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Middle Age Miles

Incredible Skellig Michael – A Trip to the Home of Ancient Monks … and Luke Skywalker

Erin (as Luke Skywalker) & Maria (as Rey) re-enacting “The Force Awakens” on Skellig Michael

This article is part of our Trip Report, A Summer Holiday in Ireland & Scotland.

Introduction

A long time ago, in our very own galaxy, a small group of 6th-to-8th century monks established a monastery on a remote and dramatic-looking island off the coast of what is now Ireland.  Today, we know their island as Skellig Michael.  The monks built their homes and places of worship about 600 feet up the steep slopes of this 700-foot pyramid-shaped island and constructed a long series of stone stairs to climb up from the sea.  Many of the monks’ “beehive” huts and other structures remain in place today, largely in the same condition as when they were built many centuries ago.  Because of its historical origins and near-pristine preservation, Skellig Michael has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Now, fast-forward to the 21st century:  When Lucasfilm was searching for a place to stand in for planet Ahch-To in its newest Star Wars movies, they chose the same site as the early monks.  Skellig Michael was the most picturesque and dramatic backdrop Lucasfilm could find on planet Earth to serve as the birthplace of the Jedi Order and the place of self-imposed exile for Jedi Master Luke Skywalker.

Against that backdrop, let me just say – vacation days come and go, but you will never forget the day you visit Skellig Michael.

How We Came to Visit Skellig Michael

Our daughter Maria and her friend Erin are huge Star Wars fans, and over the Christmas 2015 holiday break, we had seen the then-newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens.  At the end of the movie, there were spectacular, eye-catching scenes that had been filmed on a striking green, rugged island.

Rey finds Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael (as planet Ahch-To) in “The Force Awakens”

I had a hunch that this location might have been in Ireland – and with a little research, I confirmed that my hunch was right.  I learned that the final scenes were filmed on Skellig Michael.  And with some further research, I learned that you can actually visit Skellig Michael by taking a boat tour from the small Irish fishing village of Portmagee.  I knew the girls would be utterly blown away if we could visit, so I set out to find a way to get us there.

Where Is Skellig Michael?

Skellig Michael is in the Atlantic Ocean, about 7-8 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland.  The nearest town is the small Irish fishing village of Portmagee, and boat tours to Skellig Michael depart from the marina at Portmagee.  The first map below shows the location of Skellig Michael with respect to the entire Irish island, and the second map shows its location with respect to Portmagee:

On the morning of our Skellig Michael boat tour, we drove from our hotel in Killarney to Portmagee.  Google Maps estimates this drive at 1 hour, 19 minutes – but it took us more like an hour forty, and frankly, I would block it at 2 hours for planning purposes.  The narrow Irish roads can be slow going, and it’s entirely possible to get trapped behind one of the many tour buses that drive this route, which comprises part of the famed and heavily-traveled Ring of Kerry.

What Do I Need to Know About Booking a Boat Tour to Skellig Michael?

When I made our Skellig Michael boat tour reservations back in early 2016, the process went like this:

  • I found a decent-looking tour operator on the Internet
  • I emailed them asking if they had availability on our preferred date
  • They wrote back within 24 hours to let me know that their tour was full for that day and gave me three other operators to contact
  • I chose one of the other tour operators (Sea Quest) and emailed them
  • They responded with availability, and we exchanged confirming emails within the next 24 hours.

The process is somewhat different now.  I’m sure that demand for Skellig Michael tours has gone through the roof in the 2 years since we went.  Showing the island for the last couple of minutes of The Force Awakens (2015) is one thing, but then Skellig Michael was prominently featured from start-to-finish in The Last Jedi (2017).

The website SkelligMichael.com has published what it calls “Booking Skellig Michael Landing Tour Boat Trips: The Definitive Guide,” and this is an absolutely excellent resource for booking Skellig Michael trips now.  Read it before you book, and again before you go.

We booked our Skellig Michael trip through Sea Quest (www.skelligsrock.com), which is owned by Seanie and Mary Murphy.  It turns out that Seanie actually appears in the credits of The Force Awakens as the Ireland Unit “Lead Boatman” (so he must be legit!).  In 2016, the price for our tour was 60 Euros per person; now with ever-increasing demand, Sea Quest charges 85 Euros per person.

You must book very, very early to get a spot on a Skellig Michael boat tour.  As I mentioned, even back in 2016, the first tour company I asked was already full for our preferred date, 4 months in advance.  Now, as I was writing this article in late May 2018, I checked Sea Quest’s new online booking site for availability for the 2018 season (which runs from May 14 to October 2, 2018).  There is literally not one single spot available during June.  In July, August and the first half of September, there are no days with more than 1 spot available (and only a few days with one).  The first day that there are multiple spots available is Monday, September 17, with 4 spots.  There are a few other days from September 24 through season close on October 2 with multiple spots.

As I understand it, there are now 15 approved boat tour operators for Skellig Michael.  They can be found by clicking the “Contact Details Skellig Michael Boatmen 2018” link near the top of the green vertical bar on this web page.  We went with Sea Quest (www.skelligsrock.com), but there were two other boat tour operators that were recommended to me by the locals, and which you may want to try next if Sea Quest is unavailable:

  • Casey’s Skellig Islands Tours (www.skelligislands.com)
  • Waterville Boats (email: watervilleboats@gmail.com)

The Boat Trip to Skellig Michael

The boat trip to Skellig Michael was quite the experience.  Thinking about it always makes me smile, as does telling the stories you’re about to read below:

Introduction

All of the boat tours to Skellig Michael are small, family-run outfits.  Literally, each boat holds 12 people plus the captain.  When we were there, the tours were not very well organized (this may have improved in the two years since our trip).  As a result, there was a surprise around most every corner during our Skellig Michael experience 🙂

How Do I Find My Boat?

Portmagee is a small village, so it’s not too hard to find the marina – just head toward the water.  Parking is interesting; find a place to park on the street, as close to the marina as you can get, and walk down to the marina.  Here’s how our experience worked out:

When we got to the marina, there were several boats, and it wasn’t clear which boat belonged to which tour operator.  There were people milling around.  Pretty much the only useful clue I had was that our boat operator was Seanie Murphy – so I walked around and asked anyone I saw where I could find Seanie.  These conversations were made even more entertaining by the Irishmen’s thick accents that I could hardly understand, plus the fact that the locals are quite amused by lost Americans.  I mostly got either a shoulder shrug or a “he’s over there” pointing gesture.  After a few rounds of “he’s over there,” I found my man and called over to the girls to join me.

What Is the Safety Briefing Like?

Even though another gentleman served as our boat captain for the day, Seanie gave our safety briefing.  Here is his speech, which was absolutely priceless:  “Good morning!  You may notice some people in the other boats wearing lifejackets.  We don’t need no lifejackets.  That’s a terrible idea.  Lifejackets only make you think it’s ok to get into the water.  Don’t get in the water.  Stay on the boat.  The boat is your friend.  People who get into the water get hypothermia and freeze to death.  So don’t do that unless the boat sinks. You understand?  [pause]  Ok, now, if having a lifejacket will make you feel better, they’re under those seats down there somewhere [gesturing to the other end of the boat].  Have a good trip!”

I kid you not … and I’m only barely paraphrasing here!

How Is the Boat Ride?

Looking happy at the start of our Skellig Michael boat tour

I was hoping you would ask that 🙂  The boat ride itself was pretty rough, and it’s fairly long.  It’s probably 10 miles or a little further, including the part of the trip in the bay connecting Portmagee marina to the Atlantic.  It takes about 50 minutes.  It’s also pretty darn chilly, so bundle up.

Pulling away from the Portmagee marina

On our boat, 3 out of the 12 passengers threw up at some point on the trip.  Fortunately, all of our group made it without tossing cookies, although Philly was pretty green.  Importantly, Philly, Maria and Erin all took motion sickness medication before we went.  (I didn’t, as I typically don’t get seasick, and my reaction to the medication is probably going to be worse than whatever motion sickness I might have.)

Girls wondering if they’re going to survive the boat trip – and we haven’t even left the bay yet!

To me, it seemed like a particularly rough day, so when arrived back at Portmagee at the end of our trip, I asked our boat captain how our day ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 for roughness.  I was expecting about an 8, maybe a 9.  After all, our boat was 3-for-12 on passengers throwing up.  To my surprise, our boat captain said, ah, maybe a 5 or 6 – not that bad of a day.  Ok, wow.

Once you get to Skellig Michael, your boat pulls up to a small concrete pad that serves as the boat dock and ties in.  You disembark by stepping onto a ladder and climbing up a couple of rungs to the dock.  This maneuver actually takes a bit of dexterity.  Your boat captain reminds you that there are no snacks, no drinks, and no restrooms on the island, and says, “See you in three hours!”  Then he takes off to make room for the next boat to dock.

What Is It Like on Skellig Michael?

Once you get out to Skellig Michael, it’s spectacular in its beauty and majesty.  But you’re facing a heady task – climbing 600 vertical feet to the monastery area.  The first part of the trek is on a ramp, but most of it travels up the same stone steps that the ancient monks built centuries ago.  It is a long and fairly strenuous hike up to the top, and the old stone steps are quite uneven at places.  And fair warning – for those uncomfortable with unprotected heights (like me), it’s mildly terrifying.  There are no handrails except at one or two challenging spots.

Skellig Michael – the island on a sunnier day than ours [image courtesy Sea Quest]

Our day, I suspect, was like many days at Skellig Michael – shrouded in fog when we arrived in the morning (between 10:00 and 10:30 am), and gradually clearing off the longer we stayed, until it was a nice partly cloudy day by the time we departed a little after 1:00 pm.  I’ll take you through our day in pictures:

Here’s the view from the dock, looking up.  The white stuff isn’t snow; there are a lot of birds:

We started up the initial ramp and stopped for a couple of foggy pictures:

Skellig Michael – ramp to start our uphill hike

Skellig Michael – ramp to start our uphill hike – with Sebastian the sheep poking his head out of our backpack

We soon transitioned from the initial ramp to the ancient stone steps, and shortly thereafter started seeing the puffins that inhabit Skellig Michael during the warmer months.  There were thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of puffins nesting on the cliffs at Skellig Michael.  They were accustomed to nearby human foot traffic, and they didn’t mind posing for pictures.

Skellig Michael – Puffin

Skellig Michael – Puffin

Partways up, we came to the Wailing Woman rock formation.  (For those who have seen The Last Jedi, you may remember that the Wailing Woman doesn’t fare too well in that movie!)

Skellig Michael – the Wailing Woman rock formation

We continued to climb the never-ending stone steps.  In addition to a fog-shrouded picture from our hike, I’m borrowing a photo from the Sea Quest website so you can get a better look at the steps in sunlight.

Skellig Michael – ancient stone steps

Skellig Michael – ancient stone steps on a sunny day [image courtesy Sea Quest]

About two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up, there is a nice, fairly level plateau that was a perfect place for us to stop and eat some snacks.

Skelligs Michael – snacks on our climb, with a dramatic view of the peak!

Just beyond our snacking spot was the section of the climb that I thought was the most difficult for a heights-challenged person like me.  (You can see some people climbing that section, behind and above the girls in the photo above.)  The steps were narrow, it was a little wet, and it is open, steep and unprotected on both sides.  There were also a couple of steps near the top of this section that I found to be particularly dicey.  I made it, but not without an extra-quick heartbeat or two.  (I’ll also note here that, somewhat to my surprise, I found it much easier to go back down the stairs than to go up.)

Continuing up the mountain, there were some narrow paths near the edge of the cliff to navigate.

Skellig Michael – cliffside path near the top

At the top of Skellig Michael, a Park Ranger gave a nice presentation about the history of the island and about the “beehive” huts, places of worship, and other structures that the monks build so long ago.  They are incredibly resilient to have survived all this time, virtually intact.

Skellig Michael – Park Ranger presentation at the monastery

Skellig Michael – “beehive” hut monk living quarters

Skellig Michael – inside a monk’s “beehive” hut

Skellig Michael – looking out from inside a monk’s “beehive” hut

Skellig Michael – another view of the monastery on a sunnier day [image courtesy Sea Quest]

And at the top of Skellig Michael, the girls re-enacted the final scene of The Force Awakens, with Maria in the role of Rey and Erin as the hooded Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker.

 

Skellig Michael – re-enactment of “The Force Awakens”

NOT an actual scene from “The Force Awakens”

After that, it was time to make our way back down to the dock to meet our boat.  Our boat captain took us all the way around Skellig Michael (aka “Great Skellig”) and also past the smaller Skellig island, creatively named “Little Skellig.”  We got another great view of Skellig Michael as we pulled away, we were able to see the lighthouse on the western edge of the island, and we even got to see some seals on the rocks nearby.  This made for a great finish to our time at Skellig Michael.  And fortunately, the return boat ride in the afternoon was a little smoother than our outbound ride that morning.

Skellig Michael – view as we pulled back away from the dock

Skellig Michael – happy travelers at the beginning of our return boat trip

Skellig Michael – lighthouse

Skellig Michael – we got a good view of several seals resting and playing on the rocks!

Skellig Michael – natural arch, and a lot of birds!

After Our Boat Tour

We arrived back at Portmagee a little after 2:00 pm.  We grabbed some lunch at the Fisherman’s Bar & Restaurant across the street from the marina – fish & chips for me, of course! – and we headed back onto the road to complete our loop around the Ring of Kerry.

Pro Tips

Visiting Skellig Michael was truly one of the most memorable experiences in all of our travels, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.  That said, there are a lot of Pro Tips for visiting Skellig Michael that will make your visit less stressful and more enjoyable:

(1) As I mentioned earlier, read “The Definitive Guide before you book your Skellig Michael trip and read it again before you go.  This resource wasn’t available when we visited, and it would have been very, very useful.

 

(2) Book your boat tour as far in advance as possible.  They truly fill up, and the total capacity each day (as of 2018) is 15 boats of 12 people each – that is, only 180 people a day total will get to visit Skellig Michael.

 

(3) All boat tours are subject to cancellation because of the weather.  The locals report that about 25% of the days require cancellation – so cancellation is a real possibility, not just a theoretical possibility.  Be sure to contact your boat tour operator on the morning of your tour to make sure you are a “go” for the day (or learn sadly that your tour if “off”).  Our experience was that Sea Quest was proactive in reminding us to check in with them, which I appreciated.

 

(4) If you are staying anywhere besides Portmagee, such as in Killarney or Dingle, leave plenty of time for your drive.  We were staying in Killarney, and we blocked 2 hours for our drive (compared to the roughly 1 hour, 19 minute drive projected by Google Maps).  It took us approximately 1 hour, 40 minutes to get to the Portmagee marina and park our car.  If you are late, the boat tour operator will probably fill your seat with someone else, and the boat will definitely leave without you.

 

(5) There are no snacks or drinks available on Skellig Michael.  Take snacks and water with you.

 

(6) There are no restrooms on Skellig Michael.  Go before you get on the boat, and be prepared to “hold it” after that.  I believe our girls found a nice person at a cafe who let them use the facilities there.  But it looks like there is a “Rest Stop” at the far east end of the marina (to the right if you’re facing the water) that might be a more reliable choice.

 

(7) If you are susceptible at all to motion sickness, take anti-nausea/motion sickness medicine before you get on the boat.  Let me reiterate, 3 out of 12 people on our boat got sick.

 

(8) Be prepared to pay cash for your boat tour, and get the Euros before you get to Portmagee.  Most of the boat tour operators are cash-only.  Unless you have specifically arranged with your boat operator to pay with a credit card or another form of payment, you will need to pay in cash.  The Definitive Guide says there are no ATMs in Portmagee, and we certainly didn’t find one.  We did not know this ahead of time, and we barely had enough cash among us to pay for our tour.  The Definitive Guide says that the nearest ATM is in Cahersiveen, which is a 20-minute drive from Portmagee.

Additional Article

For an interesting description of a day on Skellig Michael by another visitor, see this article.

 

 

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