Jedi Knights Arrive in Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Do you watch the end titles of a movie just to see the locations where it was filmed? If so, there’s a news flash: the final three Star Wars films (The Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker) treat movie-goers to eye-popping views of a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Luke Skywalker’s refuge and Rey’s training location in all three movies was filmed on Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Director JJ Abrams—along with cast and crew—jetted into a little village called Portmagee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From there, they traveled eight miles by sea to the starkly beautiful Skellig Michael.

To keep the location a secret when The Force Awakens was first shooting in 2014, locals were told a documentary was being filmed in the area, so they were amazed when it was quietly revealed that it was really Star Wars being filmed in their community.

A press release from Tourism Ireland quoted Gerard Kennedy of The Bridge Bar and Moorings Guesthouse in Portmagee, as saying: “It was such a weird and wonderful experience for our small village to be part of the Star Wars story. We enjoyed evenings of music and dance in our bar with the cast and crew. Mark Hamill even learned how to pull a pint with our barman, Ciaran Kelly!”

The monastic Island, Skellig Michael founded in the 7th century, for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Starting in the 7th century, Skellig Michael was a center of monastic life for Irish Christian monks for 600 years. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-meter-high rock, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s better known, but least accessible, monasteries.    Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

 

In the Footsteps of the Jedi Knights

Ireland’s County Kerry is one of the island nation’s best-loved destinations—and the first place I ever visited in Ireland. Thirty years ago I was wowed while driving around the Ring of Kerry, a road along the cliff-lined coast with dramatic views over the Atlantic.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars—or of stargazing—this might be just the destination for you. Kerry is one of only three Gold Tier International Dark Sky reserves in the world. The beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas are just some of the wonders you can see with the naked eye in the region.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even spot Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon as it drops out of hyperspace!

The island of Skellig Michael is accessible only by boat. Today it’s inhabited solely by birds, but monks settled there more than a millennium ago. The stacked-stone beehive huts that the monks lived in are restored and can be visited from May to September each year. (Advance booking required.)

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo by  Valerie O’Sullivan

Traveling with Star Wars

A growing number of travelers choose to visit TV and shooting locations. (See my post about visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. ),

Locations for The Force Awakens include Scotland, Iceland’s volcanoes, the Abu Dhabi desert, England, and New Mexico. Past Star Wars movies have featured Tunisia, Spain, Lake Como (Italy), Guatemala, Norway, and Switzerland.

Watch a video of scenery on Skellig Michael are available at Tourism Ireland.

May the traveling force be with you!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read about my travels in Ireland:

 

Cows on Parade: A Swiss Celebration

Stein is one of hundreds of Swiss villages that hold traditional dairy farming celebrations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Throaty cowbells clang as flower-wreathed heifers parade through the streets of Stein, a tiny Swiss village in the Appenzell cheese-making region.

Dressed in traditional costumes, farm children and yodeling cowherds drive the cows toward the Viehschau (cattle show) judging area for the “Miss Stein” bovine beauty contest. There, the cows’ stature and coloring will be evaluated. It’s not just about pretty faces—honorable mention goes to cows with the best-looking udders and highest milk production.

On this late-September Tuesday morning, I’ve joined crowds of people jostling to watch the cows. Hundreds of people are clustered along the parade route. Stands sell toys and food; someone hawks balloons.

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional carved or painted wooden milk pails over their shoulders.

The streets in Stein, in the Appenzell canton of Switzerland, are festive on Cattle Show Day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Schools are closed today, and the whole town is here,” Antonia Brown Ulli, a tour guide, tells me. She lives in Stein and is wearing a dirndl dress for the occasion. “This is one of the village’s biggest annual festivals.”

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional wooden milk pails over their shoulders. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, the locals are impressively dressed, especially the men who are decked out in Appenzell finery consisting of red embroidered vest-jackets, fancy braces decorated with silver plates, black hats ringed with ribbons and flowers, and spoon-shaped earrings. Many also wear carry a wooden milking pail over one shoulder.

In the days of up-to-the-millisecond Swiss watches, I’m comforted that age-old cow herding traditions are still heartily celebrated by the entire community. And these cattle processions happen in rural villages all over Switzerland. (Germany and Austria too.)

In fact, the lead cows for each farm are adorned with bright flowers, ribbons, and fir branches on their heads. I’m giddy. As a cheese lover, I think it’s a grand idea to celebrate the cows (and goats too!) who provide milk for my favorite food.

Contestants for the Miss Stein title ©Laurel Kallenbach

The day before, I had visited the Appenzell Show Dairy, where visitors can see how the world-famous Appenzell cheese is made—and can taste it too! There’s a full restaurant on site.

The pageantry and music—bell-clanging and the yodel-like singing of the cowherds—is my farewell to Switzerland. An hour later, I’m zipping on the train to the Zurich airport. There, on the shuttle train to the international terminal, the piped-in sounds of mooing cows and cowbells makes me tear up. Even though I haven’t officially left the country, I’m already nostalgic for this scenic country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

For more information, visit Switzerland tourist information and Appenzell Tourism

Originally posted: September 19, 2015

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

An Eco-Elegant English Hotel, “Downton Abbey” Style

Tylney Hall Hotel in Hampshire, England © Laurel Kallenbach

If you love the early-20th-century glamour depicted in  Downton Abbey as much as I do, England’s Tylney Hall—an elegant country manor house turned hotel—might be your cup of tea.

Just an hour southwest of London, Tylney Hall Hotel and its 66 acres of Hampshire woodlands, lakes and gardens welcome you in aristocratic style—after all, the estate shares a similar history with the fictional home of Lord and Lady Grantham. Both were the extravagant homes of earls, and both served as soldiers’ convalescent hospitals during WWI.

In fact, the film location for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is just 21 miles away. Though you can tour Highclere Castle (read “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) you can’t spend the night in the main building: it’s privately owned. (But you can reserve rooms at London Lodge, located on the Highclere Estate.) All the more reason to stay at Tylney Hall Hotel & Gardens, which features luxurious old-fashioned bedrooms with contemporary bathrooms, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, and fine dining.

Living Like an Aristocrat at Tylney Hall Hotel

The grand staircase at Tylney Hall Hotel © Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I felt like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley—minus the elegant clothes and jewels—during our two-night stay at Tylney Hall.

Our room was upstairs, and every time I regally walked down the walnut-lined staircase with its carved banisters, I felt sure that Carson the Butler was going to offer me a glass of sherry.

Far less portly and stodgy than old Carson, the staff was congenial and ready to answer our questions or requests. They brought us canapés and pre-dinner drinks on silver platters in Tylney’s ornate Italian Lounge, which easily could have qualified as a Downton Abbey set.

Our large bedroom had a private balcony with views over a redwood-lined lawn and the green woodlands. Just below, was a croquet set all assembled and waiting; we didn’t play, as we were far too busy strolling through the formal Italian Gardens. Beyond that, we went rambling down to Boathouse Lake, where we could sit on a bench and gaze at the red-bricked mansion framed by foliage.

Ken and I walked through Tylney Hall’s entryway and felt like a lord and lady. © Laurel Kallenbach

The spa at Tylney Hall Hotel uses organic aromatherapy and Kirstin Florian products and features a full spa menu of massages, wraps, facials and more.

I enjoyed the Garden of Dreams treatment, which started with a gentle exfoliation followed by a lavender-oil massage with warm stones and finished with a relaxing scalp and facial massage. It was the perfect antidote to the stress of our first day of driving on the left side of the road!

Eating Like a King

In the Oak Room restaurant (open to the public with a reservation), we enjoyed a white-tablecloth, candlelit dinner accompanied by soft music played on the grand piano. I enjoyed a filet of sole with caper sauce and new potatoes with green beans. Another bonus was a selection of French wines from just across the Channel.

Both breakfast and dinner are served in Tylney Hall’s Oak Room restaurant © Laurel Kallenbach

The Oak Room’s menu emphasizes local fare, which was at its best on the cheese board that I chose for dessert. I selected a brie, a blue, a cow’s-milk cheddar, and goat cheeses—all from no more than 50 miles away.

Posh, Yet Green

Owned by Elite Hotels, Tylney Hall incorporates a number of sustainability efforts into its operation to ensure that this historic mansion will save this piece of the environment for centuries to come.

In summer, you can play croquet on the Tylney Hall Hotel lawn. © Laurel Kallenbach

  • Recycles glass, paper, batteries, light bulbs
  • Composts food waste
  • Encourages towel and sheet reuse in all guestrooms to save on laundry water.
  • Is investigating the conversion of cooking oil into bio-diesel (to run estate machinery and company cars).
  • Purchases sustainably grown food and locally produced consumables, including Fair Trade beverages.
  • Maintains a zero landfill-waste strategy.
  • Minimizes electricity and heating to unoccupied floors and wings during periods of low occupancy.

England’s Tylney Hall Hotel & Gardens offers everything a Downton Abbey fan like me could ask for: a luxurious historic house, acres of lush woodlands to explore, and eco-sensibility. Now that’s style of the Downton Abbey kind.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted: February 2013

Updated: September 2019

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

Other travels in England:

I loved our stay at Tylney Hall Hotel. Our room was in the center above the right arch. © Laurel Kallenbach

Earthships: Recycled Houses Made of Dirt

Just 15 minutes from Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at these odd, but imminently practical, houses.

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

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

What’s an Earthship? It’s an ultra-sustainable home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud.

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.

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 use solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from renewable resources.

There must be almost 50 Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain backdrop. Clearly, this form of architecture is here to stay.

Water Harvesting

New Mexico is dry land, so another advantage to Earthships is that their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. The 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 pumped to gardens. (Used water is called graywater.)

I think Earthships are pretty nifty—and rather unconventionally beautiful—inventions, although I’m a bit skeptical about the used tires outgasing fumes into the air. However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, I suppose the earth absorbs the toxins.

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

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

Still, 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.

Curious? If you’re in Taos, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.) At the Visitor’s Center, you’ll see displays that explain the details of Earthship technology.  You can also choose between a self-guided visit through the center ($8 per person) or a guided tour through the center and several of the area’s demo homes ($15 per person).

You can also rent an Earthship (a room or the whole house) by the night or week.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted: September 2008

Updated: August 2019