Laurel’s Compass Travel Blog

A travel writer’s guide to adventures of sustainability and spirit

Earthships: Recycled Houses Made of Dirt

Just 15 minutes outside of  Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip just wasn’t complete without a quick look at these beautiful, fascinating, and environmentally responsible houses.

A unique and eco friendly earthship near Taos, New Mexico © Laurel Kallenbach

An artistic and eco-friendly earthship located near Taos, New Mexico © Laurel Kallenbach

What, exactly, is an Earthship? It’s an off-the-grid and self-sufficient home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud. [See the photo below.] That’s right: no brick and mortar, no wooden studs. Just junk and soil. In fact, one of these buildings diverts 500 to 5,000 tires away from the landfill. Because Earthships are banked into the earth—with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight—they’re extremely energy efficient. Their earthen properties keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.

According to Earthship Biotecture, which builds the structures, “Earthships harvest water from the sky and recycle that water multiple times. They grow their own food, treat their own sewage, and collect power from the sun and wind. They also use passive solar heating and cooling. Imagine no utility bills and a home that takes care of you year round.”

A peek at what's inside the walls of an earthship © Laurel Kallenbach

A peek at what’s inside the walls of an earthship: old tires, beer cans, and mud. © Laurel Kallenbach

Earthships are designed with all the rooms open along a corridor with a huge bank of windows. This way, natural daylight eliminates the need for electrical lighting as long as the sun shines.

A lot of these New-Age structures on the sage- and rabbitbrush-covered land around Taos, New Mexico, are equipped with solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from these renewable resources. Needless to say, this is critical for lowering our dependence on fossil fuels and cutting global levels of carbon emissions.

Outside of Taos, there are dozens of Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Clearly, this form of architecture—sometimes called “biotecture”—is environmentally important.

Water Harvesting

New Mexico is dry, deserts environment, and with the Colorado River at all-time, drought-level  lows, water conservation is absolutely critical. Here’s yet another advantage to Earthships: their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. That water is then filtered and used for drinking or bathing. After you take a shower, wash the dishes or do the laundry, the used water is recycled, filtered again, and then pumped to the surrounding gardens. (The used water is called “graywater” and is suitable for watering plants but not for drinking.)

After we browsed the Visitor Center near Taos, My husband and I were really impressed by Earthships. They’re  unconventional and beautiful creations, although we were a bit skeptical about the used tires that are often used in the construction. Ww wondered: wouldn’t the tires outgas petroleum-based rubber fumes into the air? However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, it’s possible that the earth itself absorbs any toxins.

Here you can see the bottoms of glass bottles embedded into an earthship in a decorative pattern © Laurel Kallenbach.

The bottoms of glass bottles are embedded into an earthship. © Laurel Kallenbach.

To many people, Earthships look like houses on Mars. Over breakfast at our B&B, La Posada de Taos, a woman described them as “weird, but fascinating.”

“They’re actually built into the dirt!” the woman added with a shudder. I suppose Earthships are an acquired taste, but in a time when global warming threatens Planet Earth, Earthships can help us lower our carbon footprint.

Curious ro learn more about Earthship buildings? If you’re in northern New Mexico, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.)

At the Earthship Biotecture Visitor Center, you’ll see displays that explain the details of Earthship technology, along with information about other ways they help help conserve natural resources.  You may choose between a self-guided visit through the center ($8 per adult) or a guided tour that includes several of the area’s demo buildings ($20).In addition, you can also spend the night in an Earthship—something I’d love to do the next time I visit Taos.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor / Originally posted: September 2008. Updated: May 2023





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Discover Painted Hand Pueblo: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

(originally published October 2008; revised May 2023)

If you’re visiting the Four Corners region—where the Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico state lines converge—you’ll be enchanted by breath-taking Southwestern  landscapes and world-class archaeological sites that are unlike anything you’ll see anyplace else on the planet. This region, sometimes called Mesa Verde Country, encompasses Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National MonumentHovenweep National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

The tower structure at Painted Hand Pueblo in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

All three of these nationally protected areas are dotted with what remains of 800-year-old structures and cities of the ancient Ancestral Puebloans, the people who settled in the area between 500 and 1300 CE.  Their civilization developed sophisticated communities that included stone towers, pit houses, living and food storage areas, and kivas (circular, underground spaces used for public meetings and ceremonies).


One such site is Painted Hand Pueblo, located within the 174,000 acres of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, very close to the Utah state line. (It’s off Colorado Road 10, 44 miles from the town of Cortez, where there are hotels and motels. As you drive through the area to reach Painted Hand Pueblo, you’ll encounter other places to stop along the way, including Lowry Pueblo. Painted Hand Pueblo is just nine miles northeast of Hovenweep National Monument, another enchanting location to see prehistoric ruins in the Four Corners area.

Painted Hand Pueblo is a lovely, 13th-century Ancestral Puebloan guard tower gracefully perched atop a mesa overlooking a scenic canyon where there was once a village of about 20 living spaces. You can see it from afar at an overlook, which generates excitement for the short trail to the site. The hike is stunning and not difficult; it leads through piñon and junipers.

On the warm day in 2008 when my husband, Ken, and I visited, the scent of pine sap in the sun was like enticing honey. We turned a bend in the trail, and there sat this gorgeous tower structure expertly built of stacked stones 800-plus years ago like a sentry on the landscape. (The structure was refortified by 20th-century archaeologists).

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. Here you can see the tower on top, a stone shelf, and the underpinning below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Gazing out over the canyon, we watched a hawk circle in the ultra-blue sky and tried to make out where the village’s housing units might be. (The small structures below the rim of the canyon have only been minimally excavated, and aren’t really visible—at least not from a distance.)

At the ruin, we had to scramble and skid down a pebbled, eroded, nearly nonexistent section of the trail in order to get to the base of the tower, where we had an upward view of the structure. [Note: I imagine this part of the trail has been modified or blocked off since our 2008 trip—for the purpose of safeguarding visitors and protecting the fragile, high-desert environment from further human-caused erosion.]

It was from this lower viewpoint of the tower that  Ken found and pointed out the faint shape of three white hands on rock—the reason for the village’s name. The lonely call of a hawk overhead got me wondering about the long-ago artist who created her or his  handprint on this massive stone overlooking the peaceful valley. What was the artist’s life like? One thing I’m sure of: they would have been as awed by the scenery as we were.


In Canyons of the Ancients National Monument alone there are about 8,500 structures built by the Ancestral Puebloans that have been identified so far—though it’s likely there are more that have yet to be discovered.  Only a few of the ancient pueblos (Spanish for “villages”) have been reconstructed by archaeologists—and they’re truly a wonder to behold. In fact, I first visited Mesa Verde when I was five years old, and my fascination with the remains of the civilization grabbed my imagination. I immediately decided I wanted to become an archaeologist. (Okay, I didn’t pursue that career, but as a journalist, I can write about archaeology!)

The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Four Corners region starting as early as 500 CE, and they stayed until 1100 to 1300 CE, when they began migrating out of the region.  They were the forebears of the current-day Pueblo people, whose sovereign nations are now located in an arc stretching from the Hopi villages in Arizona to the Pueblos along the upper Rio Grande in New Mexico. These people are represented by the Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni and the The Hopi Tribe.

A view of the masonry from the inside the tower structure. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach


Back when I was a kid exploring Mesa Verde National Park, the Ancestral Pueblo people were referred to as Anasazi. Contemporary Puebloan people object to the use of this term, which is why we now use Ancestral Puebloan. The website for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center explains why: “The term ‘Anasazi’ was established in 1927 through the archaeological Pecos Classification system, referring to the Ancestral Pueblo people who spanned the present-day Four Corners region of the United States, including Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, and Aztec. The term is Navajo in origin and means “ancient enemy.” The Pueblo peoples of New Mexico understandably do not wish to refer to their ancestors in such a disrespectful manner, so the appropriate term to use is ‘Ancestral Pueblo’ or ‘Ancestral Puebloan.’”

The Pueblo Cultural Center website adds: “At one time, the Pueblo homeland reached into what is now Colorado and Arizona, where incredible dwellings and trading centers were established at sites such as Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico and Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado. Pueblo people have preserved their identity in the face of multiple colonizing nations, and today, as always, they value their identity and traditional ways of life. At the same time, Pueblo people live in modern houses, working and living both on and off our reservations.”

The high desert and canyon landscapes surround Painted Hand Pueblo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Pueblo beliefs and actions are still guided by Pueblo core values, which include love, respect, compassion, faith, understanding, spirituality, balance, peace, and empathy. Celebrations and ceremonies are continued throughout the year, maintaining the connection to Pueblo communities, ancestors, and to the Earth.”

Though archaeologists used the term “Anasazi” to identify the people of the Four Corners Region, it is a pejorative word. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center explains.


In 2008, When Ken and I visited, the turn-off to Painted Hand Pueblo was difficult to find, and we had to drive over a very bumpy road. We pulled over when the road started to look like more than our Toyota Camry could handle, then we hiked in the rest of the way. We’d been forewarned to carry plenty of drinking water and that there were no bathroom facilities between Lowry Pueblo and Hovenweep.

Well, no more of that travail—or of peeing in the woods! An improved road leading into Painted Hand Pueblo was completed in the spring of 2023, and the parking lot has been upgraded to provide additional vehicle parking, plus space for oversized rigs. Picnic tables and shade structures were added—and now there’s a bathroom!

Also, the short trail from the parking area to the ruin has been adjusted from a loop configuration to an out-and-back trail that protects the site and reduces erosion and environmental damage, creating sustainable visitation so that people will continue to visit Painted Hand Pueblo in the future.


Declared a National Monument in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients contains some of the most scenic and archaeologically important land in the American Southwest. This unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified.

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

PS: I highly recommend Mesa Verde Country’s Trail of the Ancients 6-Day Itinerary to delve into all the culture and landscapes of the area, including the Ute Mountain Tribal Park and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center:

PPS: If you’ve been to Painted Hand Pueblo since its road and facilities have improved, please share your experience in the Comments section below. I’d love an update.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Standing amid pre-history: I’m feeling somewhat insignificant beside this enduring structure,  estimated to have been built in 1200 CE. © Ken Aikin


Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

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Wild Dolphins Ahoy in California’s Channel Islands!

Originally posted November 2010

At last I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.

While on an Island Packers cruise to the Channel Islands National Park, I witnessed wild dolphins for the first time. Photo: Island Packers.

You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the cold waters of British Columbia to the warm seas of Belize: no dolphins. From the Caribbean to the Mediterranean: no dolphins appeared to me. fFrom Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos Islands to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins. I was beginning to think I was cursed, despite a life-long adoration of the sleek animals.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore” Yet when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent. For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and ocean-cliff overlook—to no avail. (The lyrics I still sing are from the Jevetta Steele song in the 1987 movie, Bagdad Café.) Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for the glorious marine mammals and reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—all while hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, California. Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail as their silvery backs streaked through the water and watched them leap in and out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat and zipping beside us, in front of, and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!

I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. And anyway, I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.

The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello and inviting me to play.

Supporting Wild Dolphins in Their Natural Habitats

In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer these types of programs.

You can “adopt” a wild dophin for about $40 a year from the Oceanic Society, a nonprofit that works to protect ocean health and oceanic species. Photo courtesy Oceanic Society

For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve “adopted”—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals. (The Oceanic Society works to connect people to the ocean and to build a movement dedicated to solving the key ocean problems of our time: plastic pollution, unsustainable fishing and aquaculture, and climate change. Its goal is to improve ocean health by addressing the root cause of its decline: human behavior.)

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I was fascinated by the survival story of a young, Indigenous girl stranded on the island of her birth after the rest of her people were forcibly relocated to the mainland by white missionaries. (It’s loosely based on a real story.) One thing I loved about the book was how close the fictional girl, Karana, was to the ocean and her island, and how she survived by learning to hunt and fish. That connection to the natural world—and to dolphins—inspired me.

Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher

What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.

For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”

The glorious Channel Islands off the California coast. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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Dino Dig in Colorado: Be a Paleontologist for a Day

Digging for dinosaurs at Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Originally published November 2013

The green-and-purple tail of Triceratops disappears over the crest of the mesa, headed west through the desert toward Utah on I-70 with our van driver in hot pursuit. I sit shotgun in the van, and behind me a seat full of hyper-excited kids shouts, “Catch up, catch up!” Bouncing around in a back seat behind them is my adult brother, David Kallenbach.

Heavily loaded with children and their parents, our passenger van chugs up the Colorado mesa, and we again spot the four-wheeled Triceratops—a.k.a. The Dino Mobile, which is piloted by ace paleontologist John Foster, who leads our caravan to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry in Utah for a day-long Dino Dig. The Dino Mobile, which is decked out with three horns and the trademark bony head-frill of Triceratops, emits occasional bursts of fossil fuel from its tailpipe.

The paleontology excavation, sponsored by the Museums of Western Colorado/Dinosaur Journey Museum, is wish fulfillment for the prehistoric-reptile obsessed humans in the van—including David and me.

Once upon a time, the two of us were fossil-collecting eight-year-olds who used to bicker during road trips about who was tougher: Tyrannosaurus rex or Dimetrodon.

Like these prehistoric hunters, my brother and I spent our childhood locked in titanic struggle for no reason other than preadolescent rage about family pecking order. I fantasized about being an only child with nearly as much passion as becoming a paleontologist. David wanted to take his know-it-all sister down a peg. There was hair-pulling, arm-twisting, and, yes, even biting, at which my brother was the clear champion.

But that was ancient history—almost as long ago as the 150 million years we’re traveling back in time today. David and I are going back to the Jurassic. We’ve partnered up for a brother-sister road trip with a prehistoric theme. No longer adversaries, we both agree we have more in common than not—including our love for the outdoors and for dinosaurs. So, we’ve met in Grand Junction, Colorado—he lives in Montana; I’m from Boulder—to commemorate the car-camping treks of our childhood. Luckily for us, nearby western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise some of the world’s best dinosaur country, much of which we can access via the scenic, 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Byway.

The Dino Mobile, decked out like a Triceratops ©Laurel Kallenbach

Quest for Dinosaurs

As the Dino Mobile and our van pull into Mygatt-Moore Quarry, Dexter—who has just graduated from kindergarten summa cum laude—announces he’s going to unearth a dinosaur skull today. The eight-year-old inside me thinks, “No way! I’m going to find it!” After all, I’ve got more than four decades on the kid.

First, though, we paleontologists-in-training learn the ropes. Dr. Foster demonstrates how to use our tools and tells us how to spot dinosaur fossils; they’re darker than the surrounding clay. “Never remove a fossil from the ground until a paleontologist has documented where it’s located,” he says.

David and I pick a spot under the shade awning, strap on knee-pads, arrange old carpet squares to kneel on, and start digging with screwdrivers, using them to delicately lift horizontal layers of the bleached-out clay, which was once mud along an ancient river.

Paleontologist John Foster demonstrates how to brush away dirt at the dig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Aw we begin digging, we scrutinize every earthen clump, sweep non-interesting pieces into a dustpan with a small paintbrush, and eventually pour the waste into a bucket. We’re hyper-vigilant for anything dark. We’ve been told that a piece of bone will have a spongy texture; dinosaur teeth are shiny black.

Fifteen minutes after we start, young Dexter calls out from his digging post nearby. “I found something!” he crows. Everyone’s  heads pop up like prairie dogs on alert. Paleontology assistant Tom Temme checks, and then confirms, that Dexter has indeed unearthed a dinosaur bone fragment. David and I exchange determined looks, as if to say, We’ve been upstaged by that pipsqueak? We apply our screwdrivers to the clay with renewed fervor.

David uses the tools of the trade: screwdriver, brush, dustpan, and a bucket for hauling away empty rock. ©Laurel Kallenbach

When I encounter a blackish vein about a third-inch wide, I slow down and carefully trace its edge. Soon the vein forks to the right. My pulse pounds in my ears at the prospect of digging up the bone of an animal never before seen by humans. I call to Kelsie Abrams, a paleontology grad student who’s in Colorado for a summer of digging. She bends over my find. “Yep, that’s a stem of Equisetum—horsetail.” She touches the dark line. “You can tell because plant matter rubs off on your finger like black charcoal.” My adrenaline rush crashes.

Equisetum grows everywhere—even today,” says David, who is a former National Park ranger and an expert on the flora and fauna of the West. “It’s pretty common.”

Pouting, I retort, “Still, it’s a 150-million-year piece of Equisetum.” But my brother and I both know that horsetail is not paleontology’s holy grail. Dinosaurs are.

We continue digging as the sun grows hotter and our legs cramp. Beside us, Frank and his ten-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, hold out a chunk of rock to Tom; there’s something dark in it. Tom carefully breaks off bits of the rock, revealing the tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus, a ferocious meat-eater. Had the tooth been from an adult, he says, it would have been three inches long. Ashley’s find—discovered just two feet to our right—ignites in us a frenzy of breaking chunks of hardened clay. The result is only sore fingers.

Dr. John Foster gave our group a behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology lab to see large fossils and some of the tools scientists use to analyze them. Then my brother and I strolled through Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with reassembled skeletons—including our toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus friend—and robotic recreations of dinosaurs such as the carnivorous Utahraptor and a venom-spitting Dilophosaurus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At noon, Stephen Senior and his ten-year-old namesake unearth another piece of bone. After Tom has flagged its position in the ground, he removes it and passes it to me for a look. I have a hard time distinguishing “spongy” bone from clay. It takes a practiced eye, this digging for dinosaurs.

Laurel: living the paleontology dream!   ©David Kallenbach

Sweaty and deflated, David and I quit for lunch and watch Tom drizzle a mixture of acetone and dissolved plastic on Dexter’s bone fragment to keep it from crumbling. Any doubts I have that this Dino Dig is a tourist gimmick evaporate. We amateurs are helping out with real science—hot, back-straining, exhilarating science.

At the picnic table, we ask Kelsie, who has a Diplodocus skull tattooed on her left forearm, why the kids are making all the good finds. “It’s total luck,” she said, sipping Gatorade from a plastic Dinosaur Journey souvenir cup that reads I’d rather be in the Mesozoic. Then she adds that kids tend to “dig in,” whereas adults can be overly thorough. My brother and I look sheepish. Being meticulous is a family trait.

After lunch, we double our speed, yet each time I empty my dustpan I worry that I’m discarding a valuable piece of prehistory. Ultimately, we never hit “pay dirt,” yet it’s right here at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry. Fifty yards from where we’re digging, a number of seasoned volunteers are unearthing the five-foot-long femur of an Apatosaurus. Now that’s the holy grail.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Dino Digs is an educational/vacation program by the Museum of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, Colo., that offers paleontology adventures (half-day up to five-day expeditions) in various quarries in western Colorado and eastern Utah, including Moab.

The digs let you work with real scientists in quarries and learn skills such as spotting fossils and digging them out of the rock or dirt. Participants also get a behind-the-scenes view of how paleontologists clean and study their finds at Dinosaur Journey museum.

Dino Digs are available from mid-May through mid-September. Transportation to the quarry, lunch, water/Gatorade, and tools are provided. The minimum age varies from five to eight, depending on the dig you choose.

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Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

INDIE BOOKSTORE DAY is a one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April. Support independent bookstores instead of ordering on line. Instead, call your local bookstore and buy it from them! This can even work for self-published books!

(Originally published in November 2013)

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is one of my favorite things to do. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring author’s houses, or  places associated with them. I’ve been to Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France; the Goethe House in Frankfurt, Germany; and the real Slaughterhouse  5 in Dresden, Germany, where Kurt Vonnegut sheltered during the WWII bombing. In England, I’ve been to theJane Austen house in Bath, William Wordsworth’s house in Grasmere,  Shakespeare’s birthplace  in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. In London,  the homes of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf’, and John Keats were delightful.

I’ve also had tea at Edinburgh, Scotland’s Elephant House, the coffee/tea shop considered to be the “birthplace” of the Harry Potter novels. There,  author J.K. Rowling wrote in the back room overlooking Edinburgh Castle.

It’s also quite meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in the Italian village of Cortona, where she lives.


Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-visit for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage . . . to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—and even bookstore chains—were dropping like flies.

There was a section just for Ann Patchett’s books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of “Bel Canto,” my favorite, and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the store’s riches and couldn’t think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, The Dutch House. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entryway into the whimsical children’s section at Parnassus Books. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, I would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

Read an inspiring piece about coronavirus and Parnassus Books, written by Ann Patchett for The Guardian newspaper.


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10 Reasons To Celebrate America’s National Parks

Did you ever stop to think that you own a park? That’s right: American citizens are the owners of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Everglades—and it’s time to celebrate! Every year in April, the nation celebrates National Park Week during the nine days around Earth Day (April 22).There are still several days left in National Park Week to discover the most spectacular scenery, historic landmarks, and cultural treasures in the United States. To motivate people to get out and enjoy the National Parks, admission to more than 400 national parks is free on April 22nd.


Mesa Verde, in southwest Colorado, is one of my favorite national parks. Cliff Palace (shown here) was built by the Ancestral Puebloan people between 1260–1280 CE. It inspired my love of archaeology. © Laurel Kallenbach

I’ve been enjoying those parks all my life. My parents took my brother and me camping and hiking in national parks from Acadia to Zion from the time we were old enough to ride in a baby carrier. I’ve been deep inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and toured the battlefields of Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge.

But National Park Week isn’t the only time to appreciate and support the national parks. All year round, you can visit and even volunteer in the 84 million acres of nationally owned land.

Here’s how America’s national parks make the world a better place:

1. Conserve wild lands for generations to come.

2. Preserve historic landmarks of national interest, such as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park.

3. Protect natural ecosystems, wildlife, and biodiversity.

Iconic Half-Dome in California’s Yosemite National Park. Photo by Madhu Shesharam; courtesy Unsplash

4. Provide spaces for outdoor recreation (there are more than 13,000 miles of trails on both land and water).

5. Offer recreational benefits that improve health, boost energy and get people outside in nature.

6. Are sources of natural sounds, clean water, and fresh air.

7. Provide free Junior Ranger programs that encourage kids to learn about nature—including plants, birds and animals—and environmental stewardship in the parks and at home.

8. Offer Electronic Field Trips, educational tools for classroom use that teach students about a national parks they might never get a chance to visit otherwise. Examples: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Manzanar National Historic Site, and Gulf Islands National Seashore.

9. Train high school aged leaders in the science and effects of climate change through an immersion experience in national parks via its Parks Climate Challenge program.

10. Are repositories of nature’s beauty, which enrich those who visit and contribute to physical and emotional health. Being in nature can generate positive emotions, including calmness, joy, and creativity. Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety .


Hit the Road and Help the Parks

You can actually support the national parks just by traveling—especially if you book your next trip at So what are you waiting for? Get out and discover something new about our national parks.


Yorktown Battlefield National Park, located in Virginia, documents the final battle fought during the American Revolution. © Laurel Kallenbach


As of April of 2023, the National Park System encompasses 424 national park sites in the United States, according to the National Park Foundation. They span across more than 84 million acres, with parks in each state and extending into the territories, including parks in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

Whether you prefer a 20-mile backcountry hike in Grand Teton National Park or a leisurely stroll around Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, moving outside is good for you and offers a chance to explore these places you own.

Remember: This land is our land! It’s ours to protect, to respect, and to enjoy.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor


Harriet Tubman was a deeply spiritual woman who lived her ideals and dedicated her life to freedom. She is the Underground Railroad’s best-known conductor and before the Civil War repeatedly risked her life to guide 70 enslaved people north to new lives of freedom. The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park preserves the places and landscapes where Tubman carried herself and others away from slavery. Photo courtesy US Park Service


Read more about my travels through some of America’s national parks and monuments:


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5 Prehistoric Monsters You Can’t Miss at Dinosaur Journey

In Fruita, Colorado, dinosaurs rule, especially at Dinosaur Journey, a museum devoted to  Traveling through this western Colorado town—only half an hour from the Utah border—you’ll see plenty of dino sculptures and signs. This deserts landscape is truly a paleontologist’s dream come true.

Dinosaur Journey museum is an educational, fun place to explore the dinosaurs of the western United States.     ©Laurel Kallenbach

For more than a hundred years, scientists have flocked to this part of the West to search for dinosaurs—and they’re still making new discoveries. Thousands of fossilized dinosaur remains have been unearthed in the region.

The town of Fruita, about 12 miles west of Grand Junction, Colorado, is located along the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Highway, a 512-mile loop through Colorado and Utah with designated stops at sites famous for dinosaur finds. If you’re a dino lover, you must stop at Fruita’s Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with fossilized skeletons—including toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus—and robotic recreations of a number of impressive dinosaurs.

In addition to seeing the paleontology lab, where you can learn about how scientists study the fossils they’ve dug up, you get an up-close look at the creatures, including these five:

A fossilized skeleton of Allosaurus, nicknamed “King of the Jurassic.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

1. Voracious Allosaurus: A seriously carnivorous dinosaur of the Jurassic, this behemoth used its sharp teeth and hand claws to tear into herbivorous dinosaurs, including Brontosaurus. Numbers of Allosaurus skeletons have been found in Rabbit Valley where I participated in the museum’s Dino Dig; in fact, the girl and her grandfather digging next to me unearthed the fossilized tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus. Gazing at the Allosaurus skeleton at Dinosaur Journey museum is terrifying enough, but imagine the horror of seeing a fully muscled and fleshed animal—who weighed between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds—coming at you!

Beware the poisonous Dilophosaurus, who may have been a venom-spitter. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

2. Poison-Spitting Dilophosaurus: A dinosaur that will hunt you down and spit poison at you? Yikes! Dinosaur Journey’s animated model of Dilophosaurus rears up and drenches museum-going humanoids with poison. Okay, it’s really just water spewing at you, but it’s a pretty scary demonstration of the talents of these prehistoric carnivores. One note: Scientists aren’t positive that this 20-foot monster with twin crests on its head was actually poisonous; it’s a theory. Either way . . . yuck!

3. Swift Velociraptor: If you’ve seen the movie Jurassic Park, you know that the small, lithe Velociraptor was a formidable hunter because of its speed. There’s just no running away from these track-and-field stars when they’re hungry.

The hungry Velociraptor at Dinosaur Journey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The skeleton on display at Dinosaur Journey looks petite, but you can see rows of razorlike teeth and those creepy, birdlike claws. (Size isn’t everything!) Even the empty eye socket looks terrifying. Imagine this flesh-eater covered in feathers—horror!

The Mymoorapelta Maysi was covered with bony armor. ©Laurel Kallenbach

4. Armored Mymoorapelta: Covered in bony armor, Mymoorapelta was named after Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado, where it was found. (This is the same quarry where my brother and I dug for fossilsThe same quarry where I dug for fossils!)

Much like an armadillo, this dinosaur was biologically furnished with bony, spiky plates that would have made it tough for predators to kill this slow-moving beastie, who is sometimes dubbed “a living tank” because of its heavy coat of armor. The sign at Dinosaur Journey calls this guy “Knight of the Jurassic.”

Fossils of he Utahraptor, which lived in the early Cretaceous, were discovered in Yellow Cat, Utah. ©Laurel Kallenbach

5. Utahraptor, the Slasher: This massive hunter was even larger than the fear-inducing  Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex— and just as fierce. Can you guess the state where Utahraptor was discovered?

With formidable, nine-inch-long claws, this uber-predator was the Freddy Krueger of Cretaceous carnivores. Indeed, this depiction of Utahraptor is truly a bloody nightmare—and I’m pretty sure he’s chewing on a vegetarian. Truly chilling!

This ravenous Sarcosuchus is about to eat my brother! ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bonus monster: Sarcosuchus: A distant but giant-sized relative of the crocodile, Sarcosuchus lived 112 million years ago. The display of this toothy mega-reptile was visiting during the traveling, temporary “Supercrocs” exhibition, so it’s not permanently at Dinosaur Journey. Good thing, or my brother, David, would never have made it out alive!

Fun Facts You’ll Learn at Dinosaur Journey:

  • Stegosaurus is the official state fossil of Colorado.
  • The giant sauropod dinosaur Supersaurus—who probably weighed about 92,400 pounds—was collected near the town of Delta, in western Colorado.
  • During the Early Jurassic, most of western Colorado was covered in sand dunes, and we find dinosaur footprints in these rocks.
  • A young duck-billed dinosaur was found in marine rocks in western Colorado. The animal had been washed out to sea (from what is now Utah) and sank to the bottom.
  • Super-sized Apatosaurus (also known as Brontosaurus) was found near Fruita and probably weighed about as much as 150,069 Big Macs.
  • A tiny Jurassic dinosaur, Fruitadens —who lived at the same time as Apatosaurus—was smaller than a chicken. Apatosaurus was a million times heavier than Fruitadens. Both were found in western Colorado.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published: August 2014

An Allosaurus model at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado ©Laurel Kallenbach

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3 Artsy Reasons to Visit Dresden’s Theater Square


Originally posted February 2017

February is not the most popular month to visit Dresden—the glittering Christmas Market is long gone, and there are no summery flower boxes or outdoor cafés. But for music and museum lovers like me, winter is a thrilling time to visit this musical city.

Dresden's Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

One of my primary reasons to travel to Dresden was to attend a performance in its world-renowned Semper Opera House, which simultaneously juggles at least three operas, a ballet, and orchestra concerts during the winter months. Before I departed in early February, I peeked at a map of Dresden’s historic Old Town (Altstadt) and was thrilled that the opera house located in the heart of the historic city.

In fact, the entire square, the Theaterplatz, is named for the venerated opera house. Dresden’s Old Town contains many architectural and cultural gems, and some of the most spectacular are concentrated in the Theaterplatz, including the glorious Rococo-style Zwinger Palace, home to several fantastic museums.

Though there are many other gorgeous and historic buildings and churches to enjoy in Dresden, you can’t go wrong starting in Theater Square. There were three sites in the Theater Square that I particularly enjoyed: The Zwinger, the Old Masters Picture Gallery, and the opera house itself.

1. The Zwinger

What’s a “zwinger”? The word sounds like a hip nightclub, and back in the early 1700s when it was built, Dresden’s Zwinger was indeed an 18th-century party venue for the aristocracy.

Sculptures at the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Zwinger” is an Old German word that refers to an area between a castle’s walls and the outer fortress walls. Dresden’s ornate Zwinger, often called the Zwinger Palace, was originally designed as an orangery and a setting for court festivities. It was later used for exhibitions; today it houses several museums.

Dresden’s Zwinger Palace is known for its beautiful baroque architecture, which, as you can see from the photos, means there are lots and lots of showy arches, curlicues, floral motifs, fountains, walkways, and Greek-inspired statutes.

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Zwinger is an ideal place to stroll on a nice day—and it’s free to the public. At the southeast end of the Zwinger’s courtyard is the Carillon/Glockenspiel Pavilion with a collection of white glockenspiel bells made of porcelain by the famous Meissen factory. The bells play a tune every half-hour, which usually attracts a bit of a crowd.

The Nymph Garden and Crown Gate are filled with enchanting mythological sculptures and fountains (which were dry during my visit in February). Nevertheless, it was wonderful to behold the statues, though I shivered inside my toasty down coat because the sculptures had no warm clothes to protect them from  the winter weather.

Ice-cold statues of naked goddesses in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

I would have loved to linger in the Zwinger for longer than I did, but a chilly wind was blowing, and all the unclad goddesses made me feel even colder. I vowed to return to Dresden in summer, when flowers and fountains and weather would be brilliant.

Luckily, the Zwinger Palace houses wonderful museums (entry fees apply): the Dresden Porcelain Collection, the Mathematics and Physics Museum, and the Old Masters Picture Gallery. It was into this last museum that I hurried in to warm up.

2. Old Masters Picture Gallery

This museum, in the Semper building adjoining the Zwinger, contains one of the world’s most important collection of paintings dating from the baroque and Renaissance period. The 700-piece collection was started 300 years ago by Augustus II the Strong, who built the Zwinger, along with a lot of the baroque structures in Old Town Dresden, the capital of Saxony.

Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” at the Old Master’s Gallery

The most famous painting in the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister) is Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which I wanted to see in part because of the two comical cupids at the Virgin’s feet. Their image is so popular that it appears on refrigerator magnets, greeting cards, and blank journal books. Yet, they’re only part of the appeal of the painting: the deep colors were amazingly vibrant, and the shading in the folds of the clothing and drapes was truly astonishing.

Apparently the exasperated cherubs’ fame has also reached the Far East, because when I arrived in the chamber with the wall-sized Madonna, a group of Japanese tourists was getting their pictures taken in front of the painting—first individually, then in pairs, and finally many different exposures and arrangements of the entire group at once. I wanted to get closer to the painting to see the cherubs in detail, but I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s pictures. The photo session took so long that I gave up and continued on to enjoy some other art.

The Renaissance painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586) were also incredibly gorgeous. Paintings by the younger Cranach were so detailed and realistic that they looked more like photographs than oils.

I was enthralled by Cranach the Younger’s “David and Bathsheba,” which focused on the bathing Bathsheba surrounded by  her handmaidens, one of whom has turned and stares straight at the viewer. Though the scene is biblical, the women were dressed in Renaissance garb. Initially, I thought the painting was mis-titled because King David was nowhere to be seen. At the last minute, just when I was moving on to look at the next painting, I spotted a man wearing a crown high in a castle tower in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. King David was almost completely out of the picture due to his distant location, but we could still see him staring lustily at the married Bathsheba from afar! Was he already plotting how to get rid of her husband?

“Paradise” by Lucas Cranach the Elder hangs in The Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden. (1530, oil on wood)

Cranach the Elder’s depiction of the Garden of Eden accentuated pairs of animals, including unicorns (on the far right). Adam and Eve are in the background; that story is overly told, but the animals in Paradise were a refreshing twist.

It would have been easy to spend a couple of hours in the Old Masters Gallery, but I had just an hour. With more time, I would have looked up Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”—and maybe I would have returned to the Raphael “Madonna” when there were fewer people.

3. Semper Opera House

As a musician, I was drawn most of all to the iconic Semper Opera House, which for me is a temple of music—the equivalent of visiting a great cathedral. Even if you’re not an opera fan, the opera house is worth touring for its stunning architecture and ornate interior. It’s also home to the Saxon State Opera, the Saxon State Orchestra, and the Semperoper Ballet.

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

I took a 45-minute tour given in English of the magnificent building, during which I learned about its three incarnations. Originally built in 1841 by architect Gottfried Semper, the opera house wowed audiences throughout Europe. The brilliant (and anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner was one of its early music directors. Three of Wagner’s operas premiered at the Semper Opera House: Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser.

Unfortunately, the opera house burned down in 1869 and didn’t reopen in its full glory until 1878, when it was reconstructed according to another of Semper’s designs.

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The second opera house was almost entirely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. It took 40 years to rebuild, but in the 1980s, restorers painstakingly recreated nearly every detail of the former structure—plus they added more comfortable seating with better sight lines, modern heating/air conditioning, and state-of-the-art stage machinery.

When I walked through the halls and beheld the elaborately painted ceilings, the chandeliers, and the statues of singers and composers, I understood why the acoustically excellent Semper Opera House is also consideed one of the world’s loveliest. Though the 1980s reconstruction took place under the East German communist government, attention to detail was perfect, although many of the special craftsmen who knew how to create such wonderful finishes were gone.

At intermission, I strolled through the chambers of the Semper Opera House and marveled at the columns and vaulted ceilings—all rebuilt after the WWII bombing of Dresden. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The balustrades are made of serpentine stone, and the green “marble” pillars are actually built from brick covered with plaster, glue, and paint—then polished so that they gleam like marble. The giant chandelier in the theater weighs 1.9 tons and can be lowered from the ceiling so that it can be cleaned and its 258 light bulbs changed.

My guide took the tour group into the theater, where stagehands were preparing for the next show. They attached scenery to the stage’s fly system, and the orchestra pit had been raised to stage level so that they could roll in the celeste for the night’s performance. (A celeste is keyboard instrument that plays the glockenspiel part for the character of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. (Most people are familiar with the celeste’s best-known solo, “The Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy” in The Nutcracker ballet.)

A pre-show view of “The Magic Flute” at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

That night, I attended The Magic Flute performance at the Semper Opera House, a beautifully sung production set in a modern fantasyland that was half Edward Scissorhands and half Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The theater was packed; the Germans really support the opera with enthusiastic attendance.

From my seats in the 1st Ring, I could see and hear wonderfully, and the supertitles—the lyrics projected above the stage—were in both English and German, so it was easy to know what the characters were singing.

Most notable was the Queen of the Night’s aria, a stratospherically high and notoriously difficult part sung by a coloratura soprano. The performer’s mouth opened wider than I’ve ever seen before, but her pitches were bright and true. It was breathtaking, and the applause was thunderous when she finished. Attending an opera in the spectacular Semper Opera House was an unforgettable experience.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Semper Opera House at night. Courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

The Semper Opera House at night. Photo courtesy Dresden Marketing Board


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Visiting a Legendary Green Resort and Spa in Ireland

Originally posted March 2009, updated March 2023

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, it seems only appropriate to blog about a green, holistic resort and spa on the Emerald Isle: Delphi Resort. (And by “green,” I’m thinking of the eco-friendly, sustainable type, although in Ireland, the term certainly applies to the vivid foliage too.) The unique location of Delphi Resort enables visitors to escape from everyday life to an environment where the sea and the land meet to form the most spectacular coastline in Ireland, along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The mountains of Connemara are a gorgeous setting for adventure and relaxation in Ireland’s County Galway.  Photo courtesy Delphi Resort

Ireland is infused with myth and magic—from its misty mountains to its sea-swept cliffs. When I visited in 2004, I couldn’t help but envision legendary Irish heroes at Delphi, a contemporary timber-and-stone lodge that’s hidden in Connemara’s remote fjords a little more than an hour’s drive from the city of Galway.

The 4-star Delphi Resort is located in the gorgeous Connemara Mountains of Ireland. Photo courtesy Delphi Resort

The ancient Celtic stories are, in fact, part of the area’s colorful lore. On a hike through the mountainous terrain, our guide regaled us with the romantic tale of Diarmuid and Grainne, passionate lovers who escaped the wrath of Grainne’s husband-to-be (legendary chieftain Fionn MacCool) by fleeing to various hiding places throughout Ireland. Diarmuid, a fabled warrior, is said to be buried on Mweelrea, the mountain that towers above Delphi Resort. The guide mentioned that Diarmuid is supposedly buried in the area.

A thermal suite with an outdoor view is perfect for relaxing. Photo courtesy of Delphi Resort

This nature-oriented resort’s architectural style draws from Ireland’s ancient standing stones and Celtic tree lore—reflected in its use of storm-felled oak, ash, beech and elm and (what else?) local stone. Delphi also offers water sports such as kayaking and canoeing on the lake, as well as surfing and sea kayaking at the nearby Atlantic coast. Land adventures include zip-lining, archery, bushcraft, climbing, orienteering, and, mountain biking.

A Magical Spa

The resort’s spa area, which has fabulous mountain vistas, is the ideal resting place for modern-day heroes and athletes just returned from kayaking, hiking, rock climbing or surfing. It welcomes them into a sanctuary built of local materials.

Pampering body and beauty treatments are done in candlelit treatment rooms designed to resemble the early-Christian “beehive” cells that Irish monks built and lived in during medieval times. The present-day massage therapists use certified-organic and herbal products, including Irish seaweed hand-harvested from Ireland’s west coast nearby.

Relaxing yoga, tai chi, and meditation completed my  spa experience, which was nearly as epic and wonderful as the tale of Diarmuid and Grainne themselves. One quiet morning, I gazed out through the spa windows onto the green hills covered in yellow flowers and iconic mountains. There was a light morning drizzle, and I watched fog shift over the landscape. I slipped out of the 21st century and into ancient times—though I appreciated all the contemporary comforts: my cushioned recliner, the warm thermal pool, the foot baths, the  relaxing music playing, the lemon water I sipped on.

Delphi’s health-minded gourmet cuisine—much of it local and organic—is divine. I happened to visit on my birthday, and I dined on an exquisite lamb dinner with chocolate gateau for dessert—an unforgettable meal in the lovely restaurant, which managed to be both rustic and elegant all at the same time. At another meal, I ordered the fresh-caught salmon and began musing about the ancient legend of how a boy, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool), accidentally tasted the Salmon of  Knowledge, which he was cooking for an aged poet who caught it. Some dripping oil burned burned Fionn’s finger, and without thinking, he popped his finger in his mouth.  This destined him to become one of Ireland’s most mythic heroes.

Legendary Environmental Policies at Delphi Resort

Hiking and hill walking open up stunning vistas in Connemara. Photo courtesy Delphi Resort

Delphi Resort was built and is maintained in a way that is supportive of the natural environment. These include:

  • Waste reduction and recycling programs
  • A mechanical water-treatment plant that ensures that the water leaving the resort is as clean as the water coming in.
  • Solar panels (for preheating water) and wood-chip boilers that use wood from the resort’s sustainably managed forest. Electricity comes from a wind-farm operation in the U.K. and Ireland.
  • An addition was constructed with recycled-copper roofs, recycled-newspaper insulation in the attics, and wood came from certified managed sustainable forests.
  • Compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy.
  • Rooms are fitted with energy-saving cards that ensure that there’s no energy wasted when units are occupied.
  • Outdoor activities are designed to minimize impact on the environment.

If you’re watching your budget, The Wild Atlantic Hostel, set on the grounds of Delphi Resort, is the perfect low-cost accommodation. It’s ideal for families, outdoor enthusiasts, hill walkers, and backpackers. Hostel guests have access to the resort’s spa, adventure, dining, and business facilities. The hostel consists of dorm-style ensuite rooms and is located onsite at the resort.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

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

The simple, elegant ground floor of the loft suite I stayed in at the Delphi.

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Art Quest Near Taos, New Mexico

Originally published September 27, 2008; updated June 2023

Last weekend I discovered an art jewel: northern New Mexico’s High Road Art Tour, an annual, late-September event. If you enjoy seeing art, meeting artists, and driving through the creativity-inspiring landscape between Taos and Santa Fe, this is a don’t-miss event.

The view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range and golden chamois from Enbi Studio, one of many art galleries on the annual High Road Art Tour between Santa Fe and Taos. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I and our friends Frank and Monica made our home base at La Posada de Taos—a charming B&B in a hundred-year-old adobe house that’s just two blocks from the Taos Plaza. The new owners, innskeeper Brad Malone and chef Michael Carter have created a lovely ambiance and fantastic gourmet breakfasts. The historic house itself has an arts connection: It was built in 1906 by Burt Phillips, one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists.

On the Art Road

Feeling like a cross between art pilgrims and treasure hunters, the four of us piled in the car with our High Road Artisans map in hand and drove through the mountain villages of northern New Mexico on the High Road (which links Taos and Santa Fe).

As we wound through picturesque roads lined by golden-blooming rabbitbrush (chamisa) we encountered weavers, photographers, painters, potters, sculptors, jewelry-makers and woodworkers whose studios are located all along the High Road.

One stop on the High Road Art Tour is Garcia Spanish Colonial  Arts Studio. Lorrie Garcia’s retablos and bultos are renouned.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love glimpsing the studios of world-class artisans, many of whom open their doors to the public only once a year during this art tour. I also love that the High Road Art Tour organizers are dedicated to preserving and developing local talent and traditions in these remote, northern New Mexico villages.

On our journey, we stumbled across an intense mix of interesting artisans and kooky characters—all passionately devoted to making art. Here are just a few of the many we saw:

Andrew Garcia carves intricate furniture from local wood. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Andrew and Lorrie Garcia: We expended plenty of oohs and aahs on Andrew’s exquisitely carved Spanish Colonial furniture and Lorrie’s authentic-looking traditional retablos (devotional paintings) and bultos (wooden sculptures of saints and religious figures). Andrew mills wood off the couple’s property. Garcia Colonial Arts studio in Peñasco, New Mexico.

Buffalo Ranch Studio: Located on an actual buffalo ranch near the Picuris Pueblo, Harriette Tsosie works in acrylic and encaustic (pigmented wax). We watched her melt the wax on a new painting using a blow-torch! Who knew making art could be so dramatic!

Enbi Studio: Potter Betsy Williams specializes in wheel-thrown bowls, influenced by her apprenticeship in Japan. Betsy’s Dixon, N.M., studio gets the blue ribbon for gorgeous views. This accomplished ceramicist has a quiet dignity about her, and she draws inspiration from the nature around her studio. In fact, the views from her land are magnificent, especially on the sunny, autumn day when the light reflects off the wildly yellow blooms of the chamisa (rabbitbrush) in contrast with the glorious blues in the endless sky, the white clouds, and the purple hues of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the west. It’s almost as if the landscape itself plays the muse for Dixon—and for all the other artists in the region—past and present. Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the greats from the past who drank from northern New Mexico’s well of inspiration.

Potter Betsy Williams paints each of her tiny, Japanese-inspired, wood-fired plates in a different and original pattern. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Studio Gallery: We wandered for almost an hour through David Cudney’s sculpture garden and outdoor installation-art display. David has spent six years creating weird, riveting, surreal art from junk, which is spread out over a couple of acres off State Road 76 near Chamisal. A few of the wacky highlights include: a paint-bucket waterfall, steel-girder dinosaurs with cow-skull heads, a totem pole made with rusty chamber pots and enamel basins, Michelangelo’s “David” in an aquarium.

Isabro Ortega: When we visited in 2008, visionary wood artist Isabro Ortega was carving nearly every wooden surface of his work-in-progress home in Truchas into the New Mexican version of the Taj Mahal. He called himself crazy, and no wonder: He had already s spent 24 years carving nooks, window frames, a home chapel, ceilings, and the most ornate pantry (yes, pantry!) I’ve ever seen. (See the photo!) Isabro was a hoot, and he had overcome alcoholism and was pouring his talent into woodworking. My friends and I hoped it won’t take 24 more years to finish his house, which though a bit chaotic,  was exquisite. (Postscript: Isabro Ortega passed away in 2018; his Casa was not finished.)

A well-carved pantry: Isabro Ortega lavished years of craftsmanship on in his Truchas home. No one else’s food has ever been stored amid such artistry. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We spent a full day of stopping here and there along the High Road between Taos and Santa Fe, looking at the work of so many different types of artists.  Along the way, we also went into the  lovely adobe   San José de Gracia Church, built in 1760. The church at the time was undergoing some renovation, but it was another form of human-created beauty.

Sadly, the High Road art Tour is over—for this year. I’m marking my calendar for next September.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

San José de Gracia Church, also known as Church of Santo Tomas Del Rio de Las Trampas. It’s located In Trampas, New Mexico. © Laurel Kallenbach

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