Looking for a unique place to visit in Ireland and see puffins? Keep reading for my guide to visiting the Saltee Islands in County Wexford!
For my partner’s birthday in 2023, we decided to try visiting the Saltee Islands in Ireland for the first time. It was the perfect place for us to go because I’d always wanted to see puffins in person and he loves adventures. We invited his cousin, Ayuko, to join us because we thought she’d want to come (and she did).
Overall, it was a really incredible trip and definitely one of the most memorable places I’ve been in Ireland. As a travel blogger, I always tell travelers not to spend all of their time in Dublin and to instead make time in their itineraries for more local experiences, like a visit to the Saltees.
I loved visiting the Saltee Islands and would absolutely go again. It was the perfect amount of adventure for a day trip – we got to do something new, see some puffins, and even spent a little time exploring the island. By the time we were taking the ferry home, it felt like a full day (though I would’ve loved to sit in the nearby sauna for a while if I’d brought my bathing suit).
Here’s my guide to visiting the Saltee Islands. I tried to include all of the information you’ll need before you go, including details about the ferry and what it means to have a “wet landing” and the types of services available at Kilmore Quay.
About the Saltee Islands
The Saltee Islands are a pair of islands off the southern coast of County Wexford in Ireland. These islands are owned by the Neale family, but they’ve been uninhabited since the early 20th century.
Michael Neale originally purchased the Great Saltee Island in 1940, after deciding as a 10 year old boy that he would one day become prince of the island. Accordingly, a throne, flagstaff, and obelisk were erected on the island – you can visit them while you’re there. I failed to grab a photo during our visit because we were rushing to meet the ferry; I wish I’d had time to look more closely.
The islands enjoy a special protection status because they’re an important habitat for many species of wild seabirds. The Saltee Islands are important breeding grounds for fulmars, gannets, shags, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins. Grey seals are also known to breed on the islands.
Today, the only Saltee Island that is accessible to visitors is the Great Saltee Island. The other, if you’re curious, is Saltee Island Little, but it is not accessible for visitors. For that reason, you’ll see me use the “Saltee Islands” and the “Great Saltee Island” interchangeably in this post.
Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting the Saltee Islands
When I was planning my trip to the Saltee Islands, I was a little nervous about how remote the islands would feel. I had fears of missing our return ferry and spending the night on a deserted island, and also of wading through chest deep water to reach the shore. Thankfully, I can report that my visit was nearly seamless – there’s nothing to worry about, so long as you’re prepared!
Keep reading for everything you need to know before visiting the Saltee Islands!
Where are the Saltee Islands, anyway?
The Saltee Islands are located just offshore in County Wexford, Ireland. From Dublin, it’s about a 2 hour drive to Kilmore Quay, and from Cork City the drive is 2.5 hours.
It would take a little over 4 hours to drive to Kilmore Quay from Galway, and 3 hours from Limerick, so it’s not feasible to visit as a day trip from either of these cities.
The Saltee Islands are about 5 kilometers (a little over 3 miles) from Kilmore Quay.
If you don’t know, a quay is a sort of pier; it’s a concrete, stone, or metal platform near a body of water that is used for loading and unloading ships. So, Kilmore Quay is a small ferry town with a few tasty restaurants, a coffee shop, and a sauna.
It would only take a few minutes to explore the town, it’s not very big.
I had a great coffee from Cocoa’s Coffee Shop & Kitchen, which is only a few steps from the ferry stop. We also got some toast and a light lunch from Cocoa’s – everything was good. After visiting the islands, I also shared an ice cream cone from Lick’d, an ice cream shop with a large statue of a cow out front.
Overview: How to Visit the Saltee Islands
The best way to visit the Saltee Islands is to drive to Kilmore Quay in the morning and park in the car park in town. From there, you can walk to the ferry terminal, as well as the restaurants and shops in Kilmore Quay.
Note: ferry tickets sell out. Book your ferry tickets in advance to ensure you’ll be able to visit the Saltee Islands.
At your designated time, you’ll take the ferry to Great Saltee Island. You’ll have about 3.5 hours to explore the island, then you’ll board the return ferry to Kilmore Quay. The entire journey takes about 4.5 hours.
What can you see on the Great Saltee Island?
The Great Saltee Island is a beautiful, remote island in Ireland that is covered in rolling hills, coastal cliffs, and, of course, nesting seabirds. In fact, there are over 220 species of birds that call the Saltee Islands home.
Gannets, puffins, and razorbills can all be found on the Great Saltee Island during the summer. Other species of birds, like black backed gulls and fulmars, are year round residents of the island and can be seen anytime.
You may even see eggs from a guillemot. These interesting seabirds don’t build nests, but instead lay eggs directly on the cliff’s edge in areas densely populated with guillemots. When the chicks are born, they tumble off the edges of the cliffs. The chicks’ dense down feathers protect them from the fall and cause them to bounce slightly when they hit the ground.
For the visual learners, here’s a great video taken a few years ago on the Great Saltee Island:
When to Visit the Saltee Islands
If you, like me, are most interested in seeing puffins and other birds, the best time to visit is from April to July. During this time, the puffins breed on the islands and your chance of a sighting is high. Most of the other seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills, manx shearwaters, and gannets also breed on the islands during the summer and are absent during the winter.
From August to March, you may still have a chance to see other seabirds, but the puffins are gone by mid-August.
Be a respectful guest
The Saltee Islands are an important breeding ground for many of Ireland’s seabirds. It’s absolutely critical that you do not disturb the birds while you’re on the island. Keep your distance, move slowly, and watch for any signs of distress from the island’s birds. Stay back at least 6 meters (20 feet).
There are no garbage facilities on the island, so be sure to Leave No Trace and pack out any trash with you. Drones are not permitted on the Great Saltee Island. Dogs are also not allowed.
Photographers hoping for a great closeup shot of the puffins or other birds should plan to bring appropriate equipment, including a long lens. Do not expect to get a closeup photo of a puffin with your phone’s camera.
Physical requirements to visit the Saltee Islands
The Great Saltee Island is not an appropriate place to visit for every type of traveler. Those with limited mobility may struggle to enter or exit the ferry boat.
While you’re out on the island, there’s little to no cover in case of rain or storms. The ferry’s waiting area is simply a stoney beach and a small platform, without any cover from sun or rain.
You’ll need to hike around the island in order to see the seabirds. The routes are generally easy to follow and the hills are gentle, but you’ll still need to be comfortable walking on uneven surfaces and navigating around the small island. The footing can be slippery and cold when stepping onto or off of the dinghy.
After Returning to Shore: Soak in an Irish Sauna
Because there are no natural hot springs in Ireland, one of my favorite things to do in Ireland is to visit a sauna. There are Irish saunas throughout the country, but my favorites are set right on the coastline.
You can alternate between sitting in the hot sauna and jumping in the cold ocean water for 30-60 minutes – it’s at once rejuvenating and relaxing.
To visit a sauna, be sure to bring a bathing suit, towel, sandals, and extra water. I’d recommend reserving a seat in the sauna ahead of time, as it could fill up.
Where to Stay Near the Saltee Islands
When I visited the Saltee Islands, I spent the night before with my good friend Ayuko at her home in Tramore. It took us about an hour and a half to reach Kilmore Quay in the morning, and we left enough time to grab coffee and breakfast before our ferry departed.
In my opinion, you can stay anywhere in the surrounding area when visiting the Saltee Islands. Just be sure to carefully plan your departure time and ensure that you know how long it will take you to reach the ferry terminal. I always budget at least 20 additional minutes when using Google Maps, as the road conditions in Ireland often create slowdowns and delays.
📍Best Budget Option: Ferry House Holidays is about 45 minutes from Kilmore Quay, nestled on the border between County Wexford and County Kilkenny. The Ferry House Holidays has a few types of rooms available, including a tent/glampsite, budget double rooms, and a chalet to meet your group’s needs. The property has a communal sauna and breakfast is available for an extra fee.
Note: guests have reported that the wifi is not reliable.
📍Best Mid Range Option: Oak Tree Lane Country B and B is only a 10 minute drive from Kilmore Quay, along a country road in County Wexford. This little B&B can be hard to spot from the road, but guests love the quiet and solitude. A full English/Irish or continental breakfast is available each morning, along with homemade bread, fruits, and juice.
📍Best Luxury Option: Further Space at Forth Mountain is a 25 minute drive from Kilmore Quay, and it’s the most unique stay on this list. These luxury pods are pet friendly and set up with everything you’ll need, from extra heaters to wine bottle openers. Each pod includes a bed, a sitting area, a bathroom, and a kitchenette – along with incredible views of the Irish countryside.
Further Space at Forth Mountain is the ultimate option for travelers looking to unplug and unwind while off the beaten path in Ireland.
About the Saltee Island Ferry
The only publicly accessible way to access the Saltee Islands is to take a ferry from Kilmore Quay. From April through October, you can book a seat on the Saltee Ferry; the ferry runs daily and takes about 20 minutes each direction. As of this writing, adult round trip fares are €30 and children under 12 can take the ferry for €15 each.
You can park for free in the nearby car park. When you get to Kilmore Quay, look for the yellow, red, and white “Saltee Ferry” sign at the pier.
Check the ferry schedule for available times on the day you’d like to visit the island. The ferry may be canceled due to inclement weather, and advance notice might not be given.
Book your ferry ticket as far in advance as possible. The ferry tends to sell out, especially during the peak season. There is no alternative ferry to take you to the Saltee Islands.
How the ferry works
There is no ferry terminal or dock on the Great Saltee Island, but instead a small area for loading and unloading. As there’s nowhere for the larger ferry boat to dock, it takes you almost all of the way to the Great Saltee Island before stopping to anchor.
Then, a smaller, inflatable boat takes groups of visitors to the island. This smaller boat holds about four to six people, and it may need to make more than one trip to take all of the ferry passengers to shore.
“Wet Landing” defined
One of the biggest questions we had before we visited the Saltee Islands was about the so-called “wet landing.” Having never taken a ferry with a wet landing before, we really weren’t sure what to expect – would we need to wade through the water to get to the island? How wet, exactly, would we be getting?
Although the tides vary and your experience might be slightly different, we waded through about calf-height water to get to the ferry. The water was cold and the rocks underfoot were a little bit slippery, but it wasn’t difficult for us to manage. We did have to take off our shoes and roll up our pants to get onto the dinghy.
Do you have to go back on the ferry that you purchased a ticket for?
Yes, you’ll need to go back at your scheduled time. The ferry boats can only take a finite number of visitors, so you won’t be able to take a different ferry back to Kilmore Quay.
There was a lot of commotion when I was trying to leave the Saltee Islands because a few visitors had tried to catch the earlier ferry back. The staff ultimately returned the visitors to the island and told them to wait until their ferry, which was probably an hour or two later.
When it’s your time to board the ferry, be sure to be ready and near the front so that you don’t accidentally get skipped over. I’d recommend getting to the ferry dock area at least 10-15 minutes before your scheduled departure, and maybe even earlier if you can.
What to Wear & Bring to the Saltee Islands
There are two important things to remember when packing for the Saltee Islands: first, there is a wet landing to get onto the island. Second, the island is almost completely exposed to the elements, so you need to be ready for any weather.
For visitors who aren’t used to Irish weather, my number one piece of advice after moving to Ireland is that you always assume it will be colder than you expect. You might get lucky and have a warm day on the island, but more often than not the sea breeze will be quite chilly and you’ll want to have a warm coat.
A while back, I created a packing list for visiting Ireland. You’ll want most of the daytime clothing items when visiting the Saltee Islands because you’ll need to be prepared for all of the types of weather you might experience on the islands.
Here’s everything I’d recommend bringing to the Saltee Islands:
✅ Rain gear, including rain pants if possible
✅ Warm clothes, including long pants, a sweater, a jacket, gloves, and a hat
✅ Waterproof or water resistant shoes (you’ll need to remove them for embarking/disembarking the dinghy)
✅ Water bottle with plenty of water
✅ Lunch and snacks
✅ Towel, sandals, bathing suit (if visiting the sauna after returning to Kilmore Quay)
You might adjust this list slightly for the time of year, but I’d still bring a sturdy outer layer in the event of rainstorms or cold winds.
FAQs: Visiting the Saltee Islands
Planning your trip and still have questions about the Saltee Islands? I wanted to share the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions from travelers visiting the Saltee Islands.
Can you visit the Saltee Islands on a day trip?
Yes, you can visit the Saltee Islands on a day trip. Kilmore Quay is an easy drive from Waterford or Wexford, but it’s also accessible from places like Cork or Dublin. I wouldn’t suggest that you try to drive over from the west of Ireland for a day trip – Limerick and Galway are too far.
Are Saltee Islands worth visiting?
For adventurous travelers looking for a unique experience in Ireland, I’d say that the Saltee Islands are absolutely worth visiting. You won’t see the large mountains like you’ll find in County Wicklow, but instead a few gentle hills, rocky cliffs, and picturesque blue waters.
Are there puffins on Great Saltee Island?
Yes, puffins nest on the Great Saltee Island for part of the year. You may find them anywhere on the island, but they especially love the cliffs on the far side from where the ferry drops you off. The puffins tend to nest in small holes along the cliffs, so they may be hard to spot if you’re not looking closely.
What should I wear to the Saltee Islands?
When visiting the Saltee Islands, wear warm layers that will protect you from sun, rain, and wind. Because the island is largely uninhabited, there’s little to no cover in the event of a rain storm or other weather event. I’d also recommend waterproof shoes, rain pants, gloves, and a hat in case the temperatures are chilly.
Conclusion: Visiting the Saltee Islands
Ireland is known for its incredible natural beauty, and some of the best places to experience that beauty are on the coast or the offshore islands. These areas tend to be the most dramatic and awe-inspiring, though of course there’s nothing wrong with the inland rolling green countryside.
Before I visited the Saltee Islands, I had long wanted to see puffins in the wild. I did get to see a puffin while taking the Dingle Sea Safari out to the Great Blasket Islands, but they’re small birds and they were a ways away.
If you’re looking to see puffins in the wild, experience Ireland off the beaten path, or just try something new and different, I’d definitely recommend a trip to the Saltee Islands!