Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day / Hanging Rock Redux

Five years to the day, in our "annual" father's day hiking celebration, our intrepid cohort of five summitted the peak of Hanging Rock State Park.

I was scared to death the whole time that someone was going to see a bee and then run over the edge, but everyone did great. With the exception of Sam (who rode in style on Doc's back) everyone made it all the way to the top and back under their own power.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Best Part

Undoubtedly the best part of this vacation was the opportunity to spend some quality time with the love of my life. 

There is so much going on in our lives right now - stuff that has been growing and building at an ever-incessant pace for the last 6 or seven years - that we are hardly able to stop and slow down and say I love you. Much less be able to say it per and over for days at a time without distraction, or work, or kids, or meetings and phone calls or deadlines or to do lists. Life at this point - with two careers and three kids and a dog and who knows whatever else in the way of obligations and commitments - is all-consuming. 

This was one of a handful of times that we’ve had since just the early days of our marriage to be together, and relax, and enjoy each others company.

Marriage is about being partners, for the moment and for forever, and for all the little ups and downs of life, the tough stretches where every things seems like it is batshit crazy and for the bright spots of weeks or nights to be alone together. Every minute we were in Scotland, I kept thinking that I could not have picked a better or more amazing person to spend my life with, to raise these incredible kids with, to travel the world with, and to dream and suffer and grow with.

Thank you, Doc. You are the very best part of my life.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Last Days

The last three days in Scotland were a whirlwind of travel, eating, castles, and shopping. We left the self-catering flat in Inveraray on Thursday morning and drove about an hour over to the village of Luss on the western shores of Loch Lomond. Since we hadn’t yet had breakfast, we stopped in at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel for a bit. This is a classically appointed place, with wildlife artwork and 30’s vintage taxidermy of all sorts adorning the walls. A sort of luxurious country hunting lodge vibe permeated the place, and I would not have been surprised to see Prince Charles come around the corner in his tweed and wellies.

Unfortunately it is hard to get just a “bite” to eat for breakfast in Scotland, and an hour later we staggered out of the joint in yet another 10am food coma, brought on no doubt in large part by the heaping bowls of porridge, extensive hand-made puff pastries, eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, yogurt and granola that seems must accompany every proper start to a Scottish day.

From Luss we continued on around the southern part of Loch Lomond. It was a wet morning and the views of the lake did not do justice to its reputation. We arrived at Stirling Castle around 11am and spent a good amount of time there. Stirling is a neat-looking town, and particularly the very old part just outside the castle walls looks like it has seen quite a few seasons. We missed the Argyll House and Bannockburn and the Wallace Memorial and I’m sure another half-dozen or so worthy exhibits. But for its part, Stirling Castle held up its end of the bargain quite well.

Stirling is situated on a dominant rocky outcrop at a key peninsula between two great lowland river valleys With the ______ and the ______ on either side, Stirling is the gate-keeper of sorts to Scotland’s bounty and has been duly fought over during the ages. I think one exhibit said that it changed hands between the English and the Scottish 8-10 times in the last 14th and 15th centuries. Pivotal to the crusades of Wallace and Robert the Bruce against the British, it is as teeming with history as the walls are with cannon ports.

Stirling Castle is still very much a place of fair maidens, noble warriors, fearsome dragons and magical unicorns, to wit:

Stirling Castle is also the Regimental Museum for Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a unit of great renown and esprit de corps and the source of the appellation "The Thin Red Line" representing more than 125 years of unbroken service to the Crown. From the Crimea and the fields of Balaklava to the Boer War to various theatres of the First and Second World Wars, the famed A&SH has stood unbroken.

After leaving Stirling we arrived at our posh accommodations in the hip Edinburgh neighborhood of Stockbridge, just on the outskirts of New Town. This was a solid hotel choice and being a small boutique probably offered more bang and location than other similarly situated places. Kim and I eloped from the group for a nice dinner at the Mussel and Steak Bar. The seafood over here is really top notch and I could gorge myself on a few more mussel pots without much in the way of hesitation. 

Aside from a brief stroll around Grassmarket and New Town after dinner, we basically only had one day (Friday) to spend enjoying Edinburgh. And we surely did enjoy it. 

Friday was, according to the locals, a “one in a million day,” sunny and clear and warm in the high 60’s. The Scots and all their tourists came out in throngs to enjoy the nice day and there were literally hundreds of people sunbathing in the various parks and lawns. Needless to say we saw quite a few sunburned shoulders the next day in the airport. We decided to skip most of the touristy locations and the hop-on/hop-off bus tour in favor of just strolling the streets and soaking up the city. We walked up Princes Street and George Street shopping, crossed over to Old Town and cruised the Royal Mile for a pre-lunch whisky tasting and some more shopping. 

We made it up the Edinburgh castles but just looked around the outer enclosure without going in. I am sure it is fabulous, but that would have been a several hour commitment and at this point we were a little castled-out. Old Town is really neat and the maps and photos don’t do justice to the way the city is built solidly around very dramatic changes in elevation as the 500-year old blocks of Old Town filter down among the crevices of the rocky escarpment on which the castle sits. 

We went back to the Grassmarket and Cowgate and Greyfriars, looped past the Univeristy of Edinburgh grounds and stopped in at the Royal College of Surgeons. Unfortunately the museum here closed last month for a year of two of refurbishment, so we missed the very gruesome exhibits on grave-robber autopsies and 17th c. pathology specimens. Doc was very disappointed and i think that might have been the quirky-interesting highlight of the trip if it was open. Maybe fodder a week-long “business trip” for Doc to research medical procedure and pathology history for an upcoming journal article? At least it would be a pre-tax trip...

It only took 5 straight hours of walking the hilly streets and alleys of this city and after a late lunch at the local patisserie we headed back to the Nira Caledonia for a nap. A nice pizza dinner by the banks of the Leith and drinks and dessert back at the hotel bar rounded out a very nice day.

I should have known when the fire alarm went off in the hotel at 5:30am that we were in for a rough departure day. The siren was a false alarm but we never really made it back to sleep and arrived downstairs for breakfast and check out somewhat worse for wear. Checking in at the airport was another disaster, and after waiting an hour for the “security guy” to come back with our passports we discovered that U.S. Airways had inadvertently cancelled our reservations on the return flight when they “fixed” our inbound flight a week earlier. Seriously. I don’t have anything nice to say about the airline so I won’t say anything. But every leg of our flight with USAir has been characterized by gross and total incompetence. Things are so screwed up that we may not have been on a single US Air flight this trip, as we flew over on BA and are coming home on United. Boo.

So now we are landing at CLT at 11pm instead of GSP at 8pm. All in all not a huge delay, but the 2-3 hours of denied boarding and missed connections and frustrating delay and incompetent and misleading staff is enough to take a few years off the old ticker. Flying isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure.

But I will tell you one thing - even at Angels 35 and halfway across the G-I-UK gap, I am certain it is going to be damn fine to see those little Sugar Bugs poke their heads into our room tomorrow morning.

Signing Off For Now-
Doc and Matilda

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oh Oban! (and some castles)

We left Ft William this morning after what was an unremarkable night in an unremarkable B&B, a now unremarkable breakfast in a rather unremarkable town. Ft William is the "outdoor capital of the UK" but unless you are hiking Ben Nevis or the West Highland Way I see no reason to go far beyond Ballachulish (Baile a' Chaolais in Gaelic). We headed back south along the coast on the A85, stopping at Dunnstaffnage Castle along the way (just off the A828 near Connell - turn at "The Wide Mouth Frog Cafe").

The castle was highlighted by warm sunny weather and a nice harbor view, the first of which has been in short supply for the last two days. Ruined ramparts and soaring towers and great views are mainly par for the course among the castle-hopping crowd, and Dunstaffnage was no slouch in this regard. WE ran into a quirky couple from Maine that were vary anxious to take our picture for us, so we obliged them. Little bunnies nibbled grass among the tombstones at one end of a small 14th c. chapel hidden in the woods behind the castle main.

We made it to Oban for a late lunch, preceded by a tour of the Oban Distillery. The distillery tour was excellent, if a bit corporate (Oban, among twenty other brands, are all now part of Diageo's portfolio). The ladies even sampled a dram of the standard 14 year, and I bought a bottle of the Distiller's Preferred 2013.


After traipsing through every alley and waterfront of Oban, we finally ended up right back in front of Oban Distillery at Julie's, for a great sandwich and a coffee. Oban is the major ferry terminal to the western islands, and while we didn't make the trip to Mull or Iona or Lismore or Kerrera this time, it was nice to be in a city with a decided amount of bustle to it. Plenty of interesting shops and pubs and whatnot, and it would have made for a good multi-day base town if we had decided to island hop for a bit (maybe next time). Doc particularly enjoyed discovering the several hundred flavors of truffles produced by the Oban Chocolate Company.

Once we finally pulled chocks from Oban we headed to Inveraray, seat of the Duke of Argyll (the grey headed guy from Rob Roy, if you've seen it). Inveraray itself is nothing spectacular, but another castle along the route was very neat, the 15th century redoubt of Kilchurn Castle

The castle is apparently best viewed in Standard Scottish Weather, which is best defined as "rainy at the beginning, cloudy by the end." It was a nice walk out the peninsula from the car park to the castle, which sits right out on the edge of the waters of Loch Awe. This is very much the castle you expect to find in storybooks, with all the right elements and size to give you a good visualization of the local laird, his garrison of 200 men, loopholes and archer slits in the walls, a fallen turret, gaol, incredibly large fireplace and all the rest. 


While visiting on a sunny day might also be nice, everything felt very much at home in the rain. I wonder if it is lit up at night - if not, that would be a pretty neat place to visit.


We ended up in a self-catering flat for the evening, not altogether a bad option with no host or other guests to bother us. An added benefit of both a washer AND a dryer let me do a little laundry before we head to Edinburgh tomorrow. We would have gone to The George for dinner but everyone was so full from a late lunch in Oban that we just grabbed some crackers, cheese and a local ale from the Food Cooperative and holed up for the evening.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Westward Ho!

We set off from Pitlochry in a slight drizzle headed up the A9 back to House of Bruar to do a bit more window shopping. With Matilda in charge of route planning and Doc navigating (a surprisingly successful combo), our intrepid group successfully navigated from Bruar down through Glen Tay to Killin via several "B" and "C" roads, which are apparently the last two quality classifications above "Gravel" and "Footpath Not Suited For Vehicles." Needless to say we encountered quite a few narrow bridges, unannounced hairpin turns, and "blind summits." While Doc enjoyed the occasional brush of stone or limbs along the passenger (left) door, I rather enjoyed the white-knuckled encounters with lorries and tractors that took up rather a bit more than 70% of the 8-foot roadway.


We traversed the Glen Lyon and Glen Tay areas - beautifully isolated stretches of farmland dotted with cute villages and quaint B&Bs that would make great two-week bases for a family of five with slightly older kids (ahem, 2018 vacation!). Linda and Carolyn are good sports to put up with my driving. Carolyn finally got to see a hairy Highland Cow, but somehow we zipped right by the 2000 year old Yew tree in Fortingall that pre-dates the birth of Christ. Maybe next time, assuming it is still there.


We stopped in Killin for a stretch and a tea and the loo - a charming little loch-side town a little bit below Aberfeldy and just above the Trossachs. From Killin we headed up the A82 and onto the Glencoe area.

Breath. Taking. Scenery. Holycow.

Glencoe is remarkable - somewhere between Montana and Alaska and Finland and Heaven. Sweeping ranges of glacier-carved rock, rubbled drifts of moraine, and moss and heather-encrusted hillsides. The glen runs across a top-of-world plateau before plummeting through a pass riven with the craggy watercourses of several thousand years' time. We should have stopped to take more pictures but that wouldn't do it justice. Every footpath off the side of the road (there are dozens) would likely end up in a Top 10 Hikes of the World. Really indescribable.

Onward to the coast, we turned north on the shores of Loch Linnhe and made for Ft William. After a nice pub meal we are ensconced in yet another pub, having a bit to drink and taking advantage of the local wifi. We will head back down to Oban in the morning, but for now I am trying to get the courage to go jump in the sea loch.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Castles and Tartans and Pipers, Oh My!

We slept in a bit today - tough to do when the sun comes up at 4:30 and a couple of pigeons sneak in the open window. After another fantastic Pauline Duncan breakfast (scrambled eggs on toast with smoked salmon) we headed north a wee bit on the A9 again to Blair Castle and the Blair Atholl estates.

 Then on to House of Bruar for some "british country life" shopping and a long look through an amazing foodstuffs department. Doc nearly had me all decked out in tweed and tartan by the time we left the first store today, but we managed to escape with just a few key pieces to remember Scotland by.
Back on down to Pitlochry for some more shopping an skipping about, and by late afternoon we were holed up in the Old Mill Inn & Pub sipping Mojitos (Doc) and Dalwhinne scotch (Matilda). Of the three or four whiskies I've sampled so far (Bell's Blair Atholl, Edradour, Talisker, and Dalwhinne) I think the Dalwhinne is my favorite, although the strong Talisker is a close runner up.

The Pitlochry Highland Nights is apparently a tourist trap for which we fell totally, but it turned out to be pretty cute, local pipe and drum corps and local country dancers performing their various arts, and a few old guys in kilts singing "Scotland the Brave" and "On the Banks of Killiecrankie." Its amazing how long the days are over here - we've just made it back to the B&B and it is just getting dark at 10:20pm.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Day in the Higlhands

Well we have chosen a most delightful town as a home base for the first part of our trip. Pitlochry is nestled along the River Tummell as sort of a "gateway to the highlands," and appears to be a very popular tourist village among folks other than Americans. We've been fortunate to not be inundated with coaches full of guided tourists from the States and elsewhere. Pitlochry really reminds me of a Highlands NC or similar town, very walking frinedly and plenty of shops, pubs, B&Bs, etc. Our B&B in particular - Pauline Duncan of Northlands B&B  - has been delightful, with great accommodations, a fantastic location, and top shelf breakfast stuffs.

WE started out the day at the Highland Folk Museum, a living history site near Kingussie dedicated to teh old highland ways of life. This was a very interesting stop and had quite a bit to see as well as some terrific scenery. 

A bit further down the road we walked down to the River Spey to see some horses, and then happened across the Ruthven Barracks, an old military ruin dating back to the mid 1700s and the english attempts to pacify the highlands following the Jacobite rebellions. 

A bit furhther up the A9 at Kincross was a local shepherd that also trains sheepdogs - every day at 4pm he puts on a demonstration for anyone that wants to come by. What a neat thing to see, a dozen dogs or so corralling several uhundred sheep across verdant green pastures, turning and running at each command of the shepherd's voice. Definitely something you would not see anywhere else.