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Skellig Michael: Ireland’s Sharp Rock in the Sea That You Can Hike

Skellig Michael in Ireland. A portion of the path. Photo taken from above. Jagged rocks and cliffs.

I’m not a thrill-seeker. Calm ocean waves on a clear day do nothing to placate the swells of anxiety in my chest when it’s time to embark on a seafaring adventure. Precarious-looking terrain sends me spider-walking down mountainsides on my hands and feet. Remember spider-walking in gym class? So how did I end up riding a 38-foot boat eight miles into the Atlantic on a day the skipper called “shitty” to hike up the side of a mountain that a guide is required by law to inform us people have died hiking? 

I showed my husband a Skellig Michael video before knowing what a visit to the island involved. That’s how. Not only did the hike look cool to him, but the fact that scenes from Star Wars were filmed there gave him a video idea. Chris looks so much like Mark Hamill that strangers comment on his Luke Skywalker resemblance. His idea? Do a remake of a famous scene from The Force Awakens. You can see it here:

Committing to Our Skellig Michael Trip

Before Chris booked our trip, I tried talking him out of the scary, treacherous trip. Skellig Michael is listed among the world’s most dangerous tourist attractions and as a travel destination that might actually kill you. Chris, however, felt confident that we’d be safe. Besides, he faced his social anxiety-based fear for me by taking a flamenco dancing class. I protested that dancing in front of a few strangers was not in the same realm as riding a small boat out to sea to take on a dangerous hike, but to no avail. Chris reserved our spots on the Skellig Landing Tour with Skellig Coast Adventures. I reserved our room for the night before at The Royal Valentia Hotel.

What is Skellig Michael?

Skellig is old Irish for sharp rock in the sea. Michael is the patron saint of high places. Skellig Michael rises 715 feet (218 meters) above sea level. Back in the sixth century, monks looking for an isolated place settled on the island. You can still see the monastery and beehive huts they built and used between the 6th and 12th centuries. Beehive huts (or clocháin) are circular dry stone huts with domed roofs found mostly in Southwest Ireland.

Fifteen boats travel the eight miles (13 km) from Portmagee Marina on the Iveragh peninsula to Skellig Michael each weather-permitting day between April and the beginning of October. A maximum of 180 people are allowed on Skellig Michael per day. Once you’re on Skellig Michael, the sharp rock in the sea, you can hike up its 618 7th-century stairs, worn down by the steps of 14 centuries’ worth of pilgrims, monks, invaders, and visitors, to reach its top. 

Portmagee Harbour. Where boats line up to take passengers out to Skellig Michael.

Our Trip Out to Skellig Michael

The day before our trip, we received an email saying that the weather might close Skellig Michael and force Skellig Coast Adventures to cancel our excursion. I didn’t want Chris to be disappointed, but I liked the idea of staying safe onshore. A morning email dashed my hopes.

“OPW have opened Skelligs for the day. Please arrive at Portmagee Marina at 7:45am for an 8:00am departure. Please be aware that the passage may be a little rough and we advise that you bring light rain gear for your time on the island.”

We put our mix of water-resistant and waterproof gear on and left our deluxe four-poster room for our rugged adventure.

Rain fell as we waited on Portmagee Pier. When I saw our boat, Skellig Walker, a 38-foot Cygnus Typhoon, my nerves calmed a bit. It looked like the biggest boat heading out and the only one to shelter its passengers from the elements. I beelined for a seat right behind the skipper, David.  

Alan, the deckhand, gave us a safety demo as David navigated us from our spot on the pier. Once Alan’s demo was done, David said, “If you start to feel sick, let us know straight away. Not that we can do anything for you. But we can get you a bucket.”

“It’s going to be shitty going out, just to be honest with you,” he added. I appreciated his candor.

Looking out from behind the Skipper of Skellig Walker as we head to Skellig Michael. Windshield, steering, waves, and the Skelligs in the distance.

Feeling Fear + Going on the Adventure Anyway

Ten years ago, buckets of tears might’ve filled my eyes and I might’ve hyperventilated as we headed out from the safety of Portmagee’s Harbour. Thanks to therapy, helpful books, and my calming husband, I’ve come up with a way of coping with these situations. I do an inner dialogue that stops my catastrophizing thoughts. The one I did on the boat went something like this:

Q: Could I do anything different at this moment now that I’m in the boat and on my way out to sea?
A: I could ask David to turn the boat around or to drop me off at the nearest patch of land.

Q: Is that reasonable?
A: No. There are six other passengers who paid to ride this boat out to Skellig Michael and enjoy their time. 

Q: Will worry solve my situation?
A: No. 

Q: How might crying or becoming hysterical help?
A: It won’t. It’ll just annoy others or if any of them are like me, increase their worry. 

Once resolved not to become hysterical, I focused on my breath as necessary. Chris and I held hands when not busy filming. I paid attention to the other details David shared. He’s been skippering this route for twenty years. “It’ll be rough going out because we’ll be going into the weather. It’ll be great coming back.” 

About halfway to Skellig Michael, David turned back to me. “You okay?”

I must’ve looked pale. 

“I have good sea legs but bad nerves.”

“There’s nothing to fear. If you see me putting my life jacket on, that’s the time to worry.”

We laughed. 

Another one of my coping choices: be near the person who understands what’s going on best. 

I know people have been navigating boats through choppy seas for centuries, but how they manage mystifies me. 

Skellig Michael Landing

Alan instructed us to secure our phones and have any items we carried securely fastened over our shoulders so our hands could be free while leaving the boat and going up the steps of Skellig Michael. Then, at the landing, he helped each of us off the boat while another man helped us onto the pier. 

To my delight, on the path from the landing to the steps where the hike begins, we spotted our first puffins of the day. The rain and wind picked up, but it didn’t matter. As soon as I saw those adorable puffins, the day was won.

Three puffins perched on Skellig Michael.

Hiking Up Skellig Michael

Robert Harris, the warden of Skellig Michael stood at the start of the historic 618 steps. He told us that on better weather days he shares more about the history and other details of interest about Skellig Michael, but conditions being what they were, he would stay focused on our safety. Before we took one step up the stairs, he needed to make sure that we all knew what we were in for. He assured us that he didn’t want to be morbid but that he was required by law to let us know that people have died and others have been seriously injured hiking Skellig Michael. He said it was a perfectly safe hike so long as we made good, safe choices. “Get good purchase. Go slow. Pick up your feet.”

On our way up, Chris and I followed Robert’s advice. From what we could see, so did everybody else. Wind whipped. Rain pounded. I walked in front of Chris. We stayed more silent than not and focused on our steps as best we could.

A few people came down as we walked up. My right foot, my cliffside foot, slid out on the slick path a bit and I nearly fell. 

“I’ll stay still,” I said to the oncoming foot traffic. 

They took great care as they walked between me and the mountain. 

At a leveled out section between sets of stairs, the wind picked up so fierce it gave Chris and I pause. As we discussed whether or not to continue on, a woman coming down the stairs in a pink raincoat said, ”You’re almost there. I almost stopped here, but you’re so close.” 

We thanked her and kept climbing.

A portion of the monastery ruins on Skellig Michael on a foggy day.

The Monastery on Skellig Michael

We reached the monastery as the guide neared the end of his talk. From him we learned that rather than haul rock up to build their dwellings and chapel, the monks cut rock from the top of the mountain to use. They also installed a “gravity toilet that worked perfectly fine. Unfortunately it’s only for holy people.” While he had the group’s attention, he suggested it might be wise to sit and go down the stairs rather than walk down given the weather conditions. We’d be wetter but safer.

Hiking Down Skellig Michael

I am not too prideful to scoot down a mountainside on my bum. Despite the slippery conditions, I managed to make it all the way down with a slow side step. Right foot down, left to meet it. Right foot down, left to meet it. Once my right glute had enough, I switched sides. I made it down all 618 steps this way without incident. 

It was Chris’s turn to lose his footing. He slid a bit and caught himself. I didn’t know he had until I heard a man behind him ask if he was okay. By the time I turned back, he was on his feet. 

Leaving Skellig Michael

One boat on the pier of Skellig Michael. Skellig Walker coming in to pick us up from the pier.
Skellig Walker is the boat in the distance on its way to the landing.

Our group gathered at the pier. David steered Skellig Walker from where he waited off the pier into position for us to board. One by one, we made our way back on, each of us more soaked than not but in good spirits anyway. 

We rode along the storm on our return to Portmagee Harbour. On our way, we saw Little Skellig. More than 35,000 gannets make their home on the island. We could see what looked like thousands of them perched on the island and what appeared to be hundreds flying above it. 

Gannets perched on and flying above Little Skellig, the small island near Skellig Michael.

Back at Portmagee

Cold to our bones by the end of our adventure, we gained a new level of appreciation for the profound difference between water-resistant and waterproof gear. My upper half was dry, thanks to the Patagonia rain jacket I wore beneath my now-soaked Cotopaxi coat. I was drenched from my toes to my hips. Our backpacks were soaked through, and everything in them, including the sweatshirt Chris had planned to put on if he got too cold. Our condition made the walk from the boat to Skellig Seafront Cafe long. 

Once in the cafe, I ordered a hazelnut latte with oat milk. During the short wait for my drink, my shivers were so out of control that the barista gave me the kindest smile as she handed me my takeaway cup. 

Back at our rental vehicle, we flipped on our heated seats. I felt grateful—for my warm coffee, the warm vehicle, its heated seats, the adventure, my husband, his insistence that we take the journey, and the folks who made the adventure possible and safe. Three hours later, my gratitude bucket filled again as Chris pulled us into the lot of The Trident Hotel in Kinsale.

Exterior of the Skellig Seafront Cafe in Portmagee, near where the boats take off for Skellig Michael.

Would We Go To Skellig Michael Again?

Despite the weather and my trepidation, the entire journey was awe-inspiring. I smiled for days after.  Yes, we would go on the Landing Tour with Skellig Coast Adventures aboard Skellig Walker again. The puffins, ancient beehive huts, and rugged beauty of the island made the wind and rain worth it. Thanks to the crew and boat I felt as safe as I possibly could on our journey. On the island, Robert’s reality check and reassurance gave me the confidence to do the hike and not feel rushed. 

Melissa after the Skellig Michael adventure is done.
Here I am in our rental after our adventure.

A Few Things to Know For Your Visit To Skellig Michael

  • It’s not always treacherous. We went on the on what was, at that point, the worst open day of the season – July 26th, 2023. 
  • Plan to spend at least five hours on this adventure. 
  • Have waterproof gear to wear, just in case. If it’s a day like the one we went out on, water-resistant isn’t going to do the job.
  • All passengers for the Skellig Landing Trip must be at least ten years old.
  • Stay near Portmagee Harbour. This adventure is weather-dependent. Boat departure times are not confirmed until the night before. Even then, last-minute changes are possible because of unpredictable weather conditions. We stayed at The Royal Valentia and loved it. 
  • Embrace whatever Mother Nature throws at you. It might be tough in the moment, but if it makes a great story later, it’s worth it.

What Did Our Skellig Michael Trip Really Look Like?

Planning your first trip to Ireland? Check out our posts 17 Must-Do Activities That Deserve a Spot on Your Ireland Itinerary and  7 Tips to Plan Your Best Ever Trip to Ireland

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