An Irish Dolmen and a Magical Dog

Places I find most magical are in countries with either a very ancient history or where people have a different sense of time—where a day is measured by afternoons rather than nanoseconds.

So in 2004, I made a pilgrimage to Ireland, a nation of storytellers, where you can still hear tales about encounters with fairy folk, where upscale housing developments might still be named for an ancient queen or saint, where you fetch the gate key to a 6,000-year old stone passage tomb at the espresso shop down the hill.

My first view of the Kilclooney Dolmen, which sits on a rise in the land.

I’m a bit obsessed with standing stones, you see, and Ireland has so many!

One morning, I clomped in vain through thigh-high grasses searching for a sacred well along Donegal’s cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. (Wells like these were used in pagan and early Christian times for healing.) Frustrated, I decided to skip my next itinerary stop and head to my B&B for an afternoon nap.

Searching for Stones

As I drove past the road sign pointing to Kilclooney, just 15 miles away, I made a U-turn (not so easy on Ireland’s narrow rural roads!), and took the route leading to Kilclooney’s dolmen, which is a huge stone table built over a tomb entrance.

At the village of Kilclooney, I pulled into a church parking lot and walked to the farm gate across the street—following my trusty guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan (I can’t recommend this one enough!).

The rough farmhouse road/path lay behind the gate—where two large red cows stood sentry, menacingly chewing their cud (or the remains of the last pilgrim they had thwarted!). I followed the guidebook’s instructions and knocked on the stone farmhouse door.

“Is this the path to the dolmen?” I inquired of the elderly lady with a cane who opened it.

“Yes, yes,” she answered with a welcoming smile. “Go through the gate and up the hill a way,” she said.

“There are cows?” I stammered.

The woman must have read my mind: “Ah,” she said with a wave of her hand, “Don’t worry about the cows; they won’t touch you.”

Guardian at the Gate

So I set out, opened the gate, and sidled toward the bovine guards, eyeing their horns. I had come all this way, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing both the sacred well and the dolmen in one day.

At that moment, a black lab bounded through the fence, barking and nipping at the cows, who grudgingly yielded the path. I petted the wagging dog, my hero, then she began bouncing up the trail toward the dolmen.

So I had a four-footed guide, who soon presented me with a reddish rock, dropped it at my feet and stared pointedly at it. On Ireland’s farmland, trees and sticks are scarce, so I picked up the rock and hurled it along the path. So began our game of “fetch,” which lasted the entire half-mile walk to the dolmen: The dog got the rock (always the same one), carried it in her mouth back to the spot in the trail where I had advanced, and dropped it slobber-covered at my feet. I picked it up, threw it ahead and walked some more.

Rocks with a View

When we came up a hill, I gasped when I caught sight of giant rocks like three legs supporting a massive horizontal rock that nonetheless was elegantly stacked so that it looked like a bird taking flight. As we drew nearer, my dog friend guided me safely off the path and across the soggy bog until I arrived at the foot of the dolmen.

I could see for miles over the countryside; there wasn’t a soul around except my canine companion. I explored the stone monument, touching the cool rocks, crouching inside the hollow beneath its “legs,” which once (millennia ago) led into a subterranean chamber.

Kilclooney Dolmen is located in County Donegal, just a few miles from the town of Ardara. You can see my canine guide in the shadow of the dolmen.

I wanted to write in my journal, so I sat on a nearby rock where I had a lovely view of the dolmen against the dramatic sky with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Minutes later, my reverie was destroyed by an army of buzzing midges. I had to keep moving to escape their bites, so I ambled, assessing the dolmen from many angles and picking a few wildflowers.

Finally, I tied my bundle with a stem, placed the flowers at the dolmen’s feet, made a wish and kissed the bird-like capstone. It’s part of the dolmen lore that a kiss on the ancient rocks will make your wishes come true.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland and to Neolithic sites in the British Isles:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.

Originally posted in March 2011.

Reach Falls: Freshwater Fun in Jamaica

Freshwater cascades of Reach Falls, Jamaica

When we think of Caribbean islands, we usually envision turquoise and deep blue waves—and there are plenty of those in Jamaica. Hidden in its lush mountains, however, is a freshwater idyll that visitors shouldn’t miss.

Reach Falls is a refreshing destination—and a pleasant alternative to hanging out on the beach.

Cascades and Pools

What’s more exotic than a swimming hole in the jungle? That’s the magic of Reach Falls in the Blue Mountains east of the town of Port Antonio. Here, water cascades over the massive boulders in some places and forms quiet pools in others.

What I loved at Reach Falls:

  • Swimming through the blue-green water (the milky color comes from the limestone) into shallow caves and peering out at the rainforest through the rivulets of water.
  • Getting a shoulder and scalp massage by standing beneath the water of a rushing cascade.
  • Riding the flume. This is achieved by swimming vigorously upstream to perch on a rock ledge with swirling whitewater around you. Then launch yourself into the current, and let it carry you downstream.

    Deep, clear pools are perfect for a cool dip on a hot afternoon.

Details: There’s an entrance fee to Reach Falls. Facilities include picnic tables, toilets, changing rooms, and lifeguards for general safety.

You can hike up the river to Reach Falls and explore the lush jungled area.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published: June 18, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Tropical Dining with a Jamaican Twist: Sustainable Mille Fleurs Restaurant

No good hotel is complete without an innovative restaurant, and Hotel Mocking Bird Hill’s Mille Fleurs is just such a place. I savored every mouth-watering bite during my stay there—and each was both sustainable and satisfying.

The romantic Mille Fleurs restaurant in Jamaica focuses on organic, island-grown foods. Photo courtesy Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Unlike many Caribbean resorts that import the majority of their food, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill cooks with locally grown and harvested ingredients whenever possible, thereby supporting local farmers and putting fresh, tasty, and usually organically-grown foods on guests’ plates. Chef Melvin Laidlaw and the hotel’s owners also seek out foods that originate from within 50 miles, occasionally widening that to 90 miles when necessary.

The Mille Fleurs adventure begins before your first dinner at the hotel when Chef Melvin sits down to tell you what’s on the menu (it changes daily, depending on what’s in season). He also explains the origins of all the foods and describes Jamaican specialties such as callaloo (a green, leafy vegetable—like spinach—that’s simmered with coconut milk, chopped onions and garlic).

Chef Melvin also asks about your dietary restrictions or preferences. If you’re gluten intolerant, you’re in luck. Cassava, a starchy root that grows in the tropics, is a Jamaican staple—and cassava flour is gluten free. It’s the primary ingredient in Jamaican coconut-milk-fried flatbread called “bammy”—which is heaven!

Dreamy Dining

Candlelit by night, Mille Fleurs restaurant creates romantic atmosphere on its terrace overlooking the Caribbean Sea and rainforest—with the Blue Mountains on the horizon. I loved sitting with a rum drink as the sun set, feeling the cool night breeze and watching the fireflies glow.

To give you a sample of the outrageously good food, my first night’s meal include an orange salad with green olives and local feta* accompanied by fresh-baked herb rolls and scones. For the main course, I chose spiny Caribbean lobster, served with herb butter. (Note: I visited Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in late March, the last days before the close of lobster-catching season. April 1 through June 30 is the lobster’s breeding/egg-laying time, and if you eat lobster between those dates, chances are they’re poached—and I don’t mean in the cooking-method sense!)

To top off the meal, I reveled in a sampler platter of Mango Cheesecake and Papaya and Jamaican Apple & Coconut Custard.

Vegetarian Paradise

I also have to mention that Chef Melvin pampers vegetarians and vegans with Jamaican flavor. On any given day, the menu might include Stir-Fried Callaloo with Garlic, Breadfruit and Peanuts; Spicy Okra and Tomato with Yogurt; Herb Pancakes Filled with Ratatouille and Feta; or Homemade Pasta with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce.

Mille Fleurs participates in Meatless Mondays, a global initiative that promotes reducing your carbon footprint. (The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the meat industry generates one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse-gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide.)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

* I’m compelled to sing the praises of the artisan cheeses served at Mille Fleurs. They’re crafted at Jamaica’s Tamarind Hill Farm by Joanna Slimforte and they’re spectacular. I’ve never tasted such vibrant feta outside the Mediterranean, and the goat cheeses vie with Europe’s.

Originally posted on on May 21, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Chef Melvin Laidlaw hosts cooking classes at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill. During this one, we learned some classic Jamaican recipes: jerk chicken, fried plantain, grilled breadfruit, and red beans and rice cooked in coconut milk.

Room with a Jamaican View: Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Yes, this was the paradise I reveled in every time I gazed out my windows at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-friendly getaway in Jamaica.

Tucked into the forests and organic gardens above the town of Port Antonio is Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-boutique hotel that’s the epitome of Jamaica’s natural side.

Though not on the beach, the socially- and environmentally-conscious hotel overlooks the aquamarine water not far away. Though not in the mountains, you can watch the sun set behind the Blue Mountains from the hotel’s restaurant and rooftop observatory.

In short, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is connected to the land, the sea, the sky and the community in a way that few places do.

The Luxury of Nature

“What is luxury? The definition has changed. It’s not just opulence; it’s having space and quiet.” –innkeeper Shireen Aga

Hotel Mocking Bird Hill does indeed provide the most beautiful of places to relax and forget the cares of the world. Curl up on a deck chair, a pool chair or a day bed hidden in the verdant gardens for some R&R.

Indoors or out, I feel nature’s pulse from the moment I wake until I fall asleep—which is perhaps when I enjoy the earthiness the most.

After a satisfying, sustainable meal in the candlelit Mille Fleurs Restaurant (see a future post for details about the wonderful cuisine), a hush settles over the hotel and the tree frogs sing their moonlight sonata. Fireflies (bigger than any I’ve seen before!) sparkle like fairies in the forest.

Night in the tropics: always relaxing when there’s mosquito netting and a soft bed.

While getting ready for bed each night, I kept all but one light off so as not to attract insects (there are no screens in the louvered windows so that nothing mars the view or separates you from the gardens and jungle surrounding the hotel.)

Then I would climb beneath the mosquito netting, which is rarely necessary if you turn on the ceiling fan above the bed; mosquitoes avoid the breeze.

Mosquito netting is one of my personal favorite luxuries: a diaphanous tent over my bed that assures that my sleep will be undisturbed by winged insects or the geckos who hunt for them.

To me, it’s a treat to sleep in a room open to nature, and mosquito netting over a comfy bed feels like a magic castle. On my first night at Mocking Bird Hill, I awoke to fireflies in my room. One settled on the canopy above me and winked me back to sleep.

The pool is a blue lagoon during the sun-drenched hours and lantern-lit at night.

There are many other luxuries at this 10-room inn:

  • sipping a Red Stripe and jerk-spiced nuts at sundown
  • meeting charming guests from England, Germany and the United States
  • taking trips to the beach
  • excursions for a raft ride or to Reach Falls
  • strolling through the gardens and watching the humming-birds
  • lounging in the hammock in my room (and drinking in yet again that view!)
  • and last, but certainly not least, enjoying a cool dip in the chlorine-free pool.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted on May 5, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

The colorful lobby of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is filled with tropical flowers and the sculptures of innkeeper/artist Barbara Walker.