slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.


live blog: oia

Oia, pronounced “Ia”, is the most famous of all the small villages of Santorini. It’s also the most picturesque. At the northern crescent tip of the island, Oia is a traditional village of beguiling houses terraced up a hill, narrow laneways, blue-domed churches and sun-bathed verandas all overlooking the Caldera. A world away from the tat-filled, tourist-clogged streets of Fira it’s here in this idealized version of Greece that I understand why so many people feel drawn to Santorini.


live blog: into the volcano

Santorini is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Greece. The croissant-shaped island is dominated by the caldera, a volcanic crater on which the capital of Fira appears perilously perched. Getting there is half the fun. From the small port of Skala visitors have three options to the top: a quick lift in the cable car, a ride on a donkey, or an arduous walk on foot. (I chose the cable car, thank you.) From a vantage point 1,000 feet above the sea the largely pedestrianized town boasts panoramic views over the submerged – yet still very much active –  volcano.


more than meets the eye

For a hiking trip there’s been a suspicious lack of physical activity noted on this site over the past two weeks, wouldn’t you say? Time to fix that today with a straight climb up highest hill on Mull. All mountains have a certain magnetic attraction for those who enjoying a good harrumph, but Ben More has more than you’d suspect. At 3,172 feet, the peak is a true beauty because every inch of it is climbed from sea level and that’s a rarity. Plus, the views from the top are spectacular. Beneath the summit are the glens and table-lands carved by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Eastwards across the sea are the serried mainland mountains; to the north, the sawtooth peaks of Rum and Skye; southwards, the Paps of Jura; and if you look westward on a clear day, you can almost see as far as Ireland. Bound by lochs on either side – and Iona and Staffa seemingly close enough to touch – the panorama is superb. (Double click each image for a greater sense of scale.) Many hikers mistakenly assume Ben More is a volcano. It is not, despite the picturesque “smoking” that often appears near the summit. In fact, it is a much rarer phenomenon: a highly magnetic mountain. Extruded 55 million years ago, the iron-rich basalt is so strongly magnetic that chippings will jump on to a proffered magnet. More importantly, compass readings can’t be trusted, particularly at the summit, which has been struck by lightning and remagnetized so often that readings vary enormously even within a few feet. Another surprise is the lack of a well-marked trail, which led to more than a few heated discussions on the extended hike up – all of which evaporated into thin air once we had summited and, more to the point, returned back to ground level unscathed.



europe for the weekend

You’ve got a long weekend and you’d love to get away—a real getaway this time, to a place with a different culture, unique food, and maybe a bit of warmth. But you’ve only got three days. What to do?

Try this: from the east coast of the U.S., a four hour flight will take you from Boston to São Miguel in the Azores, a string of green jewels sitting in the middle of the Atlantic just waiting for you to explore.

You’ll land in Ponta Delgada, the capital and largest city in São Miguel, where you could spend the entire weekend exploring the historic sites and shops, walking narrow streets past colorful chapels and open-air markets. But then you’d miss some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.

So rent a car and head west to the Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) region, where a short hike rewards you with breathtaking views of volcanic crater lakes, lush hillsides that sweep down to deep blue-green water. (The Azores were formed by volcanic action and the remnants of that activity is evident everywhere.) You’ll be traveling on a long and winding road that leads around São Miguel, where every turn rewards you with views of the ocean, rolling hills, and occasional cattle wandering down the middle of the road.

From Sete Cidades, continue on to Ribeira Grande, where you’ll find the beautiful Logoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire). Ribeira Grande is also home to two tea factories and a plantation—the only such plantation in Europe, courtesy of the island’s balmy climate. (It rarely gets below 50°F or above 80°F in the Azores.) Walk the fields, tour the factories and have a cup of tea in a stone-walled tea room.

Nearby, visit the Mulher de Capote (Cloaked Woman) liquor factory and sample liquors made from passionfruit, pineapple and other island fruits. (In the Azores the word “factory” generally means “quaint building surrounded by trees where local woman sort tea leaves or paste labels on liquor bottles.)

Stop for lunch at the posh Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, where the restaurant’s menu features cozido, a combination of meats and vegetables cooked in the ground by volcanic steam. If you’re not a meat-eater, try the fish—it’s always astoundingly fresh, thanks to the deep waters that surround the islands.

After lunch, take a dip in the hotel’s naturally heated pool, which was created by an American expatriate during the time of the Revolution, or walk the English garden planted by a French viscount to honor his parents.

A bit further east, you’ll come to the Furnas region, where geysers hiss from the ground and mineral water (in 23 different flavors) pours from taps as you walk the cobbled streets. (Note that some of these flavors are strong; raspberry-lime isn’t one of them.) The Furnas region is famous for its natural spas where travelers have come for decades to soak away their cares.

Running through the center of Furnas is a bridge with eight arches, one of São Miguel’s many architectural wonders. The Azoreans are a religious people and innumerable churches, chapels and cathedrals adorn the island. These range from the colorful little Holy Ghost chapels to magnificent cathedrals. If you’re lucky, you’ll land on the island during one of the many Holy Ghost festivals—a kind of “old home days” and religious holiday. These events vary from island to island, but invariably involve music, dancing, and free food.

On the second day of your trip, plan to spend some time in the great outdoors—on-land or on the ocean. The Azores are prime spots for whale and dolphin watching, practiced in an environmentally sensitive fashion. Scuba enthusiasts will find plenty of sites to explore, or try your hand at deep-sea fishing. For landlubbers, there are self-guided hiking and biking trails that range from easy to challenging. And don’t forget to bring your camera—São Miguel is a paradise for flowering plants, trees and colorful birds.

By the end of the weekend, you’ll feel at home in São Miguel. Of course, São Miguel is one of only nine islands in the Azores, each with their own unique flavor and charm. You’ll just have to come back another weekend.


ashes to ashes

How ironic that I posted a video yesterday about the plane-choked skies right about the same time those skies were being shut down across Europe.  It seems that mother nature still has the power to put all of us in our place:  a volcanic eruption in Iceland sent plumes of ash into the air, creating a high-altitude cloud that’s now drifting towards Europe.  The ash, it turns out, contains silicates, which melt in the high heat of jet engines, causing them to flame out and stall.

If only this had happened next Thursday, April 22 – it would have made for a sardonic complement to Earth Day.

Check out video below of the erupting volcano, courtesy of ITN, as well as satellite imagery of the dark ash plume.


live blog: rincon de la vieja

Rincon de la Vieja is an active volcano in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, with a large number of fumaroles and hot springs on its slopes.  The name means “old woman’s corner,” and  according to locals it was named for an old witch on top of the mountain who sent columns of smoke into the air when she was angry.  Other versions of the story clam it was named after an old woman who used to cook for weary travelers and that the smoke came from her cooking fire.

Covering 400 square kilometers, it is massive geothermal system – and quite unlike the volcanic peaks more common in the rest of the world.  It is more like a mountainous volcanic plateau that stretches on for miles.  As part of an even larger national park – almost 25% of Costa Rica is parkland protected by the state – it encompasses rain forest, cloud forest, and an astonishing collection of flora and fauna.  Hiking Rincon is rigorous  – and wet – yet the rewards are spectacular.

Here are a few highlights from today’s journey.
Boa Constrictor asleep in a treeThe first thing I saw at the start of my hike was this boa constrictor curled up in a tree about eight feet off the ground. Doubling back four hours later it was still there, soaking up some sun.
Fumarole - toucan nearbyBubbling fumaroles or vents dot the landscape, letting off steam, sulphur, and a thick white mud said to be good for the skin.  Nearby in the trees sat an amazingly colorful rainbow-billed toucan.

Green iguana enflamed to attract a mateThe male green iguana turns a flaming orange color as the mating season begins.

tiny orchids grow on the bark of a fallen treeTiny orchids grow on the bark of a fallen tree.  The park is home to over a hundred varieties of protected orchid, including the national flower of Costa Rica, the purple orchid.

Javillo or Sandbox tree with spiny barkThe Javillo or Sandbox tree – which I cant seem to orient vertically – has a spiny bark to keep monkeys and other predators from stripping it in search of insects.

Salad plate sized fungusThis salad plate-sized fungus is a striking brick-red color, flecked with white and yellow.  I’m fascinated by the perfect geometry of its concentric rings, which reminded me of the rings of Saturn.

Strangling FicusThe Strangling Ficus – again, orientation issues – may be related to the common household plant, but the similarities end there.  It is a parasite, which roots itself around a healthy tree, ultimately surrounding and killing it.


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