September 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Day Eight was the last of our “Driving North, North, Northest!” days. Unoftunately, the country ended at one point and we had to loop back down. And, while the looping down was (almost) always entertaining and full of its own adventures, it did not have the same awe-striking grandeur that our Highland Adventures had. So, in a sense, this was our last day in the “wilderness” of Scotland. What a great last day it was though!
Our day started a bit before 5 AM, when I rolled over and cracked my eyelids open- only to see the horizon begin to glow orange and the layers of mountains bathed in different shades of purple. There was a wall window right by our bed, which made for wonderful sky gazing all night, and a marvelously warm and comfortable sunrise of the purest, undiluted colors imaginable.
A couple of hours later, we migrated upstairs for a breakfast that turned into a brunch, and then into a lunch.
The couple that was were staying with grew many of their own fruits and veggies, and made their own butter and yoghurt and breads and teas, and everything tasted fresh and delicious. From the granola mix, to the cheeeses, to the poofiest scrambled eggs that I have ever tasted, this morning lounge session was thoroughly enjoyed as we chatted away about art and life and Scotland.
Eventually, we found the strength to force ourselves to repack our bags and once again get back into the car. We passed more hidden lochs and hilltop benches:
Conditions were good for crossing! So we waited and watched the little boat transfer people across, eight by eight. And, just as it was our turn to get on the boat… I turned around and said, “let’s go for a walk.”
I’m not sure why. Cape Wrath was the uppermost destination of our road trip through Scotland, and the lighthouse that I wanted most to see. Mayhaps the skies were too sunny; I had always envisioned seeing the lighthouse with grey clouds and a light drizzle and mighty waves beneath. Mayhaps I was tired of sitting in cars, and spending two hours in a van on the other side of the water wasn’t too appealing at the moment. But, whatever the reason was, I just… didn’t feel like it.
What I did feel like doing, though, was taking a walk. Along the coastline, on the cliffs:
So that is what we did. We started along the unmarked path, and then scaled down the rocks to the perfectly white sand below:
It was ridiculous, this clarity of colours. I mean, does this look real? I felt like I was walking through some CGI beach in some adventure video game:
This is not what I think of, when I think of northern Scotland. Bu, here it was. Just white sand, blue waters, and little waterfalls trickling off mossy rocks:
And, as if this wasn’t cool enough, something truly magical happened as we were strolling along the beach. The low tide came in.
To the north of us was the Atlantic Ocean (or is it the Norwegian Sea? or the Arctic Ocean), to the south of us was the Kyle of Durness. And between these two bodies of water, usually connected, the sand came up to play and presented us with all sorts of crazy patterns.
This year, I had planned to go see the salt mines at Uyuni, but fate made me postpone that travel until 2015. Instead, I ended up here, in the quicksands of northern Scotland– and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. We tried to cross all the way to the other side, onto the Cape Wrath Peninsula, but were stopped by a mini river of currents right by the western shore. But, that’s alright- walking on the bottom of the ocean was fun enough by itself:
Then, we drove another couple of miles to the little seaside town of Durness. We stopped at the seaside cemetery (I would like to be cremated and my ashes released in the Isle of Skye, but if I had to get buried, this place wouldn’t be too shabby):
, and took an art/chocolate pit stop at the Balnakeil Art Village, a series of old war bunkers converted into art galleries and chocolate stores. I think that it’s a nifty idea, and added a really unique feel to the ginger cookies. After that, a short stroll through Durness:
, and a mini hike down to SMOO Cave- referred to as Subsurface Military Onshore Operations during the war. It is one of Britain’s largest caves (the largest cave?), and you can take a small boat tour inside:
Then, we took one last stroll to the northern cliffside, where we were accompanied by bunnies as we stared off into the distance. I loved the fact that there was nothing separating you from the North Pole. Between you and the Arctic, just water.
After that, we started our trip back down south. It was the first time we drove south in over a week, and our hearts weren’t feelin’ the beat. It was uncomfortable, to be driving back… and away from the water! There was nothing between Durness and Inverness (thank goodness for those two not-too-yummy ginger cookies, for that was dinner), though I doubt that we would have been able to bring ourselves to stop anywhere had there been something.
Inverness was a dark and scary place. We pulled into the outskirts of it around 10 PM, and already from the distance, all of the light pollution made us cringe. The giant stores and neon signs and parking lots and ugly cement buildings did nothing to cheer up our spirits. Our minds and hearts were still in the Highland Wilderness, and we did not want to be there.
So we took a fast-paced stroll around the city center, stocked up on digestive cookies, and left. We drove for another half hour before starting to look for a place to pull over for the night- without much luck, despite our multiple detours down tiny roads and into deserted parking lots. We ended up in scary parks and in a private airport and driving around the perimeter of an army base… until finally giving up and pulling into one of those parking areas at the side of the highway, next to a couple of 18-wheelers.
Not the most scenic sleeping spot, but we were exhausted and had no motivation to keep driving. We crossed our fingers that the morning sun would illuminate us with some inspiration, curled up with three layers of socks, closed our eyes, and smiled nostalgically at the thought that twelve hours earlier, we were somewhere between a homegrown breakfast and the sunny bottom of the ocean.
September 17, 2014 § 2 Comments
Day Seven found us celebrating our one-week anniversary in the UK by driving all day through beautiful landscapes- kind of what has established itself as the norm by this point.
After a lazy morning with a full Scottish breakfast (sausages and eggs and more meats, oh my!) in our little bunkhouse, we (painfully) bid arrivederci to the Isle of Skye and continued driving north through the Upper Highlands.
The road was, as always, mesmerizing. Except for the fact that we were in the red on the gas meter, and our rental car so kindly made it a point to point out that we were another five miles lower every few minutes. And, like I mentioned before, there ain’t much between one shack and another in the Highlands.
Somehow, as travel luck would have it, we pulled into Ullapool with some ten miles left. Celebration dance on the harbourside, next to the gas station!
And then we continued driving north. A couple of kilometers before Lochinver, Mr. Italian and I pulled over for a spontaneous hike to Kirkaig Falls.
The walk was simply breathtaking, starting lower in a bushy forest and then gently rising up to the mountaintops.
Between the fields of violet, we also found splashes of orange, which made for an exotic contrast:
After this little detour, we got back into the car and passed Lochinver. Northwest of this little post town, the landscape changed yet again- into a series of islands (floating mountaintops?) in infinite lochs; compact, but by no means limited.
It’s hard to capture and explain the peculiarity of this area. It is as if someone flooded a rough mountain range, and you are left with only the mountaintops to visit. Every corner brings you to one of these little slices of isolated bliss:
After a few more minutes, we found ourselves at Clachtoll Beach, one of those hidden coves with that white sand and turquoise water that you find in travel magazines. So, clearly, we took advantage of the world’s most perfectly situated picnic table (although haven’t I said that about every picnic table in Scotland?) and nibbled on our breakfast leftovers:
Since we were only a mile or two from where we would be staying at that night, we decided to bathe in the sunset light and make a quick hop out to Stoer Lighthouse. Which, I must admit, was my favorite lighthouse of the trip.
There was no one there; just the cliffs and a field of trampoline-like grass upon which I jumped my little heart out. Ahead of you, just sea and the setting sun. Below you, waves and caves. All around you, just blue and green and wind. (And a little bit of mud.)
Ready to get our toes dry again, we hopped over the hill and checked into our favorite accommodation of the trip: a B&B in the middle of heaven. Cozy and elegant and modern and warm. One of those rooms with wood on all six surfaces, really poofy covers, a high-tech shower, and a self-designed layout that leaves you full of surprises. Huge walls made out of glass, artsy accents everywhere, and the most delightful couple to talk the hours away with.
This place convinced me that I need to move to this region of the world…. and soon! What a beautiful life, filled with art and love and comfort in a land of wind and water and grass. Yup, count me in.
September 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
To put it briefly, the Isle of Skype is a little bit like all of the beauty of New Zealand compacted into an island that is reminiscent of Caribbean skylines that have floated into polar climates. And more. It’s one of those places of the world that is absolutely surreal- beauty on such a scale that it seems like a painted backdrop. One of those places that is almost intimidating in its honesty, full of the sublime and rich with emotions that you have never tasted, but have always been craving. Those emotions that come straight from the earth, that are unfiltered and explode with an intensity that make you feel like a speck; an eyeblink, an single breath.
This island is nature, in all of its glory:
After a late morning and several cuppa‘s, Mr. Italian and I headed over to the Fairy Pools for a morning walk. It is an easy, yet breathtaking, walk through a field that ends in a series of little waterfalls, with the dramatic Cuillin Hills (er, Mountains?!) as the backdrop.
After a picnic of exotic vegetable chips and an assembly of cheddar-y goodies, we left the western side of the island and drove through the heart of it to the other side. The inner drive was no less impressive than the coastal route; mayhaps even more so for its sense of isolation and continuity. There was nothing on the roads except for sheep (and those certainly did not lack!):
It was a pleasure to observe all of the fishermen going about their fisherman-ly duties on these heavy northern boats that simultaneously draw on aspects of bathtub toys and Antarctic expedition machines:
I wonder if one grows accustomed to the chilly weather and rough conditions of this stretch of sea? I was bundled up in multiple jackets, and there is Mr. Fisherman, with merely a little pullover and a cap. Brrr.
After a pitstop to look at the Lealt Gorge and Lealt Waterfall, we pulled over on the side of the road, a little bit before Kilt Rock. I hopped a ‘Danger! Stay Away!’ fence, and then plopped myself belly-down on the edge of a cliff jutting a couple hundred feet above the sea… and found myself in heaven:
We continued northward, looping back after another trespassing adventure into Duntulm Castle, as the sky started its descent toward the sea. The northern tip of this peninsula was like an exhale to the breath you had been holding driving there- a sweet, satisfying release.
(Can I become a shepherd and live here, please?)
And then raided the Cooperative Food store for an international makeshift picnic consisting of hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, guacamole, pita bread, cheeses, and a bottle of malbec. Then we raced up the Waternish Peninsula to enjoy our dinner with the most amazing (and freezing and windy) sunset to keep us company:
Fingers and toes and ears thoroughly frozen, it was time to drive back to our cozy wooden cottage for another cuppa. Wrapping up a day of natural splendor with a comfortable couch, thick novels, silly board games, and blues music to sway to provided the ideal contrast of simple to the day’s grand. And then, grounded again in your flannel pajamas, you take a peak outside and the affair with nature’s indescribable scale begins again.
Because you see the sky, perfectly black, with more glimmering gems in it than you thought was possible. At this point, you stop trying to understand, and you don’t care if the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, because you just accept your fragile presence in a playhouse too grand to comprehend the parameters of, and you plunge into the thrill of losing yourself in its boundless stage.
(And the next morning, this emotional journey just kept on growing in intensity, so stay tuned!)
September 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
And so, Day #5 sees Mr. Italian and I drive from one island to another, continuing northward into the Highlands and just keeping on getting impressed by every single turn in the road.
We woke up to another frosty morning in the car; our pathetic attempts at getting out shoes to dry on the top of the car failed miserably with the constant drizzle that surrounded the Loch Lomond region. However, we did manage to keep the reeking stink of the muddy shoes out of the car, so it wasn’t a completely desolate situation.
Arriving from Ayr and the Isle of Arran, this was our first day of exploring mainland Scotland and seeing these Highlands that I have been dying to see. And they certainly did not disappoint!
Can you imagine driving through this scenery for hours?
And it only getting more and more impressive?
And the blues more blue and the gold more gold?
Needless to say, it was very difficult for us to articulate any sort of words. We just rolled along in silence, gaping and gasping and laughing and getting giddy with the cool air. We had a pit stop at Fort William, where we stocked up on warm breakfast rolls and listened to some impressive street music (if that guy become’s Scotland’s Glen Hansard, let me just say that… I told you so!). Then, we hopped through the Old Inverlochy Castle (and saw the Harry Potter train, at the train depot right next door!) and took a mini stroll around:
And then we zoomed onward, northwest. Once we passed Fort William and left all of the tourist buses behind, we had empty roads for the next couple of hours. It was almost stifling, the grandeur of the nature around you, and the stillness (except for the wind, but even that, despite its constant blow, seemed strangely still) that accompanied the intensity of the colors. No cars, no people, no fences, no buildings, no animals. You could just get out of the car and walk to the top of any of these soft, green, tall hills- well, probably not, because you would sink in the constant layer of mud, but so it seemed, and it was a liberating thought. We learned that if a building exists, it’s important enough to be put on the European Atlas we were traveling with- even in this is just an abandoned shack or a single house, it was put on the road map. Misleading, when ignorantly planning out food and gas stops. No sir, not in the Highlands!
Eventually, we made it to Eilean Donan Castle- one of the most recognizable castles of Scotland that appears on all of the shortbread tins:
From there, we moved to the Kyle of Lochalsh and over the bridge that leads to the Isle of Skye. If I had to pick one part of the world to spend the rest of my days on, it would be here, on this island. I didn’t even know nature existed on such a scale.
But, before we properly tackled Skye, we first tackled a boutique cafe’ in Broadford. This was definitely our one fancy meal of the trip:
And then, it was another short stretch of driving to our bunkhouse, through scenery that seemed like some sort of backdrop in some sort of fantasy movie:
Then, an indescribable (and unphoto-able) sunset over a cliffy bay. And then, checking into our cozy bunkhouse- which was, ideally, a few minutes above the Talisker distillery. Yet away from everything else; isolated, under the starry sky, with fuzzy blankets and a tea cabinet and a fireplace, with a quirky design and board games, and inspiration to move away from everything, forever, and build my own purple bunkhouse.
It also had a heater, so, for the first time all trip, I slept comfortably and without my winter coat. In other words, a perfect night in the perfect place. Which just kept getting more perfect the next day, so keep on stayin’ tuned!
September 9, 2014 § 3 Comments
The morning of Day Four found us sore, but wonderfully warm inside our barebone camping pods. Our backs weren’t too thrilled with sleeping on floors and in too-small cars, however when we opened our door and were greeted with frost over everything, we were perfectly content with our heated box. I honestly do not know how all of the other fuzzy Christmas-patterned pj-clad people manage to camp outside in that bitter cold and wind and rain.
After a round of mini golf with the fawns (one of the perks of staying on deer-infested gold courses), we once again stuffed everything into our backpacks and began walking out of town. Faretheewell, picturesque Lochranza!
And so we continued walking around the island, now looping back down south on the western side. We got one long lift down the entire edge facing the Argyll & Bute peninsula, from Lochranza to Blackwaterfoot. Then, time for another scenic picnic:
And off again, a piedi. We looped around the outskirts of the town, skipping down dirt paths that crossed through fields filled with boysenberries and bird families.
Then, I decided that I wanted a “scenic detour” (because trotting on the side of a road with a car that passes every half hour on some mystic island just isn’t exotic enough for me). So, we turned right at the first Coastal Foot Path sign that we saw at the side of the road. According to my crude map, it should have been a short, harmless little detour of no more than two kilometers. And it did start off innocently enough, with a beautiful (even if slightly muddy) narrow path through fields of ferns and purple flowers:
As we keep walking, we find ourselves in a sea of flowers that have completely consumed the trail:
Which sounds romantic enough: lost in purple on isolated beaches at the bottom of high cliffs on some Scottish island. Except that these cute little lavender flowers soon turned into really vicious thistles and spiky sticks (though still heartbreakingly beautiful, I suppose), and the ground turned more wet than dry, and the rocks that we needed to climb over kept getting larger and larger.
After an hour or so of trudging and cursing (and admiring and giggling), we admitted defeat. I took off my shoes and walked along the water, hopping between large rocks like a mountain (coast?) goat. Eventually, we found an old, abandoned driveway that we could scale back up the mountain on. After hopping over a few spiky fences, we were back on the main road.
Lunch Break #2, and then a few more miles of walking. Getting closer to the eastern side of the island, we saw a smaller island, laying about a kilometer offshore, way down below. The Isle of Pladda:
After a couple more hitchhiking lifts, we eventually looped around the southern part of the island, and came up to Lamlash, on the eastern coast. There, we enjoyed our first platter of fish and chips, a glass of ale, and fields of red:
From Lamlash, we took a beautiful forest path back to Brodick. For a few moments, we found ourselves walking through a canopy of really colorful and really big (one poofball = one human head) flowers:
And, just as the sun was coming down, we made it back to Brodick. We started walking at noon and looped around the entire length of the island, relaying only on our legs and several local rides… and managed to make it to our destination- without once looking at the watch or thinking about it- thirty minutes before the last ferry left for the mainland. So, we stocked up on Arran Dairy ice cream and bid adieu to Arran.
They say that Arran is “Scotland in Miniature”, and so that was an ideal introductory glance to Scotland. However, as the next day would show us, this “miniature” is truly on a small scale- not only is Scotland big and wide and expansive, but it is tall and high and deep and rich on a scale that is utterly overwhelming.
I’m not sure how it was possible, but every day just kept getting more beautiful and more impressive. So, nap time on the side of the road around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and the next morning- off to the Isle of Skye. Stay tuned!
September 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
And thus we find ourselves on Day Three of our Great Scotland Adventure (though the first day in which we actually wake up in Scotland!). After a chilly, restless night on the floor of a great Couchsurfing family, we got up at 5 AM (oops… guess my phone was still set to Italian time), made ourselves another cuppa, and headed out in the pouring rain. Today, we were only driving for 20 minutes to Ardrossan, a port city with ferry service to the mystic Isle of Arran.
We arrived at the ferry dock with black skies, raging rain, and a bitterly freezing wind. As the point of this little island excursion was to leave the car on mainland and to hike around a bit and sleep in a campsite and get lost and get found again, the idea of spending the two days getting soaked and wind-bitten and getting frozen to death did not sound too appealing. In our state of confusion, we bought a few more boxed of digestive cookies (which can be labeled ‘emergency food’ in any situation) to help us think… and then jumped on the ferry last minute.
Best decision of the trip!
It was an hour of bumpy waters, but just as we were nearing the island, we saw patches of blue in the sky and as we were landing, a rainbow appeared over the water.
And from then, it was sunny skies and perfect weather. In the end, the stormy crossing added another layer of mystique to the island- kind of like crossing some grand sea storm and really be set on getting somewhere before arriving to a paradise island.
We landed in Brodick, a port settlement on the east side of the island. Our camping area for that night was in Lochranza, on the northern tip of the island. There is only one road on Arran, which goes in a circle around the coast and has a length of approximately 56 miles. We decided to just walk in a (counterclockwise) circle to see it all. So… with our one backpack filled with provisions, we began walking north:
We took a few mini stops: a heritage museum, a cheese store (so many cheddar samples!), an aromatherapy shop, and an artisan toy nook. Arran is simple and lovely; just cute little houses. I think that there was one grocery store on the entire island. So, all of these quirky local ‘shops’ that we stumbled upon were particularly fun to browse through.
Eventually, we got tired of walking and decided to check into our camping pod before tackling the hills around there sans zaino. So, we stuck our thumb out- the bicycles laughed at our attempt to get a ride from them, but two lovely locals got us promptly to our destination: Lochranza.
We checked into our pod (a simple wooden structure with a floor to sleep on and a heater- exactly what we needed) and then checked out our surroundings. We were staying on a gold course with a fearless, extensive herd of deer:
At first, we were hesitant if it was okay to walk between all of these antlered creatures, but, soon, we became best friends.
Then we went on a short little hike around our hill, to the Fairy Den. It was a lovely seaside stroll:
, with lots of smooth pebbles to play with:
, and flowers to admire:
, and perfectly-placed benches to lounge upon:
Eventually, after our first Scottish encounter with invisible mud, we made it to the Fairy Den, and then scaled a ferny hill back to our side of the area. On the way down, we found an eclectic artist in his art studio/shop, and came back down to our campsite just as the sun was going down on the castle:
, and then befriended some swans:
After that, with the sun finally down, it was time for us to stumble back to our cozy little camping pod, dry out our shoes, and collapse. Curled up and warm, with an energetic stream running right outside of our window and the stars bright in front of our glass door, it was pretty much the perfect night to spend on Arran.
September 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
And our adventure continues…
Day Two of our UK travels found us putting on some mileage as we zoomed from one A-Place to another: from Wales, through England, and (finally) into Scotland. Next time, we are definitely going to focus on a significantly smaller area to explore… though this time, we wanted to have a general taste of Scotland, and had to get up there from (and back to) Nottingham, so we allotted two days for more extensive stretches of driving. Here is the first one.
We started our day with another sizzling shower in our countryside B&B (with alpacas outside of the window…) to combat the bitter northern cold, and then rolled the car down the hill to have a morning stroll in Cemaes, a tiny little group of scattered houses with its own bay and miniature harbor (both of which seem to be a mandatory part of any settlement in Wales):
Then we drove to the eastern edge of Anglesey, the entire time admiring the trio of colors that we would come to know well by the end of the trip. Yellow, green, and blue:
To keep faithful to our loose Coastal Cliffs and Lighthouses tour, the first destination of the day was Penmon, on the southeastern corner of the island. There is a little parking at the end of the road, so we left the car there, next to an old abbey and pigeon house, and had a short trek over the hill:
On the other side of the hill, we were greeted with one of my Top Three favorite lighthouses of the trip: the Trwyn Du Lighthouse.:
There is something magical and nostalgically alluring about sea-washed towers, even more so when they are striped black-and-white. And even better if they are on some secluded, cliffy edge of a landmass, surrounded by an intricate web of walking trails that can bring you down the length of whichever coastline you decide to follow.
After that, it was time for a lunch stop in Menai Bridge. Despite the alluring name and history of Beaumaris, we passed it up, as it seemed like some sort of tourist mecca and sailing spot for locals, and was overflowing with people. In contrast, Menai Bridge was quiet, lovely, authentic, and delicious. We were looking for seafood or meat, but as travel life has it: one shall not find what one is looking for, until one finds what one was not looking for (personal citation, thank you very much). So, instead we found a cozy little cafe and grabbed a seat in the corner. If there are sunflowers and silly cat faces to keep you company, you know you’ve found a good place:
For desert, a generous slice of bara brith, a traditional Welsh ‘fruit cake’ that is more bread-y than cake-y and is popular with teatime. Tummies full again, we took a short stroll along the water, and had our first encounter with how much difference low and high tides make around the entire UK’s coastline:
And then it was time to zoom, zoom, zoom, out of Wales (sadness!), and very quickly through England (shudder), and into Scotland (yay!). We had our first castle detour, and then checked into a Couchsurfer’s abode in Aye. There, we had our first cuppa (tea) and learned about the mystical fairy (and dragon) aspect of the Isle of Arran: our destination for the next morning. Scotland, we made it! :]
PS: Wales, we will be back!