m sort of obsessed with islands, so that kinda helps…) Amazing photos too – they really give a sense of the rugged and exposed geography of the place. Amazing!

  3. Ashley says:

    Beautiful photos! I’d never heard of Skellig Michael before, but will definitely keep it in mind when I make it to Ireland.

  4. Nicole says:

    It looks pretty amazing. I would love to visit Ireland on account of the fact that it’s so green. =)

  5. Amanda says:

    Your photos are incredible, Kate! This is most definitely someplace I would like to visit someday. Bummed that it didn’t work out when I was in Ireland last year. But this post has convinced me that I’ll just have to try again!

  6. Camille says:

    Gorgeous!!! That Ireland green color is so surreal and that island looks like such a hidden gem. I’d be scared to navigate the seas…I discovered recently on a fishing charter in Resurrection Bay in Alaska sea sickness is not a joke!

  7. Karisa says:

    You’ve convinced me that this needs to go on my bucket list!

  8. Renuka says:

    Skellig Michael looks like a great place. Even the story behind it is intriguing. Ireland is anyway my dream destination, so I’ll make a note of it that whenever I make it there I tick off Skellig Michael.

  9. Ken Kai says:

    Kate,

    Totally get what you mean about the impressed part. That’s why I make sure to have breaks in between, whether they’re for 1 week or 1 month, it helps reignite that feeling of pleasure. What you’ve seen here though is just stunning. Food looks great, too. Great little joke he had too with the mussels!

  10. PUFFIN!!!!

    That alone would make the trip worthwhile. Seriously. Everything else looks amazing though, too — How did you get such clear photos from that choppy ride??

  11. Sanket Dhume says:

    Hey Kate,

    I can’t tell you how fortunate you have been. I was in Ireland just last month and spent 2 days in Glenbeigh, a 30 min drive from Portmagee. Skellig Michael was on the very top of my list and I made day-trips to Portmagee on both mornings, but was turned away on account of the weather. It’s a complete shame too, given that it was just spring. These pictures are bloody darn brilliant, and I think travelers that come to Ireland should take a few days off just for the islands off the mainland – there’s the Blasketts, and the Aran Islands and of course there’s the Clear Island in the south, all of which are really breath-taking experiences. The sheer beauty and remoteness of some of these places dwarfs your entire existence and makes you feel inconsequential for a moment!

    Good stuff this Kate, I wish you luck in your future travels – please feel free to visit my website for some fun stories from Ireland!

    Cheers,
    Sanket

    • Thanks, Sanket. I’m sorry you didn’t get to go! At least you weren’t like one German guest at The Moorings who visited SIX times before he was able to make it out there!

  12. Katie says:

    Skellig Michael is beautiful, and I love the backstory with the monks! Definitely going on the list for my future visit to Ireland!

  13. Sarah says:

    ahh, I spent 3 nights in Killarney this spring, but couldn’t get to Skellig Michael. I don’t think the boats were running yet, since it was still early in the spring. Even the Skellig experience musuem was closed 2 days a week (one of which is when I went by, darn!) I did get to visit the cliffs of Kerry (the closest point of the mainland to the Skelligs, I believe!), and some other beehive huts, and the ruins where they think the monks of Skellig Michael eventually moved to. And I did stop for fresh seafood lunch at the Moorings!

    Even without visiting the Skelligs, the ring of Kerry and the Dingle peninsula were some of my favorite places in Ireland. I wasn’t a big fan of Killarney though, so as advice for anyone else heading that way, stay in Dingle, Kenmare, or if you want real quite Port Magee instead of the touristy Killarney.

  14. That looks so fantastic! I wish that I had known about it when I went to Ireland. I desperately want to go. I’ll give it an entire week when I finally get back there. 🙂

  15. I had no idea this place even existed! How beautiful..Stunning colours! Would be lovely to visit that area in general, although that boat ride sounds like it could be a bit of an adventure 😉

  16. I’m not sure if you’ve been to the Lake District. But if you haven’t and love this then I’m sure you’d become an instant fan. These pictures reminded me of the climb to Castle Crag.

  17. Stephen S. says:

    Great post Katie. I agree with you about the Ireland. Ireland is one of the best travel destinations.

  18. Good memories of Ireland. I’ve been twice, but there are so many things I haven’t seen yet, like Skellig Mchael…

  19. Pénélope says:

    Wow. Stunning.
    I had never really thought about travelling in Ireland before; but you gave me the strong will to go there one day. It looks so wondeful!!!

  20. Rob Weir says:

    Love the post Kate.

    I will certainly take your advice regarding Skellig Michael when I travel to Ireland. I was also pleased to see you mention Faroe Islands as I’m planning a trip there early next year (along with Tromso and Lofoten Islands in Norway) – hoping to see the northern lights amongst other things.

    Skellig Michael will have to wait another time – and I suspect it is a summer destination given your comments.

  21. Sacha says:

    Ireland seems like a really beautiful travel location. It’s the first time I’ve heard about Skellig Michael though. I will remember it!
    It’s time to make a visit to Scotland and Ireland I guess!

  22. Traveolani says:

    Beautiful pictures! I would love to visit it but the boat ride sounded a little scary!

  23. Charlie says:

    Wow, such dramatic scenery! And great to visit somewhere so beautiful with an intriguing history as well. When I get to Ireland (one day!) this one is definitely on the list of things to see.

  24. Jade says:

    I’ve been waiting to read this post since you first posted a picture of it on Facebook! It did not disappoint, the photos are stunning! Awesome to hear you had such an amazing time 🙂

  25. Amazing! The scenery reminds me so much of Iceland. I am planning on visiting Ireland again in a couple of years time so will definitely put it on my list. I do love an island.

  26. IoanaIS says:

    The picture and your story are amazing. I love the green of Ireland. I have never seen such green grass anywhere else. Did I see right? Is there a heliport out there? Can you also get there by helicopter?

  27. Brian says:

    Fantastic imagery and a truly striking location on Ireland’s south west coast.

  28. Gorgeous pictures! And what a remarkable history for such a little island “at the end of the world.” That descent back to the boat looks terrifying though!

  29. Megan says:

    Gorgeous. Definitely adding this to my list of places to visit in Ireland.

  30. Catherine says:

    I was thinking I recognised this place all the way through, and as soon as you mentioned Valentia Island it all made sense – we stayed on Valentia Island for our summer holidays once when I was a kid. Didn’t actually visit Skellig Michael, and can completely understand why the parents didn’t want to take four kids that would all have been under 12 out there, but I’m a little gutted when I think I was once so close yet didn’t get to see it!

  31. Kelly says:

    Wow. Wow. What wonderful photos and wonderful narrative. I want to go.

  32. This is an incredible place, especially the monastery. I think the monks came there for asceticism and for being so close to this beautiful, ethereal nature.

  33. yliharma says:

    Oh.my.god…so beautiful! Yet so difficult to get there…not only for the weather but also for the fearsome 90 minutes of dread I would face 😀
    I’ve visited the smallest of the Aran Islands last summer and the trip was a very bad experience…I don’t think I could make it to Skellig Michael…

  34. Thanks for the information at the bottom of your post about Skellig Michael, it’s always nice to have those tips! What I also found amusing is how people don’t often go to places they’ve lived nearby their whole lives. When I tell people I’ve lived in Utah they ask if I’ve visited Arches National Park and Moab and when I tell them about my work in Denver they want to know if I’ve been to Vail or Aspen. I suppose you don’t think about a destination unless you’re traveling to it.

  35. Neil says:

    Just some advice for those planning a trip to the Skelligs.
    There is a closed period which will be enforced strictly for 2015. The exact opening date is not available to me at the moment but it will be about mid May.
    During the winter, storms and high winds cause debris to clutter the steps which look steep going up but as Kate mentions are pretty scary when going down. This debris makes the steps very dangerous and the management authority use the early spring to clear the steps . Any boat man offering to bring you out before the season has opened will only bring you around the island .
    The Skelligs Experience centre can give you more advice and a list of boatman contacts.
    Do read Tripadvisor before choosing a boatman .Some people have had horrible experiences with some operators.
    If you are prone to seasickness only go on a calm day. As the island is in the Atlantic there aren’t to many of them .Even then you may feel queasy. Do not take seasickness tablets as they will make you drowsy and that’s not a condition you want to be in when you take on the steps . However its only an hour and a half each way so a good breakfast of dry toast will usually help!!
    Be sure to be at the boat departure point in good time as there are always more people than places on the boats and they will go on the dot and your place will go to a standby passenger. Driving in the locality is slow particularly if you are used to driving on the right! So when planning a journey estimate the time it will take and then double it.
    Part of my work is to inspect the ferries operating around the coast of Ireland and the Skelligs is definitely a place to visit but Great Blasket ,reached from Dingle or Dunquinn (DunChoin) on the Dingle peninsular is a wonderful second choice and a few hours away from Portmagee.

  36. Carmel says:

    Don’t believe half of what you read on the likes of Trip Advisor which is full of crackpot reviews often describing journeys from ports that don’t exist and mainly written by yanks. There has never been a fatality on a boat but there have been 2 on the island so exercise care.The only ports are Ballinskelligs, Caherdsniel and Portmagee in alphabetical order. You are told before you go whether it is possible to land or not and the boat operators don’t like to take you around the island instead of landing.the ferry operators are all very experienced and will tell you in advance. This is an amazing place I have visited three times-even your great photographs don’t do it justice. The likes of comparing Dingle to Skelligs is like comparing the Mona Lisa to my 3 year olds art lol.There is no inherent danger but you must take reasonable care-it is an offshore island with no facilities

  37. Nice article and so glad you put the Skelligs ahead of Bru naBoinne and Giants Causway. I’d even put it ahead of the Cliffs of Moher too. Most time it’s a real effort to get there and this is the reward. I’m glad you went with Eoin… A good man, I know him very well. I love the human connection the Skelligs but for me it’s the wildlife above, on and beneath the waves that makes it so special. They have been there for millennia. I’ve made a few films on its wildlife and am still fascinated. Thanks again for this interesting perspective. At least Tourism Ireland didn’t sell you a pup! Regards Vincent

  38. Lucy Hunt says:

    Hi Kate,
    The traveling marine biologist (Jessica Benford – Voyage of Discovery) and I are on a job together off Africa and I hear you were in my part of the world and I missed you!!! Bummer! Indeed Skelligs is awesome I love it. I just set up a Marine Awarness Centre in Waterville closeby to Portmagee called Sea Synergy Marine Awareness and Activity Centre where people can find out all about Irelands incredible marine life in an interactive exhibition! Hope you can come back and visit again and pop in! People can also book lots of marine wildlife trips from the centre including trips to the Skelligs. I’m a marine biologist and love travelling also. Happy travels chick so glad you got to see my part of the world xx Lucy 🙂 (btw Jessica tagged us both in her FB page recently ;))

  39. clare says:

    Beautifully written…as one who has recently moved to Ireland with my Irish husband to show off the best of southwest Ireland finding like-minded travellers is a joy. This is on my bucket list and I will certainly be recommending this blog to all those we host. And yes, the Moorings / Bridge Bar is excellent!

  40. Susan says:

    Hi Kate — I had read about Skellig Michael, but didn’t seriously think about trying to get there until finding this blog and your write-up. Love your photos! I’ll be heading to Ireland for 3 weeks this summer, and all accommodations are already booked. I had considered taking a night off Kinsale or Dingle to stay in Portmagee… but now after some research, not sure I’ll attempt it. I’m afraid of heights, and I’ve also slipped and fallen recently on a hike. The thought of accidentally falling on that dreaded ledge has given me pause.

  41. Katie says:

    Hi Kate,

    Just wanted to say thanks for the wonderful tip about Skellig Michael. My boyfriend and I had a few days in Ireland with no agenda and in the planning I came across your blog. We stayed in Portmagee and booked our voyage with Eoin. The Moorings was one of the best meals I had in Ireland. This part of our trip was the most special. Happy travels!

  42. Noelle says:

    Wow! So awesome! I’m Irish and have been to most tourist sotes back home except Skellig Michael and the Giant’s Causeway. Skellig Michael has always intrigued me. Heading home in February for two months and hoping to get to them both – fingers crossed! Great post! 🙂

  43. David says:

    This island is the closing scene of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens film.

  44. Kristen says:

    WOW! I was in Ireland for 5 months, and I’m totally kicking myself for not making the trip out here.
    This is beyond beautiful. You’ve just inspired me to make a trip out there next time I journey to Ireland.

    Thanks!

  45. Flora Baker says:

    I’m doing some Ireland research for a trip later this year and didn’t know much about Skellig Michael before reading this – but now I think it’s going to be a definite focus of the planning process 🙂 Not entirely sure about those steps though..!

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  1. […] This is a link to her blog – it’s definitely worth a read!  http://www.adventurouskate.com/skellig-michael-irelands-most-striking-destination/ […]

  2. […] 2 nights stay in Portmagee planned, I hope to follow in footsteps of Adventurous Kate’s, and head out to sea in search of Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since […]

  3. […] UNESCO Site #757, and first bought to my attention by none other than adventurous Kate and her post entitled – Skellig Michael: Ireland’s Most Striking Destination. […]

  4. […] to be hauntingly beautiful and has been high on my bucket list after Adventurous Kate wrote about her experience, describing it as Ireland’s most striking destination.  The stretch of water from the […]



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