Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cloudy with a Chance of Haggis - The Best for Last!

Our story picks up with our drive West from Fort Augustus on The Road to Skye.  I can tell you it was absolutely breathtaking - mountains and lochs (lakes) and rivers galore.  At one point, I think it was on the A87,  the landscape was so moving I actually wept.  I kid you not.  That's pretty much how I felt about every part of our trip from that point forward.  The beauty was overwhelming.  When Cousin Sophie had told me that I would love this part of Scotland more than the rest, I didn't really understand why.  Then I saw it for myself. (Wish I had a good picture to show you of the road, but hubby didn't stop the car, and the blurry car window photos just don't do it justice!)

Just before Skye we stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, another scene straight out of a fairy tale, that I'd been looking forward to for a very long time.  (If, like me, you're a fan of the 1986 film Highlander starring Christopher Lambert & Sean Connery, you'll recognize it.)  You might also recognize it as the most photographed castle in Scotland…because it is THAT scenic (of course it has an Instagram account! - I follow their various social media pages just to look at the photos they post daily!)  What's different about this castle is that it is still owned by a family, who lives onsite, and rooms are decorated with antiques and memorabilia.  (It feels like someone's house - and they don't allow photos of the interior.) We had delicious pastries and coffee in the café (with an art gallery full of beautiful photos people have taken of the castle!) then crossed the bridge to Skye.

Isle of Skye

First stop was the Fairy Pools.  I'll admit, finding them was a bit of a challenge (not really well-marked) until we actually got there, but I can think of far worse places to be a little bit lost!  It was worth the effort, because we had a really memorable (and wet) hike (thank goodness for our rain gear!)
Scottish Gaelic on all the signs out this way! 
We hiked about an hour out along the trail, which included a river crossing!  Unlike the time we had to ford 2 rivers in Iceland (when I did chicken out at the 2nd river) I was able to cross this one with hubby's help.  It involved leaping across slippery rocks and hoping he would catch me - the rocks were pretty far apart!  I can't say I love doing that, but it felt like an accomplishment! 

We stayed 1 night at a really sweet guest house (booking early is absolutely essential - not many guest rooms on the island!) where we were greeted with tea, freshly baked shortbread cookies, and a warning to our son from the little innkeeper that she would "throttle" him if he used up all of her Internet data watching youtube videos.  It was awesome.  The house overlooks a huge loch and is fenced in because otherwise the sheep try to come in the house! Since it poured rain that evening, we stayed in and played board games in the living room and got an early night's sleep before our big day of touring the island.  Breakfast the next morning was possibly the best we had on the entire trip - everything cooked perfectly!  Hubby said it was the best haggis he'd eaten - and he ate it each and every time it was offered!

To give hubby a break from driving for a day, I had arranged to spend the day with Donald from Skye Scenic Tours.  He's a local with a 9 seater van and a great sense of humor, and we had a super day with him.  We spent the day with a really nice German couple and a retired British couple (the husband was a retired professor with the SMOOTHEST accent - my son at one point said it was the most amazing voice he'd ever heard!)  So, we're not big tour bus kind of people, but to ride along with a local who showed us spots we might not have found on our own (like that dinosaur footprint out on a rocky beach) and who gave us history and personal commentary as we drove, was fun and worth it.  My little one got to ride up front, and dazzled our driver and our new friends with the Scottish Gaelic she had learned from our library's online learning program.  She absolutely beamed when he complimented her!  (Proud mama in the back was smiling ear to ear too.)  I didn't get a good photo of the Old Man of Storr, but here are some of the other favorite places he brought us:
Waterfall & Kilt Rock

The answer is sing, right?  Olaf would break into song? I wouldn't blame him - it's so beautiful!
Can you see the dinosaur footprint? (3 toes in the center of the pic.) At An Corran, Staffin Beach

The Quiraing.  Absolutely outstanding! (Stardust was filmed here.)

Exploring the Fairy Glen
This path was down a tiny road and came out to a view of Dunvegan Castle, where we had lunch.
Over the course of the day, C picked up a sheep stuffed animal, and asked Donald for a good Scottish name for it.  He chose Morag.  Here she is showing the local sheep her new friend Morag. Clearly they are not impressed.

Hiking up to the Dun Beag - a prehistoric roundhouse. 

The view from the ruins.

The Sligachan Bridge was so scenic we visited there twice during our stay on Skye.  We did so much walking.  My Merrell hiking shoes did not let me down!  Charlotte's cute wellies were less practical. 

That beautiful day had an equally beautiful ending, where Donald dropped us off to catch our ferry to Isle of Raasay, with outstanding views from every angle!
Trying to look all cool & aloof but they loved the scenery on the quick ferry ride as much as we did! If I haven't mentioned it earlier, the kids are wearing LL Bean lined raincoats, which got a TON of use on this trip.  (Yes, on trips,  I still dress them to be spotted easily in the landscape or crowd!) 

Isle of Raasay

This was just an overnight stay, but we quickly wished we had scheduled more time as the Raasay House had activities like kayaking, that the children would have loved to do, plus there was an whole island to explore but we didn't have time.  The view of the Black Cullins from the front lawn of our hotel was just mesmerizing though.  I pretty much sat at the tables outside and just stared at it while the children ran around the yard and played chess in the library before dinner.

 This was the path we walked back down to the ferry terminal.
Beautiful Raasay House where we stayed and had a lovely dinner

From Raasay, we had another scenic ferry ride on Caldonian MacBraye Ferries (CalMac) back to Skye, and from there we headed South.  We drove through many villages and towns along coastal roads I wish we'd had more time to explore, like Oban, before finding down a winding single-lane country road, the tiny hidden ferry terminal we were convinced might not exist. The ferry ride was especially fun because the captain invited us up to show us how he piloted the ferry using a joystick.  He was so kind and friendly, and gave us advice on what to see & do on Isle of Arran!  The Scots are such lovely people.

Isle of Arran

This was quite possibly my absolute favorite place of the entire trip, and I could have spent another week exploring it!  My "must-see" on the island was the Machrie Moor standing stones, while hubby wanted to tour the Arran Distillery, which makes outstanding whisky. I had booked a swanky resort/spa, the Auchrannie Resort, where we stayed for 3 nights.  It was just perfect and I'd go back in a heartbeat.  The staff was so helpful, the food was excellent (wish I'd gotten a pic of the breakfast buffet!)  the pool was huge, and the activities were so great that we wished we had known about them ahead of time - they had gorge walking, climbing, segway tours, abseiling, mountain biking, archery, and sea kayaking, plus a children's play barn where my daughter played for a bit.  We spent our one FULL day there exploring the island, and found an excellent lunch outside next to the Arran Brewery (I can't seem to find a name of the café, but it was very good!)  The children did an island Scavenger Hunt, which we found in a small shop, and I helped them find the clues in Lochranza while hubby took his distillery tour & tasting just down the road! It was really quite fun - the clues took us to signs in the village, or the old castle ruins where we had to find letters engraved in stone.   I also fell in love with Arran Aromatics while we were there (I brought some back as gifts as well as some fabulous lavender & tea tree lotion for myself! 

These are pics from the Machrie Moor - it is accessed from a farmer's field, so to get to it, you walk through fields upon fields of sheep (and their droppings - wear boots because it's impossible not to step in it!) 

The standing stones did not disappoint!

After the moor walk, we drove down to the southern edge of the island where we found a local butcher who has a brother in Connecticut.  We had almost stayed in this town at a nearby hotel, but I was so very glad I had chosen Auchrannie Resort, because nothing came close to it!

Lunch in Brodick on a beautiful day!

Isle of Arran has a huge red deer population - they were everywhere! They also have red squirrels, but we didn't find any!

More views on my walk with the kids around Lochranza - such a charming village!

Finding scavenger hunt clues!

After our scavenger hunt at the castle ruins, we walked back to the café at the Arran Distillery for tea time and some shopping!  Seriously, such a great day!

Coming back to Brodick at dinnertime, we watched the CalMac Ferry glide past GoatFell, the beautiful mountain overlooking Brodick Castle, and the children rode a few amusement rides at the shore. We also smiled as we watched a college-aged guy playing bagpipes which moved a mum nearby to start highland dancing!

We ended the day with a picnic dinner and frisbee on the lawn of the resort, followed by a good long swim in the spa pool before calling it a night!  (Remember, the sun would rise around 4am, and didn't set there until 10pm, so we had some very long & memorable days!) 

The island was just so enchanting.  They call it Scotland in miniature, and I can see why.  If you're ever considering a visit, it' s a quick & easy ferry ride (but do reserve in advance if you're bringing a car!) and not far from Glasgow.  I wish we'd had time to climb GoatFell, wish we'd have done some of the adventure activities at Auchrannie, had more time to shop the darling little shops, visited Brodick Castle, the Heritage Museum, and the Mogabout Safari tour.  There's so much to do it really deserves more of a week than just the 3 days I had planned.  The ferry ride back was smooth and the ship sold the Cobb Mutiny Bars that we had fallen in love with back in the highlands (yes, I bought out the entire supply at the ship's café that morning to bring home with me!) 

(For those of you who asked, yes, I did kind of look for Sam Heughan in Glasgow, but I didn't find him.  Apparently he wasn't at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens where we had our picnic lunch.  He was probably busy filming somewhere.) 

So now we've finished the last of the tea we brought back, and the last Cobbs Bakery Mutiny Bar is ready to be shared at dessert this evening.  The whisky, somehow, has managed to multiply into a 2nd bottle, which I take to be Scottish math, or a testament to how good it is!  Scotland, like much of the UK, is very special to me.  In many ways it reminds me of growing up in Canada.  There's something more to it than that though, it still feels more untouched, more genuine, more steeped in tradition.  There is inspiration everywhere; castles and hairy cows, mountains, lochs and fairies in the glen, sheep, rivers, delicious woolens, mist, hearty food and hearty drink, and time for tea.  

I recognize that part of what made the trip so important to me was that it was a part of the grieving process after losing my dad the week before we left.  I thought of him, talked to him, and I felt like he was there with me. Turns out it was exactly what I needed.  


Monday, August 17, 2015

Cloudy with a Chance of Haggis - My Green Life & Real Estate Goes to Scotland!

Part I

We did it again…packed up the kids and headed overseas.  This was the trip that almost didn't happen though.  Normally I would have made all of my reservations by January for a Summer trip, but I fell really ill just before Winter, and there were a few months when I could barely walk due to the debilitating side effects of taking Levaquin, an antibiotic I'd been prescribed.  (The most severe side effects lasted for months and even now, 9 months later, I still have residual effects and pain. Hopefully I've been spared of the other scary side effects, but I really don't know yet.)

I was starting to feel down about my chances of a full recovery, but the optimist in me went ahead and booked the trip in the Spring, and bought travel insurance just in case I couldn't travel. Things went from bad to worse, but not in the way I had imagined.

We left for Scotland 3 days after my father's funeral.

I was emotionally & physically spent, my heart heavy, but grateful for the distraction.  It turned into a journey of healing, and sometimes, of quiet reflection.  My dad, an adventurer at heart, had always said to travel while you can, because you never know when you won't be able to.  He had told me before our last trip not to put things off, and if I REALLY wanted something, to make it happen…and so we did…passports in hand.

The Highlights (Part 1 of 2, because this post runs a bit long!) 

6 Days in Edinburgh
Past experience has taught me that my children need about 3 days to fully adjust to being abroad, with some downtime mixed in while their internal clocks reset, so our first few days are only lightly scheduled.  As we usually travel for a few weeks or more at a time (this 3 week trip was our shortest family trip to Europe so far) we had the time to start slowly.  We settled into our rented house in Craigleith, a short bus ride from downtown.  We met our neighbors, watched the fox (and once the badger!) visit our garden every day, and discovered our new favorite British TV program, Come Dine with Me (and Couples Come Dine with Me!)

Walking to our local market for groceries. In an effort to reduce waste, plastic bags are 5pence, so everyone carries their own reusable shopping bags.  Our house came with a composting bin plus recycling bin!

We walked to the market, filled our fridge with local food, and learned how to use Scottish plumbing (if you've traveled abroad, you have your own stories about foreign plumbing, I'm sure!)  Of course we visited Edinburgh Castle (in the rain) the Royal Mile, hiked Arthur's Seat (loved it!) and took a day trip out to Roslyn Chapel (which was fascinating!) where we also walked one of the marked footpaths, something I've always wanted to do, despite not knowing where it would lead.  We also visited the Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh Dungeon, the Writer's Museum, the National Museum, National Gallery, and took the free Harry Potter Walking Tour, which ended up being my favorite activity during our Edinburgh stay!

Meeting point for the Harry Potter Walking Tour - so much fun!

We also visited Musselburgh one day for a pub lunch, followed by finding the ice cream shop the locals recommended, then walked the River Walk to the beach, which was completely empty and full of treasures. 
The adorable candy counter at the ice cream shop. I'll take a chocolate hedgehog please!
Falkirk, Sterling & Doune

To be honest, the Falkirk Wheel was not all that interesting to me, but the kids really enjoyed their "water walking" experience there.

Doune, however, was excellent!  As a lifelong Monty Python fan, I especially enjoyed the recorded tour by Terry Jones, with the extra bits about the filming of the Holy Grail, and we had recently watched the DVD extra feature of Michael Palin going back to Doune years later to talk about what it was like filming Holy Grail.  I'm also an Outlander fan, so the fact that I was at Castle Leoch was pretty cool as well.  The kids just wanted to run around with coconut shells (which they actually sell in the gift shop - these people have a sense of humor and of commerce!) while Scott and I recited silly insults atop the wall...
Sterling Castle was probably brilliant, but the kids were tired and not particularly interested.  We came to the realization on this trip, that it was easier to travel with the kids when they were younger, and didn't necessarily have or voice their own opinions so much.  Now, with them 11 & 9 on this trip, they felt they should have a say in our activities, and while I thought I had planned things they would really enjoy, it was not always the case.  Our 11 year old let us know on several occasions that he would have preferred more challenging hikes and less historic places including castles, churches, and museums!

3 Days in Beautiful Kilconquhar 

It wasn't easy to find - it wasn't on any of our maps or an option in our GPS, but we managed to find the tiny hamlet hidden away in the countryside near St. Andrews on the East coast. Of the 8 places we called home on our trip, this was the unanimous favorite lodging of our summer - the Castle Gate House at Kilconquhar Castle Estate:

We had horses out our kitchen window, and bunnies all over the estate.  The kids enjoyed a riding lesson in the stables, swimming, go-karting, and exploring the grounds, and we hit a few golf balls...

We took day trips to St. Andrews, where they were setting up for the Open.  We flew/crashed kites on the beach there, explored the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, and walked around town, which is a really charming place.

Journey to the Highlands
I'm skipping over our day in Arbroath & Aberdeen, only because while they were pleasant, I wouldn't call them highlights.  I took some really pretty photos, and had some very funny stories, but you had to be there. We visited the ruins of Arbroath Cathedral, and tailgated at the beach, ending our day with a really nice meal at our  swanky hotel in Aberdeen, but by this point, we were really just looking forward to the change of scenery that would be the Highlands.

July 4 we (and by we I mean Scott, who is an excellent driver in the UK!) drove from Aberdeen up to Nairn, to Culloden Moor, then through Inverness.  What a fitting start to the Highlands! Culloden was INCREDIBLY moving, and well-presented.  I've visited other battlefields before, but this one was really special.  The sky here is so vast - I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.  (Also, the museum café served Drambuie ice cream, which I enjoyed overlooking the moor, and the kids met their first Highland Coos there!)
Afterwards we drove through Inverness to Fort Augustus, via the route that hugs the western shore of Loch Ness.  Fort Augustus would be our home for the next week.  We rented a flat in this former fort turned abbey turned boarding school turned holiday apartments, which sits on the shore of Loch Ness.

While the accommodation was lovely, I hadn't realized there wasn't much to do in the town.  It made a good home base, but if I were doing it again, I would choose Aviemore closer to the Cairngorm National Park as our location.  There were more shops and restaurant choices there, though I must say I very much enjoyed our pub meal at the Loch Inn in Fort Augustus!

My son would say his highlight was climbing Ben Nevis (in the company of Connor from Atlas Mountaineering.)  It was a full day hike out of Fort William, and they had a beautiful day, snow at the summit, and my son really enjoyed learning about mountaineering with Connor!

My daughter would say her highlight was meeting the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. It was a short hike up the mountain and we learned a lot about the reindeer - such a different experience and a gorgeous view!

She tried to take a selfie with her favorite reindeer.

The path to the herd.
 After the reindeer business, we visited the Highland Museum, which is a small village with different sections relating to different times in Highland history.  My favorite part was the small village where they filmed Outlander.  The young men working as historical characters that day shared with Scott what it was like working with the film crew, and how they had to be sure that they didn't do any damage to the village.  It was especially fun when Scott donned a kilt and we did a little Jamie & Claire scene!

Other favorites during our week in the Highlands included our sunset cruise on Loch Ness, right outside the door to the Highland Club (the old abbey where we were staying.)  It's funny to call it a sunset cruise when the sun doesn't really set until after 10pm, closer to 11pm really.  We did not spot Nessie, but we had a lovely rainbow! 

Relaxing back at our flat in their Scottish slippers.
We also loved riding the Jacobite, the West Coast railways line that was used in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts Express, over the Glenfinnan Viaaduct to the coast and back.  We had beautiful views of the islands and saw a lot of wildlife along the way.

As this post is breaking my own records in length, I'll save my absolute favorite part of our adventure, the Road to Skye and the Islands, for Part II.

Thanks for reading!