“Don’t get your heart set on Staffa,” says Beppo Buchanan Smith, second generation proprietor at Isle Eriska, a hotel set on its own island amid a loch in the Scottish Highlands, “Not in this weather, anyway.”
From the conservatory, we gaze helplessly at rain showers as thick as gruel. After days hiking the donkey-filled landscape nearby, I’m keen to experience a boating tour that will take me to some of the inner Hebrides Islands—including Mull, Iona, and Staffa. I’m intrigued by Mull (a wildlife abundant island), fascinated by Iona (once a center of Irish monasticism and still a pilgrimage site), but it’s Staffa, a tiny, uninhabited isle composed of columnar basalt rock, that I most yearn to visit. Here, the sounds of the waves breaking inside Staffa’s unique, rock-pillar-flanked Fingal’s Cave, inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture—and I want to hear that din, see how it strikes the tuning fork of my soul.
“Come forth into the light of things,” wrote William Wordsworth. “Let nature be your teacher.” That happens there on Staffa.
The following day, I awaken to bright sun. I board that tiny boat to Staffa, after all. On unbridled seas, we plummet and bob. Not unexpectedly, the handful of other eager tourists within have begun to turn green. I focus on the sounds of the sea—roars and splashes, some screeches from portentous birds swooping and naysaying above. I try to prevent myself yielding to the incipient nausea. It’s a kind of meditation that actually works. Still the trip suddenly seems a fool’s errand.
Nevertheless, we dock safely on a spindly, rickety pier. Staffa akin to a fortress, suggests a throng of heaven-pointing, ossified fingers. It calls to me, though most of the other (five or six) passengers feel too sick to disembark. Only slightly woozy, I leap off, then stumble like a drunk down the plank to explore the magnificent gray-hued rock. Alone on the trail, with gulps of fresh air circulating through my body, I revive. I wend my way straight to the cave. A stunning chink in the rock that draws in the cerulean-colored sea, Staffa and its Fingal’s Cave have devastating, bare-boned beauty which moves me to sit, watch, and listen. Riveted by the sound of the water in the chamber—a modernist’s belabored hypnotic hammering that reverberates in my gut, and grounds me deeply to the charcoal-hued rock—I am soothed. The rhythm boasts an endnote, too, a higher-toned whistle, a sweet crooning that comes as the waves exit the cavern. The tune’s as seductive, uncertain, and illuminating as a siren’s call.
Unable to move, I hear loudly, yet discern nothing at all; I know everything; yet am ignorant; feel empowered, yet diminutive and vulnerable. “Come forth into the light of things,” wrote William Wordsworth. “Let nature be your teacher.” That happens there on Staffa.
You’ve felt it, too. Standing high on a mountain with nobody else around, you’ve noted something awakening within. You’ve recognized a force that connects you as much to the heavens as to the earth. You’ve heard the silence, gobbled it up as knowledge, a sustenance that’s likely rooted in the air, a collective unconsciousness nourished by the trees, the clouds, the stones, the water source, and plants that surround you.
You’ve seen it with the exuberance of a sunset and in the inner-child-awakening glee of a rainbow. You’ve felt its gravitas in the sky bursting at dusk, that stolid glimpse into endings represented by the miraculous setting of the sun. Everything in nature teaches us. The infinity of the sea, the falling of leaves, the magic of flowers opening and green plants sprouting through the earth, the growl of thunder and lightening’s bright fencer’s foil to our very naked human hubris.
In our noisy, grab-and-go, immediate-gratification, narcissistic-tending, fast-paced, ancient-ritual-free, abbreviated, history-forgetting world, natures gives us immediate perspective. The authentic can get lost in the morass.
We are small. But, nature has our back. Nature is medicine. It’s salvation, prayer, love songs, and inspiration. It’s where we begin and end. It’s music to our ears. “Look deep into nature,” said Albert Einstein, “and you will understand everything better.”
Here are some places that have opened my heart.
Amangiri in Utah
From a distance, I can’t even tell this hotel exists in the peachy dusk-time light. On 600 acres of hoodoo, promontory and pinnacle alive high desert landscape, this 34-room resort celebrates the stark artistry of the environment. Here, your throat clutches with grief over so much beauty even as you peer from your panoramic suite’s window. In Utah, twenty-minutes from the shores of Lake Powell, four hours from its polar opposite Las Vegas, this resort immerses you in the essence of its 180-million year old landscape. I am pretty sure, they’d take away your phone, if you let them. They just want you to see what’s out there and acknowledge it deep down in your soul. A stellar spa offers treatments with a Navajo slant, the New Mexican born chef indulges you with local cuisine, and Via Ferratas, the only ones in the United States, enable you to ascend the towering rocks. amangiri.com
The Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions
Somewhere in the Ecuadorian National Park known as the Galapagos, an ancient archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, 600-miles from shore, there’s a portal to another world. I’ve just entered it—and I feel like a mermaid cavorting in a cartoon sea. Part of a Lindblad National Geographic expedition to these remote, undeveloped islands, I embark on a deep water snorkeling adventure to otherworldly Guy Fawkes Islets, With a small group of flipper-wearing adventurers and a park ranger, I flutter alongside a soaring wall of jagged black lava in crystalline water so deep it mimics the sky. Brilliant fish of every hue flit around me, coral as colorful as baskets of summer fruit bedazzle, while a shark, astonishingly large, lumbers past. But suddenly, there’s something else in the water. It flashes by at high velocity, like a hummingbird in motion. I pause awestruck. Did I imagine that? Then, it comes back with alacrity. It circles me, swoops between my legs, stops right at my face mask and begins to peck—as if knocking on my door for attention. I’ve just met my first Galapagos Penguin. And, he’s flirting with me. expeditions.com
Botswana with Abercrombie & Kent
In Botswana at Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp. which lies in an unsullied concession, located among the southern boundaries of the Okavango Delta. I awaken to the loud crunching of elephants having breakfast. They’re eating trees right outside my tent. And, when I look out my window, they’re so close to me, I feel like I’ve entered the pages of a children’s storybook. Later in the day, after the elephants have long rambled away, and a dusty, all-morning, soul-satisfying safari drive is under my belt, I meet some baboons. They also occupy my porch—and refuse to let me enter my domain. I skulk back to the safari lodge, and mediate on the sweeping amber plains beyond, feeling very much like Karen Blixen—though she might not have feared the eye-teeth prominently (menacingly?) presented by those apes. With sage perfuming the air, and hours and hours of time spent in the African bush, a safari is uniquely an enchanting place to be seduced by nature’s largesse. abercrombiekent.com & sanctuaryretreats.com
Eyre Peninsula with Goin’ Off Safaris
I don’t catch a salmon. But that hardly matters. I’m standing up to my knees in crashing waves on a remote beach on South Australia’s far flung Eyre Peninsula. Casting my line into the surf, I remain hopeful, but nothing bites. Unlike most fishing folk, I’m not here for the catch. I just want to drench myself in this glorious world of rough ridges and crags, giant, odd-shaped outcroppings, bone-colored sand dunes as tall as mountains. It’s a boondocks with tranquil lagoons and dangerously wild beaches, verdant expanses and treeless stretches, tiny villages, oyster farms galore, secret fishing holes, sea lions, shark and dolphin. Kangaroos hop by, emu quizzically stare, and reptiles slither (mostly ) unseen in profusion. Following David Doudle, guide extraordinaire of Goin’ Off Safaris, I’ve been plonked into the kind of nature that makes you feel uproariously alive. We meet some retirees, camping on the beach, their sun-tanned feet plying the sand. “The meaning of life is here,” says one perky octogenarian to me. And, I nod—in agreement. goinoffsafaris.com