Scotland 2016 – Day 13

I didn’t see Nessie today. But I am pleased to report that the Loch Ness Monster tourism business is thriving in Drumnadrochit. I am very happy to be going home tomorrow, but I managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing on my way back to Inverness today. The ferry left Stornoway at 7:00 this morning, bound for Ullapool. I got very little sleep last night, so I grabbed a front row seat in the lounge on the ferry to rest and watch out the “front window”. I planned to drive off once we got to Ullapool, but it is such a cute little village that I spent about an hour walking around.

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Ullapool

Then it was off to Loch Ness and the Urquhart Castle. I don’t think I realized the last couple of weeks how far removed from the main tourist routes the Hebrides are. I saw more busloads of tourists in that one spot than I have seen in days. And American accents galore! While I was dressed sensibly in my long pants and sweatshirt, there were people walking around in shorts and t-shirts carrying their selfie sticks everywhere (mind you, it was about 55 degrees out today!). But I digress. The castle was nice, in a tourist trap sort of way. Not anything like the castles I explored in Ireland last summer.

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Urquhart Castle

My final stop tonight is in Inverness, where I will be flying home from tomorrow. Inverness is everything I hate about cities, but on a smaller scale. I had actually been looking forward to getting back to “civilization” tonight, until I remembered that civilization involves mobs of people and tacky touristy souvenir shops and things like McDonald’s (have I just not eaten in McDonald’s in a long time, or are self-service kiosks a U.K. thing?).

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Inverness

I did the obligatory walk around town and tried to find dinner. Nothing really struck me, so I ended up at Zizzi (I think there’s one on every street corner in London) for a chicken and prosciutto dish, cheesecake, and an Italian cider. After dinner, I did the traditional unpack/repack of the suitcase and carryons. Repacking is always an adventure!  I am obsessively neat and organized at home, but somehow when I travel, all of that goes out the window. (Last spring, I found a piece of fudge I had completely forgotten I had bought hidden in my suitcase!) The bed in my room is looking awfully inviting right now, but I’m hoping I can stay awake long enough to check out another traditional music session at Hootananny later tonight!

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Scotland 2016 – Day 9

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West Beach, Isle of Berneray

Good news… I love Scotland again! I mean, I never really stopped loving it, but you know what I mean. Seriously, it’s incredible here! If I could just skip over the last couple of days and go right from Skye to the Isle of Harris, it would be perfect. I’m going to skip the play-by-play of the day today and just go for the highlights. So pretty much we’ll start at 11:30AM when I got off the ferry in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. (Before that, I went to the beach, ate breakfast, went to another beach, and took an hour long ferry ride.) Harris is much more rugged and mountainous than the Uists. I think that’s what I like about it the most. So here are the highlights:

St. Clement’s Church in Rodel: An quaint and historic church/chapel in a very picturesque location on a hill in the tiny village of Rodel. The church is surrounded by a graveyard and you can climb up the tower in the church. It reminded me of many of the castles and ruins I saw in Ireland last summer. (This is also the location where I discovered that my camera lens was covered in salt water… I have no idea how long it has been like that, but it is amazing how much clearer everything looks now that I’ve cleaned it!)  

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St. Clement’s Church, Rodel

Temple Cafe in Northton: I had read a million good reviews of this little place, and stopped for lunch on my way through today. It was amazingly good! Everything smelled delicious, but being the picky eater that I am, I ordered the “treacle” scone with cream and jam. The gentleman in line behind me told me treacle is basically molasses after I asked the waitress to repeat herself three times because I had no idea what she was saying. I had her write it down for me when I left so I could look it up. The scone was amazing. Did I already say that? Like probably the best I’ve had in the U.K./Ireland. And the cream was thick like clotted cream too (though I’m not positive it was). Depending on how the day goes, I may have to make a stop there tomorrow too…

Northton Temple walk: This walk was about 3 miles, and so worth it. After leaving the village of Northton and cresting the first hill, you can see four different beaches spread out along the coast, with the Northton Temple on a bluff at the far end. After being attacked by birds on the first beach (which was also the most beautiful, Traigh an Taoibh Thuath), I wound my way along the pathway all the way out to the Temple. Northton Temple is actually the ruins of a 15th or 16th century chapel built on a rocky headland at the tip of the Northton peninsula.

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The beaches of Northton

Isle of Harris west coast: The views just kept on coming! The drive from Leverburgh up to Luskentyre is incredible. Around every bend is another white sand beach with turquoise water. It’s hard to believe this is Scotland and not the Caribbean!

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Seilebost Beach, Isle of Harris

Scalpay: After dinner, the sun actually came out. Real sun, not just a break in the clouds. I decided to drive out to the Isle of Scalpay, a small island about 8 miles east of Tarbert and connected to Harris by a bridge. This little island was perfection, especially with the sun finally shining. It is all single-track roads which curve dangerously around outcroppings and above lochs and harbors. It’s very small, and I was determined to drive every road. I think I tried just about all of them, just to see where they go. They all ended at dead-ends, but the scenery was unbelievable. A perfect end to the day!

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Isle of Scalpay

PS – I’m still ready to go home, but with scenery like this, I think I can “suffer through” a few more days of vacation! 🙂

Scotland 2016 – Day 6

Off the beaten path. That’s where I spent the day today, visiting the Waternish and Duirinish Peninsulas. The landscapes weren’t nearly as dramatic, and the rain was much more frequent and steady this morning, but I managed to make the best of it.

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In the tiny village of Red Burn

The Waternish Peninsula juts out into the Little Minch to the west of the Trotternish Peninsula and is much more remote. One single-track road cuts through most of the length of it, ending at Trumpan and the ruins of the Trumpan Church, where a feuding clan set fire to the church in May 1578 while the other clan was worshiping inside. I stopped briefly and wandered around the tiny village of Stein and then drove out to the ruins. It is about four miles inland from the tip of the peninsula, with sweeping views in every direction. I headed back to the car when the rain set in and backtracked to the main road and on to Dunvegan.

Dunvegan’s claim to fame is being the home of Dunvegan Castle (the seat of the chief of the Clan MacLeod for more than 800 years), which I skipped over entirely, instead heading for the Claigan Coral Beaches I had read about. I suppose living on the coast of New England has made me a bit jaded with regard to beaches, but after walking the mile or so to the beach, I was underwhelmed. The beach is made up of maerl, which gives it a white glow in the sun. Maybe I was tired, maybe it was the gray skies, who knows, but I didn’t love it. I headed back into town and had a scone and hot chocolate at the Dunvegan Bakery. The Scots seem to enjoy their scones with butter and jam, as opposed to the English clotted cream and jam. I don’t think it’s quite as good. I also tried blackcurrant jam on the scone, another first for me.

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Today’s traffic jam on the road to Neist Point

After lunch, it was off to Neist Point. You will also no doubt recognize pictures of this famous landmark, sitting at the headland of the Duirinish Peninsula. The lighthouse is actually tucked behind the headlands, with a steep trail leading a mile or so down to the lighthouse. Unfortunately, the iconic shots are taken from another trail leading to a viewpoint above the parking lot. Which I realized after I had trekked most of the way down to the lighthouse. I did get the iconic shot, but I also got quite the workout!

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Neist Point Lighthouse

Today was also “moving day”. The Cuillin Hills Hotel only had a room for three of my four nights in Portree, so I had to pack up and head to the Portree Hotel for the night tonight. I’ve been spoiled the last few nights. Tonight’s room is up 57 stairs (I counted them) under the eaves in what could best be described as the attic, and rather cramped. I set out in search of dinner, and heard music playing on my way.  It turns out, there was a “Skye Myths and Legends” show on at the hotel across the street at 6PM, and I decided “why not?”. The two guys who did most of the talking and who greeted everyone afterwards were fabulous. There were also two girls as part of the program. They performed a mixture of dramatic stories and songs about the legends surrounding the Isle of Skye. Definitely an enjoyable way to pass an hour. After that, the Isle of Skye Pipe Band put on a show in the streets around Somerled Square. I only stayed for a half hour or so, then off to dinner at the hotel restaurant followed by live music in the hotel bar. All in all, not a bad day in Scotland!

Scotland 2016 – Day 5

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Isle of Skye waterfall

Happy 4th of July! I only did two things today, and one of them was kind of a bust, so I’ll focus on what took up the majority of the day: a boat trip from Elgol to Loch Coruisk.

It was rainy and misty this morning, so I debated whether it was even worth trying to take a boat trip. But I reasoned that tomorrow’s forecast wasn’t much better, so if I was going to do it, I might as well go today. Besides, the drive from Broadford to Elgol is supposed to be one of the best on Skye. Both companies strongly suggest reservations, but I couldn’t be bothered with locking in a specific time.

So off I went to Elgol. There is a beautiful waterfall just next to the A87 that I stopped at along the way. Once you turn off the main road in Broadford, it is 15 miles of winding, twisting, climbing single-track road all the way to Elgol. And it is absolutely breathtaking! The road was covered with sheep in several places, making it even more slow-going. The mountains here (The Cuillin Hills) remind me of some of the mountain ranges in the western U.S. The final mile or so into Elgol is pretty much straight downhill to the pier (with an abundance of cows and sheep sharing the road).

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The road into Elgol

I decided to try to get a ticket for the Bella Jane boat, which had a trip out at 10:45, and I was in luck! Time for a quick pit stop, and then we were boarding the boat. There were about a dozen people in all. The clouds were still hanging over the mountains, but it was not raining very hard. I don’t think any pictures can possibly do justice to how incredible the whole experience was. The boat ride takes about 45 minutes and travels across Loch Scavaig to the mouth of Loch Coruisk, which is an inland loch surrounded by the Cuillin Hills. On the way, there was some commentary about the surrounding islands and we passed by several seal colonies on the small rocky outcrops dotting the shoreline close to Loch Coruisk. Close to the “dock”, the Cuillin mountains rise directly out of the sea. At one point, I counted no fewer than six waterfalls cascading down from the same mountain. The boat docks alongside a precariously perched staircase which is attached to a rock. Nobody seems to think of safety as much here as they do at home (I noticed the same thing in Ireland last summer).

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Loch Scavaig

Once on shore, I had about 1.5 hours until the return boat. There are no real marked trails, so you’re pretty much on your own to pick out a route. As you round the first bend, Loch Coruisk comes into view, with the mountains surrounding it. I was immediately reminded of the morning I spent a few years ago at Moraine Lake (“The Valley of the Ten Peaks”; near Banff in Alberta, Canada) watching the fog burn off. The clouds hanging over the mountains at Loch Coruisk were very similar. The rocks were pretty slick, and the ground quite muddy, but I managed to make it to a rock overlooking the Loch and a waterfall on the opposite side. I sat there for about 20 minutes, just drinking in the scenery. I’m making more of a concerted effort to just stop for a few minutes and appreciate where I am when I’m traveling these days, and this was a perfect place to do just that. On the way back to the boat “ladder”, I managed to step right onto a mud puddle. Since my socks and jeans were now completely wet, I figured I might as well take off my shoes and socks and dip my feet into the cold water!

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Loch Coruisk

By the time the boat made its way back into Elgol, it was raining pretty steadily. I stopped at the Elgol Shop and picked up a piece of Ginger Cake to eat in the car. Then it was off to the Fairy Pools. I stopped several times along the road back to Broadford since the clouds had begun to clear.

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The road to Elgol

The Fairy Pools were more or less a bust. They were pretty, but I left my tripod mount in the car (nothing like lugging my tripod back and forth for nothing!), and the falls weren’t overly photogenic in the sun. I headed back to Portree to get dinner. After trying two restaurants that were closed, I ended up back at No. 1 Bosville Terrace for a repeat of my dinner two nights ago. It was excellent (again) and gave me a chance to have another Thistly Cross Cider!

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The Cuillin Hills and River Sligachan

Scotland 2016 – Day 3

Seriously… Scotland is amazing! Around every bend in the road is something else I want to stop to take pictures of. Today I drove along the shores of Caribbean blue Loch Torridon and the Inner Sound, drove across the third highest road in Scotland, and visited one of the most photographed castles in the world.

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Applecross Peninsula

I slept until 6:30 and then decided I would head out for a walk before breakfast. I walked along Loch Torridon over to the boathouse and back before enjoying eggs Benedict for breakfast. Then it was off to drive around the Applecross Peninsula.

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The harbor in the tiny fishing village of Ardheslaig

I drove back through Shieldaig and then kept following the coastal road. In places, it hugged the coastline, but mostly it was precariously tucked higher up along the hillside. The road is single-track all the way to Applecross. There are passing places fairly often, but it’s a bit nerve-wracking to see another car coming straight at you and having to back up into one of the passing places. Also nerve-wracking is coming up a hill or around a corner and not being able to see if anyone’s coming. The water was a gorgeous shade of blue/green and frequently dotted with fishing boats. There were many tiny villages along the way (when I say tiny, I mean no more than a dozen houses) and I stopped at a few of them to take pictures.

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Applecross Peninsula

Once I got to Applecross, it was on to the next adventure: driving across the Bealach na Bà. The Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle) is the third highest road in Scotland and climbs to 2,054 feet at gradients close to 20%. The way down involved several hairpin turns (all single lane of course). But the views were incredible! From the top of the pass, you can climb a short way to views over the Inner Sound to the Isle of Skye and beyond. While I was admiring the view from the top, the clouds rolled in and soon the area was covered in fog. It was quite an experience!

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Bealach na Ba

I was planning to eat a scone at the cafe at Eilean Donan Castle, but I spotted the Carron Restaurant on the way, with a sign advertising homemade baked goods with a craft shop next door. How could I resist? Unfortunately, they only had butter for the scone (not cream), so that was a deal-breaker. (I know, I’ve become a scone snob!) Instead I had the apple crumble with custard. Delicious! Then it was on to Eilean Donan Castle. You’ve no doubt seen photos of this castle situated on a small tidal island and connected by a stone bridge. The castle dates back to the 13th century, and I took plenty of photos of the outside, but I decided against visiting the restored interior.

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Eilean Donan Castle

Then it was on to my home for the next four nights: the Isle of Skye. Skye has several iconic landmarks which I hope to visit over the next few days. I got settled in at the Cuillin Hills Hotel in Portree (complete with a room overlooking the harbor), and walked into town for dinner at No. 1 Bosville Terrace. I was up late last night, so I’m turning in early. I have two possible plans for tomorrow, and I’m going to decide in the morning which direction I will head in for the day.

 

Scotland 2016 – Day 0

ScotlandToday’s the day.  In a few short hours, I’ll be on my way across the pond again for a long-awaited two-week visit to northern Scotland.  I wasn’t supposed to be going to Scotland this summer.  I had long been planning on a trip to Germany and Austria for this year’s summer vacation.  But upon the suggestion of a stranger on TripAdvisor last summer, I started looking at pictures of the Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides online.  It was one of those times where my heart made the decision before my mind had a chance to catch up.  I knew without a doubt I would be heading to Scotland after seeing those pictures and reading about this remote part of the world.  And I never doubted my decision.  After waiting until I was reasonably sure we wouldn’t be having any more snow days, I booked the trip.  Then, of course, we had two more snow days.  Good thing I left myself a few days’ cushion after the end of the school year!  

One thing you should know about me is that I am incredibly claustrophobic.  I have gotten better over the years, but I still get myself pretty worked up when I am in a small space.  (I used to avoid elevators like the plague!)  So I was all set to book my flights through London on British Airways, and I decided to double-check to see if there were any other connecting flights to Inverness from Boston.  Lo and behold, Aer Lingus had a flight through Dublin, transferring to a regional airline turboprop.  The thought of stopping in Dublin appealed to me; the turboprop did not.  After searching for pictures of the interior of the plane and sufficiently driving myself crazy, I decided (despite the significant savings) if I was that nervous just thinking about it, I should stick with my original plan.  A layover in London it is!

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Map of my journey to Scotland

So I’m off to Inverness, Scotland.  Inverness is a small city/large town in north central Scotland.  I considered flying into Edinburgh or Glasgow, but not being a city person, I decided I’d be much happier skipping them altogether.  My flight lands in Inverness at 11:25 BST tomorrow morning, and I plan to pick up the rental car and hightail it out of the city.  My first stop is Torridon, a small village on the Applecross Peninsula, for two nights.  The whole area has a population of about 400 people.  My kind of remote place!  From there, I will head to the Isle of Skye for four nights, then ferry out to the Outer Hebrides, where I will spend six nights before heading back to Inverness and eventually back to Boston.  I’m not a city person at all, and this trip is far enough off the beaten path that I expect to enjoy lots of solitude and relaxation.  I’m looking forward to walking on beautiful white sand beaches, eating afternoon scones at quaint cafes, and hiking to iconic vistas.  (I think it goes without saying that what I’m most looking forward to is drinking English cider!)  Although I’m not a city person, I do like my creature comforts, so I’ll be staying in larger towns and villages so I can (hopefully) also enjoy some live music and pub culture in the evenings.  If you click on the map above, you can see my route through the Scottish Highlands and Islands!

 

London 2016: Day 8

Portobello Road Market
Portobello Road Market

The final day in London.  On the agenda for today were the Portobello Road Market and the Feast of St. George.  I had my last hotel breakfast (I’m not a fan of British style scrambled eggs – too mushy for me) and checked out around 10AM.  Repacking my suitcase took less time than I was expecting.  And I managed to find the piece of fudge I bought in Cambridge!  I left my luggage at the hotel and set out for Notting Hill to explore the market.  I had plenty of company as I crept my way up Portobello Road.  The market is roughly divided into sections covering antiques, new goods, food, etc.  Plus, there are shops lining both sides of the road to stop into.  My only purchase was a custard-filled donut from the same woman I bought one from last time I was there.  One thing I will say about British sweets: none of them are overly sweet.  The donut was good, but left me wishing I had stopped for a scone instead.  Once I got to the end of the market, I wove my way back down Kensington Park Road to the tube.  Along the way, I peeked into several of the neighborhood gardens, almost all of which require a resident key to enter.  They were every bit as beautiful as the one Hugh Grant and Julia Robert’s climbed into in “Notting Hill”.

Next it was off to Trafalgar Square for the Feast of St. George.  It was basically a mob scene of food vendors, wandering performers, carnival, and performance stages.  Crazy!  I managed to find another fudge booth (Laura’s Fudge) and how could I resist?  Homemade clotted cream, dairy cream, and toffee fudge managed to find their way into my suitcase.  And an English Toffee and Butterscotch ice cream cone managed to find its way into my stomach.

Mind the Gap!
Mind the Gap!

From Trafalgar Square I decided to walk back to the hotel to pick up my luggage before heading off to Heathrow.  I arrived to find that the original aircraft had been swapped out for a smaller one and I was one of the unlucky ones (one of 40) who got bumped.  I tried unsuccessfully the find out what the criteria was for bumping since I had checked in exactly 24 hours in advance, but nobody seemed to either know or want to share the rationale.  Anyway, it took about a half hour to sort everything out before I was on my way with a seat for the next flight (about 90 minutes later) and a prepaid debit card for £237 for the inconvenience.  Not too bad!  Since I’ll be traveling to Scotland at the end of June I didn’t bother withdrawing the cash and converting it to US dollars; I’ll just use it then.  Of course, the later flight left me with some time to grab one last cider (Magner’s; not my first choice since I can get that at home, but I managed to drink it).  Then it was time to head home.  I wasn’t ready to go home in a homesick kind of way, but more in the “ready to be done with the city” kind of way.  And although I slept well in the hotel bed, it’s always nice to sleep in my own bed!  It will be a temporary goodbye to the UK this time as I’ll be back through Heathrow in less than 10 weeks for the next adventure…