Wednesday, July 5, 2017

My Cape Breton Bucket List

I've noticed that some of my fellow Cape Breton bloggers recently came out with some Cape Breton Island bucket lists.  Years ago, when I was young and naive and took what I had in my backyard for granted, I would never have thought of creating a Cape Breton Bucket List.  My bucket list was  made up of exotic places far, far away.  Now Cape Breton is considered one of those exotic places of the world and people from all over have added it to their bucket lists.  Imagine.  That little island tucked away at the far end of the continent where I had my quiet upbringing a top world attraction.   Years ago, I wouldn't have thought there would be enough things to see and do on this island to make any kind of list let alone a bucket list, my wanderings and explorations of my little island home have made me think twice.  This little gem has more to offer than any other place I can think of and the world is starting to catch on.  2016 was a record-breaking tourist season for the island and 2017 is shaping out to be much of the same.  So here is my list of must-see places in Cape Breton for those of you who are planning to visit or you locals who need some inspiration on new things to see and do this summer.  I consider myself an expert on all things Cape Breton so perhaps this can be your go-to list of things you must do in Cape Breton or at least inspiration to get out there and explore this beautiful little island.  Here is my list of favourite beaches, restaurants, trails, attractions and experiences around my fair isle.

The Skyline Trail
If you can only do one hiking trail on your entire trip to Cape Breton, let it be the Skyline Trail.  I'm not saying this is the best trail on the island because there are many great trails that aren't listed in the guidebooks and are not well-known to many people.  What I am saying is this trail is one of the best and that is because it incorporates everything one could want in a hike.  Scenery, wildlife and easy terrain that almost anyone can hike.  I've seen moose nearly every time I've hiked this trail and I've hiked it a lot.  The views at the end of the trail are spectacular.  I know that sounds cliche but you gotta believe me...This is where the mountains literally meet the sea and sometimes, as an added bonus, bald eagles are soaring above and whales can be seen close to the shore below.

Whale Cove Beach
Not only is Whale Cove, in my opinion, one of Cape Breton's nicest beaches, it is also home to one of my favourite spots on the island.  First, let me tell you about the beach itself.  Soft, light sand. Clear, usually calm, relatively shallow waters mostly free of rocks, seaweed and other debris.  It's not a long beach but it's rarely crowded.  Mid-way down the beach, there is a walking trail that lead to the top of a hill.  At the top of this hill is a big field on top of a high cliff with some of the best views around.

Coastal Restaurant
Featured on the TV show You Gotta Eat Here a few years back, Coastal Restaurant is one of my favourite restaurants on the Island and has been since I can remember.  They serve great food with a wide variety of items to choose from (even vegetarians can find many things to eat!  I know because I am one!) and the service is friendly and fast.  The place has a nice atmosphere too and you can enjoy your meal while also enjoying some live, local talent on certain nights of the week.

Inverness Beach at Sunset
Not that Inverness Beach is not Fabulous all the's just at it's most spectacular when the sun is disappearing over the horizon.  The west coast of Cape Breton is known for it's beautiful sunsets.  Combine one of these sunsets with the beautiful, long, sandy beach in Inverness and you get a summer evening that is second to none.  I've been to the Caribbean many times and yes they have nice sunsets but the ones at Inverness Beach even beat them.  

MaryAnne Falls
I love all waterfalls but Maryanne Falls near Ingonish are my favourite.  Not only are they a pretty sight, there are two beautiful pools at the bottom of each falls that are deep enough to jump into from the nearby rocks and the water is clean and refreshing for swimming.  I also love to walk along the river and the little trail that goes above the falls to get a beautiful view of the entire area. 

Kidston Island
From the boardwalk in Baddeck, I often seen people roaming this little island and wondered how they got there.  I recently discovered that there is a little shuttle boat run by The Baddeck Lion's Club that takes passengers back and forth from the wharfs in Baddeck to the island.  I went one day last year and finally got to see what I was missing.  Strangely enough, I think I was the only one of the island at that time so I felt like a real castaway.  A little building with bathrooms and picnic tables stands near the shore and some signs guided me to a walking trail.  I walked all around the little island and went right up to the iconic lighthouse and than sat on the beach for a couple of hours with a book.  Now I know where to go if I want to escape the crowds in Baddeck!

Sqeaker's Hole
Although this is a marked trail at Black Brook Beach in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park  I rarely see many people hiking there...and I don't know why!  I love this trail.  It's not very long, it's fairly easy and there are several different ways to go that all bring you somewhere different.  One trail takes you to the little waterfalls above the beach (and yes you can wade into the little pool at the bottom of the falls too!), another trail takes you to the bottom of Squeaker's Hole and another one takes you to the top where there are beautiful ocean views and tons of great spots to sit on the rocks and relax and enjoy the beautiful ocean views.  

Ferguson Beach
I'm a little iffy about sharing this one because not many people know about it and I kinda want to keep it all to myself!  Chances are if you go looking for it, you won't find it anyway as it is not well-marked and the road is not for the faint at heart.  If you like remote beaches where you can walk for miles and not see a soul for days than than perhaps the benefits outweigh the risks.  Once there, you can walk to the left or right on the beach or on the trail above the beach in either direction.  If you are the adventurous type, you can keep going and going and going and when you reach a river or stream, you may just want to find a way across so you can see what's around the next bend.  The last time I was there, I saw a herd of deer in a field and seals are regular visitors.

The Carrot Cake at the Bean Barn Cafe
The Bean Barn Cafe in Ingonish is always the first and last stop of the day for me whenever I am in Ingonish.  Before anything else, I grab a coffee to go and head over to Ingonish Beach to drink it while enjoy my favourite view on the island - Cape Smokey Mountain.  When I make the last stop of the day, it is to sit inside the cozy little cafe with my laptop to catch up on emails and enjoy some more coffee with a giant piece of their delicious, homemade carrot cake.  It is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others I introduced this cake to, the best carrot cake on the island...and I've eaten carrot cake in many places.

North River Falls
By far one of my most memorable hikes to date.  The trail is long (about 19 km's return), rugged and not well-maintained at times.  But it's all worth it when you reach the falls which are the tallest in Nova Scotia.  Because the trail is so long and rugged, the odds that someone else will be there at the same time as you are slim so you will most likely have the falls all to yourself!

Glace Bay Miner's Museum
This is one of the most interesting, interactive museums in Cape Breton in my opinion.  Not only do you get to see a number of exhibits outlining the history and culture of coal mining on the island (the biggest industry at one time), you even get to tour a real mine and actually go underground with a retired miner and hear both funny and heartbreaking stories from years gone by,  If you are lucky, you may even be there on one of the days when the famed Men of Deeps are practicing for one of their upcoming concerts which take place at the museum throughout the summer and fall.

Celtic Colours International Festival
Cape Breton's top music and cultural festival but also one of Canada's top festivals.  People from all over the world travel to the island each fall to enjoy world-class entertainment that just happens to coincide with another popular fall event in Cape Breton...colourful fall foliage.  This is one of my favorite times of the year and I make sure to leave my schedule free for the entire duration of the festival so I can take in as many events as possible. While the festival is mostly known for it's concerts featuring local and international talent, the festival also hosts art exhibits, guided hikes, storytelling events, community meals and other cultural events all over the island.

The Yellow Cello Cafe
This little cafe/restaurant in Baddeck is another favourite of mine.  My mother and I started going there for dinner on summer weekends when I was still in high school.  I still go there every chance I get and it's one of the places I always take visitors who are visiting from away.  The menu is extensive, the service is friendly, the atmosphere is lively (there is often live music during the evening mealtime) and the food is delicious and plentiful.

Black Brook Beach
Another one of my favourite beaches in the Ingonish area of Cape Breton.   Most of the time, I like to just relax on the beach and have a nice relaxing swim in calm waters but sometimes, I like waves too.  Some of the best waves around are at Black Brook and you can also enjoy hiking trails, a waterfall, a freshwater lake and a picnic area nearby

The Wraps at Downtown Nutrition
Downtown Nutrition has been around for a while but I only recently discovered it.  I was looking for somewhere to get a good veggie wrap in Cape Breton and a friend suggested I try the ones at Downtown Nutrition and they are, in my opinion, the best wraps around.  My favourite is the Mediterranean Wrap.

Hiking around Freshwater Lake and/or Warren Lake at Night
Yes I am mentioning two hikes in one paragraph.  I've done both of these hikes at night but hiking around either one of these lakes at night (especially during a full moon!) is quite the experience.  For one, they are both located in a national park, The Cape Breton Highlands.  If you've ever had the opportunity to spend time in a national park, you know how wild, quiet, pristine and untouched the area is.  Imagine hiking around a beautiful lake in a place where there is no traffic, hardly any people, no buildings and no noise except the nearby call of a loon or howl of a coyote.  Just make sure you take someone with you or at least have a stick or bear spray as the critters (the type that may eat you if they are hungry) tend to come out at night.

The Fortress of Louisbourg
 I visit the Fortress at least once a year.  Why?  Because I love to take a trip back to the 18th century every once and a while.  With an 18th century-inspired restaurant and bakery on-site, "residents" in period costumes acting out the roles they would have had over 200 years ago and grounds that were the site of historic battles, there's no better place in North America to get a true feeling of what life was like under those conditions.

Chimney Corner Beach
A recent find but a good one.  Chimney Corner Beach is currently my favourite beach for ocean swimming.  Never over-crowded, nice scenery, rarely any jelly fish, little seaweed, sandy, warm and hardly any rocks...what more could you want in a beach.

Strolling the streets of Baddeck in the evening
I love Baddeck at all times of the day but it's the evening I love most.  The water is at it's calmest, the main street the main street is at it's liveliest, live music can be heard coming from the yacht club near the wharves and the little boardwalk along the shores of the Bras d'Or Lakes is the perfect place to sit and watch the boats coming and going on warm summer evenings. 

Wabo's Pizza Cheticamp
Wabo's doesn't only sell pizza.  A full menu of salads, pastas and pretty much everything you can imagine is available at the restaurant at the back of the property.  However, it's not just the main courses that draw me in. Wabo's is, as far as I know, one of the only places around that sells deep fried cheesecake...and yes that's as delicious as it sounds.  Bonus: The restaurant is located right on the boardwalk which is a great place to watch the sunset after dinner.

Watch the Sun Set/Moon Rise at Ingonish Beach
In my opinion, the best place on Cape Breton Island to watch the sun set and moon rise within the same hour is the lifeguard chair at Ingonish Beach.  That is if no one else claimed it first.  However, anywhere on Ingonish Beach is a great place to sit and watch the night sky.

Cape Clear
I first heard about Cape Clear about ten years ago but wasn't able to find out any information about it because, until recently, it was a well-guarded secret for the few who did know about it.  In recent years, it has gained popularity and now pretty much everyone on the island has at least an idea where it is.  My dad and I went searching for it about 5 years ago and found it after quite a few days of looking.  Was it worth the effort.  You bet it was.   Access is via The Highland Road at Hunter's Mountain near Margaree.  The scenery, which includes an aerial view of the northeast Margaree River Valley, is spectacular.  Bonus: you will likely be the only person there when you arrive.  It's just that remote.

Le Gabriel Restaurant
Delicious food, fantastic service, lively atmosphere and a taste of true Acadian cuisine....expect all this and more (such as live entertainment during certain evenings of the week) when you visit Le Gabriel in Cheticamp.  Look for the lighthouse in the middle of town.

Camping at Broad Cove Campground
This is my favorite campground on the island.  It's a perfect mix of remote isolation and modern comforts.  Heavily forested with lots of wildlife and a beach nearby makes it feel like you are in the middle of nowhere (which, really you are) and full bathrooms with showers and flush toilets mean you are not completely roughing it.  The campground is huge with plenty of trails and wood roads to walk or bike, there is an outdoor theatre, playground, fire pits and a beach path...and speaking of the beach.  Did I mention you will fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing ashore every night?

Hike the Skyline Trail at Sunset
Actually, hike the Skyline trail anytime...but if you want to get the absolute most out of a hike on one of Eastern Canada's top hiking trails, it's best to start the hike about an hour and a half before sunset so you can watch it from the top of the trail where the scenery is.  The added bonus of doing the trail at this time is you are more likely to see wildlife at dusk than any other time of day. 

North River Kayak
Whether you have ever kayaked before or not, I highly recommend you take an excursion with North River Kayak.  There are short trips of only a few hours and longer ones for more seasoned kayakers. Lessons and safety instructions are provided.  I never kayaked before when I took my first excursion with this company and I did fine.  It is really almost impossible to tip a kayak!  Waterfalls, beaches, bald eagles and other seabirds are just some of the things you can expect to see during a relaxing paddle in St. Anne's Bay.  

The Bayside Canteen
This place has been around forever and serves everything including some of the best ice cream around.  I highly recommend the onion rings and the banana splits and I recommend you take your food and park around back of the building to enjoy the beautiful view on Lingan Bay or park directly across the street in the little park to get an equally nice view.

Ice Cream at the Lighthouse in Neil's Harbour
A tradition when taking a trip around the Cabot Trail is to stop and get ice cream at the old lighthouse-turned-ice-cream-parlour in Neil's Harbour.  Many flavors, huge scoops, friendly service and a fantastic view!

Swimming at Marble Mountain
I only found this place along the Bras d'Or Lakes late last summer but it is now one of my favourite freshwater swimming holes.  Crystal clear, calm, refreshing waters with beautiful scenery all around make this a great place to spend an afternoon or evening.

The Fairy Hole/Glooscap Caves
A longish drive and a slightly challenging hike are well-worth the time and effort it takes to reach these remote caves.  Best to go at low tide if you want to get inside the area where the caves are.  You know you are close when you reach the little beach.  The water is a little rough at times but it's only a short swim to the opening in the rocks that takes you to a beautiful swimming hole and the opening to the caves.

Monday, June 12, 2017

So Long for now Scotland but we Shall Meet Again

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My last morning in Scotland was hectic despite the fact that, thankfully, the hotel fire alarm did not go off during the night.  I quickly showered and was disappointed to discover another issue with the room; a shower door that only closes half way and therefore results in the entire bathroom being flooded.  I had to pass it off as not my concern as I was in a rush to catch my plane.  Besides, there were so many issues with the hotel room that I just couldn't be bothered to deal with the front desk anymore by that point.  

I ate a quick breakfast before checking out and made the five-minute walk to the airport.  How on earth a five-minute walk turns out to be actually twenty is beyond me.  There I was walking while half asleep, cold and carrying all my luggage after being told the hotel was a five-minute walk from the airport.  That's quite the exaggeration.   In case you're wondering, I gave this hotel one star on Trip Advisor and I don't even think it deserved that for the inconveniences I endured. I wish I could say my misfortunes that morning ended there but sadly, things only got worse.

I checked in for my flight and made it through security with more than enough time to find somewhere to relax and have a coffee.  I went to my gate and checked my flight status, found a Starbucks that wasn't too crowded and, with my hazelnut latte in hand, took a seat in the corner.  I was about half way through my latte when I noticed that my shopping bags with the scarves I had bought for my sisters and my coat were nowhere to be found.  Thinking I might have left them near the counter when I was ordering my coffee, I asked the barista if she had found anything but she hadn't.  I raced through the airport backtracking ever step I took since I arrived, asking anyone who would listen if they spotted the items anywhere.  I spoke with a security guard, a woman working in the duty-free shop and even someone at the main security area.  No one had found anything.  By this time I was hysterical.  The scarves were not cheap and I made a significant effort into finding just the right ones.   The coat was one of my favorites and it too was not cheap.

I frantically wandered around in circles looking everywhere.  I'm must have roused suspicion in some people as I was getting some strange looks.  I was also worried that if someone found the bag unattended, I could be in some trouble.  When I spotted two police officers chatting near an exit, I approached to let them know the situation but didn't make it to them because something on a nearby bench caught my eye.  There, sitting in plain view surrounded by people waiting to board their plane was my untouched belongings. I bolted towards the items and grabbed them from the chair while loudly exclaiming "I must have left this here hours ago".  The look on the faces of everyone in the vicinity said it all; who is this crazy woman grabbing unattended belongings from an airport bench and why is she talking to herself.  Thankfully, no one alerted security and I boarded my plane soon after without incident. 

The winds must have been in our favor that morning because it took an hour and a half less time to fly from Glasgow than it did to fly in.  The only eventful thing to happen on that flight was a flyover of of a large and snowy landmass.  I looked out my window at a large white landmass and could see waterfalls and a river and mountains.  My mind went blank as I tried to figure out what the landmass could be.  Iceland?  Newfoundland?  Nope, Greenland!  Now I guess I can say I've been to Greenland...or at least that I saw it from above.   

I arrived in Halifax earlier than anticipated so I had to wait a few hours for my shuttle back to Cape Breton.  Other than a bit of bad weather in the Scottish Highlands, one bad hotel and the fact that 9 days in Scotland wasn't long enough, the trip was perfect in every way and I hope to return to Scotland again in the near future.  

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lessons in Scottish History and an Eventful Final Night

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On the last morning of my tour of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, I found myself having a lovely breakfast with my American friend before we parted ways. She was leaving with the rest of the group that were headed to the Orkney Islands later that day while the rest of us, me included, headed back to the cities.  As we said goodbye and wished one another well, it never occurred to me to ask for her contact information or Facebook info until later.  I guess some people are meant to enter your life for a short time and be gone again, leaving only memories.   

Later that morning, the rest of us headed to the Battlefield of Culloden. The drive there was quite long but we had the opportunity to witness some more of Scotland's fabulous scenery. Along a long, desolate country road, we stopped to take in some of the most spectacular scenery I've seen on the entire trip and we even got to see some deer and pheasants.

We arrived at the Battlefield of Culloden in the early afternoon and started our tour with a walk-through of the indoor museum and exhibit.  I didn't know all that much about the famed and brutal battle but after I did that walk-through, I knew everything there was to know including just how devastatingly brutal the battle was.  I was particularly disturbed by the 3D movie that was shown on all four walls of a fairly large room at the end of the exhibit.  It was a very realistic reenactment of the battle.  Standing in the middle of that room with scenes of the recreated battle happening all aroud me made it seem like I was right there in the middle of it all. After brushing up on my knowledge of one of Scotland's most famed battles, I stepped outside onto the actual battlefield where, On April 16th, 1746 around 2000 men lost their lives in a relatively short amount of time.

There were quite a few people wandering the battlefield that day but despite the crowds, it seemed eerily quiet.  The kind of quiet that caused goosebumps to form on my arms and the hair to stand up on the back of my neck.  Against a gentle breeze, I slowly walked along around that vast stretch of land where so many lost their lives.   A hand-held device and headphones with dialogue about the battle was handed out to everyone before they began their walkabout of the battlefield.  I took one with me but didn't use it.  I separated from the group and walked the battlefield alone, at my own pace and without the noise pollution of a robotic-sounding guide in my ears.  I felt this was the best way to get a feel of the place and to envision what transpired in that exact spot almost 300 years earlier.  As I walked, the realization hit me that the Battle of Culloden is not only a part of Scotland's history, but also a part of my history.

Before heading to our final destination, we made one more stop at the location where The Battle of Bannockburn took place in 1314. We got a brief history of the battle, the battlefield, the huge statue of Robert the Bruce and a lesson in the historical inaccuracies portrayed in the movie Braveheart. 

It took about an hour to drive back to Glasgow.  I requested to be dropped off there so I wouldn't have to travel from Edinburgh to catch my plane the next morning.  After saying goodbye to Andrew and the rest of the group, I exited the bus into one of the cities busy squares where students and workers on lunch break hang out and tried to find a bus to take me to my hotel near the airport.  I figured it would be easy to get there from downtown Glasgow considering how easy it was to travel from the airport to downtown when I had first arrived in Scotland.  Alas, that was not to be. It took me over an hour to find the right bus stop and than to find the right bus.  And that was just the start of my travel woes that evening.

I booked a room at the Ramada Glasgow a few weeks in advance of my trip and was in contact with staff several times before I boarded my flight to ask general questions about directions and the like.  I confirmed my booking before arrival and even received an email from the hotel with the name "Ramada Glasgow" in the email and I was told the hotel was only a few minute's walk from the airport.  That evening, I got off the bus near the front of the airport and went inside to ask the help desk for directions to the hotel.  I was provided with a map and some vague directions before going off into the night.  I followed the directions and watched for the landmarks marked on the map and followed it exactly to the spot where the hotel should be...and it wasn't there.  I walked around some more thinking I took a wrong turn.  How hard could it be to find a hotel in such a small area, right?  I walked and walked and walked until I was exhausted and frustrated beyond belief.  It started to rain.  It started to downpour.  I got wet.  I was starving.  All I wanted to do was check in to my hotel and and rest up for the long journey home the next day.  I started walking in the other direction.  I turned down another road and another and I tried to find someone to ask for directions but no one was around.  I started to get a little scared as it was getting darker and I was alone in the rain in an area where there weren't a lot of people in a foreign country where I didn't know anyone.  Finally, I spotted a service station in the distance.  I walked towards it.  

When I finally arrived at that service station, the young man at the counter had no idea what I was talking about.  He did, however, tell me to check with the delivery driver who was pumping gas because he would probably know the area best.  I don't normally approach strangers in this manner while traveling but I was desperate and willing to do anything just to get in a warm, cozy, dry bed ASAP.  I asked him if he knew where the Ramada Glasgow was and he did!  I also normally don't take drives from strangers while traveling but my desperation caused me to have a lapsed in better judgement.  Fortunately, he took me straight to the hotel, or at least to where the hotel used to be.  We stopped in front of a Courtyard Marriott and he swore up and down that this had been the Ramada Glasgow not long ago.  He was so sure of it, he told me to wait in the car while he went inside to ask someone where it was.  This is when I discovered that the Ramada Glasgow had changed its name to the Courtyard Marriott. Once I knew for sure I was in the right place, I thanked my driver profusely and entered the hotel lobby ready to rip a piece of someone but I was too tired to fight it.  I checked in and was finally headed to my room in preparation to unwind for the evening.  Except, that is not exactly the way things went.  

I thought that not being able to open my room door with my key card and not being able to get the lights working in the room would be the only minor things I would experience that evening.  Boy was I wrong.  My first mistake was realizing I was hungry and going downstairs in search of something to eat.  I didn't feel like having an entire large meal so I went in search of the convenience store that was listed as one of the amenities of the hotel.  When I was unable to locate it, the lady at the front desk informed me that all that was left in the store that evening was in the room behind her - a bunch of empty shelves.  My stay at the Ramada Glasgow - or should I say the Courtyard Marriott - wasn't off to a good start and it didn't end there.  After I had to shell out more money than I wanted to order a meal from the hotel bar and restaurant, I sat down to enjoy what should have been a peaceful meal after the hellish evening I'd experienced.  That peace was shattered before my fork even made it to my mouth by the sound of a fire alarm going off and staff running around in a panic seemingly not knowing what to do.  While some staff members ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, I approached the front desk to ask the scared-looking receptionist what was going on.  All she told me was she didn't know, it was being looked into and the alarm had been going off like that all day.  Lovely.  So much for a good night's sleep.  Fortunately, the alarm only went off one more time and I was able to sleep soundly until my alarm went off at 5am. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

So Long for Now Beautiful Isle and Onto Whiskey and Lake Monsters

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I awoke to the sun shining on that last morning on the Isle of Skye.  Finally, I was able to get a clear glimpse of that fantastic view from atop that hill.  After yet another hearty breakfast, I was once again back on the bus and off the tackle more adventures around the Highlands of Scotland.  On this day, we took a different route off the Island and drove off the Isle of Skye instead of taking a ferry.  Perhaps due to my ancestral connections to the island, I felt sad at leaving it, almost like leaving home.  It was a rather strange feeling like none I ever experienced when leaving any other places I've visited. 
The view from Hillview

As we drove along those scenic country roads, I heard more stories and folklore about the people who shaped the land.  Stories such as the five sisters of Kintail and fairies stalking the glens and knolls of the countryside.  Our first stop of the day was the Glenlivet Whisky Distillery  Now, I'm not a fan of Whiskey.  In fact, I don't even understand how anyone can sip on it and not gag or throw up like I almost do every time I take a sip.  The option was there for anyone who didn't want to take the tour to stay on the bus or go for a walk around the area.  Since whisky seems to be as much a part of Scottish culture as kilts or bagpipes, I opted to take the tour and, despite my dislike for the drink, it was quite interesting. I may not appreciate the taste of whisky but I can certainly appreciate the amount of time and work that goes into making it!  At the end of the tour, I kept an open mind and even tried the sample that was offered to me.  I took a tiny swig and promptly gagged.  At least I gave it another chance.  Whisky just doesn't agree with me.  I don't know how everyone around me looked like they were thoroughly enjoying and even savoring it while I felt like my throat was on fire after a little drop. 
The whiskey sample I was given at the end of the tour.  I could only drink about half of it before I gagged.
Learning how whiskey is made - just some of the sights in and around the brewery

Our next stop was the pretty little town of Beuly where we stopped long enough time to eat lunch and  wander the village.  I decided to walk the entire length of the main street and see what was available for restaurants and cafes.  There were quite a few places but there seemed to be lineups and large crowds at every one of them.  A couple of tour buses from other companies had arrived in the town at the same time so I decided to keep walking for a bit to allow the crowds to disperse.  When I returned to where most of the eateries are, my eyes locked onto the one place that didn't look too crowded, a little cafe called Corner on the Square.  I ordered a veggie quiche and some other delicious-looking item that I had never heard of before and can't remember the name of.  With food in hand, I found myself in a bit of a dilemma; there were no tables or anywhere to sit inside so I had to find a place to sit outside.  I once again wandered around the town looking for a place to enjoy my meal.  All the benches and picnic tables were taken so I sat on a ledge near a bus stop in front of a town-hallish looking building.  Others soon followed and soon the entire ledge was bustling with tourists eating lunch in the midday sun along a busy street in the pretty little town of Beuly.

I've been told that a trip to Scotland is not complete without a visit to one of the most famous lakes in Scotland and possible the whole world, Loch Ness.  I'm pretty sure everyone reading this is probably aware of what makes the lake so famous and had it not been on the itinerary of this tour, I don't think I would have made a special detour to try and spot a monster that may or may not be still alive if it even ever existed.  That being said, my afternoon on the Loch did end up being a highlight of the trip.  We left Beuly and drove a long stretch of highway until we reached Urquhart Castle.  After a walk through the visitor centre, I ventured off on my own to explore the ruins of the great castle with instructions to meet in an hour to board a cruise on the Loch.

Once again, I found myself wandering around an ancient castle and imagining what it was once like and trying to wrap my head around some of the (both brutal and historical) things must have transpired on that very spot over hundreds of years.  The setting of the ruins is breathtaking with what's left of the once stately castle sitting on the banks of Loch Ness.

With the hour almost up, I made my way to the docks by the lake and climbed aboard the Jacobite Warrior and I took a seat on the upper outside deck. The air was a little cook but this was the best place to get the best view of the lake and surrounding countryside.  The winds had picked up a bit but the sun was shining on the Loch, giving it a crystal clear, glass-like finish until we got out to the middle of the lake where it was quite rough.  I scanned the deep waters looking for signs of the famous sea serpent that is said to live in the loch but Nessie remained elusive.  Some sonar equipment is on display so passengers can watch to see if any large objects are lurking beneath the surface.  I saw nothing there either.  Some say Nessie died and that is why she has not been seen in a while.  The gift shops, amusement park, boat tours and Nessie merchandise give me the impression that perhaps she never existed except to attract foreign tourists.  Yes, I am a skeptic until I see it with my own eyes.  
Loch Ness
Sonar equipment used to detect Nessie...or more likely jsut any big mass on the lake.

We arrived in Fort Augustus in the early evening and before checking into our accommodations for the night, we attended a live show at the Clansman Centre.  Inside the dark theatre, a man dressed in period costume and carrying a Claymore sword walked out on stage.  After a brief history on the use of the Claymore, a medieval (and quite effective) weapon used in battles from the 15th to the 17th century, we were shown the proper way to wear a kilt.  I you are thinking the way I did before seeing this demonstration, you probably think that wearing a kilt is simply the same as wearing any skirt.  Well, not quite...and the Scots prefer that no one use the word skirt to describe a kilt.  The kilt is, after all, an item of clothing usually worn by men and was, in the past, commonly worn on the battlefield. I was able to see exactly how the kilt was worn and what went into the actual putting on of the kilt and let me tell you, it's a lot harder than it looks!

Fort Augustus is another pretty little town with a canal in the centre of the downtown area.  Since it was our last night together as a group (some were headed to the Orkney islands the next day with another guide while the rest of us, me included, were headed back to Glasgow and Edinburgh) we decided to go out to dinner together.  However, that didn't quite work out as planned.  Some members of the group decided to call it a night while the rest of us couldn't decide on one place to eat so we ended up going our separate ways.  The American lady I had been sharing a seat with on the bus suggested pizza for anyone who wanted to join her.  I hadn't tried Scottish pizza yet so I went with her.  We found a place called The Moorings that served pizza and a lot of other delicious-sounding meals.  Since I already had pizza on the brain, I ordered a small vegetarian pizza thinking I would take half of it back to the hotel to have for breakfast the next morning.  Well that didn't happen because it was so good and I was so hungry, I just polished it all off in one sitting.  The large windows in the restaurant allowed for a nice view of the little town and because it wasn't overly crowded with people waiting for tables, we felt comfortable to stay and talk for a while after we ate.

I'm a bit of an introvert so meeting new people is a tad of a chore for me sometimes but occasionally, I meet a person who I instantly like and trust and we become instant friends. I don't often meet someone I can share intimate details of my life with after only a couple of days but I felt very comfortable with this person, like I had known her all my life.  We talked about the recent, sudden loss of our mothers at fairly young ages.  We talked about our careers and hobbies and families and travels.  At one point, she blurted out something that both surprised me.  "I'm proud of you".  Of course, I was initially baffled by this statement.  How can a who was a total stranger 4 days earlier be proud of me?  "I wish I could have done what you are doing at your age...traveling by myself.  I was too scared when I was younger.  Keep doing what you are doing and don't let anyone tell you otherwise".  I was shocked.  That was the first time anyone had ever told me they were proud of me for traveling on my own.  I've gotten lots of comments over the years about my solo travels.  Usually they were along the line of "you know, it's time to get your priorities straight and start thinking about starting a family" or "one of these days, you are going to get raped/kipnapped/killed/beat up/robbed while wandering around these foreign countries".  Hearing those words made me feel more confident in my own feelings towards my lifestyle.  I've never felt that I'm being irresponsible, selfish or careless when it comes to my travels but the people around me have tried to make me feel that way my whole life and at times, I wonder if maybe it is true.  It was a relief to hear someone tell me that I am on the right track in life.  This is why I find it easier making friends on the road despite being more on the introverted side.  I'm more likely to meet more open-minded, adventurous people who are living their lives to the fullest.  People who are doing things, who don't live in the tiny bubbles of their little corner of the world with their house, white picket fence, television and 2.5 kids.  Too bad the people around me can't see that just because I don't live a semi-sheltered and structured life like they do, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with me.  It just means I am following my own path and living my life the way I want to live it. And I'm not hurting anyone by doing so!

We left the restaurant almost two hours after we arrived and set out to find a bank machine to get some cash out.  In our wanderings, we forgot to keep track of where we were and how to get back to the main road and back to our guest house.  We walked around for a long time until we found an area that looked familiar and walked up a road that looked like the road that our guest house was on.  It had been a light drizzle all evening until suddenly, we got caught in a straight and heavy downpour.  We walked and walked in that cold, hard rain for what seemed like forever and realized we were on the wrong road.  We returned to the main road and walked and walked again until we found another road that looked familiar.  Nope.  Wrong road again.  Eventually, we found The Thistle Dubh and walked in the front door drenched from head to toe.  I never laughed so hard in my life.  Who knew getting lost in a rainstorm in a foreign country could be so fun.  I guess any situation can be turned into something positive as long as you are in good company. 

I love getting lost in foreign countries.  Not only does it provide opportunity to see things I would otherwise not see and experience things I would otherwise not experience, it provides me with memorable and entertaining stories to share later.  These memories always being a smile to my face and that night was one of those nights that will surely stay fresh in my mind for a long time to come. 
The Thistle Dubh (a cute little play on words if you know the proper pronunciation of those two gaelic words.  Clue: It ends up sounding very much like "this'll do")

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Exploring the Towns, Brochs and Castles of the Isle of Skye

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That first morning on the Isle if Skye, I was unable to enjoy the view from Hillview B&B because I awoke to rain, drizzle and fog.  It looked like the sun was trying to come out but the rain won and I never did see the sun that day.  Once again, breakfast was fit for royalty.  Eggs, sausages, fresh veggies and fruit, cereal, porridge, toast.  I certainly don't eat this well during breakfast at home!

With the group together again on the bus, it was decided that since the weather wasn't so great, we would take a scenic drive around the island and stop at a few attractions along the way.  I was pleased with this decision as it has always been my dream to tour the Isle of Skye because it's so renowned for it's rugged beauty and because I have ancestral ties to the island.  From what I gathered from other family members who had done research into the family background, I had connections to the Isle of Skye and to the Clan MacDonald.  When I mentioned this to Andrew (who, like everyone else I met in Scotland, never heard of the name MacEachern) he asked "which clan MacDonald?" because apparently there are quite a few.

As we drove further into more remote areas of the countryside, the road started to narrow until it was down to one lane with passing places every few hundred yards.  Eventually, we turned onto an even narrower road marked with a sign that read "buses not recommended" and all I could think at that point was "now this is my kind of tour!".  It's when you go off-the-beaten track that you see the things that aren't in the guidebooks.  As we drove along that narrow road, traffic became lighter until it is was nearly non-existent and neighborhoods turned into vast fields of sheep and lonely old farmhouses and steep valleys with deep blue-grey streams and rivers running through them.  Soon, the sea and other islands of the Inner Hebrides became visible.  There were some steep embankments along the narrow highway that made the drive a little nerve-wracking but the incredible scenery eventually drew my attention away from the road and to the far-reaching vistas before me.  It's safe to say that sheep outnumber people in those parts.  On that day, I saw a few other tour buses and the odd car but for the most part, those far-reaching remote areas of the Isle of Skye were pretty desolate.

When I was doing research for this trip, the Isle of Skye wasn't a part of my original itinerary until I started coming across information about it.  The pictures I viewed online were what did it for me and I made extra time and put aside extra money to make sure it was a part of my trip.  If you've never been to the Isle of Skye than be forewarned that if you look at the pictures online and expect to see the same thing in person, you will be disappointed; those pictures are very misleading.  The Isle of Skye is far more beautiful in person than any picture you will see anywhere.  And the island has more than looks going for it.  The history is intriguing, brutal and colorful and the people as hearty as they are friendly.  And one would have to be quite hearty to thrive in that wild (and, I'd imagine during the winter months, unforgiving!) landscape.

As we drove along, Andrew told us stories about that history and some of the notable people who were a part of it and I also learned about some random, but nonetheless, interesting facts about Scotland.  I learned about an extraordinary man named Callum MacLeod who, after becoming fed up with the state of traveling on his island of Rassay (a small island which can be seen from the Isle of Skye), single-handedly built a road.  I learned that the United Kindom, including Scotland, uses a mix of the Imperial and Metric systems.  I learned that one of the reasons there are so may sheep in Scotland is because they have no predators there.  I learned about the Highland Midge, a fly that is similar to what I know as mosquitoes here in Canada but much worse.  I learned that a popular travel company filmed a very comical commercial on the Isle of Skye and they cast some of the local sheep.  I had the opportunity to meet some of those sheep.  Well sort of.  

Our first stop (where we actually got out of the bus and ventured into the rain and wind) was at a 2500-year old tower (or Broch as it is commonly known in Scotland).  It was a bit of hike uphill to get to Dun Beag Broch and by that time the winds were hurricane-force mixed with monsoon rain.  Some of the people on my bus were reluctant to even go outside in that weather until Andrew reminding them that they may never get another chance to see it again.  I walked off the bus like it was just another day as I deal with similar weather frequently back home in Atlantic Canada. On the way up the hill, some tourists chased some sheep that were grazing near the trail.  It was quite funny.  I'm not sure the sheep thought so as it darted off into the field to join some other recently-spooked sheep.
Dun Beag Broch
Some Spooked Sheep

We continued driving into some more remote areas of the island, passing by notable landmarks including The Old Man of Stor and Kilt Rock with it's waterfall cascading 60 metres into the ocean. We visited the ruins of Duntulm Castle which has ties to the clan MacDonald of the area.  As I roamed those ruins, I wondered if I had ties to this castle somewhere down the line through my supposed connections to a Clan MacDonald on the Isle of Skye.
The ruins of Duntulm Castle
Kilt Rock with it's waterfall cascading 60 metres into the ocean

Our first big stop of the day was for lunch in the seaside capital of Portree.  I set out to explore the town on my own at first but met up with some of the others in the group who were going for lunch at a little cafe by the waterfront.  Cafe Arriba is a tiny, funky little place with a young and hip clientele.  We sat at the table at the back corner near a window overlooking the scenic waterfront and ordered some coffee and sweets.  This is when I got to know some of my fellow travelers a little more.  A retired couple from Calgary, a woman from Pennsylvania who recently retired in Florida, a widowed man originally from Italy who had been married to a Scottish woman.  This is the part about traveling I really enjoy.  Those dinners, lunches and drinks in far flung places with complete strangers from all over the world...who are like people you've known all your life after only a couple of hours and food and drinks.  With a about an hour to kill after we finished our lunch, we wandered the little streets of Portree in search of souvenirs.  I found a book about Callum MacLeod and his handmade road, a beautiful picture of the city of Edinburgh to hang on the wall of my new apartment and some scarfs for my sisters.
A sign on the wall of Cafe Arriba in the town of Portree.
A good read for the road.

The weather was starting to clear a little bit when we got back on the road to continue our circumnavigation of the Isle of Skye.  The next time we stopped, it was at a museum to visit some restored traditional black houses that were once widely used in the Highlands of Scotland.  There was a very nice gift shop there.  Unfortunately, due to the remoteness of the shop, there was no ATM or internet connection in the area and I had forgotten to get some cash so I was unable to purchase the items I'd been eyeing.
A traditional Black House

The rain was much heavier when we returned to the bus to settle in for the last leg of the day's journey.  We drove along some more remote country roads and despite the weather, the scenery was still among the most beautiful I'd ever seen.  Andrew purchased a CD at the gift shop and the beautiful sound of traditional Gaelic music lulled me in and out of a semi-sleeping state. 

Back in Broadford it was still raining so I had Andrew drop me off at the bottom of the hill so I could grab some takeout again.  I didn't feel like walking down the hill and back up again so at least this way, I would only have to do it once.  Macaroni pie and chips became somewhat of a staple for me in Scotland.  That evening, I stayed cozy and warm in my room at Hillview while the rain continued to fall and the wind howled through the night.  My last thought before slipping into a deep sleep was a wish for nicer weather the following day. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Making my Way to the Lovely Isle of Skye

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I slept very well during that first night of my grand tour of Scotland...and ate like a Queen the next morning!  I'd never experienced a complimentary breakfast that large before.  I ate so much, I almost had to be carried out to the sidewalk.  Every time I finished, more food would be laid before me and boy was it delicious...and homemade too!  I waited out front for the bus to arrive and while I waited, I noticed something peculiar; there were no cigarette butts or wads of gum on the sidewalk or anywhere else for that matter.  Back home, roads and sidewalks are littered with crushed butts and gum.

I was the first one picked up that morning and when I got on the bus, Andrew told me he liked to give everyone a chance to sit up front so he offered the very front seat to me.  I felt bad taking it from the lady who had been sitting there the day before but I also liked the idea of being able to see more through the front window.  The woman who had been sitting there the day before, didn't seem to mind that I took her seat because she just took the seat next to me.  At first I was a little annoyed that I had to share my seat with someone but after we got to talking, I realized she was good company and we had a lot in common.

Once we had everyone back on the bus, we made our way to the port of Mallaig to catch a ferry to the Isle of Skye, stopping at various points-of-interest along the way. One of them was a place called Glencoe, a beautiful area featuring a large valley (or glen as it's known in Scotland) where, in 1692, a massacre occurred.  The victims of this massacre were members of the MacDonald clan attacked in the early morning by men under the command of Captain  Robert Campbell.  Most of those men possessed the surname Campbell and to this day, The Clachaig Inn in Glencoe displays a sign that very obviously indicates that Campbell's are not welcome and will not be served.

After we passed Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, we arrived in the town of Fort William where we were booked in for a tour of Eilean Donan Castle.  Once used for defensive purposes and now open for tours and special ceremonies, the 13th century castle is one of the most visited (and photographed) in Scotland.  In North America, most of our buildings are from the 1800's and 1900's with a scattered few from the 1600's and 1700's. As I walked through the halls of that spectacular building, I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that parts of it were built in 1200's. 

When we arrived in Mallaig, the first thing I noticed was the famed Jacobite Express parked at the train station.  Had it been earlier in the season, a ride on that train would have been part of our itinerary.  I settled for a photo op instead.  The ferry to the Isle of Skye had not returned yet so we had an hour to kill before boarding.  I set out to explore the little town and when I was done looking in the shops and taking pictures, I found a grocery store where I picked up some snacks to eat on a bench by the boat docks.

It was a short sail to the Isle of Skye and by the time we arrived, the weather had changed for the worse and it was time to settle into our accommodations for the night.  I was dropped off at a cute little B&B on top of a hill with an amazing view.  Hillview B&B would be my base for the next two nights.  I settled in and left again on foot in search of something to eat.  The weather was much worse by this time but I was so hungry, I decided to tough it out and get the most out of my stay in the town of Broadford.  

Because I packed so lightly, I didn't have much in the way of rain gear, although I know now that I should have because I had heard that September is a particularly rainy month in Scotland.  I set out into the damp, foggy, windy evening and walked down the hill to the main road in search of a restaurant, pub or grocery store.  I made the mistake of assuming that there would be a take-away place nearby.  I walked for 45 minutes in those dreadful conditions before I found a place that was open and willing to prepare me something to take back to the B&B.  At first, the woman who greeted me said they didn't plan to prepare anything from the takeaway menu that evening and it would be a very long wait if they did.  I think she and her coworkers must have felt sorry for me when I thanked them anyway and turned to leave.  They also must have noticed I was soaked to the bone and traveling on foot so she asked me to take a seat and within ten minutes, an order of chips and macaroni pie was brought out to me.  I thanked them profusely and ventured back out into the rain storm and returned to Hillview to enjoy my meal.  By the time I got back, I and my container of food were completely waterlogged.  Disappointed, I opened the container, expecting to see an inedible pile of mush but found a perfect meal untouched by the sogginess of its container. 

Once again, I slept like a baby in a beautiful, comfortable room that didn't fit the budget tour I had booked.  And I wasn't complaining one bit!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Farewell Edinburgh, Hello Highlands

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Packing only took a few minutes that last morning in Edinburgh thanks to my budding talents as a light packer.  I checked out of the hotel, grabbed a light breakfast on my way out and walked along the Royal Mile for the last time.  I was thankful to have so very little luggage to carry all the way up to Cafe Nero to meet my tour bus for the next leg of my Scotland Adventure: a 5-day Best of Scotland Experience Tour through Highland Experience Tours.  The sun was just starting to rise as I made my way up the street and there was hardly anyone around compared to previous days.  Seeing the old buildings and narrow side streets without large crowds gave the scene before me a slightly eerie look and, in a way, made it easier for me to put myself back a couple of hundred years and imagine it 1716 instead of 2016.
Edinburgh at Dawn

I signed up for this tour online through Viator because I had used the company in the past and had a very good experience.  After much research, I decided that this tour would would be the best for me to see as much as possible in the short amount of time I had available.  I don't usually like guided group tours but with only nine days to explore Scotland, I needed a starting point and I don't think I would have been able to see much in such a short period of time on my own.

I reached Cafe Nero with some time to spare so I took a seat outside and waited for my bus to arrive.  Only a few people were there when I arrived but slowly but surely, more people started to trickle into the waiting area.  Dozens actually.  I hoped to myself that they were not all getting on the same bus as me or my chances of getting a window seat would be slim to none.  Fortunately, when my bus arrived, only a few people got on and I had a seat all to myself.

Andrew, our guide for the tour, briefly introduced himself and informed us that we would be stopping in Glasgow to pick up more passengers.  He remained fairly quiet for the next hour, pointing out a few landmarks along the way.  Even as a passenger on a bus, I was able to get a good idea of what driving is like in the UK; fast with lots of confusing roundabouts.  Watching the road from the comfort of the bus made me glad I didn't rent a car for my first time in Europe. 

After the stop in Glasgow and with all passengers onboard, the mood on the bus changed.  Andrew became more chatty which got everyone else talking.  I soon discovered that there were other Canadians on the tour and people from all over the world including Brazil, Italy, Belgium, Norway, The United States, Denmark and India.

As we drove toward our first stop, we got a crash course on Scotland, it's people and some of it's history.  We also learned about a game that is played in the Scottish Highlands called Shinty which Andrew described as a combination of Hockey and modern warfare.  

The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond was the first stop.  I first heard that ghostly beautiful song about this famous loch as a child and was always curious if Loch Lomond in Scotland looks similar to Loch Lomond in Cape Breton.  Many places in Nova Scotia and especially Cape Breton Island are named after places in Scotland and I always assumed that it was because homesick Scots named places in the New World after places that looked similar back home.  Turns out Loch Lomond in Scotland looks nothing like Loch Lomond in Cape Breton; my Loch Lomond is surrounded by flat countryside and thick forest whereas Scotland's Loch Lomond is much bigger and is surrounded by mountains.  I walked along the banks of the loch and onto a little trail that went through a little village.  On my way back, I spotted a family of Highland cattle (with very cute babies!) resting under some trees.
Loch Lomond
Young Highland Calf

In the town of Inveraray, we stopped to have lunch and explore the pretty little town.  I wasn't overly hungry so I walked up and down the narrow streets, looking in the shop windows.  I found a tiny take-out restaurant close to the waterfront and went in to see what they had for light meals. This was the moment I was introduced to the Toastie - a Scottish name for what I know as a toasted sandwich. The girl behind the counter looked at me like I had ten heads when I asked her "what exactly is a toastie".  I must say, although there wasn't much to it, that toastie was quite delicious and quite filling.  I ate it on a bench by the boardwalk by the water where a bunch of seagulls and pigeons who saw me coming with food harassed me non-stop.

Kilmartin Glen is the site of 350+ Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments including burial chambers and the Temple Wood Stone Circle.  I was able to get a birdseye view of the area from atop nearby Dunnad Hill Fort which we hiked before visiting the ruins.  Likened to Stonehenge by some (but on a much smaller scale) Kilmartin Glen was as fascinating as any ancient ruins.  After a coffee break and little stroll through the village of Kilmartin, we were off again.
Some ruins at Kilmartin Glen
The view from Dunnad Hill Fort

I've been to some interestingly-named look-offs in my travels but I have to say the Rest and be Thankful  look-off near Argyll and Bute in the Scottish Highlands is by far the most oddly-named, beautiful, historical look-off I've ever been to.  The name comes from a stone with 18th century carvings that was found nearby that had the words "rest and be thankful" carved into it.  The scenery was vast, untouched mountainous land that looked wild and unforgiving on that cool fall day.  I can't imagine what a place like that is like in the dead of winter. 

The Rest and be Thankful Look-off
This was my first time ever taking a multi-day guided tour and I must say I was quite pleased with the pace.  I saw so much that first day and learned so much about Scotland.  It was early evening when I was dropped off at my guest house in the beautiful seaside town of Oban.  Ulva Villa was right on the main street.  When I booked this tour, I had two options to choose from for accommodations: Guest house or hotel.  I ticked guest house because it was cheaper and I don't really expect anything fancy when it comes to a place to lay my head for the night.  I assumed that the guest houses would be more like hostels with bunk-beds, shared bathrooms and limited facilities. I'd love to see what the more expensive hotel options were like because my guest house was anything but a hostel; it was a lovely private room with all the amenities of a hotel and more, including my own bathroom.  I left my bags in the room and set out to explore Oban and find something to eat before it got too late.  I didn't find anything open except a grocery store where I bought some snacks and fresh fruit to take back to my cozy guest room and relaxed for the rest of the evening.   


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