Due in part to the popularity of the new Star Wars trilogy, the Skellig Michael islands have become quite a trendy activity when visiting Ireland. Being a big nature and movie lover, this seemed like a great addition to my road trip around the Ring of Kerry. They say it’s about the journey, not the destination. Well they haven’t eaten before taking the boat ride to Skellig Michael then.
My travel companion for my 10 day road trip around Ireland was my friend Oran, an Irish native. With my highly packed itinerary, we had just one day to fully explore the Ring of Kerry. We decided before the trip that we wanted to prioritize visiting Skellig Michael as that looked like the highlight and a unique experience.
The previous night we had stayed in a great B&B located right in Killarney National Park, a 2 hour drive without stops to the boat’s jumping off spot of Portmagee. Our boat reservations were at 2:30pm, so we got up early to take advantage of the good weather we had that morning. After having a solid Irish breakfast cooked by our hosts, and listening to an older married couple from Kentucky disagree on everything they wanted to do that day, we were ready to get on our way.
Our first stop was Killarney National Park where we took a jaunting car to Torc Waterfall. Sure it was overpriced and possibly not the most ethical thing to do, but it saved us some time and we only had to walk about 5 minutes to check out the beautiful waterfall. After listening to Oran and our driver talk about Gaelic football for the 15 minute ride back to the carpark, I was ready to take off down the coast. We were set to arrive in Portmagee at 2pm, a comfortable and recommended 30 minute cushion before the boat departed.
Then things started to change. At one of our vista point stop offs near a gorgeous lake, Oran walked out onto a slick looking rock that was gradually submerged into the lake. Looking for that perfect shot, he got a little too close to the edge. Proving that the rock not just looked slick, but in fact was slick, Oran lost his balance and fell pretty hard onto the rock. I’m only writing about this because he was ok. But he did manage to get about half of his body submerged into the lake, horrifying a Spanish family of tourists. No scars to write about, the true victim here was his phone, as it stopped working.
Inspired by ideas that seemed to work in my head, I told Oran to take off his clothes and roll them up in the windows so they were hanging outside of the car - a DIY clothes dryer - how inventive! We drove like insane people for about an hour through the Ring of Kerry with his wet clothes flapping in the wind. When we pulled over at our next vista point, we realized the idea wasn’t as good as I had imagined it, but still better than nothing.
I had researched a bit about the quaint town of Kenmare and we deemed it a good spot to stop in for a quick pint. Oran was determined to get his phone working and was off looking for a shop to help him. I took the time to wander for a few minutes and take photos. Not having a way to contact each other was a scary thought - something I hadn’t felt since early high school! I found a really great looking old Irish bookstore that I wanted to explore, but I didn’t want to lose Oran. Luckily we bumped into each other on the street and ended up both buying the same exact Irish Fairy Tale book. Cute, I know. When we stopped into a pub for a pint of Guinness, the bartender told us this was the first day of sun she had seen in the past 2 weeks. The sun seemed to be following us around. And just in that moment, Oran’s phone turned on. It was truly an Irish miracle! As we had overstayed our time in Kenmare, we decided not to push our luck anymore and got back on the road.
While making our final haul towards Portmagee, our ETA had dropped to 2:20pm, just ten minutes before our boat was to depart and 20 minutes after they recommended us to get there. I used my best driving-on-the-left-side-of-the-road skills to navigate the winding roads. As we got close, the big three dreaded road trip enemies began collapsing on us: we were hungry, we were nearly out of gas, and we had to pee. It was becoming a disaster as each bend we navigated resulted in nowhere to stop. The fuel light had been lit for some time and I was not about to get stuck on the Ring of Kerry without gas. Finally we found a spot that met all our needs. A gas station that sold food. We bought sandwiches, bananas, drinks, loaded up on gas, relieved ourselves, and hopped back in the car. Our ETA was now 2:28.
Arriving in the parking lot at precisely 2:30, we hopped out and ran over to the ticket office where the man working pointed across the bay and said “there’s your boat”. We looked over to see a small boat, nearly filled with passengers, on the other side of the bay. Well shit. We had missed our boat. But we were only one minute late. Luckily Irish people are very nice. So this guy called the captain of the boat on some walkie talkie type of device and told him the two late passengers had shown up. How dare he. One minute late passengers. Anyway, the boat turned back around and came to pick us up. Everyone on the boat already hated us. Including the captain who said nothing to us, only handing us giant heavy waterproof jackets. And we were off!
Relieved that we made it on board, our first instinct was to pull out our sandwiches since we were starving. What a better way to enjoy a lunch than riding out to sea on an adventure. We scarfed down our sandwiches, catching looks from our fellow passengers. Too much bread. The beginning of the ride was smooth, leaving out of the bay. But boy did things start getting interesting when we got out into the open water.
About 15 minutes in, we realized this was not just an ordinary boat ride. Some water started splashing up so we joined the rest of the boat and put on our heavy rain jackets. I had my camera out but kept it covered with a waterproof sleeve I had bought on Amazon. Seemingly out of nowhere, the waves became enormous. First in front of us. Then on the sides. But the little boat that could kept moving ahead. Pretty soon we were fully surrounded by these giant waves. There was no announcements from the captain. Not even a PA system present.
As our captain miraculously kept moving the tiny, old boat forward, all we could see on the horizon was a black sea of rolling hills. Oran and I exchanged a few looks. Holy shit. It was gonna be like this for a while. 2.5 hours to be exact. I tried capturing some pictures and videos but was having difficulty not only holding my camera still but keeping myself from rolling around without using my hands to hold on. I’ve honestly never seen any waves half that big in my life, and the fact that we were nonchalantly driving right through them was a bit horrifying.
About ten minutes into these monster waves, there was some commotion on the bench to the right of us. A young male passenger, in his 20s I would guess, was hunched over vomiting into a puke bag. This wasn’t a good sign. I have never gotten seasick in my life, but for the first time I felt that was a real possibility. We continued to ride the waves. Up and down. I told Oran to look at the horizon if he got sick. I think I saw that in a movie somewhere. Maybe Top Gun. Maybe First Man. Who knows. Anyway, the horizon was bobbing up and down. I didn’t know where to look. But still, I tried to take some videos.
Another ten minutes of this and second person behind us fell ill. This time it was an older man I would guess in his 70s. And then his wife. Maybe it was a chain reaction. They both were vomiting. Oof. We were feeling a lot of regret having scarfed down our lunch on board. I had a few moments where I thought I was going to project that turkey sandwich into the ocean, but I pulled myself together, taking deep breaths and trying to distract my mind. The fact that the captain had no regard for anything that was happening was oddly comforting. He had seen it all before and wasn’t worried.
After about 45 minutes we started seeing these misty cones jutting up from the water. Skellig Michael! As we got closer the islands became more visible. Slowly unveiling their beauty. Tons of birds hovered over the islands, giving it a real Jurassic Park vibe. The beautiful green mixed in with the jagged rocks was as good as advertised. The poor chaps who were seasick barely lifted their heads up to enjoy the magic.
There are two tours you can choose: an eco-tour which circles the island and costs significantly less money (although still very expensive at $80 euros!) or the landing-tour which allows you to get off onto the island and walk around for a few hours and visit the epic monastery. Unfortunately the landing tours were sold out at the time we booked. Giving up on our dreams to look for the ghost of Luke Skywalker (spoiler!), we opted for the eco-tour which was still definitely worth the trek. The waves around the islands thankfully were more calm. We circled both islands, getting close enough to get a sense of how wondrous and epic these islands truly are.
Despite filling our stomachs en route, the two of us defied the odds and managed not to get seasick. The ride back was much smoother. The champion of this whole experience was the tiny, hearty old school vessel of sorts and the captain who commandeered it. We cruised back into that harbour and hopped out of the boat. I felt a little disoriented but very happy to be back on land. All in all I would highly recommend taking the tour out to Skellig Michael, and try to get a landing tour if it’s available and you can afford it. Just beware that the seas are extremely rough in that area and if you have motion sickness problems I would probably spend my time at a pub instead.