Skellig Michael Island, Ireland: remnants of an ancient monk colony, and a stairway to heaven!
Updated: Apr 21
Skellig Michael is a rugged island in the Atlantic ocean, just off the Kerry Peninsula in Ireland. A monk colony lived here over 1,000 years ago, and resided here for more than 500 years at St Fionan’s monastery. Skellig Michael is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Republic of Ireland.
It's a bit like winning the lottery just getting on this island, but fortune shined upon us this day. First, they only allow so many people on the island per day. There are only a few months out of the year where boats are able to land there. Only 15 boats receive landing permits each year. Second, the trip is VERY weather dependent. There isn’t actually any place to dock boats. Essentially, you drive up to a landing, and have to jump off the boat. The more intense the waves, the less likely it is that you will make it safely off the boat. When dealing with the Wild Atlantic, every day is not a sailing day here. We did have a bit of a weather delay, which made me quite nervous. In the end, we made it there. So, I like to say we won the lottery on this day!
The boat trip to the island is good fun, but the ride can be rough, very rough...The Wild Atlantic, an adventure in itself. Most boats leave from Portmagee. We used Skellig Walker Cruises for our Skellig landing tour operator. They advertise indoor and outdoor seating on their boat, as well as an onboard bathroom. Be sure to book a landing cruise. There are many companies, including this one, that offer tours AROUND the island, but don't land on Skellig.
Once you arrive on the island, you will be instructed on exactly how to exit the boat. Remember, no boat dock! the boat is in motion, so follow directions!
Now that you have arrived head on up, until you are greeted by a guide. He will instruct you on what to expect while on the island. Listen closely. People have fallen to their death here. Take it seriously, and take your time! They give you 2.5 hours to explore the island, there shouldn't be any need to rush.
Now that you got your safety talk out of the way, let's head on up. There are 618 treacherous stairs to the top. That's a lot of stairs!
At the top, you'll find the ancient stone huts (beehives), where the monks lived. Another guide is at the top,, among the "beehives," offering a 20-minutes informational talk about the island, and its long ago inhabitants.
Here are a few additional photos from the top:
Here are a few with Little Skellig seen in the distance:
I worried a bit about the trip back down the steps, since I have a great fear of heights. Armed with a set of hiking poles for stability, I headed down, keeping my eyes on the few steps directly ahead of me. I did just fine! There were people who were scooting down on their bottoms. Follow suit if you must!
Take care. You don't want to take a wrong step up here!
On the way down, I stopped to watch the cute puffins that make their home on Skellig.
Also, I was simply mesmerized by the color of the water here. I did not alter the color of these photos!
Life wasn't easy for the monks who settled here, but I find myself envying them nonetheless. Skellig is nature at its grandest, it is ancient, it is spiritual. As you climb those beautifully crooked stairs, you will undoubtedly find yourself closer to heaven above.
Here are a few tips that I found helpful when planning this trip:
My recommendations for increasing your chances of getting on:
Book as early as possible. I believe landing permits are granted in February. I started checking every few days to make sure we got a spot on a boat.
Try and spend more than one day in the area, book your trip out for the first day, that way you have a day or two cushion if your first day falls through. They say if you can't go out on your designated day, they will try and help you get out on another day.
Seasickness: Whether you get seasick or not, I would recommend asking your doctor about Scopolamine prescription sea sick patches (Transderm Scop.) I don't have problems with motion sickness, but I took patches anyway. I wasn't taking any chances on having this once in a lifetime experience ruined by motion sickness!
packing list: Picnic lunch, (we brought meats, cheeses, crackers and cake, and ate ours on the boat), camera, sunscreen, water bottle, rain gear & waterproof backpack (boat ride can get pretty wet unless you get a covered boat, and it rains a lot in Ireland), hiking shoes, layers, hiking poles (IF you feel confident using them. I would not recommend learning to use them here!)
Making the most of your time on the island: Save most of your photographing for the way down. Head straight up the stairs, so you don't miss the information talk at the top. You will be distracted by the adorable puffins. They will still be there on the way down!
There are no toilets on the island, which is why I recommend finding a boat that has a bathroom onboard. We're talking about a good 4.5 hours for the entire trip, that's a long time without a toilet.
Practice a little: We did a little preparation for those stairs. We went to the local stadium, and went up and down stairs. I am glad that we did. As it turns out, the journey to the top wasn't as bad as I anticipated, but we had a hike planned for the next day. I was grateful that I wasn't sore for that. We also used this as an opportunity to get confident on stairs with our hiking poles.
If you find yourself with some time to kill: When we arrived, we were told that due to rough seas, the boats had not been cleared to head out, and that our trip would be delayed by an hour or two. Here is how we filled our time:
Tasty refreshments: I had the most amazing scone at The Bridge Bar/The Moorings, just across from where all of the boats are docked in Portmagee. They served it with fresh raspberry? strawberry? preserves, I can't quite recall which, but I dream about it still!
Valentia Island: Head across the bride in Portmagee, toward Valentia Island. Less than 5 miles away, you'll find a lighthouse and Tetrapod tracks. The Tetrapod (four legged creatures such as amphibians and reptiles) imprints are thought to date from somewhere between 350 and 370 million years ago. I'll be covering more on Valentia Island in my Ring of Kerry post later.
Watch this video from the Office of Public Works: Before you visit Skellig, it is recommended that you watch this video produced by the Office of Public Works. It is a safety video, but also has great footage of the island! Visiting Skellig Michael-A safety guide.
The "Definitive Guide to Skellig:" Almost anything else you need to know about visiting Skellig can be found at Skelligmichael.com
The Ring of Kerry
The Skellig Experience is located off of the Ring of Kerry which we, in order to give each one the proper amount of time they deserve, did on separate days. I have a Ring of Kerry post in the works, but my friend Faith over at XYUandbeyond has a comprehensive guide to the Ring of Kerry that you will want to check out too: The Ultimate Guide to the Ring of Kerry Drive
Inspiration for this trip, courtesy of Rick Steves "Ireland" travel guide. Get the book!!!! Why I love Rick's books: If I could tell you one thing, and one thing only about his books, I would share with you Rick's own words. He "gives you all of the information & suggestions necessary, for wringing the maximum value out of your limited time and money!" and that my friends, is exactly what your goal should be.