A small cove, Martin’s Haven, foots the curve of Pembrokeshire’s St Brides Bay. There, the 50-seat Dale Princess carries visitors over the brisk Irish Sea to Skomer Island. The seascape here is as captivating as a treasure map. Archipelagos of skerries and islets named Tusker Rock, Crab Stones and Deadman’s Bay pass by, along with glimpses of natural arches and caves. The final skip across Jack’s Sound to Skomer is windy but exhilarating, passing rock formations and sheltered coves, before disembarking at North Haven.
Skomer’s landmarks are even more delightful. Seal Hole and Shag Rock live up to their names, and inland there are waterfalls, streams and ponds to picnic by. As well as all the natural sights, there are ancient standing stones, forts and remains of ancient settlements to explore.
The beautiful island makes a fantastic backdrop for photos of Skomer’s famous puffins. Thousands of pairs breed here. They’re easy to spot; waddling about comically, with mouthfuls of gleaming sand eels. The island’s isolation means predators are absent, making an ideal breeding ground for burrow-nesting seabirds.
Tiny Skomer (just two miles east to west) is also a popular breeding ground for burrow-dwelling Manx shearwaters. However, you’ll have to stay over in the comfortable visitor accommodation to see these nocturnal birds.
Other island birds to look out for include kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills, as well as migratory birds such as skylarks, swallows and chiffchaffs, which use Skomer as a stop-over. Trails criss-cross the island, but for the full Skomer experience, pick up the main four-mile coastal trail.
Set off clockwise, looking out for gulls, from the tiny kittiwake to the Great black-backed variety. Over High Cliff, birds wheel and dive. The Skomer guillemot colony, the largest and most important in Wales, is best seen here and further round on The Wick.
In between High Cliff and the Wick, you’ll stumble upon hut circles, the remains of an ancient settlement. The Wick itself is a quarter of a mile long inlet surrounded by sheer cliffs. Countless ledges provide nesting sites for thousands of breeding birds, especially kittwakes. Their rather plaintive calls reverberate through the Wick.
Overhead and on the slopes opposite you’ll find an abundance of puffins coming and going from their burrows. This is one of the best spots for close-up photos of the birds. You’ll find it hard not to smile as they fly off to fish – their wings whirr like clockwork toys.
Spray-drenched Skomer Head offers fine views out to neighbouring Grassholm Island, and you may well spot porpoises surfacing briefly. Look out for Skomer vole in the bracken that covers the island. Thousands live here, but how they arrived is a mystery. They’re the main prey for local kestrels and buzzards.
Round at Pigstone Bay, you may well see grey seals swimming or sprawled over the rocks – they’re resident all year round.
Another favourite grey seal haunt is the Garland Stone, the seal’s high pitched wails drifting up to the cliff path. Nearby, a circular detour passes the site of a prehistoric cemetery, with nine cairns marking sites. Continue towards the visitor centre, where an information panel brings the ancient settlement on Skomer to life.
The visitor centre was formerly a farmhouse – Skomer was farmed until the 1950s. It’s thought that this building, which dates from 1840, is on the site of an earlier homestead.
On your way back to North Haven, take a detour to see the Harold Stone. Its function is disputed. Was it a marker for boats? Was it used to guard the island? The slopes here are riddled with burrows, and not all of them belong to puffins. As night falls, manx shearwater emerge and call to their mates to ensure they return to their correct burrow. The darker the night, the more cacophonous the sound.
How to get there
The Dale Princess runs from Martin’s Haven to Skomer between April and October, six days a week, although strong winds can prevent sailing. Get there early – booking is first come first served and there is a limit of 250 people per day allowed on the island to protect the wildlife. Sailings begin at 10am.
Find out more
The Clock House
clockhousemarloes.co.uk Friendly and relaxed four-star guesthouse with a guest lounge and outdoor patio. Modern rooms have a coastal style. Delicous local produce and fresh coffee in cafe next door.
Welsh Wildlife Centre, Cilgerran, Cardigan
You can stay on Skomer in comfortable three-star accommodation. Pillows and duvets are provided but you need to bring your own sheets, pillowcases and sleeping bag. Lovely solar-heated showers.
A unique and tiny ‘cathedral ‘city’ (a small town, really) surrounded by some of Wales’ finest coastline and beaches.