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Skellig Michael is the largest of the two Skellig Islands which are found off the west coast of Ireland, and which form the most westerly point both in the country and in Europe.
This is one of the most rugged, raw and isolated locations in Ireland, but because of their recent exposure as one of the main settings in the Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, the island is becoming more and more popular amongst tourists.
The Skellig Islands though, due to their inaccessibility, have largely remained unknown and under-visited until now, but if you brave the rough seas and the precarious landings, then you’ll discover an ancient rock that’s brimming with wildlife and that’s the site of some of Ireland’s best-preserved medieval monasteries.
It’s a unique destination, and to help you to reach the isolated Skellig Islands, here’s our guide on traveling to Skellig Michael!
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Ireland (Travel Guide)
Where are the Skellig Islands?
The Skellig Islands comprise just two large, rocky and seemingly inhospitable islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The largest island is Skellig Michael, while the smaller of the two is known simply as Little Skellig.
The islands are found in western Ireland, and they lie around 7 miles off the mainland. The Skellig Islands are part of County Kerry and the closest landmass is the Inveragh Peninsular. Beyond the islands, there is nothing but the roaring Atlantic Ocean, as this is the most western location in Europe.
How to Get to Skellig Michael
The two islands lie just a mile or so apart, but it’s only possible to make landfall on Skellig Michael, as Little Skellig is too rough and inhospitable to actually visit. Most boat tours, however, will still get you close enough to the smaller island for you to see it at least from afar.
The only way to get to the Skellig Islands is of course by boat. The journey from the mainland is short, but it can be rough, depending on the weather, so be prepared for the worst if you are prone to seasickness.
On the mainland, the majority of tours depart from the sleepy fishing village of Portmagee. The village is found on the far western end of the Inveragh Peninsula, which forms part of the ever-popular Ring of Kerry road trip route, and part of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Portmagee has a population of just over 100 residents, and it’s a charming, colorful and ramshackle place to visit. With tours leaving in the early morning, you may want to spend the night here before traveling across to the Skellig Islands.
There are several hotels and guesthouses that can put you up, but in peak season, surging demand can see rooms sold out.
Portmagee is one hour away from Killarney, which is the major tourist hub in County Kerry. Killarney has transport connections to most other major destinations in Ireland, but unfortunately, local public transport can be limited, so you will want to rent a vehicle or join a tour from Killarney if you don’t want to spend a night or two in Portmagee.
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Where to Stay to Visit the Skellig Islands
Seeing as you cannot stay on the islands and the tours are highly weather dependent, I would recommend planning to stay in Portmagee the night before your tour is booked. This will ensure you do not have any chances of missing your tour if you have to commute from somewhere else.
It also offers you a place to hang out if there are delays due to weather, which is quite common. We stayed at the Skellig Ring House and found it comfortable. The Portmagee Seaside Cottages is another good option.
Alternatively, you could base yourself in Killarney and, if you have a rental car, drive the hour to Portmagee the morning of your tour. We stayed at the Loch Lein Country House during our time in Killarney and LOVED it.
When to Visit Skellig Michael
So, you’ll need a boat to get to Skellig Michael, but luckily there are plenty of local companies operating tours to the islands, with the majority departing from Portmagee.
Boat tours to Skellig Michael depart early in the morning and return in the afternoon, but due to the wild nature of the ocean, and unpredictable conditions, tours are very weather dependent, even when it’s the height of summer.
Boat tours are only allowed to run during the summer months, between May 15 and October 2, as for the rest of the year conditions out on the ocean and in particular, around the islands themselves, are too dangerous for the boats to make it safely. This really is the Wild Atlantic Way, and safety is a real concern here.
Even during the open season, boat tours can be canceled at a moment’s notice, as the weather can easily take a turn for the worse. The exposed location of the islands doesn’t help either, as they attract some of the worst and most powerful waves and swells around their rocky coastline, making journeys to them at times, perilous.
Cancellations are more common at the start and end of the tourist season when the weather is less predictable, so if you can, then try to get here in the middle of the season. Even then, be prepared to wait, and be prepared for cancellations!
Aside from the weather considerations though, the most important rule to remember is that visitor numbers to Skellig Michael are limited to 180 people per day, across all the tour companies operating boats to the islands. So it is best to book in advance!
If there have been several days of cancellations due to poor weather, or even when it’s simply the middle of peak season, you might find that spots are limited.
Skellig Michael’s feature in the Star Wars movies has only exacerbated this too, so in the middle summer, make sure you book your tour in advance or be prepared to wait for a ticket over several days!
Atlantic Puffins on Skellig Michael
If you want to see the Atlantic Puffins that come to the island to nest, be sure to visit during the peak summer months of June and July. Come August, the birds have often moved on to other nesting areas and your chances of seeing them will be greatly reduced.
We visited in mid-June and had the luck of experiencing hundreds of nesting birds on the island. This made for some insane photo opportunities, as they go about their business is very close proximity to the trails and sights.
History of the Skellig Islands
The Skellig Islands have been mostly uninhabited for centuries, except for the odd weather station worker or lighthouse keeper that’s been forced to brave the fierce elements and lonely isolation during their tour. This wasn’t always the case though, as Skellig Michael is the site of some of the most important and best-preserved medieval ruins in Ireland.
The Skellig Islands were inhabited from around the 8th century onwards by monks of the Augustinian order, who built the monastery and hermitage that you find still standing today.
The island was at times pillaged by Vikings, but the monks would return time after time until the 16th century when their position due to politics and the weather became untenable on this remote rock in the Atlantic.
Tourism began in the Victorian era when the Ring of Kerry became an increasingly popular route for travelers in Ireland. In 1996, the islands were protected under a UNESCO World Heritage listing.
With an increase in tourism due to Star Wars, more rules and regulations, including capping visitor numbers each day, have been enforced over the past few years to protect the ruins and the natural environment.
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Things to do on the Skellig Islands
Cruise by Little Skellig
Little Skellig is the smaller of the two islands, but due to its incredibly rocky terrain and even rougher seas, you can’t actually set foot on it. Boats can’t land here, but most tours will take visitors on a journey around the island itself, so you can see the rocks, the jagged cliffs and the wildlife, even if you can’t set foot here.
Climb ALL the steps on Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael is the most impressive of the two islands, and it’s the island that you can land on. Not all tours, however, actually make landfall, so make sure the tour you are on includes this before you book.
Some boat tours only take you around the cliffs and the rocks, as there are only a few landing points on the island, and sometimes these are completely washed out or unapproachable.
If you are making landfall, then be prepared for a rough entry and exit. You’ll also need to be in relatively decent shape, as the rocky terrain is slippy and wet at the best of times. The few paths on the island are ancient and things are rather mountainous, to say the least.
St Michael’s Monastery
The main site of historical importance on Skellig Michael is St Michael’s Monastery. This was the main place of worship for the monks who lived here, and it’s thought to date back centuries, although the foundation date is unknown.
The monastery is incredibly well preserved, and you can explore the chapel, the rustic graveyard and see the iconic domed buildings made from local rocks where it’s thought that the monks themselves might have lived.
Skellig Michael has two main peaks. St Michael’s Monastery is found on one peak, and the Hermitage is found on the opposite. The Hermitage is another monastic relic that’s well preserved, however, it’s not easy to get to.
The Hermitage is found atop the peak, and the ancient stone pathway leading to the summit is incredibly dangerous in foul weather – this was, after all, a place for the hermits to escape the rest of the world!
Few visitors actually brave it and make it to the top, as you need prior permission, but the view of the peak from below, covered in clouds and mist, or with the Atlantic Ocean raging behind, is a beautiful one.
The Skellig Experience Visitor Center
The Skellig Experience Visitor Center is actually located on the mainland, not on the islands of course, due to their inaccessibility.
The visitor’s center is a great chance to learn more about the island’s geological and human history, and if you can’t make it out to Skellig Michael due to the weather, this is about as close as you’ll get to immerse yourself in the unique local history.
The experience shows you how the monks built their island monastery and homes and how they survived on this remote rock for hundreds of years.
Observe the Atlantic Puffins
Skellig Michael island is one of the best places in the world to see Atlantic Puffins up close. During the summer months, the island is littered with thousands of nesting puffins. They are not too bothered by the presence of visitors either.
As with any wildlife encounter, it is important to maintain a safe distance from them to not disturb their daily practices. Do not try to feed them or touch them. If you move slowly and respect them, you will be able to get some incredible photos of the birds during your visit.
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Preparing for Your Trip to the Skellig Islands
A trip out to the Skellig Islands is no easy day trip. You need to be prepared for all types of weather and be ready for some physical exertion. The seas between Ireland and the Skellig Islands are notorious for being rough and rolling.
Be prepared to follow the directions of your boat captain and listen to the instructions that are given to avoid potentially going overboard as you travel.
Once you’re on the island, be prepared to climb many steep steps to the top if you want to see the best sights on the island.
I’d advise you to bring the following items with you on your trip out to Skellig Michael:
- Meclizine or other anti-nausea medication, for seasickness.
- A warm jacket
- A rain jacket
- Water and a small snack. There are spots on the island for a picnic.
- Hiking shoes or walking shoes are ideal. Do not wear sandals.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- A camera with a telephoto lens, if you have one
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