A New Normal

COVID-19 has been one long season that I’ve sort of fever-dreamed my way through, waking up periodically to find the world still gripped by it and then sinking back into sleep. I haven’t even written a blog post since 2019. How is that possible? Is it just the mysterious, dreamlike way in which time has passed since the pandemic began?

I’m a traveler, and time used to be measured by the trips I took. The process of travel, and planning travel, broke up the long weeks of work and college classes and gave me something to look forward to and write about. Without the thrill of some foreign adventure, I do feel like I just slept away the last couple of years. It all just blends together.

Despite this, I was one of those people who thrived during the pandemic. Because I couldn’t travel due to COVID-19 related restrictions, I focused on things closer to home. I earned a bachelor’s degree in July. Bought a house in September. Started learning Spanish. Cultivated new friendships. Got the hysterectomy I needed to finally start living a normal, pain-free life. I didn’t, however, feel like writing…or taking pictures. Photography and writing took a measure of creativity that disappeared when the pandemic hit, and I haven’t fully recovered it. I’m not complaining, though. Everyone’s lives have been disrupted in some way, either big or small, and many of us are struggling to find a new normal.

I did book a ticket to Chile for the end of March, and I hope that helps spark my creativity again. Having had to cancel a couple of trips at this point, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to go and have some new experiences. Or, maybe another wave of COVID will hit. It feels more important to be responsible and stay home, if I need to, than to satiate my wanderlust. I’ll adjust and find other adventures–maybe another USA road trip or simply hiking around Mt. Baker.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with a few pictures from the last two trips I never wrote about. In 2019 I went to Spain (and returned to Ireland), and in 2020 I visited Portugal. I have thoughts about each place I’d like to explore in more detail, but here are a few photographic highlights. I’m hoping for more to share this year!

Spain: We traveled to Malaga, Granada, Sevilla, Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. I’d love to share more about the beautiful tilework I found around the country and what I did with the images.

A view from the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain

Ireland: I finally visited Inis Meáin, the middle Aran Island, in June 2019!

Portugal: Just before COVID shut down the planet, I visited Lisbon, the Douro Valley, Óbidos, and Sintra. I’d like to write about my experience sleeping in a wine barrel at Quinta da Pacheca!

Palace of Pena in Sintra
Like Spain, Portugal had plenty of beautiful tile work to discover.
Quinta da Pacheca

I’ve Left My Heart in so Many Places

My friend Jes and I are planning a trip to Ireland this year. Her dream is to visit the Aran Islands, a stone’s throw away from either Doolin, County Clare or Rossaveal, County Galway–depending on where you want to catch a ferry. Having visited both the big island and the small island on previous trips, I welcome the chance to show her around and also cross off Inishmaan, the middle island, from my Ireland bucket list.

It got me thinking, though, I never gave the small island, Inisheer, the attention it deserved on my blog. I circled the big island, Inishmore, on a bicycle in 2015 and meticulously captured every last detail in writing. But, what happened to Inisheer?

Thatched-roof cottage on Inishmore

Have you ever loved a place so much that it’s just hard to describe? Words couldn’t do it justice, and you fear sounding like a travel brochure if you tried? That was my problem–which isn’t fair to Inisheer, an island which gazes back at the Cliffs of Moher through the rusted hull of a shipwreck, patiently waiting for more visitors to discover her.

Like many places in Ireland, I think Inisheer is best suited for writers, musicians, and visual artists, people whose imaginations thrive in quiet places, who can perch themselves high on a hill and draw inspiration from the ocean, a sunset, or a sliver of land off in the distance. People who can see the beauty in ruins.

I spent my time there circling the island on foot so I could stop and photograph the flora, the cows, the never-ending limestone walls that zigzag across the island. The village, though modestly sized, somehow manages to feel like a maze as it slopes down to the beach. As you navigate the streets, you’ll find a cozy tea room or a pub in which to enjoy the scent of a fine whiskey and listen to traditional music.

The real danger with traveling in Ireland is that you leave your heart in so many different places. I certainly left a piece of mine on Inisheer.

My accommodations, a writer’s dream!
You can walk or ride a bike, but you can’t bring your car aboard an Aran Islands ferry.
Irish boat launch?
Stone walls made from broken limestone – you’ll see these on each of the Aran Islands.
Typical Burren flora
An old castle tower filled with rooks
The famous Plassey, featured during the opening credits of “Father Ted”
Run agroundduring a storm on March 8, 1960.
The Aran Islands are an extension of the Burren in County Clare. The uneven limestone landscape is marked by deep fissures. Watch your step!
I left my heart on Inisheer
Guardian of Inisheer
Looking out across the water to County Galway
You can’t beat an Irish sunset

St. Ives Vacation

For the past year or so, I haven’t felt like me. Do you ever go through phases like that? Like, between work and school and whatever else you have going on, your creativity just vanishes into your daily obligations? For the first half of 2018, I didn’t even feel like taking pictures. I took a digital photography class, hoping it’d spark something inside of me; instead, the assignments became just more tasks to complete. And I would think, where did I go?

So, as I reflect on my summer–yes, the rain is already falling in the Pacific Northwest–I see that I needed St. Ives. I needed the remoteness of Cornwall, England with its narrow roads, pristine beaches, art galleries, and ocean views. I hope it makes sense to say, I felt myself returning.

On one particular night, I bought a glass of wine at a beach cafe and then sat on Porthmeor Beach, facing west. After an 85-degree day, the sun fell into a pink mist, turning the sky violet as it dipped below the water, scattering light across the waves. The sands cooled my feet, and I drank my wine. A German girl next to me took photos on her iPhone. A father chased a naked child who squealed and collapsed with laughter in the sand, wanting to be caught. Others lined the wall above the beach, waiting for the sun to set entirely. And we all got to experience the zephyr of ocean air, forgetting what came before and to abandon expectations for what might come after. Just to breath. Listen. Embrace a perfect moment.

Some peeled away after the sun disappeared, returning to hotel rooms or pubs to finish watching a game. Others lingered in the silence.

That was St. Ives to me, a few moments that existed beyond a camera lens. A few moments that showed me that stress and obligations can sometimes strangle the spirit right out of you, if you let them. It’s okay to slow down and enjoy life at a slower pace sometimes. I guess that’s why we go on vacation–to be reminded.

And I did feel like taking my *big* camera out, eventually. I captured a lot of photos on my cellphone this year, but here are a few from my Nikon as I explored St. Ives.

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Meet Margerie

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know I’m not a morning person. I am still the same little brat I was as a two-year-old if you try waking me up before I’m ready. Forty years of school, work, and life has not changed me. So, it should come as no surprise that I struggled on the morning my cruise ship sailed into Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Glacier Bay

dsc_7662Did I want to see a glacier? Sure, but that didn’t make the persistent voice of a Glacier Bay National Park park ranger over the ship’s PA system any less irritating at 8 a.m. But, there’s one thing in life more powerful than my need to sleep in: the desire to discover. Apparently, I’d already missed a family of bears and a few mountain goats clinging to a mountainside. So, I screamed into my pillow a little, sighed deeply, and got out of bed to get my camera.

Glacier Bay, home to more than 50 named glaciers, came six days into a seven-day Alaskan cruise aboard the Norwegian Jewel. Margerie Glacier, about 21 miles long and 250 feet high, is the most impressive. The Jewel rotated a complete 360 degrees, just to give everyone on board the time and space to view it.

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Despite sharing the experience with thousands of other passengers, there was a quiet reverence on board that morning. Between camera clicks, people stood silently and listened. Waited. And if we held our breath we could hear the thunder off in the distance, a rumbling that meant the great walls of ice were expanding and breaking. Certainly something worth waking up for.

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The Burden of Being Fancy

When I got my Nikon D800 four years ago I thought, this camera is going to change my life. I dubbed her “Fancy” and vowed to travel the world with her, taking once in a lifetime photographs that would have National Geographic pounding at my door. Today, I just think about how much she makes my wrists hurt and how there are probably thousands of people running around with Fancys of their own, wanting a shot with National Geographic or Lonely Planet.

I’ve learned that I’m lazy. I don’t necessarily want to learn all the nerdy and technical components about photography that will make me better at it. At the end of the day, I just want to capture what’s beautiful about the world around me. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

More and more often, I take pictures on my cellphone, which is funny because that’s how this whole blog started years ago: cellphone photos. That’s not to say I’ve totally lost interest in Fancy; I’m just a lot more selective about when I take her out. During my last trip to England, I took most of my photos on my phone. I mean, it’s compact; I can easily hide it in my purse when I’m done using it. I don’t have to worry about breaking it. I can instantly upload photos to social media.

So…sorry, Fancy. Here are some of my favorite cellphone photos from England earlier this month.

ReflectionInterior Bath AbbeyBath Abbey GirlOpen Air TheaterSt Ives 10

Shadow SelfieSt. Ives BeachSt IvesSt Ives 5St Ives 7St Ives BoatsTin Mine

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Ireland’s Most Haunted Castle

I love ghost stories. From the haunted vaults of Edinburgh to the castles of Ireland, and from New England battlefields to the streets of New Orleans, I’ve taken every opportunity to scare myself silly. I even went through a phase in which I watched Ghost Hunters every week on the SyFy channel just to get travel ideas.

Years ago, before I’d ever set foot on Irish soil, Ghost Hunters investigated Leap Castle in County Offaly. With a gruesome history dating back to the 1500’s, it’s supposedly the most haunted castle in Ireland, if not all of Europe! So, I added it to my mental itinerary of terrifying places to go.

One of the reasons Leap (pronounced Lep not Leep) Castle is so haunted is because of the Bloody Chapel. The original owners, the O’Carroll family, once invited a rival clan to dinner and murdered the whole lot of them in the chapel. The O’Carolls tossed their bodies down an oubliette to rot. This was a fate that befell many unfortunate souls over the years; hundreds of skeletons were discovered in the 1920’s. (You can read the complete history on Leap Castle’s website.) Because of this, it’s believed that many spirits now haunt the castle, including something called The Elemental, the granddaddy of all big bad evil entities. (Some of you are now probably thinking, oh hell no! I’m never going in there!)

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The towerhouse in the middle would have been the original structure (similar towerhouses can be found all over Ireland). The extensions on either side are relatively new and wouldn’t have been a part of the original castle.

I finally gathered up the courage to visit last year.  I called Sean Ryan, the castle’s current owner, and asked for a private tour. Tours are by appointment only; he keeps the gates closed to control access to the property. Otherwise, I imagine he’d have wanna-be ghost hunters and curious people like me wandering around at all hours of the day and night.

Sean Ryan is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to live in Leap Castle. A musician, he has long white hair that falls to his shoulders and full white beard. He’s a friendly man with a serious disposition who seems mentally formidable enough to take on a towerhouse full of ghosts.  He invited me inside to sit by the fireplace, and as the wood cracked and hissed, he regaled me with stories about the castle. Then, he lead me to the stairway and gave me a flashlight.

“You’ll have to go up on your own,” he said. “I’ve had a little trouble with my knee.”

“But, the ghosts…” I said, joking. “They might get me!”

With an eerie, deadpan look he said, “There are no ghosts.”

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Ghosts or no ghosts, walking up a narrow staircase with a flashlight by yourself can be a little unsettling. Especially when Sean closes the door behind you to “keep out the drafts.” And especially when the flashlight batteries start to fail, producing a strobe light effect in the darkness.  After wending the stairs in the photo above, there was no electricity. I couldn’t imagine climbing those stairs at night like all those crazy people from numerous ghost-hunting shows. It was better than any makeshift haunted house experience back home!

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Sean’s living quarters

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Artwork detail

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The only source of light in the darkness.

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Spooky

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The Bloody Chapel was at the top of the stairs. You’d think that with a name like “bloody chapel”, it’d be a bit scarier–that the air would be heavier and you’d feel a sense of foreboding or sadness. Maybe in the middle of the night when imaginations get the best of you, but during the day it felt…peaceful. With the sun shining, there was plenty of light in the chapel and a beautiful view of the Irish countryside.

Sean continues to work on renovations, and I hope to return some day to see how they progress. In the meantime, I hope he continues to welcome visitors and that people will consider donating to help with maintenance. (Castles are an expensive investment. I’ve looked into it!) Regardless of what ghosts may or may not haunt the place, Sean owns an interesting piece of Irish history, and I’m happy he’s chosen to open his home and share it with so many.

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The Bloody Chapel

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Section of the castle Sean hopes to renovate (view from the Bloody Chapel).

What’s the spookiest place you’ve ever visited? Tell me in the comments below!

 

 

Freedom and the Great American Road Trip

Before flying off on my European adventure a couple of years ago, I sold most of my possessions, including my car. Well, all great adventures eventually come to an end, and when I returned home—halfway through autumn 2015—I had to find alternative forms of transportation until I could afford to buy another vehicle.

I moved into a downtown Bellingham apartment, so I walked a lot. I finally figured out the bus schedule and took buses to all those far flung places my feet couldn’t carry me. My friend, Pam, lent me her Toyota Matrix during the worst part of the winter so I could get to work and school. I got by. Even so, I ended up feeling like a prisoner within the borders of my hometown without my own car.

Most places in Europe have amazing public transportation systems, and it isn’t unusual to go without a car if you live in a big city. And even if you want to travel across the country there’s probably a bus or train that goes there, so it’s not a big deal. In the United States, however, (unless you’re within a major metropolitan area like L.A., New York City, Seattle, etc.) public transportation isn’t the greatest. Americans are very spread out, and not having a car can be a huge disadvantage. I think for that reason, many Americans look at their driver’s licenses as not only proof of their personal identity, but an expression of their cultural identity—that we are a free people who can go where we want, when we want, without many restrictions.

And I wanted to live without restrictions. I wanted to wend Chuckanut Drive’s narrow curves and take in the view of the San Juan Islands at sunset. I wanted to drive out Highway 20 to Mount Baker or to Whidbey Island to visit friends or hell, just meet a friend at a moment’s notice on the other side of town without having to wait for the next bus or for someone to pick me up. So, seven months after my initial foray into public transportation, I bought a new car.

Seeing the odometer at zero (or, close to it–I think it read 11 miles when I took it out for a test drive) sent a twinge of excitement through my belly. I had my freedom back, and I wanted to hit the open road and go somewhere. So, at the end of the summer, I went on a road trip from Bellingham, Washington to Buena Vista, Colorado to visit family. I tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, rolled down the windows, and drove away. There’s nothing like a great American road trip. Nothing. You see so many things you’d miss on a train, plane, or bus. I may never go carless again!

Here are some photos from last year’s freedom ride (click to enlarge or view slideshow). I would love to take another road trip someday. What are some of your favorite routes?

 

Yours to Explore: A Tour of Scattery Island

I’ve been fascinated with abandoned monastic sites, famine villages, and other ruins ever since I first visited Ireland seven years ago. As their bones slowly crumble into the earth, ancient buildings leave you wondering about what life would have been like anywhere from 50 to 1,500 years ago.

Achill Island has its deserted village, tucked away on the southern slopes of Slievemore Mountain. Skellig Michael has its beehive huts, found ten miles off the coast of County Kerry. And Glendalough has a monastic city, complete with round tower, in the middle of the Wicklow Mountains. Just to name a few. There are literally hundreds of ruins scattered across Ireland. I’ve seen quite a few of them over the years. So, when I landed at Shannon airport last May, I was surprised to find that I’d actually missed a major site!

Mixed in with the various travel brochures that I sometimes peruse for ideas, I found an advertisement for Scattery Island while waiting for my rental car. Located in the Shannon Estuary and less than an hour from the airport, the uninhabited island boasted a monastic settlement, abandoned village and a lighthouse–a trifecta of deserted Irish treasure!

Of course, I called Scattery Island Tours immediately and booked a trip.

Scattery Island Tours is a family run business that started operating in May, ferrying passengers to the island several times a day. The staff is outstanding. From the moment you pick up your ticket and board the ferry until the moment you’re back at the marina, you feel like a welcomed guest. Part of the reason for that is the small group sizes—there were only seven people on my tour, although (I think) they could fit up to twelve on the boat—so you don’t feel like just a number.

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Plus, I love traveling by boat; it feels especially adventurous, like you’re really going somewhere. Leaving Kilrush Marina, the ferry actually passes through a lock. This was a first for me. The tide was out, so it took a few minutes for the water level to fall so we could exit into the estuary. Once out, it only took about ten minutes to get to the island.

Our guide was already waiting for us on shore. He led our humble group of seven down the ecclesiastical path (the easier of two walking trails), regaling us with tales of angels and of venerated saints who drove monsters from the island. Legends were mixed with the history of St. Senan, Vikings, and, most recently, fisher-farmers who occupied the island until about 1970.

After an hour-long tour, we were free to explore at our own pace. A second path led to a lighthouse and artillery battery. A few people walked the twenty minutes or so to get there while I explored the old main street and enjoyed the silence.  I think that was one of my favorite things about the island–how quiet it was. I remember walking behind the village, surrounded by trees and tall grasses, and hearing nothing except the rustling of leaves and a few bees chasing each other down the path. It was just good for the soul.

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Ecclesiastical path

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One of the more noteworthy relics our guide talked about is the round tower, speculated to be one of Ireland’s first. It’s unique for two reasons: 1) It was struck by lightening, giving it a lopsided shape and 2) It’s door is at the base of the tower. The doors of most towers in Ireland are built about ten feet off the ground. Contrary to popular belief, the high doors weren’t meant to protect the monks from invading Vikings, they were meant to provide structural stability. A doorway built at ground level would have weakened the structure.

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A rare look inside a round tower. Another first for me!

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Scaffolding is such a drag for the photo enthusiast. My one wish is that OPW will restore the buildings on the island to a safe standard so the metal fencing and scaffolding can be removed. I’d love to actually go inside of some of the old buildings. It’s a nit-picky request, though, because there’s certainly plenty to see, and the island is a quiet reprieve from some of the noisier sites around Ireland.

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Cnoc An Aingeal. This is where an angel flew Saint Senan to the island to defeat the resident monster.

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We had the island all to ourselves.

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Looking back towards the mainland.

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St. Senan’s Bed. The monks who used to reside on the island basically put up a No Girls Allowed! sign. Even if you were a saintly woman on her deathbed, you weren’t allowed to set foot on it.

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St. Senan’s Bed

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Mystery weed

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Another fixer-upper. I’ll take it!

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A peaceful resting place

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The Street

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Post Office

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Closer… (love all the rust!)

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After several tranquil hours upon the island, looking back to the mainland felt a little startling–like the past had suddenly and inexplicably collided with the present.

Don’t let this tour escape you. If you’re in the area, it’s worth adding to your vacation itinerary.

Scattery Island Tours

Kilrush Marina,

Merchants Quay,

Kilrush, Co. Clare

Tel: 085 2505512

info@scatteryislandtours.com

American Refugee: 5 Reasons to Visit Inishturk, Ireland

Last summer I read an article about a tiny Irish island that would welcome American refugees if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. It was a joke, of course, probably meant to drum up some tourism.

During every election season stretching as far back as I can remember, Americans threaten to leave the country if their candidate loses. And on the Wednesday morning following every election night, those same people get ready for work and carry on as usual. However, this being an especially contentious election, I thought some voters might finally make good on those threats. Would that tiny Irish island be a good place for American “refugees”? I thought it might be prudent to check it out and report back. (Or, more truthfully, I was just looking for another excuse to return to Ireland…)

Anyway, two weeks after reading the article I was standing on Roonagh Pier, waiting to catch a passenger-only ferry to Inishturk, an island 14 km off the coast of County Mayo. The wind whipped my hair as I listened to stories about a storm that had blown through two days earlier. The ferry operators warned that the waters were still a little choppy, so we should all be careful and hold on. I have never been seasick but worried about the hour-long journey nonetheless.

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Loading supplies

A dozen passengers and a few crew members boarded the ferry. Some stayed inside the cabin. I chose to stand on deck and keep my eyes on the horizon. The waves were a little rough at first, but by the time we arrived on Inishturk, the waters were much smoother.

And you know what? I’m glad (kind of, not really) Donald Trump ran for President because if not, I’d have never heard of Inishturk! I don’t know that I’d ever live there (it’s very remote), but I’d definitely go back for a week just to disconnect from all the daily noise that can make life so exhausting sometimes.

If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, whether to escape politics or just for fun, there are several great reasons to choose Inishturk island.

Reason 1: Peace and Quiet
Approximately 58 residents live on Inishturk. You could probably meet each one in an afternoon on your 5 km walk around the island. And forget theaters, fancy eateries, and shopping centers. There is a beautiful community center that functions as a restaurant, pub, and library and there are only a few B&B’s from which to choose.  It’s the simple life at its best. Writers, photographers, and artists will love a visit.

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_DSC8905Reason 2: The People
I stayed at Tranaun Beach House, strategically located next to the community center/restaurant/pub. It’s a bit of a hike from the pier, so my host, Phylomena Heaney, drove down to pick me up.

The aroma of freshly baked bread greeted me at the front door of the B&B. Phylomena ushered me into the dining room, serving me tea and scones as I enjoyed a view of the Ireland’s west coast. She was so hospitable and kind – like everyone else I met during my stay. Islanders and other tourists simply wanted to stop and chat, and even though I’d traveled there alone, I never once felt lonely.

_DSC8890Reason 3: Sheep!
I met Farmer Heaney (Phylomena’s brother-in-law, I believe) on my walk around the island. He’d herded his sheep into a pen because some of them needed a fresh coat of paint. Farmers spray paint sheep with their mark as a means of identification. I’d never seen this done before, so he let me observe and take some pictures.

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Reason 4: The Scenery
Fresh air and a decent view. I couldn’t ask for much more…

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_DSC8938Reason 5: Hiking
As I’ve mentioned, it’s a 5 km walk around the island. The first part is all uphill from the pier, and it’s a great workout after spending so much time in airplanes, rental cars, and ferries to get there.

During my hike, I witnessed the islanders setting up for a festival that would expand their population from 58 to 150 over the weekend. I was tempted to stay on for that, but, as you can imagine, all of the B&B’s were booked and tents filled.

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BONUS Reason:  On my way back to the mainland the next morning, several dolphins swam towards the ferry! They stayed alongside us for a few moments before diving below the surface and disappearing. Even the seasoned ferry captain was excited to see them!

Some tips before you go:

  • Ask your hosts if they need anything from the mainland. It’s expensive and time-consuming to go off-island. They’ll appreciate the offer.
  • Bring your Wellies! This goes for Ireland in general, but it’s especially helpful here. Your hike around the island will take you off road and through some soggy hillsides. Totally worth it for the view, though!

Slainte! And don’t forget to vote!!

The Beaches of Inishbofin

Inishbofin is a small island off the coast of County Galway, Ireland. With a population of 170 and accessible only by ferry, it’s a quiet retreat away from the mainland. My favorite part about visiting was renting a bicycle and exploring the beaches…and having them all to myself! _dsc8453_dsc8502_dsc8462_dsc8584_dsc8472_dsc8603_dsc8635_dsc8505_dsc8623

 

Sand Dune Sunset

_DSC9838Death Valley, California

After looking at routes out of Las Vegas back to Washington State, I decided to drive through Death Valley. I’d never been there before, and I wanted to visit – very briefly – the hottest place on earth.

Stepping out of my car to take pictures was like stepping into a furnace. Even at 7 p.m., the temperature gauge in my car reported 115 degrees! That’s just a little too hot for my Pacific Northwest blood!

Even so, it was worth seeing. This picture belies the deadly heat that oppresses the valley, and shows how beauty and life can still exist in the most inhospitable places.