Dublin - There are more than 600 steps to the top of Skellig Michael. Climbing the precarious way up, all I could think of:
I was here where Luke Skywalker had walked, where the Star Wars crew had lugged up camera and equipment, to film a scene that added to the magic of the franchise.
Why did they do it? How did they do it? And I was here… Okay, I stopped every 50 steps to take a breath, admire the breathtaking scenery and spot the super-cute puffins that call the island home.
A little later, walking down, Star Wars was no longer on my mind, other than thinking I could understand why the rocky outcrop had been chosen as a location.
I was thinking about monks: the ascetic monks, who some time between the 6th and 8th centuries, had looked at this rock in the sea and thought: “Let’s go live there.”
That’s the magic of Skellig Michael.
Visitors are drawn there after seeing its 3-minute cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but are coming away with so much more.
Skellig Michael, found off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula, County Kerry in Ireland, has a rich spiritual history.
We took a boat out – one of the few that sail to the island and which, weather permitting, leave the harbour town of Portmagee a couple of times a day. It requires a delicate balancing act to maximise the Star Wars tourism boost while limiting the ecological effect on the World Heritage Site.
There are many rules and safety guidelines and you are reminded of these often. You have been warned!
On an unexpectedly sunny and windless spring day, we had a perfect 40-minute ride out, including a spin around Skellig Michael’s twin, Little Skellig, which looks like a luxury holiday resort for thousands of gannets.
Then we landed on Skellig Michael and it was pure magic.
On top of the island are the monks’ dwellings. They made a life there for many years as a way of getting closer to God. Their homes and stone crosses bear testament to their spiritual and physical achievements.
Later, families lived there to keep the lighthouses going, until tragedy struck and the island was no longer a home to anyone – except the puffins – but a place of pilgrimage.
You can visit the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre on Valentia Island for more information and, if you have the finances, board a helicopter for an awesome aerial view of the Skelligs.
While on Valentia Island it is worth tasting Valentia Island Farmhouse ice cream – apparently it tastes so good because the Friesian cows eat so good.
Portmagee also has its own Star Wars’ tales to tell – the cast and crew stayed there. Everyone in the tiny, picturesque town is still talking about the night Luke Skywalker aka Mark Hamill pulled a pint of Guinness behind the bar at The Moorings. Luckily for us, the place was our lodging for the night. We had a delicious dinner and were entertained with traditional Irish music and dancing by the owner’s family.
The Moorings’ owner, Gerry Kennedy, said he had not heard of Star Wars before the movie folk descended on the town and his hotel.
The rest of the week was spent driving along the Ring of Kerry – part of the Wild Atlantic Way and a tourist trail similar to the Garden Route. The magic of Ireland is evident throughout the Ring of Kerry, a 179km circular route with castles, ring forts, magnificent lakes, and grass and trees in every shade of green imaginable.
Our guide, the experienced and charming Will Collins, used the time on the bus to fill us in on the fascinating histories of the towns and sights we were passing.
My favourite was Killarney, a town so pretty it hurt to leave. We took a jaunting car (horse and cart) ride through the Killarney National Park. The ride came complete with an Irishman, in a flat cap and with a strong accent, who provided information and witty asides.
The car stops at 15th-century Ross Castle on the edge of Lough Leane and the Downton Abbeyish Muckross House, which offers a tour of its beautifully preserved rooms, including a bedroom where Queen Victoria spent a couple of nights.
Speaking of famous towns, on the Ring of Kerry is Waterville, a favourite holiday spot of Charlie Chaplin. It boasts a statue of the actor and will be staging a Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival next month.
Once we’d had our fill of touring, we soothed our souls with a Guinness or two in the nearest pub and dined on delicious traditional and contemporary food, and spent nights in some first-class hotels, where I dreamt not of Star Wars but of monks and the magic of Kerry.
* Riana Howa was a guest of Tourism Ireland SA.
More to see in County Kerry
l Cromwell Point Lighthouse – one of the 12 Great Lighthouses of Ireland.
l Grotto and Slate Quarry – the slate quarried there has been used in the Paris Opera House and the Houses of Parliament in London.
l Geokaun Mountain – one of the highest points on the Ring of Kerry.
l Dinosaur footprints – the tracks of what is believed to have been a dinosaur.
l Bray Head walking route.
l The Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve – for stargazing.
l Listowel – which hosts an internationally acclaimed literary festival.
If You Go...
South Africans don’t need a visa to travel to the Republic of Ireland.
I flew with KLM to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and then to Dublin on Aer Lingus.
Portmagee is a 4-hour and 40-minute drive from Dublin.