Ireland: Skellig Michael
No contest. Skellig Michael was my favorite part of the trip. I was looking forward to this more than anything else even before I left home. We essentially planned our entire Ireland portion of the trip and even part of Scotland around this single event. Of all my international trips, this ranks way up there with Gorilla trekking in Rwanda and scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.
Skellig Michael is a tiny island just a few miles off the coast of Ireland in the Atlantic Ocean. In the 700s, monks decided to live a life of isolation in order to be closer to God. So they moved to the island and built a community there complete with livestock. Skellig Michael is like the top of a mountain sticking up through the ocean. It's not exactly the easiest place to build a home. They quarried rocks from the island to build some pretty remarkable structures considering their tool set. They also built over 600 stone steps up to the top. Even if you could get modern-day equipment to the island, it would still be difficult to build what they built on the incline.
Not surprisingly, there is an element of danger on the island. Firstly, even though it's not exactly mountain climbing, it is not a simple stroll up a hill. In fact, 2 tourists and 1 worker had died within the last few years. There was a thorough investigation into the safety of the island. But even after an exhaustive list of dangers, it was decided that ugly safety railings were not necessary. Being afraid of heights, I researched the bejeezus out of the island. I even read the official safety report. Still a bit scared, I was really determined not to let my fear keep me from going to this gorgeous place that dropped my jaw as soon as I saw it in a travel book. The other few things that concerned us were the bumpy boat ride out there and actually getting off the boat onto the island. There is only 1 dock and only space for 1 small boat at a time to load and unload passengers. After convincing Stephanie that the heights of the island would probably be OK for her, and showing her a video of elderly people walking up the steps, the boat trip was Stephanie's main concern. She was even considering letting me go without her because she knew how much I wanted to go. So in an attempt to keep her on my side of the fence, I decided not to tell her about the thousands of swarming birds that cover the island this time of year (she doesn't like swarming things and she doesn't like birds).
Given Ireland's unpredictable weather, Skellig Michael is not easy to get to. Tourists come to the nearest town and leave disappointed without even an attempt to get to the island because the weather is not permitting. Not only that, just getting to the area is not the most straightforward trip either. The port town where most people leave to go to the island is at the edge of what is known as the Ring of Kerry. It's kind of like an oval-shaped national park with basically just 1 main, narrow road along the edge. It takes over an hour just to drive from one end to the other, and there is no train. So you either grab a tour bus, or get your own car.
So we had a dilemma. Neither of us were terribly excited at the thought of renting a car and driving it around a foreign country on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the single lane, 2-way roads. Our other option was to grab yet another annoying and expensive tour bus. I researched and researched. I was ready to click "purchase" until I read the description more carefully. The tour went to the Skellig Michael EXPERIENCE, but not the real Skellig Michael. I spoke with the tour operator and asked if we could ditch the group for just that one day, go to Skellig Michael, and regroup afterwards. They said it wouldn't be a problem. But it was. I hadn't even arranged the trip to the island with one of the many boat operators, few of which use the internet often. I was also monitoring the weather: rainy days all week long. So we would be risking the boat operators being sold out, or missing Skellig Michael altogether, missing the tour itenerary (which we would've have already paid for), and having to arrange our own transportation to catch up with the group. And this was just one of many many scenarios we considered. In the end, we decided that the freedom from renting a car was what we need to pull it off. I even gave us 2 days to get us to the island to double our chances in case the weather prevented us from going.
Our visit to the Cliffs of Moher the day before was blessed with good weather. But the forecast looked awful. Luckily, the weather continued to be pleasant. Our bed and breakfast host was even optimistic for us. And then the weather hit. Storms of rain and wind the next morning. All our host could do was shrug her shoulders, smile, and say something along the lines of "welcome to Ireland". I was deflated as I ate my delicious breakfast. 10 minutes later, our perky host came in and told the room of guests (all of whom were planning to go to the island as well) that she just confirmed with one of the boat captains that they were still on for the trip that day. And if one of them goes, they all go. I could barely contain my excitement. Stephanie, on the other hand, had a look of butterflies swarming in her stomach.
Joe, our boat operator was your typical 70 year old sailor. You could just sense the experience in this man. This is the kind of guy who you see in disaster movies who randomly goes up to the skeptical protagonist in the bar and just whispers to him that he has a bad feeling that something bad is going to happen just like the storm of '66 where he lost his eye, leg, and his entire crew, and then disappears into the shadows. But JoePa seemed like a really nice guy.
We loaded up about 5 small boats full of about 50 tourists. All the younger lads who captained their boats seemed to listen to JoePa, so we felt safe. We set sail in calm waters. It was gently raining, but nothing too bad. It was when we got out of the harbor and into wild ocean waters that the ride became less stomachable. Our wonderful bed and breakfast host gave us the excellent advice of sitting as close to the front of the boat as possible. We were partially covered overhead and had a nice open look out to the horizon (the best natural way to curb motion sickness). But fighting against the tide proved to be too much for any type of remedy, even my usually trusty motion sickness pill. And you know what didn't help? Seeing JoePa, the boat's driver, pop out of the cabin to talk to us. 45 minutes later, the total weight of our boat was one breakfast lighter than when we left (not me, another passenger).
We arrived at the island and waited our turn for our boat to dock. "Dock" is a loose term. The water level would change by as much as 5 feet depending on the waves. JoePa got as close as possible to the small, cement dock where a narrow staircase provided very welcomed solid ground. Stephanie and I bought panchos for the rain. With a medieval-looking pike in hand, JoePa told us we didn't want to wear the panchos while trying to get on the dock because if we fell into the water, the pike he was holding would help him grab onto us, but if we were wearing the colorful trash bag, it would be considerably more difficult.
We finally made it onto the island. The rain stopped, but there was a thick blanket of fog elevating the mystery and adventure of the island. We started up the monk-made steps, at first hugging the mountain side. The staircase zigged and zagged up to the top.
Not after a few steps, we were surrounded by the wonderful puffins. These are the brave little fat birds that look like penguins who can actually fly, albeit clumsily. Not the most graceful flight you've ever seen, but maybe the cutest. Each of them could be the star of a Pixar movie about a fat little penguin who believes he can fly, and at the end, everybody is flying like there's no tomorrow. They aren't easily scared, but I think it's because they're socially inept. You take a few careful steps towards one, and they'll catch you in the corner of their eye. You can see that they don't know how to react, so they just akwardly go about their business desperately trying not to react incorrectly with you always just within sight. We were very lucky to have this experience for many reasons incuding the fact that we were in the middle of nesting season. We were told there were something like 8,000 puffins on the tiny island. I had a blast.
On our way up, we found this little nest in an unlikely place.
At the top, everybody gathered around to hear an expert talk about the history of the island. I was a bit too busy taking pictures of the puffins and the island itself, so I probably missed half of it. It is quite remarkable up there though. The bee hive huts are impressive considering they were made by hand from resources found on an uninhabited island.
The walk down was supposed to be scarier than the walk up because the steepness is in your view the whole time. I was too happy (and drugged) to be scared. From the top you could barely make out the ocean below through the fog. I soaked up as much of the beauty as I could high fiving my new friends and saying good bye on our way down.
The ride back was much smoother since we were going with the tide, but still a bit nauseating. All the hassle, nausea, stressing, and planning were more than worth it.