Into the Highlands (Scotland pt. 3)

A river and castles separate the Scottish lowlands from the highlands. Back in the day, the country was in a seemingly constant state of war — the English battling for control of the Highlands. Stirling Castle changed hands eight times in fifty years, and the battles were every bit as gory as that Mel Gibson movie would have you believe – proof in a man’s skull that had dozens of fractures on it.

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I think this Gargoyle is a good symbol of the violent past
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View from Stirling Castle
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Konnor walking around Stirling Castle with his big cousins

I mention Stirling Castle because much like the travelers of ancient times, the fortress on the hill was our gateway to the Highlands.

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Fortress on the hill Indeed

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We took our rented Mercedes C Class and headed North for the first time. We visited the Trossachs where Konnor got to test out his hiking legs and move uphill. Everyone we passed praised us or at least gawked at us for carrying our young toddler several miles up, along a muddy and sometimes steep trail to a beautiful lookout spot.

 

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View from the trailhead
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Konnor walking alongside mommy
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He found a rock
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Family selfie
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Top of the hill
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Rocky seat
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Hairy trail to carry a toddler down, but we made it work
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Gorgeous Views

I was surprised to see National Parks in the U.K. are not like National Parks in the U.S. Our National Parks are basically uninhabited aside from a handful of park workers and campgrounds. The Trossachs have towns and houses and restaurants throughout.

We also visited Loch Lomond  in the Trossachs. April is a shoulder season and it was rainy, but we enjoyed the small town where we stopped for a meal and to walk along the water’s edge.

Once we bid farewell to the lowlands for good, we headed north through the Cairngorms (not super lush and beautiful in April. Spring hadn’t arrived yet). We sampled chocolates and whiskey at the Dahlwinnie distillery (couldn’t tour because we had a toddler with us) and stopped in Aviemore for lunch where I savored one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever tasted.

That evening we arrived in Nairn, exhausted but excited to start our the next leg of our adventure. We booked our hotel through Hotwire, which is always a tad bit risky, but we knew the choices in Nairn were limited and Hotwire has never disappointed us.

We stayed at a place called the Newton Hotel – a beautiful building on beautiful grounds. There is a nice hiking trail that goes all the way to the sea on premise and a delicious restaurant, though a bit fancy for a 1-year-old.

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The Newton Hotel
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Walking through the grounds of the hotel
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My dinner date

Of course, I had to Google our accommodations before arrival and saw that the hotel is allegedly haunted. Somehow, I was disappointed to see no ghost. However, Konnor did randomly say “hi” to nobody in the woods several times.

While in Nairn we sampled Scottish gins and walked along the beach next to the Moray Firth which is an inlet of the North Sea. Needless to say, the Moray Firth is nothing like the coast of Florida. The water is cold and the wind is whipping, but it shares an equal beauty to my nearly Caribbean home.

We kept Nairn as home base for a few days while we explored the area. We drove along gorgeous single track roads in the countryside where we saw sheep graze in the foreground of the mountains, stopped and ate lunch at a roadside restaurant that turned out to be a culinary favorite of the Highlands (we had no idea when we stopped in), and of course, we visited the famous Loch Ness.

To our disappointment, we did not see Nessie!

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Loch Ness
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Konnor looking for Nessie
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Reality
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The locks of Loch Ness

We did, however, see the locks that let the boats go in and out of the Loch in Fort Augustus and we did a super touristy walking tour of the super touristy town and even bought a stuffed Nessie toy as a souvenir.

After wandering around Fort Augustus all day, we took a different route back to our hotel and stopped in Inverness to walk a bit more. We found a lovely walking trail right in the middle of town. Inverness seems like a terrific city that I could see myself actually living in. It isn’t big, but it isn’t tiny and the scenery is perfect!

Alas, back to our haunted hotel. The Newton Hotel turned out to be my favorite accommodation of our trip. It isn’t fancy and Nairn certainly isn’t exciting in the off-season, but the hotel was clean, comfy and relaxing. Plus, those lovely views!

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View from Newton Hotel

Edinburgh & The Scottish Lowlands

Our first stop in the U.K. was to the Scottish Lowlands. We stayed with family at a house-sit in the countryside about a half-hour outside of the city. I haven’t decided if house-sitting is my cup-of-tea or not, but anyone can do it and it is perfect for long-term travelers who need a cheap place to stay (how does FREE sound!?) Read more about how to do it HERE.

Konnor got to feed chickens, brush a Clydesdale named Apollo and a Highlands pony named Blue. To this day, Konnor still calls all horses Apollo.

 

We took a train into the city where we walked around the historic district and hiked up to a gorgeous lookout spot called Arthur’s Seat. I assumed the name must have something to do with the legendary story of King Arthur, but nobody is certain how the hill got its name. There are many legends including one that claims the rock is actually a sleeping dragon.

What I can tell you with certainty is that the hill was formed by an ancient volcano and it is a MUST DO if you want a beautiful hike to sweeping views of the city of Edinburgh.

 

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Things to know before you go:

  • It is a HIKE. You need good shoes, strong legs and a bottle of water
  • There are multiple ways up. We chose the path less traveled. It is more strenuous, but worth it for incredible views and moments of solitude.
  • It is crowded. We were there during the shoulder season and it was PACKED at the top of Arthur’s seat. Be prepared for crowds and randos in the background of your selfies.
  • If you plan to picnic, do it on the way up or down. There isn’t ample space or solitude at the top.

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Edinburgh is also the location where we first tried Haggis, a traditional Scottish dish, but I’ll post more about that later.

The Scottish lowlands may not have the grandeur of the majestic Highlands of the north, but they are beautiful in their own right. Country roads are narrow and winding. In April, the pastures are filled with sheep caring for their lambs.

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There are bright yellow flowers everywhere. Daffodils dot gardens and road shoulders. Prickly Gorse flowers coat the landscape. If I had to describe the Scottish Spring with just one color, it would be yellow.

 

Further north, in the Highlands, Spring had not fully arrived and the landscape lacked the vibrancy of the Lowlands.

We learned that Scottish geography and history are intertwined. The mountains aren’t the only thing that separates the Highlands from the Lowlands. The two regions were at odds for Centuries. We visited a castle that taught us about a bloody history. To be continued in another post…

Strollers, Car Seats & Other Unnecessary Gear

Packing for vacation with a baby or toddler can be a challenge. I mean, you have to bring all the things, right?! Strollers, car seats, baby first aid, extra diapers, extra snacks, extra pacifiers and sippy cups, jackets in case it is colder than expected, shorts in case it is warmer than expected, favorite toys to prevent a meltdown… the list goes on and on.

Problem is: we live in a world of “what ifs.” I’m just as guilty here as any other parent. I bring way too much stuff when travelling with my kid. I want him to be comfortable and happy, but I am learning to leave stuff behind.

I found it particularly challenging to pack lightly for this trip. We had to plan for nearly a month away from home and our travels included multiple forms of transportation including flying, ubers, car rentals, trains, city walking, and mountain hiking. We also had to work while overseas and needed our best computers. How do you fit gear for all of that into a handful of bags that you can carry with you at all times while also wrangling a fidgety toddler?

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Our luggage

I don’t pretend to be the goddess of efficiency packing. I am a worst case worrier, anxiety driven, over-thinker type of over-packer. But here are the rules I try my best to follow.

Step one: Use luggage that allows to you pack efficiently.
Packing cubes are necessary and we never travel without them. (I use THESE from Ebags). I also recommend packing an empty duffel bag for dirty laundry or souvenirs (THIS is the one I have from Eagle Creek). We had two roll-aboard suitcases, two backpacks, and a shoulder laptop bag to carry on this trip.  I’m a lot better than I used to be, but honestly, we could have paired this down significantly. We took way too much stuff!

Step two: Anything designated as “extra” should be left at home.
I am guilty of not obeying my own advice here. Are you bringing “extra” diapers? Leave them home. “Extra” snacks? Nope. “Extra” clothes or jackets in case something gets lost or ruined? You will be okay without it.

Step three: Pack half as much as you need. 
It is okay to do laundry on vacation. There are certainly situations where you need to pack something fresh for each day, but in most of the world you can easily find a place to clean your clothes. The same rings true for things like diapers and snacks. Most places have grocery stores. Worst case, you pick these items up in the airport. It may take a little extra pre-planning, especially if you are visiting a place that speaks a foreign language, but it can be done.

Step four: Pair down the first aid.
This tip varies depending on where you are going. But, in general, if you plan on sleeping in a bed with a roof over your head you don’t need a kit full of “what ifs.” (Camping or extreme rural travel has a different set of rules). We, as parents, are always worried about the worst happening. I get that. And it would really suck if you desperately needed Zarbys at 3:00am in a foreign city and you didn’t have it, but chances are you will have a rough night and will be able to find it in the morning. I travel with Pepto, Tylenol (both the adult and baby varieties), a small kit with antibacterial wipes and bandaids, and baby Benydryl. Those are the must-haves that you will probably actually use. As I said in step 3, most places have grocery and drug stores. You will be able to find what you need.

Step five: Determine what you need for touring and travel.
This is the question parents probably ask me about the most. I did not take a stroller or a car seat on our trip to the U.K. I also left my favorite hiking carrier at home. These things are all bulky, heavy and annoying to drag around everywhere.

We found that buying a car seat in the U.K. was actually the most cost effective and convenient way to travel. We did our research in advance and bought a moderately priced, well-reviewed seat from an auto part store not far from Edinburgh airport. We gave it away when we returned our rental car so that we didn’t have to carry it around train stations and London.

I don’t know about you, but I find strollers annoying in a crowd. I knew I didn’t want to try to maneuver one around the various train and London tube stations. I also love my sturdy hiking carrier, but it takes up a ton of space. Instead, I opted to bring my Tula and call it a day. Even at almost two-years-old, Konnor will nap in his Tula if I front-carry him. And it was easy to back-carry him in it while hiking in the Scottish Highlands. The Tula is light, takes up minimal space, and is comfortable to wear all day.

My in-laws just spent two years traveling the world with only 3-pairs of clothing apiece… including the kids! (Read their adventures HERE). Their journey has taught me a lot about over-planning and worrying about the “what ifs.” Travel should be an adventure. And this big ‘ol world we live in is actually quite small. You can always stop and ask for directions or advice to solve your problems. There is no reason to pack your entire house with you on vacation if your goal is to get away from home. Sit back, relax, enjoy!

I took my toddler 4,033 miles away from home and this is how it turned out.

Fine. Perfectly fine. Fun, even. Of course there were challenges, but isn’t that always the case with a 20-month-old? We had an amazing adventure in the U.K.

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Isle of Skye, Scotland, U.K.

I asked for suggestions on what to write about. The most popular responses: “how did he do on the plane?” “how did you handle naps?” and “what if someone gets sick?” I’m going to answer those questions in a series of posts.

Disclaimer: Konnor is an extremely chill toddler. He’s easy going and adapts well to new surroundings. I recognize that I am incredibly blessed.

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Learning about planes

Question 1: The plane.
We flew British Airways from Orlando, FL to London, U.K., and then another short plane ride from Gatwick Airport to Edinburgh, Scotland. Total time in the air: roughly 9 hours.

If you haven’t flown overseas before there are a couple of things you should know.

1.) If you have a lap baby, he will not receive meals on the plane. We didn’t know this and we didn’t pack meals for Konnor, but fortunately the staff had a leftover chicken curry. A hungry toddler would have been the worst! Pack snacks and meals!

2.) Choose a seat with an infant pull down. We did this, but didn’t realize what that meant. If you have one of these seats you can ask the flight attendant for a small bouncer for your child to sleep in. Keep in mind, if the fasten seat-belt sign goes on you have to move the sleeping baby and buckle him back in with you. We hit quite a bit of turbulence on the way out, but fortunately Konnor slept through all of the movement.

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The infant seat

3.) Be smart when buying your tickets. If at all possible, select a time of day that coincides with bedtime. We booked an evening flight to keep him as close to his regular routine as possible. We changed him into pajamas as soon as we got onto the plane and read him a book before “night night” as we would at home. He was in his bouncer seat as soon as the fasten seat-belt sign was off. He slept for pretty much the entire flight. (I can’t say the same for the return flight, but that’s another story.)

4.) We read some advice that said to buy a couple of small, new toys for your toddler to play with on the plane. I’m glad we did this! Konnor appreciated something new to play with. We didn’t want to bring a ton of toys with us on the trip. He carried his toys himself in his blue monster backpack (that doubled as his pillow.) He carried:

  • Two small board books
  • A toy cell phone
  • His favorite lion
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Konnor carrying his blue monster in the airport

We packed minimally for the plane ride, but did bring an extra pair of clothes along just in case we needed them. Since it was an overnight flight and Konnor is a toddler, we didn’t need more than a handful of diapers and wipes. We brought baby Tylenol as an emergency item. I also bought him toddler friendly headphones that he could wear while watching in-flight entertainment without having to worry about the volume being too loud for his ears. Oh, and of course, we brought a pacifier so that he would have something to suck on during takeoff and landing. It is the change in pressure that often makes babies cry on planes. Chewing/swallowing helps with that.

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Sitting in mommy’s seat before takeoff.

That’s pretty much it. The flight was uneventful. Kevin & I tried to sleep (although we didn’t because, well, planes.) And Konnor was a trooper! The return flight was a lot rougher because it was a daytime flight. He didn’t want to nap and he was bored. I saw other parents walking their toddlers up and down the aisle of the plane. That seemed to help some with the boredom, but Konnor wasn’t particularly interested in doing that.

I want to share our beautiful pictures, plus answer other questions that new parents have asked me, so consider the U.K. a series of posts. I’ll get to the rest soon!

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Family plane selfie

Why quitting my career was the most grown up decision I’ve ever made.

Nearly one month ago I took a leap off a cliff with no rope and no safety net. I quit my career. And everything is okay.

I fell in love with the TV industry when I was twelve years old.  I crawled, fought and sacrificed to make my dream come true. At 19-years-old I began working in a newsroom. It didn’t take me long to land the “dream job” of news producer in a top 20 TV market. I made a huge mistake though. I let my career become my identity. “Producer” is how I described myself. I was obsessed with ratings, my writing, my “vision”, my show. I took failure personally.

I worked crazy long hours, overnights, weekends, last-minute additional shifts… whatever was necessary because, hey, that’s the news business and I loved it. I missed birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holidays and family emergencies because I had to work. When I wasn’t working I was tired from working. At first I didn’t mind, in fact I really did love it! But my career was slowly draining me.

I shouldn’t quit, right? Because this was the dream. This was what I worked for. This “real world job” is what being an adult is all about, right? I made myself sick debating this internally. After my son was born, I tried to make it work. I fought to make everyone happy, but I began to lose myself completely. I wasn’t “producer,” I wasn’t “mom,” I wasn’t “Amanda,” I wasn’t anybody!

There wasn’t a specific moment that made me say, “I’ve had enough.” I think it was a combination of things. I blamed work for my struggles with breastfeeding my son. I started to feel emotionally attached to stories like the Pulse tragedy that happened here in Orlando. Slowly I began to notice moments that used to give me an excited high, like breaking news hurricane coverage for example, now just made me sad. My dream was turning into a nightmare.

So, I quit. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I felt like I was giving up my identity, like I was losing everything I had worked for since I was a teenager. Part of me felt like I was letting my family down. They relied on my income and benefits. I felt like a failure and told myself I was quitting because I wasn’t good enough to make it in the TV industry.

Lies. All lies.

I was a damn good producer, an amazing journalist. I thought back to why I wanted to get into the TV business in the first place. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to make a difference. Silly me, I didn’t have to work in the news business to make that happen. There is a little boy at home who needs his mother and he is my impact on the world.

I wasn’t being selfish by quitting my job. I was being selfish by keeping it.

That was my grown up realization. Being an adult doesn’t mean holding down the dream job. It doesn’t mean working long hours. It doesn’t mean bringing home a bigger paycheck. Being an adult is about hard decisions, about making the right sacrifices at the right time.

As it turns out, sacrificing my career wasn’t much of a sacrifice at all. I’ve gained so much in these three short weeks. I exercise with my husband. We eat dinner together as a family almost every night. I research doctors for my mother. I have ice cream with my sister. I read bedtime stories to my son. I kiss his boo-boos and hug him when he’s sad.

I found another job and I actually really enjoy it. It’s flexible enough that it allows me to work from home and juggle my schedule when necessary. As a family, we are dealing with some budgetary changes, but we are making it work and the pros severely outweigh the cons.

I guess I’m writing this in part for my own peace-of-mind,  but I also hope I can inspire someone else who may feel trapped to get out of their situation. YOU are not your career. I promise you can leave and make it work. Take a leap. It will be okay.

Done: 574 Bucket List Miles

Vibrant reds and rich yellows hang from the forest ceiling. A few small leaves flutter slowly to the ground. A dream becomes reality. I am experiencing Fall for the first time.

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A quick history lesson: On August 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law establishing the National Park Service. That means this year the agency is celebrating its Centennial. There are a total of 410 sites managed by the National Park Service.  Last week, I chose to explore the most popular one of all. My husband and I drove the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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We started on Skyline Drive in Virginia and drove all the way to Cherokee, NC. That’s a total of 574 miles of winding, breezy, romantic, scenic roadway.  And we chose to take the trip during the peak season of color, Autumn. We don’t have colorful seasonal changes in Florida, so I could only imagine what kind of brilliance I would be met with once we hit the road. The Blue Ridge Mountains did not disappoint.

 

Our journey started in Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive is every bit as beautiful as the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unlike its neighbor to the south Skyline is a backpacker’s paradise.  Squiggly trails, including the famous AT, crisscross the highway several times and thru hikers trudge up and down the hills carrying heavy packs. The forest is thick and the leaves are mostly golden. The views from the road are breathtaking and its tempting to stop at every pullout.

Unfortunately, because of a six hour Amtrak delay, we had to rush through this part of our trip. We hiked one short trail in the southern end of Shenandoah Park before hurrying onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. 574 miles doesn’t seem that long until you start to drive it.

I started to get excited about fall leaves around the time we hit the North Carolina line. I thought the yellows and oranges we saw in Virginia would be the best of the trip, but by the time we reached Linville Falls we were in peak color. Crimson red and brilliant gold flanked the roadway with a backdrop of cool gray and blue layers of mountains.

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My soul came alive. And for once all of my stress began to dissipate. Our original plan had us spending the night at a hotel in Asheville, but we decided to camp. I wanted to spend the night in the mountains and wake up to the crisp Autumn air. We stayed at the Linville Falls campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway. We arrived late, but fortunately they had a tents-only site available right next to the river. It was the perfect setting to begin a more relaxed second half of our vacation.

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Linville turned out to be the prettiest part of our trip. We hiked to the falls the next morning before heading south to Asheville. We visited Mount Mitchell, Mount Pisgah, Craggy Gardens and the Asheville area of the Parkway on several previous trips so we mostly drove through that zone this time around. As we got closer to Asheville it became clear we are not the only people obsessed with fall color. Leaf peepers clogged the Parkway at every lookout point. At some points-of-interest were so congested that it was nearly impossible to enjoy the view. I didn’t mind the crowds because we saw plenty of fall color further north that was even more beautiful.

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We took a break to re-adjust our schedules. A co-worker graciously agreed to work a shift for me so we could get an extra day of vacation. We spent two nights in Asheville as a result (more on that later.) On our final day of driving the BRP we visited the North Carolina Arboretum. In all of our trips to the Smokies, I can’t believe we never explored the facility before. The gardens are beautiful and the 3.5 mile nature trail allowed us to learn about the trees and insects in the area.

One of my favorite parts of the Parkway actually occurred by accident. We got to mile 0 and took a wrong turn. It turned out to be the best mistake ever because we saw a field full of elk!

All in all, a perfect ending to a very exciting adventure.

Overnight on Amtrak

It’s October, which means Autumn has arrived in places that are not Florida. I’ve never experienced the crisp fall air, the brightly colored leaves, or any of the other environmental pleasures that people who live north of the I-75/I-10 intersection brag about between September and December. So, this week we decided to pack our bags and head north. 

I’ve always wanted to drive the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and I imagine it is gorgeous in the Fall, but with only four days off from work and a one-year-old who requires a lot of rest area breaks during road trips, it sounded stressful to make this adventure happen this year. 

That’s where Amtrak comes in. The Auto Train runs daily from Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA. It is a roughly 16-hour train ride (allegedly – more about that later) that allows you to bring your car on the train. We decided to book a roomette for our family of three and ride the rails. 

Logistics: 

When we arrived at the Amtrak station in Sanford we were directed to leave the keys in our car and pull it forward. Some people came by to inspect our vehicle before driving it onto a two-level train car. (Note: You do not have access to your car once it is on board. It is in a completely separate part of the train.) 

We grabbed our carry-on bags and headed into the train station to check-in and wait for boarding. I carried Konnor in the Tula to prevent him from crawling around on the dirty floor. We had about a one hour wait from the time we arrived until we were allowed to board, so I was  glad that we brought lunch to occupy the three of us. 

We knew from the description of the roomette that it would be cramped quarters, but we didn’t realize how cramped until we arrived. We like each other a lot, so we made it work, but Konnor is right at the border of being comfortable in such a confined space. If your child is walking or likes to have a lot of personal space you should book a full-sized sleeper cabin rather than a roomette. The room is 3’6 by 6’6. Two comfortable chairs are pressed between the wall and the sliding door. An attendant stops by in the evening to turn the chairs into a 24″ wide bed. A storage area in the top of the roomette also folds down to become a 20″ wide bed. Needless to say, the roomette is not designed for large people.

Kevin took the top bunk because it was too chilly for me thanks to an air conditioning vent on the ceiling, I took the bottom bunk and Konnor slept on a pallet on the floor. Amtrak provides sheets and blankets, but we were glad we brought extras. We brought Konnor’s sleeping bag as one of our carry-on items, which gave him a comfortable place to sleep on the floor. 

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Cramped quarters! This is how Konnor slept.

Two meals are automatically included on the Sanford to Lorton Auto Train. Dinner had a small menu of four entrees to choose from. Kevin had lamb, Konnor had cod and I had pasta. There is also a lounge car where you can get alcohol. ($8 for a bottle of Sam Adams, OUCH!) Breakfast consisted of Continental basics: cereal, banana, muffin/bagel, orange juice and coffee. 

When we arrived in Lorton, VA the next day the train was SIX HOURS late arriving. This had a huge impact on our vacation since we only had four days to do drive the Blue Ridge. We basically lost an entire day and now have to choose whether to skip most of the parkway or forfeit hiking and camping. Anyway, I’ll complain more about that later. When we disembarked the train we stood on the platform to watch them begin to unload the cars. It look about an hour for us to be reunited with my Suburu. It was a cool process to watch. Basically, a parade of drivers show up and drive all of the automobiles off of the train cars.

Overall, the Auto Train is an interesting blend of cruise ship and airplane. The service reminds me of a cruise ship, but the quarters are more like an airplane. There is no entertainment, but you do get sit-down meals. You sleep in a cramped space, but there is turn-down service.  I would definitely do this again, but with some changes. 

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Why I recommend taking the train: 

The Auto Train is not quicker than driving. In fact, in our experience, it took nearly twice as long because of debris on the rails left by Hurricane Matthew. We were on the first Auto Train to travel since the storm pummeled the coast one week ago. However, it is worth it to not have to stress about traffic and potty breaks. Also, we had a good night’s sleep and have the energy to enjoy the rest of our trip. I got to walk around and stretch my legs, read a book, write a blog, take conference calls, watch Netflix, and let Konnor crawl around instead of being trapped in a car seat. Konnor enjoyed looking out the windows and exploring the train. It also taught him a good lesson about adventure and how to deal with bedtime and meals away from home. I feel relaxed, happy and excited for leg two of our journey. 

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Onto the Blue Ridge Parkway…