#CatTravels: The Highlands, Day 2

IMG_6340

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.

IMG_6255

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.

IMG_6291

IMG_6267

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.

IMG_6353

IMG_6321

IMG_6322

IMG_6329

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.

IMG_6383

IMG_6380

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.

IMG_6392

IMG_6407

IMG_6409

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!

IMG_6434

IMG_6437

IMG_6453

IMG_6455

IMG_6457

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.

IMG_6416

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!

Comments { 4 }

#CatTravels: The Highlands by tour bus, Day 1

IMG_6176

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.

IMG_6095

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.

IMG_6130
Stirling Castle

IMG_6122
National Wallace Monument

IMG_6107
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!)

IMG_6136
The carrots and potatoes you can purchase to feed the Highland cows.

IMG_6142
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.

IMG_6160

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.

IMG_6179

IMG_6187

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.

IMG_6189

IMG_6192

IMG_6200

IMG_6195

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.

IMG_6216

IMG_6245

IMG_6233

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.

IMG_6248

IMG_6250

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!

Comments { 2 }

#CatTravels: A lesson in Scotch whisky

IMG_5637

The only thing I knew about Scotch whisky was that, well, it was alcohol.

That’s really about it.

I had no idea whisky made in Scotland was such a special thing.

IMG_5619

When we arrived in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland (above), last week, one of the things my husband wanted to do was check out a whisky distillery.

To be honest, that wasn’t on my Top 5 list of things to do in Edinburgh. I’m not a whisky drinker, much less an aficionado, but I figured this was a good opportunity to learn a little something about Scotland’s national drink. So I booked a tour to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery, located about 15 miles from Edinburgh in a picturesque part of the country, to see first-hand what makes Scotch whisky so unique.

IMG_5626

IMG_5639

We got on a bus near Princes Street with a group of French high school students. It took about 30 minutes to get to the distillery, where we toured the malting floors, production area and cask room. (We couldn’t take photos during the tour, since Glenkinchie is still a working distillery.)

This is a classic and historic distillery, started in 1837 during the time when distilling became legal. (In 1777 Edinburgh houses maybe 400 illicit distilleries.)

Blended Scotch whisky constitutes about 90 percent of the whisky produced in Scotland. These blends contain both malt whisky and grain whisky. Producers combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent brand style. Think Bells, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Whyte and Mackay, Cutty Sark, J&B, The Famous Grouse, Ballantine’s and Chivas Regal.

Glenkinchie, though, became well-known for its single malt whisky. (It’s one of six distilleries in the Lowland region of Scotland.)

OK, so all that was interesting. But here’s what I didn’t know. Scotch whisky is like champagne in France: there are rules to it. Meaning, you have to adhere to a certain set of standards before you can call the whisky you brew Scotch.

As defined by law, Scotch whisky has to be:

• Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
• Processed at that distillery into a mash
• Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems
• Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast
• Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 percent (190 US proof)
• Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) for at least three years
• Retaining the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
• Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel coloring
• Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40 percent (80 US proof)

“The whole process has to be done in Scotland,” said our tour guide.

And did you know this? Only Scotch whisky uses this spelling; all others are spelled “whiskey.”

“You know what ‘E’ stands for?” she asked us, a twinkle in her eyes. “We say it stands for ‘effort.'”

After sampling four different kinds of whiskies produced by Glenkinchie, we had the fortunate luck of staying with a guy in Edinburgh who is incredibly knowledgeable about Scotch whisky — and a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

IMG_5689

IMG_5674

Founded in 1983, SMWS is the world’s foremost malt whisky club — with a location in Leith (above) where you can sample the best single cask, single malt whisky it has for its members only.

IMG_5681

IMG_5673

IMG_5678

Here, you can taste whatever the society has available — all rare whiskies from single casks. (Remember, most whiskies are blended.) That means whatever each bottle comes from an individual aging barrel, instead of being created by blending together the contents of various barrels to provide uniformity of color and taste. Even whiskeys that are not blends may be combined from more than one batch.

So these single cask whiskies are very special, very rare Scotch whiskies — and we were privileged to sample them.

IMG_5686

IMG_5687

Even though I’m not a fan of whisky — with or without the “e” — I can totally appreciate the process, the subtleties, the effort put into each bottle, and the passion aficionados like Andrew have for Scotch whisky.

I think I feel that way about ice cream.

Comments { 8 }

#CatTravels: The mystic of Stonehenge

IMG_5599

Blame my fascinating with all things rocks, but visiting Stonehenge in England has long been on my must-do list.

But I’ve met a few people who have discouraged me from the side trip to Wiltshire from London, a two-hour drive west.

And you’d have to drive through London. I haven’t met a person yet — including Londoners — who said that was a good idea.

But my husband shared my desire to see this prehistoric monument, so I decided to plan a side trip to Bath, a quaint spa city in Somerset in southwest England, which is much closer to Stonehenge (and the wetlands nature preserve from my previous blog.)

IMG_5513

Now, I’m not going to lie: driving around England sans GPS (and WiFi to use Google Maps) wasn’t easy. But we somehow managed to find both the preserve and this iconic site — and while driving on the other side of the road!

The nice part was seeing a different side of England. Up until this trip, I had only stayed in London. And there are only so many museums and pubs you can visit in a week’s time.

Seeing a more rural side of the country was a great experience, even despite the UK’s love for roundabouts.

So we left our hotel early in the morning, meeting the misty roads just after sunrise.

IMG_5522

I had heard from a few people that the experience at Stonehenge had dramatically changed in recent years. No longer can you drive right up to it and walk around the massive stones. Because of vandalism — people were even chipping off pieces of stone to take home as souvenirs — English Heritage, which manages the site, decided to build a visitor’s center and exhibition area about 1.5 miles away from Stonehenge and now limits the number of people who can see the site each day. (Right now, more than 1 million people make the trek here.)

IMG_5530

IMG_5536

IMG_5537

You have to park at a car park next to the center — parking is free — and walk through an informative display of the history and cultural significance of the monument and surrounding area. There are five replicas of neolithic homes outside, with axes, pottery and other artifacts that help connect the ancient stones with the people who lived and worked in the area.

IMG_5542

IMG_5544

IMG_5552

IMG_5558

After you tour the exhibition area, you catch one of the four-wheel-drive vehicles to the site. You can, like we did, get off a little earlier to walk about halfway to the site yourself, through open fields and cattle pasture.

Despite the biting chill in the air, I actually liked the walk. It was nice to see the monument off in the distance. You really got a sense of the landscape surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

IMG_5583

But, of course, we came to see the rocks.

Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones surrounded by hundreds of burial mounds. Archaeologists believe it was built anywhere from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. And its meaning and purpose have been debated for decades.

Just this September researchers from the University of Birmingham discovered as many as 17 new chapels and hundreds of archaeological features around the monument using ground-penetrating radar equipment. (Read more here.)

So this was an exciting time to visit.

IMG_5584

IMG_5613

Even though we were there with more than a hundred other people, circling the standing stones with cameras and iPhones, it didn’t feel crowded or frantic. In fact, the whole experience was surreal and serene. You could definitely feel the weight of this sacred place, but it was calming and peaceful, too.

IMG_5594

Seeing Stonehenge was definitely one of those travel memories that will stick for awhile. And even though it would have been ridiculously cool to walk around the stones and touch them, just seeing them was enough.

So worth the stress driving through roundabouts.

Visiting Stonehenge: Cost is £13.90 for adults, £8.30 for children ages 5 to 15, £12.50 for students with a valid ID and seniors over 60. It’s located near Amesbury in Wiltshire. Visit the website or call 0870 333 1181 for more information.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 6 }

#CatTravels: Visiting nēnē in England

IMG_1723 copy

My husband has never been to London, which is a big reason why we went.

Since I had already been there twice before — once as recent as last year — I decided to let him pick the places he wanted to go.

Tower of London, the British Museum, a pub to eat fish and chips — he rattled off the usual London must-dos.

Then he said he wanted to see nēnē.

As in the Hawaiian goose endemic to the Islands.

As in the ones we can see at the Honolulu Zoo.

So why did he want to fly 7,200 miles to London to see our own state bird?

Turns out, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in London was instrumental in the successful breeding the nēnē in captivity back in the 1950s and staving off possible (or inevitable) extinction.

My husband had heard about this and wondered if we could visit the actual sanctuary where the nēnē were bred and kept.

Tall orders for me. Luckily, I have mad Google skills and found the preserve where this all happened.

IMG_5350

It was a nature reserve Slimbridge, managed by the WWT, where the goose were bred for later re-introduction into the wild in Hawai‘i. It’s located halfway between Bristol and Gloucester on the estuary of the River Severn, more than 115 miles west of London. It opened in November 1946 by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott and sprawls over 120 acres.

IMG_5362

This place is a birder’s paradise, with a number of ducks, geese, swans and birds roaming around the preserve. You can see large flocks of white-fronted geese, clusters of pink flamingos, and graceful Bewick’s swans here, in addition to peregrine, merlin, coots, black-tailed godwits, lapwings, ruffs, spotted redshanks and curlew sandpipers.

And yes, the nēnē are everywhere!

IMG_5367

IMG_6632 copy

IMG_5371

What’s great about this reserve is that you can actually walk around and feed these birds. In Hawai‘i, you can’t even get close to a nēnē, much less feed one. (Well, they’re also not the easiest to find in the Islands. The best spots are Haleakalā and Pi‘iholo ranches on Maui and on Hawai‘i Island.)

The nēnē are one of the world’s rarest goose. At one time, there were an estimated 25,000 of them living in Hawai‘i back in the late 1770s. But hunters and predators such as the mongoose, pigs and feral cats have reduced the population to less than 30 birds by 1952. Today, and thanks to Slimbridge, the population is at around 2,500 birds in the state.

And they can also be found at all nine of WWT’s reserves.

“They have the golden key,” said keeper John Crooks. “They can do whatever they want.”

IMG_5379

IMG_5435

There are even otters here, one of the most popular stops at the reserve. And for good reason. These North American otters — a mother and her two daughters — are playful and adorable. If it weren’t illegal, I’d probably have 12 in my backyard.

The otters arrived at the center in 2009 as part of its wetland mammal area called “Back from the Brink.” Crooks, who handles the otters, gives a quick 30-minute talk about otters while he feeds them every day.

IMG_5404

IMG_5409

After the otter talk, we ventured outside the park and into the preserve. It was just a 20-minute walk along the wetlands.

IMG_5450

IMG_5461

IMG_5490

It was really quite spectacular to spend the afternoon here. And it wasn’t just about hand-feeding the nēnē, either (though I will admit that was one of the highlights). It was seeing how much people care about their natural environment and the animals and plants that are an integral part of it. These folks at WWT really believe in the profound importance about the wetlands, and that was the most inspiring part of our time there.

So yes, the nature reserve was beautiful. But more importantly, it was about how to keep the world this beautiful for other generations to enjoy.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 6 }