Aug 30


Yesterday was a travel day. I believe we used all main forms of transportation except an airplane. We took a taxi from the Hilton to as close to the train station as the driver could get on account of the construction. We walked to the station and boarded a train for Ayr. Once we got off in Ayr, we bought tickets for an hour and 15 minute bus ride to the ferry terminal. I got a bit bus sick and so did Ryder; the bus was so full we didn’t get seats together. Luckily both of us slept a bit which helped me avoid being actually sick all over the girl next to me. We arrived at the ferry station, bought some lunch, and boarded the ferry to Belfast, Ireland. The ferry ride was about two and a half hours in total, and boy was it rocky. By the time we had reached our port, both of us were feeling a bit queasy.

We got into Belfast at about 5:45pm and caught another taxi to our hotel. Our taxi driver, and his taxi, were an interesting experience. He told us he likes Americans but hates America…luckily it was a short taxi ride. We checked in, got dinner, and settled in for the night.

Today we got up a bit late and walked down a few streets from our hotel to a nice coffee/sandwich shop for lunch/breakfast. After eating our fill, we decided to take a tour of the city recommended to us by the hotel staff called the “Black Taxi Tours.” We booked a taxi and were picked up at our hotel by Frank in blue taxi. Go figure. The tour lasted about an hour and took us into the heart of Belfast and the turmoil surrounding the Catholic and Protestant communities in the city.

The tour took us through the first of five gates through the peace wall that divides the two communities, built in the hope of stemming the violence that began in the mid 1980s. We started on the Protestant side, viewing the many murals of fallen “volunteer” soldiers for the Protestants, and digesting a quick history of the fighting during that time leading up to today. I was struck to my core to see the number of people who died, especially children, during the first outbreak of violence in the area where the two communities mixed. A large memorial was in place on the Catholic side of the wall in honor of those who died. It was so horribly sad that so many young men and women lost their lives over two religions that teach peace. We took a moment at one of the stops to sign the peace wall and then toured a bit more of the Catholic side.

Our driver took us to another mural that was full of rows upon rows of images and dates for those who were murdered during the various uprisings. He pointed out two people who he knew intimately, one a friend from school and the other his wife’s cousin, who lost their lives not so very long ago because they were Catholic. The entire experience was very sobering and reminded me of the other acts of violence all over the world because of religious differences.

We were dropped off at the end at the second oldest pub in Ireland where we went in and got a drink (one Guinness each!). The pub was VERY ornate with a tiled floor, carved ceiling, pillars, and stained glass everywhere. We drank our beers, taking in the old, musty pub smell and snatches of the irish accent. After, we headed out to the brand new Titanic Exhibit that just opened in Belfast.

The Titanic exhibit was really very great as far as museums go. We were able to view the shipping yard where the Titanic was actually built. The museum provided background into the maritime history of Belfast and the events that lead up to the creation of such a huge and inspiring ship. There was a small ride (like in Disneyland) through a bit of the museum and lots of interactive boards. At the end of the museum was a massive screen (think IMAX) with a looped recording of the sunken ship at the bottom of the Atlantic. All in all, probably the best museum I’ve ever visited!

We headed back to the hotel for some chow and settled in for the night!

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Scottish Highlands

Aug 28

Scottish Highlands

Saturday, the 25th, we drove around the very remote peninsula where we stayed for one more night. We took our time getting down to the next biggest (using the word big loosely here) town enjoying the drive and view as we went. The next town was Applecross. We stopped at the only Bed and Breakfast/pub (which had previously won Best Restaurant in the UK) for some lunch and then went for a nice walk down the short main road. After, we headed over to an old walled garden that has been slowly restored to its former Victorian glory since 2001. On the drive over to the garden, we came across a herd of very shaggy cows! Called the Highland Cattle, this breed is originally from Scotland. Their long coats allow them to withstand the harsh winters. They are bred for their beef and apparently do not need shearing. After we took a few pictures, we entered the garden. We picked our way around, admiring the various plant life and the twists and turns from the path. I felt like I was in the Secret Garden.

Our hostess suggested we take a little hike down from the main road to a very tiny village only accessible by foot to see a beautiful coral beach. We were intrigued and passed through Applecross to head there next. We’ve noticed while driving around the Highlands, there are not very many trees anywhere. The ground is mostly covered in grasses and flowers, or moss and water. The hike was really very pretty and not too strenuous. It took us no time to reach the three houses sitting on the bluff overlooking the ocean. A large herd of sheep was grazing in the walled pasture nearby. We spent some time picking among the sand, finding lots of whole, unbroken, sea shells. A couple from Inverness had followed us along the path and we spent some time talking with them about the scenery and weather. We parted ways and headed back to the car, driving back up the road to look for a grocery so we could purchase some food for dinner. Unfortunately, the only store we could find was a very tiny convenience store connected to a house in a small town north of Applecross. We went in and found two cans of soup and rice to make for dinner.

All I can say is, I thought Cambria was remote. Boy was I wrong! We got back to our very comfortable BnB, made dinner and hung out with the hostess’ sweet puppy dog.

Sunday, the 26th, was the day we ventured into Glasgow. We took a detour and decided to checkout the Isle of Skye briefly just so we could take the ferry out from the southern point of the isle and onto a road that led us to one of the bridges shown in Harry Potter! We got to the ferry just a little bit after it had left so we journaled and drank coffee in the cold on a bench outside in the wind while waiting for the next ferry. Also on our path down to Glasgow was Glen Coe, a gorgeous valley that some people consider the most beautiful place in Scotland, and we stopped there for some photos and a short hike up the mountain.

In Glasgow, we decided to splurge a little and booked some nights at the Hilton. It’s really nice to have so much room! Unfortunately, the whole 21 floor building was awakened at 6:45am when a fire alarm went off and told us to exit the building. I was hoping it was a joke and that they would shortly stop it. But it persisted and we walked 9 stories of stairs down. As soon as we got outside, people were walking back into the Reception area and we were told we could go back to our rooms. It took almost 15 minutes to get back to our room at that point because there were so many people waiting in line to use the elevator. Well, Good Morning to you too Hilton!

Monday, the 27th, we drove into Crieff to do a distillery tour at the Glenturret distillery, the oldest working distillery in Scotland. The Famous Grouse company set up “The Famous Grouse Experience” tour there and we did one of the upgraded tours that included more tastings. Woooo! We’re not big drinkers of scotch whisky but we had a good time. Obviously, distilling whiskey has a lot in common with brewing beer and wine but it was cool to see the differences. They distill the spirits twice and only take a portion of the end product. If my memory serves me correctly, 15,000 liters of water is used in the start of the process which produces about 4,000 liters of spirit and then it’s distilled to later yield about 400 bottles of whisky. By the time we left, it was POURING down rain. We drove to Glasgow, returned our rental car and taxi’d back to the hotel.

Today, Tuesday the 28th, was a chill day. We’ve spent all day inside our room so far except for a gym visit. We’ve been going over our finances and planning for our next stops.

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Edinburgh to Loch Ness and beyond!

Aug 24

Edinburgh to Loch Ness and beyond!

For our last day in Edinburgh, we decided to hike King Arthur’s Seat. King Arthur’s Seat is the main peak in a group of hills which form most of Holyrood Park. Many legends surrounding this mountain lay claim to the story of King Arthur as the site of the famous Camelot. During the evenings, we could see the mountain from our flat which was filled with lights for one of the exhibitions for the Fringe Festival. We thought, since we could see the mountain, it would be a nice walk to the peak.

We walked 30 minutes through the streets, passing Holyrood Palace (which we didn’t get the chance to see), and through to the base of the mountain. We picked the nearest path which took us to the St. Anthony’s Chapel overlooking St. Margaret’s Loch. The chapel is in ruins today, and we spent some time poking around and enjoying the view. We continued the hike up the steep hills with lots of others to the summit of the mountain. The views from the top were absolutely stunning!! Edinburgh Castle was clearly visible in the downtown area as was the port for the city. In the distance we could see two stacks and a very large rock that reminded us fiercely of Morro Bay! We found ourselves a little homesick. Once we reached the top, we were assaulted by a pounding, howling wind with force enough to push us a little off balance! After some time at the top, enjoying the veiws, Ryder’s storm alarm went off on his watch so we decided it was time to head down. Sure enough, 5 minutes later, it started to pour down rain!

Near the bottom of the hike we could see a bunch of white specks coming off of St. Margaret’s Loch. On closer inspection, we realized it was a large flock of swans! They were coming off of the water during the rain to eat the grass on our side of the loch. We spent a good 20 minutes walking among the swans who would proceed to growl/snort at us if we got too close! We couldn’t believe how close we could get! After we had our swan fill, we walked back to our apartment to pack a bit, then headed out for dinner.

We used Lonely Planet to find a good restaurant for dinner, and headed back to the center of Edinburgh to the Urban Angle. The food was excellent and Ryder ordered our first try of haggis. For those of you who don’t know, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish made as a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours. Most modern commercial haggis is prepared in a sausage casing rather than an actual stomach. We are pretty sure we had the sheep’s stomach simmered version. Ryder’s impression of the haggis, “After eating about 10% of it, I was sad there was still the last 90% to go.” I can say, he did finish all of it (I helped a little). We got back to our room, packed and went to bed.

Yesterday, we rented a car (manual) and left the Edinburgh train station for our drive north to our airbnb place near Loch Ness. Well, Ryder drove because I don’t know how to drive a manual, and spent the first 10 minutes thinking, “F*ck, f*ck, f*ck, left side, left side, left side.” It didn’t help that there was a ton of construction in Edinburgh and the roads were full of zooming taxis, brave pedestrians, and lots of big busses. Thank goodness we made it out, after getting lost twice, and made our way to Stirling Castle. The drive was nice and relaxing across the Scottish country side. We stopped at an information booth to buy a map just in case Ryder’s phone died on us. They gave us a map of Stirling and told us about the park and ride system to the castle. We used this system when we got there, taking a nice bus all the way up to the front gates of the castle!

We did a guided tour of the castle which we thought was really good and highly entertaining. Stirling Castle was hotly contested over the years between the Scottish and the British. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the would be king, James I. Our tour guide was great and after viewing the Great Hall and Tapestry room, we headed back down the hill into town to buy a car charger for Ryder’s phone. We caught the bus back to the car and drove up to Loch Ness and our place for the night. We took some photos of the famous loch and I, of course, looked for the Loch Ness Monster.

Today we got back in the car and started our drive up further north to our new place near the Isle of Skye. The drive was really spectacular, taking us through the Highlands of Scotland. We stopped near a loch and took a short hike up for better views. It rained for the majority of our ride, which added to the haunting beauty of the Highlands. We stopped at the Loch Carron Hotel for a really great dinner and headed out for our airbnb. We drove one hour along a one lane road, winding down valleys and along the beautiful coastline. I spent most of the ride white knuckled around blind turns, but Ryder got us here safe and sound. We are staying in a small, very small town called Arrina in the middle of absolute nowhere in the Scottish Highlands! The place is nice and cozy and we are ready to settle in for the night.


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Edinburgh Sites

Aug 21

Edinburgh Sites

Hi all, our second day in Edinburgh was a smashing success! Yesterday, we didn’t do too much; just walked around for a bit, saw a comedy show,  and shopped at the craft booths along Princes Street (one of the main thoroughfare of the Fringe Festival). Unfortunately, we were having some hot water issues with the flat and had to wait for the owner to come by to take a look, so we had a really late start yesterday. Today, Ryder woke up an hour early to do some work for a client then we had breakfast, coffee, and headed out. We stopped at a bakery around the corner and purchased sandwiches for lunch and a fresh baked loaf of bread for dinner/breakfast tomorrow. It started to pour rain as we hiked our way up the first hill for the half hour walk to Edinburgh Castle, our main stop for the day.

Edinburgh is our first really hilly city and man its been kicking our butts (into shape, yay!)! We made the long, long hike up the steep hills to Edinburgh Castle which sits on an extinct volcano called Castle Rock. The first human settlement on the site can be traced back to 900 BC, but the fist castle built on the site was commissioned by David I in 1130 AD. This original structure included a chapel dedicated to his mother Queen Margaret, which still stands today. The castles history is full of historical conflicts including the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, to the Jacobite Rising in the mid-18th century. It has been besieged, both successfully and unsuccessfully on several occasions and is currently the resting place of the Stone of Destiny and The Honours of Scotland.

We bought our tickets the night before so were able to bypass the long line and jump right into a free guided tour of the castle. Unfortunately Ryder and I are not very well versed in the Scottish language, I mean accent, and had a really hard time understanding what the tour guide was saying. We were in luck however, because we happened to be at the castle just before 1pm. At one o’clock every day an L118 Light Gun is fired from the north face of the castle. Originally the gun was established in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth and in the harbor 2 miles away. The original gun was an 18-pound muzzle-loading cannon which needed 4 men to load. Today, one woman in a uniform came out and pushed a button to fire a blank and very loud round at exactly 1pm. It was a really cool thing to witness. Before the use of the cannon, a time ball was installed on the Nelson Monument in 1852 which drops from the peak of the weather vain at exactly 1pm. The gun was established later as the time ball is useless for ships during foggy weather. After milling around with the crowd to watch the gun go off, we traipsed on up to the top of the castle to see the Stone of Destiny and Honours of Scotland.

As I mentioned in one of our previous posts from London, the Stone of Destiny was originally used to crown the kings and queens of Scotland. We were able to see this stone on display along with other traditional objects used in Scotland coronations before they were ruled by Britain. After  admiring the stone and jewels, we headed down to the dungeons and prison of the castle. Here thousands of prisoners of war were held from 1757 to 1814 including American sailors during the Revolutionary War who were considered pirates! Ha! We found a carving one of the American’s did of the American Flag (or one of the versions of it) on a door to one of the cells. We left the dungeons and made our way out of the castle, heading towards Calton Hill, another high promontory of Edinburgh. Passing a few shops, we found the Tartan Weaving Mill, and went inside to view the looms and machines used to weave the beautiful patterns that make up scottish kilts and clan colors. Further along down the street, we met two performers passing out flyers for their show which was set to start an hour later. We were intrigued by their costumes and flyer so headed to the venue to pick up two tickets. We milled around the area, went into a pub for a glass of beer, then headed into the performance. We loved the show, it was very funny, entertaining, and well worth the wait and money spent. At one point one of the actors sat in Ryder’s lap, acting like an ape, and started picking through his hair! The show was called The Submarine Show and the two actors also performed the same act at the 2011 San Francisco Fringe Festival (click for a short video of the show).

We exited the theater and headed off for Calton Hill. We had a fun time hiking around the area, taking fun photos and enjoying the beautifully not raining weather. By 6pm we were famished and headed back to the flat for a dinner of gnocchi, mushrooms, and spaghetti sauce with bread. Tomorrow we plan to hike King Arthurs Seat 🙂

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York and on to Edinburgh, Scotland

Aug 19

York and on to Edinburgh, Scotland

Yesterday marked our first month traveling!! Yay! One down… 7 more to go (maybe?)! Let’s talk about yesterday then we can move on to today! So yesterday, we walked another half of the city walls of York and spent the rest of the afternoon in the only brewery in York, the York Brewery! We arrived right after a tour had started, but not to fear, we were given some tasty cask ale beer while we waited for the next tour to begin! We spent the first hour talking to a nice couple from a town about an hour away who come to York every year on holiday because they love it so much. We have to agree with them, York was pretty spectacular. At 3:30, we went on the tour of their brewing facilities. They are a 20 barrel brew plant housed in an old flour mill. We got to see the brewing process and then enjoy more beer tasting after. Ryder even poured his own hand pumped cask ale.

We met another couple who were also visiting York and had a really great time talking with them until well past dinner time. We finally said goodbye to the brewery, grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back for a relaxing night.

Today we got up early, had a great breakfast at the B&B, and caught the train from York to Edinburgh. The ride took about 2 and a half hours, but we passed the time talking with a nice gentleman from northern Scotland. He gave us some great recommendations on places to stay and things to see while we are here. We got off the train and caught a taxi to our new place in Edinburgh. Once we settled in, we headed out to the main center of town (about 15 minutes walk) for lunch. The world famous Fringe Festival is going on in Edinburgh this month. There are performances, art installations, venders, and all sorts of entertainment going on all over the city!! We walked down along the river and spent some time at a few booths where I purchased a necklace and Ryder a hat! It started to pour down rain and of course we left our rain jackets back at the flat, so we hoofed it back, getting soaking wet in the process.

We just finished a homemade pasta meal and are settling in for a nice first night in Scotland!

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Aug 17


This morning we slept in until 8:30am, got up, packed, and checked out of our airbnb. We hoofed it to the metro and rode in to Kings Cross station arriving in time to catch the train. We decided, however, to catch the next train and instead send a few packages back home at the post office across the street. By the time we got back to the station, we had 10 minutes to get on the next train to York. We found the platform and boarded the train, only to realize to our dismay that it was completely booked!! Eek!! I spoke with a very nice train attendant who informed us that the trains to York are ALWAYS fully booked! Because of our British Rail pass we are guaranteed a seat, but can’t book reservations for travel at 2 hrs or less, the amount of time to get from London to York!! Well, I freaked out a little and hustled over to the ticket office to see if we could reserve a seat on the next train. The really nice attendant there said we just needed to board the train immediately after it posts and find any unreserved seats we can. We waited around the platforms sweating out the next 20 minutes (ok ok, I sweated, Ryder wasn’t worried one bit). Once the train hit the platform we made a beeline to the first car and found two empty seats next to each other in first class! Yay!

The train ride was really nice and comfortable. We watched the most recent episode of Suits and spent the rest of the ride researching places to stay and things to see in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have to say I’ve become thoroughly spoiled traveling first class on all the trains. It was cheaper for us to purchase the Brit Rail pass beforehand for our travel throughout the UK. This pass was only available in first class. On this train we had a complimentary beverage service, including alcohol. We didn’t get any, but I can’t believe we could have enjoyed free alcohol. Unheard of in the US.

Our train arrived on time and we caught the next bus to our accommodations, the Heworth Guest House. The owners of the establishment greeted us warmly at the door, providing a wealth of information about the town and things to do. We settled into our room then headed out to explore the city. As we made our way down the street it started raining. Luckily, we’d checked the weather and brought our rain jackets 🙂 Ryder looked like a caution sign hehehe. We walked about 15 minutes to the city center, stopping at the York Chocolate House for some chocolate drinks and chocolate fondu. We were in chocolate heaven! I would definitely recommend this place to anyone visiting York as the customer service was superb! After having our sugary fill we walked to the other side of town, heading for Clifford’s Tower.

This tower was once a medieval Norman castle built on the orders of William I to dominate the Viking city. York Castle formed an important royal fortification in the north of England. Before becoming a historic site, the tower was used as a jail and prison until 1929. Today, only the shell of the castle remains atop the huge baily. The view from the top of the walls was very beautiful, showing York in all it’s glory. We slowly circled the top of the tower, taking in all the sites, then climbed back down the slippery stairs and out to the street.

We had planned to walk the city walls the next day, but decided we were close, we have time, why not? We walked all along one section of the wall, dumping us out onto the other side of the town. It was a very beautiful walk, and as it was mid-day on Friday, we had the wall almost to ourselves. Upon exiting the wall via one of the ancient entrance gates to the city, we went in search of dinner and found a really good noodel place then we headed back to the guest house for a good nights sleep!

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