Having successfully located Nessie, we enjoyed the remainder of the day and evening in Inverness. We gathered with locals at the Castle Tavern (located, unsurprisingly, next to Inverness castle) to watch a very exciting World Cup match with England vs. Colombia, which resulted in an English victory via penalty shootout.
We wondered: Do Scots root for the English team, as loyal members of the United Kingdom? Or is it a rivalry based on a history of war between the two countries? The answer we found, by asking tour guides and pub patrons, was both. As we were educated by John Alasdair Macdonald, our Hebrideaen Explorer tour guide, Scotland’s history began well before its famed wars with southern neighbors and Hadrian’s wall. While today there is most definitely a Scottish identity, the history of the people inhabiting Scotland is not as clear cut. In addition, many modern Scots, such as John, have spent time studying or living in England. So, our very unscientific poll revealed that while many Scots eagerly rooted for England’s opponent, just as many cheered their UK brethren. We just enjoyed watching them.
Dinner was at the Black Isle Brewery, which we had walked past several times during our time in Inverness and always seemed lively & busy. As the name implies, this is a craft brew house, but with an organic twist. We were a little bit beered out by this point so we chose the organic wine, which was delicious. Black Isle is also famous for its pizza, but Oldest is non-dairy so we chose a vegan pizza with pesto – I will admit to being doubtful, but it was delicious. Highly recommended, and one of our better meals in Scotland, especially if you are growing tired of traditional pub fare.
After enjoying some traditional music at Inverness’ most famous pub, Hootananny’s, we took one last stroll along the lovely River Ness. By this point in our trip, I had successfully “closed my rings” (Apple-speak for getting enough exercise) for 7 consecutive days, and I wasn’t about to stop now. By now it was fairly late: in fact, it was midnight. And yet, off to the southwest, was a bright glow. Indeed, this far north, and less than two weeks past the summer solstice, Inverness’ sky never really darkened, and it was as bright as day by 3:00 am. If you travel to Inverness during this time of year, bring an eye mask if you like your mornings dark!
Thus ended our visit to Scotland. The country’s wild beauty, combined with its residents’ fierce patriotism, heartiness, and charm, won us over completely. We may not have become whiskey connoiseurs, but we will undoubtedly return.
Our next day in Inverness found us checking off another bucket list item: Loch Ness. Although many travel advice blogs and comment board afficianados will tell you that Loch Ness isn’t Scotland’s prettiest loch, and that there are many better sights in Scotland, and they may be right, it’s still LOCH NESS. Come on. Even as an American child growing up in the Midwest, the mythology of the Loch Ness Monster captivated me. Perhaps because I grew up before technology, I believed the storytellers and witnesses, just as I believed in Bigfoot. A few decades, uncovered hoaxes, and the internet later, I am clearly aware of the non-existence of these imaginary creatures. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to look for them.
Prior to arriving in Inverness, this day was completely uncalendared and free for exploration. But as we rode the train into the Highlands from Edinburgh, coming closer and closer to Loch Ness, both Oldest and I realized that we could not deny ourselves the opportunity of Nessie hunting. So we booked the 4 hour “Sensation” tour with Jacobite Cruises. Departing from Inverness bus station, the tour included a cruise on the Loch, a visit to the Loch Ness Monster exhibition, and Urquhart Castle.
Another perfect day – actually it was a bit warm and we both got a bit of a sunburn! – resulted in some pretty amazing photos:
We learned that Loch Ness is Scotland’s second deepest loch, and contains more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined. And because of the high peat content in the soil, its waters are very dark and murky. With soft movement along the water’s surface, it is easy to imagine a large, dark form lurking just beneath.
After an active and lively 5 days in Edinburgh, Oldest and I were ready for a little downtime. We traveled via ScotRail train from Edinburgh Waverly station to Inverness. The train was overcrowded, and the attendant a bit grouchy because people were putting their bags anywhere and everywhere. We were grateful to have a seat, though, and the beautiful weather continued:
After checking into our Airbnb in Inverness, a lovely, 2-story, 2 bedroom attached home, (Inverness Airbnb), we enjoyed a relaxing walk along and through the islands of the River Ness. No hills here on this walk! At all! My thighs thanked me. Here are a few photos from our stroll:
Early the next morning, we were greeted by John Alasdair Macdonald, proprietor of The Hebridean Explorer, a private tour company based in Inverness. Looking back, Oldest says this day was a highlight of the trip.
John Alasdair Macdonald (I love saying all 3 names) spent time as a businessman in England before returning to his homeland to start his tour company and study for a Master’s in History. He grew up speaking both Gaelic and English. Additionally, he is a proud member of the fabled Macdonald clan. A really interesting tidbit I found on the MacDonald clan, courtesy of www.greatscottishclans.com:
There are more than half a million Macdonalds worldwide, and a recent study suggests that one in four can trace their origins back to Somerled, the clan’s founder and “The Greatest of all Celtic warrior kings”. Only one man has more living descendants: Genghis Khan.
/returns from digression/
As we had a Loch Ness cruise tour booked for the following day, I chose the “Hebridean Explorer Tour with Eilean Donan Castle”. Unlike most Inverness day tours, which journey to the Isle of Skye and back, this tour heads further north toward the Apple-cross peninsula. My planning thought process here was that we would return one day to Scotland, and spend a few days exploring Skye – I wanted to do something that would give me a flavor of ‘wild’ Scotland, without the summer crowds expected on Skye.
As it turned out, this choice was fortuitous – according to John, although it wasn’t his most popular tour, it was the tour that would take the greatest advantage of the incredibly blue skies we enjoyed in Scotland. He mentioned that he had been thinking about discontinuing the tour, because the views were frequently obscured by poor weather and required a disappointing re-route. But then, on occasion, he was blessed with a day like our tour day, and was only too thrilled to explore the Applecross route. Sadly, it appears that the tour is no longer offered, but I’m sure if you asked John about it he would be more than happy to set it up – and hope for great weather!
I truly wish I had taken more notes during our tour, so I could do a better job of describing the day’s beautiful photos and telling you the exact route we took. Then again, more time spent on my ipad would have meant less time enjoying the incredible scenery.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking now.
I do know that we started off toward Loch Ness, heading through Drumnadrochit (it’s fun to try to say that in a Scottish accent – spit out the “droch”), a town on the side of the lake and the home of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, which we would visit the next day. Then we headed toward Eilean Donan Castle, where we enjoyed lunch in the cafe, and up toward Torridon before heading back to Inverness. The full tour took about 8 1/2 hours.
The historical tidbits offered by John Alasdair Macdonald definitely added to the trip. We asked whether he rooted for England in the World Cup (spoiler: he did) which kicked off a long discussion about Scotland’s history. Although modern Scotland is a part of the U.K., its history and people are a true melting pot of tribal Picts, Normans, Britons, and Vikings. We also learned that in the 1790s, after a rebellion of farmers, Highlands clan lords forced people out of the highland plains and valleys in favor of sheep, which helped them afford their lordly lifestyle. As a result, the majority of Scotland’s population to this day remains near the coasts.
The Hebridean Explorer tour was an outstanding day. I cannot recommend John’s tour more highly. Throughout the booking process, communication was top notch. And the tour itself was memorable for our host’s knowledge, flexibility, and unbelievable scenery.
A note on my planning for Inverness. I had considered several small group, multi-day tours, to take the most advantage of our short time in the Highlands. In the end, I opted for booking our own lodging in Inverness for 3 nights, combined with a single day private tour, and half day tour of Loch Ness. There were several advantages to this approach, for us:
We chose our own lodging, and did not have to pack and move nightly to a new location.
We enjoyed a ‘downtime’ evening in our Airbnb, getting snacks from the grocery and watching a movie on our iPads
We slept late one morning
Our private tour was catered to our interests and tastes, allowing for plenty of interaction with our very knowledgeable guide.
We never had to wait for a line to use the toilet, or for lagging tour guests to return to a bus.
For us, even though it was not an inexpensive option, this was the right balance, Given our busy time in Edinburgh, combined with the fact that we were still only halfway through our vacation, we wanted to regain and retain some energy. Because tomorrow…. we will be hunting monsters!
As has been mentioned, there are a lot of hills in Edinburgh. Like Rome, the city’s position among “seven hills” is no accident. It is easy to imagine 11th century nomadic warriors establishing a defensible stronghold here. Among those seven hills, I can’t neglect to mention the biggest of them all: Arthur’s Seat. Some historians claim this may have been the site of Camelot. Looming imposingly about a mile to the east of Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat rises 610 feet from city level, to an elevation of 823 feet. (creds: Google). Actually, that doesn’t sound like much, does it? I didn’t think so either.
So, after a busy day walking alpacas (see previous post), Oldest and I set off from our lodging for a quick jaunt to the top of Arthur’s Seat. It was on his bucket list for Edinburgh, and who was I to stop him? A round-ish 50 something mom who usually sits in an air conditioned office, that’s who.
We didn’t have a map, or consult any guidebooks prior to starting off. (what? I didn’t plan the detail of how to get up Arthur’s Seat? shocking, I know). We just started walking up from the direction of Holyrood Palace, not realizing there were a number of potential paths for our ascent. As it turned out, the path we chose was the shortest to the top. That’s great! Except it also meant that it was the steepest. Geometry 101.
Huff. Puff. Wipe off sweat, take in beautiful views, repeat. By the very top, there wasn’t much of a path at all, just giant boulders to be climbed. Not only am I 50 something, I have short legs, so this was quite a challenge. I was literally drenched with sweat and breathing like Darth Vader. Oldest was well ahead of me, checking back periodically to make sure I hadn’t croaked on the side of Camelot.
In all, the climb took me about 40 minutes of serious cardio. With a diet heavy on french fries and beer so far this week, the exercise was not unwelcome. And while there were moments when I thought I wouldn’t make it to the top, I am so glad I did. At the tippy top there is a small marker. The moment I touched it, catching my breath, was unforgettable. Not only had I met the physical challenge , but I was rewarded with incredible views over the city of Edinburgh.
View over hazy Edinburgh castle
Oldest, resting at the top, barely broke a sweat
There is some sort of lovely, deep metaphor in this experience. Oh I know:
It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves – Sir Edmund Hillary
On our last full day in Edinburgh, we headed out of town for another adventure. Knowing Oldest is a huge fan of animals, I booked the Alpaca Walk at BobCat Alpacas, just on the edge of the city center in the area known as Bonaly. This was our only pre-booked activity in Edinburgh: if you’re even thinking about it, do it! Click here for more info: BobCat Alpacas
So a few things to know about alpacas:
They are as soft as they appear
They are typically very social and stay together in small groups
They are very photogenic
They take a couple of minutes to warm up to humans, then become quite loyal
They are (usually) sweet, mellow, and gentle
They have truly learned the meaning of “stop and smell the roses”
Bob, one of the proprietors, met us along with group of about 10 others for the day’s walk. Bob and his wife Catherine manage a herd of about 50 or so alpacas. Each walker would be paired with one adult male alpaca for the walk; before our assignments, Bob gave us a rundown of each animal’s personality. Balthazar is a leader. Eureka and Amadeus are best buddies and will walk together. Artemis is mellow and likes to trail behind others. (I’m making up these descriptions because I don’t remember which was which except for our assigned alpacas, but you get the idea). Oldest was assigned Artie, a very mellow alpaca – and that is saying something, for an alpaca – who preferred to bring up the rear.
I was assigned Orlando. I just looked him up on the website’s herd directory, and I see that he is one of the primary stud males in the herd. Well, that explains a lot! I should have known….. while the other alpacas had large, soft, lidded eyes and sweet faces, Orlando’s heavier brow made him look kind of pissed off:
The group started off on our walk. Bob cautioned that we should expect a slow pace, as alpacas like to nibble on the roadside grass. Yes, yes they do. Our roughly 2 mile walk took over 2 hours, and mostly went like this:
Orlando, however, was rarely part of the social group chewing the soft grass. Like my Youngest, he chose the road less traveled. His preferred activity was jumping, eating and rolling, tangling his leash in the bristly bushes along the roadside:
Also unlike the other alpacas, Orlando took his time warming up to me (or any humans). He would duck away and snort when I tried to pet him. And he would simply not be told, pulled, or cajoled to leave those bushes. He and Artie both did, however, like to pose for the camera:
At one point, we came across a family and their dogs out for a walk. Alpacas do NOT like dogs. And when dogs were sighted just as we crossed a small bridge, we entered Alpaca Jam 2018. They just did. not. move. For about 15 minutes.
We finally returned to the farm and were treated to the sight of several newborn crias (babies) with their mothers; one was as young as 2 days old!
Despite Orlando’s stubbornness, he eventually let me pet him and actually seemed to like me by the end of the walk. Probably because I gave up and let him be his badass self.
The Ceres Highland Games are held on the last Saturday of June each year. Located at Bow Butts, a greenspace in the small town of Ceres, the Games reminded me of a high school track and field meet, but with kilts. At any given time, there were 3 or 4 competitions underway. The most dramatic involved hurling large bundles of burlap over an ever taller goalpost.
Meanwhile, there were dancers, bagpipers, cyclists and runners running around the edge of the field, archery, and shot put. We found a place to sit on the hill above the field and watched the wrestling. I’m not sure if it was styled as a tournament? But it seemed the same 3 or 4 wrestlers, shirtless, and kilted, wrestled over and over again against each other. I was tired for them! Their nearby cheering sections were loud and raucous, in a good way. It was a gorgeous, warm day, so the Games were crowded with families. I’m sure there were other tourists there, but it felt like a very authentic Scottish experience. I would definitely recommend. And best of all – virtually no hills to walk up!
Oldest had a big day (and, well, a big night before too ;)). He crashed on the train ride back to Edinburgh. Say it with me … awwwwwwww!
When I plan travel, I spend a lot of time researching our options in each location. Other than lodging, I try to maximize flexibility, and determine what we do each day based on our energy level or the weather. I generally pre-book only the activities that are 1)top priorities and 2)require prebooking to enjoy or to avoid a long queue.
One of our “options” for Edinburgh was a daytrip outside of the city to the Ceres Highland Games . The Ceres games boast the title of the oldest free (!) games in Scotland, having run in every non-wartime year since 1314. Did I mention it’s free? Check it out here: Ceres Highland Games.
(More info on the Games in my next post…)
With the promise of a warm, sunny day, we headed to Waverly Station, and navigated our way to Cupar, (pr. coo-per) a town about an hour outside of Edinburgh. From there, the location of the Games in Ceres was about a 3 mile drive.
We thought there might be taxis waiting at the Cupar station, but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately? ) there were not. We wandered into the station, hoping to find a sign or other indication as to where to get a taxi, but instead we wandered into the Cupar Heritage Center, which is housed in the station building. The center was manned by Gavin, a volunteer who boasted the strongest Scottish brogue we heard on the trip, and was very punny.
Gavin: So whaur di ye hale from?
Oldest: New Jersey
Gavin: Ach, I have an oold one
Gavin was only too eager to help, calling us a taxi himself, and informing us that a driver had only just left to take passengers to the Games and would certainly be back shortly. He then proceeded to show us the important Cupar artifacts at the Heritage Center, mostly dating from the early 20th century. These included local memorabilia from King George’s 1937 coronation celebration, WWI shell casings, and, um, a can of porage?:
Gavin’s summary of the town’s history:
“Cupar useta be a viry important toon, but den everyting got oold.”
The charming welcome of the Cupar Heritage Center and Gavin were the type of thing that never would have happened with too much planning. Many of my favorite travel experiences are similar.
Anyway, the taxi seemed to have gotten lost between the Ceres Games and the station, because 45 minutes went by before Gavin called another taxi, and we were on our way to the Games!
We purchased coffee and breakfast snacks at the market across the street, and Oldest went for a morning run. He’s a runner. My offspring is a runner. He runs for fun. I still can’t get over that one.
Anyway, we began the day by walking uphill along the Royal Mile, our destination being Edinburgh Castle. This wasn’t our first bagpiper sighting, but it was probably our most touristy.
The castle itself, which sits on a steep hill above Edinburgh, is dark, imposing, and simply oozes history. I have some Scottish blood, and I had the very creepy feeling that some ancestors were watching me. Scottish sorcery, I guess.
The green lawn visible in the forefront of the photo above is the castle’s dog cemetary. At least today we experienced typical atmospheric Scottish gloom.
Conveniently located just outside of the castle is the Scotch Whiskey Experience. Oldest and I didn’t know much about Scotch, so we figured this would be a good way to learn about it. A cheesy hologram guided us through the history of Scotch Whiskey, we sampled aromas from the 5 major whiskey regions, and then we sat down for a tasting with about 10 other tourists. Learning Moment Alert: We do NOT like Islay whiskeys (pronounced Isle-a, not Iss-lay like we thought). Peat just doesn’t seem like something I want to ingest. Oldest pretty much did not like Scotch, to be honest, while I enjoyed a smooth Speyside and several blends. A few photos from the Experience:
After dinner at the World’s End Pub just across from our AirBnb, we wandered uphill toward Greyfriars Bobby – we love dogs – but every photo we took included closed eyes. Really, we weren’t even drunk (yet). We’ll try again, we’re all about the photo op with a dog, even if it’s just a statue. After listening to quiet trad music at Sandy Bells, we headed to Cowgate, where we stumbled upon Stramash, a dance hall with a stage and a fantastic band. Amazingly, even at my semi-advanced age, I didn’t feel out of place – it was that kind of club. I don’t know, maybe some nights it’s crazier or hipper, but on this night, this mom & son fit right in. We ended up dancing til 2 before walking uphill back home. Some photos from our evening in Edinburgh:
Not that I ever need an excuse to take a trip, but the Oldest graduated from college with Honors in May, 2018. With a secure job he wasn’t due to start until August, it was the perfect time to embark on a two week journey to Scotland and Ireland. Edinburgh was our first destination.
The Oldest and I landed in Edinburgh well rested after our first class flight on British Airways from JFK. I looooooooove to fly first class on an eastbound, redeye, overseas trip. I also loooooooooove finding such flights using points, specifically “point saver” deals. This one was booked utilizing 100,000 Avios Points (50k apiece) transferred through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
We got a particular kick out of having seats in the Upper Deck of the 747. It felt like we were on a private jet!
Our first glimpse of Scotland, landing over the Firth of Forth (say that ten times fast):
Ah, Scotland. Sunny, bright, and hot, just the way it’s supposed to be. Wait, what?
We may have been well rested, but finding the Airlink Bus, which involved reading signs (in English) and following arrows, was more challenging than it should have been. I should note here that we packed lightly for this trip – a carry on + backpack each – and now only 30 minutes after landing, I was extremely glad for this as we wandered this way and that, in 85 degree temps, searching for the bus.
The bus ride was fine, but it was also our introduction to a key feature of both Scotland and Ireland in the summertime: AIR CONDITIONING IS NOT REALLY A THING.
Our AirBnB was a quick, uphill walk from Waverly bus station. I highly recommend Allan’s 2 BR apartment, which was well appointed and extremely convenient. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/531292 We never met Allan during our stay, but he was kind enough to leave us a few Scottish goodies as a welcome gift. The best part was a window seat with a corner view of lower High St. aka “The Royal Mile” aka Canongate and Jeffrey St./St. Mary’s St.
After a quick and tasty pub lunch at the No. 1 High Street Pub right below our apartment, we started exploring by walking, uphill, in the direction of Edinburgh Castle at the top of High Street. We ended up making a loop which took us through the bucolic Princes Street Gardens, where many locals were soaking up the bright sunshine. We sat right on the grass and took in the park scenery:
We shortly found our way uphill to the beergarden above Waverly mall, which was lively with a happy hour crowd watching the World Cup.
After the beergarden stop, we made our way back uphill toward our apartment. But not without another stop, at the Whiski Room on High Street, where the a one-man band playing pop tunes with backing tracks drew us in. We quickly made friends with Dave, who seemed to know everyone in the pub. For my first (but not last) taste of Scottish charm, Dave insisted that I couldn’t possibly be Oldest’s mother, because I was only 32! LOL. He bought us a round of drinks, which we returned in kind.
It was a later night than we intended for Day 1, but we enjoyed lots of laughs before walking uphill to our Edinburgh home.