Thursday 19 April 2018

Valentia: Treasure island

Willie Dillon left the coachloads of tourists behind on the Ring of Kerry and ventured to Valentia where he stumbled upon great walks, friendly wildlife and a head for heights

Valentia island
Valentia island

Willie Dillon

They say it's Kerry's best-kept secret. Valentia Island is tucked away just off the country's most popular tourist route, its famous ring.

They say it's Kerry's best-kept secret. Valentia Island is tucked away just off the country's most popular tourist route, its famous ring.

Yet it escapes the conveyor-belt trundle of the big tour coaches ferrying package tourists to the next souvenir outlet and loo stop.

This gem of an island -- measuring a little over six miles long by nearly two miles wide -- is for those who prefer to fill their lungs with pure Kerry air and jaw-dropping views of mountains, sea and sky.

Its setting on the edge of the broad Atlantic would suggest a rugged climate with lots of wind and rain. Not so, say locals, who claim the island has its very own microclimate which means the rain clouds don't begin offloading until they are further inland. You'll often hear disparaging references to "the Dublin weather forecast" whose writ apparently doesn't run in Valentia.

The best thing about this island of 600 inhabitants is that it is totally accessible. From April to September, a small car-ferry runs a continuous shuttle service across the narrow water from Reenard Point, just south of Cahersiveen, to busy Knightstown, the biggest village on Valentia. Alternatively, there's a more roundabout route over the bridge at Portmagee on the opposite end of the island. Once there, you're on to a maze of winding roads and rugged landscape with riotously coloured hedgerows aflame with golden Crocosmia and deep-red fuchsia.

The island is a haven for those who like moderate levels of exercise, and there's no better place to get started than Geokaun, the island's highest mountain at 600 feet.

We were surprised to find a booth at the start of the climb, where we paid an €8 admission charge for four people on foot. We pointed out that the tariff for a car and passengers was a fiver. The climb is reasonably vigorous, but you can take it one bit at a time. There are four separate viewing areas at different heights -- all with spectacular panoramas of sea, cliffs and mountains.

At the top, the 360-degree view is straight out of John Hinde's top drawer, all lustrous blues and greens with a skyline which includes four of Ireland's six highest mountains. To your left are the Blaskets, while the Skelligs sit like two vast cathedrals of solid rock on the horizon behind you. I should point out that you can also drive all the way to the summit, but where's the sense of achievement in that?

Back at ground level, we were pleasantly surprised when the young lady at the booth refunded us the €3 admission price discrepancy.

Some eight miles away to the south, the sharp-edged Skellig Islands can be seen from many parts of Valentia. The bigger of the two, Skellig Michael, rises an abrupt 700 feet out of the Atlantic and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, owing to the presence there of one of Europe's least accessible monastic ruins. From the sixth to the 13th century, Christian monks lived and worshipped here from their distinctive beehive stone huts.

Boats travel from Valentia every day in high season, weather permitting, at a cost of €45 per person and advance booking is essential. The fare is worth every cent. The one-hour boat ride first takes you around Little Skellig, which has the second-biggest gannet colony in the world. An estimated 30,000 nesting pairs make this massive lump of uninhabited rock their home during the summer months.

Gannets, unlike many humans, mate for life and their presence in such vast numbers literally turns parts of the rock face white. The resident seals recline lazily on the lower rocks eyeing the boatloads of humans with a laid-back, 'seen it all before' look.

Skellig Michael (in Irish, Sceilig Mhichil) is not recommended for people with health issues or a fear of heights. After you disembark, the climb to the monastic settlement is steep and hazardous. There is a rough, irregular stone pathway of 618 steps, sections of which pass within feet of sheer cliff drops without any protective railing. The danger is emphasised by the fact that last year's two fatalities on the island occurred very close to the bottom where people might be inclined to start relaxing.

It's fair to say that most of us were a little apprehensive beforehand. But the rewards were immense: dramatic views at every turn and the ultimate reward of getting to the walled-off monastic compound where one of the resident OPW guides gave an engrossing account of the settlement's history. For one member of our group, however, coming back down the steep steps was vastly scarier than going up. Opting for caution rather than dignity, she negotiated much of the journey on her bum.

There are no facilities of any kind on Skellig Michael, including toilets. But an added bonus is the presence of numerous puffins who behave as if totally tame and are happy to stand and be photographed at close range.

Back on Valentia, one of the most curious attractions are the so-called dinosaur footprints on rocks at Dohilla.

These mysterious fossilised tracks were left by a tetrapod, a large amphibious creature, which walked on soft sediment some 350 million years ago when Kerry was apparently situated somewhere south of the equator.

They are the oldest-known footprints in Europe , discovered only in 1993 by a Swiss geology student. It requires considerable imaginative powers to conjure a prehistoric creature out of what are, in fact, very slight indentations on the shoreline rock. Just don't go there expecting to see Jurassic Park.

Need to know


Access to Valentia couldn’t be easier - if you have a car. From April to September, a small car ferry runs a continuous shuttle service across the narrow water from Reenard Point, just south of Cahersiveen, to busy Knightstown, the biggest village on Valentia. There’s no need to book; just show up at the pier. The crossing takes about five minutes. Alternatively, you can drive over the bridge at Portmagee on the opposite end of the island.


The property website gave us a range of great self-catering options on Valentia. We chose a fully-equipped cottage for four on the more remote southern end of the island for €400 a week in high season. We had a marvellous view of the Blaskets from the front window, while from a side window we looked directly out over the Skelligs.


As restaurant locations go, it’s hard to imagine a more delightful, out-of-the-way setting than the Lighthouse Café. Soak up the fabulous views while dining outdoors amid profusions of wild flowers and a reclaimed organic vegetable garden. Tel: 066 947 6304 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 066 947 6304 end_of_the_skype_highlighting to check off-season opening times. The Knightstown Coffee Shop is a lovely little haven serving delicious food and homemade desserts in a friendly, relaxed setting, with a very interesting second- hand bookshop attached. Tel: 066 947 6373 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 066 947 6373 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. Across on the ferry from Knightstown, the familyowned O’Neills at The Point specialises in fresh fish — no meat, no desserts, just fish. Tel: 066 947 2068 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 066 947 2068 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.


Explore Valentia’s once prominent role in global communications. The first commercially viable transatlantic telegraph cable came ashore here in 1866, connecting Europe and the US for the first time.

Take a stroll on the broad beaches of Ballinskelligs.

Visit the Skelligs Chocolate Company and sample raspberry and Champagne truffles.

Join the Ring of Kerry route near Waterville, where tourists flock around the statue of Charlie Chaplin, who was a regular visitor. On your way back, stop off at the nearest ATM machine, for there are none on Valentia. The nearest is in Cahersiveen, a short hop on the ferry. Also, most businesses on Valentia don’t accept credit cards.

Take a boat trip to the Skelligs (066 947 6214). Sea fishing trips are available for families and groups. Talk to the tourist office on Knightstown Pier. Tel: 066 947 6985.

Visit the exotic Glenleam Gardens, a 40-acre site described as like wandering into a benign jungle. Open from April to October. Tel: 066 947 6176.

Irish Independent

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