As the world continues to spin we sincerely hope the beauty and magic of Valentia Island and her enterprising and self-sufficient inhabitants will always remain always the same.
It’s one way of making sure that we’re not over-run with tourists,” a local jokes, in a petrol station outside Cahirsiveen, as he observes me putting air into my car tyres - something I’ve had to do twice since leaving Dublin some five hours earlier.
While his observations on West Kerry’s narrow and dangerously windy roads are light-hearted, there’s a ring of truth in what he says. The majesty of the county - arguably Ireland’s most beautiful, unspoiled region - is saved from mass tourism thanks to their determination not to pander to modernity. And there’s no better example of this than The Kingdom’s crown jewel: Valentia Island.
Even though I spent every summer of my childhood in this lush and dramatic island, it has been almost 20 years since I last visited. Having had my fill of cars, I take the short ferry ride from Reenard Point on the mainland, which deftly navigates a myriad of piers along with an army of fishing boats bobbing up and down on the azure-blue waters. As the splendor of Knightstown village unfolds before me - I note the 200-year-old Royal Hotel - it’s like I’m stepping back in time.
In the tourist office, located in Knightstown’s beautiful Watchhouse Cottages, staff member Louise Nolan tells me that even though “the island has changed in many ways, it still manages to hold on to its magic and sense of community.”
While islanders once made their livings from fishing, farming, construction and communications, Louise explains that employment opportunities have now increased thanks to the ever-changing world of technology and people’s ability to work remotely. She tells me that there are even plans afoot for a digital hub, while Kerry’s recognition as a Dark Skies Reserve means that the tourist season is now extended beyond the summer months.
In fact, these developments are some of the reasons Louise has returned to Valentia to raise her family - an increasingly common pattern amongst islanders, of which there are still fewer than 700 residents.
“Valentia prides itself on being a close community and family is at the heart of that,” Louise explains. “I wanted our little boy to grow up knowing his family and have the freedom, open space, and outdoor environment my siblings and I had growing up.
“More and more younger people are moving back here with families. It was a decision that felt right for us.”
Despite its relatively isolated location, Valentia Island has always boasted a killer instinct for survival. While 18th century Ireland was plagued with absentee or money-hungry landlords, Valentia was unique in that its landlords - the various Knights of Kerry - developed industries and opportunities for the local people.
For instance, over 150 years ago, the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid between Newfoundland, Canada, and the island - a feat that allowed the Old and New Worlds to exchange communications, thereby shaping the face of global commerce forevermore.
In operation until the 1960s, the original cable station was housed amongst a row of beautiful, white-painted buildings just a few yards away from Knightstown’s quays. For over a century, this game-changing enterprise was integral to the lives of inhabitants who lived here. Today, the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation is in the process of applying for a coveted UNESCO World Heritage status (valentiacable.com).
A return to former glory
Fittingly, my accommodation for the night is the former residence of James Graves, the first superintendent of the cable station. Originally built in 1873, and located just off Market Street, beside St. John the Baptist Church, the four-star B&B, now known as Atlantic Villas, is run by a charming Dublin woman, Jackie Davitt-Morgan, and her talented husband, Tipperary man, Brian Morgan. Having lived in Canada for 24 years, the lure of home proved too much, so they returned to the Emerald Isle and opened these gorgeous lodgings.
“The house and garden were so overgrown that we’d to crawl in through bushes to find the front door,” Jackie remembers of the early days of the restoration. “The house was in poor condition but this did not deter us! We camped by the fire, enjoyed our bottle of wine, and knew it felt right.”
Their passion is evident throughout every inch of the property, which deftly marries the past and the present. And that’s saying nothing of the breath-taking ocean views along with the gardens where much of the kitchen’s produce is sourced.
My bedroom is the King Garden View, a talking point is the bed’s crisp white linen, which is so inviting that I’m just short of abandoning my day’s itinerary and catching up on some shut-eye following my titanic journey from the capital.
School of thought
Ever the professional, I resist and instead visit the Valentia Island Heritage Centre, positioned just a minute’s walk away. Nestled within a charming 150-year-old schoolhouse, the heritage center acts as an archive for the island and chronicles their unique and authentic way of life while also paying tribute to some of its leading inhabitants and achievements. Highlights include tributes to pioneer marine biologist, Maud Delap, and arguably the country’s greatest footballer, Mick O’Connell.
Life’s a beach
If Valentia is Ireland’s best-kept secret then Glanleam Beach is the island’s best-kept secret. Hidden underneath Glanleam House and overlooking Beginish Island, this dreamy, pint-sized cove is like something straight out of a picture book. Here, I enjoy remembering the endless hours my younger self spent swimming in the freezing cold waters while attempting to avoid the odd wandering crab or two!
The next stop is the stunning Valentia Island Lighthouse, one of the area’s most recognizable landmarks. As luck would have it, I arrive in the middle of the National Shine a Light on Summer festival - an annual event celebrating the country’s most notable lighthouses. As I refuel on complimentary hotdogs and burgers, Lucian Horvat, the gregarious lighthouse manager, describes the building’s exciting history and notes that it’s “living proof of the dedication of light-keepers who’d to sacrifice their family life in order to ensure safe guiding of ships through the harbors of the Atlantic Coast.”
Today, the lighthouse is automatic and it’s directly managed by the Commissioners of Irish Lights. It’s one of the island’s prime tourist attractions - in 2018, some 15,000 visitors made the journey to see it, an impressive uptick on the 3,000 visitors who came in 2011.
“Managing Valentia Lighthouse as a visitor’s attraction involves quite a bit of work,” Horvat concedes. “It’s a constant search for improvement and development with a final goal: an amazing visitor’s experience!”
And the climax to the day’s events is certainly that - the hundred-strong crowd is treated to an exciting sea and air presentation from the local Royal National Lifeboat Institution, with a helicopter whirling above one of their distinct orange-colored lifeboats.
A clean slate
A minute’s drive away is the dramatic Slate Quarry and Marian Shrine, where things are markedly quieter. First opened in 1816 under the direction of the Knight of Kerry, the area has been a working quarry on and off since that date.
Its many achievements include providing the slate for the Paris Opera House, London’s Houses of Parliament, and many billiard tables, notably the one made for the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria.
One small step for...
Below the island’s famous weather station is another must-see attraction, which only serves to emphasize Valentia’s global importance. After negotiating a steep track, you’ll stumble across the faint Tetrapod imprints, which are thought to be between a jaw-dropping 350 and 370 million years ago.
Discovered in 1991 and hailed by geologists as the earliest fossilized examples of a prehistoric creature in Europe, and possibly in the world, these footprints represent the transition of life from water to land – a momentous turning point in evolution. They provide the oldest reliably dated evidence of four-legged vertebrates - amphibians - moving over land.
Aim for the stars
On the other side of the island stands Geokaun Mountain and Cliffs as well as the tower on top of Bray Head. Walkers who embrace the hilly climbs will be rewarded with unrivaled views of Valentia, Dingle, the Blaskets, the Iveragh Peninsula, and the Skelligs.
Speaking of, another must for tourists to the island is the Skellig Experience, which sits modestly beside the bridge linking Valentia to the candy-colored fishing village of Portmagee. Complete with turf-covered barrel roofs, the interactive exhibition documents the life and times of the Irish monks who were Skellig Michael’s former residents, along with the extensive wildlife - including gannets and puffins - who continue to call the islands home to this day.
A number of Skellig boat operators offer return trips to the islands from the Skellig Experience but the museum is a good alternative if the weather isn’t suitable or if your shaky sea legs insist that you remain on terra-firma.
During my visit here, I stumble across the tail-end of the May The 4th Be With You celebrations, which pay tribute to the Star Wars films, recently shot in the Skelligs. Two of the organizers, film-fanatics and Portmagee natives John and James Murphy, tell me that over the course of the weekend, activities included Yoda Yoga, lightsaber battles, and outdoor screenings of the iconic films.
“It was a major success and, already, the local team and community are gearing up to do an even bigger festival in 2020,” John enthuses. “The locals in Portmagee and Valentia have fully embraced the festival and made it their own whilst simultaneously offering everything they have to the wider Star Wars community.
“A definite highlight was the Stormtroopers patrolling through the village of Portmagee - it created just such a buzz around the place.”
His brother, James, who, like Louise Nolan, recently returned to the area with his family, adds: “Watching how much the children enjoyed the entire festival was a highlight for me – even when playing with something as simple as Lego Star Wars or as new-tech as the virtual reality and augmented reality technologies.”
The royal treatment
Luckily, that evening, I don’t have to travel any distance at all as my dinner comes courtesy of Knightstown’s Royal Hotel - the delightful, family-run establishment that’s perched on the quayside, overlooking Valentia Harbour and the red town clock. Having received support from the TV show At Your Service’s Francis and John Brennan, the premises has certainly been upgraded since I was last here in the late 90s yet its charm remains intact.
For my starters, I opt for yummy seafood chowder, which contains an ocean worth of white and smoked fish. In fact, so filling is the soup, I almost struggle to finish my main, rawn thai curry - almost. As you’d imagine from a hotel of this caliber, the service is warm, friendly, and impressively efficient while the Royal’s atmosphere is nothing short of regal.
Breakfast of champions
Knowing that I have a long, arduous journey ahead of me, the following morning I allow Jackie and Brian to wow me with their culinary expertise. After devouring a Valentia Island scallops, resting on a bed of chorizo and accompanied by freshly picked garden salad and a colorful riot of edible flowers, I learn that Brian was once crowned the winner of the Valentia Island King Scallop Festival cook-off. My taste buds and I are in agreement that the win was certainly well earned.
As I wave goodbye to the island from the ferry, I vow not to leave it so long before returning. Although, whether it’s one year or 20, I suspect the beauty and magic of Valentia Island and her enterprising and self-sufficient inhabitants will always remain the same.
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