County Kerry’s Idyllic Island in the Southwest
Just off the Iveragh Peninsula, to the extreme west of Ireland lies County Kerry’s hidden gem, Valentia Island, which is connected to the mainland via the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge at Portmagee.
Valentia Island is one of the many fantastic tourist destinations in Ireland where one can spend a day or two, depending on how much time you have.
Spellbinding scenery as far as the eye can see, rich Irish culture, and a mix of old and new justifies the reputation of this gem on the Skellig Coast.
While Valentia has much to offer, I would especially recommend it for history enthusiasts and those looking to enjoy typical Irish landscapes. Despite being a small piece of land only 11×3 km in size inhabited by a meager 600 or so people, Valentia is steeped in culture and history.
The many Irish restaurants and pubs peppered around the island and a plethora of archaeological sites ensure your trip here will be well worth your time.
One of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland, Valentia Lighthouse, is a true vision. Built during the 17th century on the Cromwell Fleetwood Fort at Cromwell Point, the lighthouse offers much for tourists in terms of history, technology, and of course, beautiful scenery.
History buffs will enjoy the small museum in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and others can climb atop the lighthouse to enjoy a majestic 360-degree’s view.
A trip to Valentia Lighthouse is convenient – they have plenty of parking, a café, and WCs. Additionally, the premises are wheelchair accessible. One can choose to explore alone or hire one of the many knowledgeable guides on the premises. Check out my web page on Valentia Lighthouse here.
Valentia Island Skellig Experience
Skellig Michael is a well-known attraction due to the filming of part of Star Wars. The choppy Atlantic waters smashing into the rocks make it difficult to access the island, and even once there, the terrain promises a mighty challenge.
About 618 aged, steep, and unprotected steps are the only way to scale the rock – a feat which is so difficult in dry conditions that it’s altogether forbidden during wet and windy conditions. While authorities allow visitors, they continue to emphasize the safety risks Skellig Michael poses.
Given the difficulties in visiting the island, many choose to opt for The Skellig Experience, which is essentially a visitor centre that educates visitors about the island’s history through exhibits and audio-visuals. During the summer months, you can get boat rides to the island, but whether you can actually land depends on the sea conditions.
Once on the island, the rock steps from the three landing bays to the monastery are glorious in an archaic way. On the way to the monastery, one can see several other archaeological features that are yet well preserved.
The monastery comprises a partly dilapidated cemetery, oratories, cells, and a medieval church. The exact era when the monastery was built remains unknown, with estimates hinting at some time between the 6th and the 9th century.
The visitor centre’s timings vary month to month, so it’s best to check beforehand (you can check here). Visitors can find a gift shop stocked with reasonably priced souvenirs and a small coffee shop for refreshments on the premises. Check out my web page on Skellig Michael here.
Valentia Slate Quarry
Valencia’s Grotto and Slate Quarry’s history dates back to 1816. Since then, the quarry has supplied slate for many notable projects, such as the Paris Opera House and the Palace of Westminster.
The high-quality slate from this quarry is used to manufacture premium billiard tables, and it was used in none other than a table made for Queen Victoria.
The mine was out of order between 1910 and 1954 due to a rockfall. Today, the quarry is operational and exports to several countries. Its yield is used to manufacture vanity units, table tops, gravestones, building stones, and floor tiles.
As a visitor, you can avail of a guided tour of the quarry (approx. 40 min) for a nominal fee. Be ready to be awed by the 20 m high and 80 m wide cavern with a grotto at the top. There is a Virgin Mary statue at the grotto, alongside an altar and a fountain at the entrance.
The statue was placed there in 1954 by the locals, back when the quarry was out of operation. Visitors are only allowed access to a point since the quarry is still functional.
A visit to Valencia’s Grotto and Slate Quarry is pretty convenient – there is plenty of parking and the site has many plaques with relevant information.
The only downside is the narrow, one-side approach road, which could be congested with mining equipment at times. Overall, the site is a definite must-visit, as it’s something with historical as well as scenic value.
Before the transatlantic cable, exchanging messages between North America and Europe took two weeks, and at times, even longer, depending on the weather conditions.
It was in the mid-1800s the idea of transatlantic cable gained traction. While the idea was conceived in 1845, it was almost a decade later that the Atlantic Telegraph Company was established.
After several painstaking and failed efforts, the company managed to lay a cable between Valentia Island and Heart’s Content, a fishing village in North America, without any issues in 1866.
From then on, the transatlantic cable served as the primary mode of communication between the two continents for a whole century till communication satellites replaced it in 1966.
Thus, Valentia Island was a cornerstone in the very first substantial mode of communication between North America and Europe. The cable station at Valentia is on its way to being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As of now, a plaque commemorates the spot where inter-continental communication was revolutionized.
Sea Sports in Knightstown
Valentia is also a great destination to try out water sports. You can rent kayaks from one of the several providers in Knightstown to have a go of it yourself, or you can try out the activities they offer.
These include water trampolines, sailing courses, and windsurfing lessons for all age groups. If you’re looking for one of the latter, I suggest you call beforehand and plan, as these activities are subject to change and take place on specific days.
If you’re looking to enjoy sea sports in Knightstown, I recommend Valentia Island Sea Sports and Adventures.
At the north of Valentia Island, along the seacoast, one can see animal footprints in the rocks. But these footprints are among the most important ones on the planet – they’re almost 385 million years old and belong to one of the first animals to walk on dry land.
The tetrapod trackway (a series of footprints) is the oldest in situ record of a vertebrate on land. Experts estimate the animal was a lizard-like creature since the footprints are accompanied by the odd marks of a tail dragging along behind it.
Interestingly, when the animal made these footprints all those years ago, Valentia was south of the equator, and Europe and North America were part of one continent.
The Tetrapod Trackway is among the four Devonian trackways around the globe that are instrumental as evidence of evolution – of amphibians moving to land. The site is undoubtedly a must-visit for those interested in history, or frankly, almost anyone who’s visiting Valentia.
Visitors can park their cars in the designated car park and walk down through a pathway in the rocks to see the Tetrapod Trackway.
There is an information board for visitors, and the footprints have been left in its original form, which means you may or may not be able to see it depending on the sea conditions.
Valentia Island Dark Sky Reserve
For those unaware, a dark sky reserve is an area around a park or forest protected from artificial light to promote astronomy.
One such dark sky reserve is in County Kerry, also known as Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, and covers nine regions, including Cahersiveen, Valentia Island, and Portmagee, among others.
Valentia Island is located in the middle of the reserve and enjoys some of the most beautiful starry nights ideal for stargazing and observing constellations.
On a clear moonless sky, one can spot the Milky Way and many planets and stars, which are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Visitors can enquire about astronomy events at Valentia Island Tourist office or opt for a stargazing guide to enjoy the island’s beautiful nightscapes.
The hotel BnB’s also guides tourists on finding a knowledgeable guide, so it may be a good idea to check at the reception.
Valentia Island Sprint Triathlon
The island has been hosting a triathlon since 2006, which records participation from amateur and seasoned athletes alike. Each year, the event is held around May-June, and for 2021, the tentative date is June 19th.
The three legs of the triathlon, designed to test physical stamina amid Ireland’s rugged landscapes and seascapes, are:
From Renard to Valentia Harbor
5 km around the island
2.5 km finishing at The Royal Hotel
To the north of Valentia is Beginish Island, which translates to ‘small island.’ This little slice of land in the Valentia Harbor makes for a wonderful trip to spend half a day or more because of its cultural and historical importance.
Visually, Beginish is scenic with sprawling farms and old uninhabited houses, some of which are still used as holiday homes. But from a historical standpoint, it’s so much more.
The Vikings landed on the coast of Beginish sometime around the 10th century and chose to call it home for a while. One can see a Viking settlement’s remains on the island, which originally comprised 8 houses and 15 cairns.
Interestingly, one of the dwellings had a sandstone plaque with a runic inscription, which translates to ‘Verr erected this stone and Munulfr carved the runes.’ These names are Norse, and this plaque is the only record in Kerry of a Viking settlement with a name.
Moreover, the plaque also had a cross carved on it, which symbolizes Vikings’ transition to Christian beliefs. The lintel is no longer in Beginish and has been moved to the Cork Public Museum.
To visit Beginish Island, you can take a boat from Knightstown in Valentia. Apart from cultural significance, the island itself is gorgeous with a sandy beach where you can frolic in the sun. I recommend a short visit here, no longer than a few hours.
Valentia Island Observatory (actually in Cahersiveen)
Ireland’s oldest weather monitoring station, Valentia Observatory, is actually located in Cahersiveen. The weather station dates back to the 1800s, and its history can be attributed to Valentia’s association with the transatlantic cable.
Despite being in Cahersiveen, the station is named ‘Valentia’ Observatory, as the original station was in Valentia and was later shifted to its present location.
Where to Stay at Valentia Island
There are plenty of accommodation options on and around Valentia Island, including hotels and Airbnb rentals, among others. Most of these are moderately priced and good value for money.
Look out for options where you have views of the sea as well as the land and can access the beach for a quick swim.
Royal Valentia Hotel: Moderately expensive | Good location | Great view | Comfortable and homely with an old-world charm
B & B
Horizon View Lodge B&B: Moderately expensive | Access to the beach | Great view | Spacious rooms | Wonderful hospitality
Boat House on the Beach: Entire home | Visit to enjoy a fully equipped, luxurious, and cozy cabin only steps away from a sandy beach
Boss’s Farmhouse on the Skellig’s Ring: Entire home | Visit for an authentic experience in a charming old-style farmhouse
Room 1 – Valentia Island Sea View: Private room | Visit to make the most of a well-located, well-furnished, and stylish accommodation at an unbelievable rate
Valentia Island Caravan and Camping Park: Reasonably priced | Spotless toilets and showers | Even terrain for camping | Walking distance to the village | Great hospitality
Where to Eat at Valencia Island
Valencia Island has quite a few great dining options, from quaint cafes to elegant restaurants and pubs with a vibe. Some of the best places where you can enjoy mouth-watering delicacies on and around the island are listed below.
The Royal Hotel Valentia: Good restaurant with great atmosphere, staff, and location | Expensive
Coffee Dock: Lovely breakfast with friendly staff.
The Moorings Guesthouse & Seafood Restaurant: (My favourite) Amazing bar with excellent service | Expensive (in Portmagee)
Boston’s Bar: Homely old-fashioned pub with traditional music | Nice for a quick bite and pint
Fisherman’s Bar & Skellig Restaurant: Small place with friendly staff | Separate sections for bar and restaurant | Limited menu – Vegan options available | Good view
O’Neills The Point Seafood Bar: Traditional pub vibe | Limited menu – mostly all hot and cold fish | No dessert options | Great location and view. Expensive (in Cahersiveen)
Cable & Co chipper van: A hit with the local’s | only in the summertime.
Valentia Ice Cream Parlour and Farmhouse Dairy: Delicious, different, and fresh ice creams and sorbets
How to Reach Valentia Island
Take the N70 to Cahersiveen enjoying fabulous views of Ireland’s rugged landscape and dramatic cliffs and shorelines along the way. You can get the Ferry from Cahersiveen or go on to Portmagee. See below.
Take the N72 for 21km until you get to Killorglin. When you pass the Puck Goat statue take a left at the roundabout. Continue on the scenic N70 for until you get to Cahersiveen.
Once you reach Cahersiveen, you have two options –
1.Either you can continue driving out of Cahersiveen for 5km turn right onto R565. Drive 11km to Portmagee. Enter Valentia Island via the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge.
2.Take a car ferry from Renard Point at Cahersiveen. Ferry timings vary month to month, so it’s best to check in advance. You can check the timings here.
Valentia Island is a beautiful getaway for nature and history lovers that offers something for everyone. Some tourists only come to Valentia for a day trip while others allot approximately three days so that they can soak up the sun on the sandy beach.
If you’re pressed for time, I recommend you at least cover Valentia Lighthouse, Skellig Island, the Tetrapod Trackway, and the Quarry.
If you’re looking for Instagram-worthy shots, the panoramic views over Skellig rocks and atop the lighthouse are genuinely magnificent.
While most of Ireland offers unparalleled scenic views, the best part about Valentia is it’s not too crowded, which lets you enjoy the beauty in peace. The Glanleam beach is ideal for a swim or to unwind.
For the most part, Valentia is an idyllic island where you can take things slow and soak up the beauty around you. The many beautiful sights around here are only bested by warm Irish hospitality and the friendly locals who are more than happy to strike up a conversation and make friends over a beer.
So sit back and relax with a pint of Guinness and a fresh seafood platter at one of the many restaurants in town and enjoy the sunset in this little slice of heaven hidden from most. Unfortunately, it is not on the Ring of Kerry but is at the start of the Skellig Ring.