In the early afternoon of August 24 in A.D. 79, more than 300 residents of Herculaneum, Rome fled to the shores of the Mediterranean. Some lingered on the beach, others huddled inside seafront boathouses, and all were terrified. For the past several days the earth had been rocked by tremors. Earthquakes were a fairly common occurrence in the area and not a great cause for concern; 17 years earlier, a quake had severely damaged the town. This time, however, the rocking earth was accompanied by a tremendous explosion from nearby Mount Vesuvius, which had been dormant for more than 800 years. Hot ash and pumice spewed 12 miles high, forming a classic mushroom cloud that blotted out the sun and turned daylight into dusk. Wind-carried ash rained down on the community, but unlike nearby Pompeii, which was rapidly covered by nearly 60 feet of the hot material, only a few inches fell on Herculaneum.
Residents tied pillows to their heads as a protection against falling rocks as they fled. Throughout the night they trembled with fear, awaiting rescue boats that never arrived. As dawn broke the mushroom cloud finally collapsed. Volcanic gas and ash combined with the soil, sending wave after wave of liquified material rushing down the mountain at more than 100 miles per hour. With temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the superheated material instantly incinerated the residents of Herculaneum and buried the town beneath more than 60 feet of volcanic mud.
For almost 1700 years, Herculaneum was lost to history. Centuries after the A.D. 79 eruption, unaware that they were building atop the site of an ancient Roman city, a new town sprung up. Gradually, as foundations and wells were dug, artifacts began to emerge. Official excavations of the ruins, which began in 1738, found very few bodies, thus it was assumed that the town had been mostly evacuated prior to the eruption. It wasn’t until 1981 that the boathouse was discovered and, shortly thereafter, more than 300 skeletons began emerging from the volcanic tuff. Read More
Cornwall has always been a distinctive part of England. Eons ago two plates of the earth’s crust rammed into one another, uplifting and twisting the underlying rock into the wild and windswept headlands that created its magnificent scenery. Geographically, this southwestern-most tip of England dips it’s toes in the English Channel at a point where the Atlantic Gulf Stream comes closest to Britain, which blesses it with more temperate weather than the rest of the country.
Even the cultural identity of Cornwall is unique. Though everyone speaks English, locals have also carefully preserved their Cornish dialect, which is derived from their Celtic roots. Pasties, a kind of pastry pocket most often filled with beef steak, onion, potato and, turnips, originated in Cornwall, as did that mainstay of English tea and scones, Cornish clotted cream. Today Cornish cream has protected status; it can only be produced in Cornwall and is one of the county’s most important industries.
For a few decades, mining supplanted agriculture and fishing as the area’s most important industry, as rich deposits of tin, copper, and a pure white clay used in the manufacture of porcelain were discovered beneath its bucolic green hills. But by the late 20th century, mining was no longer economically feasible and, with the exception of a few clay pits, the mines ceased operation. Instead, Cornwall turned it’s view toward tourism, capitalizing on its natural beauty and the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, which provides Cornwall with the mildest and sunniest weather in the UK. This unique climate proved ideal for gardens that today feature scores of plant varieties that cannot exist in other parts of England.
One of these gardens, The Eden Project, was built in a 160-year-old china clay quarry that had been closed down in 1995. A year after the pit’s closure, Tim Smits, who conceived the idea for the Eden Project, drew initial sketches for the garden’s design on a cocktail napkin in a pub. Smits wanted a place to showcase the world’s most important plants and he realized he would need a very, very big site. The abandoned clay pit seemed perfect and gradually, the design evolved into a series of giant bubbles because dome-like structures can settle on any surface, even an irregular clay pit.
It all started with a tweet. I shared a fellow travel blogger’s story about stargazing in Florida on Twitter and Amanda at St. Mawes Retreats replied:
I didn’t know anything about St. Mawes Retreats, but Cornwall was a part of the world I had been itching to visit. A year earlier I’d spent time in Dorset, where I went hunting for Ammonite fossils on the Jurrasic coast in Lyme Regis and hiked the South West Coast Path between Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. It was a place of unexpectedly stunning beauty, with soaring white chalk cliffs swathed in thick green grass, and turquoise coves framed by heaved-up, twisted rock formations that provide evidence of the tortured geologic history of the area. Each time I mentioned the gorgeous Devon scenery to a Brit, I was told, ‘If you think Devon was pretty, you must visit Cornwall.’ I replied on Twitter and we began chatting back and forth.
I’ve never been a “bucket list” kind of traveler. At the very least, the idea of checking places off some tally before I die seems crude; at worst it seems an irreverent measure of one’s worldliness. And yet, I must confess to having one item on what I prefer to call my “travel wish list.” I am dying to see the Northern Lights.
It’s not as if I haven’t tried. For an entire year, at the tender age of 19, I scanned the skies nightly from my unheated log cabin, deep in the north woods of Wisconsin. One winter night, during the decade I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, auroral activity was predicted to be strong enough that the Northern Lights would be visible that far south. I sat up all night on the rear deck of my house, which was surrounded by 12 acres of maritime forest, shivering violently inside a thick down comforter. No lights appeared that night either.
Last winter, Norway Tourism invited me to visit Norway, offering an itinerary that almost surely guaranteed seeing the coveted Aurora Borealis. Alas, I could not accept because I had spent the previous 90 days in France and Spain, and regulations demanded that I leave Europe, as Americans can only be in any of the 27 countries that comprise the ‘Schengen zone’ – a border-free area that includes 23 European Union member states – for 90 out of every 180 days.
I had just about given up when I received an invitation from Hurtigruten to sail around the northern tip of Norway aboard one of their working ships. I weighed the offer carefully. I am not a good sailor; rough seas always defeat me, and sailing above the Arctic Circle sounded like an adventure for someone with better sea legs. On the other hand, I had managed heavy seas during an eight-day sail around the Galapagos Islands. How much worse could the Arctic Ocean be? In the end, my yearning to see the Northern Lights won out, especially since we would be sailing in remote seas where there would be no light pollution. Read More
I heard them long before I saw them. The Huskies were barking and whining excitedly at the approach of our van, knowing that a van meant people, and people meant they would soon be doing what they love most – pulling a dogsled. Our guide had warned that the dogs would raise a ruckus, but assured us that most were friendly and loved attention. “If you hold out your hand and a dog backs away, just leave that one alone.”
I clambered out of the van, donned a black burglar face mask as protection against the cold, and headed into the fray. Squat wooden dog houses sprouted from the snow in neat rows, each duplex housing two Huskies. Between the rows, two-passenger sleds were loading up and heading out on the heels of those arriving. The din grew louder each time a sled appeared, with dogs yipping and straining at their chains, hoping it would be their turn.
It was hard to tear myself away from a particular blue-eyed, white-ruffed Husky who nuzzled me as I scratched his neck, but my sled awaited. The driver, known as a musher, helped me into the slightly elevated rear seat. Once I was settled, my tour-mate, Marianne, straddled the sled and lowered herself to the bottom, snugging up against me. At a word from the musher we were off! We flew out of the yard and through a clump of trees, building up to a remarkable speed. Our sled raced down a small hill, hitting hard enough at the bottom that I bounced up in the air, hitting Marianne in the head with my camera as I came back down. Read More
I had been looking forward to my tour to the North Cape. Normally not a fan of cold weather, I was willing to endure Norway’s extreme conditions, if only to be able to say that I had stood on the northernmost tip of Europe. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. A couple of hours prior to departure the public address system on the MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships that combine passenger voyages with delivery of mail and supplies to the remote northern regions of the country, delivered the bad news. “We regret to inform you that our North Cape tour has been cancelled due to inclement weather conditions.”
Later that week, when Captain Tommy Eliassen invited our small group of travel writers to visit the bridge, I learned that he shared our disappointment. We took turns sitting in his captain’s chair and marveling over the tiny joystick that maneuvered the big ship into snug ports of call while firing off a barrage of questions. Asked if he ever became concerned about sailing through Arctic storms like the one we had experienced on our second night at sea, he shook his head without hesitation.
“This ship is rated to sail through a force ten hurricane. Of course, we wouldn’t do that; there is no reason to make our passengers so uncomfortable. My biggest stress is when we have to cancel activities like your trip to the Cape, but it was out of our hands.”
Eliassen explained that the snow plow drivers who keep the roads clear in this remote area had made the final decision. Over the previous two days, roaring 50 mile per hour winds had created whiteout conditions and swept high drifts across the road. These famous drivers are known for their fearlessness and tenacity during storms; their orders to close roads are inviolable. (To watch a documentary about the lives of these snow plow operators, click here. Although it is in Norwegian, the images are self-explanatory and show how tour buses to the North Cape often have to follow closely behind one of these giant plows). Read More