There are few days from my travels that stand as much as my day trip to Skellig Michael. From taking puffin bird selfies to exploring the rich, rugged terrain of the island, my visit to Skellig Michael was simply extraordinary.
This famous island, the larger of the two Skellig rocks, is located off the coast of Ireland’s southwestern Iveragh peninsula and attracts thousands of tourists annually. Home to a famous Atlantic puffin colony during the nesting season as well as the ancient, isolated monastery of Skellig Michael, the island offers stunning views, impressive history, and adorable avifauna to its many visitors each year.
Although you can glimpse the Skellig islands’ infamous outline (which is so renown that it earned a spot on the County Kerry flag) from the Slea Head drive near my house on the Dingle peninsula, there are very limited public transportation options to reach Portmagee, the small seaside village on the southern Iveragh peninsula where the boats leave to visit the island.
The best option for the car-less is to take a bus to the small town of Cahersiveen, and then take a taxi the remaining 16 km (about 20 minute drive) to Portmagee.
I mentioned my desire to visit the Skellig islands and the consequent transportation conundrum to Aisling, and with a few quick phone calls it was decided that her mother, Joan, would give me an entertaining and incredibly generous lift to and from Portmagee the following week.
My next mission was to pre-book a spot on one of the Skellig tour boats. By calling the Tourism Office in Dingle, I received a few personal phone numbers for local captains who run these daytrips. Although calling a handful of Irish personal cell phone numbers may seem strange to arrange for a day trip, this is the best way to guarantee a spot on one of the tours; there are surprisingly not an array of overly-marketed boats that leave for the islands. Pre-booking at least a week in advance is also essential. After a quick phone call goose chase, I finally got in touch with a local captain named Pòl who was able to secure a spot for me the following Thursday.
Final pre-adventure item? Hope for good – or even decent – weather. Because the journey is completely weather dependent, it is not surprising to have trips cancelled the morning of the journey due to inclement weather conditions. With the potential for maelstrom-like waves between shore and the islands, the boats have to err on the side of caution. With the endless rain this summer, I was nervous at the thought of booking this trip an entire week in advance, but with the weather being completely out of my control, I simply hoped for the best and moved on.
With my transportation sorted, ticket pre-booked and fingers crossed for good weather, I was ready to go!
On the fateful Thursday morning when we drove into Portmagee, there was light rain falling and dark clouds rolling overhead as Joan and I entered the village. My stomach was in knots imagining the trip being cancelled when I was so close.
Joan dropped me off, and realizing I had about an hour to spare, I finally took a moment to appreciate how picture-perfect the seaside village truly was.
In my opinion, Portmagee is a quintessential Irish seaside village. With its adorable cottages, brightly painted cafes and offices, one tiny market (whose cash back option is the only way to access cash in the village), and a small pier surrounded by fishing boats along the ‘main’ street, the scene was too perfect. All I could think was ‘cue the Wes Anderson opening credits.’
Since I had time before I was meant to meet Pòl, I popped into the local café for a cup of coffee. The adorable ambiance and delicious aromas of fresh coffees and pastries made me wish I wasn’t still full from my breakfast. When I left the café, the rain continued to fall.
Journey to the Rock
Once I found Pòl at the pier, he led me to my assigned boat where I boarded along with 10 other passengers, most of whom were tourists. I paid my fare of 60€ for the round-trip journey and sat back, still weather-anxious, but at least sufficiently caffeinated.
Whether it was the early morning hour (at this point it was about 9:30 AM) or the extremely choppy waters, the passengers were mostly silent during the arduous hour-long trip towards the isolated island. As we quietly crept along the stunning Kerry coastline towards our destination, the rain continued to fall reminding us that our day was at the mercy of the elements.
About an hour later and as the captain signaled our final approach to the skipper, the clouds began to clear. I was thrilled; maybe I wouldn’t have to keep my hood up all day after all!
From my seated position where I was battling the wind and drizzle, I slowly turned around to get my first view of the island. I was immediately taken aback.
I was overcome with how lush and serene the island seemed, amidst the violent winds and tumultuous waves. I had seen images of the island on postcards and Google searches, but assumed photographers had enhances the island’s colors to lure tourists and boost the local economy. The enhancements, if ever made, were unnecessary. The view was a vision out of a dream.
Following his visit in 1910, George Bernard Shaw described this ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’ as ‘part of our dream world’. And, in my opinion, he nailed that description. I was in complete awe.
Suddenly, the captain nudged me out of his way, indifferent to my momentary bliss. It was time to disembark and explore what we had come to see – Skellig Michael. It’s puffin time, bitches!*
Arriving in Puffin Mecca
Before he physically tossed each of us ashore, the captain gave us a few quick, very unemotional recommendations in his gruffy, sea tired voice –
Don’t slip and fall off the path. Someone died like that recently.
Don’t feed the seagulls; they will attack you. You can get hurt this way.
Be back here at 1 PM, otherwise we’ll leave you and you’ll spend the night here. You won’t want that.
– and with our newfound confidence (Golly, gee! Thanks, Captain!), we were off.
Earlier in the day, I had nabbed a map of the island, which gave a brief history of island life and offered a map of the walking paths. With or without such a map, a visitor would be fine; the island paths are marked clearly and there are volunteers throughout the island who are quick to offer mini history lessons and guidance.
Monastic Life on Skellig Michael
The first path cuts around the lower side of the island and has a beautifully constructed rock wall alongside it to offer safety and direction to visitors. As this concrete path curves into the island after about a ten-minute walk, you are met with the 600-plus very steep, hand-laid rock steps.
These rock steps were created and used by the ascetic monks who lived on the island in hopes of obtaining a closer union with God. These religious men quite literally paved the way for this island to become a UNESCO World Heritage site and regional tourist attraction all this time later.
The island’s monastery, located at the top of the rock, was founded between the sixth and eighth centuries and boasts impressive examples of ‘beehive huts’, or clocháin in Irish. These ancient huts dot the southwestern Irish seaboard, and are usually associated with monastic life. In the case of Skellig Michael, these huts were used for housing as well as communal and cooking areas for the monks.
As I continued along the paved path, I chatted with a young couple for a few moments as we continued up the path. Suddenly, we spotted our first puffin boldly waiting to welcome the day’s tourists. We were suddenly stunning into silence. Finally!
As those first moments passed, we began to see more and more. We were surrounded, and it was amazing! We attempted to regain our conversation, but all we could mutter was a string of ‘OMG’ and ‘This is amazing’s, which would be the majority of dialogue exchanged amongst visitors throughout the rest of the day.
Life Amongst Puffins
As I climbed the first portion of steps, I slipped a few inches while attempting my ump-teenth puffin selfie. With the captain’s words fresh in my mind, I forced myself to put my camera down and watch a few little pairs of the birds as they went about their daily business.
Some puffins were pressing snooze on their clocks before a day fishing at sea. Others were waddling around their burrows greeting neighbors and gazing as the clouds cleared and sunny, calm weather took its place. Others just seemed content to study the newly arrived group of tourists. The little birds were not skittish or frightened by our walking or pausing near their burrows.
But of all of the adorable interactions, my favorite view was seeing a pair ‘beaking’ under a small rock only a few feet from me. Puffins are one of the rare species that mate for life and are known to show affection by nuzzling their colorful beaks together, which is known as ‘beaking’.
The pair snuggled and ‘beaked’ for a few minutes, and as I watched I pondered if the show of affection was more common in young puffins or old puffin pairs. Regardless of my Carrie Bradshaw observation, I was grateful that these two were indifferent to my role of overly enthusiastic third-wheel in their intimate moment.
As I continued to saunter up the rocks, I found myself giggling at their mannerisms and personalities. Puffins carry themselves in a quirky, yet proud fashion. When they are looking down they resemble an elderly person walking down the street with their hands behind their back, lost in thought and simply existing to ponder the curiosities of the world.
If their heads are higher up, they strut with a proud, happy demeanor that I would compare to the early, silent versions of Mickey Mouse – confident in themselves, curious and intent upon investigating their surroundings, and incredibly content.
I wanted to continue up the path and visit the monastery, but I could easily, and happily, have passed my hours continuing to observe their friendly, adorable nature.
Exploring Skellig Michael
While I sauntered around the rock of Skellig Michael for the remaining hours, I was constantly pausing to appreciate the scenery and overwhelming beauty of the island. I found myself taking endless pictures, then forcing myself to put my camera away. After a few minutes of soaking up the bliss sans technology, I found myself anxious that I wasn’t taking enough pictures. I continued to swing on this pendulum for my perfect time on the island.
All too soon I found myself returning to the drop-off point and punch drunk from my perfect day surrounded by the perfect weather and scenery and these avian creatures I had dreamt about for so long.
We returned to Portmagee under the warmth of the (ever illusive) Irish sun and took the ‘long way’ home to circle the smaller of the Skellig rocks, home to thousands of other types of seabirds. Though the smaller rock and weather were beautiful, you can see from my lack of detail that the puffin birds were sufficient for quenching my avian interest for the day.
By the time we were headed back to mainland, I was utterly exhausted. The day had, in the best way, drained me.
Health & Safety at Skellig Michael
When visiting Skellig Michael, health and safety is usually a notorious concern. With the 600-some steep rock steps, usually slippery terrain, unmarked ledges, and choppy ride to and from the island, anyone with health issues is usually advised to opt out. As a healthy, relatively fit visitor, I felt completely comfortable, but I also didn’t disregard the harsh warnings.
There were more than enough places where I could have slipped or fallen, but as I mentioned, I forced myself to put away the distractions and watch my steps. Luckily, that was sufficient precaution to make my trip accident-free.
Additionally, since I was pausing frequently to take pictures, I found myself getting ample rest, but there were more than a few visitors who had to take frequent breaks and sit down on the steps to rest. During my time there, I saw no children under the age of 12 on the island; I don’t know if this was by parental choice or rule enforcement.
*Unfortunately the older, very Irish captain did not shout this as we disembarked, though it would have been quite weird and entertaining if he did!
Debatably Useful Information: Boats leave from Portmagee pier once daily (usually around 9 AM) on most days during high season. Round trip adult tickets start from 60€, expected to be paid in cash. Portmagee does not have an ATM.
The boat trip is weather dependent, so be aware that last minute cancellations are not uncommon.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, take appropriate precautions before embarking on the boat ride; seasickness on this journey is common.