Off the southwestern corner of Ireland, pitched west of the coast of County Kerry, sit two little islands, one of which has a 600-step stone staircase that appears to wind straight into the sky. Those stairs, it is told, were built by monks who long, long time ago cast themselves away from civilization in order to meditate, study and pray.
This is the island of Skellig Michael.
And we were fortunate enough to see it in a rather unusual state: one of pure, unadulterated sunshine on the most magnificent of Irish autumn days.
In the sixth century, monks retreated to this island eight miles (13km) from what is now the mainland fishing village of Portmagee in order to meditate and devote themselves — unfettered by societal distractions — to their faith. Using the island stone and their own manpower, they built shelters of meticulously stacked rock — in drystone architecture, free of binding agents — into beehive-shaped huts in which they would live and pray, protected from the oft-visiting elements of wind and rain. With larger slabs of rock, they built a steep staircase up and across, from the water's edge to the island's highest point.
What makes Skellig Michael particularly exceptional to consider: how monks made this otherwise inhospitable and usually inclement spot their home of faith for more than six hundred years.
Open the panorama below to full screen to see the monastic cemetery and beehive shelters at Skellig Michael on a rare and remarkable cloud-free day.
Panorama: Skellig Michael, Monastic Settlements
How to get to Skellig Michael: Boats leave from the pier at Portmagee at 10 AM when the weather is good. The entire trip takes around four to four and a half hours, with over two hours spent exploring the island. We took our trip with Pat Joe Murphys Sea Cruise (087 2342168). Cost: €50/person
Eating in Portmagee: After getting off the boat, head to The Bridge Bar at The Moorings for a bowl of seafood chowder and a plate of fish and chips the size of Texas. And a Guinness. Exceptionally tasty and well-presented pub fare.