Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bucket List: Visiting the Isle of Skye

When we found out we were moving to Aberdeen, I started doing some major Pinterest stalking to see what all in Scotland we wanted to see. When I saw this lovely, yet obnoxiously photo-shopped picture of the ‘Fairy Pools’, I knew I had to see them for myself.
Admittedly, April is not much of a hiker, which ruled out several things I originally put on her itinerary. But since we both agreed that we wanted to see the Isle of Skye, I let her know upfront that a hike to the Fairy Pools was required.
Early the morning of, I tried looking for clear directions to the fabled pools, and well, it was slim pickings. Many blogs warned that the hike was not well marked and sometimes heavy rains wiped out the ‘stepping stones’ needed to cross the stream along the way. Not to mention that the best directions to the car park I could find was Car park on right hand side of small road to Glen Brittle. Sign on right as road descends.” For someone so navigationally challenged, this was not too comforting. How exactly do you put ‘small road to Glen Brittle’ into a finicky Sat Nav? You don’t.
I knew that a 'glen' was a valley, usually with a body of water, so we used my spotty 3 G service and google maps to get us pointed in the right direction. I had a hunch that the trail was near the Talisker distillery and we were headed that way when we saw a sign pointing to Glen Brittle. Unfortunately the sign pointed down the smallest, most winding-est, road I have ever laid eyes on. I was instantly uncomfortable driving, especially since we didn’t know if we were even headed the right way. We drove for what felt like hours, pulling off to the side of the road if we saw any oncoming traffic headed our way. Because y’all, this road didn’t even pretend to have room for two cars.
Every time the road descended, we preened our eyes to the right sight of the road looking for any evidence of a car park, but never saw it. Just when I got to the point of thinking (aloud), ‘We could run out of gas out here, and no one would find us for days. April, we could die!’ (ps. I’m not one to stay calm in a crisis) we finally saw the glorious 'Fairy Pools' sign waiting around the bend. We hooped and hollered as if LSU had just beaten BAMA in the National Championship, and of course, I made April pose by the sign.
Our elation was short lived since after getting to the car park, there was little indication of what to do next. Luckily, I had taken good notes from the Walk Highlands website and knew to cross the road and take the path to Sligiche, on the right. Only problem was the trail to Sligiche lead to the left. Since the right sided trail followed the stream, we opted for that choice.
When we came across some hikers on their way back, we asked for confirmation that we were headed the right way. The assured us that we were, but looked skeptically at our footware. I knew we had some stepping stones to cross up the trail, but figured my sneakers could get me across. April had some fashionable suede boots on, but they said Northface, so we’ll call them hiking boots. By the way, April is the most stylish hiker in the world. It was like hiking with a Victoria Secret model.
Well when we came to the stepping stones, it was easy to see how a good rainstorm could cover them completely. We were really lucky weather-wise on Skye, and so it was ‘passable’, though a bit nerve-racking with a 20 ton camera around my neck. April glided over it with extreme grace and ease. It was like hiking with a Victoria Secret model.
While I, the one with so-called ‘hiking experience’, had to be coached across stepping stone by stepping stone.
Once we were across the water, we could tell we were getting close as signified by the group of very serious-looking hikers huddled around a waterfall. This was it. The moment I had been waiting for. 
Initially, I was disappointed that the fairy pools didn’t quite live up to the photo-shopped hype, but really, they were stunning. The water was as turquoise as any beach in the Bahamas, though capturing the scene in a picture was especially difficult. That didn’t stop us from trying. Here are my best photo-shopping efforts (aka Instagram).
On our drive back to Portree, we came across 2 German motorcyclists who flagged us down to ask for directions to the Fairy Pools. I explained that they were going the right way, but needed to continue driving until they started to panic that they might run out of gas and die out there, and just when they get to the point of considering food and water rations, they would see a small “Fairy Pools” sign on the right.
I am pretty sure most of that was lost in translation and all they gleamed was ‘on the right’. Oh well, the road to the Fairy Pools is paved with good intentions…and bad directions.

Well friends, I am off to Krakow to scratch off another Bucket List item: visiting Auschwitz. Have a great weekend and I'll see you next week!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Scottish Hurricane

One unique thing about Scotland is that it isn’t prone to the common natural disasters. You’ll see the occasional flooding, but volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, forest fires, and hurricanes are largely absent. Even lightning and thunder storms are a rarity. Growing up in south Louisiana and Texas it seems odd to live outside of hurricane season and tornado alley.
That doesn’t mean that the weather in Scotland is calm. Not even a little bit. Though it may not have been labeled a tropical storm, the weather we had yesterday mimicked those familiar storms of my childhood, and the result was eerily reminiscent of a hurricane’s aftermath. I’m actually quite impressed that we never lost power.
Running my normal forest route this morning was a little complicated.
Here are some more pictures and video of the storm and its destruction. 
Our trashcan blew all the way from the side of our house into the street.
While I was trying to capture  the wind gusts on film, the top of our trashcan flew up and hit me.
These are some of the pictures circulating around the internet. A few of these were even emailed to me from my parents in Lousiana. It was quite the storm.

Kinda puts that whole trashcan thing into persepctive. We were super lucky.

Sand and seafoam from the North Sea

Stonehaven Harbor

Yep, no one ever accused the Scottish weather of being pleasant. When it’s good, it’s good. But when it’s bad-man oh man, you just want to hole up under the covers with a good book and Felicity reruns. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.
Jonathan, if you’re reading this, the terrible weather did not deter me from dusting every surface of this house, vacuuming the stairs, and ironing your socks…and in case you were wondering *spoiler alert* Felicity still cuts off all her hair in Season 2: Episode 2.
Guilty as charged.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Faith Like a Loch Ness Monster Hunter

Sorry to be a buzzkill, but I’m fairly certain that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist, at least not in the previously assumed way. I’m nothing if not a logical and rational thinker, and there is just no way that some dinosaur-like creature is lurking in the depths of the legendary waters. Here’s my evidence:
1) In all sightings the monster appears to be reptilian. Now, I’ve lived here for nearly 5 months without seeing a single frog, toad, lizard, or snake. It’s pretty chilly and lacking in sunlight here which makes it pretty hard for many cold blooded animals to thrive.
2) Okay, so maybe it’s a mammal. But all water mammals need a source of air so it would have to come up to the surface more than once every 10 years or so.
There's a theory that states the famous 1934 sighting was of an elephant. Travelling circuses would stop by Inverness, which may have led to an escaped elephant taking a swim.  
3) There are tourists boats with sonar systems which scan the lake bottom continuously looking for signs of the beast. As far as I know, she hasn’t been spotted yet.
Just say 20 of these boats go out everyday for the past 20 years (which is a gross under exaggeration);  that means that this lake has been scanned over 150,000 times with no proof of the monster’s existence. Not to mention the scores of tourists preening their eyes and snapping thousands of photos trying to catch a glimpse.
4) The history of hoaxes leads me to be cynical when a new ‘sighting’ is reported. With photoshop effects these days, faking evidence is just too easy.  
5) In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novel(a must read for Scotland buffs), the dino-monster travels in and out of a time travel portal every so often. When I read that theory, it struck me as the most logical explanation I’d heard yet. Sorry, but I just can't rest my Nessie belilefs on a wild hare time travel hypothesis.
Trust me, I could go on and on and on…just ask April, who had to listen to my tirade as we drove around the lake. Suffice to say, I am 99.999999% sure that there is not a sea monster lurking in Loch Ness.
So when I read this article about the most recent sighting, I rolled my eyes and skimmed quickly over it, disregarding and arguing away all of the so called ‘unequivocal evidence’.
Unequivocal? Not quite....
But then this one fact slapped me in the face: George Edwards spent 26 years of his life hunting for Nessie, clocking in over 60 hours a week in search of her.
After  initially discarding him as a complete fool, I started to feel really convicted. He dedicated nearly 3 decades of his life to finding the Loch Ness monster despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. That takes a massive amount of faith.
While I’m 99.9999% sure she isn’t in the lake, I am 100.9999999% sure that my God is up in heaven, yet I’m satisfied with a 10 minute bible study on the days when I can squeeze that in.
I should be getting up every morning in search of Him, spending 60 hours a week trying to pin down more proof of his existence. I certainly shouldn’t let my personal faith be shown up by some folklore fanatic in Inverness. Sorry so short, but I've got some major bible studyin' to do.  
Then Jesus told them: Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.” John 20:29

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Whirlwind Recap of a Whirlwind Road Trip

Yesterday was the first frost of the season. If I’d been in the States, this would have invoked a trip to Starbucks for a peppermint hot chocolate and a movie night at home complete with vegetable stew. As it is, a trip to Starbucks involves paid parking, and last time I went, I was told they had no peppermint syrup. It was devastating.

And since Jonathan left at 6 AM this morning for Krakow, there was little sense in making vegetable soup since it feeds an army and I didn’t want to waste precious Rotel and long macaroni noodles on myself. Needless to say, I felt a twinge of homesickness over this lost fall-time tradition.

I think the hardest part so far of living abroad is missing out on traditions. I always looked forward to that first cold snap; that first excuse to wear my uggs, order hot chocolate, and cook a nice warm and snuggly soup.
Last year's first peppermint hot cocoa and Ugg boots day of  Fall.
Never fear, Fall and Winter span the majority of the year in Aberdeen, so I’m sure I’ll get plenty of opportunities to cook my favorite autumn recipes and I’ll probably get so sick of my ugg boots by next May that I’ll toss them in the fire once summer comes. But you don’t want to hear about my nostalgic Fall fantasies, you want to hear about my road trip with April, don’t you? Well, on to that then…

There is so much to tell and my mind is having a hard time processing all the great adventures we had along the way. Today I’ll just give you a summary and throughout the week, I’ll break it down into a more detailed retelling.

I’ve always wanted to take a cross country road trip, though I never imagined my first one would take place in Scotland and not the US. The first leg of our trip was from the Edinburgh airport to Aberdeen. Aberdeen has it’s own airport, but it was one less flight and 300 less dollars for April to fly into the larger Edinburgh airport, so we opted for that.
When she arrived, the Scottish weather was really showing off. I mean, not a single cloud in the sky. Just pure and brilliant sunshine. Since I knew the weather was handing us a rare gift, I pushed April through her jetlag and we stopped in Stonehaven on the way into Aberdeen for fish and chips, ice cream, and a tour of Dunnottar Castle.

It was a great first taste of Scotland, and a glimpse what she had in store for the remainder of the week. We spent the next three nights in Aberdeen where I took her to some of my favorite haunts around the city:

Crathes Castle and surrounding grounds....

Milton of Crathes Tea Room and Artists' village....
Countesswells Woods and various other dog walking routes around the house...
Lairhillock Inn, my favorite dinner spot...
and High Tea at the swanky Marciliff Hotel for my birthday.

Tuesday morning we loaded the car and headed towards Inverness. We made pit stops along the way at Touched by Scotland and Johnston’s Cashmere Shop which are two great places to find non-touristy Scottish souvenirs.
I even managed to find a few things for myself at Johnston’s, like this doggie door stop.
One ‘quirky’ thing about traditional Scottish homes is that they have doors leading into every single room.  The idea of an open living plan is pretty lost on the Scots, and so we tend to just keep all the doors in the interior of our home open so that the flow is not so disjointed. The problem is that if you open a window, all the doors will slam shut, so you need something decorative to hold them ajar. Enter adorable mardi-gras-colored-tartan-scottie-dog. Yep, that should do that trick.

Oh, and April found most of her souvenirs at Johnston’s as well. I definitely recommend the stop if you’re passing through Elgin. Once we were done shopping we made our way to Inverness.

The weather looked spotty so we decided to forgo the Loch Ness boat tour and just drive on to Urquhart Castle, stopping for some photo ops along the way.

The sun was shining when we got to the castle so we decided to tour the ruins first before heading to the visitor’s center for the informational film.
April shares my affinity for Scottish farm animals.

We had a great time taking in the views and learning some of the history of the grounds, but for sure the highlight of the day was when the rain rolled in and brought this little beauty with it.

I probably took 53 pictures within 5 minutes of this unbelievable sight. We both felt so blessed to witness such a stunning moment. Of course, the rainbow became the first of about a thousand we would see in the next 48 hours, but we had no way of knowing that at the time.
We spent the night in Inverness and I enjoyed a pleasant morning run along the river before we loaded up again and headed towards the Isle of Skye.

Up until this point, April and I had been retracing the stops along my previous tours of Scotland. This was the first time either of us had ventured West of Inverness so I was very excited to experience a new adventure with her. And man oh man, you just gotta go to the Isle of Skye. The drive alone is spectacular, and with every mile leading to the island, the views get better ...
and better ...
and better.
Right before crossing the bridge onto Skye, we passed by Eilean Donan castle, potentially Scotland’s most famous one.
And it’s easy to see why.
People always ask me what kind of camera I have, and this is usually my answer: I have a Nikon D5000 DSLR and I have an Iphone 4.
fancy Nikon

I-phone 4 camera
But the type of camera is really kind of irrelevant, and I can't take any credit for the quality of these photos. It’s simply impossible to take a bad picture of this stunning country, and Scotland could make a professional photographer out of anyone. Even a simple Polaroid would come out beautifully. And no matter how great these pictures turned out, it really doesn’t do Scotland even one ounce of justice. April remarked early into our trip that she always thought the pictures on my blog were gorgeous, but that they didn’t capture at all what I was really seeing over here. She’s right; you must come see it for yourself!
After eating some lunch with a fantastic view of the castle, we made our way to Skye to hike to the famous fairy pools.
Much more on that later...
After our hike we stopped by the nearby Talisker distillery for a tour, a wee dram, and a photo op behind the bar.
Then we went into Portree for a dinner in the town square and a look around.

Then we headed to our B&B where this little guy was waiting for us.
This was probably my favorite day of the trip. It was truly a fairytale and I was so glad I got to spend it with my best girl. However, my best girl made the mistake of saying: ‘If our luck runs out today, I’ll call this trip a success”. Famous last words. You see, we still had a 6 hour drive to Edinburgh the next day, with a pitstop at the Glennfinnan monument and viaduct.

In the pouring rain. And we arrived in Edinburgh at rush hour. In the pouring rain. In the midst of a massive construction project, which meant the closure of the street which our hotel was on. I was already nervous enough about driving and parking in a big city, and the terrible weather, traffic, and road conditions may have lead me to have a slight meltdown which resulted in me snapping at my dear friend. Sorry, April!

Anyway, the whole day was a wash. After driving around Edinburgh for 2 hours, we finally got settled in our hotel room and dashed out for some Thai food before calling it an early night. But the traffic closure on our street didn’t stop the drunks from screaming all night long right outside our window. And the construction noise started at 6 AM which equaled about 2 hours of sleep for yours truly.
However, it was gloriously sunny day so we got up early and crammed in as many sights as possible, including: the royal mile...
Edinburgh castle...
St. Giles Cathedral...
Holyrood palace...
hiking Arthur’s seat...
shopping at Grassmarket, Royal Mile, and Princes street, stopping at Starbucks for a non-peppermint hot chocolateL, dessert at Love Crumbs...
City of the Dead Undergound tour...
and dinner at The Witchery by the Castle.
Phew, I’m exhausted and out of breath just thinking about it. We called it another early night since April had a morning flight out, and we spent the night packing up and watching Dirty Dancing.

I was super sad to see my friend go, but super excited to get back home to my best guy and puppies. Especially since, Lord willing, I'll see April again in 2 weeks, stateside!

After the 2 hour drive home from Edinburgh, I caught up on the sleep I’d missed out on the previous two nights and just hibernated with my little family for the duration of the weekend. I’m just now coming out of my road trip coma, but I promise more Scottish insights throughout the week. Stay tuned!