The last few vacations I’ve taken have taught me a little something about travel experiences: They aren’t all created equal. I’m grateful for every single moment of every single trip I’ve ever taken, of course, and I’ve done some pretty swoon-worthy things over the years: a helicopter ride in Hawaii, tea at Kensington Palace, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
But the secret is this: There’s an upper echelon of travel experiences that goes beyond “I did a really cool thing in a really cool place once.” These are the travel experiences that I would never casually toss into a list like the one above. These are the travel experiences that are so exclusive, so unreal, so moving that they deserve the story treatment.
I can count on one hand the life-altering travel experiences that I’ve had so far: The first was exploring haunted Dresden on my own and getting a big hug from a German woman at the end. The second was camping in the Serengeti in Tanzania and almost sharing a tent with a Cape buffalo (another story for another time). The third was visiting Skellig Michael in Ireland.
Skellig Michael is a tiny island seven miles off the coast of the Ring of Kerry. About 1,500 years ago, monks built an enclave at the top of the island—and a precarious set of stairs leading up to it—and they lived there for hundreds of years. Today, the island’s only inhabitants are a rotating team of researchers (three are on the island at one time) and an enormous colony of seabirds. It’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site—so much so that only 180 people are allowed to visit each day in order to limit human impact.
To say Skellig is rugged would be an understatement. There’s no certainly no gift shop, and no bathroom either, not even a guardrail on the homemade stairs. You keep to the left on your way up and you go slowly, or you risk plummeting into the angry white waves of the North Atlantic.
Sean and I made a reservation to visit three months before our trip to Ireland. (And even then it was tough to find a boat with space available, since only 13 are licensed to go.) But that didn’t mean our visit was guaranteed—the one “dock” on the island is a small set of stone steps that the sea can easily swallow up, so conditions have to be just right for boats to go out. What’s more, because the island isn’t designed for visitors, too much wind or too much rain means you’re staying on the mainland where it’s safe. What I’m saying is, visiting Skellig was the thing we were most looking forward to, and also the thing we were quite sure would not happen.
When we arrived at our B&B the Wednesday before our scheduled visit, the owner told us that the boats hadn’t been able to go out the past two days. When we called our captain to confirm our trip, he didn’t say one way or the other if we’d get to go—he just insisted that we be on his boat by 9:00 the next morning, and not a minute later.
We woke up on Thursday to pouring rain and a sinking feeling about our chances. But as soon as we stepped aboard, the captain thrust life jackets and water resistant gear into our arms, warned the 12 of us onboard that a few people had died on the island “recently,” and then headed out to sea before anyone (or Mother Nature) could change their minds.
The ride out was a nightmarish roller coaster: For two hours, waves pitched us, rocked us, and crashed all over us. And if that weren’t torture enough, the sky would occasionally open up for good, soaking measure. We spent the majority of the journey convinced we’d made a huge mistake.
Finally, we docked (by which I mean we each took turns standing on the side of the boat, waiting for it to heave up so we could be yanked and shoved onto dry land). And then—after a lengthy briefing about how dangerous the climb would be if we didn’t concentrate and take our time—we began our silent ascent.
Even though the rain had stopped, the stairs were still wet and slick, and the promise of my imminent demise echoed with every footfall. But soon, the echos were drowned out by eerie serenity of crashing waves and the clownish honks of the Atlantic puffins that gawked at us as we tiptoed past.
As we climbed, I was nervous to take my eyes off the road (so to speak), but it was impossible to focus on my footwork when I was surrounded by what seemed like an entirely other world.
Eventually, the treacherous stairs opened up to Christ’s Saddle—a wide and welcoming green space (where a certain Jedi may have been hiding). And just beyond that, up one more flight of stairs, was the monastery and a cramped collection of beehive huts that the monks once shared.
While it’s a tiny area (tucked into a corner of the summit that’s more or less protected from the vicious wind and rain that Skellig Michael is prone to), the monks’ enclave made an enormous impact. I’d never felt more isolated or more vulnerable than I did on that island—and the thought of living there, without access to a motorboat for a quick getaway, made me panic.
But I’d also never seen anyplace so unspoiled. The stairs that I’d come up on, the sheer cliff faces that had awed and terrified me on my hike, the huts that I was standing inside—everything on the island was more or less in its original state. Nothing had been cordoned off by modern metal railings or marred by tourists’ ugly graffiti. It was raw and it was pure and it was perfect.
Before we left, one of the researchers mentioned that he was supposed to be going back to the mainland the next day (a Friday), but that sea conditions would likely be too rough. He was eager to leave, and hopeful that a boat would finally be able to pick him up on Sunday. That means that in a five-day window, the only one suitable for visiting Skellig Michael was the one Sean and I happened to book.
In total, the excursion took around five hours (more than half of which were spent on the boat), but it colored the rest of our trip. From then on, whenever anyone would mention Skellig, I’d proudly boast that we’d been there (to the surprise of many of our Irish hosts). And when we were on the coast, I’d strain my eyes for a glimpse of the island. I behaved like someone newly in love—because I was.