Friday, July 17, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation, Part 1C

It's a suitably rainy English summer day, so it's time to finish up the Scottish interlude. From Portree, we headed southeast, over the bridge and on to Eileen Donan.

This is the quintessential castle. Perched on an island looking out over a lonely loch, mountains all around, isolated in splendor. It was almost completely destroyed in 1719, and rebuilt 200 years later. It's now a major tourist attraction, and you can actually go inside and walk through many of the rooms and hallways.

From there, we headed inland a bit and drove up the Great Glen. We looked for Nessie, but the only signs of her were the stuffed monsters we saw in numerous gift shops. So we decided to visit another castle - you can never have too many!

This beauty is Urquhart Castle, on the west side of Loch Ness. In stark contrast to Eileen Donan, Urquhart is a ruin. But you can still imagine what a massive beehive it must have been when occupied.

It was a suitably rainy Scottish day, so the girls took advantage of the drizzle to get quite wet and grubby.

We spent that night in Inverness, and the next day we headed up to Chanonry Point, north of town. By this point, we were all feeling a bit worn out, so we spent most of the day throwing rocks into the ocean and watching the dolphins playing in the surf. Himself got some photos:

These don't do them justice. There were two, and they started off maybe 200 meters off shore. By the time they were done however, they'd come in to maybe 50 feet away, and had treated us to some spectacular full-length displays as they leapt out of the water. Just like at the Aquarium the wild.

After some good time sunning ourselves, we headed back towards Inverness. Miracle of miracles, both girls passed out in the car, so we took the opportunity to go to the National Heritage Site at Culloden, site of the final stand of the Scottish Jacobites in 1746. The Visitor Centre there had a phenomenal display of the history of the Jacobites, and the events leading up to the disastrous last stand on Culloden Moor. Fascinating stuff. The moor itself is an eerie, eerie place. They are in the process of trying to restore it to it's "original" condition, complete with the marshy sections that played a big role in the failure of the Jacobite charge. We had our own reenactment of sorts when Boo decided that it was a good place for a meltdown.

It seemed like a good time to head back. The next day, we headed southward again, and made it to the airport by the skin of our teeth. A short hop back to London and home. One trip down.

Now we're gearing up for our next trip: to Paris on the train to see the last stage of the Tour, then off to the Alpes so Himself can throw himself up a mountain on his bicycle. I've been waking up in the middle of the night trying to recall my (almost 20 year old) French, without much success. It should be...interesting!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


There are a number of pluses to staying home with the girls for the summer. Besides getting to spend oodles of time with them (which is much more pleasant now that we've all adjusted), we get to go on cool expeditions, like today's trip to Crockford Bridge Farm in Surrey. We came away with this bounty:

Two kilos of strawberries, a kilo and a half of the best raspberries ever and (not pictured) 500 g peas and one kilo of broad beans. This is our second trip to this particular establishment, and the kids have had a blast each time.

Dev is an expert picker now, while Boo spends most of her time grazing. I'm not at all sure what the UK party line is on gorging yourself before you pay for your pick your own goodies, so I try to keep her under wraps. This, however, is a losing proposition. I can only try to wipe of the majority of the evidence from her chin before we go to the register and hope that she's cute enough to get cut a fair bit of slack.

The proper way to prepare to eat raspberries

When we got home we made shortcake in preparation for dessert. This is what summer is all about.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation, Part 1B

So, we left Fort William and headed northwestwards to the Isle of Skye. You can drive to the island, but from where we were it made more sense to go to Mallaig and take the ferry.

We drove up to Portree, the largest town on the island, and wandered around for a bit trying to find a place to stay. We had great luck for Fort William and Inverness by using the help line, but had struck out in Portree. But no matter - with a bit of searching we found a place and got settled. That evening we wandered down to the harbor, got soaking wet throwing rocks in the water, had fish and chips for dinner, and listened to the local pipe band playing in the town square.

Some of us (me) love bagpipes, but the girls were not quite so convinced!

The next day, we continued our attempts to indoctrinate our children into the "joys" of backpacking by driving north from Portree to climb the Quiraing. We actually ended up going up on the other side of the road from the actual Quiraing, but the girls enjoyed it immensely. Devil walked most of the way up by herself, and when the rain started (practically the only rain on the entire trip), she put on her new pink raincoat and carried an umbrella on the way down.

We made it back to Portree in time to go for a boat ride out in the harbor and were lucky enough to actually see a sea eagle in flight.

Our boat captain injected a fish with air and threw it out into the water, while the sea eagle perched high up on a rock face and thought about it. Just when we were going to give up, he launched and swooped down to grab it. Apparantly, out of four trips that day, this was the only time he'd moved. The captain also told us of taking out boatloads of photographers, 4-6 times a day for three days, and the birds never even budging. So we got really lucky.

And then he let the girls drive the boat coming back into the harbor. They were thrilled!

Skye was a beautiful, barren, wondeful place. It reminded us of Alaska in geography and flora, only a bit warmer (gotta love the Gulf Stream!). Alaskan fauna was, thankfully, absent*.

Up next, the trip from Skye to Inverness and back home. More castles, monsters and dolphins!

*The badger is the UK's largest predator. Makes a big difference when you don't have to sing as you hike to warn the bears!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation, Part 1A

One of the things we've been looking forward to with this move is the opportunity to do a whack-load of traveling around Europe, since it's just so close. So last week we did our first installment.

We didn't go very far away - a quick flight* from London to Glasgow and we were off for 7 days in the Scottish Highlands. Himself had never been to Scotland, and I spent some time near Edinburgh and St. Andrews with my brother about 15 years ago, so this was an opportunity to see some of the really good stuff. That is, the really good stuff if you like mountains and have a bit of a romantic notion of Scottish history and culture.

We headed northwest from Glasgow to Fort William, at the head of Loch Linnhe. However, it took us about six hours to make a two and a half hour drive because we had to stop several times along the way. The first stop was at a lovely waterfall along the A82, where we met our first midges**.

Then it was back on the road for a quick stop at Kilchurn Castle near Lochawe.

A beautiful ruin that we clambered around on for most of an hour. This was the girls' first castle, and they had a great time.

We finally made it up to Fort William, after a stop at the local in Lochawe where we were treated to an impromptu vocal concert by the barmaid and regulars lined up at the bar. Despite the amount of ale that must have been imbibed beforehand, it was very nice, if somewhat surreal!

Fort William is the closest town to Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Britain, so we were hoping for some good hiking. The next day we packed up the kids and headed up, not Ben Nevis, but the nearby Cow Hill.

That took most of the day, so we saved Inverlochy Castle for the next day as we headed onward.

Coming up in Part 1B, the Isle of Skye and many, many sheep.

*I will rave about how much I love British Airways at a later time, but suffice to say that on a one hour flight they fed us a full meal. Will wonders never cease?
** Midges, aka flack flies, are serious business in Scotland. There's even a Midge Report segment after the news in the evenings.