The hauntingly beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of Skellig Michael was what motivated my trip to Ireland in the first place. I knew I had to visit after I saw photos and read about what has been described as Ireland’s most striking destination…
For the unfamiliar, Skellig Michael is an uninhibited ragged island eight miles offshore from Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula and is known for being the home to a group of mysterious monks which lived there back in the 6th century. (And yes, you may also recognize Skellig Michael as the recent filming location for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens). Visitors can take a boat from the tiny town of Portmagee to the island where they will climb 600 stairs to explore the ancient monastery and the monks’ beehive-shaped huts while taking in the breathtaking scenery…
Here’s what you need to know before you go to Skellig Michael:
1. Book Your Accommodations in Advance.
First things first, you’re likely going to want to stay in Portmagee or on Valentia Island the night before you head out to the Skelligs. Do not wait to reserve your accommodations as they may book up – there’s not a ton of options in the area. I traveled to Ireland in early September, but by July many places in Portmagee were almost fully booked. I panicked and was worried that I would get stuck staying in a less than ideal location (or less than ideal hole-in-the-wall), but then realized that Valentia Island, literally just across the bridge from Portmagee, was the best choice for my stay.
2. Hire Your Private Boat Operator in Advance.
There aren’t any ferries to take you to the island, you must hire a private boat. You’ll also want to do this in advance – don’t wait until you get to town and risk the boats being fully booked. There are a number of boat operators in the area that will attempt to make the daily morning pilgrimage with a landing on the island, which will set you back about €60 per person. Also, it’s important to know that not all of the boats actually land on the island, some only circle around it for a sightseeing cruise. If you want to get off the boat and explore Skellig, you will want to be certain your boat moors at the island.
3. Give Yourself Several Days in the Area.
You may have noticed that I mentioned the boat operators “attempt” to make the daily pilgrimage to Skellig Michael… Why? Because the boats actually only head out to the island about half of the days they are booked. The strip of sea between the mainland and the Skelligs is a notoriously wild and rough area, so the small boats are only able to head out to the island when weather conditions allow. If you’re dead-set on traveling to Skellig Michael, you need to give yourself several days in the area since it’s pretty common for the boats to be canceled on any given day due to weather or sea conditions.
Your boat operator will give you specific instructions to follow, but will most likely advise you to call him the evening before your journey to check weather conditions, and then again in the morning to verify whether you’re lucky enough to be able to make the trip out to Skellig Michael.
4. Come Prepared.
There’s no concession stand or bathroom on the island, so you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared for your trip (which will take up the better portion of your day). Most of the boats leave in the morning from the tiny marina in Portmagee around 9:30 a.m., allow for 2.5 hours on the rock, and then arrive back to Portmagee around around 2:30 p.m. There is a tiny shop/deli in Portmagee near the marina where you can order sandwiches the evening before to take with you on your trip. Given the raggedness of the rocky island, you’ll want to wear sturdy climbing shoes, appropriate clothing for the weather and bring your windbreaker.
5. Allow Time to Explore the Surrounding Areas.
Portmagee is a very tiny fishing village. The “commercial area” of Portmagee spans not much more than a block or so along the marina. You’ll find a couple restaurants and pubs and a shop or two… and that’s about it. I’d recommend that you grab a pint at the pier with a view of the marina so you can savor the quaint beauty of the town before indulging in a fresh seafood platter for dinner at The Moorings. There wasn’t much going on in terms of nightlife during my mid-week stay since everything in Portmagee closed fairly early after dinner, so I’d recommend that you plan your trip over the weekend when the pubs have live music.
Just over the bridge from Portmagee is Valentia Island. You’ll want to set aside some time to explore this charming island. Stop for lunch (with a view!) in Knight’s Town, see the island’s lighthouse and drive up Geokaun Mountain for sweeping panoramas of the Fogher Cliffs.
A “must-do” for anyone headed to area (or even just passing through while exploring the Ring of Kerry) is driving the Ring of Skellig. This 20 mile scenic drive will have your vehicle climbing coastal heights which will afford you stunning views of the Skellig Islands. Perhaps more beautiful than the Ring of Kerry itself, you will not want to miss this drive. It’s especially nice that no tour buses are allowed on this route, as I found them frustrating to deal with on the Ring of Kerry. (On a related note, the Ring of Skellig is not far from the Dingle Peninsula – the other scenic drive in Ireland I most adored).
Where Should You Stay?
I had a perfect stay at Carraig Liath House Bed & Breakfast and would highly recommend it. The B&B is technically located on Valentia Island across the street from The Skellig Experience Visitors Center, but is just a short 10 minute walk to Portmagee’s marina. My room at Carriag Liath was lovely, breakfast was delicious and the owner, Frances, was as welcoming and helpful as could be. I’d recommend that you reserve a sea-view room to enjoy the fantastic vistas across the water of Portmagee’s harbor.
What was my Skellig Michael experience like?
Heartbreaking. Despite the fact that Skellig Michael was the destination I was most looking forward to on my road trip through Ireland, I wasn’t able to visit the island due to weather conditions. Unfortunately, my road trip schedule only allowed for two potential mornings where I could have made the trip out to the island and the boats didn’t go out on either morning due to the wind and sea conditions.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terribly disappointed, but I don’t regret spending a couple days in this beautiful part of Ireland. Nonetheless, I planned emphatically for my trip to Skellig Michael, so hopefully my research can save you some time and stress when you make this once in a lifetime voyage!
Would you like to go to Skellig Michael in Ireland?
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Although I was a guest of Carraig Liath House Bed & Breakfast, as always, all opinions are my own.
CC images from Flickr: Skellig-St-Michael by Hector Pastor Fernandez, Skellig Michael by Arian Zwegers, Skellig Michael by styrovor, Skellig Michael by styrovor, Skellig Michael by styrovor. Pin Skellig Michael by styrovor