The force will be strong this winter. Star Wars mania will take over the world once again as the saga's ninth instalment hits the big screens on Thursday, December 19.
However, fans needn't go to a galaxy far, far away to get close to the action. Ireland's strikingly beautiful Wild Atlantic Way is a familiar sight in the latest trilogy, first appearing in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens as Luke Skywalker's hideaway.
Even without the starfighters, the coastal road is nothing short of otherworldly – and the secret is out. Its dramatic cliffs wind hundreds of kilometres from the northern headlands of Donegal to Cork, past a rolling patchwork of dry stonewalled smallholdings that have remained unchanged for thousands of years.
The journey along Ireland’s west coast is the longest signposted route in the world, and has been a hugely popular road trip for British and Irish travellers for decades. And now, thanks to George Lucas’s hit franchise, the road has come to the attention of thousands of others from all over the world. Many fly into Dublin – a seven-hour trip from Dubai or Abu Dhabi – as it’s perfectly located if you want to attack the route from either north or south.
Fans were given a first jaw-dropping view of the dramatic landscape in episode seven, when Rei tracks down Luke Skywalker to a remote island world. It is in fact Skellig Michael, a wild and rocky outcrop 11 kilometres off the coast of Kerry.
The ancient Unesco-protected rock sits 182 metres up a steep cliff face and was carved by monks in the sixth century. Despite relentless weather, raids from Vikings and its brutally remote location, the monks remained here for 700 years before the spot was abandoned and eventually immortalised as a Jedi temple.
As with any pilgrimage to the end of the world, you’ll face obstacles. Hop on board a local fisherman’s boat for a 50-minute ride across choppy waters – during which you’ll probably spot seals and dolphins – and you’ll find yourself at the foot of the looming craggy mass.
This is where the hard work begins – 600 steep steps of hard work, to be precise, escorted by whipping winds on even the clearest of days. You’ll emerge at the summit with the grunts (and possibly tousled locks) of a travel-weary Chewbacca, but the sights that greet you may well bring you to your aching knees.
Beyond the remarkably preserved ruins of the monastery lies Portmagee's brilliantly green coast to the east, separated by the world's second-largest gannet colony on the neighbouring Little Michael. Cast your eyes west and you'll be greeted by endless blue ocean. It's easy to see why the monks thought they had found the end of the world, and why the Star Wars location scouts deserve a medal.
"The filmmakers told us they were here to shoot a documentary about puffins," laughs Sea Quest sailor and guide Derek Noble. "These days we get flocks of Star Wars fans arriving to climb Skellig Michael."
Sea Quest is just one of a number of boats that make the hourly trip from Portmagee harbour to Skellig Michael, and Noble eagerly points out the Wailing Woman rock, so famously slashed in half by Rei during her lightsabre training. "We glued it back together for you," chortles Noble, but it's clear that the people of Portmagee are proud of their legendary rock and grateful for the tourism it brings.
Chief executive of Tourism Ireland, Niall Gibbons, expects this interest will only grow with the release of the final part of the trilogy. "Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens broke box office records around the world, bringing the magnificent scenery of Skellig Michael and the Wild Atlantic Way to the attention of millions of people everywhere," he explains. "The fact that Episode VIII – The Last Jedi was also shot on location along the Wild Atlantic Way is another fantastic coup for Irish tourism."
Just 15km north of Portmagee as the crow flies, but a two-hour drive in reality, lies the Dingle Peninsula and what National Geographic once called "the most beautiful place on Earth". So beautiful is this jagged headland, that it, too, can pass for another galaxy.
Set off along the scenic Slea Head route and you’ll pass sprawling beaches, hidden coves and ancient stone houses dating back to 2000 BC. And that’s before you even get to the star attraction.
The westernmost point of Ireland juts out into the Atlantic in a cluster of craggy rocks, and will be recognisable to fans of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The rocky outcrop sets the scene for the space sea cow (the huge puppet was brought in by helicopter for filming), as well as being the site of Skywalker's crashed X-Wing below the waves.
Again, it’s a bit of a trek up a steep hill, with a bit of a scramble down the other end, but standing on Europe’s most western point with waves crashing below, you’ll feel like you are a million light years away from anywhere.
Further north up the Wild Atlantic Way lies County Clare, and more specifically, Loop Head, which fans will also recognise from The Last Jedi. The dramatic headland is famed as much for its beautiful 1854 lighthouse (which was closed off while being frequented by Jedi masters), as its stunning views.
Malin Head in County Donegal also welcomed cast and crew during filming for The Last Jedi in 2017, with Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) even popping into local watering hole Farren's Bar for a drink. "He was more down to Earth than you would imagine," owner Hugh Farren tells me. "He said he's had a great experience. We've got a Yoda picture on the wall that he wanted to have his photo taken with. Being a big Star Wars fan myself, I was totally star-struck. It was the greatest day ever and really quite hard to believe."
Many diehard Star Wars followers make the pilgrimage to Ireland talking about nothing but distant galaxies. But they leave in awe of a country right here on planet Earth.