Favorite hikes: The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Favorite hikes: The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

There are places on this Earth that feel other worldly. The Quiraing (pronounced KARE-ING) on the Isle of Skye is one of those places. Inspiring, romantic, and immensely beautiful, the mesas and cliffs of the Quiraing are a jigsaw puzzle on the Scottish coastline.

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If the Quiraing looks familiar you probably recognize it from a movie: Macbeth, The BFG, Stardust, Snow White and the Huntsman, Transformers: The Last Night, and the new King Arthur movie all feature the iconic landscape. It is also part of the regular screensaver rotation on Google Chromecast.

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We hiked it on a cold, windy April morning. Our bed and breakfast host warned us the path is muddy and sometimes treacherous and we should avoid it if the weather is not cooperating. We looked at the grey skies above and took a chance.

The crisp wind blew in our faces as we rounded the cliffs, turning our cheeks and noses red and freezing our fingers. Konnor was bundled snugly on his daddy’s back, a brave baby ready for the ride. IMG_20170415_145352

The weather was mixed. It even started to hail on us briefly. Nevertheless, we trusted our instincts and moved forward, confident the unpredictable Scottish weather would hold and we could round the face of the Quiraing safely – toddler in tow.

The trail is breathtaking on several levels. It is one of those places that makes a person feel incredibly small. The human body is minuscule measured against the colossal cliffs and the burn in my lungs is a humble reminder that there are forces in this world much bigger than myself. This sense of humility is one of my favorite emotions during a hike. The fact that I can traverse these environments is incredibly fulfilling.

This terrain is also quintessentially Scottish. Hikers share the grassy terrain with herds of sheep. Bunny rabbits hop in the meadows. The air is crisp and cool. Everything is green.

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I could talk about the beauty of the Quiraing all day, but there is one significant downside. The Quiraing is one of the most popular hikes on the Isle of Skye and it is crowded! Fortunately, most of the bus stop tourists are not equipped for the terrain and many turn around at the  first small stream (nearly impossible to cross in April without sturdy hiking shoes or boots) and do not hike all the way to the rock face. At the front of the rocks only experienced hikers remain.

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The path becomes narrow and slick. There are harrowing cliffs. A single step off trail into what appears to be grass can be misleading and leave a hiker knee-deep in a muddy bog. This is not a trail for the timid. But it sure is gorgeous and quintessentially Scottish.

 

Want to hike the Quiraing? Here is what you need:

  • Transportation – It is far from any of the towns on the Isle of Skye.
  • Sturdy boots –  The terrain is slick and muddy
  • Wind breaker – Preferably a water resistant one. Weather at the Quiraing can turn in an instant
  • Camera – You will not be able to take enough photos.
  • Hiking poles – We did not have poles along, but they would have been helpful
  • Plenty of water – As you should carry for any trail

 

 

 

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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!