The Skellig Islands were the unexpected highlight of a three week hiking and biking trip to western Ireland. On the Kerry Way portion of my trip, I heard via one of my B&B hosts that the Skelligs – a UNESCO world heritage site as of 1996 – were worth the detour and a day off from hiking. I am forever grateful for her advice.
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Skellig Islands location
The Skellig Islands are two steep and rocky islands lying about 16 km off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in western Ireland. They are accessed by boat from either Portmagee or Caherdaniel. It can be a scary boat ride out and the toughest part of the trip – at least in my opinion.
The larger island goes by the name of Skellig Michael. It was originally settled in 490 AD by Christian monks. The monks endured at least four Viking raids but remained on the island for about 500 years.
The island was abandoned in the twelfth century when the monks headed to the Augustinian monastery on the mainland. Two lighthouses were established beginning in 1820 but apart from the lighthouse keepers there has been little human traffic so the site is in excellent shape.
What to do on the islands
On the way out to the Skellig Islands you’ll slow down to see the smaller of the two islands – Little Skellig. It’s home to 28,000 breeding pairs of gannets. These birds have a wingspan of six feet so the sheer mass of birds is mind boggling. They have the good sense to leave for Africa sometime in October and return again in the spring. Although you don’t land on the island it’s still a highlight.
After a look at Little Skellig, it’s a quick jaunt over to a small landing dock on Skellig Michael. You are allowed between 2 – 2.5 hours to visit the site. A visit to Skellig Michael requires a head for heights and the ability to climb 600 stairs – most of which are steep and unprotected.
The beehive huts that are part of the monastery are built at the top of the stairs. There are no handrails so people with a fear of heights can be seen coming down the stairs on their butts.
Aside from a lunch break on one of the few flat sections, plan to wander through the beehive huts and spend some time watching the puffins take off and land at their nests on the cliff face. Their antics will have you laughing out loud.
You might marvel too at how difficult life would have been here 1,500 years ago. Give thanks you weren’t the poor cow whose home was the 200 square feet of flat grass halfway up. Note that there are no bathrooms on the islands.
Getting to the Skellig Islands
You need a dose of Irish luck to even make it to the Skellig Islands. Boat trips run at most 100 days of the year. The boat ride out on a calm day is enough to make the average traveler seasick. I can’t even imagine the size of the waves and swells on the 265 days of the year that it isn’t safe to venture out to the islands.
Boats generally leave the very pretty seaside town of Portmagee for a 45 to 90 minute crossing depending on what size boat you are in. Choose the faster boat. I was so scared at times looking at the size of the waves that I was having second thoughts about the trip. Swallow your fears and GO. The trip to the Skellig Islands is like no other on the planet.
Who runs tours to the Skellig Islands?
Boat trips are offered between March 17 and November 5th depending on the company and the weather. Count on a cost of approximately 40 Euros per person. Check out the definitive guide on the Skellig Michael Landing Tour for all the companies that offer tours.
Where to stay near the Skellig Islands
You’ll want to be close by in either Portmagee or Caherdaniel, so you have quick access to the boats for the trip over to the Skellig Islands.