Kerry: Following the last Jedi to the Skelligs
One would normally associate running into multiple, seven-foot tall densely haired individuals with a trip to Scandinavia. But Kerry can offer a similar experience as it is now, thanks to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a familiar stomping ground for Wookies.
Although Skellig Michael was the star location of the movie, relatively little of the filming was done on the island itself (as it is a Unesco World Heritage site). Instead, the filming was spread over the Kerry coast which has added a whole new side to Kerry tourism.
Breege and Noel 'Nolsey' Granville were so taken with the whole Star Wars phenomenon that they now not only run tours based on the film and its locations but also organised a festival to coincide with the release of the film in December.
On the Dingle Peninsula there were locations built for the film in Farran and Dunmore Head - but perhaps the biggest was in Ceann Sibeal, near Balliferriter. In order to preserve Skellig Michael, the island's village of beehive huts was recreated there and a road had to be built across fields to run the shoot.
Afterwards Lucasfilm thanked the locals for their hospitality - and the locals were equally impressed: not a thing marked where the film locations had been, in fact souvenir hunters were lucky to scavenge a piece of net or a plank with nails in it.
We stopped for a really great lunch in Louis Mulcahy Pottery and found Star Wars fever exists even there. When we were given a chance at our own bit of pottery-making we were shown how to make "Pogs" - puffin-esque hybrid creatures which feature on the island where Luke Skywalker has taken refuge.
Back on the road to Dingle we did a tour of ancient to modern; first seeing some of the ancient beehive huts that were inspirational for the filmmakers; and then, via headsets, a virtual reality tour of Skellig Michael, Malin, and Mizen.
A totally banging dinner at the Charter House, an award-winning Irish fusion restaurant that hosted many of the Star Wars cast and crew, was followed by a visit to Dick Mack's bar. It would have been rude not to sample a few of their home brew coffee stouts, especially as this was where the film's crew held their wrap party.
Following some R&R in our B&B, Heaton's, home to some mighty fine beds and one of Ireland's best breakfasts, we headed south, Skelligward, towards Portmagee (renamed "Pogmagee" in honour of you know what). Care was taken in order that we not get too weak on our travels; coffee in Sammy's in Inch and lunch in The Fertha Bar in Caherciveen kept our strength up and provided a few more celluloid stories.
With all the talk of movie-making it was great to get an insight into the real inhabitants of the beehive huts, thanks to the Ballinskellig Monks trail in Portmagee. I found it really interesting to learn about the men who lived in the original beehive huts, why they decided to honour their faith on the edge of the world and how they sustained themselves on such an isolated rock. Not surprisingly, with such harsh conditions (and a diet of red meat,fish and seabird eggs), their average life span was only 30 years.
And then from the celestial to a different kind of sublime at the Skellig Chocolate Factory, where owner Colm Heaney gave us a tour of Ireland's only open-plan chocolate factory. And invited us to sample some really great chocolate too.
No single area was big enough for the production (they needed about 800 rooms), so the cast and crew were based largely between the Dingle Peninsula and Portmagee, where we were greeted by Gerard and Pat Kennedy at The Moorings Guest House - where Mark Hamill famously decided he needed to learn to pull a pint.
Gerard's tales of the stars of Star Wars were hugely entertaining. As were the star stories of a different kind, by Steve Lynott of Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve. The Dingle Peninsula and its gold-tiered dark sky offers star-gazing opportunities only otherwise to be witnessed in the Grand Canyon and the heart of Namibia. Unfortunately it also has much cloudier skies, so for those stars too we had to rely on Steve's transporting stories. I had one of the best steaks I have had for a long time in QC's Townhouse & Seafood Restaurant, and then it was back to the Moorings for a truly traditional night of dancing and drinks.
The Skellig Centre on Valentia Island has been explaining the significance of the Unesco Heritage site for 25 years and is actually the main way that most visitors experience the island. Only 14,000 people a year are allowed to visit, and only about 11,000 actually manage to get there - because even though boats only operate in the summer months, weather is still a factor. Our December visit sadly meant there was no chance of a boat out to the rock we had heard so much about.
What we got instead was something I will always remember. Naoise Barry of Aerial Adventures has teamed up with Executive Helicopters for a unique and amazing way of touring something of such jagged beauty as the Skelligs. We took off from Portmagee and flew around the rocks to see if they lived up to expectations.
They look incredible in Star Wars, but are even more spectacular in real life. From there we went up into Clare to see to the Cliffs of Moher and over The Burren. Stellar pilot Chris made it all impeccably smooth, good news for even nervous fliers, and we set down in Galway at Moran's Oyster College where I was so high on the whole experience I broke the seafood-hating habit of a lifetime and tried an oyster. I went back to the habit instantly but everyone else at the table was raving about the oysters.
We flew back down to Kerry, a breathtaking end to a fantastic trip. Whether you're interested in Luke Skywalker or not, Kerry has so much to recommend it, the Star Wars element simply brings that to a broader audience.
Having seen them from afar, I really hope to get to be one of the lucky few who make it on to Skellig Michael one day.
Boats to the Skelligs sail from May-October and limited visitor numbers (180 tourists each day) mean berths are at a premium - so book ahead.
* Trips last from around 9.30am to 3.30pm, and there are no toilets or shelter on the Skelligs, so bring sunscreen, layers, waterproofs and food - preferably in a backpack, so your hands are free on the uneven steps.
* Have a Plan B in case the weather shows its dark side.
* Try a guided aerial tour of Star Wars filming locations with Naoise Barry of Aerial Adventure (aerialadventure.ie).
* Louis ate in the Charthouse Restaurant, Dingle, Co Kerry (thecharthousedingle.com) and at QC's Townhouse & Seafood Restaurant, Main St, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry (qc.ie). Both highly reccommended.
* For accommodation in Dingle, try Heaton's Guesthouse (heatonsdingle.com), while in Portmagee Louis stayed at The Moorings Guesthouse and Restaurant (moorings.ie).
* And for even more great tips and information on the wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way, just go to wildatlanticway.com.
Sunday Indo Living