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#DidThis: Riding horses at Kualoa Ranch, O‘ahu

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I was one of those little girls with posters of horses on her walls and a very well-worn copy of “Black Beauty” by her bedside.

Yes, I had a fascination with horses, even back then.

And while I had always wanted to ride on, the chance never really came up.

Until this weekend, when my sweet husband surprised me with a horseback tour at Kualoa Ranch.

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Maybe this will come as a surprise to many of you, but I hadn’t even been to Kualoa Ranch, either. So this was going to be quite an adventure!

Established in 1850 on the northeastern side of O‘ahu, Kualoa is a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch, stretching from the Ko‘olau Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The terrain varies from dense rainforest to lush gaping valleys to white sandy beaches.

There’s a ton of activities here, from ATV tours through its scenic valleys to catamaran rides of picturesque Kāneʻohe Bay with views of Mokoli‘i Island (Chinaman’s Hat) to a glass-bottom boat ride to the secluded Secret Island.

But one of the most popular ways to explore the ranch is by horseback — and that’s what we had come to do.

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We checked in at the Ticket Office, where you can, for $3, rent a locker for your belongings. (You can’t bring along anything that can’t fit in your pocket, so bags and large cameras had to be stowed.)

Then you waited by a horse pen for the tour to start.

I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous. I had climbed onto a horse before — back in Vegas a few years ago — and the height was a bit daunting. You can definitely feel the strength of these animals, and you know, at any given moment, they can decide whether they want you on their backs or not. So it was a bit intimidating.

We met our guide (above photo), Kyle, a 2011 graduate of Kahuku High School, who grew up on her family’s ranch on the North Shore. Knowing — and seeing — how comfortable she was with these horses put my fears at ease.

She handed me a 10-year-old horse named Ace. He was once a guide horse, so he was really familiar with the trails on the ranch. “He’s super mellow,” she told me. “And he totally knows what to do.”

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My husband opted for the two-hour tour ($99 per person), which took us deep into Ka‘a‘awa Valley, where films such as “Godzilla,” “Jurassic Park” and “50 First Dates” were filmed. We started off along the highway, through groves of kiawe trees with stunning ocean views (above).

There were just a few of us — maybe 10 — on the tour, led by a guide. We rode single file and never went faster than a quick walk. That’s it. In fact, trotting or galloping would result in you — and I’m assuming your horse — getting kicked off the tour with no refund. They were THAT serious about safety.

I got used to being on a horse pretty quickly. (Maybe it’s my Portuguese heritage coming out.) At first, I was a bit nervous, gripping onto the reigns a little too much. But after a few minutes, I started to relax into the gait, using the reigns only when I needed to and truly enjoying the scenery. (It helped that my horse, Ace, lived up to his name.)

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We made our way toward Ka‘a‘awa, past freshwater ponds and grazing cattle. The verdant cliffs, the depth of the valley itself — it was all so breathtaking. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much had I been walking or biking.

There’s something rustic and exhilarating about riding a horse through this terrain. Like it’s the way you were supposed to experience it. On horseback. And with an iPhone. (smile)

Two-hour rides cost $99 per person, one-hour rides (to the southern half of Kualoa and the ranch’s 800-year-old Hawaiian fishpond) are $69 per person. To book a horseback tour, call 1-800-231-7321 or 808-237-7321 or visit here.

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5 Things I learned about Hawai‘i Beef

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Beef.

It’s (often) what’s for dinner.

But last Friday, when I spent the day on the Big Island courtesy of the Hawai‘i Beef Industry Council, I realized I didn’t know much about the state’s cattle industry.

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As part of a #PastureToPlate tour, a group of us — from ranchers to food safety experts to writers like me (above) — visited two cattle ranches and a slaughter facility. The goal was to familiarize us with cattle ranching in Hawai‘i.

Oh, and did it!

Here’s what I learned:

1. Ranching is an important part of our economy.

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The gift of cattle to Kamehameha I by Capt. George Vancouver in 1793 made a huge impact on Hawai‘i economy. An entire industry was created, with that rich cowboy (paniolo) and ranch culture still around today.

Ranchers are the stewards of more than 1 million acres of land in Hawai‘i, of 25 percent of the state’s total land mass. The Big Island produces the most of the state’s beef — and boast some of the largest cattle ranches in the U.S.

2. It’s not easy to raise, slaughter and sell Hawai‘i beef directly to the local market — but it happens.

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Most cattle is grown here until about six or seven months old, then sold into the commodity market on the Mainland — the price of cattle right now is at an all-time high. Very few ranches produce beef from cows raised, finished, slaughtered and sold directly to local markets.

Why? Well, it’s more cost-effective for ranchers to sell their calves instead of finishing them here. You need lots of great pasture land for that. And after decades of sending off their calves, the infrastructure here has changed. There are only a few slaughterhouses left.

Ponoholo Ranch in Kohala, for exmpale, sells most of its calves to the Mainland after they’re weaned (about seven months old and about 400 pounds). They are sent via “cowtainers” to California or Seattle or by 747 cargo jets to L.A. The cattle are then trucked to pastures or directly to a feed yard.

There are ranches, though, that are committed to producing beef — start-to-finish in the Islands — like Kuahiwi Ranch in Ka‘ū. One hundred percent of its cattle is finished here. And cull cows, older bulls and a couple hundred grass-finished steers and heifers from Ponoholo Ranch get harvested and processed on the Big Island for the local market.

There’s also a program with Hawai‘i Ranchers that brings Hawai‘i-born cattle sent to the Mainland to finish in feed lots back to the Islands. In the program, Hawai‘i-born calves are shipped to feed lots in Oregon, where they are kept separate from cattle from other states. They receive no hormones or antibiotics, and are fed a vegetarian diet that has no animal by-product feeds and, whenever possible, has no genetically modified grains. The cows are processed on the Mainland and the meat is shipped back here.

3. Ranches are beautiful places.

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I was blown away by the sheer beauty and serenity of these ranches, particularly Ponoholo Ranch (above), which sprawls over 11,000 acres from summit to sea. (This ranch was started by Ronald von Holt and Atherton Richards back in 1928. In 1980 the ranch split into two — Kahua Ranch and Ponoholo Ranch — and were jointly operated until 1989.)

The ranch covers three climate zones — from the rainforest at 4,800 feet elevation to the rugged coastline — and has the second largest herd of cattle on the island at around 6,000 heads.

The view was breathtaking, with a herd of cattle in the distance grazing and the Pacific Ocean below. I mean, people pay good money for views like that!

4. Slaughterhouses are nothing to be afraid of.

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I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous — though super curious — about visiting a slaughterhouse.

Lot of gruesome images come to mind. Bloody carcasses, guts everywhere.

Turns out, Hawai‘i Beef Producers in Pa‘auilo is not like that at all.

We weren’t there on a processing day — thankfully — but we did get to tour the facility, which was so clean I could’ve licked the floor. Seriously. (We couldn’t take photos, though, probably because people — like me — would have preconceived notions — read: fears — about the process.)

The De Luz family, which has been ranching for three generations on the 10,000-acre Kukaiau Ranch nearby, runs this slaughterhouse. The beef that’s processed here is top-notch, meeting the uber-high standards of such retailers at Whole Foods Markets. (Read about the company’s animal welfare standards here.)

The slaughterhouse processes about 450 heads a month, all local cattle. And whatever that translates to in terms of beef on tables or industry revenue, it really means keeping these ranchers and processors in business.

5. You can’t beat a beef burger.

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When we were touring the slaughterhouse, Jill Andrade-Mattos, the general manager, told us that Hawai‘i beef may not be the tenderest, but it’s the healthiest — and more importantly, it’s local.

She should have added, “tasty,” to that list.

Our tour ended at Āhualoa Ranch in Pa‘auilo, where chef Edwin Goto of Village Burger in Waimea prepared us lunch using Kuahiwi Ranch beef.

The patties were flavorful and juicy and grilled perfectly. Goto paired it with brioche baked at Holy’s Bakery in Kapa‘au — it’s Goto’s recipe — and locally grown tomatoes, lettuce, cheese and condiments. (I mean, you can’t eat a burger without mayonnaise!) Talk about a winner.

I mean, eating a perfect burger made from beef grown and harvested on this island, while gazing at the open pastureland of Āhualoa Ranch — how can it get any better?

Special thanks to Michelle Galimba of Kuahiwi Ranch for inviting me! For more information about Hawai‘i’s cattle industry, visit the Hawai‘i Beef Industry Council. And when you shop, look for local beef. #supportlocal

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#CatTravels: 48 Hours in Ireland

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Years ago, back when I worked at the now-defunct Honolulu Advertiser, I plugged in “Dublin” in a travel booking website and found roundtrip tickets from Honolulu for less than it would cost to fly to Vegas.

And I didn’t go.

It always lingered in my mind, the fact that I let that opportunity get away from me.

So I’ve been thinking about Ireland ever since.

Not that I have any connection to the North Atlantic island. I’m not Irish (that I know of) and I don’t drink Guinness.

But I do love Oscar Wilde (his middle name was O’Flahertie), soda bread, Lucky Charms and the color green.

All kidding aside.

Ireland is one of those magical places, where the lush countryside is as emerald green as it appears in travel guides. The sea cliffs are as dramatic, people as friendly. Everything about Ireland is exactly how I had imagined. It’s the kind of place that makes you believe in fairies and monsters.

When we were planning our honeymoon to the United Kingdom, we, of course, included Ireland. Our friends had just come back from a two-week adventure across the island — the largest in the British Isle archipelago and third-largest in Europe — driving along its southern and western coastlines, staying at little bed-and-breakfasts along the way.

It sounded so quaint and idyllic.

There was no way we could be that relaxed on our two-day jaunt.

Originally, we were going to spend five days in Ireland. But my husband convinced me to rebook our flights and hotels so we could spend more time in Scotland, instead. So we had just about two full days in the country — and really, that wasn’t enough.

DAY 1

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We flew into Dublin and rented a tiny Nissan Micra from locally owned Dan Dooley Car Rental. Like in the rest of the British Isles, you have to drive on the left-hand side of the street, opposite of how it is in the U.S. And having a small car, trust me, was a good thing. (Roads are perilously narrow.)

We were heading to Cong, a teeny village straddling the borders of Galway and Mayo counties with less than 200 residents. (It’s also the home of Sir William Wilde, historian and father to the prominent playwright.) Its claim to fame is Ashford Castle — and we were staying there for the night.

It was going to take about two and a half hours to get there — I was driving, too! — so we stopped halfway to Cong at a small town called Kilbeggan, famous as the location of the oldest recorded incidence of a tornado in Europe.

But that’s not why we were there.

We wanted a drink and a quick bite to eat (above, second and third). And the Saddler’s Inn delivered — with a cold pint of Guinness and ham and cheese sandwiches. (That was the only thing on the menu!)

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Just before sunset, we arrived at Ashford Castle (above, first), one of Ireland’s finest luxe hotels converted from a Victorian faux lakeside castle. It was built on the site in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman House of Burke right on the banks of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake.

We had some time to kill before dinner, so we walked around the property, which sprawls over 365 acres of land, much of it wooded. There were neat paths that meandered through perfect gardens. Such a gorgeous area! The hotel offers various activities that allow you to truly absorb your surroundings, including cycling, skeet shooting and kayaking in Lough Corrib.

We had dinner at Cullen’s at the Dungeon (above, fourth), the more casual dining experience at the castle. I tried an Irish specialty: beef and Guinness stew.

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We had breakfast in the immaculate George V Dining Room (above, first and second), with a buffet spread that included cheese, salami, croissants, soda bread, scrambled eggs, bacon, black pudding and fruits.

We needed the fuel for our long, complicated drive north to the Céide Fields in the northwestern tip of Ireland.

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The Céide Fields is an archaeological site that contains the oldest known agricultural field systems in the world. Using various dating methods, it was discovered that the creation and development of the Céide Fields goes back some five and a half thousand years.

We first stopped at a viewing spot to see the 365-foot cliffs of Ballycastle (above, first), these horizontal layers of sandstone roughly 350 million years old. Mayo County is home to the country’s highest cliffs — yes, taller than those of the famed Cliffs of Moher — and second highest in all of Europe at Croaghaun, Achill Island. (The Benwee Head cliffs in Kilcommon Erris stand nearly 900 feet straight above the wild Atlantic.) The coastline here was just breathtaking.

But we had come to see Céide Fields.

We walked up to the visitor’s center (above, second) built on the archaeological site of what is considered the most extensive stone monument in the world, stone-walled fields preserved beneath a 5,000-year-old bog. We got to see parts of the wall (above, third) that had been uncovered.

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Then we were back to Ashford Castle for some hawk flying. The oldest established Falconry School in Ireland gives you chance to fly a hawk around the woodlands of the castle in a one-hour private Hawk Walk.

Uh, of course we were doing it.

We met Tommy (above, first), one of the instructors and bird expert, who introduced us to Andes, a Peruvian hawk and champion hunter. He explained how this whole thing was going to work: the hawk would be tied to the glove as we walked to an open area on the castle grounds. Then we would let it fly away, calling it back with a small piece of raw beef hidden in our gloved fist. “You don’t train a hawk,” Tommy said. “You learn what it needs.”

These hawks — and falcons (above, third) — were amazing. Among the most intelligent birds in the world, hawks boast exceptional eyesight, able to perceive the visible range and the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. Not only can they see greater distances than humans, their visual acuity is eight times that of ours. In addition, these birds of prey can attain speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, traveling thousand of miles a year. They are pretty astounding creatures, and handling them was very humbling.

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It’s hard to top flying a hawk, but spending a night in Doolin (above, first) wasn’t too bad, either.

Doolin is a coastal village in Clare County, best known for being the capital of traditional Irish music. We didn’t know this at first, but when we checked in at the charming Twin Peaks B&B (above, second), the owners were quick to tell us to get our meals before 9:30 p.m. After that, they said, the music starts and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open seat.

And they weren’t kidding.

The pubs on the town’s very small main street was packed with people eager to hear live traditional Irish music. We popped into The Chocolate Shop (above, third and fourth), next door to Doolin’s famous Gus O’Connor Pub, for a little snack. This place is one of the few shops that carry the Wilde Irish Chocolates, handmade artisan chocolates that are to die for.

We stopped by O’Connor’s just for a quick bite — I got a burger with bacon and cheese, my husband got fish and chips — then called it a night. We had a big day tomorrow of surfing and beer-drinking.

DAY 2

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Prior to our arrival in Ireland, I had been emailing with Cathal “Ben” Bennett, owner of Bens Surf Clinic located in Lahinch, known as one of the best surfing spots in all of Ireland (above, first three).

The beach is the spot for lessons, too. There are several shops offering surfing instruction and board rentals, so it was a perfect place for us to get wet in Ireland.

Ben had emailed me the night before and said the waves were decent and the conditions really good. He wasn’t kidding. Aside from the nip in the air, we were greeted with blue skies and sunshine — and small waves. We suited up — we were wearing a 5/3 mm wetsuit and booties — and paddled out.

To be honest, I was a bit concerned about the cold. The water temp here was around 60 degrees — the average water temperature in Hawai‘i is 74 degrees — and I had never worn a wetsuit before. But as soon as we paddled out — and Ben did tell me this — the cold wasn’t a factor at all. My hands warmed up pretty quickly, and by the time I got out to the lineup, I didn’t feel the chill at all. In fact, it got a bit warm. And when we got to shore, we shed our wetsuits and wore T-shirts for the rest of the morning.

I have to say, this was probably one of my favorite experiences on this entire trip.

We wandered around Lahinch for a bit, grabbing a beer at a local restaurant that faced the ocean and popping into the Celtic T-shirt Shop (above, fourth), which specializes in artistic Celtic designs. Cool little town.

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After cruising around the beach town, we jumped into our rental car and drove two and a half hours to Dublin, where we were going to spend the night before heading back home.

You can’t come all the way to Dublin without visiting the Guinness Storehouse, especially if you love beer the way my husband does.

Open in 2000, Guinness Storehouse is a Guinness-themed tourist attraction at St. James Gate Brewery. The building in which this seven-story beer lover’s mecca is located was constructed in 1902 as a fermentation plant. Now, it tells the story of Guinness, the beloved Irish dry stout that originated here.

The self-guided tour covers the history of the brewery, the process, a showcase of advertising, even an interactive exhibit on responsible drinking. The draw, though, is the tasting. You learn how to properly drink a pint of Guinness — lift the glass to your mouth and take in a good-sized mouthful to get the perfect sip — and what makes this stout unlike any other.

Then you can head up to the Gravy Bar with 360-degree panoramic views of Dublin — and where you pick up the free pint that comes with your admission ticket.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people just head straight up to the top floor and skip the exhibits.

We had been told by everyone, even some Scots, that you have to drink a pint of Guinness while in Ireland. “Guinness doesn’t travel well,” people said to us. And they were right. There’s something about the perfectly brewed mouthful, that slight tang, its thick and creamy head, that you don’t really get anywhere else but here.

Then again, you can say that about everything we experienced in Ireland. It’s so much better done there.

Thanks to everyone who followed our #FoxHoneymoon here, on Facebook, on Twitter or on Instagram! It was a pleasure sharing our experiences with you! Hopefully we have inspired all of you to take that dream trip to Europe — or anywhere in the world, to be honest. There’s lots of exploring out there. What are you waiting for?

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#CatTravels: The Highlands, Day 2

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If the first day in the Highlands in Scotland wasn’t packed with enough memories to create a Shutterfly photo book, the second day just turned that into a full-length motion picture.

We visited the most photographed castle in the British Isles, ate Scottish ice cream, gazed at a waterfall, and hung out at the most famous loch in the world.

And it started with breakfast.

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The Berkeley House, where we had stayed the night, provided a great breakfast the next morning, complete with a nice selection of cereals and breads, and the option to order a full breakfast.

So in Scotland — as in Ireland and England — there’s something called a full breakfast. It comes with eggs, often scrambled, back bacon, link sausage, buttered toast, baked beans, maybe a grilled tomato or mushrooms, sometimes haggis, and on occasion you might get a slice of black pudding. I only ordered it once — back in Edinburgh — and it’s a lot to eat at once. Here, at the Berkeley House, I just opted for fruits and yogurt.

We met up with our tour bus from Timberbush Tours and headed out to explore another part of the Highlands — really, the highlight of the two-day adventure.

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We were extremely fortunate with the weather. I was worried Scotland was going to be fiercely cold — and the Highlands even worse. It turned out that we had blue skies and sunshine, even in northern Scotland. Our tour guide, Marty, said it’s only this clear and sunny about 50 days out of the year — and we were lucky enough to catch it like this on our trip.

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Our first stop was the famous Eilean Donan Castle (above, first) located on a small tidal island where three lochs — Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh — meet in the western Highlands. The castle itself overlooks the Isle of Skye and is surrounded by the forested mountains of Kintail. It’s pretty spectacular.

This castle is one of the most photographed icons of Scotland — and one of the most photographed castles in all of the United Kingdom. It’s not unusual to see it on shortbread tins, postcards, calendars and whisky bottles.

This 13th-century stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and its ally, Clan Macrae, was rebuilt between 1919 and 1932 and included the construction of an arched bridge to give easier access to the island. A visitor’s center opened in 1998 — and there’s even a live webcam there, too. (The castle was featured prominently in “Highlander.”)

We walked around the castle, much of it restored and rebuilt, and took a ton of photos and selfies (as you do), before heading to Loch Ness in search of the mysterious creature fabled to live there.

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But first, we had to eat!

We stopped at Fort Augustus, a small village at the southwest end of Loch Ness with a population of roughly 650. As you could probably guess, this town relies heavily on the visitors to the loch, made famous for its cryptid resident.

We ate lunch at Scots Kitchen, ordering beef nachos (above, first) and roast beef with veggies and potatoes. I was surprised to see nachos on the menu at a Scottish restaurant. And even though it wasn’t your traditional American-style dish, it was completely addictive. The beef tasted a lot like taco meat, with the cheese and red onions a perfect complement. I thoroughly enjoy it.

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Loch Ness (above, first) is the second largest loch in Scotland by surface area but, because of its insane depth (755 feet at its deepest point), it is the largest by volume. This one loch contains more fresh water than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. It’s best known for the monster, affectionately known as “Nessie,” which allegedly lives here, along with European eels, northern pike, white sturgeon and a variety of trout and char.

Loch Ness also serves as the lower storage reservoir for the Foyers’ pumped-storage hydroelectric scheme, which is designed to “soak up” excess power generated by wind and wave farms, using it to pump water up to a reservoir. Turbines here were originally use to provide power for a nearby aluminum smelting plant. Now, the electricity generated supplies the National Grid.

The lochs have locks, too (above, second and third). Opened in 1822, the lock system is part of the 60-mile Caledonian Canal that links Inverness to Fort William. The canal was originally built to provide a shortcut for merchant skippers between the east and west coasts of Scotland.

Of course, visitors flock here for one purpose: to see if they can spot the infamous Loch Ness Monster.

This large, reptilian creature lurking in the loch has been urban legend since 1933. Evidence of its existence has been largely anecdotal, with the occasional photos and sonar readings suggesting that something big — really big — does live down there. We didn’t see it — but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe it’s down there!

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After visiting Loch Ness, we headed to Pitlochery for a nice walk to the Falls of Bruar, a series of waterfalls on the Bruar Water (above, first three). While today this area is heavily wooded, it was once sparse and barren. This gorge is a living memorial to the poet Robert Burns, who came here in 1787 to admire these falls. He wrote, “The Humble Petition of Bruar Water,” in which he urged the 4th Duke of Atholl to plant its bleak banks with trees. Larch and Scottish pines were planted in the 18th century, only to be cut down during World War II. After the war ended, trees were replanted in the area. You can see Scots pine, hybrid larch, fir and spruce.

It’s a short but scenic walk to the waterfalls — maybe about 15 minutes — with a nice bridge to best view it. The natural waterfalls has been attracting visitors since the 1720s, and it continues to be a popular destination for travelers.

After the walk, we wandered around the nearby House of Bruar, a collection of retail departments including a 15,000-square-foot food hall that showcases the best of Scottish foods and drinks — including locally made ice cream.

If that’s not the best way to end a two-day tour to the Highlands, I don’t know what is.

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Thank you to Timberbush Tours and our guide, Marty (above), for taking us on this magical two-day adventure into the Highlands. Definitely a highlight of our trip to Europe!

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#CatTravels: The Highlands by tour bus, Day 1

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If there was only one thing we were going to do on our honeymoon, it was visit the Highlands.

At least that’s what my husband said.

While we were on our way to Ireland.

True story.

It was the day before we were going to catch a plane from Edinburgh to Dublin when he tells me that he wanted to spend most of our time in Europe in Scotland.

I wish he had said this before we left Hawai‘i.

So I scrambled to change our flight, cancel our hotel stays in Western Ireland, and find last-minute accommodations in Edinburgh.

And despite the frantic rescheduling and the ensuing stress it caused, the decision to stay in Scotland turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.

For that, we’d have to thank the Highlands.

This historic region of Scotland north of Edinburgh — that area is referred to as the Lowlands — is sparsely populated, with stunning mountain ranges and picturesque lochs (lakes) dominating the landscape. The tallest mountain in the British Isles — Ben Nevis, which stands 4,409 feet above sea level — is located here, as does the infamous Loch Ness and its legendary inhabitant.

The Highlands also boast Britain’s largest national park, the 1,748-square-mile Cairngorms National Park, which accounts for 6 percent of the size of Scotland — and dozens of small villages and charming towns near glens, across islands and along coastlines.

It’s easy to get seduced by Scotland here.

A friend I met at a writers’ conference put me in touch with a tour operator that specializes in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. With more than 16 years of experience and an arsenal of knowledgable guides, Timberbush Tours is one of Scotland’s longest running tour operators, offering 1-, 2- and 3-day tours of this region.

We decided to jump on the two-day tour to the Highlands, which included a visit to a couple of castles, a few lochs, and the Glenfinnan Viaduct best known for its role in the “Harry Potter” films.

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Tours run out of Edinburgh and Glasgow daily. We met outside the Ensign Ewart pub on Lawmarket (i.e.: the Royal Mile) at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The tour was full, so we settled into our seats on the air-conditioned bus for the long journey to the Highlands.

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Stirling Castle

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National Wallace Monument

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View of the landscape from the National Wallace Monument

The great thing about any tours is that you can see a lot in a short amount of time. (And, especially in our case, we were led around by a hilarious, extremely knowledgeable guide named Marty who said things like, “That, over there, is Loch Lochy. We call it that because we ran out of names.”)

In our first day, we visited Stirling Castle (above, first), which dates back to the early 12th century and has long been considered one of the most important and historic castles in Scotland; drove past Doune Castle, a medieval stronghold used in the filming of the cult classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”; and walked around the National Wallace Monument, (above, last two) a tower commemorating the 13th-century Scottish hero Sir William Wallace. (Think “Braveheart.”)

Next, we headed to Trossachs Woolen Mill in Kilmahog, Perthshire, where lives the world-famous Hamish, a hairy Highland cow (or coo). (He’s so famous, actually, he’s got his own Facebook page!)

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The carrots and potatoes you can purchase to feed the Highland cows.

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Meet Hamish!

Highland cattle are a Scottish breed of cattle with long horns and long, wavy coats in black, brindled, red, yellow or dun. They are stunning cows, for sure, and very iconic to the Highlands. And hand-feeding them was a thrill, to say the least.

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We stopped at the woolen mill for a bit to eat lunch. I had Scottish pancakes (above) — which seems just like regular pancakes except these were thicker and smaller — and bacon (which isn’t at all like the bacon we have in the U.S.). It hit the spot, nonetheless, and after about an hour here, we were on our way to Glenfinnan.

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Along the way, we crossed through Glen Coe, a volcanically formed glen that is known to offer one of the most beautiful vistas in all of Scotland. We stopped at the Three Sisters (above, first), three steeply-sided ridges that extend north into the glen.

We noticed a winding trail that cut across the landscape here (above, second). Turns out this is part of the West Highland Way, a 96-mile trail from Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. About 85,000 people use the path every year, with about 30,000 completing the entire trail. Needless to say, my husband quickly put this on his travel bucket list.

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Next stop: Glenfinnan, a quaint village with a monument at the head of Loch Shiel erected in 1815 in tribute to the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died here (above, fourth). We walked along a short path (above, first) to a lookout where you could see the loch in one diction and the Glenfinnan Viaduct (above, third) in the other. The bridge was made famous in the “Harry Potter” movies, when Hogwarts Express took the young wizards to school.

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We spent some time wandering around the area around Loch Shiel. One path (above, first) took us through an area filled with dragonflies (above, second) and butterflies, flitting about. We walked through forests where we spotted Scots pines (above, third), a species of pine native to Europe that can grow up to 110 feet. The wood is used for pulp and sawn timber products.

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Our final stop on the first day of the tour was Fort William, the second largest settlement in the Highlands with about 10,000 inhabitants and a major tourist town that attracts hikers, climbers, bikers and skiers.

We stayed at the Berkeley Guest House, a quaint bed-and-breakfast just off the main street. The original house was constructed in the late 1800s but has since been renovated into more modern accommodations. The owner, Norrie MacLean (above, second), grew up in the Western Isles of Scotland and had spent 23 years in Canada before buying this place in 1997 and opening it as a B&B. (His son bought the house next door and converted that into a bed-and-breakfast, too.)

“I moved back because I wanted to fish,” MacLean said, always a twinkle in his eyes. “But I’ve only fished once.”

We ended up eating at a nearby hotel — the pubs and restaurants in town were surprisingly packed, with wait times up to 40 minutes for a table! — and calling it an early night. We had a long day tomorrow — more riding around the countryside — and a Loch Ness monster to see!

Thank you to Timberbush Tours for taking us on this magical two-day adventure into the Highlands. Definitely a highlight of our trip to Europe!

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