Trips with Pip – A New Pet-Friendly Travelogue Series

Hello, Travelers! How many of you are single? Do you travel alone? Do you travel in a pack? Do you have a favorite travel companion? Is that someone two-legged or four-legged? 

I’ve taken very few solo trips in my lifetime – so far – but I hope to be taking more in the future. My kids are grown, I’m single and it’s time to strike out on my own a bit. I admit, though, that the idea of solo travel is a bit daunting. Enter Pippi. 

I have always loved dogs. Living without them seems lonely and unpleasant to me, so, when considering my latest family member, I did think about “portability”. I want to be able to take my dog with me on planes and trains – to travel with me to all the places I want to visit. I don’t like the idea of having her stuffed into the hold of an airplane, so size mattered. Pippi is my pocket-sized pooch. She fits the profile for a “carry-on” pal, has a lion’s heart and is curious and eager to explore new places. I don’t think I could’ve chosen a better travel companion. 

Until this summer the only trips we had taken together were short drives to the vet and groomer, walks in the neighborhood and some lovely visits to Grandma’s house. She has proven to be a good traveler for short car rides and is a polite house guest – only peeing in designated areas, never chewing up shoes or carpet and being generally friendly to all the humans she has come into contact with. So far, so good, right? I figured we would ease into the whole travel thing, and so we got started with some local outings this summer.

Pippi digesting some culture during one of our outings

I hope to develop a foolproof means of traveling with Pippi; learning the ins and outs of international travel with dogs, finding pet-friendly destinations and, by sharing my experiences, perhaps saving my readers some pain. This is where I started:

My Top Five Things To Do When Preparing For Travel With A Pet

  1. Consider what kind of travel you intend to do – for me, it is local, domestic AND international. Will your pet be well-suited for the types of travel you love?
  2. Research requirements for traveling with an animal – I checked government sites, airline websites and did a lot of googling on bringing pets into foreign countries (some require quarantining, which is a hard “no” for short trips, and all have specific requirements for vaccinations)
  3. Related to #2, have your dog chipped with a microchip that is compatible with international systems. I chose HomeAgain.
  4. Purchase a sturdy, yet compact, carry case. I carry Pippi in a Bergan Comfort Carrier. It has great features including the means to strap the carrier into a car seat for extra safety.
  5. Have a safe, comfortable crate available for times when you must leave your pet behind at the campsite, rental or hotel room. I have a foldable crate that travels well, though I will likely purchase one at my destination when I travel by air. Reduced hassle and no extra luggage fees will easily offset that cost.
Pippi, fresh from the groomer, modeling her Bergan Comfort Carrier

I’ll be posting about our adventures in pet-friendly travel in a new series: Trips With Pip. First up will be our #PureMichiganPandemic summertime trips of 2020. I would love to hear about your adventures traveling with your four-legged companions! Please share in the comments.

Scotland Part III – Up, Down and Around

As promised, here is Part III of our Scotland trip. This will take you from Glasgow to Beauly and back down and around to some smaller towns, ending at Edinburgh. It bookends the two previous posts. All told, we spent two full weeks in this beautiful country.

We flew from Toronto direct to Glasgow via AirTransat. As I mentioned in my first Scotland post , the drive from Michigan to Toronto was well worth it as we saved a ton of money and flying time. I would fly internationally with AirTransat again – very positive experience. Upon arriving in Glasgow, we (my Japanese sister, Rihoko, my daughter and her boyfriend, and I) picked up our rental car. We chose a minivan that seats six easily and could do seven in a pinch. I’ve already regaled you with the adventure involved – deciphering the Glaswegian accent, navigating the city streets on the “wrong” side of the road and braving the giant roundabouts, which also spun in the wrong direction – so I won’t repeat. 

We spent our first night in a Premier Inn (budget hotel) in Dumbarton, just north of Glasgow and not far from Loch Lomond. Premier Inns proved to be consistently clean and adequate to our needs, and at a budget price. I highly recommend them for stopovers. Thanks to my frugal Scottish friend, K, of Exquisite Scotland tours for the recommendation and help booking! Once we picked up my son from the train station – and I happily relinquished the car keys to him – we headed out to find somewhere to stretch our weary legs and breathe in some fresh air. 

Balloch Country Park and Scottish Delights

We ended up at Balloch Country Park, which sits prettily on the shores of Loch Lomond. This loch is often featured in songs that speak of its beauty. It did not disappoint! I highly recommend a stop here. Entrance to the park is free. There is a castle and walled garden on the grounds, impressive views of the loch, and nature trails aplenty. The castle is no longer habitable and entry is forbidden, but we were able to wander around outside and through the walled garden. I use a certain word often throughout my Scotland blogs, but I can’t help it. This park had charm. The whole country is charming. I was smitten here at Balloch Country Park and the country continued to work its way into my heart throughout our time there. 

After enjoying the park for a few hours, we found a small restaurant nearby and had our first taste of some Scottish delights – Cullen skink and haggis, washed down with some Scottish lager. Cullen skink is a creamy soup (or “skink”) made with smoked haddock. Haggis is the national food of Scotland, essentially a crumbly sausage dish. Everything was delicious!

Heading North

The next morning we headed north on the A82. The beginning of our ride took us along the gorgeous shoreline of Loch Lomond. The country roads are typically quite narrow, and with the lake on one side and stone walls fronting the homes on the other, there was very little room for error! It was the weekend and we came across many camper vans and other large vehicles that made the drive rather unnerving at times. I could see bits of colored paint and plastic embedded in the stone walls we drove by — not a comforting sign.

Once we left Loch Lomond behind, we were treated to the wild, wide open spaces of Scotland. We couldn’t resist pulling over for a rest near Rannoch Moor. The views from the highway alone drew the eye and the spirit. Rannoch Moor is a vast stretch of land. You will find rocky outcrops, rivers, bogs and more and a variety of plants and animals. This is an area I would love to return to to experience in depth. It is recommended to enjoy the area via a ride on the West Highland Railway. 

Fort William

Our next stop was Fort William, which figures prominently in The Outlander series as an important location related to the Jacobite Rebellion of the mid-1700s. The fort, originally built in 1654 and known as the Garrison of Inverlochy, was a British stronghold and means to control the Highland clans. It was abandoned after the Restoration but rebuilt in the 1690s, and then used again to support the British forces in their efforts against the clans.

The town no longer boasts a fort, though the history of the area is preserved in the collections of  the West Highland Museum. My sister and I spent some time wandering through. Fort William  is currently best known as a starting point for hiking and climbing since it is very near Ben Nevis and other munros. It is also the start/endpoint of the West Highland Way and the Glen Way – both very popular long-haul hiking trails. I would love to hike at least a part of these trails, as they promise stunning views and satisfying climbs.

We had lunch at the Wildcat Café, which boasted a delightful variety of vegan dishes. I found the entire country to be refreshingly progressive – with no-fuss vegan and vegetarian menu options. Plastic bags and to-go packaging were rare and always cost extra. Everything seemed so much more clean and fresh – even in the cities.

Heading Back Around and Down

It took the entire day to wend our way from Dumbarton to Erchless Castle – but the drive was well worth it for the sights and experiences along the way. You can find an accounting of our time at Erchless in my first Scotland post.

At the end of our idyllic international family reunion at Erchless, the kids, Rihoko and I headed out for an additional 5 days of vacation. We would be delivering Rihoko to the airport the next morning, but were determined to fit in some additional sightseeing before she had to go.

Clava Cairns

Just east of Inverness, we stopped at the Clava Cairns. The Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava were created during the Bronze Age. The sight is a well-preserved example of a distant history of the Highlands, dating back around 4,000 years! The site is a truly peaceful setting with an otherworldly air. While walking around the grounds, which are free to enter, it wasn’t hard to imagine these prehistoric people laying their loved ones to rest here. 

Pitlochry

Our next stop was Pitlochry. We enjoyed coffee and a scone here and visited some of the cute shops in town. The nearby Blair Athol Distillery was our true destination. It is a beautiful whisky distillery and all of us declared it our favorite whisky of the trip!

Stirling and Surroundings

We stayed overnight in Paisley, just outside of Glasgow, at another Premier Inn. After delivering Rihoko to the airport the next morning, we headed to our final stay at an AirBnB in Stirling. The location was perfect for our last few days, situated between Glasgow and Edinburgh with some nice day trip options. Our host was generous with recommendations and the flat was well-appointed with nice extra touches – like a dish filled with Scottish tablet (really tasty candy!).

Doune Castle

We visited Doune Castle, a 14th century courtyard castle – famously the exterior setting for Winterfell (Game of Thrones) and Castle Leoch (The Outlander), it also featured in several scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is an entry fee of about $7+, depending on your chosen tour. We purchased the self-guided audio tour. The narrators were none other than Monty Python star, Terry Jones, and everyone’s favorite Outlander, Jamie Fraser (actor Sam Heughan). The audio tour included actual history as well as tidbits from the making of the shows.

It is worth noting that Stirling Castle is a must-see as well, though one we did not visit. We’d kind of had our fill of castles by then – having lived in one for a week and visited three others already. I didn’t regret this because I will be going back and can catch these gems another time!

National Wallace Monument

The National Wallace Monument, which I found fascinating, provided some amazing panoramic views of the area. William Wallace is considered the Guardian of Scotland. Over 700 years ago, Wallace was instrumental in uniting the country’s clans. After Wallace’s death, Robert the Bruce continued the fight and achieved victory in 1314. 

Once parked and admission paid for (~$12/adult), we traversed the Wallace Way, a rather steep path up to the base of the monument. You can choose to be driven by bus instead. There, we were greeted by a member of Wallace’s army (actor portrayal… of course!) who regaled us with some interesting history and fun stories. We entered the monument via the Keepers Lodge, which houses a small lounge. A gift shop is on the first level of the monument. As you ascend the 246 narrow steps of the winding staircase, you go through the Hall of Arms, the Hall of Heroes and the Royal Chamber. Continue upward to the Crown, where you get a bird’s-eye view of the area. 

Dunblane and Bridge of Allan

We drove through some thoroughly charming small towns as we explored the area. I fell head-over-heels for Dunblane, a town just a few miles north of Stirling. It is a bucolic setting on the Allan Water, a small river that eventually runs into the River Forth. A 13th century cathedral near 17th century homes, Scotland’s oldest private library and a walking trail along the river are just some of the treasures there. We visited the local museum where we met a Canadian woman who had uprooted herself from the Toronto area to return to her roots in Scotland. Her story was very inspiring!

Bridge of Allan provided great options for fish and chips, more lovely views of the Allan Water and some unique shops as well. And in between there were always hills, trees and lots of sheep. I couldn’t ask for a more picturesque drive! By the way, there are more sheep than humans living in Scotland. And, another bit of trivia – Scotland boasts the world’s highest percentage of natural redheads, with 13%, while Ireland comes in second with 10%.

Edinburgh

We saved an entire day for Edinburgh. Honestly, that wasn’t enough. There is so much to see and do in this gorgeous old city, the capital of Scotland. Here are some highlights of our day:

The Royal Mile and Princes Street Gardens

The Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare of Old Town, with Edinburgh Castle at its head and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at its foot. You will find all sorts of things to see and do along this series of streets. We wandered through souvenir shops, visited the Scottish Storytelling Centre and enjoyed the beautiful façade of St. Giles’ Cathedral. The Scottish Parliament had attracted a slew of climate activists since a significant decision was being debated in Parliament the week we were there. It was prime people-watching where the activists had settled, let me tell you! Anna and Jake scheduled a tour of a gin distillery while Ben and I visited the Elephant House Café, made famous as the “birthplace of Harry Potter”, though JK Rowling recently shut that claim down. 

We strolled in and out of shops and found ourselves in the Princes Street Gardens. I love how the city moves from paved streets to green spaces with such ease! The centerpiece of the Gardens is the Ross Fountain, sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Jules Klagmann and purchased for Scotland by Mr. Daniel Ross, who described the fountain as “obtaining universal admiration”. Details on the fountain include four female figures representing science, arts, poetry and industry. 

Just off of the Royal Mile is the National Museum of Scotland. Our history-loving Jake, my daughter’s boyfriend, could hardly contain his excitement. He was an excellent tour guide! 

Lunch, A Haircut and Arthur’s Seat

We had lunch at the Union of Genius, a little soup shop. The soups were unique and very delicious! I highly recommend it. We stopped for coffee while my son got a quick trim at a local barber.  Well rested, we decided to head over to Arthur’s Seat. As I mentioned, Edinburgh slips easily from paved, busy streets to grassy, natural areas. Walking beyond the Parliament building and past the activists’ temporary tent city, we were suddenly at the foot of an ancient volcano in Holyrood Park. Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in the park. Only my son made it to the top. My legs had fairly given out after two weeks of walking, hiking and walking some more. Evenso, the portion I hiked up provided some lovely views of the city. At the top, of course, you are provided a full panoramic view of the area. This was a lovely midday break from the confines of the city streets. 

Dinner and Ghost Stories

A Thai restaurant, Krua Khun Mae, tucked away in one of many of Edinburgh’s closes served up a delicious dinner. Afterward, we meandered back to the Mercat Cross, eager to begin our ghostly walking tour, courtesy of Mercat Tours. Our guide shared a bunch of fun – and frightening – history of the city as we wound our way in and out of the nearby closes. She told of how Mercat Cross marks the town center, where the locals came for all sorts of “entertainment”, including whippings, hangings and the like. We learned to never look up if we heard someone shout, “Gardez loo!” from above, and then were led down into the Blair Street vaults where ghosts still wander. The evening ended with whisky and more ghost stories. The tour was a hoot and well worth the price. Mercat Tours offers several different types of tours, so the faint of heart needn’t worry! 

Stirling, Then Home

Our final day in Scotland was spent exploring Stirling itself. We saw The Kelpies, a famous equine sculpture, though we did not stop to visit. We found a quaint little bar & bothy, Nicky Tams, to enjoy a light lunch. Again, there were vegan options, even on a pub menu! After returning to the flat to pack, we walked to a restaurant recommended by our AirBnB host, The Inn of Torbrex. The food was fantastic and the service was unhurried. Tip: your server will not bring the bill until you ask for it – so different from the US. It was a fine way to wrap up our vacation. All of us were ready to head home, but thoroughly satisfied with our adventure! “Haste ye back!”, a common farewell greeting, is something I have taken to heart!

I hope you will share your experiences of Scotland in the comments. I look forward to returning someday soon and plan to spend an unhurried, un-touristy time there. Any tips you have would be welcome!

The Enchanting Isle of Skye – Scotland Part II

The Isle of Skye gets its name from the Norse word for cloud (skuy), and is commonly known as Eilean a Cheo (the Misty Isle). It is considered the most scenically spectacular of all the Scottish islands. When the mist and frequent rain retreat, the views are breathtaking. Our visit happened on a mixed-weather day (a common occurrence in the Highlands), so we were treated to both the clear, breathtaking views as well as the more mysterious and brooding misty vistas.

During my months of research while planning this trip, I lucked upon the only tour guide who was willing to contemplate a group of our size for a full day tour. K Thomson not only agreed to take us to Skye, but he provided recommendations for hotels, routes to travel, sights to see, and food to eat throughout our entire stay in Scotland. He was an invaluable resource for me and I am so grateful that I happened upon him. He runs Exquisite Scotland Tours out of Kirkhill. K’s knowledge of his country and willingness to share tips and tricks for finding good deals helped me design a truly memorable reunion for my international family. And a wonderful bonus: he speaks six languages so could share his spiel with our Brazilian and French contingent during the tour. K enlisted an additional tour operator from his long list of local connections to work with him to transport our crew.

Off We Go

The trip from Erchless Castle to Kyle of Lochalsh, where the ancient Eilean Donan Castle welcomes you to Skye, is approximately 80 miles. We took a 110-mile circuitous tour of the Trotternish Peninsula of Skye,  and then headed back to Erchless. We logged about 300 miles total on that tour. It was a long, lovely day.

Our tour began at 8:30 Tuesday morning when K and Avril, of Avril’s Travels, arrived to scoop all twenty-two of us up from our royal home-away-from-home (see my previous post about our royal getaway). We traversed the winding, narrow roadways of the Highlands, heading west. Some of us (I’m not naming names!) require frequent stops on long journeys, especially those that start in the morning. K assured us all that, with our coffee intake considered, he would make sure we had adequate opportunity to take a “rest” along the way. Our mid-way stop was a small café that served up delicious hot chocolate along with a clean toilet. The Redburn Café in Dundreggan also had the requisite friendly dog, of course!

Lunch with a View and a Story

K scouted a spot for our lunchtime picnic near the Sligachan Bridge, with lovely views of Skye and a bit of protection from the relentless Highland wind. The legend of the water under the Sligachan Bridge is a wonderful tale filled with fierce women warriors, faeries, a devoted daughter and a feast that ended a great battle. 

K laid out our own fabulous feast that included meats, cheeses, breads, fruit, sweets and drinks. We huddled out of the wind and enjoyed every delicious bite, wandering around the area afterward, taking photos and breathing in the fresh sea air. Once we’d all had our fill, we clambered aboard the van and bus. K took some of us to a particularly nice vantage point for viewing the Isle of Skye and Eilean Donan. It required some climbing but we were rewarded with some lovely views of the castle. 

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is an icon of the Scottish Highlands. Eilean Donan (or the Island of Donan) was likely named after the 6th century Irish saint, Bishop Donan, who formed several small communities throughout the area. The original fortress was built in the thirteenth-century to guard the lands of Kintail from the Vikings who raided, settled and controlled much of northern Scotland and the islands between 700 A.D. and 1200 A.D. Eilean Donan Castle has been built and rebuilt throughout Scotland’s feudal history. The castle was partially destroyed during a Jacobite uprising in 1719 and lay in ruins for 200 years until it was purchased by Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap in 1911. MacRae restored the castle to its former glory and it was reopened in 1932. The MacRae family remain the Constables of Eilean Donan Castle today. You’ll probably recognize the castle from films such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the James Bond film, The World is Not Enough. The castle is open to visitors February-December each year. Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is advisable to call ahead before planning your visit.

Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls

While we were climbing around, the rest of the group went on to a local pub to enjoy a pint and a “rest”. We came back together there and drove on to Kilt Rock. It is a rather famous spot with cliffs diving straight down into the sea. The erosion of those basalt columns and dolerite sills resemble the pleats of a kilt – hence the name. If you are brave enough to peer over the edge, you can see that some of the columns have slipped straight down into the sea. The Mealt Falls, which fall 55m from the clifftop, are lovely. 

A fair number of tour buses occupied the road, thus quite a few tourists. You should understand, though, that many tourists in the Highlands doesn’t compare to the crowds you might find in a large European city. So, we had ample opportunity to enjoy the views, get sufficiently buffeted by the wind, and then pile back into the buses.

The Quiraing and Fairy Glen

The Quiraing was our next stop. This area was shrouded in fog, giving the already magical air of this craggy place an even more mysterious feel. The Quiraing is one of the largest landslips in Britain, located on the northernmost summit of the Trotternish. This landslip is not yet finished moving, requiring regular repairs of the road at its base. The soft greens of the grassy valleys alongside the rocky outcroppings provide a stunning contrast. Islanders used this landscape to hide their cattle from the Viking raiders. Walking trails abound here. The nearby Old Man of Storr is a 160-foot pinnacle rock formation resulting from the same landslip that continues to transform the Quiraing. Legend has it that a giant was buried there and his “thumb” (Google for a potentially different translation of that story!) remains poking through the ground, forming the Old Man of Storr. As with most of the places we visited during our tour, we could have spent half a day here, but, alas, we had many more miles to go!

Our next stop was Fairy Glen. Yet another dramatic landscape greeted us here. The enchanting glen is like a world unto itself. The cone-shaped hills, mysterious circle formations, waterfalls and broad swaths of green are exactly what you would expect to see in a land inhabited by faeries. The best views can be found atop the Castle Ewan – a natural rock formation that resembles a castle. We scrambled up there, of course, despite my fear of heights. And let me tell you, if I were carrying 10 more pounds, I would not have squeezed myself up through the “castle walls” to reach the top. The views were absolutely stunning and well worth the risk of getting wedged between two rocks. One must be sure-footed here, as K shared a tale of someone who lost their footing and ended up rolling down much of the hill and suffering a broken ankle!

We stopped in the only real town on Skye. Portree is a charming town with brightly colored buildings, perched on the edge of the sea. We took some time to locate the public toilet and then wandered the cute shops for a bit. I found some jewelry made from Scottish heather – a perfect souvenir of our tour.

Lealt Falls

Lealt Falls was accessible only by K’s smaller vehicle, so some of us were fortunate to stop here while the others headed home. This stop transfixed me. We were far above the sea, with gorgeous views all around. I enjoyed the rugged peacefulness of the spot. A flock of sheep were grazing on the other side of the cliff and, when the wind was blowing just right, I could hear their bleating. We even got a nice up close view of one sheep who had wandered over our way.

At the beach sits the ruins of a dynamite factory, or maybe it’s a distillery. Diatamite, which sounds like “dynamite”, is a product of fossilized marine animals, found nearby and used for filtration purposes in the making of beer and wine. Maybe one of you knows the real story! K took us out on a ledge for better views and I am glad I once again ignored my fear of heights so I could drink it all in. I could have sat there all day long, listening to the wind, the sea and the sheep, gazing out on the gorgeous views. But, it had been a full day and we had a long drive home ahead of us.

Our whirlwind tour of Skye is one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. I will definitely be going back – maybe booking a few nights on the island so I can enjoy more of what this stunning location has to offer. I hope you found some inspiration here for your next trip to Scotland. If you’ve been to Skye, please share your impressions and favorite spots in the comments. I will follow this with Part III of our Scotland trip, which includes a day in Edinburgh and some truly delightful off-the-beaten-path treasures.

A Royal Adventure – Scotland Part I – The Highlands

It began as a plan to celebrate, and spend time with, my two favorite traveling companions. It turned into something so much more.

My kids, Anna and Ben, have always been game for anything. Together, we’ve visited big cities, braved the wilderness, tramped through old ruins, “trespassed” – the views were worth it! –  and gotten lost and then found again. Finally, the time had come for us to travel overseas together. Scotland was my choice. They, as usual, were up for any kind of adventure. 

Ever since I was young, Scotland has been my dream. I can’t really put a finger on it, but I do know that my aunt and uncle returned from a European vacation once upon a time, with a toy Highland “coo” and an authentic Scottish tam for me, both of which were prominently displayed in my room for many years. Scotland… Highlanders, rugged wilderness, the sea, lovely accents. It was my dream and my kids let me drag them along.

The Plan

I started researching options during Anna’s last year at Michigan State University. I mentioned our plans to my European family members – you may recall from previous posts that I have a large, very tight international family. I was hoping that they may be interested in joining us for part of the trip. Silly question! We have a family WhatsApp group and the idea quickly spread. We’d had two successful “family reunions” over the previous 15 years – one in Michigan and one in Florida – and it was apparently time to gather in Europe. Color this natural-born planner over the moon!

It took us a year to get from plan to fruition, but I enjoyed every minute. I learned so much about our destination, met kind and helpful people along the way, and simply enjoyed the anticipation of this magical trip!

We were 22 people, when all was said and done, set to spend a week in the Scottish Highlands together. What better accommodations for such a crowd than an honest-to-goodness castle!? I googled my way through some absolutely amazing options, finally settling on a place near Beauly, about 40 minutes drive west of Inverness. If you’re an Outlander fan I’m sure you are practically swooning right now. Let me drop the bad news: We did not take any Outlander tours – though there were a number to choose from. I hope you stick with me, because the Highlands we experienced were every bit as enchanting, even without Claire and Jamie. 

Getting There

My immediate family, except for Ben, who lives in California, are in Michigan. Flying out of Detroit seemed the most practical option, but I found some absurdly good deals flying direct from Toronto, Canada to Glasgow. Four hours drive to Toronto followed by a seven hour flight to Glasgow on AirTransat was what we chose. Our other options were at least 50% higher in price and involved one or more layovers. Our actual travel time was shorter this way, though we did have to allow for potential traffic issues, leaving the car in long term parking – which turned out to be super cheap – and customs at the Canadian border, which was a breeze via the Blue Water Bridge entry point. I would fly internationally on AirTransat again in a heartbeat. We had an excellent experience with them. 

We met my Japanese sister, Rihoko, who married an American and now lives in South Dakota, in Toronto. Four of us – Anna, her boyfriend, Jake, Rihoko and I –  flew to Glasgow where I had arranged to pick up a minivan rental for the two weeks we travelled the country. Two things to note here: I rented a minivan and that lovely Scottish accent I was so keen to experience? –  well, Glasgow has its own special version. We sat in the car rental place and I tried desperately to understand the instructions the young man was giving us. I pride myself on being pretty good at understanding non-native English speakers… but understanding a Glaswegian accent is a whole other story, made worse, I’m sure, by my travel fatigue. Suffice it to say, I’m very grateful for Siri and GPS! I was the designated driver since Anna and Jake were too young (drivers had to be 26+). Rihoko was my backup. In Michigan, I drive a tiny car, on the right side of the road while I sit in the driver’s seat on the left side of the car. I’ve done that for most of my nearly 40 years of driving. Driving in the UK = old dog, new trick… It was a challenge to get from the car rental place to our hotel, just outside of the city. Anna will probably tell you differently, but I thought I was doing pretty well until I took a wrong turn and ended up at a 4-lane, multi-pronged roundabout during what appeared to be rush hour. After several minutes of trying to figure out the system, I screwed up the courage to hit the gas and went for it! We finally got out of the city and I began to relax. I shouldn’t have, as I nearly crashed into a parked truck at the final turn into the hotel parking lot! Whew… did I tell you the minivan was brand new? 

We picked Ben up at the train station. His international travels were much more challenging than our direct flight, but being clever and resourceful, he arrived just a few hours later than planned, the last legs via train rather than airplane, but safe and sound. It had been several months since we were last together, so I was very glad to see him. I have to admit I was even happier to hand him the keys to the minivan! Ben was our driver for the rest of the trip. Despite some harrowing moments that were probably not as harrowing as they seemed at the time, he did a fabulous job and I was tickled pink to remain a passenger.

Our Royal Getaway in the Heart of the Highlands

We arrived at Erchless Estate on a Saturday afternoon. The winding, narrow country roads were mostly impassable for two vehicles, so there were periodic “passing places” where one car could move off the road and allow the oncoming traffic to pass. I was thoroughly charmed by the low, moss-covered stone walls running right alongside the road bordering the estate. As we drove through the entrance, a row of attached old, stone cottages appeared.

Flynn, a friendly red dog, was the first to greet us, offering a game of fetch with a stuffed Pikachu as a gesture of friendly Scottish hospitality. He was soon joined by his people, Allison and Greg, caretakers of the property, who also extended a warm greeting – minus the offer of a game of fetch!

We spent our first night in one of the cottages. It was large and well-appointed with all the comforts without losing the charm of its age. Two of the other cottages are occupied – one by the caretakers and the other by an older gentleman whose companion was a sweet spaniel of some sort.It didn’t take us long to understand that Scots are definitely dog people.

Entering Erchless Estate – The Cottages

Because the castle grounds were off limits until Sunday, Greg and Allison invited us to explore the rest of the estate. We wandered around acres of pasture land where cows and sheep grazed contentedly, explored outbuildings where we found a handyman swearing good-naturedly at a stubborn broken wheel, and then, as we circled back toward the cottages, we stumbled upon a rather mysterious walled garden. The entrance to the garden was a weathered wooden door with a rusted iron latch – something straight out of The Secret Garden. Inside, we found a wild garden and oh, so many happy chickens and ducks pecking and scratching and flitting around their untamed sanctuary. It really was like a fairy tale, and the story was just beginning!

The rest of the family rolled in throughout the day and evening, Sunday. They came from far and wide – Sweden, Brazil, the US, France and Australia – and the mood became more festive with every arrival! This was the first time we’d gathered since our last reunion in Florida 3 ½ years prior. As we drove through the wrought iron gate onto the castle grounds, proper, we were confronted with a stunning, white-washed castle, holding court in the center of a beautifully manicured lawn dotted with the grandest rhododendron bushes I’ve ever seen, in glorious full bloom! The lawn is also home to many beautiful and exotic trees.

Parts of the castle date back to the 13th century. The Clan Chisolm made Erchless Estate their home in the 16th century. Ownership has since been passed along to other families, with updates made through the years. Though it is now let as a vacation home, it retains the feel of what it once was – a grand private family home. There is a large games room with a beautiful old billiards table. Table tennis is available on the lower level, with a hot tub sitting just outside the door. The River Glass runs through the estate, which encompasses over 12,000 acres. The wilds of the estate are home to red deer and many other creatures. Honestly, we could have spent the entire week on the estate and never been bored. 

Our group was so large – 22 of us, with beds for “only” 19 in the castle, that we kept the cottage for our use throughout the week as well. The rooms of Erchless are grand but cozy. It is very spacious, with so many staircases and “secret” nooks – it never felt crowded, and I honestly got kind of lost at least once a day!  Dad, or “the Laird” as we called him, made breakfast most mornings, and the delicious smells would help us all find our way to the kitchen to start each day. There were two dining rooms – the grand dining room which could fit all of us, and a smaller, less formal one that seated about 12 – as well as a large island to gather around in the kitchen. 

Some days were planned out for the entire family, but others remained unscheduled so that smaller groups could do as they pleased; hiking, exploring, shopping, etc. The castle is rented as self-catering, and we did most of our own cooking. We did, however, take advantage of the option to have meals catered – once for a grand Scottish feast for all the family and again later in the week Allison prepared some lovely comfort food – cottage pies and vegetables. 

The Grand Feast

Our grand feast was, indeed, grand. We gathered in the formal dining room that had been elegantly turned out just for us. We enjoyed several courses, which included traditional haggis along with smoked salmon and goat cheese tart starters, a choice of beef bourguignon, fish pie and Tuscan stew with wild game sausages for the main and traditional Scottish cranachan, sticky toffee pudding or cheesecake for dessert.

The food was fabulous and we all stuffed ourselves silly. We opened a bottle of 12-year-old single malt Scotch Whiskey to wash it all down. The entire evening was memorable. The kids – all of my siblings, international and natural, and their families – presented Mom and Dad with their own piece of Scotland, courtesy of Highland Titles. They are now a Laird and Lady of Glencoe, complete with the deed to an actual square foot of Scottish soil! It was a novel way to commemorate the occasion while supporting conservation efforts in Scotland. The evening was filled with laughter and love and so much joy, and the icing on the cake was that we didn’t have to lift a finger. The dining room and kitchen were left gleaming and leftovers were stowed in the refrigerator for us to enjoy the next day.

Sightseeing

You can’t visit Scotland without learning all about the distilling of Scotch (or simply, whisky, as the Scots call it). As we splintered off into smaller groups to explore the area, I think we all made our way, at some point, to the Glen Ord Distillery, the home of Singleton Whisky. There, we learned the different methods of distilling and aging whisky and how to properly sample it. 

Most of the roads in the area are, as I mentioned, single lane and winding with miles of countryside and pastureland between each village or small town. The views are by turn stunning and incredibly peaceful – always green and quite rugged. We saw more clouds than sun and a fair amount of rain, which rarely lasted for long and was usually a light drizzle. That’s the price you pay for the views you get in return! 

Plodda Falls and Glen Affric

Two of my favorite spots were less than an hour from Erchless, along the A831 near Cannich. We hiked Plodda Falls and then did the Dog Falls trail at Glen Affric, during two separate outings. The hikes were quite easy, though there were certainly more challenging options available. There is an extensive network of trails throughout the Highlands, and we found that it was perfectly acceptable to find a parking spot almost anywhere and just start walking. You can even set up camp in the countryside, for a single night, without question. You are expected, however, to leave any wild place you visit in the same condition you found it. Glen Affric, in my opinion, was one of the most picturesque places we visited. Walking in the forest with the sound of flowing water nearby has a way of filling me with such peace. Glen Affric reminded me of my favorite place in Michigan – the western Upper Peninsula – but it was even grander and, at the same time, more serene.

After tramping several miles through nature, one does get hungry – and thirsty! Fortunately, we stumbled upon a gem of a local pub in Cannich called The Slaters Arms. It is an unassuming, cozy place that serves up a delicious plate of hot chips and a cold pint of Scottish ale that you can enjoy while settled into one of their well-worn arm chairs or couches. The pub is home to several spaniels who are happy to stop by for a pat and perhaps to share your chips. I told you, the Scots really treasure their dogs! The owner was quite chatty with us during one of our visits – sharing some interesting tales about local critters. Everyone we met was very generous with recommendations and advice, and most willing to share their opinions about everything! 

Loch Ness and Inverness

Loch Ness and Inverness drew most of us through the week. I found Inverness very clean and walk-able. The buildings are charming and the views from the Inverness Castle (now serving as governmental offices) were lovely. My father took my international siblings to the Loch Ness Rotary Club weekly meeting. The club members were thrilled to have them there to share a bit about their experiences with the Rotary International Exchange Program. Loch Ness, itself, was definitely a tourist trap and, aside from the appeal of trying to catch a glimpse of Nessie, I feel it paled in comparison to some of the more lovely lochs in Scotland. 

Somewhere In the Hills Above Beauly

I mentioned earlier that we were grateful for Siri/GPS, but I have to tell you that Siri did fail us one time while hiking in the woods. A group of us were encouraged to try some lesser known trails nearby that promised some lovely views, so off we went. Well, we got lost. Terribly lost, really. And Siri was silent for much of the trip – no signal! Fortunately, it was daylight and the weather was cooperating, because we wandered around the hills near Beauly for a good two or three hours. We found some friendly cows who tried to help us, but their Highland brogue was  as much a challenge to understand as the Glaswegian accent! We did stumble upon some lovely views and we had a lot of laughs at our own expense. You can’t really call it an adventure if you don’t get lost at least once!

Brodie Castle

Brodie Castle is another worthwhile day trip. It has lovely gardens, an adventure playground for kids and many trails to enjoy the natural surroundings. The castle itself is impressive – rose-colored and boasting beautiful turrets – and the docent who guided our tour shared some very interesting history and fun details about the building and the people who lived there.

Dining Out

Finding a place that could accommodate a large group was a bit of a struggle. The majority of eating establishments in the area are intended for smaller parties. The Cnoc Hotel, just down the road from Erchless Estate, was able to accommodate eleven of us – my parents and all of their kids with spouses – for a lovely family dinner. The grand- and great-grand kids stayed back at the castle enjoying pizza, video games and the hot tub. (Not too shabby!) We practically filled the lovely dining room of the hotel. The staff were attentive and kind. We were able to spend some quality time basking in our 50-year history as a family, enjoying the delicious food and the delights of making memories on top of memories. 

There were further day trips – to the village of Beauly and its Priory and to the Battlefield of Culloden as well as others. There is definitely plenty to see and do and most certainly we missed some goodies. I hope those of you who have been there, or plan to go, will share your impressions in the comments.

But wait, there’s more…

Despite the challenge of organizing activities that we could all attend as a group, we did manage to put two wonderful events together during that week. The family feast – thanks to Allison and her team – was amazing, of course. The second adventure involved two tour buses and plenty of time on the road – but the Isle of Skye was so worth it! That trip merits its own post, so… Coming Soon!

If you’re a fan of beautiful scenery, fresh air and friendly people, I recommend you consider a trip to the Scottish Highlands. I know, once flying overseas is possible again, I will be planning a return visit. I fell head-over-heels for this beautiful country. As noted, I’ll be following this post with one dedicated to our trip to Skye. The kids and I spent an additional week traveling around the country and I will share these adventures, which include a day in Edinburgh, with you as well.

A Hippie, A Host Mom and the Making of an International Family

One day in 1972 my parents brought home a big brother for my sister, brother and me (aged 10, 8 and 6 at the time). Heitor was an exchange student from Brazil, and we thought he was cool  because he had long hair and was in high school! That day was the first of many times my parents invited the world into our home.

Heitor when he arrived at our home

To be honest, I don’t recall much of Heitor’s time with our family that year. My six-year-old self was more concerned with avoiding becoming my sister’s live doll and wondering who would be visiting Mr. Roger’s neighborhood that afternoon. Lucky for my siblings and me, my parents had the same open, welcoming spirit as Mr. Rogers. 

Mom and Dad have always been civic-minded. Dad is a lifelong Rotarian and both were active in their local Chamber of Commerce. Mom has the enviable gift of hospitality. She makes everyone feel welcome in her home. So, despite being parents of young children, hosting a teenager from another country was an idea to which they quickly warmed. Mom, at home with us kids all day, was used to the house being filled with noise and dirt and minor excitement. I’m not sure, though, that she had any clue what a teenage boy would bring into our lives!

Mom felt a bit out of her depth parenting a high school boy, but, really, she could handle anything, so, why not? Heitor came to stay with us half way through his exchange year (Rotary typically had their students stay with two different host families). He made friends easily and, like many exchange students – or any teenager, for that matter – wasn’t terribly keen that Mom always expected him to tell her what he was up to. This was a common theme throughout my parents’ hosting experiences. Apparently, American parents are a bit more “helicopter-y” than parents from other countries. Heitor was a pretty easy-going guy, and never gave my parents much trouble. But there was this one time…

Heitor had plans to stay overnight with friends. When he didn’t return home as expected, Mom began to worry. She called the friend’s house and was told he hadn’t spent the night there but had, instead, spent the night at another person’s house – a friend who just happened to be a girl! Ooh. Mom wasn’t happy.

Actually, Mom was boiling mad. I’ve tried, and failed, to recall an instance when my mom lost her temper. So this story she told was a bit of a surprise! When Heitor finally walked in the front door, my 5’2”, unflappable mom was right there, waiting for him. He quickly took refuge behind a recliner in the front room as she gave him a piece of her mind! Heitor was smart enough to stand there, contrite and silent. I don’t think he kept anything from my parents after that! I can just imagine what was going through my mom’s mind – she was, after all, responsible for this boy she hardly knew! What if something had happened to him? Being a host mom puts you in the unique position of being entrusted with the care of another mother’s child. That’s some serious responsibility!

Heitor’s sense of adventure and fun wasn’t squashed by that incident. According to him, during one of the trips Rotary offered to exchange students, he got in trouble with the chaperone.  He and a few other boys returned late to their rooms after occupying themselves into the wee hours of the morning by “chasing girls”! My sister recalls Heitor “baja-ing” down our quiet country road on the riding lawn mower! Dad took Heitor to Deer Camp that winter. My father made sure any kids who visited Camp learned how to handle a gun safely and how to shoot it properly. Heitor got his lesson as well, of course. Unfortunately, the recoil caught him in the head and he still has the scar to remember it by. [Most exchange programs allow handling of firearms with certain restrictions.] Heitor never shied away from a good time or an opportunity to experience something new – really good qualities in an exchange student! 

Heitor, my brother and me on the day he returned to Brazil

His shenanigans notwithstanding, Heitor’s stay was clearly a success. My parents went on to host several more long term high school students as well as some short term young professionals. Heitor calls us an extension of his biological family. He recently told me, “Not even in my faraway thoughts I would dare to imagine that almost half a century later I would feel to be so close to this family, even living thousands of miles away.”

It’s especially fun for me to hear the stories about that girl-crazy, long-haired Brazilian “hippie” (my mom’s words), since my memories revolve more around encounters with Heitor as an adult. He’s my big brother; the one who introduced our family to the richness of international exchange. When my parents and Heitor reminisce like this, it adds depth to our international family’s story for me.

I’ve not yet visited Heitor in Brazil, but my parents have been there twice. Heitor tells me that the Brazilian culture is the result of a complex mix of people: Portuguese colonizers, indigenous peoples, Africans who were brought as part of the slave trade, and millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia. He says, “As a result, we are a very informal people; quite communicative and friendly.” My mom tells me that the people were very welcoming and kind, no matter that there was a language barrier. My parents were grateful that Heitor and his wife, Vera, as well as their families, were wonderful ambassadors of their country.

Mom, Heitor and his mom in Barbacena during one of my parents’ visits

Mom’s memories include a visit to a very large market in Belo Horizonte. Vera didn’t let go of Mom’s hand the entire time and all of them were careful to remove any fancy jewelry prior to visiting the market. Like any big city, I suppose, the chance of being robbed exists, especially for tourists. Mom’s memories focused on family. She loved meeting her Brazilian grandchildren as well as Heitor and Vera’s parents and siblings. It’s really thanks to my mom, and her dedication to maintaining family connections, that Heitor is in our lives at all. She worked hard at staying in touch with him after he returned to Brazil and he eventually responded more consistently (I think, thanks to Vera). Kudos to the women in our family!! 

Dad is an avid fisherman, so for him, a highlight of their travels to Brazil was a fishing trip with Heitor and his brother-in-law. They flew to a fishing camp in the Pantanal region on the Paraguay River. This UNESCO World Heritage site and national park extends beyond Brazil into Paraguay and Bolivia. The fish they caught there is a relative of the piranha but with human-like teeth versus the razor sharp teeth of its cousin. Until they open their mouths it’s a bit hard to tell them apart!  The Pacu is vegetarian, however, and seed pods are used for bait. Dad remembers the manager of the fishing camp “calling the alligators”. Like pets, they would come to her to be fed every day!  I’m not sure I would like to be anywhere near hungry alligators…

Heitor and Vera live in Barbacena, population 120,000, in the state of Minas Gerais. It is in the foothills of the Serra da Mantiqueira, 100 miles south of the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Since the city is at 4,200 ft, temperatures are quite mild year around. Heitor tells me it is a quiet and calm place. The highlights of Barbacena, he says, are the beautiful mountains surrounding the city and the natural vegetation. It makes for lovely sightseeing. If you seek more excitement, you could try Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, the vibrant financial center of Brazil, or Juiz de Fora, a city with beautiful architecture, and abundant shopping and dining options, located just 50 miles from Barbacena. Ouro Preto, a colonial town known for its baroque architecture and beautiful churches, is 80 miles north. The famous city of Rio de Janeiro is a bit further afield, but accessible as well. I was surprised to discover that Brazil is just slightly smaller than the United States; 8.5 million sq km vs 9.8 million sq km – lots of ground to cover! I look forward to visiting one day!

The view from Heitor and Vera’s apartment in Barbacena

My parents agree that anyone considering hosting an exchange student should absolutely do it! They both say they’ve received far more than they’ve given and the long-lasting, deep connections are the unexpected bonus. Heitor made sure to mention that becoming a member of our family not only gave him a second set of parents and three new siblings, but also “three lovely and open-hearted exchange sisters, and their families”. You see, our international family has enjoyed several “family reunions” through the years so that all of our exchange students were able to get acquainted. Heitor says this was unexpected, and “an additional gain due to being an exchange student.” 

Dad, Vera, Mom and Heitor during one of our international family reunions in Florida February 2016

As for me, I feel blessed and so proud to have Heitor as a big brother. I’m grateful that he was the first, but not the last, new sibling that my parents brought home to us.