Where: Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England
When: July 2003
What: Two thousand years ago, a 10-foot-tall and 70-mile-long stone wall loomed over the undulating hills of northern England, built at the order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to keep the savage Scots from raiding and pillaging Roman territory to the south. Today, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall form the largest ancient structure in all of Northern Europe. This photo shows the path alongside the wall as it winds toward a series of crags called the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall, seen here in the distance towering above the pond.
Here’s how I described the experience of walking here in one of my American Adventurer columns from last year: “A ragged mist swallows the rolling hills and checkerboard farmland ahead of me. An icy wind whips at the hood of my jacket. I’m alone today, a solitary hiker following in the footsteps of history, and this is just what I came for: a bleak and breezy walk along the ruined skeleton of England’s most impressive ancient monument.”
I’ve never been wholly satisfied with that description, though. I think it’s because I wasn’t able to use my column to talk about why I really chose this walk. I mean, who among SmarterTravel’s bargain hunting readers would actually care about the personal crisis I was going through in 2003?
But here I can talk about it all I want, and this is what I wanted to say: I was at a crossroads in my life in the summer of ’03, and Hadrian’s Wall is one of the places I went in search of the proper road to take next. Penny and I were separated and I was living on my own for the first time since college. I took six weeks off from work and went to Europe that summer to find myself, and I was drawn to Hadrian’s Wall because it gave me the opportunity to take long, solitary walks in the moody countryside near the Scottish border.
There was something wonderfully anonymous about “following in the footsteps of history.” I took comfort in the idea that 2,000 years ago there might have been someone else standing near that wall, feeling homesick and confused, and wondering what to do with his life. It helped me keep my own problems in perspective. Melodramatic, probably, but it is what it is.
Anyone who knows me today knows that Penny and I eventually got back together, moved to Cambridge for two years and then to Beverly, where we now own a house and have started a family. But back in 2003 that outcome seemed improbable at best.
This is the trek that began the long process of helping me work through what was going on in my heart, and I think I’ll always look back on it with a kind of bittersweet nostalgia. It wasn’t a straight line from there to reconcilation, after all, and things would only get worse between us before they’d eventually get better.
So yeah, bittersweet, for sure. But it was still a hell of a walk.
Where: Old Lahaina Luau, Maui, Hawaii
When: May 2002
What: Dancing girls with coconut bras—what more could you want? I kid, I kid. Mostly.
Set right on the beach in near the Kaanapali end of Lahaina town, the Old Lahaina Luau has a more authentic (read: culturally sensitive) feel to it than the average luau offered by most of the hotels and resorts on the island. The traditional island music and dance is a joy, and the roast pig isn’t bad, either.
We stayed at the Old Lahaina House, a nice if unremarkable little B&B within walking distance of the town center. (Hey, look, here’s our room!) After a long day of hiking in the volcano or driving the Road to Hana, it was great to be able to come back and stroll around an actual town rather than just hanging out at a resort.
Plus, you really can’t beat the $3 cocktails at Moose McGillycuddy’s.
Where: In the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland
When: July 2006
What: When I wrote about this weeklong hiking trip in an August 2006 feature for USA Today and SmarterTravel.com, I likened the Icelandic interior to Tolkien’s Middle-earth: “With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.”
To me, nothing demonstrates that spirit better than this photo. I love the way it captures the wild and wide-open essence of the highlands: the snow-capped peaks, the spidering streams, the mossy greens and reds and browns of a land virtually untouched by human hands. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more epic. I also like seeing the seven hikers there in the foreground, a tiny fellowship of adventurers in true Tolkien-esque fashion.
The backcountry is dominated by Mount Hekla, a volcano that was once thought to be the literal mouth of Hell. A thousand years ago, Iceland’s Viking settlers sent criminals to this same inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years in order to earn a pardon. Most never made it. My wife and I lasted a week, but we needed the help of a guide from the Fjallabak Trekking Company to do it.
The trek meets up with the way-marked Laugavegur Trail on the fifth day of hiking, but before that most of the areas we explored felt as if they’d never been visited by other hikers. These highlands are different than, say, the European Alps, which are so well-traveled that it’s easy for experienced hikers to go it alone. Here, a good guide is essential.
I booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. retailer for Fjallabak and other local operators. If you’re considering a backcountry trip, theirs definitely come with my recommendation. Icelandair, incidentally, offers inexpensive flights to Reykjavik from several East Coast cities, making it a cheaper destination to get to than mainland Europe.
Where: Plateau Point, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
When: November 2004
What: Plateau Point is a little more than halfway down from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. To get there you have to take a 20-30 minute detour off the Bright Angel Trail, which adds another mile or so to the hike. Totally worth it for the view of what’s to come, though.
It’s at Plateau Point that you get your first clear view of the Colorado River, which was a nice chocolately brown when I was there. For those planning to spend the night at Phantom Ranch, as I did, I always recommend doing this side trip to Plateau Point on the way down rather than the way up. You need all the energy you can get when hiking out of the canyon, so don’t waste it on side trips.
I bet you haven’t noticed my favorite thing about this picture yet. Take a look at the lower righthand side of the photo. Yep, that’s a squirrel standing next to me on the ledge, posing politely for the camera. I may not be smiling, but I’m pretty sure he is.
One last note: A park ranger told me the average visit to the South Rim lasts about 15 minutes. Are you kidding me? It takes 15 minutes just to fight your way through all the gawkers leaning over the edge! If you’re physically able, lace up those hiking boots and get into the canyon. That’s where the real action is at, people!
Where: Bridle Loop Path, Mount Lafayette, New Hampshire
When: May 2006
What: The nine-mile Bridle Path Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains takes in two of the state’s tallest peaks, Lafayette and Lincoln. I love this particular trail because it rewards you with all the best elements of hiking in the Northeast: an extended traverse along an exposed ridge, a series of roaring waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the Presidentials and Pemigewasset Wilderness all the way to Mount Washington.
Penny will be the first to admit she had trouble with this hike, but there she is in the foreground toughing it out anyway. It’s not easy, and we probably hiked it a little too early in the season. There were still huge swaths of snow on the trail below the treeline, and up on the exposed ridge all of the rocks and alpine plants were coated with hoarfrost. But man was it fun!
Here’s how I described it in the September 2006 edition of my American Adventurer column: “The trail climbs, steeply and steadily, over exposed rocks and up through a forest of beech, birch, and maple to the knife’s edge of rocks and windswept ledges that is Franconia Ridge … There you stand, a mile high, with the world spread before you and nothing between you and the next peak but a narrow, undulating ridge. The next mile and a half is all ups and downs, all jagged rocks and tumbled boulders, with every step of the way punctuated by loose rubble, patches of dwarf pines, and vast stretches of hardy alpine scrub.”
If that doesn’t sound like fun, I don’t know what does.
Where: Isle of Skye, Scotland
When: September 2000
What: I snapped this photo while climbing a muddy footpath to the top of the Quiraing on Skye. This easy day hike is one of my favorites on the island because it offers so much of what I love about the Scottish landscape: dramatic cliffs, heaving hills, and blue-green lochs. From the top of the Quiraing I could see as far as the Black Cuillins in one direction and the wide open Atlantic in the other.
I’ll also never forget the day I took this picture. It was September 18, 2000, my first wedding anniversary. Probably the best vacation Penny and I have ever taken, and definitely the one of which I have the best and most vivid memories.
Quiraing, incidentally, means “pillared stronghold,” which as you can see takes its name from a series of natural rock formations that spiral up to the sky with breathtaking abandon.
Where: Valletta, Malta
When: November 2006
What: Here in the foreground is a traditional Maltese boat (either a “dghajsa,” “luzzu,” or “kajjik”—unfortunately the differences among the three are subtle and I have difficulty telling them apart). Maltese boats in general are characterized by their vibrant turquoise color and unique, streamlined shape. In the background is the walled city of Valletta, fortified centuries ago by the order of the Knights of Saint John.
Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea just 56 miles from Sicily and 180 miles north of Africa, the Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and Comino) have been inhabited for more than 7,000 years—occupied at different times by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Brits, the French, and the order of the Knights of Saint John.
In the past I’ve described Malta as “a lively little melting pot of European, African, and Arabic cultures unique in all the world,” and I think that really hits the nail on the head. Because of its strategic location between Europe and the Middle East, Malta has always enjoyed (or suffered) a disproportionately large level of importance in the battle between the East and West.
If you enjoy history, adventure, and romance on a grand scale, I recommend David Ball’s epic historical novel Ironfire, which tells the story of two siblings—one who’s kidnapped by Ottaman raiders and the other who’s left behind to grow up on Malta—in the years leading up to the 16th century Battle of Malta. A must-read for anyone who loves historical fiction.
Where: Tobago, West Indies
When: April 2006
What: I took this photo from a private beach on the grounds of the Arnos Vale eco-lodge (a former sugar plantation) in Tobago. I love the way the sunset filters through the clouds, but what really makes the shot for me is the lonely sailboat off in the distance. I think it perfectly captures the whole laidback Caribbean experience.
Further inland, Tobago’s rainforest has been legally protected from human interference for more than 200 years, which has allowed more than 210 species of birds, 23 types of butterflies, 16 lizards, and even some fish-eating bats to thrive. No doubt about it, Tobago is one of the last truly undisturbed Caribbean gems.
The best way to make sense of all the biodiversity is by choosing an experienced guide. I went with Harris McDonald, a native of Tobago who calls the jungle his “playground.” He has twice won Tobago’s top tour guide award, and his jungle tours set the standard for the island.
Welcome to a new feature here at Chapter 11 Studios! I’m calling it The Tuesday Traveler, a semi-weekly series of snapshots lifted straight from my personal collection of travel photos.
Where: Skellig Michael, in County Kerry, Ireland
When: April 2005
What: Eight miles off the west coast of Ireland, this rocky pinnacle of an island was home to early Christian monks dating back to the 12th century. The stone steps you see in the picture here, about 600 of them in all, were carved nearly 1,000 years ago. They corkscrew up the island for 700 feet before reaching an abandoned settlement of 20-foot-tall stone beehive-shaped huts, where the monks lived and worshipped.
Off in the distance you can see a smaller peak called, appropriately, Small Skellig. Its isolation gave birth to the Skelligs’ greatest curiosity: the whirring hive of avian life that is Small Skellig. Like a jagged, gothic-spired half-cousin of King Kong’s Skull Island, Small Skellig rises unsteadily from the Atlantic only to be clobbered by wave after wave of gulls and gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes, storm petrels and puffins and razorbills. With more than 20,000 birds calling it home, it’s best not to think too long about what that white substance is that you see covering all the rocks.
The closest international airport to Skellig Michael is Shannon, served by most major transatlantic carriers, including Aer Lingus. From there it’s a three-hour, 122-mile drive to the gateway town of Portmagee, located on the Iveragh Peninsula just off the famous Ring of Kerry, followed by an hour-long boat ride to the island.
There are any number of boats willing to take you from the pier at Portmagee to the Skelligs. My wife and I chose Pat Joe Murphy’s Shelluna on a recommendation from Bridie O’Conner, our innkeeper. Boats depart mid-morning from April through September, weather permitting.
We stayed at the Beachcove B&B in St. Finian’s Bay, located at the end of a single-lane road that twists through the coastal hills, stitched together by stone walls and emerald grass. The B&B is right on the beach, and on a clear day you can see the Skelligs from the picture window where you eat breakfast.