Off to Hogwarts
Fort William & Mallaig, Scotland
This morning started with quickly grabbing breakfast and then driving down to the Fort William Train Station. We were very excited to ride the Jacobite Steam Train (also known as the Harry Potter train) from Fort William to Mallaig and most notably over the Glenfinnan viaduct. We got to the station pretty early even though our GPS wanted to take us to the hospital across the street instead. This was the first train station we’ve visited in Scotland, and honestly it looked so unassuming that we missed it a couple of times. It was very surprising to see that behind this little building were tracks that big trains came and went from. The waiting room was quite small, so we decided to hang out in our car and put our makeup on. We hadn’t had the chance that morning and wanted to make sure we made it to Fort William in time. When you’re driving on unfamiliar roads that are small and windy, sometimes, if you’re a careful driver it takes you longer than what the estimate on the GPS is. We’ve been lucky not to encounter any traffic really, but we definitely can’t take some of those curves at the suggested 60 mph and we sometimes had to pull over for speedier drivers to pass. Still though, we arrived about 2 hours early so we had some time to kill. When we went back into the station about 30 minutes before boarding the station was packed with people! On the Jacobite Steam Train you’re assigned a seat, so I guess that people were hoping to be first to get a picture in front of the steam train! There are a couple of first class cars, and the rest are coach. I found the coach car to be very comfortable with really great head rests. Here is an insider tip- for the best views, if you’re going from Fort William to Mallaig you want to be on the left side of the coach. If you’re going from Mallaig to Fort William of course you want to be on the right. The further back you are (we were in the second to last car) the better your view of the viaducts will be when you pass over them (at least if you’re going from Fort William to Mallaig.) I’m not sure about the other way, because I was so tired that by the time we reached the viaducts I had actually fallen asleep.
”For the best views, if you’re going from Fort William to Mallaig, you want to be on the left side of the coach.”
The journey on the Jacobite Steam Train costs £30 pounds for a single (British for one-way) and £35 for a day return ticket ( British for both ways.) You can check out tickets here. When we bought our tickets, unfortunately they were not able to sit us together on the return trip from Mallaig to Fort William so we opted to take the regular Scots Rail train back instead, those tickets were £7.20 a piece so we ended up paying £2.20 more . Both trains have the same views, and they are gorgeous gorgeous views. If I were to do it again though, I wouldn’t take the steam train, I’d save money and take the Scots Rail train and here is why:
The ride took about 2.5 hours to get to Mallaig. When we got to Mallaig, we spent most of our time checking out the parking lots, we needed to find a place to park our car next Saturday! We know we’re going to the Isle of Skye and then directly to Knoyndart. Our car can’t come to Knoyndart with us, so we will have a short window to park our car and then get back to the ferry terminal so we can catch our boat to Knoyndart. Lucky for us, there are two separate places where you can leave your car for up to 7 days so we should be fine on the day of! The town is VERY small, so it’s a quick walk pretty much everywhere. We were able o get some snack food at the co-op and have little yogurt/carrot/hummus dinners on the Scots Rail train home. Word to the wise: If you plan on eating cheaply and getting a lot of grocery store lunches while you are traveling, try to bring a small cold pack. If you’re staying in Airbnb’s you shouldn’t have any trouble freezing it. We didn’t do that, but when we were sitting there with our melty cheese sticks, we wished we had. All in all it ended up being a pretty slow day. The journey was quite beautiful, but I’m not sure it was worth spending an entire day doing that route. We still had a car, so we could’ve use it as transportation, but if you don’t have a car and need to get from Fort William to Mallaig, the train ride is definitely one of the most beautiful in the world. ~Annette
(photos and captions by Kim)
Inverness & Fort Augustus, Scotland
A trip around Scotland couldn’t be complete without trying to hunt for Nessie. The drive from Dingwall wasn’t too bad and was on the way to our next Airbnb in Inverness. We didn’t do a lot of research, so we decided to head to the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition and start there. We are still surprised at how easy parking is around Scotland. We parked right in front of the Center and were allowed to stay there all day, totally free! Having lived in Los Angeles for the past 10 years, I’m shocked every time I find free parking with no limitations, especially at a popular tourist destination. We went into the Loch Ness Center, but really it is 100% an exhibition and we weren’t really interested in that. We figured anything worth knowing we could learn on a tour. We walked down the street to Celtic Crafts, an adorable little store with beautiful Scottish themed crafts and some highland cow paintings we wanted to buy (but our backpacks save us from spending money!) and bought tickets for our boat tour there. We were lucky that they had tickets for a boat that left in about an hour and a half, so we had some tea while we waited to board The Nessie Hunter. Our skipper was George Edwards, the longest serving passenger boat skipper on Loch Ness, who also recorded the greatest known depth of Loch Ness at 812 feet. He has been diving in the lake and on boats around the lake for longer than we have been alive, so he seemed like the perfect tour guide for today’s adventure. The boat was nice, there is an inside where you can look at the sonars, radar, and underwater camera. You can also sit outside on the lower deck or on the upper deck. The tour is roughly an hour taking you around the lake and towards the end you get a stunning view of Urquhart Castle from the water and I wouldn’t want to see it any other way! We looked long and hard, but unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see Nessie today. The tour was amazing anyway, George taught us so much about the Loch and the surrounding area and the facts about Nessie and all of the sightings. The tour was so nice we feel like it went by a little two quickly. The views are stunning as you can see from the images. If we had more time in the area, there is a path going around the Loch that is accessed from different points on the road circling it and it would have been beautiful to hike there. Instead, we decided to head down to Fort Augustus.
Fort Augustus is a cute little town on the Caledonian Canal with beautiful views of the water. We got some ice cream (we always want ice cream) and then walked down part of The Great Glen Way which was totally gorgeous. We were even lucky enough to watch some boats navigate the canal, which was something we’d never seen before. We wanted to stay longer and walk around, but it started raining and we had a dinner reservation at 7:30, so we had to get going. Seeing the town is pretty quick, but there are enough beautiful paths that you could spend a whole day walking around the area.
The drive to Inverness felt long with the windy windy roads around Loch Ness. It is starting to feel so repetitive, but the drive was beautiful. I wished that we had some more time so we could stop and take some time hiking along the paths that are all around the roads, but it was raining and we needed to check into our Airbnb in Inverness before we headed out to Hootananny where we had reservations. We found Colin’s house pretty easily, and he met us at the door and walked us around to the trailer we would be staying in. The trailer is in his backyard and I’ve got to say that it was definitely one of my favorite Airbnb experiences. It was small of course, but it felt so cozy. When we were kids, we had a pop-up camper that we would take around, so it felt nostalgic. It was secure as well, the camper locked, and it was in the backyard which was fenced in with a locked gate. Honestly the shower and toilet facilities were better than expected as well. I wished that we had booked another night here. Our host was really cool too, he is an avid traveler and cyclist and let us know that he had biked across the entire United States a year ago! One of the best parts of staying at an Airbnb is meeting other travel addicts like us! Hootananny was a pretty easy walk, just across the bridge into the center of town. We decided to have dinner there and dinner was good, pretty standard. I had a burger and Kim had fish and chips. They had a good selection of beer and whisky. We really were just waiting for the music to start though! The band consisted of 3 men who played multiple instruments. I love folk music whether it’s American or Irish or Scottish, and this band proved to be great. The bar was full with people sitting at tables all around and people standing. We expected to see some dancing but there wasn’t any (at least not this night.) I’m so glad we were able to make this happen! After that we turned in, we had a long walk back and a long drive the next day. ~Annette
Living Like Queens
Dingwall and Beauly, Scotland
When we decided to go to Scotland, we knew that we wanted to stay at least one night in a castle. Scotland is full of castle hotels, but there was only one that was in our price range, available, and along our route, so we booked one night at The Tulloch Castle Hotel in Dingwall. This morning, we took our time getting ready in Burghead and then drove about two hours to Dingwall. It was, like all Scottish drives, stunning. We saw gorgeous scenery with sheep and cows and horses on the side of the road. We’re not sure that our GPS always takes us the most practical way (did we really need to take all of those one-track roads?) but it definitely always takes us a beautiful way. It is a little exhausting to be switching hotels every night (or every other night), so we decided to take it pretty easy today. We arrived early at Tulloch and we weren’t able to check in yet, so we asked the receptionist for suggestions of what to do in the area. We weren’t keen on any of them really, so we decided to find a park and have a little picnic. I pulled up what I thought was a park on my phone and decided to have google maps take us there. We’re still not sure if we got the wrong directions or if the “park” was just some woods behind somebody’s house, but we ended up on a very rocky one-track gravel road that is very likely only used by a tractor and well, we’re lucky that all our tires are still intact! Was google maps playing a trick on us? We know that the car’s GPS is much more accurate than Google Maps around here, but we couldn’t find the park in the GPS’s search engine (which should have been a sign.) Kim got a pretty interesting day of driving in while she tried to navigate these roads and not totally ruin the rental. Since that didn’t work out, when we finally got back to a normal road after stopping to look at some cute sheep, we followed the signs to Beauly and walked around.
In Beauly, we bought lunch food at a local co-op and waked down to a park and had a picnic. I have to say, brining a towel along was one of the best things I’ve done. I haven’t needed to use it as an actual towel, but my Turkish towel has been a great picnic blanket. We’ve already used it quite a few times. When we were finished with lunch we walked back into town and looked at a cute little shop which had gorgeous clothes and shoes and jewelry and home goods that we could not buy (backpacking dillema!) We also got to look at the Beauly Priory (or what’s left of it anyway) which was very cool and unexpected. This trip has been mostly about nature, so it was good to get a little history into it as well. After the priory, it was time to check in, so we checked into our castle room which was very cute and spent the next couple of hours working on the blog and getting things sorted out at The Green Lady Bar inside of the hotel. Before we knew it, it was time for dinner inside the hotel. Dinner at the hotel restaurant was good, it has a beautiful dining room which is decorated like a castle should be but with a modern flair. We tried haggis for the first time in the form of haggis bon-bons. Surprisingly enough Kim who is much pickier about meat liked it better than Annette did. Unfortunately we aren’t haggis or black pudding people, so it seems that our tastes are not Scottish at least where food is concerned, where nature is concerned, well that’s another story. The dinner was lovely, the dessert was AMAZING.
We gathered in the bar at 9:00 (or as we need to get used to, 21:00) for the Tulloch Castle ghost tour! The tour proved to be as much history as it was supernatural which added some learning to the fun. The castle was built as a fort in the 1400s by Vikings. We were shown to a room with original walls and ceilings that they affectionately named the dungeon. After playful comments about how naughty children get sent to this room, we found out a bit about that history. What is not original in that room is the floor. It turns out the building was once much larger than it currently appears as it was built far into the ground. The original floor would have been 50 feet down. There are networks of tunnels created by the Vikings that are unfortunately lost to time. Moving to the entry way, our guide pulled up a rug and pushed a piece of plywood out of the way to give us a peek at the remnants of what was. I don’t know how far that surviving tunnel reaches, but it was farther down and out than I could see.
As we moved from room to room, we learned more about hauntings and history. The fort was repurposed into a grand house and was owned by a couple different clans. It was used as a hospital in WWII and as boarding for a boarding school for about thirty years, ending in the 1980s.
There were various tales, but a favorite is the namesake for the bar in the castle, the Green Lady. Lore tells us that the patriarch of one of the clans who owned Tulloch Castle had quite the wandering eye. One day, a pre-teen daughter of the family went to look for her parents in their bed chamber and walked in on her father in a compromising position with a servant. She turned and ran down the stairs to alert her mother. One way or another, she didn’t make it to the bottom of the stairs alive and died of a broken neck. It is said that the “Green Lady,” still haunts Tulloch Castle.
After other antidotes, the guide went into detail about hauntings in specific rooms - many of which those attending the tour were staying in! He focused in on one couple staying in one of the most haunted rooms! It got pretty intense, and the couple was the focus of the rest of the stories. They were quite good sports, but when the tour ended, I did hear one of them say to the other, “let’s go to to car.” ~Annette & Kim
Quiet Harbor Town
After a fun day at the local Highland Game in Tomintoul, we drove north to our Airbnb in Burghhead. Burghhead is a small harbor town, and according to our wonderful Airbnb host, Tina, there is one restaurant and a couple of pubs when it comes food options. She was kind enough to make a reservation for us at the Bothy Bistro since the one place in town fills up fast! Shortly after arriving, we walked a couple blocks to eat at this local gem. We were very impressed by their food! We had seen “Cullen skink” on menus for a while and figured it was time to give it a try as our appetizer. It is a cream based soup with smoked haddock in it. We knew with our entrees and appetizers, it would be too much food, so the server was kind enough to split one appetizer size of the soup (large enough for a meal in a full-sized bowl with bread on the side) into two smaller cups for us. It was still very filling and neither of us finished our entrees. We both opted for a pasta dish with generous helpings of crayfish and smoked salmon. If you’re ever in Burghead, be sure to make a reservation at Bothy!
After dinner, at our host’s recommendation, we took a walk around the town and along the water. This was really surreal experience for me. As a fan of British crime dramas, I have seen a lot UK harbor towns through the television and I was nerdy amounts of thrilled to be in one in real life. Walking through Burghead, I was astonished at how few people were out, the quiet and peace of the town, and more than anything, the contrast of a very normal town situated in such stunning scenery.
We could easily see dolphins from the shore and watched them for quite a bit. The after-dinner walk was so serene and beautiful - quite a highlight. Our visit in Burghead was short, but impactful. - Kim
A Bit of Scottish Culture
Tomintoul and Glenlivet, Scotland
Today felt like an introduction to Scottish culture. We started the morning by having a “Full Scottish Breakfast” in our hotel in Aberdeen. It’s definitely different than what we’re used to for breakfast. The bacon is really more what we would call ham, and I’ve never had mushrooms or tomatoes outside of an omelette during the morning hours, so it was mostly new foods, especially the black pudding. I wouldn’t call either of us super adventurous eaters, so this one was a little tough for us to try especially because we already knew what it is made out of. We both tried it and it honestly tasted better than either of us thought it would. I actually think we would have liked it if we didn’t know what it was made out of. If anybody is curious what a Full Scottish Breakfast is (at least at our hotel in Aberdeen) it was a poached egg, a hash brown, a sausage, a rasher of bacon, some baked beans, a slice of black pudding, 1/2 of a baked tomato, and some mushrooms served with toast. It’s definitely filling and very good if you’re not skittish about your food.
If you want to see our reactions to trying black pudding, take a look at these videos below:
After breakfast, we left Aberdeen and headed to Tomintoul to check out the Tomintoul Highland Games! It was definitely smaller than we expected, we were imagining sort of like a Renaissance Fair sized event, but everything fit on a field about the size of a high school football field. There was a fenced off field in the middle with sport, music, and dancing competitions and then a circle around the outside of the space with craft and food tents. There were some fun games for kids to enjoy and prize-winning games for both kids and adults. We even saw a bottle of whiskey which would go to whoever pulled the right key for a cabinet out of a bag! We enjoyed watching the junior bagpiping competition, the highland dancing, and the throwing the caber and throwing the hammer. It was really interesting (and sometimes scary since the judges would stand right in the line of fire) to see how far the competitors could throw. We really enjoyed each time the various bagpipe and drum bands would come onto the field to perform. It was a great experience and we were happy we got this little bit of Scottish culture on our trip. The festival lasts all day, but we spent about three hours there and that is enough time to get a really good idea of what the event is.
Here are some videos of some of the athletes completing:
~We had some time before our dinner reservation in Burghead, so after the Highland Games, we decided to stop by Glenlivet. Our car’s GPS brought us in the back way through what were some pretty tight little roads, a little scary, but definitely a beautiful drive! We were afraid for a while that we weren’t going the right way, but we did arrive at Glenlivet and were lucky to be there just in time for the 3:30PM tour and they had a couple of spots left! The tour was great, our tour guide, Chris, was very knowledgeable about the entire process and explained it all to us. We loved seeing the entire process from how the barley is mashed to where it’s put in barrels. We learned that the shape of the stills affects the flavor of the whiskey (we had no idea.) Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take pictures during the tour, so we only have a few pictures from Glenlivet, but we did get to try three different whiskeys. The first we tried in one of the barrel rooms (straight from the cask), the second was the 15 year, and the third was the 18 year. If you’re the designated driver for 50 pence a piece, you can put your samples into little bottles to take home. If you’re not driving and interested in tasting more whiskeys afterwards, they can help you up at the bar. We didn’t do that, so we’re not sure what the price is for that one. There is of course a gift shop on your way out as well. I definitely recommend this distillery. Kim and I are mostly bourbon drinkers, and we both thought the 15 year old was the best one. The tour was only £10 each which isn’t bad even if you factor in the exchange rate! It’s our first whiskey distillery tour, so we can’t rate it against the others, but it’s in a beautiful area of Scotland (are there any areas that aren’t beautiful?) and we really enjoyed ourselves (even the sober one!) ~ Annette
Where the Water Meets the Water
St Cyrus, Scotland
We weren’t really sure what we were going to do today. We knew we were driving from Anstruther to Aberdeen, but had left the day open so we could get suggestions from locals and we feel very blessed that we did. Shout out again to Jill for giving us the amazing suggestion of going to St. Cyrus on our way up the coast. It was about an hour long drive, but it took a little longer for us since we are slow on thes windy and tiny roads. Driving on the left side of the road didn’t take too much getting used to, but for us, the curvy roads and tiny lanes definitely did. We wanted to get food when we got closer to the destination but quickly realized that we might not get the chance. Lucky for us RIGHT before we reached the beach we passed The Old Bakery and Coffee Shop and stopped in for lunch. They had a great menu, we both ordered sandwiches which came with crisps and a really good side salad all for about $13 total which is super cheap. We were so happy with our stop here. It’s adorable, the food is really good, and the staff was so lovely. When we left, we headed up to what our GPS said was St. Cyrus beach but it was actually the cliffs above the beach. We are so glad we made this mistake because the views were amazing. There actually was a path down to the beach but it seemed a little treacherous and it had been raining so we decided to find a place to park down on the beach instead. We went back to the coffee shop and they gave us directions to the St. Cyrus National Nature Reserve which is where the path started! If you put St Cyrus National Nature Reserve in your GPS you should definitely be able to get to the beach. If you want to go above to the lookout point, just follow Beach Road from The Old Bakery and Coffee Shop, park at the church, and walk down the path. At the Nature Reserve, you can park in the lot and then follow the trail (pictures below) and you’ll quickly be on the beach. If you head to your left and walk a little ways, you’ll eventually come to a waterfall which is absolutely beautiful . Unfortunately because of the tide we couldn’t make it all the way up to the waterfall but we did make it far enough to be able to see it and the rocks on that part of the beach were stunning. If you do decide to take a trip here just make sure to pay attention to where the path joins the beach because we had a little bit of a hard time finding the entrance to the path from the beach and it isn’t well marked on our way back. I could go on and on but really the pictures say everything that needs to be said about this area, absolutely stunning.
Isle of Puffins
Isle of May, Scotland
Today was the day that I (Annette) was most anticipating, PUFFIN DAY!!! We were lucky enough to walk on down to the harbor where the Anstruther Pleasure Cruises boat leaves in about 5 minutes since we were staying so close. The line forms pretty early so if you’re picky about where you sit then get there about 45 minutes early. We were so lucky that the weather was warm and beautiful, it was about 70°F out but still it got pretty chilly on the boat so you might want to bring a jacket even in nice weather. The ride to the island was about an hour. We were lucky that the tides were with us so we had 3 hours to explore the island. It’s reminiscent of Ahch-To from Star Wars: The Force Awakens which is of course an actual island off the coast of Ireland, so it makes sense that it would be similar. The island has so much scenery and we were VERY lucky that the puffins were there late this year. The island was full of puffins, guillemots, and so many other seabirds that we felt very lucky that we made it off the island without guano dropping out of the sky and onto our heads! The island itself is beautiful to explore, stunning views of the oceans from the cliffs. Three hours is the perfect amount of time to explore, we were just getting tired when it was time to head back to the boat. There isn’t any food on the island, but there is a snack bar aboard the ship where you can purchase drinks and snacks. I’d advise taking a lunch. We were lucky that Jill, our Airbnb host, suggested that we bring a lunch with us and she was nice enough to drive us to the local co-op the night before. We bought bread, cheese, and some salami and it was the perfect quick lunch! If you take the cruise, they will give you a great map of the island, our favorite part to see was the South Plateau. That side had (in our humble opinion) the best views and definitely had the most puffins. The North Plateau had a pretty walk as well leading down to a beautiful lighthouse. There are some staff on the island, they greet you with a speech at the beginning and then they are around the island to answer any questions you may have. They are so knowledgeable and friendly, and answered all the questions that we had like What sound do puffins make? The answer is that they sort of moo which is quite different than the other seabirds on the island. On the ride back, we had a special treat. Sometimes, when the pufflings don’t make it to the ocean after they come out of their burrows, the Isle of May staff ask the Cruise operators to take them and release them once they are farther from the island so they are less likely to be attacked by predators and that is jus what happened on our return journey. We got to see the little puffling up close and he was oh so cute (see the picture above.). Puffins are one of my favorite animals, so I felt very very lucky to be able to see them up close and personal. If you’re ever in the area during the time the puffins are supposed to be there which is late spring into early summer, I highly suggest taking the cruise. If you happen to be in Anstruther between September and I think they said November, apparently it’s a great time to see the grey seals! All in all, this day gets 5 out of 5 stars.
Kelpies, Kelpies Everywhere!
The Kelpies were one of the things that I was most excited to see in Scotland so our way to our first Airbnb in Anstruther, we decided to stop by The Helix in Falkirk to see The Kelpies. They were larger than I imagined, and oh so beautiful! They are gorgeous statues made of steel. The visitor center is lovely, there you can buy tickets for a tour, get a bite to eat, or buy souvenirs. We chose to have lunch at the grill just outside of the visitor’s center. The weather was beautiful today, we actually were very warm at a certain point which is not what we were expecting from Scotland. When we arrived at The Helix, we were lucky to find a spot as somebody was leaving in the first parking lot. We walked up the hill to where The Kelpies are and realized that there is actually a larger less crowded lot closer to the sculptures. We didn’t mind the nice walk though after such a long flight. The park is beautiful with walking trails, bike trails, rivers, and boats. If you want to take a tour, it’s £7.50 for adults, and it’s a roughly 30 minute tour with a guide giving you a history of the area nd the sculptures for about 15 minutes and then taking you inside of of the sculptures for about 15 minutes and talking more about the architecture. We didn’t take the tour, so we don’t know if it’s good or not, but that’s how it was explained to us when we asked at the desk. The Helix is easy to get to, it’s about 45 minutes from Edinburgh airport and the roads are easy to navigate (once you get used to the roundabouts!). ~Annette
Among the Holiday Makers
The second half of our first day in Scotland was spent in Anstruther, a beautiful seaside town on the east coast of Scotland. It was about an hour and a half from Falkirk. The drive was definitely a little challenging towards the end, there were a lot of sharp curves and very tiny streets. The GPS in our car got us to the town quite easily, but after that we had to follow instructions from our Airbnb host to find her home. Her home is LOVELY and we feel so lucky that we picked so well. She helped us find parking and had tea and cookies for us when we arrived. She is so friendly and we definitely suggest that anybody stay with her if you end up in Anstruther, the bed is so comfortable and her home is warm, she even served us breakfast in the morning. We got lucky she was up for dinner when we were and she walked us down to Anstruther’s famous fish house, Anstruther Fish Bar where we ordered fish and chips. If you’re like us, the child size was plenty and we got breaded instead of battered for the fish. The chips (french fries for the Americans) were perfectly seasoned with salt and vinegar. Our favorite thing about this restaurant is that they let you know not just where your fish came from, but WHICH BOAT caught your fish that day! For us, it was Boy John. The town is full of locals of course and Scottish “vacation makers” as our host calls them. The wait for Fish and Chips was long, but we ordered take out and took it back to our Airbnb. Our second night, we were very hungry after touring the Isle of May and we walked down to the Waterfront to eat at The Waterfront restaurant. We didn’t realize that it most places on the strip in front of the water would have a wait. We arrived at 7PM and they put us on the list for a table at 8:30. Word to the wise, if you want to eat during the summer in Anstruther, make a reservation for dinner! The wait wasn’t too bad as we walked down to The Boatyard and got a pint of beer while we were waiting. The Boatyard is cute, it has a sports bar feel and they were playing the golf tournament on every screen. When did get back to The Waterfront, we were served quite quickly and were very happy with the food. We’d definitely recommend the Steak and Ale Pie if you are ever in the area!