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Valetta, Malta (Photo by Josh Roberts)

Who: Josh Roberts 

Where: Valletta, Malta

When: November 2006

What: Here in the foreground is a traditional Maltese boat (either a “dghajsa,” “luzzu,” or “kajjik”—unfortunately the differences among the three are subtle and I have difficulty telling them apart). Maltese boats in general are characterized by their vibrant turquoise color and unique, streamlined shape. In the background is the walled city of Valletta, fortified centuries ago by the order of the Knights of Saint John.

Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea just 56 miles from Sicily and 180 miles north of Africa, the Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and Comino) have been inhabited for more than 7,000 years—occupied at different times by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Brits, the French, and the order of the Knights of Saint John.

In the past I’ve described Malta as “a lively little melting pot of European, African, and Arabic cultures unique in all the world,” and I think that really hits the nail on the head. Because of its strategic location between Europe and the Middle East, Malta has always enjoyed (or suffered, actually) a disproportionately large level of importance in the battle between the East and West.

If you enjoy history, adventure, and romance on a grand scale, I recommend David Ball’s epic historical novel Ironfire,  which tells the story of two siblings—one who’s kidnapped by Ottaman raiders and the other who’s left behind to grow up on Malta—in the years leading up to the 16th century Battle of Malta. A must-read for anyone who loves historical fiction.

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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (Photo by Christine Sarkis)

Who: Christine Sarkis

Where: Malécon, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

When: December 2008

What: Puerto Vallarta‘s malécon is a wide beachside path lined on one side by sand and water and on the other by a busy street with bars and clubs. The path is known partly for what surrounds it, but the real draw is what happens on and around it. Sand sculptors, buskers, performers of Aztec flying ceremonies, and others draw crowds day and night.

The walkway is punctuated by a series of sculptures that I found boldly unusual for public art. Fantastical—or maybe alien—creatures are often the subjects. This is one of the sculptures that garners a lot of attention. Few can (or do) resist the urge to climb at least a few rungs of the ladder—in fact so many people have a go that the ladder’s bottommost slats are rubbed shiny like a Buddha’s belly.

The strange sea-facing hooded creatures higher up the ladder reminded me of the vision I’ve always had of 19th century women pacing the widow’s walk of houses in the fishing towns of New England. Though you can’t see their faces, the simple posture of looking out on the ocean from a higher elevation conveys anticipation, worry, and even love. And the wave: Is it hello or goodbye?

I was happy to capture the late afternoon light and the red of the man’s t-shirt. And he’s looking towards the same speck on the horizon that the hooded creatures are waving to.

Iceland's volcanic highlands

Who: Josh Roberts

Where: In the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland

When: July 2006

What: When I wrote about this weeklong hiking trip in an August 2006 feature for USA Today and SmarterTravel.com, I likened the Icelandic interior to Tolkien’s Middle-earth: “With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.”

To me, nothing demonstrates that spirit better than this photo. I love the way it captures the wild and wide-open essence of the highlands: the snow-capped peaks, the spidering streams, the mossy greens and reds and browns of a land virtually untouched by human hands. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more epic. I also like seeing the seven hikers there in the foreground, a tiny fellowship of adventurers in true Tolkien-esque fashion.

The backcountry is dominated by Mount Hekla, a volcano that was once thought to be the literal mouth of Hell. A thousand years ago, Iceland’s Viking settlers sent criminals to this same inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years in order to earn a pardon. Most never made it. My wife and I lasted a week, but we needed the help of a guide from the Fjallabak Trekking Company to do it.

The trek meets up with the way-marked Laugavegur Trail on the fifth day of hiking, but before that most of the areas we explored felt as if they’d never been visited by other hikers. These highlands are different than, say, the European Alps, which are so well-traveled that it’s easy for experienced hikers to go it alone. Here, a good guide is essential.

I booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. retailer for Fjallabak and other local operators. If you’re considering a backcountry trip, theirs definitely come with my recommendation. Icelandair, incidentally, offers inexpensive flights to Reykjavik from several East Coast cities, making it a cheaper destination to get to than mainland Europe.

skellig_tt1

Who: Josh Roberts

Where: Skellig Michael, in County Kerry, Ireland

When: April 2005

What: Eight miles off the west coast of Ireland, this rocky pinnacle of an island was home to early Christian monks dating back to the 12th century. The stone steps you see in the picture here, about 600 of them in all, were carved nearly 1,000 years ago. They corkscrew up the island for 700 feet before reaching an abandoned settlement of 20-foot-tall stone beehive-shaped huts, where the monks lived and worshipped.

Off in the distance you can see a smaller peak called, appropriately, Small Skellig. Its isolation gave birth to the Skelligs’ greatest curiosity: the whirring hive of avian life that is Small Skellig. Like a jagged, gothic-spired half-cousin of King Kong’s Skull Island, Small Skellig rises unsteadily from the Atlantic only to be clobbered by wave after wave of gulls and gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes, storm petrels and puffins and razorbills. With more than 20,000 birds calling it home, it’s best not to think too long about what that white substance is that you see covering all the rocks. 

The closest international airport to Skellig Michael is Shannon, served by most major transatlantic carriers, including Aer Lingus. From there it’s a three-hour, 122-mile drive to the gateway town of Portmagee, located on the Iveragh Peninsula just off the famous Ring of Kerry, followed by an hour-long boat ride to the island.

There are any number of boats willing to take you from the pier at Portmagee to the Skelligs. My wife and I chose Pat Joe Murphy’s Shelluna on a recommendation from Bridie O’Conner, our innkeeper. Boats depart mid-morning from April through September, weather permitting.

We stayed at the Beachcove B&B in St. Finian’s Bay, located at the end of a single-lane road that twists through the coastal hills, stitched together by stone walls and emerald grass. The B&B is right on the beach, and on a clear day you can see the Skelligs from the picture window where you eat breakfast.