Exploring

And The Winner is….(Part 2)

Continuing on our post from yesterday, we’re reflecting back on our four month trip around the world and picking out some of our favorite stops and visits. Through a series of intense discussion, secret balloting and contemplative reflection, we’ve determined our top choices in a variety of categories. So, once again below are our Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was a real challenge to hand out top honors, but here we go again with our remaining choices:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!

Best Public Transportation– Tokyo and throughout Japan–  This one was a no brainer. The rail system in Tokoyo and throughout Japan is efficient, clean reliable, modern and incredible expansive although not terribly inexpensive. With a system that includes the Tokyo Subway, Regional Rail and Long Distance Trains, there are hundreds and hundreds of stations and stops. A single train map usually does not do the job. One thing we love is that many of the train cars have unique options–there is a quiet car and an all female car on some trains for rush hour.  Announcements and signs are often given in three languages including English. If the trains weren’t enough to win us over, the passengers would be. As a rule, riders are incredibly polite. They even line up in an orderly way to board the most crowded train and rude behavior is rarely seen.  There really is no equal.

Best City-to-City Transportation  Once you place air travel in another category, we have a two way tie. The train ride from Zagreb to Munich finally fulfilled  expectations of what we had hoped for in a European train ride. Up to this point, our train rides in Eastern Europe had been on outdated trains, lackluster, and disappointing. Our overnight ride in a private sleeper to Germany was comfortable, state of the art and packed with amenities. We even had an attentive porter who brought us water and handled customs at the border. Phil spent a good chunk of the night excitedly peering out of the window watching the night landscape roll by rather than sleeping. And pulling into the massive Munich train station at dawn was a fun way to end the trip. The other winner is the bus ride from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. At first, memories of rides on Greyhound made us dread a 14-hour cross country bus ride. It turns out, it was probably more comfortable than sitting in our living room! Over sized seats that rival first class airplane seats mingled nicely with the service that included two meals, complimentary cheap wine, movies and even bingo, It all made for a great ride. If this kind of bus travel was more common in the United States, I think people might rethink their attitudes toward long haul bus rides! 

Best Local Beer– Munich  Shocking, I know. Since every country has their own national or local brew, we tried beer in every city we visited. But virtually all the beer we tried in Munich was simply better than the rest.  We particularly enjoyed the Hofbrau and Lowenbrau labels in all varieties, but they sure know how to do a Dunkel.  Strong and smooth.  Absolutely perfect with a pretzel and currywurst.  Yum!  We enjoyed beers all around the globe from the Quilmes in Argentina, to Carlsberg in Copenhagen and Asashi Ichiban in Japan, but few of them were particularly memorable.  We will give an honorable mention to some of the smaller breweries we tried in New Zealand and Bulgaria, but overall they paled in comparison to all beer in Munich.

There is no doubt – they make some really great beer in Munch

Most Beautiful Nature Setting- We have a split decision here. Actually, we have a no decision. This is likely the thing we get asked about the most. Brooke immediately said the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, with the thick forest and rushing stream.  Phil was convinced it was the panoramic view from the top of Mt. Fuji.  But then, what about sunset in Dubrovnik or the view of the Adriatic?  The rock formations in HaLong Bay or the Waitomo Caves?  For that matter, what about all of New Zealand where they really earn the nickname of the “God Zone”? Honestly, we can’t even choose.

Bridal Veils in New Zealand

Most Beautiful City Setting- Budapest is tough to beat.  The architecture is absolutely beautiful. It has an old style, but in a classic sense, not like ruins which we saw in so many other Eastern European cities.  In addition, Budapest’s wide sidewalks lined with grand mansions and historic homes give the city a Parisian air.  Just around every corner was another stunning building. Toss in Buda Castle, Parliament and the Danube River as landmarks and it only gets better. What certainly stands out is that not a single building or monument is covered by spray paint.  How refreshing!  It is important to mention that we considered Edinburgh as the winner of this award, and it is a close second, but it has a grittiness (probably from all the rain and the fact that it is hundreds of years older) that Budapest is missing.

Budapest at night

Best Surprise–  Dubrovnik. We really didn’t know anything about Dubrovnik before arriving.  We learned that Croatia was part of the Serbian conflict, and we may have expected it to look more like Belgrade and Sofia.  Instead we found streets paved with marble and beautiful seaside views.  Wow and then some. The relaxed atmosphere, beautiful walk along the city walls and the historic nature of the entire city makes Dubrovnik the best surprise of the trip. Walking the city wall provided some of the best views and moments of the trip, hands down.

We could gush and ramble for hours about some of our favorite parts of our trip, but those are some of the  real highlights. As you might imagine, there are tons of categories we could have listed. Anything ranging from Best coffee, Best Weather, Best WiFi Availability, Best encounter with a local and more. But, we have to draw the line  somewhere. We also have our share of low lights (I’m looking at you, Belgrade restaurant who served us massively undercooked chicken kebabs), but we’ll save those for another day. So, if you have any questions about our “Best of” awards or if you have any additional categories you would want to see, just drop us a line and we’ll wax nostalgically about those as well!

–Brooke and Phil

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Categories: Beer, Best Of, City Visits, Exploring, Post Trip Reflections, Random Thoughts, Round The World Trip, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Election Night and Blackouts in Argentina

We’ve been asked from time to time how it is to be so far from home for so long. Truth be told, we haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on what we miss about the states. New fall TV shows have probably already come and gone, I didn’t catch a single World Series game for the first time since I can remember and I stopped checking football scores a few weeks ago. If we hadn’t met up with our friends in September who brought dispatches of American culture, we might still not know what Gangman Style is. (Yet there is no escaping One Direction or Maroon 5 no matter where you are in the world.) To be fair, we’re only abroad for a short time compared to other world travelers and our attention has been mostly dedicated to full days of exploring new surroundings. But there is one distinctly American event we’ve had circled on our calendar for a long time: election night. That was one we weren’t going to miss.

Cobertura Electoral! The slightly harder to understand CNN coverage in our room

As we planned to watch the election results, we discovered that the cable selection in our hotel room did not include a single news channel in English. No problem: we settled down on the couch in the hotel lobby, asked if they could throw CNN on the giant TV and settled in for the evening. Since the Argentina time zone is currently two hours ahead of the east coast, the real fun didn’t start until after 9:00 PM. Before that, it was a lot of John King playing with that stupid Magic Wall and hearing reporters repeatedly use somewhat meaningless buzz words like “bellweather.” I have a clinical case of aggressively flipping channels, so it took some patience to get used to watching only CNN all evening.

While nervously watching each update, we broke into a bottle of wine. Brooke and I figured that no matter what happened over the course of the evening, at least we had a tasty bottle of wine from Mendoza to share. As we watched state after state go for one candidate or the other, we met a variety of people as they walked through the lobby and checked in on the results. An excited, if not slightly drunk, Argentine woman who had just come from a Tango class wanted to tell us all about the Mar Del Plata region. The lesson there is that our Spanish is exponentially worse when trying to communicate with someone who rambles and is slurring their words. Before long, the network made the call and announced that Obama has secured another term. There was much rejoicing and relief that the seemingly endless campaign was over. It all made for a memorable, late night in Buenos Aires during which I’ve probably watched more CNN then I ever have in my life. By the end of the evening, I felt like Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer had become close, close friends. It would have been nice if Romney would have delivered his concession speech some time before 3:00 AM our time, but what can you do.

In order to make our way to Mar Del Plata and ensure we would’t be on an overnight bus on election night, we landed back in Buenos Aires for a couple of days. Hotels.com found us a great deal at a new, boutique hotel near the city of town called the Lennox Hotel. Out of our three hotel stays in B.A, I would strongly recommend this joint for anyone rolling through town. When I stop to think about how many hotel rooms we’ve seen on this trip, it kinda makes my head spin. But the Lennox Hotel was the epitome of cozy; the room even came with a kitchenette. The only addition that would have made the stay a bit sweeter would have been a washer and dryer. One universal truth of traveling around the world is that we’re always on the lookout for a place to wash and dry our clothes. Half the time it feels like our luggage is only serving to haul dirty clothes around the world. To mix up on our dining options and satisfy a craving that Brooke’s been harboring since Munich, we jumped through some hoops to secure some Argentine style Chinese delivery. I’m certain the Buenos Aires has some quality Chinese, we just didn’t find it that night. The culinary silver lining was the next day when we stumbled across the city’s best pizzeria at Guerrin. Jackpot. It stands to reasons when you’ve been making pizza since 1932 and your restaurant is packed, you’re probably pretty good at what your’re doing.

The Pizza was twice as good as it looked

It ended up being fortuitous we grabbed lunch when we did. Late yesterday afternoon the city experienced a massive blackout that affected a huge chunk of the area. Since the season is just hitting late Spring way down here in South America, the thermometer has been reading hot and getting hotter. Three days of above average temperatures compared with an apparently shaky electrical infrastructure knocked out the power for as far as I could see. Sometimes crossing the streets in Buenos Aires can be challenging enough when the traffic lights ARE working. But with everything dark in the middle of rush hour, it was a small slice of chaos. Things were particularly a mess on the exceptionally wide, famed 9 De Julio Avenue. Turns out that traffic doesn’t move very well across 18 lanes with no stop lights. The more I walked around, the more I got the feeling that this was a somewhat regular occurence. Bodega owners sat in darkened, small storefronts looking bored and annoyed while at nearby cafe patrons downed cold drinks while they still could. The clerk at our hotel pointed out that this was the “first blackout of the spring” and conceded that there might be several more when the heat of December comes about. Luckily, the power was back on for most of the city by late evening so Brooke and I could get back to the important focus of the day: not doing much of anything.

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, Exploring, Homesick, Hotels, Hungary, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences, Voting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Interesting Signs photographed along the way

As we travel between Scotland and Argentina, we thought we’d take a break from chronicling our travels and do something a little different with the blog today. As you might expect, we’ve taken thousands of photos on our trip so far. Along the way, we’ve seen some hilarious, curious and confusing signs. We wanted to share ten amusing photos that we’ve seen from New Zealand to London.

Really, really a place that serves food

We saw this marquee in Kyoto, Japan and it has since become one of my favorite photos from the trip. Hey, if you don’t know what beef is, I’m probably not going to eat at your restaurant. Every time we look at this photo, we come up with more questions than answers.

THAT's a Camera?

This unmarked sign could be found everywhere on highways and major roads throughout Asia and in parts of Europe. It wasn’t until we arrived in Scotland did another adjoining sign give us a clue on its meaning “Cameras being used to check speed.” In what century is THAT the image you use to indicate camera? Should we be on the look out for a photographer on the side of the road with his head behind a hood and holding up an old-timey flash? If you’re speeding, will he chase you down in a horseless carriage? Good Goulash, that sign is outdated.

Don't go chasing after your hat!

This one can be found at Tokyo regional rail stations. I love it because it’s such a remarkably specific sign. Although I can’t read any of the Japanese, I’m going to go ahead and translate this as “If you’re a young girl who has dropped her cute hat on the subway track, please wait for the transit worker with the long stick clamp thing to retrieve it.”

This one is just so simple its genius. Several locations in Eastern Europe have a very simple designation to let you know when you’re entering or leaving a city, area or region. It’s actually one of those things that is so basic, it took us a while to figure it out. The first sign means that you’re entering this area and the second sign means you’re leaving this area. No knowledge of the local language needed!

Aye! Breakfast!

This package in a Highlands grocery store had me in stitches because I don’t think you could put a larger, more outlandish Scottish Stereotype on a box of Oatmeal. Its like having Uncle Same bursting out a box of Rice Krispies. The only thing that’s missing is the tagline: “Before you go shot putting in the Highlands with your kilt and chiseled, model good looks, make sure you down some Oats!”

Brooke has never been so confused

Every now and then, Brooke and I revisit this photo taken at Tokyo’s SkyTree Tower. We’re like scientists reworking an experimental theorem hoping to find something we missed the first time. To this day, we still don’t know what in Godzilla’s name is happening on the front of this package. Or even what is inside the package. Odder still? We found this in a toy store.

Old City, Bucharest

Clever bar owners know how to attract attention. And in Bucharest’s Old City you have tough competition with bars that have clever names like Beer O’Clock. But this entrance to a themed bar wins the award for best bar entrance we’ve seen. No, we didn’t go in. Yes, I went ahead and looked up here skirt. No, I’m not telling you what I saw.

Well, THAT'S not the tower

Fair enough: The Military Museum in Belgrade only has a bit English on the displays, but they really got this one wrong! Not many people mistake the Arc De Triumph for the Eifel Tower! You have to look closely at this one or click to blow it up, but the caption says “Victory Parade of the German Army at the Eifel Tower.” Man, The Eifel Tower sure looked different in 1939. You can see some visitor was kind enough to pencil in the correct building name.

I roared with laughter when I read the name of this Edinburgh furniture store aloud. Who doesn’t love a good pun? But judging by the “To Let” sign, I don’t think things were “so good” for very long.

Want to end this post by showing that the amazing stuff we’ve seen outweighs our snarky nitpicky take on signs. Here is a great image I just rediscovered from the early days of our trip on a New Zealand beach outside of Raglan. This trip has been made of amazing moments from the hilariously surreal to the sublimely beautiful. I can’t wait to see what’s waiting for us in Argentina!

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Farewell Scotland, Buenos Dias Argentina!

Before the clouds, anywayOur time in Europe is coming to a quick close. Brooke and I spent one last quiet day in Edinburgh today before we shut the door on Scotland and set our sights on our next and (can it be?) final leg of our Round The World Trip: Argentina and possibly Chile. I’ve enjoyed being in the same country for more than just a handful of days. It’s allowed us to see more, do more and offers a nice change of pace. There is less debating nightly lodging choices, zero sweating inter-country transportation details and no need to work our key phrases in new languages. One big lesson learned on this trip: longer stays over fewer stops has its benefits! Of course, the other side of the coin is that you see a smaller number of places in the end. At this point, I wouldn’t trade any city visit for more time in any other city. Okay, maybe less or zero time in Guangzhou. Sorry, Guangzhou.

Last night, for our last evening in Edinburgh, we enjoyed a quiet dinner at a cozy pub called the Green Mantle. If there is one thing that Scotland isn’t hurting for, it’s cozy pubs. We were first lured in by the rare promise of dinner being served after 7:00 PM and it turned out to be the perfect place for a meal and drinks. Intended or otherwise, our meals keep coming with potatoes served in one form or another. Chips, jacketed, crisps, boiled and more. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I’ve consumed at least one potato every day since I landed in Scotland. Each one was exceedingly delicious so I’m not complaining, just pointing out that this might be a terrible place to visit if you have some strange, unique potato allergy. To our dismay, the bartender at the Green Mantle told us that we missed the ubiquitous Pub Quiz evening be one day.  Probably for the best since our skills at American Bar Trivia probably don’t quite translate directly into British Pub Quizzes. Questions like “Which footy forward kicked the equalizing point for France in the 2006 World Cup” would sabotage me.

Over buffalo burgers and tasty Tennet’s lager, Brooke and I mulled over some final reflections on our time in this part of the world. I know we’ve said it before, but it bares repeating: The Rabbie’s three day tour was outstanding and we can’t recommend it enough. Some of our most exceptional experiences abroad have been with knowledgable, passionate locals who have led walking, biking and bus tours. That includes our time with a lively guide at the Edinbugh Castle Tour and the extraordinaire Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. A plan to do more of these tours moving forward is now part of our agenda. We were introduced to a great website named Viator.com that aggregates tours. Kind of like a Kayak.com for sight seeing. The tours left me with more stories, facts and impressions on Scotland and The Highlands than my wee brain can possibly remember. Local Scots are such a proud people who wear their Scottish Pride and passion for history right on the hem of their kilt. It tends to rub off; we feel like we’re leaving Scotland beaming with pride even though we’re just visitors. In the end, we’re both so glad that we included Scotland on our itinerary. Aye, a great visit.

This morning, we decided to take the day to regroup and relax. There was sleeping in. There was a postcard writing blitz. There was window shopping. There was time in a coffee shop. When you travel for four months, we’ve found that you need these kind of days to keep you sane. We did stumble across a unique store called “Americandy” that left us rolling our eyes. The theme of the store is that they stock all of the incredibly bad-for-you, over-the-top candy that’s popular in the states, but harder to find in Europe. We’re talking NERDS, GummyWorms, and Twinkies. So, to be clear, the one store we saw that boasts selling American goods is peddling the worst junk you can imagine. The kicker? They also sell boxes of cereals such as Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms but no other breakfast foods. A bit eye opening that a stores that sells novelty candy has kid’s breakfast cereal bunched in.

And, yeah, they even have the Blues Brothers out front.

Soon the time came to leave Edinburgh. The bus ride out made me a bit sad, but the unrelenting fog that blocked the usually stunning view of the Edinbugh castle made leaving a little bit more palatable. Actually, we split town just in time as the forecast calls for snow on Thursday. (Go ahead. Ask me about the Buenos Aires forecast. That’s right. 75 degrees and sunny!) Brooke and I were kind enough to leave Edinburgh just the way found it – in the rain! Our bus ride out of town gave us one last lovely view- rows and rows of captivating, old, giant homes made from stone that have been turned into B&Bs and small hotels.

Stop! Time is getting away!Right now, we find ourselves back in Glasgow while we wait for the overnight Megabus to speed us down to London. We’re downing just a touch of whisky (the true Scottish way is to spell it without the “e”!) and killing some time at a bar. Now that I’m back in Glasgow, I can say that Edinburgh feeels much bigger and more cosmopolitan even though it is the smaller town of the two. I’m also clearly hearing now how the accents vary so dramatically in this country. Man, I can’t believe I missed it before. Speech patterns change even over just a few miles. Most of the time I have no trouble understanding the locals, but other times I struggle to pick up every third word. Hell, it might very well be like this in every country we’ve visited, but since we actually speak the English language, here it is much more noticeable. We’re told that every little region of Scotland has its own accent. But the important thing is that apparently absolutely no one speaks with the strange brogue that Sean Connery invokes.

What's a sheep's favorite song? Ba-ba-ba-Babara Ann.So, we find ourselves changing gears again. Time to break out the Lonely Planet book on Argentina and brush up on the little Spanish we know. (“Donde esta la biblioteca?”) We’re not just leaving the United Kingdom, we’re leaving Europe where we’ve been hanging out since early August. It always takes a little adjusting mentally to go from one region of the world to another. But, as always, we’re ready to discover and absorb a new place. It’s another chapter closed on our RTW trip as we say goodbye to lovely Scotland (and Europe for that matter!) and head west.

-Phil

A much quieter High Street in Edinbugh at night!

Just your average pub lined street in Edinburgh!

Categories: Beer, Exploring, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Tours, Transportation, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Goodbye Highlands

Sadly, today was our third and final day in the Highlands of Scotland with Rabbie’s Tour.  It seems like twice an hour we turn to each other and say, “I’m so glad we decided to do this tour!”  We have learned so much and had an overall more rich experience because we did this with an expert.  Rabbie’s (or another tour of its kind) is definitely the way to go for anyone out there thinking of taking trip to the Highlands.

Our guide, Doug, telling us the legend of how the Cuillin Hills were formed.

The day greeted us with clear blue skies and loads of sunshine, something we aren’t terribly used to here in Scotland.  We began with a drive down from Portree into the heart of the Cuillin Hills.  There are two major parts of these, one is called the Red Cuillins and the other is the Black Cuillins.  Like everything in Scotland, there is a legend about why these hills look the way they do presently.  It is a bit too long and involved to share here, and I really couldn’t do it justice by trying to write it out anyway.  Suffice it to say, it had everything to do with a battle between an arrogant giant and an Amazonian woman, both too prideful to admit defeat to one another.  Of course they ultimately fell in love, but that is neither here nor there.  The rigidity of the top of the hills is said to be made from their hacking away at one another in battle.

The history of Scotland is steeped in legends of this kind, but occasionally there are true stories to go along with them.  In this case, Doug told us of a young gurkha from Nepal who visited the Highlands.  When he stopped in for an orange juice at a local pub he was ridiculed for not drinking whiskey.  He explained to the man that he was not in Scotland to drink, he was there to visit their beautiful hills.  The man replied with disbelief, “Hills?  Those are no hills, those are mountains.  It would take me all day to climb to the top and back down again.”  The man from India was amused and replied, “That is no mountain.  I could make it to the top and back in less than an hour.”  The Highlander believed this man to be a liar, trying to make a fool out of him, so the gurkha decided to show him.  He took off his shoes and socks and began running up the hill.  He made it up and back in 59 minutes.  Amazed the Highlander insisted they share a whiskey together.  As they sipped, a man from another clan walked in and when he was told about this amazing feat, he didn’t believe it for a minute.  The two Scots began to argue and it looked as though a fight was going to break out.  The gurkha, wanting to avoid a fight, jumped between them and said he would prove it.  Again, he took off his socks and shoes and ran up the hill and back down.  This time, it only took him 58 minutes!  This all took place in 1902, but years later the story inspired the locals to begin a race up this same hill.  The Glamaig Hill Race draws hundreds of runners each summer.  Of course, they run with shoes and socks, but the record time for this 4.5 mile, 2500 foot run is 44 minutes and 27 seconds.  We failed to get a picture of the hill.  To see what it looks like, click here. Pretty impressive!

There are tons of stories centered upon the Highlands, both truth and legend.  We were also told the story of the Sisters of Kintail.  To make a very long story short, these 5 sisters were waiting for 5 brothers who were supposed to come for them from Ireland.  They waited so long, their father was worried they would lose their beauty.  He enlisted the help of a seer, who turned them into mountains so they would be beautiful for all eternity.  And they really are spectacular.  In fact, this may be the most beautiful part we saw in the Highlands.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that the fall colors are in full effect, the sun was shining bright and the weather was wonderfully mild.  We have taken some amazing photos here in Scotland, but the ones looking out on the 5 Sisters of Kintail are my favorite.

The 5 Sisters of Kintail showing their eternal beauty.

We continued to wind our way down toward Edinburgh.  We made a quick stop to see some “Hairy Coos”.  These long-haired cows are everywhere, and they look so much different from the ones most of us are used to seeing at home that we decided it was worth a short photo stop.  We then made the obligatory stop in Loch Ness, where we were told of some strange and unusual happenings, but none of us was inspired enough to swim in the loch or even go on a boat ride trying to find Nessie.  Instead, we had a leisurely lunch with some new friends.  As I have already said, one of the best parts of Rabbie’s tours is the small group size.  We only had 14 people in our group, plus our guide, Doug.  This allowed for some great time with everyone and we met some really great people.  We found ourselves spending much of our time with Melissa and Crystal, two women from Minneapolis (though Crystal now lives in London).  We had tons in common and are all excited to have made new friends.  We are already toying with the idea of another trip together, or at least a meet-up in our respective home cities.

Melissa, Crystal, Phil and Brooke after dipping our heads under Bride’s Veil falls.

Alas, we had to say goodbye to the Highlands, goodbye to Crystal and Melissa, and goodbye to Doug and his myriad stories which lasted to the moment we arrived in Edinburgh.  We absolutely loved this tour and we are now considering finding something similar on our next stop in Argentina.  We have one more day in Scotland and we will be sad to leave it.  This 10 day country stop has certainly met and even exceeded our expectations.   We can certainly see ourselves coming back here someday.  Until then, slàinte mhath!

–Brooke

The “hairy coos” of the Highlands.

New friends enjoying drinks together in Portree.

These gorgeous views are everywhere across the Highlands.

Brooke tries Irn Bru, Scotland’s most popular soft drink. Tastes like cream soda with a splash of bubble gum. Very sugary!

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Friends, Landmarks, Reflections, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rabbie’s Highland’s Tour- Day 2

Living it up on the Isle of SkyeI would be lying if I told you that all days on this trip were created equal. Some days are just simply better -more enjoyable, more interesting – than others. Today was one of those fantastic gems of a day. Brooke and I are on our second day of a three day tour of the Scottish Highlands through the impeccable Rabbie’s tour company. It was an extensive, full day of tramping around the Isle of Skye in our comfortable tour van. Traveling among the company of a small, but enthusiastic group of fellow explorers, we managed to hit all of the highlights of Skye by crisscrossing the island over the course of the day. We accomplished it all while enjoying a soundtrack provided by an animated guide (and top notch storyteller) who delivered memorable, captivating stories on topics ranging from Scottish folklore, sports, history, clan chieftains and more. The accompaniment for the ride was a solid playlist of tunes by Scottish artists and beyond which played between the commentary. And that’s all of the good stuff before we get into the amazing landscapes and dazzling vistas. Not too mention dinner, drinks and live music at the pub. And then evening pub hopping in the sleepy town of Portree. It was the perfect way to spend any Sunday. The sights here are largely made up of the natural beauty of glens, lochs, hills and rolling valleys. All combined, they make up some of the most beautiful views we’ve seen on the trip. And we don’t toss out such accolades lightly; beneath clouds or under bright sunshine, it is friggin’ gorgeous here. The Isle of Skye is remote and sparsely populated but has a more diverse topography than you might find over three states back home. Thankfully, our venerable guide Doug made plenty of stops so we could enjoy every photo opportunity that ranged from an old brock to a waterfall stepped in superstition.

Glen of the Faeries!

Our first stop today was at a 2,000 year old brock (an old stone tower) just off the side of the road. I’m sure everyone has their own benchmark, but I know I’m in middle of a good day when I’m conquering ancient castle remains all before 10:00 AM. After dodging both loose rocks and sheep droppings, we climbed our way to the top to soak in the first of several stunning views of the day. A short drive down the road took us to the seaside cliffs of the Neist Point Lighthouse on the Western Coast of the island. We all shrugged off the winds and clouds to meander down the walkway and up a steep hill. Again, amazing view. Woooo.... After another quick stop, we enjoyed a quick rest and tasty lunch in Uig. Before long, the sun was out and we were off to my favorite stop of the day: The Faeries Glen. Doug gave us three strict rules when visiting the fabled land of the mythical Scottish faeries: We were warned not to whistle, not to leave any gifts made of iron and not to remove anything from the glen or else we might risk a curse. I was just afraid that Brooke might fall somewhere through time after entering a stone circle. Legends and fairies aside, the place was relatively magical in its setting alone. Green as far as they eye can see and steep, sloping grassy hills punctuated with a towering stone formation. Amazing landscapes are tricky because short of an IMAX camera, words and a few photos really fall short. Serene, beautiful and solitary (aside from the loud group of student tourists), I could have spent another hour there. By the by, this is like the third bridal veil falls we've seen in this tripThe day only got better from there. Our van made it’s next stop at an overlook with an astounding view of the east coast of Skye. Looking down into the valley and beyond, we where able to catch a glimpse of the mainland. The steep cliffs als would have doubled for a terrific golf driving range or hang gliding starting point. From there, it was on to see Kilt Rock, The Old Man Of Storr (complete with its own amazing story) and then Bride’s Veil Falls. It was there that Doug convinced a handful of us that an old legend states that dipping your head into the falls is certain to gaurantee…hmm…satisfying romantic encounters for seven years for every second you can stand the cold water. Not wanting to take any changes, Brooke and I both drenched our heads in the water. We ended our tour day with live music and drinks in a neighboring pub.A great day from start to finish. We really can’t say enough great stuff about Doug and Rabbies. It’s safe to say that I’ve absorbed more quality, wonderful information about Scotland in the last few days than I learned in some college courses. Next time we meet up, ask me to tell you the tale of the shirtless clan battle or the Archie Gemmel’s legendary 3rd goal against Holland during the 1978 World Cup. I can know speak in depth to the Scottish origin of the phrases “To tie the knot” and “armed to the teeth.” Under pressure, I could even draw a realistic looking dirk and tell you why it’s best not to hit on the girl at the bar whom your Scottish friend are calling a Minger. I’m loving this exposure to every single ounce of trivia and new vocabulary. Odds are strong that I’m going to bursting with Scotitsh pride by the time we blow town on Tuesday evening. Just like New Zealand, we’re back to seeing sheep every time we turn our head. We’ve been told that the sheep outnumber the human residents eight to in Skye. Contented, slow moving sheep certainly have the run of the place and, thanks to Scottish law, the right of way in the roads. There is no shortage of gentle honking to prod them to move on but since all of the other wildlife (bears, wolfs and more) are long gone from this area, the sheep don’t have a lot to sweat. Thier only threat is blank stares from the occasional neighboring cow. To top it off, this visit has had a bit of special significance because I’ve wanted to visit the Scottish Highlands for as long as I can remember. After all of the photos I’ve seen and all the stories I’ve heard from those who had visited, it’s been a wish of min to see this part of the world in person. Today, I’m able to write about it from a table in a hostel in the middle of Portree. Pretty dang cool. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve met some awesome people during our trip to the Highlands. I look forward to tomorrow: another day in the tour van and a chance to see Loch Ness up close and personal. As we wind down our time in Sottland, I think it’s time to start downing some prime Scotch Whisky and sample the Hagis, but we’ll cross that particular bridge tomorrow. -Phil

Categories: Exploring, Hiking, Music, Reflections, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rabbie’s Tour of the Highlands–Day 1

Today began our adventure to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye with Rabbie’s Trail Burners. After loading up the van, 14 excited passengers led by our driver/guide Doug, left Edinburgh to explore the vast Highlands. Much of our day was dedicated to actually getting to the Isle of Skye, though we did stop several times along the way to appreciate the scenery and take in some local sights.

When we arrived in Scotland, we knew that we wanted to see the Highlands. After all, we wouldn’t really be seeing the country without making this part of the journey. We briefly considered renting a car and driving ourselves. We did this in New Zealand, and while that was fun, it was also tiring and involved some harrowing driving in the rain (on the wrong side of the road). Worried we might be in for something similar here in Scotland, we decided to go with a guided tour instead, accepting that it would be a bit pricier. Within 30 minutes of beginning the tour, I knew we had made the right decision. Our guide, Doug, immediately started telling us stories about the history of Edinburgh as we pulled out of the city. One story I loved takes place at the Edinburgh Zoo. They have had a penguin colony since the early days of the zoo and once, over 50 years ago, the penguins accidentally got out of their enclosure. However, they didn’t run wild or get out of the park. Instead, they walked in a single file line around the park and then right back into their pen. The interesting part? They’ve been doing it every day since then. That’s right. Each day at 2:15 pm the zoo keepers open the door and the penguins commence their parade. Apparently it is quite the spectacle and an attraction for many tourists. It is these kinds of stories which Doug has been sharing with us all day. We are so filled with information and our tour has only just begun!

Aside from the fact that they are said to have awesome guides, one of the reasons we chose Rabbie’s tours is because it caps the number of participants at sixteen. This allows for more interaction among the people and also more flexibility. This flexibility proved useful when we drove past our first loch. The water looked like glass with the trees and mountains reflecting off it. Doug thought it was too beautiful to pass up, so we pulled over for a few minutes to take in the scenery and snap a few pictures. If we had been on a bus with 45 tourists, we probably wouldn’t have stopped and it certainly would have taken more than 5 minutes. We appreciate that Doug takes advantage of the small size of the group to take engage in these kinds of experiences.

As we made our way into the Highlands, Doug regaled us with stories of clans and chieftains, marriages and murders. One of the most gruesome occurred in Glen Coe when the Campbells took advantage of the kindness of the MacDonalds and killed them in cold blood while they were sleeping. Thirty-seven MacDonalds died including their chief. There are still pubs in Glen Coe today who will deny service to those with the name Campbell. Historical tales like these captivated us throughout the long drive. Doug has amassed an amazing wealth of knowledge and he is such a wonderful story teller, as so many Scots are. Not only did he entertaining us as we drove, he also played DJ by sharing music from Scottish artists both old and new. I think the more scenic the landscape, the more traditional the music became. This was fine by me. What could be more perfect than driving through the Highlands, gazing at the mountains, glens and lochs, and hearing the Scottish pipes playing on the radio? Absolutely wonderful.

We made several stops for photos, but the main attraction we visited before arriving in Portree, on the Isle of Skye, was Eilean Donan Castle. This much loved, photographed and filmed castle is set on the side of a Loch Duich at the base of a mountain. It couldn’t be more picturesque and it could have been really awesome. If it was the original castle. Which it isn’t. The original one was destroyed during the Jacobite uprising in 1745. The one which stands in its place is a recreation from the 1920’s. Still very cool. All based on the original plans. But honestly, seeing modern wedding photos and decorations was a bit of a letdown. In fact, part of the castle is still kept by the McRae family for private apartments where they take vacations. It’s no wonder this picturesque castle has been used in films such as Highlander, James Bond and Brave (in animated form). It is in such great shape because it isn’t actually very old!

After the castle, we drove toward Portree. With a population of 5,000, it is the largest town on the Isle of Skye whose total population is approximately 10,000. Still, this is by no means a large town. We managed to walk around and check it out in about 10 minutes. Of course our walk was made quicker because it was after 6pm therefore everything was closed. After all, it is Saturday night. God forbid something should be open until 8pm. We managed to scrounge up some fish and chips for dinner before heading back to our hostel for the night. We are exhausted. Even though we weren’t traipsing around all day, like we will be tomorrow, the drive was a bit mentally exhausting. Doug has shared so much history and many great stories. I’m grateful Phil and I have each other to help us remember it all…well, at least most of it!

–Brooke

In front of Eilean Donan Castle. See, we bought jackets!

The views are just stunning! We won’t be hurting for beautiful pictures over the next couple of days.

In front of the foothills near Glen Coe.

Our transportation for the next few days. Pretty stylish, right?

Categories: Driving Abroad, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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