Tag Archives: United Kingdom

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)

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)

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)