Monday, August 7, 2017

Scotland

It was only a matter of time before we applied our road-trip mentality to an overseas trip. We found a good deal on plane tickets to Scotland and spent a week packing our backpacks and prepping to explore Scotland with minimal planning. We did make accommodations for the first two nights in Edinburgh since improvising in a city can be difficult and we rented a car ahead of time. Beyond that, we did not make concrete plans regarding where to go and what to do; we simply improvised most of the trip in the way we would have if we had our own car in the USA. This is what happened:

Day 1: Edinburgh

After an overnight flight from Hartford, Connecticut where we unsuccessfully tried to snooze, but instead spent the middle portion of the trip gawking at the beauty of Greenland at sunrise, we were tired but excited to explore the city of Edinburgh. We took the tram to Princes Street in the city center and armed with a map, set off to find our accommodations for the night. We had made reservations at a dormitory which offered reasonably priced beds near the city center and were delighted to find that Brae House not only existed, but was just as nice as having a hotel room. We were happy to drop our backpacks and set out in search of lunch.

We got distracted with the hiking trails at the foot of Arthur's Seat and explored the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel from the 15th century before heading off on the Royal Mile to find lunch. We were delighted to find a delicious meal at The Larder which offered locally sourced food and traditional Scottish recipes. Lisa had a brie and chutney sandwich while Chris scarfed down a sausage roll. We were fading from lack of sleep so we headed back to our dorm for a power-nap.


After recharging, we walked the Royal Mile to North Bridge and walked Princes Street for some great views of Edinburgh Castle on the hill. The steep cliffs lead right up to the castle walls. We eventually made our way to Sandy Bell's - a pub that is well known for having folk music and we spent an hour listening to a great fiddler and blues guitarist.

Getting hungry for dinner, we went around the corner to get some spicy chicken for dinner before returning to Sandy Bell's to while away the rest of the evening. Chris sat in on the bass and we made friends with some fun locals who offered to let us stay in their flat for the rest of the trip. With the lack of planning that we had put into the trip, it was tempting...


We returned to our dorm and slept quite soundly that night.

Day 2: Edinburgh

We felt MUCH better after getting a full night's sleep and ate Lisa's leftover sandwich and some clif bars for breakfast before embarking on a hike on Arthur's Seat. Located not far from the city center and offering unobstructed views of Edinburgh, it is a popular place to hike! With the lack of trees, we enjoyed views all the way up and down admiring the castle, the queen's palace and the Firth of Forth.


We stopped back in our dorm to change shoes for the afternoon and headed out on the Royal Mile to find some lunch. We went to the farmers market and got bread pastries and apples to tide us over until dinner while meandering uphill towards the castle.


The entrance line between the statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace was almost as impressive in scope as the castle itself. It moved quickly though and we were exploring the ramparts before we knew it. It was particularly impressive to see how the castle evolved over hundreds of years and how its function changed over time. We stood in one line for a few minutes before realizing that the line was to see the Crown Jewels of Scotland....we jumped out of line and explored the rest of the castle and the Scottish War Memorial and Museum instead.


We had reached our museum limit for the day so instead of attending other museums, we went to a French Patisserie for eclairs and gateau! Yum.


We hiked to Calton Hill, an easy incline from the Royal Mile and again admired the castle from yet another angle. We also enjoyed the view from the Scottish National Monument but we got drenched while walking back to our dorm where we changed into dry socks.


In the evening we found a pub on the Royal Mile that was serving chicken chorizo Scotch Pies for supper - we both partook. Holding our sides, we made our way back to Sandy Bell's for a second night at the folk-music pub. The same fiddler was there from the night before and Chris sat in on I Got Rhythm. We met a couple from Michigan and Lisa hopped in on the piano and jammed on Tennessee Waltz and some other songs.  The fiddler was very trusting as he left his fiddle in Chris' worthy hands when he needed to run to the loo.

Still jet-lagged, we tried to sleep that night, but it was restless.

Day 3: Edinburgh to Oban

We awoke early since we had an appointment back at the airport to pick up our rental car. We were walking the Royal Mile before most of Edinburgh had woken up and it was a stark contrast to the busy streets that we had experienced in the previous two days. We rode the tram back to the airport and filled out all the paperwork before the gave us the key to a Ford Fiesta. We headed off with the steering wheel on the right side and the car safely in the left lane. The woman at the rental car company recommended Oban as a nice seaside destination so we went in that direction.

We managed to find a grocery store in Stirling to stock up on juice, water, breakfast food and other staples (including crumpets) before heading west (the proper romantic direction to go on a road trip). Our first stop was at Loch Lomond, one of two national parks in Scotland. Lisa did a great job navigating through all the "rindabites" so that we could have a picnic on the western shore of the lake. We had rain while we were there, but the loch struck us as being quite similar to Lake George with mountains rising steeply from the shore, but lacking the shoreline development. We walked some of the shoreline trail to stretch our legs and ate brie and turkey sandwiches before getting back in the car to head west again.



In the late afternoon, we arrived in Oban and we got information on camping from the tourist center. Lisa drove the single track road to our campground and we were amazed at the beautiful view of the water from our "pitch." We overlooked the isle of Kerrere.


After setting up the tent, we drove back to Oban for dinner at Cuan Mor (Gaelic for large bay...) and had amazingly delicious salmon. We walked up the hill to the colosseum monument knows as McCaig's tower and enjoyed the panoramic view of the village, the bay and the Isle of Mull in the distance. We also walked out of town to Dunollie's Castle along the shore trail. The views of the islands looked gorgeous from every possible vantage point!


We capped off the evening with ice cream at The Pokey Hat before losing our car for four minutes or so. Luckily, it was just parked two blocks from where we THOUGHT we left it....  Lisa is convinced it was stolen for four minutes and then returned to a different parking spot so WE weren't confused, the thief was just disoriented.

It rained ALL night but we stayed dry in the tent. We were on a bit of a slope so it wasn't the most restful night of sleep though. We took consolation in the fact that had there been no slope we would have been sleeping in a puddle which would have been worse.

Day 4: Oban to Glencoe

We packed up our wet tent and ate an early breakfast to make the ferry to Kerrere. We were the only takers for the early ferry and seemingly had the island to ourselves...well us and lots of sheep that is! We felt like we were trespassing on the island as were were walking through cow gates and following roads that seemed like driveways. We meandered through fields and enjoyed the coastline intending to find the monument on the northern side of the island. We were turned around by a highland cow in the middle of the trail since we were intimidated by its impressive horns. We weren't sure if they were as friendly as our Vermont cows...


We had a rainy ferry ride back to Oban and enjoyed some peanut butter sandwiches for lunch before heading north in the car.

We headed toward Glencoe with a stop at a nature preserve for a nap since we were tired. Refreshed when we arrived in Glencoe, we chose our "pitch" and walked around the town. There was beautiful highland scenery in panorama with the surrounding mountains and Loch Leven. We got a butterscotch brownie and some tea at the local cafe to warm up after the rain.


After some more walking, we got an early dinner at the Gathering Inn Restaurant for some delicious paninis. The jet-lag and long days were starting to catch up with us so we went to bed quite early with earplugs and eye pillows and slept for eleven glorious hours!

Day 5: Glencoe to Shiel Bridge

Finally well rested, we awoke and scarfed down some breakfast before getting on the road again. We figured that we would feel silly leaving Glencoe without exploring the glen that gives the village its name. We headed into the pass even though it was in the opposite direction that we were intending to travel that day but we were not disappointed. We found ourselves surrounded by mountains and waterfalls in every direction. It was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever brushed my teeth! We counted eleven waterfalls within one view.


We then drove to Fort William and out to Glen Nevis for some more stunning scenery. We explored the Lower Falls trail which followed a rambling river and then hiked the Steall Falls trail for jaw dropping scenery that reminded us of Yosemite. Even when it started raining as we admired the falls, it was stunning.


We again stocked up on grocery store staples before leaving Fort William and headed north to drive the beautiful highland road toward the Isle of Skye. We found lodging for the evening at Shiel Bridge in the "Wee Bunk House" of the Kintail Lodge where we snagged the last two bunks. We ate "game pie" at the lodge and enjoyed the view (and other lodgers conversations) from the sitting room until bedtime.


Our bunkmates for the night were three girls from Germany on holiday and one long distance hiker from France. With earplugs, we slept just fine!

Day 6: Isle of Skye

We finally made it to the Isle of Skye, a place that we had been told was one of the most beautiful areas of Scotland. The scenery did not disappoint and just the diversity of landscapes all within eyesight made for an interesting view in any direction. There were craggy mountains, beaches, rivers with waterfalls and rolling hills covered in sheep.


Not knowing exactly where to go first, but armed with Aunt Susie's book of country strolls around the Isle of Skye, we headed for the Fairy Pools, since we had heard of them as a nice hike. Unfortunately, everyone else had also heard of the Fairy Pools as well. After we found a parking spot, it didn't seem quite so crowded and we enjoyed the stair-stepping river and views of mountains. Many tourists were cooling off in the pools (is it ever REALLY necessary to cool off in Scotland?) but we elected to hike a few miles in past the hordes before following the same river out.


We drove to Carbost and got tea across the street from the Talisker Distillery - whisky drinkers on one side of the road and teetotalers on the other! We walked up the hill in search of lunch and found THE BEST smoked salmon from a small seafood shack. It was like having fish candy - we ate at the park overlooking the water.


Lisa skillfully navigated the single track roads to Dunvegan where we found a campsite at the caravan park and drove down the road to Dunvegan Castle and Gardens.* The castle was the McCleod clan's and was fully furnished with family relics and memorabilia. It was still used by the family for holidays and it was interesting to see how the castle had changed over the centuries! The gardens were extensive and well landscaped with many exotic plants and trees.


After touring the grounds, we drove to a walk on Claigan Beach which was made of broken seashells. We climbed the hill for an expansive view of the Outer Hebrides, inlets, coves, beach and mountains.


We walked and drove back to the Dunvegan Hotel for dinner in their restaurant overlooking the water. The food was delicious and we sat watching the water for quite a while after our supper. We eventually made it back to our pitch for bed.


* A note about the single track roads: We puzzled the entire trip over whether this was a ridiculous system or if it was actually safer and a genius road layout.  On one hand it was difficult to anticipate oncoming cars on hills and around corners, particularly with bridges, stone walls and cliffs everywhere.  The passing places every few hundred yards worked as long as there were only two or three cars in the area, but jams could come up quickly if too many cars were following too closely.  On the other hand, having no shoulder and only one lane meant you were constantly attentive to the road.  No room for distractions meant we did not see a single person on their cell phone while they were driving.  It necessitated cooperation from all drivers and people came across as friendlier with their quick waves at each passing place.  Only one person passed us impatiently as we were waiting at a passing place because there was a bus coming around the corner up a hill from a bridge.  Her impatience forced the bus to back up over the bridge and up the hill on the other side and into a passing place.  Other than a few tight squeezes, quick breaking, reversing and some white knuckle driving we were pretty pleased with how the single track system worked.  It did seem that we were the only people who knew how to back up a car though - it was chaos watching other people try!

Day 7: Isle of Skye to Pitlochry

We started the day by heading to the trailhead for Hugh's Castle - a 17th century ruin that is supposedly the most haunted castle in Scotland. We followed the sheep roads to the castle, but were unable to spot any ghosts...we decided to make our own path back through the field which turned out to be quite wet. I think we should stick to the roads in the future.  (Lisa claimed her mulligan for the day early on with this one!)


Before getting back to the car we decided to head up the hill for a view of the bay. Every time that we would crest a hill, there would be another hill to climb though. We eventually got the view that we were aiming for and snapped some pictures before making it back to the car for our longest driving day of the trip. It also rained on and off for the rest of the day, making it convenient that we had some distance to cover in the car on questionable weather.

We had a quick lunch at a restaurant near Eilean Donan Castle and backtracked along many of the roads that we had driven two days prior.

Taking a quick detour, we spiked north for a few miles to get a view of Loch Ness, we were unable to spot Nessie though...


The rest of the drive took us through the edge of Cairngorns National Park and we enjoyed the solitude and beautiful views of the craggy treeless mountains. By the time we arrived in Pitlochry we were quite ready to get out of the car. We got a campsite at a caravan park about three miles outside of town and elected to walk to get dinner in order to stretch our legs.

We found a pub in Pitlochry that had dinner and live music. Chris ordered the haggis and it was pretty good! Lisa bravely ate a few bites of the haggis but was pleased to have fish on her own plate. The music was a multi-instrumentalist creating loops with pedals and jamming with himself.

We got back to the campsite around sunset and snoozed.

Day 8: Pitlochry to Perth

On our last full day in Scotland, we started the day in Pitlochry where we walked around the downtown area before most of the stores were open and after getting some milk for breakfast we headed south to Dunkeld.


The village of Dunkeld was quite charming with its classic architecture and setting on the River Tay. We walked the fiddler's path and saw the Cathedral, the Mother Larch and some amazing groves of trees. We crossed the river on the A9 and followed the other shore where we found Niel Gow's oak. We hummed his famous lament while we ate peanut butter sandwiches, hoping to evoke his spirit.


When we arrived back in Dunkeld we had some afternoon tea in a small cafe before driving to Perth for the evening. We found a campsite near Scone Palace at the Racecourse Caravan Park. That campsite meant that we never had a struggle to find a tent site in Scotland... perhaps our road trip mentality would work in Europe as well!

We walked the three miles into town and explored the museum where we learned about Scotland's geologic and ecological history, saw Niel Gow's portrait and saw a huge 3,000 year old log boat. We admired St. Johns Cathedral and many other interesting buildings around the city of Perth.


We had dinner at "The Tavern." Comfort food again! Haddock with cream sauce for Chris and Steak Pie for Lisa. Yum yum!


We walked back to the campsite and packed our backpacks as well as we could for the flight and got to bed around nine.

Day 9: Perth to Edinburgh

We packed up the wet tent in the morning and had clear skies as we drove to Stirling early in the morning. Parking the car near the castle, we walked the town streets in search of the Full Scottish Breakfast. Despite the fact that most of the town was still asleep, we were able to get the immense breakfast at a pub. It is a gastronomic wonder of the world.


We walked off a tiny portion of the calories while walking beck up the hill towards Stirling Castle where we would spend the rest of the morning. We got a private tour of the Great Hall before joining a free group tour of the whole castle. Much like the other castles that we toured in Scotland, it was most interesting to see the evolution of the buildings over time.


We had a great view of the William Wallace monument from the ramparts and snapped quite a few pictures of the city from the commanding castle walls. It was obvious why Stirling castle was such an important strategic location throughout Scotland's history.



Before leaving town, we stopped at the Church of the Holy Rude to see the beautiful architecture and gigantic hand hewn logs of the roof.

We drove back to Edinburgh and tried to dry the tent as best we could before packing it away in the bag...it turned out that we would bring a little bit of the Scottish precipitation home in our backpack!

It seemed that our road trip worked! We got to see a beautiful and historic area and never had a problem finding a place to stay. Who knows where our road trip will bring us next?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Algonquin

Our first impression of driving through Ontario was the immense scale of the place. What looks like a small drive between towns on the map takes a good hour. Algonquin Provincial Park fits the same massive scale as the rest of the Province. The road is long, the lakes are huge and there is way more to do here than could be done in one trip.

We snagged a campsite at Kearney Lake and were lucky to get one on the water. We set up our tent lickety-split and headed down the road to while away the afternoon on Cache Lake. Historically, this was the hub of activity in the park, so it made sense that we would start our activity there. We launched amid the water-taxi shuttling people to and from the lodge.



We embarked following the paddlers map that we had just purchased. Weaving between islands, we managed to accidentally follow a river into Tanamokoon Lake where we found some day sailers and quite a few nice campsites. The motor boat traffic was minimal (yet polite to paddlers…and limited to 20 horsepower…and only 12 of the 2400 lakes allow them) and the camps were small and far-between.


We meandered back to Cache lake to weave around islands on the southern part of the lake. It gave us a scope of the size of this wilderness since we had spent all afternoon paddling on a tiny blue area on the map….sheesh!


The next day we scarfed some muffins at our campsite and embarked on the rail-trail heading south. We were afforded some excellent views of Whitefish Lake but had to turn around due to wet conditions on the trail. Chris saw a bear cross the trail, Lisa thankfully did not see it.


In the afternoon we headed to Opeongo Lake which gave us another feeling of the massive nature of this park. We paddled for ten miles and covered about a third of the lake, not even dipping into the North or East arms. We scouted campsites and soaked up the sunshine in the middle of Jones’ Bay - our northernmost point travelled on this trip (by kayak!). I got to show off a slick maneuver when landing by propelling my kayak onto a submerged dock where I stepped out keeping my shoes relatively dry.



Hankering for some fried food, we went to the cafeteria at the visitors centre for poutine! After enjoying our grease covered with fat and topped with melted cheese, we whiled away the evening trying to burn green campfire wood at our campsite and playing tunes around the smoke. At least the smudge fire helped keep the bugs down…

The next morning, we headed on bicycles on the northern section of the rail trail. Despite the fact that we were constantly pursued by swarms of deer flies, we managed to keep ahead of them and had a very nice ride. We just couldn’t stop for long. The scenery changed from lake front to wetland to meadow and ended at the dam on Cache Lake.


On the return trip, we grabbed a lunch at Lake of Two Rivers before bringing the kayaks to canoe lake - it seemed deliciously sacrilegious to the lakes’ handle. The launch site was busy; it was full of adult campers and members of child camps on the lake. After some entertaining people-watching, we sailed in the wind around some northern islands before turning around to follow rivers into Bonita and Tea lakes. On the return we were pushed by the gusty winds back to the launch, which had become much less congested in the late afternoon.


With showers forecasted for the evening, we packed the car for sleeping and spent the evening trying to burn the firewood for the second time. It smoldered about as well as a wet sponge. We played some tunes and ate some pea-soup, but not at the same time. Luckily we only had a few sprinkles that night and got to pack up dry bikes in the morning.

Before we left the park, we finally stopped at the visitor centre to get a feel for the ecological and human history of the area. I inquired to the ranger about acquiring backcountry permits and how the system worked for our next trip.

Our impression of Algonquin Provincial Park is of a wilderness area that would rival that of Yellowstone. However, with so many lakes it is a paddler’s paradise. It is amazingly massive and so much of it is wild…they have wolves for Pete’s sake! We will be returning someday with pack boats and backpacking gear to get further into the backcountry.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Bon Echo

We are heading north through quite the wilderness in Ontario. After leaving the thruway, the traffic got sparse and the landscape swampy as we headed north on highway 41. The buildings were few and far between and we knew that we were really in the middle of nowhere due to the fact that we didn't see a single Tim Hortons en route.

We persevered sans donut and spent the night at Bon Echo Provincial Park. It was jarring as we pulled into the park after driving through wilderness for so many miles that we encountered long lines and traffic. We stood in line (twice...) to get a campsite and finally got a spot to pitch our tent without a level spot in sight. Not wanting to stand in line again, we went to lake with our kayaks and launched across from a giant rocky cliff. It looked like it had the capability of producing a good echo!


For the rest of the afternoon, we paddled along the cliff face looking for Native American pictographs. They were faded, but still visible which is quite surprising since they are right at water level where they must be quite weathered.


Dinner was at the beach - chicken chili doctored with olives...yum!

We spent the night using the side of the tent as a hammock and we are now on the road heading towards Algonquin Provincial Park.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Grand Manan and Campobello

The ferry to Grand Manan island turned out to be a nice excursion as we passed many craggy shores and saw a whale playing in the boat's wake as we travelled. Arriving at North Head, we headed south on the main road looking for lunch. We found the Fundy House and without looking at a menu I inquired whether they had chowder. The waitress said that they had seafood, lobster and clam chowders and I knew this was the place for us!


After lunch we secured a campsite at The Anchorage Provincial Park which was surprisingly empty. We found a campsite with good shade and firewood before walking along the beach. Soon enough, we heard Karen's voice on the walkie-talkie and we headed back to meet them for the evening. We spent the evening sharing stories and having a perfect steak dinner over the fire. Yum!

The next day, we explored the rest of the island by first heading through Seal Cove to the Southwest Head Light House. The wind was intense and we then drove north to enjoy the picturesque Swallow Tail Lighthouse and Whale Cove. After we had satisfied ourselves with the views (from inside the car mostly as we would blow away if we stepped out...), we boarded the ferry back to the mainland.


Our drive then took us into the United States for the first time in almost three weeks. It was a brief stint however as we then doglegged back into Canada, across the bridge onto Campbello Island. This was the summer home of the Roosevelt family early in the 20th century and now the home of an International Park. We got a campsite at Herring Cove Provincial Park (like Grand Manan, it was surprisingly empty for a Friday night in July) with Mary-Ellen and Karen where they cooked us up an amazing meal of chili mac n' cheese. We licked our plates clean before going to bed early that night.

The next day, we got breakfast at the Herring Cove Club House while we waited for the Roosevelt Cottage to open. We then toured the building, admiring the porches and open space. This was certainly an idyllic place to spend summers - the Roosevelts kept it simpler than some of the great camps in the Adirondacks although they still required servants to keep things running. 


We parted ways with Mary-Ellen and Karen, noting that we had never seen each other on the mainland during this trip. Lisa and I biked on the Glensevern Road to a cobblestone beach on the eastern shore of the island. Other than getting wet feet and losing (then finding) the camera, it was a smooth trip.


Our car is packed and we are now in the United States heading west to Vermont for the rest of the summer. It's time to get the kayaks off the wall and get into the Adirondacks!