A voyage to the Skellig Islands, a pair of splintered rock pinnacles that have served for centuries as a haven from the rough Irish seas for humans and birds alike, is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring trips you can make in Ireland—jutting abruptly from the sea like shark teeth, the islands beckon visitors from nearly 8 miles off the Iveragh Peninsula.
The Skelligs are two massive slate and sandstone rocks, but they are more than just masses of natural rubble—both islands are important nature reserves, serving as bird sanctuaries that are home to populations of a number of seabirds, including Gannet, Atlantic Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Razorbill, and Storm Petrels.
Little Skellig, the smaller of the two, does not allow visitors but your boat driver will get you close enough to view the spectacle of over fifty thousand Gannets soaring above the guano capped peaks of the rock—the largest such community in Europe.
Great Skellig, or Skellig Michael, is also an important nature reserve but it is most renowned for the 6th century monastic ruins found at its 700 foot high summit—the impressive ruins of the Celtic monastery garnered the island UNESCO World Heritage Site honors in 1996.
Once you land on Skellig Michael, a feat sure to get your heart racing—imagine leaping off a boat as it rises and dips with the action of the waves onto a set of stone stairs clinging to the side of a concrete pier—begin exploring the island by following the paved path approximately a half-mile to the base of the 1,000 year old steps. Take a deep breath, gather your camera, and set off on the steep uphill climb—the vertigo-inducing stone steps numbering in the 600’s take the hiker past sheer cliffs, unique vegetation, and nesting birds in season (thousands of puffins nest from early spring to August)—a word of caution, this hike is not to be taken lightly, just one day after our visit, a middle-aged American woman fell to her death in the very same spot as an elderly American gentleman earlier in the year. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of those intrepid travelers.
The southern approach to the monastery boasts over 500 steps to the summit, culiminating in a steep climb up Christ's Saddle—a clutch of soil between two main peaks. Upon reaching the 715-ft summit of Skellig Michael, you will be rewarded with an intimate look at the sixth-century beehive huts and tiny oratory chapels of the monks—the compact, incredibly well-preserved monastery reflects the ingenuity and devotion of its early Christian inhabitants. You are free to walk into and around the beehive huts, which served as the monks’ homes for nearly 1300 years, and the chapel and refectory—daytrippers generally have two hours to explore the island, so mind the time. One could easily spend hours admiring the ruins, high crosses, and spectacular coastal views from the summit, but alas, the boatman calls and we must return to the quay—simply return via the same path and prepare for the thrilling return across the Atlantic.