Travel tip #1: don’t leave home without your passport
That’s precisely how my trip to Scotland began, in a bit of a frenzy at the check-in counter, realizing that my little blue book was missing in action. Seriously? Even after carrying it around for most of the morning out of fear of leaving it behind, and carefully securing it within a pouch, inside my backpack, how in the world do I end up in this predicament? Last minute reorganizing and silly situations I’ll conveniently exclude…go figure. Meanwhile, back at the check-in counter, brief moments of anxiety ensued along with a cosmic surrender to the travel gods. I thought, “if this trip is meant to be, I’ll soon be on my way”. Luckily, home was only 5 miles away and indeed the travel gods waved their magic wand, allowing for a speedy dash to the house and back; alas, off I went through security, with passport in hand, en route to JFK and beyond. Nothing like starting a voyage with a burst of adrenaline!
Much like the earlier trip to France, I had not planned to visit the British Isles until about two weeks prior to departing. Same story, different destination. A friend suggested a serendipitous meeting in a foreign land…why not? While these types of invitations are clearly too tempting to decline, there is a ubiquitous practical conflict of weighing budget vs adventure. As a few of my friends so simply stated during a moment of doubt, “will you look back in 1, 5, or 10 years and wish you had not gone?” Answer: NO! Duh! And there you have it, clear and brilliant justification. Summer spontaneity at its finest. Scotland, here I come.
Upon arriving in Edinburgh on the red-eye flight, I promptly took a three hour train north to the city of Inverness where I met my friend. The plan was to start in the northern area of Scotland, known as the Northern Highlands, and subsequently drive south, meandering about the countryside, returning to Edinburgh.
I suppose it’s quite fitting that straight away after planes, trains and automobiles, my first stop was at the Glen Ord Distillery. With no shower, scant sleep and a bit of breakfast hours prior, scotch tasting sounded perfectly reasonable and the obvious choice for a tired traveler. A shot of whisky (whisky with no ‘e’ in Scotland) might just make me forget about a hot shower in the chilly rains. But alas, who cares….showers can wait, food can wait, it’s time for a whiskycito. After a brief sampling, I couldn’t tell you if the flavors were dignified or youthful, soft or firm, austere or rich, etc… I’m certain it was well above the mark; nonetheless, my palette and I both plead guilty to massive ignorance when it comes to whisky. Pass me the wine please, I’ll stick to grapes.
Continuing northbound from Inverness to Ullapool proved to be a glorious pass into the Northern Highlands, where there are literally more sheep then people. Baaaaaaa.
It’s no surprise that I was greeted with drizzle and fog; yet those very elements of nature brought about a special beauty, rendering the region as mystical and magical. I thoroughly enjoyed losing myself in daydreams while staring at the lush scenery that gave the feel of a remote and seemingly deserted land. There were nice surprises along the way, sometimes a beautiful gorge with rushing water crashing along the rocks; other times, the ruins of a castle that managed to weather harsh winter climate; and most often, shades of purple painted across the landscape through tiny flowers, likely Scottish heather & thistle plants.
Ullapool is a quaint, sleepy town that sits on Loch Broom, not too far from the open mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. I always expected to be graced by green, lush grass given the quantity of rainfall; however, I was most pleasantly surprised by the stunning flowers around town, mainly the multi colored and multi shaped begonias. Being a wannabe Master Gardener, I was borderline obsessed with these amazing, plush flowers. Who knew there were so many varieties?
One of the quaint discoveries near Ullapool was the Corrieshalloch Gorge. It’s tucked away off the main highway, yet quite accessible. What started out as an ordinary day in the Highlands slowly unraveled into a hilarious and memorable story.
Travel tip #2: don’t let your friends park in ditches
Well, if it’s an unseen ditch, all bets are off. And so the story goes. Upon arriving at the Corrieshalloch Gorge, there were very few places to park in the small lot, and all of the marked spaces were occupied. In lieu of a parking spot, parallel parking alongside the grassy area within the lot seemed acceptable. There were a few other parallel parked cars, thus it appeared to be harmless. Harmless. As we pulled into our created spot, the front left wheel dropped, as in dropped off the pavement. Strange. What just happened?
After carefully opening the passenger door, I noticed we were firmly parked on three wheels; the fourth, enjoying a breather, suspended in air. Uh oh…situation gone wrong. The upside: no grave danger. The downside: we were stuck. The drop was ever so slight, yet low enough to render a precarious situation which ended up showering much more attention on us than desired. Read: Sightly embarrassing.
After assessing the situation, attempting to reverse & realign, and listening to every passing tourist offer a solution in a myriad of languages, we realized the only viable option was to call a tow truck. Needless to say, calling a tow truck for a rental car in a foreign country did not prove to be a simple task. A story in itself that I’ll save for a rainy day. So…no tow truck and no way to lift the SUV out of the ditch. Sad face. But alas, two brains are better than one – a brilliant solution was being concocted!
As luck would have it, there was a vacated tourist bus awaiting its German passengers. That German driver had no idea what was about to come his way. LOL! With the help of a friendly American/Dutch couple who loaned us a towing rope, we convinced the German driver, who didn’t speak much English, to pull the car out of the ditch and rescue two damsels in distress. Wildly successful and wildly hilarious, check out the video below, what a scene!
Once we were on firm ground again, off we went to explore the beautiful Corrieshalloch Gorge. It’s a gorgeous place, serene and painted with purple hues as far as the eye can see. Heavenly surroundings, all the work of Mother Nature.
Driving south from the Northern Highlands through Cairngorms National Park was a treat for the senses. The change in landscape from the northern to central region was eye-catching; the purple hues continued and best of all, the sun was shining through the bright blue skies, highlighting the fluffy cloud formations for miles and miles. I had hoped to join the Queen for high tea at Balmoral Castle; she clearly forgot to pencil in my visit. Oh well, next time!
With over two thousand Scottish castles once in existence, it’s impressive and quite grand to view any one of these edifices, whether in its entirety or remnants of a fortress that once stood in glory. My favorite castle, of the ones I visited, is Dunnottar Castle on the north east coast, just south of Aberdeen. The views are spectacular as the ruins of this structure are surrounded by 160 ft steep cliffs which drop to the North Sea. The immensity is difficult to capture via photography, it simply does not do it justice.
One of the things I cherish most about traveling to foreign lands is seeing familiar faces – nothing compares to the comfort and joy of a smiling face and a big hug from a friend or family member. On this trip, I was lucky to meet up with a former colleague who lives in London, yet had coincidentally planned a week long holiday in Scotland with her family. What are the odds we’d be in the same place at the same time! My stay in Edinburgh was all the sweeter for having spent the day with her, her cute kids and extended family, among the massive crowds that had flocked to Edinburgh for the annual Fringe festival. Additionally, I finally had the opportunity to visit my cousin and meet his family at their home near Glasgow. I had grown accustomed to seeing him in Miami every so often, whenever he piloted 747s across the pond to the Magic City, thus it was delightful to be on his home turf. I also made a new friend…an adorable furry Scot named Hugh. This little guy stole the show!
I haven’t described my experiences in Aberdeen, Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Oban, or Loch Lomand; needless to say, each of these places offered a unique charm. In Edinburgh, I particularly enjoyed the ascent to Arthur’s Seat where one can take in views of the old city, the coast and beyond. Everywhere I went in Scotland, there was an overabundance of poignant scenes that caused visual sensory overload, particularly around the countryside. Infinitely inviting, picturesque and lovely.
Alas, a trip to Scotland wouldn’t be complete without tasting the infamous Scottish delicacy: haggis. Haggis is savory pudding made from sheep parts, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach lining. Sounds enticing, eh? After all was said and done, I wouldn’t have known if I ate stomach lining or not…it was all mixed together and dipped in a sauce. Quite tasty in my opinion! Paired with a pint of brew, you are all set. Fish & Chips and Scottish breakfast were also among the local culinary repertoire. I must say, after many days of Scottish “cuisine”, I was craving a bit of spicy food. Thankfully, the land of the curries had much to offer. Mission accomplished!
All in all, I managed to understand most of the Scots who I came into contact with, yet there were a few times that I wondered if we were speaking the same language! Here’s to a memorable trip, a classic traditional Scottish toast from the famous hometown poet Robbie Burns. Cheers!
Here’s tae us; wha’s like us? Damn few and they’re a’ deid.
Sonia’s trivia: Which one of the famed 007 James Bond actors hails from Scotland?