Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Wintry Week in Scotland, Part Two

 Our Scottish adventure continued with a drive to the Isle of Skye, where we looked forward to a day spent enjoying phenomenal scenery from the car and a hike to an amazing set of waterfalls. 
Then winter happened. 
The weather was, let's say, uncooperative. Fierce winds, driving freezing rain, and low visibility meant that we did not see much and we definitely didn't hike! It was probably the most disappointing element of the trip for me because it was the part I had most looked forward to. Guess I'll just have to go back. In the summer.

Super cold rain had me taking pictures from the car. 

The only waterfalls we saw were on the side of the road. 
A roaring waterfall on the Isle of Skye. This picture doesn't do its beauty justice.
The car on the far left with red tail lights is ours. I sit warmly in it with the children while Chris takes the pictures. #hero

Our intention was to visit Eilean Donan castle, but unfortunately, it was closed for a Valentines' Day wedding. So, enjoy this picture of our little valentines instead.

While visiting England a couple of years ago, we learned the value of keeping some crackers, cheese, and honey on hand for an easy lunch while out and about. We parked and ate and looked out the window at some stunning scenery while the clouds moved off and blue sky began to peep through. A little.

Not a bad view for lunch from the car.

With nothing quite going to plan that morning, we decided to give up and head back towards Inverness to see if we could tackle some other areas on our list. At one point, we came to a "T" in the road and we needed to turn right. However, there was a sign that said if we turned left, there was a castle ruin a few kilometers away. We decided the detour was worth a look and headed down the road to check it out. After a drive through the quaint little town of Lochcarron, we found Strome Castle perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the waters of Loch Carron. No one else was around. We had the place completely to ourselves, which just made it even more fantastic. Taking that detour turned the day around for us and we were so glad we did it. I suppose that's a pretty good metaphor for life-- sometimes a detour from your original path can lead you to an unexpected amazing new place. (I know, it's a travel blog. No more philosophy.)

This. Is. Scotland.
Our little family posing in front of what would have been the view from the castle.
Exploring the ruin up close. The walls were so thick and the archway still standing is just phenomenal.

The one thing James wanted to do more than anything else in Scotland was visit Loch Ness. He was not content to see it,  he had to get down to the shore and be next to it. He would have been in it if it wasn't for the freezing to death while wet part, and only then because Mom said no. Short of taking a boat tour, which we vetoed because of Ellie, we weren't sure about how to get to the actual shore. Luckily, without much searching, we found a pull-off with parking spaces and it had stairs down to the loch. Woohoo! 

Gray skies and cold rain on the shores of Loch Ness.
That grin says it all. One happy kid.
Took a quick family picture and then Chris took Ellie back to the warm, dry car.
Mom and James hanging out on the shores of Loch Ness. In the freezing rain. Because why not?

The next day we left our little stone cottage at the croft and headed to the Speyside area. Home to over 50% of the distilleries making scotch whisky, this region is not to be missed if you are a fan of scotch. Which Chris is. The poor man was forced to choose only one distillery to tour, so he decided on Glenfiddich-- his favorite. Knowing the afternoon tour came with tastings, I suggested a hearty lunch might be in order (he's the only one keen to drive in the UK). The internet on our phone (no idea which app it was) recommended A Taste of Speyside, not far from the distillery and due to open for lunch just a couple minutes after we would arrive. Sounded good to us! 
There was a parking spot just in front of the restaurant in downtown Dufftown, so Chris hopped out to make sure it would work before we unloaded the children and all the corresponding stuff one needs when taking children out of the house. The door was locked so he peered through the window to see if he could see anyone. There was a man inside (who turned out to be the owner and chef) who came to the door when he saw Chris. Their exchange went a little something like this:

Owner: "Can I help you?"
Chris: "Are you just not open yet or not open today?"
Owner: "We are closed until tomorrow. What did you need?"
Chris: "We were hoping to get some lunch but that's okay. We can find someplace else."
Owner: "But it won't be as good, will it?"

Hilarious! After learning there were only four of us and one wasn't eating, he invited us into his otherwise closed restaurant to have lunch. He apologized for not having the full menu available (seriously) and then proceeded to make us an absolutely delicious meal. We stayed there for two hours enjoying the food and the company. He sat and chatted with us on all manner of topics, including politics, whisky, and tourism, and it was a highlight of our trip for sure. If any of you ever travel to that area, please stop by and enjoy a meal there. You won't be disappointed.

Family hat picture with the stills.
Ellie is inside that large black cover in the Ergo I'm wearing. It's fleece inside. She's toasty.

After enjoying the tour and the tasting, we headed out to the house we were staying in for the night located in Aberlour. It was a typical family home with a really lovely view over the local countryside. 

Doesn't this look so cozy?!
The view from that cozy little cottage at dusk.
We all snuggled up on the couch to watch more of the Winter Olympics.

The next morning we were heading out of Speyside and making our way down the scenic route to Edinburgh that would take us through Cairngorms National Park. But first, since it was a beautifully sunny day, we took a short hike that we hoped would lead us to a scenic waterfall. It didn't. Nature is lovely in all forms though, so it was good to just be outside in some sunshine. Another short stop at the interesting Speyside Bridge let us enjoy some outside time before we were in the car for the 3 1/2-hour journey to Edinburgh.

Enjoying the morning light and that lovely view before we left. 
Taking a moment to myself to say goodbye to the scenery.
James took advantage of the opportunity to run along the trail. No rain!
A beautifully mossy rock wall.
James and I checking out the Speyside Bridge.
Skipping stones along the River Spey with the turrets of Speyside Bridge behind.
Driving up and over the mountains in Cairngorms felt like almost touching the sky. It was otherworldly.
So much glittering snow. Breathtaking.

After arriving in Edinburgh and getting all checked in to our flat, we took our hosts' recommendation and headed out for dinner at The King's Wark whose building dates back to the 1400s! Ellie was a bit fussy and multiple diners in the restaurant took turns trying to entertain her with funny faces and chatting with us about our stay in Scotland. We had such great experiences with the people of Scotland and it really made our vacation extra special.

Hanging out at the pub thinking deep thoughts.

With only one day in Edinburgh, we chose to visit the top attraction, Edinburgh Castle. It was a great decision-- such an interesting and historical place. The views of Edinburgh were fantastic and we love to experience history in places, not just books. 

This is the Great Hall, completed in 1511 for James IV. The ceiling is a work of art.
My boys in blue pushing a stroller along the ramparts. 
Our blue-eyed girl staying warm under her fawn hat- our ode to the deer as a national symbol of Scotland. 
James checks out Mons Meg, a cannon from 1457 that could fire up to 2 miles away!

Clearly one day in Edinburgh is not enough, but we did find time to do one more thing while we were there... bagpipes!!
James has loved the bagpipes for as long as I can remember, and he has been asking to learn a musical instrument (his other choices were drums and the accordion. Really.) So, we took him to a bagpipe shop to have a look around. The young guy who helped us was just awesome. He played them for James as a demonstration and then let him try out a set, which is on the video below. It's harder than you think! In the end, we left the store with a chanter (the recorder-looking part that has the finger holes) and an instruction guide. Should he desire, we can move forward down the road with the bag and pipes. Also, that instrument is so much louder than you realize-- SO LOUD!

After a very busy week of exploring as much of Scotland as we could squeeze in, it was time to head home. We left Edinburgh and drove to Manchester, England on Friday night so we could stay at a hotel right next to the airport for our very early Saturday morning flight back to Orlando.

One last Scottish sunset. 
Ellie sports her tartan shirt on her last night in Scotland.
James enjoys a special ice cream treat to celebrate the end of vacation eating. 
Watching a storm roll in as we drive through the gorgeous countryside.
Traveling Shenks heading home.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Wintry Week in Scotland, Part One

Due to the delightfully unexpected appearance of Ellie and the subsequent cancellation of a long-awaited Paris trip for which plane tickets had already been purchased, we had some international flight money to use up before the end of February. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to get us all to Paris, but it turns out that traveling to the UK in the winter isn't as expensive as you'd think. While it may be considered off-season, winter is absolutely beautiful there, and we appreciated the opportunity to enjoy some cold winter weather and gorgeous snow, having left those days behind us when we relocated to Florida.

Using Airbnb for all our lodging so we could have a bit more space (we have multiple children now!) and getting a rugged little rental car, we set out an optimistic plan to see as much of the country as we could in just one week. Maybe a bit too optimistic...

Offseason travel perk- plenty of room on the plane to spread out. James had the whole row and slept pretty well.
Ellie's all strapped in and ready for her first big transatlantic flight.
Virgin Atlantic has these awesome bassinets available to use in non-turbulent times. It was really great!

We flew into Manchester, England (the budget option) and then picked up our rental car and drove about three and a half hours north into Glasgow. Chris enjoys the challenge of driving in the UK and I enjoy the scenery, so we didn't mind the drive. Plus, we had hoped that it would give the kids a chance to sleep if they needed it. It was early afternoon when we arrived and though we were exhausted from the red-eye, we checked in to our flat and took off on a walk in the neighborhood.

Hanging out along the River Clyde.
James ran to the top of the stairs and then posed like that. Funny kid.
That's me in the white hat with James and Ellie checking out St. Enoch Square.
Beautiful metal-work decorations and a stunning peacock made this building really stand out in Princes Square.

After spending the evening wandering about Glasgow, we headed back to the flat for some serious sleep. During this week, the Winter Olympics were going on and after getting up with Ellie once, I was having trouble falling back to sleep so I turned them on. James came in after a bit and we snuggled up together for a little while and watched curling. Such a funny sport.

Although we would have loved more time to explore Glasgow, the next day (Sunday) we packed up and headed northwest towards Oban, a beautiful city on the water. The drive would take us along Loch Lomond and through the Trossachs National Park so we were really looking forward to heading out into some beautiful Scottish scenery. 
It did not disappoint.

Morning sun shines on a sailboat on Loch Lomond.
I could have stayed and listened to the waves lapping at the shore all day.

After a morning filled with beautiful blue skies, as we headed north we encountered some gray skies and places with a lot of snow on the ground. Our GPS took us for a fun adventure on a road that apparently doesn't bother with winter maintenance. It was a beautiful accident and got us up and close and personal with some shaggy Highland cows, or "coos" as they are known locally.

The scenery definitely started to get snowier and more beautiful as we headed north.
You can clearly see the road which is good. Happy to have rented an SUV on this trip! 
Look at these cows! They are so amazing! 
Baby cow! So adorable!
Loved the perfection of this tree, alone on its hill. I bet it's glorious in every season.
I want to lie under its branches and read.

Between all the stops I require for picture-taking and the significantly slower speed at which we had to travel on the snowy roads, we didn't make it into Oban until much later in the day than we had planned. This was quite unfortunate because it basically ruled out most of the activities we had hoped to do. After checking into the flat and freshening up a bit, we headed out on foot to explore this little seaside town. It was so lovely!

This is the view of McCaig's Tower from the place we stayed. The weather did not cooperate for our hike up to it.
Getting our little miss all bundled up to head outside. Fuzzy hat and mittens, so cute!
Neither rain nor snow can stop the Shenks from exploring. Although, we will have to give Ellie time to get to that point.
A bit of blue sky peeped through and we could just make out the Isle of Mull in the background.

Monday morning we were off again. This time we headed northeast towards our next destination near Inverness. Our drive took us alongside multiple lochs and mountains off in the distance. We detoured a bit into the mountains past Glencoe which were just stunning, and then through Fort William and finally past Loch Ness- the thing James wanted to see more than anything else in Scotland.

Look at this sweet love! So lucky to have such awesome kids.
Caught a glimpse of this castle ruin out the window and had to stop. How beautiful!
Gray skies over an otherwise picturesque scene.
Heading into Glencoe.
Totally worth the detour to see these snowy mountains. And I got out of the car to take this one!
Me, hopping out of the nice warm car to take pictures. I love how happy I look!
Travel photography clearly agrees with me.
James brought his own camera and was excited to get out and shoot with me.
This is one of my favorites, with the sun breaking through the clouds. What a beautiful moment.

Our plan was to spend three days in the Scottish Highlands around Inverness to explore as much of that area as we could with the limitations we had (small baby, winter weather, etc.) and we found an amazing place to stay in Culbokie that was the favorite of all of us. It was a remodeled stone barn on a working "croft" or farm and they called it the Wee Tractor Shed. We LOVED it!

The stone building is where we stayed and the house and barns belong to the family who live and work there.
They were lovely, and we got to visit the cows and some new baby goats as well!
The kids enjoying some time in front of the woodburner. It warmed the whole place up.
James was super excited to spend time playing out in the snow. He LOVES it!
Made himself a little snowman and threw snowballs at us when we poked our heads out to check on him.
Having a little daddy daughter dance while we wait for our dinner at a local pub.

History is a great interest in our family and we try to look for opportunities to learn more and experience historical sites when we travel, so we took advantage of our proximity and headed out to Culloden Moor. The scene of the end of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 and considered by many to mark the end of the Highland way of life for clans in Scotland (due to harsh punishments from the English), the moor is a solemn battlefield where 1,500 men died in under an hour. It was such a sad but interesting place to visit and led to some great learning conversations with James.

James admiring the memorial cairn that honors the fallen.
There are trails through the moor that mark the positions of the troop lines and give you a feel for the battle itself.
It was so peaceful and quiet (even James was quiet!) save for the crunch of the snow as we walked.

In the afternoon, we explored a bit of the city of Inverness. We didn't see as much as we would have liked, but it had a great feel and we would love to spend more time there.

Inverness and the River Ness
Loved these old small white homes along the river. 
James and Chris pushing Ellie in the stroller heading across the bridge.

Coming up next... our week continues with Loch Ness, scotch, and Edinburgh.