It feels like I’ve got Valentia Island to myself. Before me, a heaving blue ocean stretches all the way to the US. Behind me, a milky-white lighthouse watches over the rocks. At my feet, on this stretch of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way route, is a track of small holes that look scooped out of the rock by a spoon — these are the footprints of a lizard-like tetrapod, made 385 million years ago.
It feels way off-grid, but I’m just an hour and a half from Kerry airport, where my journey began. Picking up a rental car, I drove from Farranfore out onto the Iveragh Peninsula, whose 111-mile Ring of Kerry drive is the stuff of tourism lore.
In summer, it’s also a victim of its own success — with tour buses, cyclists and cars battling it out along roads that work better on Instagram than real life. But I’m not here in summer. I’m here off-season. I got to Valentia with
a five-minute ferry ride from Renard Point.
I leave it via the bridge to Portmagee, checking into The Moorings, a bar, restaurant and guesthouse that does a mean platter loaded with lobster, crab claws and other treats from the deep. Gerard Kennedy, its owner, joins me for a bite. He’s been on a roller-coaster ride since a production team showed up on his doorstep two years ago. That set off a chain of events that ended with Mark Hamill (aka Luke Skywalker) pulling pints in his bar.
Locals are set dancing, the craic is flying, and I ask Gerard about the weather forecast. Will I get out to the Skelligs in the morning? “We’ll have to wait and see,” he says.
Punching out of the Atlantic some eight miles offshore, the Skelligs are more than a Star Wars location. They’re the ultimate UNESCO World Heritage Site, a pair of jagged islands topped by the remains of a monastic settlement dating back 1,500 years. Pat Joe Murphy, my boat captain, is a bear of a man with belly flopping over his belt. He advises his 12 passengers to pull on oilskins provided for the crossing. The engine roars to life.
Skellig Michael, the larger of the rocks, is raw and rugged. The crossing takes the best part of an hour, slamming over pukey Atlantic swells. The island, meanwhile, has no toilets or facilities. (‘Take care as fatalities have occurred’, a sign warns.)
You need to be fit, bring a backpack and come prepared for four seasons. But when you do, you’ll remember it forever. This is Ireland’s Machu Picchu.
Climbing over 600 steps, the tang of salt sits on my lips. I stop to admire pink lollipops of sea thrift and huddles of unfazed puffins. Finally, I round a corner to see the reveal — a cluster of corbelled stone huts, crosses and ruins overlooking some of the wildest scenery in Western Europe.
For some this is a pilgrimage to pose for selfies with Jedi cloaks and lightsabers. But Skellig Michael beats anything you’ll see on screen. “It feels like New York,” says a woman beside me. “No matter what anyone tells you in advance, it’s still not disappointing.”
Leaving Portmagee, I set off on the small but perfectly formed Skellig Ring (skelligkerry.com), an off-radar drive connecting Valentia with Waterville via the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region around Ballinskelligs.
Forget tour buses schlepping through Killarney National Park. The highlights here range from Skellig views to a shrine for the Virgin Mary bedecked with rosary beads near Coomanaspic Pass.
Early Christian monks haven’t been the only ones inspired by the landscape. On my drive, I stop into Cill Rialaig Arts Centre, which sells works created by artists on retreat in a cluster of old stone houses nearby.
“Some people get freaked out by the isolation,” visual artist Aoife Scott tells me. “We’re literally working on the edge of a cliff.”
My final stop is near Caherdaniel. Here I join John and Kerryann Fitzgerald, the husband-and-wife team behind Atlantic Irish Seaweed (atlanticirishseaweed.com), for a shoreline-foraging adventure.
We kick off with a cornucopia of tasting plates (think kelp spiced beef, or chai with bladderwrack and masala spices), before heading out to scour the shoreline for slimy goodies. Seaweeds were eaten by monks on the Skelligs, John tells me. “There’s so much good stuff in them, they make kale and blueberries look like kebabs and chips.”
As I’m leaving, he pops a few gifts into my boot — a jar of dried pepper dulse (a strong smelling ‘truffle of the sea’), a bath pack of dried wrack, and a bottle of elderflower champagne with sugar kelp. Perfect.
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)