Off the Beaten Path Ireland – The Skellig Islands
One of my favorite parts of travel is finding unique experiences or places that aren’t on a typical itinerary. Sometimes they are a little harder to get to or push the boundaries of your comfort zone or maybe they are even kept somewhat of a “secret," but they are almost always worth it. One of those places that is incredibly high on my list of favorite off-the-beaten-path experiences is the Skellig Islands in Ireland.
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Where to stay
The Moorings Guesthouse & Seafood Restaurant @ The Bridge Bar
With 17 lovely rooms just across from the pier, a stay here guarantees an authentic experience and allows you to experience Portmagee to the fullest.
Portmagee Heights Bed & Breakfast
This charming four-star bed & breakfast serves as a great base for Skellig adventures.
The Killarney Park
Upscale property nearby Killarney National Park with relaxing rooms and multi-bedroom suites.
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A unique experience in Ireland
I had never heard of the Skelligs before researching for my trip to Ireland in 2017, but as soon as I read about them, I knew I had to get there. If you are like me and haven't heard of them until now, let me paint a picture for you. The Skelligs are two small, uninhabited, islands located 12km (7.5 miles) off the southwestern coast of Ireland and are accessible by boat. The first thing that comes to mind is probably palm trees and white sand beaches when you hear the word island, but that isn't exactly the case here. Think more like steep, jagged rocks and cliffs that are home to colonies of puffins way out in the wild Atlantic Ocean. For Star Wars fans, you will likely recognize them because they were used for filming in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The larger island of the two is called Skellig Michael and the smaller one is aptly called Little Skellig. If you decide to venture out to them, Skellig Michael is where you will be making landfall, but you will have views of Little Skellig as well. Little Skellig has been declared a nature preserve for the thousands of colonies of Gannets and landing is prohibited.
Apart from being visually awe-inspiring, the history of the islands creates a truly unique experience that transports you back in time. During the penal times of the 6th century (and possibly even earlier,) the monks of St. Fionan sought refuge from suppression on Skellig Michael. Way up on top, they built their monastery of beehive-shaped huts made from stone. These huts were skillfully crafted and built in a way that prevented even a single drop of rain from getting inside. It is said that there were approximately 12 monks that lived on Skellig Michael. They spent their days praying together, studying and tending to their gardens. At some point during the 13th century, they left the islands for the mainland. In 1996, Skellig Michael was granted the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now visited by around 11,000 people every year. Whether it be a religious pilgrimage or just to enjoy one of nature's special gifts, a trip to the Skelligs is an experience like no other.
A Typical Day in the Skelligs
There are a few options for seeing the Skelligs. If you are physically able, making landfall on Skellig Michael and hiking to the top provides the most up-close and personal experience. If not, boat-only tours are also a great option. These "eco-tours" usually last around 3 hours or so and take you out to and around both Skellig Michael and Little Skellig.
For the landing tour, you will board a small boat with your guides and the rest of your tour group in the morning, typically between 8 am and 10 am, and make the roughly 1-hour journey out into the Atlantic Ocean. Most guides provide you with ponchos and life vests and will give you a fascinating history lesson on the way out.
Once you arrive at Skellig Michael, your boat will pull up to the platform and you have to step from the boat onto the small, often slippery platform. You will have around 2.5 hours to explore the island. Hike up the path (600+ steps worth) to the monastery and explore the incredibly well-preserved huts and take in the stunning views. There are guides along the path to help with safety and provide assistance if needed. If you go before August 1st, you will likely also be able to see puffins as Skellig Michael is home to thousands of them.
After you take it all in (and of course take plenty of photos), carefully make your way back down to re-board your tour boat. Most tours cruise slowly by Little Skellig on the way back to give you up-close views of it as well before making the trek back to the mainland.
The logistics of visiting the Skelligs can be quite tricky for many reasons. One of the biggest factors is the climate. The weather and the conditions of the Atlantic limit the number of days that tour operators are able to make the journey. Add on the fact that only 180 people max are allowed on the island daily and you can see that this experience takes careful planning (your travel advisor has entered the chat.) The ideal base on the mainland for this adventure is a village in County Kerry called Portmagee, as this is where the tour companies operate out of. You can also stay in Killarney and make the roughly 1 hour drive out if preferred. Portmagee is a small portside village that is home to a small population of friendly folks, a few restaurants and bars and a handful of accommodations.
There are 15 tour operators that are licensed to land on Skellig Michael. We made our journey on The Clare and highly recommend them. The guides were knowledgeable, engaging and kept us laughing the entire day. The booking process was very simple and we had great communication all the way through. The cost is currently around $130 USD per person and lunch can be added for an additional $10. Find their FAQs and booking information here.
When to visit
Tours that allow you to access Skellig Michael typically run from May 15th to September 30th. In order to see the puffins, you will want to go before they migrate around August 1st.
Places to eat & drink in Portmagee, near the Skelligs
Fisherman’s Bar & Restaurant Portmagee: This low-key spot is known for great seafood, right on the coast. Offers brunch, lunch and dinner.
The Moorings Restaurant & Bridge Bar: Part of the Moorings Guesthouse, the bar & restaurant are next door to each other right across from the pier. The restaurant offers a variety of authentic Irish cuisine and fresh seafood and the Bridge Bar is a fantastic place to catch some live, traditional Irish music and dance with the locals.
Skellig Rock Café: Offers coffee and breakfast, but is also a nice lunch spot with outdoor seating by the water.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Ireland.