Meditate with Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s no secret that meditating reduces anxiety and depression and improves immunity—and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to bolster our physical and emotional health. Research has also shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, according to Harvard Health.

A southern sea otter named Abby in the Sea Otter Exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

So I was thrilled when I opened an e-newsletter from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California informing me that during the time that the aquarium is closed to the public for the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re hosting video meditations (they call them “medit-oceans”) featuring a soothing, 10-minute guided meditation you can do while gazing at some relaxing ocean imagery. (You can join the medit-ocean live at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time, Monday–Friday. You can also find the meditations on YouTube or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Facebook page at any time that you need some nature-based relaxation.)

“This is a stressful time, but connecting with one another digitally and sharing our love of the ocean centers us when so much feels uncertain. We hope you, too, will find some relief and community online with us.”  

                                               —Monterey Bay Aquarium

Glorious “Relax-ocean”

Two young visitors admire the aquarium’s Kelp Forest exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

This morning, my husband and I participated in the first of a series of live, online “medit-ocean”: a 10-minute video treat gazing at Pacific sea nettles, a type of jellyfish that stings. (You can see a photo of the Pacific sea nettles at the bottom of this post.)

A very calm woman’s voice instructed us in deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualizations. I especially liked the part where she instructed us that every time a thought—or a worry or a fear—pops up, just to visualize attaching that thought to one of the undulating sea nettles and then watch it float away.

After 10 minutes I felt refreshed—plus I had an appreciation for and fascination with the Pacific sea nettles after having watched the animals’ graceful tentacles—some long and thin, others flutey and lacy. There will be different animals featured for different meditations, so I’m eager to get to get better acquainted with the sea life!

Be There Now with Live Webcams

If medit-ocean isn’t your thing, there are other great online ways to explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whether you’re in a Manhattan skyscraper, on the Arizona desert, or in the snowy Rocky Mountains. Via webcams and videos found on the Aquarium website  and their Facebook page, you can literally experience the wonders of the ocean no matter where you are.

Monterey Bay Aquarium has ten live web cameras to choose from, including:

Penguin Cam: Resting, preening, or swimming, these inquisitive African penguins are hoot! They’re fed to make sure they get their daily vitamin, and sometimes by tossing food into the water to stimulate foraging behavior. Watch for underwater acrobatics as the penguins dart and dive to catch their fish.

African penguins on exhibit in the Splash Zone. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sea Otter Cam: Be delighted by the antics of our sea otters or mellow out to the hypnotic drifting of our jellies. including playful sea otters (humor is good for your health)

Kelp Forest Cam: Watch fish and small sharks glide through the swaying kelp forest

Sea Jelly Cams: There’s one live camera for the underwater dances of the reddish sea nettles and another for the hypnotic moon jellies that drift like slow-motion dancers.

A flamboyant cuttlefish in the Tentacles exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Shark Cam: You’ll spot sharks, rays, and other fishes as they cruise through the rocky reef. Among the types you’ll see are Sevengill sharks, leopard sharks, spiny dogfish and the elusive Pacific angel shark. The Aquarium’s 90-foot-long hourglass shape gives big sharks plenty of room to glide and turn. Watch carefully and you might see big skates and bat rays pass by the window!

Coral Reef Cam: This Baja coral-reef community teems with colorful tropical fish, including the Cortez wrasse, scrawled filefish, and Cortez angelfish. In the wild, coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth.

A cluster of strawberry anemones. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

This is how I’m getting my infusion of the miraculous animals and sea plants in the oceanic ecosystems until I can travel again. When it’s safe after the pandemic, Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the first places I hope to head.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium: Monterey Bay Aquarium: Saving Oceans One Fish at a Time 

Though sea nettles are jellyfish with a sting, their flowy motions are perfect for a tranquil meditation. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Bath Thermae Spa in England: Better Health through Water

When the traveling gets tough, the tough take a bath. After a long day of sightseeing or hiking through the countryside, one of the best things to do is soak your achy feet in the hotel hot tub or spa.

The Rooftop Pool at Thermae Bath Spa overlooks a glorious view of the city of Bath, including Bath Cathedral. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

It turns out this watery antidote for stress has a long tradition: The ancient Romans had a saying for it: “sanitas per aquam,” which translates as “health through water.” And not coincidentally, the word “spa” is an acronym taken from that Latin phrase.

Geothermally warmed mineral springs were the first spas—used for healing. These waters naturally bubble up from the ground, bringing minerals from the earth’s core—minerals that can help improve certain skin conditions, arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments.

In Bath, England, warm mineral waters have welcomed visitors for millennia. The Celts worshipped the water goddess Sulis there, and the ancient Romans (who ruled Britannia from the 1st through 5th centuries A.D.) built stone-enclosed pools and steam rooms for their health and restoration.

During the 1700s and 1800s, the British aristocracy flocked to the town of Bath for social parties and to “take the waters,” encouraged by the tale of how Queen Mary’s fertility troubles ended after she bathed in the waters and ultimately gave birth to a son.

Modern Spa, Ancient History

Today, Thermae Bath Spa is located in a chic modern building not far from the ruins of the ancient Roman baths. Although no one’s claiming anymore that the water cures infertility or any other major health problem, this is still the perfect place to shed your street clothes and spend a half- or full-day in a robe and swimsuit soaking like a Roman.

The indoor Minerva Pool has jets and moving water currents. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

My husband and I visited Thermae Bath Spa on a chilly, drizzly English afternoon, when a hot soak was most inviting. We started with a dip in the Minerva Bath, a large, indoor thermal pool equipped with massage jets, a whirlpool, and a “lazy river” with a current strong enough that it carried us around the pool. We hung onto flotation “noodles” and cruised the perimeter without moving a muscle. Between the water’s temperature (92°F) and the mineral-rich water (the slight sulfur smell is the giveaway), we felt like limp noodles.

After a long drink of water (it’s important to rehydrate while you soak), we checked out the über-cool co-ed steam rooms where we sweated in glass-enclosed circular steam areas. Each had a different aromatherapy scent: lavender, eucalyptus, rose and frankincense. A central waterfall shower was the spot where everyone gathered to cool off before trying a new scent.

At the center of the Thermae Bath Spa Steam Room is a ceiling shower for cooling off after a hot steam. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

A note about facilities: pools, steam rooms, and the locker rooms are all co-ed. This is Europe, after all! It was a little odd for us Americans who are used to gender segregation in public restrooms, gyms and pools, but we went with the flow. The locker rooms do have private cubicles where you can dress. Bathing suits (what the Brits call “swimming costumes”) are required.

Although Thermae Bath Spa offers a number of water-centric therapies—including watsu (massage done while you float in a warm pool), Vichy showers, body wraps and more—we opted for pool soaking, which we could enjoy as a couple. If you’re visiting Bath for several days, I’d highly recommend taking a separate day for a massage or special treatment.

For the grand finale, my husband and I deepened our relaxation in the steamy Rooftop Pool. The water was perfect, and the views of Bath’s skyline were spectacular. A high-pressure cascade gave us a deep-shoulder massage and sent a wave of tingles over my scalp. The added bonus: A huge rainbow appeared in the sky, arching over Bath’s cathedral. The entire pool population ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the sight. Unforgettable.

Feasting in the Natural Foods Restaurant

The spa’s Springs Café serves wonderful local cuisine. Photo courtesy Thermae Bath Spa

Afterwards, we realized we were hungry, but weren’t quite ready to leave. No problem, the spa’s Springs Café Restaurant serves everything from light snacks, appetizers, paninis, and hot gourmet meals. The atmosphere is casually elegant, and almost everyone comes in their robe. So, in our white, toga-like wraps, we dined quite well on slow-cooked Wiltshire beef and wild mushroom and Bath Blue cheese risotto with glasses of wine. The menu emphasizes nutritionally balanced foods made from locally produced fare.

Soaking, steaming, feasting—what more could we ask for? My husband and I came away from Bath Thermae Spa feeling relaxed, radiant, well-fed, and squeaky clean. The ancient Romans definitely had the right idea—and the city of Bath has created a first-class modern version of the historic baths. Add it to your itinerary—it’s a highlight of the city.

Clean Water Policy

The thermal water at Thermae Bath Spa bubbles naturally to the earth’s surface, and is estimated to be 10,000 years old. It contains more than 42 different minerals, the most concentrated being sulphate, calcium, and chloride, which are reported to be good for sore joints and some skin conditions.

The spa filters the water to remove iron and bacteria. A tiny bit of chlorine is added for sanitary reasons.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted May 2013

For more information on visiting Bath, England, see Visit Bath.

Read more about my travels in England:

The Georgian exterior of Thermae Bath Spa shows the honey-colored Bath stone that appears in buildings throughout the historic city. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

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