When we first arrived in Ireland we were both excited to visit Skellig Michael, the island in the extreme southwest of Ireland used in the new Star Wars trilogy where Luke Skywalker was hiding. But movie location aside, it’s a spectacular place to behold with an ancient monastery built 600 feet up sheer rock with only a steep stone staircase to get there. Landing on the island is tricky and only possible in summer and even then only 180 people are allowed to land per day on small boats. The tours are usually booked a year out but since we were so early in the country after covid we managed to find an open seat about three weeks ahead. We actually planned the rest of our trip around being there on that day at the very end of the trip. The launch for that tour is in the small coastal town of Portmagee, and honestly we probably would not have visited this remote town otherwise, but we would have missed out on an amazingly beautiful place.
Our tour to Skellig Michael was sadly cancelled due to rough seas, something that turns out to be quite common, as it happened both the day before and after ours had been scheduled, and several of the people we met were returning on subsequent tries after their tours had been canceled in the past.
However, Portmagee by itself has loads of charm. The remote town was exactly what we both were looking for. And the local Kerry Cliffs were amazing to see on their own. We weren’t even that disappointed because we had such a good time doing other stuff.
You could even see Skellig Michael from the cliffs. So close, yet so far away. Maybe another time.
Walking around town.
You can walk across Portmagee in about 5 minutes. It’s tiny. Consisting of a road along the ocean and a row of houses and shops facing the water, a smaller loop road behind, and a couple of roads leading out of town with multi-units and houses slowly transitioning into farmland. There’s a dock for fishing boats and another for the Skellig Michael tour boats, a small grocery, a cafe for breakfast and lunch and two bar/restaurant spots. Also a small food truck that is occasionally open. Almost all of the tourists are here for the Skellig Michael tours with a few stopping for the Cliffs of Kerry. It’s a beautiful little town.
I saw these kinds of rooms all over Ireland. They’re little conservatories where you can hang out in the sun when the weather is bad. Seattle really needs to adopt these things.
Crossing the Valentia Bridge.
You can also walk across the Valentia Bridge that connects the mainland to Valentia island for views of town or the visitor’s center just on the other side, a grass covered structure with a paid exhibition about the area (we chose to skip it), a cafe, and a gift shop. The winds were high when we were there and the gusts could almost knock us off the sidewalk.
Hiking the Skellig Ring to the Cliffs of Kerry.
Aside from Skellig Michael, the large draw here are the amazing Cliffs of Kerry, sheer 1000ft cliffs facing into the Atlantic ocean. We walked from town which is about 1.5 miles each way, about a 30 minutes walk. You can either walk along the coast and through some farmland which is a bit longer, or cut through the boglands in the middle, a bit shorter. We took both routes in a loop starting down the coastal route. The traffic is routed along the coastal route and there is often not much of a shoulder but you get some good views in the beginning and we met a couple of hilarious donkeys. It was primarily flat with a very gradual elevation gain as you move towards the cliffs.
The Cliffs of Kerry
The Kerry Cliffs are really spectacular. 1000ft sheer cliffs with vertical rock layers jutting up out of deep blue and green water. From here you can clearly see both the Skellig Islands in the distance, the further Skellig Michael (or Skellig Major) about 7 miles away, and Little Skellig.
Just off the main road you walk through a parking lot with bathrooms, a small foodstand and outdoor tables, and an entry booth. There’s a small fee to enter the area and it takes about ten minutes to walk up to the edge of the cliffs. A trail runs along the edge, right along a section jutting out, and left up a much steeper hill that goes out along a thin ridge over the ocean. The cliffs continue with this massive cliff along a domed formation rising as green cattle pasture, then dropping dramatically to the sea. There’s a small trench and dirt wall at the edge to keep the cattle in but not much else. It’s difficult to communicate in images the scale of these cliffs. Just massive. If you look closely you can see the tiny dots of other tourists along the cliff edges in the distance.
From the higher vantage point you can look back and see across the coast for miles. Valentia Island, the bridge, Portmagee, and probably all the way to Cahersiveen.
Hiking the boglands back to town.
On the way back we took the alternative route through the boglands and fields. This road had less cars and was almost entirely straight for most of the way so you had great visibility. In August there were a large variety of bright wild flowers blooming. No donkeys unfortunately. Near the end the road becomes a bit more curvy with less visibility as you walk past houses before reconnecting to the other route shortly before town.
These cute column toppers.
Something I noticed was that many of the houses had low walls with short pillars on each side of the entry path. At some point in the past it must have been popular to mount whimsical statues on top of these pillar, but I’m guessing not recently since they were all fairly weathered. I saw enough of them to presume it was a solid trend in Portmagee at some point. I thought they were cute.
Some food in Portmagee.
Considering the size of town I was pleasantly surprised by how well we ate. I had my first full Irish breakfast at our B&B which was fantastic. I had a great plate of fried shrimp at the Smuggler’s Cafe, the local breakfast and lunch cafe. And the O’Connells Food Store had a fantastic soft serve cone that I had to eat in front of Katy with a mix of puppy-dog longing and green jealous rage in her eyes.
Not many places to eat for dinner in Portmagee, two in fact, and not surprisingly both have a heavy focus on seafood. On the upside the seafood is outrageously delicious and I wouldn’t want to order anything else. I suppose there’s a bit of a rivalry and our cabbie came down solidly for the Fisherman’s Bar (Skellig Restaurant). We met a fellow traveler in Killarney who shared that cab with us on the way who we found palling around with the local fishermen in the bar there near dinner our first night. He invited us to sit with them but the surly female bartender was adamant that we didn’t. After a few attempts her final word was, “I strongly prefer that you didn’t. Only the locals inside.” So a bit awkwardly we had our drinks outside. But one of the fishermen turned our friend on to the fisherman’s platter and he suggested we split one. Which was a great stroke of luck. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough for three so I threw in an extra fish and chips (which were some of the best I had had in Ireland). The platter however included that and a medley of delicious things from the sea, squid and crab and a couple of types of shrimp, and some amazing smoked salmon. Before the food arrived it started raining so we just synched up our raincoats and took it like a native. (Well I guess technically the natives were all dry inside.)
The second was The Moorings. Unlike The Fisherman’s Bar, this place took reservations and it was quite popular. We couldn’t get a seat our first night so we made reservations for the next. They had a seafood platter special which came much like the previous one with that same amazing smoked salmon but with the addition of a crab claw. But overall I still have to give it to the Fisherman’s Bar for the better platter.
There’s also a food truck that opened up here and there but we didn’t eat there.