P1130613

The Misty Isle

On the drive out to Skye we made a quick stop to get our castle on. We chose the Eilean Donan to pop our Scottish castle cherry, largely because it’s one of the most hyped, also because it was on the way. Pretty awesome building in a stunning location. We found it neat that it’s privately owned and presumably the family can just hang out and weekend there. Alan remarked how he appreciated Scotland since it made you feel like you were in Scotland, as opposed to places that are lovely but really if you were knocked unconscious and dropped there, you could have guessed any number of locations upon awakening. But it’s hard to guess anything other than Scotland with bagpipers, castles, mountains, a cold blustery shoreline and a Scotch whisky in hand.

Once on the Isle of Skye, we drove out to Elgol one day to catch the boat to Loch Coruisk. While technically on Skye, rather than a separate island, this mountain-ringed lake is accessible only via boat (or long hike) and is so remote that you truly believe you’re on a deserted island once there.

The ride in affords some fantastic views of the surrounding landscape and the few white houses dotting it. It seems like almost all the homes in Skye are white, which only makes the contrast of green, blue and white more stark (when blue skies actually appear, rare as they are).

The boat also pauses alongside a seal colony on the way there. How are seals so cute? Honestly. Their adorable whiskers and the way they seem to wave hello.

Once at Loch Coruisk we braved the river crossing in search of the best views. The water was a bit high, making the way across challenging. I was lucky enough to be assisted by not one, but two strangers who passed quicker than I.

There were no good samaritans to help me on the return across the river (except Alan, sort of), but fortunately my forced walk through the water helped clean the mud off my boots from my multiple accidental introductions to peat and mud sinkholes.

Luckily the messy and soggy walk was well worth the views. Quite spectacular. And we even saw a small herd of deer!

But the most beautiful scenery on Skye had to be the awe inspiring views at the Quiraing. I am so glad we accidentally fell into a hike around this area. This was a highlight of our whole trip.

The hills here are full of jagged, steep rocks, but they are blanketed by verdant grasses. It looked almost like the scenery you might find in the American west, but lush and green. The land sweeps upward then ends abruptly in a cliff, with pinnacle formations and ocean views a constant presence.

The pictures really speak for themselves. It’s intoxicating up there.

We hit up our second Scotch whisky distillery with a visit to Talisker. Whisky is always a little strong for my pallet, but the 10:30 am tour and tasting was pushing it for me. Alan, on the other hand, was a happy camper. We had signed up to be Friends of the Classic Malts at the Oban distillery (another Diageo brand), which meant we got free tours at Talisker (woot woot). But the highlight, for sure, was seeing Alan’s eyes light up as they stamped his “passport.” This must be what it feels like to take a little boy to a train museum.

Just up the street is a most adorable lunch spot: the Oyster Shed. Boy did we fall in love with this place! We ordered fresh oysters that were shucked right before our eyes, and with the purchase of six we got a glass of wine for free (something for me to enjoy now, eh?). There is also a little stand of sorts just outside the shed where you can order prepared foods and we also picked up small crab rolls. Certainly hit the spot. (Pro tip: do not be tempted by the jarred pates. We made the mistake of buying the pheasant pate with morello cherries and it had the exact same smell, appearance and consistency as the canned food we used to feed my cats).

We rounded out that wonderfully lazy day with a slow drive around some more of the beautiful Skye scenery, stopping to pop into a few art galleries and one delightful tea shop. I will never get enough of tea and scones.

Or this stunning Scottish scenery!

During a brief respite from the rain (actually it might have still been raining on us at this point), we got a stunning glimpse of the full arc of a rainbow. Positively picturesque.

And we spotted these two bunnies chasing each other around a small concrete box, and it was cute enough to become an internet meme.

The grand finale, and one of the most striking vistas we’ve seen, was Neist Point. This tiny peninsula juts out into the sea, and is adorned by a beautiful lighthouse. You can walk out to the end, but we smartly opted instead to walk up a bit towards the rocks on the other side of the small bay. We were surprised to have the area almost entirely to ourselves, and the view was well worth braving the gale force winds. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s this cold here in August!

The cows and the sky were not so bad to look at either.

We spoke recently of a hotel that completely made our stay: Hazel Bank in England’s Lake District. Well, our B&B on the Isle of Skye almost had the capacity to break our stay, what with its moldy fruit breakfasts and sharp cracked toilet seat (ridiculous that they haven’t changed that), not to mention the fully carpeted bathroom (the germs that must stick in there!!). And of course there was the aggro chicken welcome committee. This chicken came uncomfortably close to pecking our ankles, and I have to say it was rather creepy. But it was kind of cute and funny, so I won’t blame the innkeeper for that one. And I’ll give them props (despite Alan’s allergic reaction and consequent dismay) for their adorable little cat. He was such a sweetie.

And because Skye is just that beautiful and I couldn’t stop taking pictures… here are a few more to savor.

Practical Info

The Isle of Skye has appeared on lists of the world’s best islands, and it lives up to the hype.

It is a good idea to reserve accommodation far in advance. I contacted perhaps 30-40 places and only one was able to offer us a room the four nights we wanted. And while this place wasn’t so bad, it may be the only place we’ve stayed on the (Europe) trip thus far that we would not recommend.

Transportation: We drove from Glen Coe/Fort William. It is a scenic drive, and the stretch of A87 east of Dornie (I think it may be Glen Shiel) is terrific. There are some ferries from the main land to the island but we took the bridge. It is cheaper (free) and doesn’t require any reservations, and this way we could stop at Eilean Donan Castle right on the way.

On the island, it is highly recommended to have a car (there are at least a few petrol stations, and at least the ones by Portree and Broadford seemed reasonably priced). There is bus service, but that would be very limiting. It is a big island and driving between points may take a long time, e.g. it is about an hour and a half from our B&B to Elgol.

Accommodation: We stayed at Skye Redwood House, which is right by Greshornish House Hotel on Google Maps, in or near Edinbane (about half an hour from Portree). It has a nice waterfront setting and a very spacious room and the owner seems nice and well-intentioned, but we cannot recommend it (at least the B&B portion, there are also self-catering cottages). Loving touches are absent; the toilet seat had a huge and bothersome break; there was mold on the berries at breakfast; in four nights they never cleaned the shower or emptied the trash; the list goes on…

Food and Drinks: I should mention that lox-lovers will enjoy Scotland, as eggs with smoked salmon has been on the breakfast menu at most B&Bs. The pizza at L’incontro in Portree was on point, the service not so much. We picked up crackers, cheese and pate from Relish another night. There are several dining options in Portree.

Dinner at Edinbane Inn was good and it is a cozy, pub-like setting. After visiting Talisker distillery we had lunch at The Oyster Shed, which sells game and seafood including delicious, plump oysters shucked when you order. They also sell various pates and some cheese. Tea and scones at Ceiteag’s in Glendale was lovely.

The Three Chimneys is touted in local print, and I think Kinloch Lodge has a Michelin star.

Activities: A visit to Loch Coruisk is highly recommended. You could hike there, but I think it’s very long and may be hairy in spots. We did what most do, which is take a boat from Elgol (book ahead, at least in summer). We went with Misty Isle. They take you to Coruisk and on the way you see a seal colony. Then you have an hour and a half to walk around before the return boat, or you can stay longer and take a later boat. We started to walk around the Loch but realized it was a long trip on very muddy terrain. Depending on recent rainfall, you may need good balance to cross the river at the start of the circuit without getting wet. Misty Isle charges £20/adult and we were very pleased with their service. Bella Jane is another company that offers this trip.

Our hike around the Quiraing was a highlight of our whole trip. The scenery is just magnificent. There is an obvious parking area around the high point of the minor road that cuts across the Trotternish peninsula connecting Staffin and Uig. We did the hike counter-clockwise, i.e. we headed out along the base and returned above the escarpment. It took us about 2.5 hours. Also on the Trotternish peninsula (which we circled clockwise) is the famous Old Man of Storr. The hike up is steep and a couple miles, which I didn’t realize so I only went about half way in my flip-flops.

Talisker is the only distillery on the island, and we enjoyed our tour. It usually costs £7 each, but was free for us after we joined the Friend of the Classic Malts program (also free).

Eilean Donan Castle is not on the island of Skye, but it is nearby. Admission costs £6.50/adult.

Other things you might look into doing: Dunvegan Castle; Coral Beaches near Dunvegan; Fairy Pools near Glenbrittle; visiting galleries and craft shops, see http://www.art-skye.co.uk; sea kayaking through various operators.

August 13-17, 2014 (Wednesday-Sunday)

P1130294

You Go, Glen Coe

If Glen Coe, the valley, went to North Shore High it would totally get four candy canes. Scotland’s pretty pretty, y’all. The scenery in this glen of volcanic origin is rather surreal, and I say this despite that we had loads and loads of rain. Actually, one might venture to say that the rain added to the experience. Going out for a wet walk in the highlands, as a tartan-kilted bagpiper serenades you is just about as Scottish as it can get. Unless we had a tartan-clad Scottie walking with us and carrying our shortbread on his back. Then I guess we would win. Here is a quick video to give you a sense of the scene:

It feels very remote out here. The vistas as you drive in are dramatic, as you wind through verdant valleys surrounded by steep, craggy mountains and many brimming waterfalls. (By the way, apologies if we keep repeating ourselves in these posts on Ireland, the Lake District and Scotland…it’s just that it’s all so, well, verdant and craggy and waterfall-laden).

We learned quickly why Scottish people are so pale, as evidenced by our preparation for this August, summer hike:

This hike was actually wonderful, and since we were covered in rain gear we didn’t have to face the dreaded midges that we’d been warned about. We were a bit bummed to arrive close to the top only to discover that the river was glutted from the rains, meaning crossing it would require a walk through rushing (cold) water certainly above my hiking boots. We sat there debating and exploring alternate routes for close to an hour before I almost let Alan persuade me to do it. But then we decided dry (ish) boots sounded better and headed back down. We’ll never know for sure what the Hidden Valley looks like. It’s a good thing too, because the itty-bitty café we stopped in for lunch played our wedding song! First time that’s happened to us, and surely a sign. P.S. are we the only ones who find it odd they always use shredded cheese on their sandwiches in the UK?

Our first day coming into town we fit in a very, very short walk at Glencoe Lochen, which went up a little hill and then round a quaint wee lake with ducks and Scottish boys fishing. Picturesque.

Alan also ventured out on his own for one last quick hike in Glen Nevis. He walked through Nevis Gorge until it opened up to a beautiful meadow and Steall Falls.

Apart from the natural beauty, Scotland’s big draw is its spirits. Not just any canned heat, but Scotch whisky (yes, here it’s spelled without the “e”). Cue Alan saying, “I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.” So Scotland is quite famous for its whisky. (And apparently, Scotch is basically just whisky from Scotland. Mind blown. If you don’t know, now you know.) I don’t know, I can’t drink the stuff; it smells like fire. But Alan began his tasting journey up in these Scottish Highlands with a visit to Oban Distillery. He was like a petulant child when told all the tours were full for the day, so we drove the 45 minutes over to the town of Oban anyway, so he could try some whisky in their tasting room and read some of the informational bits on display. He somehow managed to finagle a tour ticket purchase off of a lovely wife, who, like me, couldn’t care nearly as much as her husband about hard liquor. So while she and I sat in the waiting room for an hour talking about how much better wine is than whisky, Alan and her husband learned all there is to know about boiling beer fumes into whisky, or something like that. Anyway, I took his credit card and bought him a $100 bottle of some real fancy firewater as an early birthday gift, and all was very well.

One of my favorite activities while traveling (and really, just in life) is “picnicking” with wine, cheese and meats. We did this in our B&B room the night we arrived. We were staying kind of far from all the action (what little there is), so we had picked up supplies in Glasgow, and enjoyed some Roquefort on Fine Cheese Co.’s Toasts for Cheese (public service announcement: if you have not tried these with some good creamy blue cheese you have not lived life), terrific coppa and a bottle of Montepulciano that night. Lovely, just lovely. And our B&B was just about as remote as it gets, complete with gates you must open manually to get onto the property, and of course, loads of Scottish sheep.

Practical Info

If you want a taste of outstanding Scottish Highland scenery without driving so far from Glasgow (or Edinburgh), this area is a solid option. Glen Coe is stunning and has lots of great hiking. Fort William seems a little less beautiful but is no slouch, and it is the home of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles. You can easily visit Oban from Glencoe village. By the way, I’m pretty sure that Glen Coe refers to the valley itself and the area while Glencoe is the village.

Transportation: We drove from Glasgow on A82, up the west side of Loch Lomond and then through the pass and down to Glencoe (and then headed south on A828 towards Oban to reach our B&B near Duror). The scenery from, let’s say, Tyndrum through to Glencoe is beautiful. Diesel costs ~£1.35/liter.

Accommodation: We stayed at Bealach Country House in Salachan Glen near Duror. It is kind of in the middle of nowhere, a mile and a half up a dirt road which itself begins away from any town. Our room was nice with a very large bathroom (with tub), WiFi worked well and breakfast was great. They also serve dinner (not on Monday) for £30/person; we declined but sort of regretted it when we smelled the remnants after returning from Oban. There was a little bit of complimentary whisky in the room, and it was refilled the next day.

I think if your focus is hiking around Glen Coe, you probably want to stay in Glencoe village or near the hostel and Clachaig Inn. If your focus is hiking Ben Nevis, you probably want to stay in Fort William and maybe at the Ben Nevis Inn.

Food and Drinks: We had lunch at the Glencoe Cafe, a cute spot with good WiFi. And, they played our wedding song (Si Tu Vois Ma Mere), which never happens. Dinner in Oban at Piazza was tasty (though we only had a cheese pizza) and there are lovely views of the harbor. Lunch at Cafe Beag in Glen Nevis was also good.

Activities: We did the Lost (or Hidden) Valley hike in Glen Coe, which is a very nice and not so hard hike. We also did the short Mountain Walk at, and then circled, Glencoe Lochen. There are a number of Munros and other bigger hikes in the area.

My hike in the Nevis Gorge to Sheall Falls was pretty short, it took me an hour return though I was hustling as Jenni was waiting. I was pretty bummed not to hike Ben Nevis, but the forecast was kind of grim. The upper reaches are in the clouds most days and that is one thing, but gale force winds due to the low-pressure system from the remnants of Hurricane Bertha are another. You can also do some boating with various operators. In the winter, you could ski at Glencoe Mountain Resort.

Oban is not that far away. It is a sizable town that seemed pretty nice and gateway to the nearby islands. More important, it is the home of the Oban Distillery. I’ll do a separate post later on some distilleries.

August 11-13, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)

P1130213

Glasgow

Imagine our surprise when we arrived in urban Galsgow, began pulling our bags out of the trunk, and discovered that we’d had a sneak hitchhiker come along for the ride. This Tolkien-esque toad creature stowed away in one of our hiking boots without our knowledge. Despite that it was an accident, we still felt really guilty knowing this little dude would probably not survive the city life. I seriously contemplated trying to find someone driving to the country to see if they could bring him back, but we ended up freeing him in the car park and imagining him going on to lead a happy life in the drainage system.

Even though we knew our road trip companion wouldn’t be a big fan, it turned out we were on the other end of the spectrum with Glasgow. What a fantastic little city. It feels somewhat Boston-esque with its brownstones and compact layout, and Alan felt the impressive architecture reminded him a bit of Stockholm. The famed architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh had his hand in a lot of the design in this city, and his influence is easy to find, but there’s much more to it. It seems like every block has at least a handful of buildings that make you stop and say “wow.” I couldn’t put the camera down while walking these neighborhoods.

We loved that there were so many pedestrian friendly streets for meandering. And there are also heaps of adorable places to go out, highlights including this bar/restaurant built in an old church, and Ashton Lane, with its adorable twinkle lights, cobblestone-ish street and ample outdoor seating. Perhaps the most novel spot was Merchant Square, which was set up like a pedestrian friendly square with outdoor seating, except that it’s covered so folks can enjoy it rain or shine. Loved this idea! It’s clear others enjoy the nightlife scene here as well, as seemingly endless restaurants were overflowing with diners and partiers.

And Glasgow is apparently full of engaged ladies and their heaps of friends keen to attend their hen parties. I haven’t seen this many bachelorettes in such close proximity since Nashville! Alan captured this meta photo bomb while I was snapping a photo for one of said hens.

And, like Penang, Malaysia (a favorite of ours), you can go on a scavenger hunt in search of murals painted throughout the city. We somehow managed to find only one, but next time we go back I’ll have to do the full tour.

Glasgow can probably take the cake for easiest subway system of all time. It’s a circle, and it goes both ways. Your only decision is outer or inner line (so, clockwise or counter). There are 15 stops in the entire system, and the trains are so small, I actually saw a medium height man duck to get off.

With the remnants of an American hurricane coming over to the UK, we got lots of rain on our next and final day in Glasgow. Glad to have known this in advance and taken advantage of the city’s offerings on a sunny Saturday arvo, we enjoyed the rainy day in a sleepy, slow fashion. We had a leisurely cream tea at The Butterfly and The Pig, savoring some more scones and clotted cream. Then we headed over to the Kelvingrove museum where we perused the art like adults, but secretly enjoyed the child-oriented animal exhibits far more. We had a lazy afternoon and headed out for dinner, deciding on the Wee Curry Shop partially because it’s fun to say, but largely due to its proximity and the fact that it was not raining inside. Nonetheless it was a tasty Indian meal and we enjoyed lingering over it with their enormous pours of wine. It was no haggis with neeps ‘n tatties, but we’re fine to miss that. Neeps, tatties, and haggis (for those not in the Scottish know), are, respectively, turnips, potatoes, and either a savory pudding made of sheep heart, liver and lungs or a potentially made-up short legged raccoon-like animal (depending on who you ask).

Practical Info

Glasgow has had quite the renaissance of late. It suffered many years of urban decay following its post-industrial decline, but you would hardly know it from visiting today. It is filled with trendy bars and restaurants, cute curated shops and glorious buildings. I expected it would still feel rather rough and tumble, but I was wrong.

City Centre seemed to have more big-ticket buildings and opportunities for self-guided walking tours, while the West End and Byres Road in particular was a bit more leafy and hipster. At least parts of Sauchiehall, Buchanan and Argyle Streets are pedestrian only.

Transportation: We drove from the Lake District. The M6 and A/M74 are nice, wide expressways. In Glasgow we rode the subway, which is so simple. It is just a loop and the two directions are called “inner” and “outer.” A one-way ticket costs £1.60 and return fare is £3, we did not explore getting a card. There are many bus routes.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb place right by Kelvinhall subway station, at the bottom of Byres Road. This location is excellent. The Hilton at the top of Byres Road and across from the Botanic Gardens would be a nice location. We didn’t really explore enough to say for sure, but I think you’d do well to stay in the West End or the City Centre.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at Oran Mor was good. It is a nice, large pub (in a former church, with the pub + a brasserie + theater etc.). The burger and the sticky toffee pudding were both solid. The scone at The Butterfly and The Pig (West End, not the one on Bath Street) was so-so but the space is nice and service was friendly. Dinner at The Wee Curry Shop on Byres was very good and quite reasonable at £25 for two apps, two entrees and 500ml of wine. Peckham’s on Byres Road has meats, cheeses, wine, etc. The pastries were meh but the rest was very good. TriBeCa was packed for Sunday brunch. Three Judges has jazz on Sunday afternoon. A friend recommended Two Fat Ladies (there are multiple locations).

There are lots of places to eat and drink throughout the city. Two of our favorite little hubs judged only from passing through are Merchant Square in the City Centre and Ashton Lane in the West End.

Activities: There are a number of free museums and there is endless impressive architecture (with Charles Rennie Mackintosh the local hero). Simply walking around and admiring your surroundings is a great way to spend time here.

We visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum and spent nearly two hours there, a miraculous feat for these short attention span folks. It offers a great combination of animal, cultural and artistic exhibits, making it appealing to kids and bigger kids. It is housed in a splendid building, and it’s free. If we had more time and/or better weather, we might have visited the Botanic Gardens and Riverside Museum.

There are lots of options for shopping, from the big name brands like John Lewis to smaller boutique shops. Jenni very much enjoyed checking out the goods at Tiger and liked the collection of art at By Distinction Gallery.

If you are not visiting the more well-known whisky areas or just want to hit as many as possible, the Auchentoshan distillery is very close to Glasgow, on the way towards Loch Lomond and Dumbarton Castle (which we stopped at but decided not to pay the £4.50 each to enter, in part because it was rainy and there was scaffolding).

August 9-11, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

P1130090

The Lake District

My first foray into England was everything I ever wanted it to be, and more. I was almost too nervous to start writing this post because I wanted to do justice to the place we stayed, which is my most highly recommended accommodation from this venture to date. We stayed at the Hazel Bank Country House in England’s Lake District, which is as wonderful as its environs are beautiful.

Given our budget (not super low as you can probably gather, but we’re not staying at the Ritz every night for a year and a half) and our moderate distaste for discomfort (hey, champagne taste, right?) we tend to stay generally at mid-range hotels and B&Bs and thus our accommodation rarely makes or breaks a particular destination for us. But Hazel Bank, and its most wonderful proprietor, Gary, absolutely made this place for us. This is not to say you wouldn’t enjoy the Lake District staying elsewhere (as we’re certainly no experts on the surrounding hotel options and the beauty of this place speaks for itself in our pictures), but we would highly advise against it, because the experience at Hazel Bank was just so sigh-in-contentedness good.

Gary is the real deal hospitality maven. He is funny and engaging, and born for this job. It takes a certain personality and skill-set to succeed in this business, and he has got it. There is an element of hospitality that cannot be bought, but it can be found at Hazel Bank.

The grounds are lovely. The small hotel is situated in an English manor style home on one of those quintessential rolling green lawns, nestled right into the mountains and lush, verdant landscape that the Lake District affords. White (and the odd black) sheep dot the emerald scenery vistas from the rooms, and you’ll occasionally be graced by the presence of a red squirrel while eating breakfast or dinner on site. The rooms are elegantly appointed with crystal chandeliers, flowing curtains and even a crystal decanter with a taste of sherry and two crystal glasses. Ours offered a beautiful view out the front yard, which was a favorite spot of ours what with its sprawling lawn, croquet course, beautiful old tree, and ample seating for a late afternoon cocktail; the absolute best place to enjoy a post-hike gin and tonic or glass of rose.

The food is, of course, also part of the experience. The included breakfast is English and scrumptious. I believe I ate crumpets every morning. And Alan tried a new treat: smoked kippers. This, apparently, is a small fish, and while tasty, the bone removal process proved too much work for Alan’s first meal of the day. I and the rest of the hotel guests did, however, enjoy watching him learn to maneuver them. The real deal, though, is the dinner service. The four courses are served with a high class flair (table setting with four forks, of course), preceded by canapés and pre-dinner drinks in the lounge, followed by tea, coffee and/or stronger libations for those fancying a brandy or scotch whiskey also in the lounge. The whole process is wonderful. The food is delicious, with a special mention to Donna’s lovely desserts and the lamb crackling that was just out of this world. Gary is expertly skilled to assist in helping you choose a wine to accompany said fare. And the whole ordeal, while classy and civilized to the nth degree, is never stuffy. Gary is attentive yet never intrusive, checking in frequently on your needs and entertaining with his masterful conversationalism (if you will) and sharp British wit.

Of course, the main attraction of the Lake District is the natural beauty and its attendant activities. Perhaps the best amenity that Hazel Bank can offer (next to Gary) is its proximity to Mother Nature’s playground and the convenience it offers for getting out to these hikes.

We were blessed with perfect hiking weather our first day in the district and so we headed out to Gary’s recommended hike, located ever so conveniently, just outside our door. Literally across the street, we began climbing up a steep gully, past an old slate mine, to the top of High Spy.

The views were incredible from the get go, with heather covered hills rising above the green fields and valleys below. The wildflowers were so lovely, lots of purple, with the heather dominating, but also accented by thistle and bluebells.

We continued on, meandering down the long mountain ridge as the views picked up, culminating in a 360º view at the top of Cat Bells where you overlook the lake (Derwentwater), fields of sheep, Keswick and some smaller villages.

We backtracked slightly, and then headed down the mountain to quickly explore the tiny town of Grange before walking back to Hazel Bank along the river. We were rewarded with cocktails in the front yard before freshening up for dinner, and we had to remark on how wonderful the experience was. This is probably our favorite way to travel, or, well, live: being active in beautiful nature and then coming home to comfort and good food and drink. Not bad, not bad at all.

We were also perhaps lucky to have a lovely group of people sharing the experience at Hazel Bank with us, and we very much enjoyed our chats over pre- and post-dinner drinks, and bumping into them up on the mountains (Hazel Bank owned the ridge that day!). The friendly vibe was always palpable, and one of my favorite memories was when another guest requested a curry with dinner on her last night. Gary got a kick out of this, and after busting her chops that night, he surprised her (and us all) with a curried chicken on naan canapé the next evening. The convivial ambiance crescendoed. And last of the company, but certainly not least, I should mention that Gary and Donna have a dog. And not just any dog, the sweetest little boxer, called Toby. I have fallen madly in love with this scrumptious pup.

We briefly explored some of the other areas in the district. We fit in another, shorter hike the next morning for fear of the weather rumored to be coming in. This one also had us walking straight out the door of our hotel and up to Dock Tarn, passing very few people along the way.

We stopped in the small village of Watendlath for a cuppa tea. I love all these little villages and the little tea shops. This one didn’t happen to be my favorite as they had no clotted cream for their scones (the gall!) and were weirdly unfriendly, but it is pretty picturesque, what with the stove, framed badger needle points, and yard full of gnomes.

After that few hour hike before the rain really began, we went for a drive over the Honister Pass to Buttermere Valley. The landscape is much more severe over on this side of the park, a sense that was amplified by heavy rains that caused all the sheep to huddle up by the trees and fences for shelter. The area is more stark and less crowded over there, with rushing streams tumbling down valleys to greet beautiful lakes. We visited the cozy Kirkstile Inn for scones with clotted cream and (obvi) more tea.

To sum it up, in case you couldn’t already tell, I’m mad for England. The whole place (and I base this solely on my experience at one hotel in the Lake District and the fact that people are exceedingly punctilious in keeping left on the motorways) is just so civilized. Having flown into Liverpool, I of course had to plug in my iPhone and play some Beatles as soon as we landed. You can’t drive out of the John Lennon airport without paying homage. But we have some embarrassing news to report. We are ignorant and unworldly and ethnocentric; we had no idea that England uses feet and miles. Here we were thinking that Americans were the only ones. How did we not know this? We were also made to feel a fool for not having an impressive arsenal of odd sayings, such as mad as a box of frogs and full of beans (which means energetic, though it sounds like it would mean full of bologna).

Practical Info

England’s Lake District is a large area in the northwest of the country. All of the Lake District is within the county of Cumbria, but not vice versa. In general, the south and east of the Lake District is a little gentler and more crowded, while the north and west is more rugged and less crowded. We stayed in Rosthwaite, which is a settlement in Borrowdale and is about 5-6 miles from Keswick, the largest nearby town. Apart from how fabulous our B&B was, we really liked this area for its gorgeous scenery and cozy ambience. It is less dramatic and isolated feeling (and admittedly less visually impressive) than Buttermere and environs, and arguably prettier and certainly less crowded than Windermere, Ambleside, etc. Our friend said that for isolation and mountain grandeur he would recommend the Wasdale Head Inn, and in any event would skip Windermere as it is so developed and touristy.

We never drove through Windermere, but we did pass through Grasmere and Ambleside to check them out. The former is pretty small and charming while the latter is a bit bigger, but it still seemed quite appealing. Jenni likened it to a ski town. We strongly considered staying in Cartmel as it is supposed to be an adorable village and foodie haven, but we passed because the mountain scenery and nearby hiking reportedly fall short of other areas.

Transportation: We arrived to Liverpool airport and rented a car for the 2+ hour drive to Rosthwaite. Both hikes we did allowed us to walk straight from our B&B. We also drove around the area some, including over Honister Pass where the scenery is magnificent. There are some buses and often boat transport on the lakes, which means you could do a one way hike without shuttling a car. I think moving between valleys on public transport is probably quite a bit harder than within.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hazel Bank Country House, and as covered above we absolutely loved it. There are so many options in the area, including several very well-located hostels.

Food and Drinks: Pretty much all our meals were taken at Hazel Bank, and the quality was great. The lamb cracklin at dinner one night was fall out of your chair good. Breakfast is included while a four-course dinner costs £24.95/person. We enjoyed a different reasonably priced bottle of wine each night. Our one off-premises bite was at the Kirkstile Inn in Loweswater. It is a cozy pub, the scones were enormous and delicious, and I think they have some proprietary beers. We also stopped at the Caffle House Tea Room in Watendlath for a cuppa. It was cute but not as friendly or warm as we would have liked.

There are various well-regarded dining options around the Lake District. Perhaps most famous of these is Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel.

Activities: The main activity for most visitors is walking/hiking. Our first day we went up a gully on the western side of Borrowdale past some old slate mines to a saddle. From there, one could make a steep ascent to Dale Head. Instead, we went right for the ridge walk encompassing High Spy, Maiden Moor & Cat Bells before backtracking a touch and descending to Grange and then returning along the river. It was 8-9 miles and the views of the valley and Derwentwater were terrific.

Our second day we headed south right out Hazel Bank’s driveway until perhaps a quarter mile beyond the Stonethwaite bridge when we veered left and made a steep ascent up to Dock Tarn and then descended to the tiny village of Watendlath before returning straight to Hazel Bank’s back door. This hike was perhaps 5 miles, and the views are a little less grand but it was beautiful and far less crowded as we passed only a few people. I don’t know what rules apply, but just near the end of the steep stone stairs heading up to Dock Tarn there was a little grassy circle where a couple appeared to have camped. It was an epic spot with big views of Borrowdale.

The map we used for our area is the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL4 covering the North-western area. On our way out we considered walking to Easedale Tarn from Grasmere, which sounded nice. A very kind gentlemen we met at Hazel Bank gave us a pocket-sized book listing 10 of the best hikes in the Lake District. These are: a Skiddaw round; Helvellyn; Coledale Horseshoe; Little Dale Round; Scafell Pike; Great Gable from Honister; Bowfell & Esk Pike; Langdale Pikes; Fairfield Horseshoe; and Coniston Old Man.

August 6-9, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)

P1130031

Failte to Farewell

We’ve little to report on Kinsale aside from that it’s beautiful and it makes you want to hang out and drink all day, which we basically did for two full days. The town felt more similar to non-Irish, ritzy-ish harbor towns/cities. In a way, it reminded us a bit of Cape Cod. And we certainly aren’t complaining. The downtown area has a bit more of an upscale vibe than other towns we visited, what with its nice restaurants, galleries, boutique shops and bookstores. Our B&B was a ways up the hill and a bit of a walk from town, but it gave us some pretty spectacular views of town (on the walk) and the bay.

Highlights of our visit included a delicious meal at Fishy Fishy, which was paired with a bottle of wine and a consequent lazy afternoon. This becomes a theme of our time in Kinsale…

We had big plans to walk over to the Charles Fort the next day and continue exploring the area. And we walked all the way over there (not a short walk, mind you!), stopping first for lunch at The Bulman. We decided to have a pint with said lunch. And when we found out they were having a reggae fest that day, it turned into many hours and even more pints.

It was at The Bulman that I discovered the amazingness that is Crabbie’s alcoholic ginger beer. It’s basically a Moscow mule in a bottle, served over ice and with a slice of lime. It’s pure heaven. And I’ll tell you, pairing your Crabbie’s with The Bulman’s crab sammy (or sarnie, as they say here) is on point.

Of course, Alan tried his Murphy’s Irish Stout in County Cork as Sean, our Cork born friend, advised. He gave it a rave review.

While the day spent drinking and lazily watching the tide go out was lovely, I have to mention the bees in Ireland. They are quite possibly the peskiest and most aggressive bees I’ve ever seen. And they have a particular fondness for Crabbie’s ginger beer. I think I drank, like, four dead bees. What is it with the bees here??

We also met a hilarious old chap who shared some of the best stories I’ve ever heard. He is a real live gypsy, and a former pro-boxing trainer to boot. We’re going to miss the Irish, for sure.

We stopped for a brief visit in the city of Cork before heading to the airport on our way out. It’s a bigger city than we expected, and quite nice (what we saw anyway). While we didn’t have much time to explore, we enjoyed perusing the Irish art at the Crawford Art Gallery, and a stroll and some gourmet samples at the English Market. This market had an impressive selection of meats, cheeses, fruits, veggies, sweets, pastries etc…all your market faves.

And one last random tidbit: there were heaps of “golden” retrievers in Kinsale (including an adorable one named Poppy at our B&B!), but they are so pale as to be almost white. We’re thinking we should look into adopting an Irish platinum retriever. Also, how did I not take any photos of these adorable dogs? Guess I was too busy playing with them.

Practical Info 

Kinsale is a beautiful seaside town in County Cork. Hailed by many as the culinary capital of Ireland, it has a fairly well-heeled feel to it. The landscape is gentler and it rains less than on the west coast.

Transportation: We drove from Kenmare and generally stayed near the coast, passing some lovely towns and inlets as are standard in these parts. You can walk around most of Kinsale (including to Charles Fort if you’re up for a couple miles); you may need a car to reach The Old Head of Kinsale. The drive from Kinsale to Cork City takes about half an hour. We found a car park right near the English Market for €2.50/hour, but you might check out the park and ride option on the way from Kinsale to Cork City. We departed from Cork Airport (less than half an hour from Kinsale and about 15 minutes from Cork City) headed to Liverpool. By the way, Ryanair kind of blows. It’s a discount airline so I get the high fee to check a bag and extra charge to select a seat or pay with a credit card. And I kind of get the insane €70 fee if you don’t check in online. But they charge €15 if you don’t print out your boarding pass, and if you’re on the road that is a bit of a pain. Moreover, our flight was delayed an hour and a half for no apparent reason (weather seemed fine), and it was probably the first developed country full-size jet I’ve been on where there is no place to put anything in the seat back in front of you and the seats do not recline.

Accommodation: We stayed at Rocklands House B&B. Our room was nice with a great view of the water. Breakfast is very good and John is a kind host (e.g. he offered a glass of wine our first night and printed boarding passes for us). The only downside is it’s a good 20-minute walk to town, with the return being uphill. Our friends recommended Actons of Kinsale, right in town.

Food and Drinks: The Bulman came highly recommended, and it did not disappoint. There was good food and craic. We stumbled upon the 3rd annual Reggae on the Rocks and never made it to Charles Fort. Note that The Bulman is a bit outside the main town, closer to Charles Fort and in the Summercove neighborhood. The Spaniard and Man Friday both come recommended and they’re outside the main town but closer, in the Scilly area.

Lunch at Fishy Fishy on the patio was great. Lunch at Lemon Leaf Cafe was good. Pizza at V-izza was not good. The Black Pig is closed Monday-Tuesday so we missed out but it’s a well-reviewed wine bar/restaurant. Other places that tempted us include Finn’s Table and Max’s Wine Bar. As elsewhere in Ireland, many nice restaurants offer early bird deals.

In Cork City, the English Market has lots of raw and some prepared food, including at the Farmgate Cafe.

Activities: We spent a fair amount of time “working” here and thus went light on the activities, pretty much just walking around town and spending a full day listening to reggae at The Bulman. Kinsale is noted for its rich history (largely due to its splendid natural harbor) and there are some guided walks from the Tourist Office. Charles Fort is a popular attraction. The Old Head of Kinsale comes recommended for a stroll or round of golf.

We got laundry done for €12 and it was ready in just a few hours. I don’t know the name but I think it’s on Market Street and it’s just by Lemon Leaf Cafe, and it’s not the one called Elite.

With less than two hours in Cork City on our way out, we visited the English Market (awesome selection of plain and marinated meats + sausages + cheese etc.) and the very good and free Crawford Art Gallery.

August 3-6, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)

P1120988

Round the Ring of Kerry

We left Dingle to explore the Ring of Kerry with the Muxnaw Lodge bed and breakfast in Kenmare as our home base. We were greeted with true Irish hospitality by the proprietor who sat us down to a pot of tea and freshly baked scones. What more can you ask for? A bathtub with a view over the river and bridge, you ask? Why yes, there was one of those too! It’s one of the unspoken pain points for us homeless folk – lack of regular access to tubs ;). Well, we got our fill of bathing at this spot.

We stopped on our drive in to town at the Kissane sheep farm for a demonstration of the sheep herding. Those border collies are by far the most well trained animals I’ve ever seen. I’ll need to learn how to train our dogs (we don’t actually have any, but Alan knows the time draws nigh) like that one day. It’s quite impressive how organized the whole affair is.

We also got to see a demonstration of the sheep shearing. I hadn’t realized they get the whole fleece coat off in one large blanket. Also, it’s adorable how the sheep stop flailing and just resign to their shaving once placed on their backs.

But the highlight was of course getting to play with the pups!

We also paid a visit to the Muckross House and surrounding gardens. This estate on the lake is massively impressive. Made us want to make billions and create our own family estate. Working on it. Not really.

We spent the better part of a day driving around much of the rest of the ring, though our streak of luck with sunny days had ended by this point, and much of the views were shrouded in clouds and rain. We did, however, get some lovely sneak peaks at a few spots…

Ladies View was quite a nice spot overlooking these lakes and valleys.

And O’Carroll’s Cove had more of that beautiful turquoise water. There were even a few brave Irish souls swimming in there, but Alan could only manage to stick his feet in, and I nothing at all.

The view along Skellig Ring was nice, but better yet was the free chocolate tasting at the Skellig Chocolate Factory.

Perhaps the best views we had were up through the mountains off the main ring road. We adored this idyllic spot by the bridge in Lickeen Wood.

Then Ballagh Beama Gap blew us away with its gray stone studded green mountains and Scotch blackface sheep. It’s hard to comprehend the scale from these photos, but it really was a superb experience driving through here. Made all the more exciting by the insanely narrow and winding roads.

The sun came back on our last day in town and we set out for a walk to enjoy it. We’d considered hiking Carrauntoohil to see what the views are like from the top of Ireland, but having heard that it was still cloudy and drizzly up there we instead went out the Beara peninsula to Gleninchaquin Park. We did the Upper Valley “walk” which is a remote loop hike with beautiful landscape and views. You can really see why Ireland is called the Emerald Isle. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to have the place all to ourselves. We shared the hike with only the company of a few other sheep.

After our long walk we headed back into town for more pints and a well-deserved Guinness and beef pie. The town centre of Kenmare is great, with lots of pubs and shops. And when the early evening light hits the church at the end of the main road it’s almost too idyllic to take.

Practical Info

The Ring of Kerry is a scenic drive circling the Iveragh Peninsula and is extremely popular with tourists. Killarney is the most popular base. We chose to stay in Kenmare. There are several charming towns along the ring, and also some places to stay up in the mountains. The ring road is narrow in parts and sees many tour buses. Investigate strategies for avoiding the brunt of these, i.e. different starting points and times and direction of travel.

Transportation: We drove from Dingle via Route 561 towards Killarney and then down N71. I strongly recommend having a car in this area because it allows you to move at your own pace and get off the main ring road. For example, we left the ring at Glenbeigh and went through the mountains back to Kenmare. This was some of our favorite scenery, including the river by Lickeen Wood and then through the Ballagh Beama Gap.

If you don’t have a car, there are lots of tour options. Many cycle these parts (seems scary to us on these roads), and you can also walk the Kerry Way.

Accommodation: We stayed at Muxnaw Lodge, just across the bridge from Kenmare. It is a lovely place with solid breakfast included (no credit cards). Our room was spacious (we even had a bathtub!) and had a view of Kenmare Bay. Hannah is so friendly. She prepared tea and fresh scones on our arrival and offered good advice on local activities. It is a 10-15 minute walk into town, and if that is unappealing then you should look at one of the many options right in town.

There are some high-end properties in the vicinity, including Sheen Falls Lodge and Parknasilla. We dropped by the latter when we drove the Ring of Kerry. It looked quite nice, and we were most envious of the hot tubs overlooking the water. There are also places to stay up in the mountains. Blackstones House B&B had a rather idyllic location, if not the easiest to reach.

Food and Drinks: My beef and Guinness pie at Foley’s was very good. The Irish Cheese Board pizza at O’Donnabhain’s was pretty good. Our BLT at Jam Deli was OK, it is popular for breakfast and lunch, closed at dinner. Packie’s and Lime Tree are well reviewed. There are multiple supermarkets in town if you want picnic food.

Activities: Driving the Ring of Kerry is the most popular thing to do. There are viewpoints, historical places of interest (such as Derrynane House, the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell), etc. It was rainy and foggy the day we drove so we couldn’t see everything. The area around Coomakesta Pass was very pretty and there is a nice beach at O’Carroll’s Cove. Skelligs Chocolate Factory (off the main ring) offers generous free tastings.

We visited Muckross House and Gardens. Parking and the gardens and grounds are free (and the onsite cafeteria more than passable), but you can only enter the house on the hour-long tour that costs €7.50. A visit to the Farms also costs €7.50, or a combo ticket is €12.50. There are walking paths around the lake and jaunting cars available. Torc Waterfall is nearby.

A visit to Kissane Sheep Farm was quite enjoyable. This includes a demonstration of the dogs herding the sheep, plus a farmer sheering them. It costs €7 each. Call to check the schedule as it is a working farm and you can only visit at certain times and the website may not be accurate.

Gleninchaquin Park is a private reserve on the Ring of Beara. We did the Upper Valley walk, which is about a 9km loop through beautiful, rugged green valleys filled with peat bogs, lakes and sheep. It took us just under three hours, and we saw not one other human. There is no trail on the upper part but the way is marked. The waterfall is visible from the parking area. Entry costs €6 each. We considered hiking Carrauntoohil in the McGillicuddy’s Reeks but passed upon hearing it was cloudy and drizzly up that high. If you want to do this, look up Cronin’s Yard as a potential car park and trailhead. And make sure you know what you’re doing as weather/visibility can be dangerous.

July 31 – August 3, 2014 (Thursday-Sunday)

P1120736

Dingle

OK, let’s get it out of the way…Dingle is a funny name for a town. I can’t quite put my finger on why it feels so weird, but it does, doesn’t it? Just try saying it out loud. When people ask where we’ve come from and I have to say “Dingle” it’s like eating out at a restaurant with cheesy menu item names that make you order something embarrassing like macho nachos or the Tijuana tea tickler. There, now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the blog post title, we can get on to beautiful southern Ireland. Our stretch of good weather followed us through Dingle (mostly), and our drive there from Galway was the beginning of our introduction to truly lush, green Ireland. The road takes you through some of the quaintest towns amidst stretches of rolling hills and pastures full of sheep, cows and horses. And I know they are all nice little towns because every time we drive through one Alan says, “well this is a nice little town!”

And the flowers have been quite the pleasant surprise in this country. They seem to be everywhere, and they are stunning and colorful. Just driving along the roads feels like you’re taking a detour through the Secret Garden, with hydrangeas, fuchsia and yellow, red, orange and purple flowers everywhere.

On our drive into Dingle we stopped to visit the famed Cliffs of Moher. It’s pretty easy to see why they have the reputation they do. It’s a seemingly endless stretch of rugged, steep rock cliffs, and if you’re lucky you can even spot puffins.

After a quick ferry ride to skip some of the long way around the Shannon Estuary, we ended up in a town called Tralee. This spot is famous for its roses, and we made a brief pit stop to walk through a park full of loads of these beauties. Well worth the stroll.

The view from breakfast at our Dingle B&B was a telling teaser of what was to come…

The main activity for visitors to Dingle is the Slea Head Drive. We stopped first for a very quick hike up to the Eask Tower, where the views were stunning, despite that there was a concentration of sheep poo so dense on all available ground as to make you wonder just how those sheep could ingest so much fiber. Strangely, we passed only one other couple during our visit. Maybe we were early? Regardless, the isolation and breathtaking views were much appreciated.

We continued along the long stretch of road that hugs this blustery coastline. The roads do not get any wider though, and a flat tire (or tyre, as they say) incident had us parked in a row of sightseers for a good half hour. It was no bother, as the view did not suck. Plus, we got to witness the Irish friendliness in action as several people rushed to help the guy with the flat.

And the long stretches of driving have been made much more fun by an unexpected pleasure: talk radio. I’m serious! We are thoroughly enjoying the talk radio here in Ireland. It’s partly learning all these slang phrases like “she thought she was a cut above butter milk” and “getting locked,” but also the interesting content and hilarious listener questions and comments. Never would have thought, but I’m a huge fan of Irish talk radio.

The view from this point was one of our favorites. The way the ocean looks here is unreal.

Isn’t this sandy cove the most perfect little beach spot? I never would have guessed that the oceans in Ireland would look so tropical (that color!). But trust me, these are no tropical waters. The Irish must have very thick skin to swim these cold cold seas.

After a full day of sightseeing we hit the pubs for some pints, and killed some time as we waited for a table at the best restaurant in town: Global Village. Worth the wait for the broccoli and blue cheese soup, duck and lamb three ways.

Also worth a shout is Inch Beach, a beautiful spot we paused at for a few photos before continuing onto the Ring of Kerry.

And in case you wanted further proof we are in Ireland, voila:

P1120669

Practical Info 

Dingle is the name of the peninsula and the main town, where we stayed. Slea Head Drive is a loop that covers just the western portion of the peninsula.

Transportation: We drove from Galway City and stopped at the Cliffs of Moher, which is on the way if you take the coastal route. We took the ferry across the Shannon Estuary from Killimer in County Clare to Tarbert in County Kerry. At €18 one way it’s no bargain and the scenery is nothing special, but it cuts more than 100km off the trip. Beyond Tralee we took the quicker N86 as it was getting late, and this route was plenty scenic. I think going over Conor Pass is even more scenic. We departed Dingle headed for Kenmare (on the Ring of Kerry) and took Route 561 past Inch Beach, a blustery spit with a surf school.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Lighthouse B&B just outside town (a 10 minute walk). The common lounge is cozy, there are lovely views of Dingle Harbour and the breakfast was very good. It is nice to stay near town as pubs and live music are plentiful. But if you just want peace and quiet and perhaps lower prices, there are many B&Bs on the peninsula.

Food and Drinks: Our first splurge meal of the trip was at Global Village. On the Zagat scale, I’d give it a 24. The scallop appetizer was our only selection not sourced from the peninsula, and I thought it was the worst of four dishes. The broccoli and blue cheese soup was yummy and a bargain at €5. The duck platter appetizer and lamb plate main were both very good. Demerit for being out of my first wine choice and then bringing me a younger vintage without acknowledging it.

We enjoyed pints at McCarthy’s Pub. The town is best known for seafood (despite our one seafood dish at Global Village being my least favorite). Other restaurants and pubs that came recommended include Doyle’s, Half Door, Chart House, Marina Inn, Paul Geaney’s (airier and brighter and seemingly more family oriented than some) and The Mighty Session.

While on the Slea Head Drive we had a fine lunch at Tigh Ui Mhurchu in Ballyferriter.

Activities: At the very start of Slea Head Drive we did the half hour hike up to Eask Tower. You are meant to pay €2/person. The views from the top are glorious. Boat trips, including visits to the Blasket Islands, are popular. There are several pre-historic sites (beehive huts and such) along the peninsula. I think the new Dingle Distillery accepts visitors, though its first batch of whiskey won’t be ready for some time.

We visited the Cliffs of Moher on the drive from Galway City. The Cliffs are perhaps Ireland’s most famous natural attraction, and they are impressive. We parked at the visitor center and walked across and then strolled a while in each direction up and down the coast. This meant we paid €12 (€6 each), but you could visit for free by parking elsewhere and walking in; i.e. the only part that charges is the parking lot (and it costs €2 to climb O’Brien’s Tower). The visitor center is fine and the design blending in with the landscape is smart, but don’t beat yourself up if you skip it. The Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walking Trail links the villages of Liscannor and Doolin, I think the whole way covers 20km. There are also scenic boat rides for a different perspective. I think some depart from Doolin and perhaps elsewhere.

On the (mostly) coastal drive from Galway City one passes several charming towns. These include Kinvarra, Lahinch (yummy sandwiches at Quills gourmet deli; a big beach; well known links golf course; Moy House hotel just outside town looked nice), Kilkee and Kilrush. We spent a few minutes at the Tralee Town Park enjoying the magnificent rose gardens.

July 29-31, 2014 (Tuesday-Thursday)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,786 other followers