Ramsey Island – Ynys Dewi in Welsh – is easy to get to and famous for being an internationally important breeding site for grey seals. It’s just under a mile out to sea from the St David’s Peninsula and has been battered by wild winters and washed over by waves for centuries – often giving it a desolate and inhospitable appearance. But that’s all part of the charm.
For Ramsey Island is undeniably spectacular and strangely attractive – once you pay a trip you’ll invariably find yourself planning another visit some day. The island is just under two miles long and a mile wide and its highest point Carn Llundain is 446-feet high, from where there are splendid views right across half of Pembrokeshire. In the other direction is endless ocean with Grassholm appearing on the horizon. In-between you can see rugged rocks and islets rising from the water, the famous reefs and shipwrecks lurking underneath.
The sheer cliffs at the west end of the island are a mosaic of colour – covered in seaweed, lichen and different kinds of rock. Here the seals breed in the pebbly coves – more than 400 seal pups are born here each autumn. In the cliffs themselves you’ll spot thousands of gulls and auks, ravens and buzzards and the wonderful Manx Shearwaters.
On dry land in amongst the heathland you might come across the rare red legged chough if you’re lucky. Reason to visit: The seal pups and the scenery Best time to visit: Go in the autumn when you can see the pups on Ramsey’s rugged beaches How to visit: Tourist boats run trips around Ramsey from Easter until the end of October, leaving from St Justinian’s Lifeboat Station
The biggest of the Pembrokeshire islands, Skomer is globally recognised as a sanctuary for a growing population of thousands of colourful puffins. Plan a visit any day of the year but May and early June are particularly special, when the breeding seabirds are at their most abundant.
The beautiful clown-faced puffins, flourishing on Skomer, can be observed up close and personal while they fly food seized from the sands to their burrowed chicks. Kittiwakes will ferry mud from the central pond to their clliffside nesting ledges while you watch the ‘mugging’ tactics of predatory jackdaws and gulls bent on a free meal. If you’re lucky enough to stay overnight you will hear the nocturnal warbling of thousands of Manx shearwaters which emerge at dusk from the burrows in which they hide with their chicks during daylight.
Visitors will also catch glimpses of the descendants of the rabbits which were once bred for food on the island, some of them black. The island is also known for its distinctive breed of small rodent, the Skomer Vole, which more than likely can only be seen if the wardens find them for you. If you take the boat from Marloes Peninsula over in late May you’ll also be treated to a riot of colour on Skomer, with millions of bluebells and red campion carpeting the island. Reason to visit: Puffin spotting. Best time to visit: Late spring and early summer. How to visit: 15 minute journey by boat on the Dale Princess, from Dale, Pembrokeshire.
One of the most remote and special Pembrokeshire locations, Grassholm is choppy eight miles off the coast over the roaring Jack Sound, marking the most westerly point in Wales. The shark fin-shaped island famed for its wildlife but particularly for the huge colony of gannets that live on Grassholm – the third most important population in the world.
Gannets are magnificent, rare seabirds with large, long and bright white bodies and with black wingtips. At sea they flap and then glide low over the water, then sprint high into the air before plunging down into the sea to feed. Watching them in groups literally takes the breath away.
The turbulent waters around Grassholm are also fertile grounds for dolphins, porpoise and huge numbers of seals – who haul themselves onto the rocks surrounding the island. It is possible to get a close look at Grassholm, owned by the RSPB since 1947, from boats that sail there from St Justinians and Martin’s Haven, but only proper birdmen are allowed ashore for checks on the gannet colony. Reason to visit: Gannet spotting Best time to visit: All year round How to visit: Cruises to Grassholm go from Martin’s Haven, but you cannot physically step foot on the uninhabited isle.
Three miles off the Dale peninsula, Skokholm’s name stems from the time when marauding Vikings haunted this coastline. Today, it’s a whole lot calmer. Skokholm offers a tranquil kind of escape – but not to day visitors. You need to be willing to invest at least a few days to enjoy a break there with the local Wildlife Trust, or settle for a cruise around the island instead.
Like Skomer three miles to the north, there is a flourishing population of Manx Shearwaters, puffins, the usual auks, like razorbill and guillemot, and Skomer is noted for its storm petrels. It is around a third of the size of Skomer, covering 260 acres, and has spectacular cliffs of old red sandstone that climb from 70 feet in the north-east to 160 feet in the south-west.
Atlantic Grey seals swim around the Island and bask on rocks at low water. Close inshore there are daily sightings of Harbour Porpoise, and regular sightings of common, bottlenose and Risso’s Dolphins. Reason to visit: The Welsh Robinson Crusoe experience Best time to visit: All year round How to visit: Boat trips go from Martin’s Haven
The only island on this list that’s inhabited, Caldey sits serenely on the horizon two miles off the coast of Tenby. Monks have lived on the island from around the 12th century to this day, while legend has it pirates and smugglers treated it as a safe haven for centuries.
Sitting serenely some two miles off the southern shore of Tenby, Caldey Island has had a monastic presence since at least the 12th century. Caldey today is a tranquil retreat for visitors who are shipped there in their hundreds from Tenby in the summer.
The two-mile crossing of the sound on calm days is idyllic and the island offers fine cliff walks, beautiful beaches with deep golden sand and tours of the Monastery. The island shop has a range of gifts which included perfume, yoghurt and chocolate made by the monks. The perfume includes home-grown lavender and other ingredients while the dairy products are made with milk from the island dairy farm.
The old church is well worth a visit and a walk to the lighthouse is accompanied by magnificent panoramic views towards Tenby and over Carmarthen Bay to Gower and the Somerset and Devon coasts. Reason to visit: Historical setting, views and day out Best time to visit: A clear day is best to take advantage of the views across the Bristol Channel How to visit: Catch the ferry from Tenby