Christmas Letters and Other Traditions

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Every year around this time I sit down to write a Christmas letter – a tradition my parents began before I was born. As a teenager I loved pulling out my parents’ old letters to read about their lives before I was born and, of course, the ones that included me, too! There is no better record of our family’s history than these Christmas letters. They are a real treasure!

Just last year I took the time to read through the ones I’d written – beginning back in the early 1990s. It was a treat to be reminded of all the little things I’d forgotten – and especially fun to read the letters that included a paragraph authored by each of my kids. The joys, sorrows, victories and struggles are all there in black and white. I always say that these letters are much more for my benefit than for those who eventually received the finished product in their mailboxes. 

I realize that Christmas letters can be a polarizing thing – you either love them or hate them. As for me, I love reading the missives that friends and family take the time to compose. How about you?

This year I couldn’t conjure up my usual enthusiasm for the process. I kept swinging back and forth between feeling that a perky letter would fly in the face of the struggles and loss so many are facing, and the alternative would seem like a note from Scrooge. So, I chose not to write one. 

Instead, I was inspired to write this – thanks to something my son posted on Facebook. He rarely posts anything, which made it all the more significant. Prepare yourself. 

He had the gall to post, for all the Facebook World to see: 

“My Favorite Things” is not a Christmas song.

That’s right. 

Let that sink in. 

It was an affront to the memory of my family Christmases and the countless hours I spent spinning Christmas vinyl on my parents’ old stereo console every December. Clearly my son does not realize that Andy Williams included this song on a favorite Christmas album from my childhood. Clearly, he doesn’t realize that that song is more of a Christmas tradition than some other things that have become synonymous with Christmas – like the movie Die Hard or ugly sweaters. 

I’m pretty sure I raised that boy, so I don’t understand how he could believe such nonsense. It’s proof that parenting is not an exact science! Next he’ll say the “classic” Grinch movie stars Jim Carrey, when we all know it’s the cartoon version starring the creepy voice of Boris Karloff that is the real classic. 

In an effort to set him straight, I am going to list My Favorite Things of 2020. It’ll be a Christmas miracle if it comes off right, since I am no lyricist! Wish me luck, and try to read this to the tune of that very traditional Christmas song…

Working from my home and

doing it in jammies

That time John Krazinski

created Some Good News

Zooming with old friends I hadn’t seen in years

This year was a doozy but did have some cheer!

Facetime with Logan [my grandson]

Playing virtual Yahtzee

The kindness of strangers

From six feet apart, please

Free hours to spend taking classes online

This year was a doozy, hope next year is fine!

That’s all I’ve got. Honestly, there was a lot of good that happened this year, many examples of human kindness, generosity, empathy, cooperation and love. We humans are a hardy bunch. We’ve been through a lot but I have faith that we will come out the other side wiser, kinder and especially more mindful of the relationships we cherish.

Does your family have traditions that make Christmas special? I sure hope you’ll find a way to make them happen this year! I hope you will share some of your Favorite Things in the comments. 

I wish you all a safe and blessed holiday season. May your Christmas lights burn bright with hope and may 2021 live up to our expectations!

A #PureMichigan Pandemic Adventure

A “Trips With Pip” Story

I guess I didn’t plan very well. I picked the strangest time to begin traveling with my dog – in the middle of a pandemic. Of course, I’d been thinking about it since I brought her home two years ago. First things first, though: I needed to train and socialize her. I don’t think traveling with an unruly puppy would be much fun! 

Prepping Pippi

Pippi is energetic and bossy. It’s taken a lot of work to get her to play well with others. She has come a long way in how she responds to other animals and strangers. She takes time to warm up to people she hasn’t met, so I don’t worry that she will wander off to be taken in by a  stranger’s proffered treats. She does love people, though, and once Pip lets down her guard, she’ll be a friend for life! She is incredibly affectionate – and a generous giver of sloppy kisses. She is smart and eager to please, too. Pippi has learned a lot about how to behave in public: walking well on a leash, leaving things she finds interesting (most often) with a single command, and often taking care of business on command, too (So fabulous, trust me!). She is tiny so can be a bit skittish in busy, crowded places – but I can’t blame her. If I was in danger of being stepped on or eaten at any moment, I might be a bit on edge myself!

In Search of a Cure For Quarantine Cabin Fever

So, with the basics mastered, and the pandemic making me stir-crazy, I decided to book us a little adventure to test the waters. I am always drawn to the Great Lakes. Being a life-long Michigander, I have dipped my toes in all of them at least once (except Ontario, if I’m not mistaken), and many times in my favorites – Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The “west coast” of the lower peninsula is gorgeously rimmed with white, sandy beaches, quaint small towns and scenic hikes and drives. Every season offers something to enjoy. In July I began looking at late August options, hoping that most schools would be back in session and the beaches would be less crowded. 

Pippi sizes up the bed at our AirBnB

Clearly, there were many others who had the same idea. It took a while, but finally AirBnB came through. I found a little studio apartment in Grand Haven. The listing mentioned that it was pet-friendly but didn’t list extra fees, so I contacted the host. Rachel was quick to respond with a friendly, “There is no additional charge. Dogs deserve a vacation, too!” I clearly had found the right place. Rachel continued to offer suggestions for places to go and things to see and do during the weeks leading up to our getaway. I couldn’t have asked for a better AirBnB experience, and highly recommend Rachel’s place to anyone looking to spend some time in Grand Haven with their pet!

Our #PureMichigan Pandemic Adventure Begins

The drive to Grand Haven takes about two hours. I made arrangements to meet a friend for lunch mid-trip. We sat outdoors (the only option on offer in Michigan at the time) at Zeytin Restaurant in the charming town of Ada. Our waiter was welcoming and offered Pippi a bowl of water since it was a hot, sunny afternoon. At one point, Pippi was startled by traffic noise. She spilled her water, which then sent her skittering out of the way and I temporarily lost hold of her leash. I recommend making sure you have your dog’s leash secured before diving into a delicious bowl of lentil soup. If you don’t, you may end up with much of your soup on the sidewalk! Just a tip.

During the drive, we made a necessary pitstop at a roadside rest area. I have to say that one silver lining to this pandemic is that public rest areas are sooooo much cleaner than usual. Despite that, making a stop like this with a pet can be a bit tricky. I couldn’t leave Pippi in the hot car while I went inside. Suffice it to say, the experience was manageable but not ideal. I highly recommend forming a tag-team for this sort of thing, if at all possible.

Day 1 – Grand Haven

We arrived in Grand Haven in the early afternoon. After getting settled in our home away from home, we set out to explore the town. It was a short walk to the business district, which sits right on the Grand River and Lake Michigan. Restaurants had commandeered the main street for outdoor seating. The town was, to my delight, active but not overcrowded. We did some window shopping and went into Must Love Dogs, an adorable pet boutique. The shop has an active Facebook page filled with pet-friendly opportunities – meet-ups with like-minded folks for walks around the area and other activities. I recommend checking it out. 

Pippi and I walked to the lighthouse pier and just enjoyed the fresh air and views of the water. All told, we logged about 3 miles in the heat of the day. The nice thing about traveling solo with a pet is that you find all kinds of opportunities to interact with people you meet along the way. Making connections with strangers is so easy when you have a dog – especially a tiny dog. So many oohs and aahs and inquiries. 

Later that evening, a friend joined us for a visit to nearby P.J. Hoffmaster State Park. It was about a 10-minute drive rewarded by gorgeous sunset views on the beach. I found that most, if not all, parks were welcoming to dogs after the busy daytime hours. I prefer quiet beaches and avoiding the heat of midday, so this suited me just fine.

Sunset at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park

Day 2 – Nature Walks and Some Serious R&R

Day Two was filled with visits to a variety of nature preserves and parks and a fitting finale to the busy day. First, though, we enjoyed breakfast, including some great coffee chosen especially for me by our AirBnB host – just one of many special touches we experienced here. We picked up a picnic lunch at The Toasted Pickle, a terrific little sandwich shop in town. 

Ottawa Dunes (dog-friendly) and North Beach Park (not so much)

We took our picnic to the beach – North Beach Park, which doesn’t technically allow dogs. We parked there and walked through a small part of the Ottawa Dunes, which does allow dogs on leash.

Pippi really loved exploring here. It was hilly, but with stairs, so we didn’t have to slog uphill through the sand. Near the top you get great views of the lake and beach below.

On Ottawa Dunes looking out to North Beach Park and Lake Michigan

After wandering around there for a while, we grabbed a picnic table near the water for our lunch. Our sandwiches and salads were fabulous! Recharged, we headed to the next stop. 

North Beach Park – Great place for a picnic!

Hofma Preserves Nature Trails

This is an inland preserve with trails though a diverse wetlands and woodsy area – perfect for finding all sorts of wildlife. Pip enjoyed this one though the floating bridges made her a bit nervous. We saw birds, turtles and water lilies and found this to be a very peaceful place. The trails here were flat and fairly short. The preserve does connect to Hofma Park for more trail options. It was here, at Hofma Preserve, that I took the signature photo for my Trips with Pip series. This was my favorite trail of the trip.

Duncan Woods

Our last trail of the day was Duncan Woods. I had high hopes for this one – billed as “40 acres of unspoiled virgin forest.” There were more people wandering here but trails were not marked well and we made our best guess. We ended up on a paved “trail” that ended up taking us through a cemetery. I like cemeteries as much as the next guy – they can be pretty interesting – but this was not what we were looking for. By that time, we’d had enough of nature and headed back to town. 

The Pier, Ice Cream and Dinner on the Beach at Sunset

We took another walk to the pier and lighthouse. As I mentioned before, having a pet invites interaction with the people you meet. Most interactions are pleasant and friendly. We did meet up with one lady, though, who made no secret of her opinion as she approached us – “That’s an awfully long walk for a little dog!”, she muttered loudly. Now, mind you, Pippi was pulling me at that point as I had begun to slow down. And, of course, I had her travel water bowl and a bottle of water (necessary accessories for outings with your pet). Oh, well. Some people…

Pippi enjoying the view from the end of the lighthouse pier

What’s a trip to the beach without a delicious ice cream cone, right? We stopped at one of the many  options along the walk to the lighthouse. Plenty of folks were out and about despite it being a weekday. As the sun began its descent, we saw many sun-kissed families trailing home from the beach, with sleepy, water-logged kids heavy in their arms, or juggling umbrellas and coolers as they navigated the sandy paths back to their cars. 

Once again, my AirBnB host, Rachel, came through with a great recommendation. Noto’s at the Bil-Mar sits right on the beach. Any spot in the outdoor seating area provides amazing views of the water and a front row seat to gorgeous Lake Michigan sunsets. Once again, Pippi was a welcome guest. We ordered drinks, tucked our toes into the soft, white sand and settled in for an unhurried evening. The food is very good – but the views just can’t be beat.

 The official Dog Beach, part of the Grand Haven City Beach,  is just to the south of the restaurant. We were able to watch puppies frolicking in the surf, kids putting the finishing touches on their sand castles and couples laying out blankets anchored by picnic baskets laden with romantic dinners-for-two. It really was a great finish to a perfectly lovely getaway. By the way, the sunset really was a stunner.

The End of a Successful Trial Run

The next morning, Pippi and I had a nice lazy morning and then packed up to head home. I found a bag of fresh farmer’s market peaches perched on the hood of my car – yet another thoughtful gesture by our host, Rachel! I arrived home relaxed, refreshed and feeling like I had really gotten away for a bit – a necessary thing this summer, we all know. And, I felt encouraged – knowing now that Pippi will make a great travel companion and a wonderful conversation starter when I visit new places in the future.

Pippi, exhausted but happy, dreaming of her adventures in the sand and surf

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.