Two days after I arrived in Edinburgh in April, I found out I was a British citizen and posted on Facebook that it was the best day of my life. It was. The last week of May, I took the 5-Day Haggis Adventures’ Hebridean Hopper Tour. I considered that week the best of my life. But Scotland has just gotten better, and with everything that happened in June, I can honestly say that it was the best month of my life.
The month started on June 1st (obviously) with the Rabbie’s Edinburgh City Tour. I found parts of the city I had never explored, and fell in love with Dean Village.
In the afternoon, I made a visit to the Edinburgh Castle. Finally! After three months in Edinburgh, it was time to finally see the city’s greatest attraction. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough time to fully explore. I had no idea how big the castle was, and two hours wasn’t nearly enough time, especially with the crowds. So that stays on the bucket list (Law of the Traveler), and I’ll be back someday, especially as I have an opportunity to become an honorary member of Historic Scotland.
On June 2nd, I dropped off my large REI Grand Tour 85L backpack into the long-term storage at the hostel, packed my brand new Osprey Farpoint 40 backpack, and head to the Edinburgh airport to pick up a rental car. I found the most incredible deal, a 7-day rental for only £56! It even had unlimited mileage! Unfortunately, when I got there it turned out they really did need my passport, contrary to what their website said. The only problem being that my US passport was at the Home Office with my application for a UK passport. It looked like I was going to lose the rental, but I was able to get around it by buying full coverage insurance. It was nearly three times what the car rental cost. But driving in Scotland isn’t always the safest, and it was my first time driving a car on the left side of the road. So insurance was a blessing. The clerk even hinted that the insurance would cover ANYTHING, including off-road driving.
After that, it was time to pick up Stacy from the terminal. She had just traveled through six countries in central Europe, with some pretty horrific stories to tell. I had invited her to Scotland to get a different perspective of Europe, as by that point she never wanted to see this portion of the world again.
Our first stop was Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. I was quite surprised to find out it was the first castle Stacy had ever been to, even after a month in Europe. We were able to get passes using my ASVA (Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions) card, and explored all the corridors and towers. We even went onto the roof, despite Stacy’s abject terror of heights.
Next was a trip to the Kelpies. Stacy was quite happy seeing the largest horse statues in the world, but was even more impressed by the cute canal running beside the sculptures. With a sailing license and seven years experience living on a boat, it felt like home for her. More specifically, she felt she was looking at her future home.
Then we went to the Wallace Monument. Stacy’s flight had been over an hour late, and by the time we got to the tower it was closed. But we still had a chance to see the amazing view of Stirling. Many times I’ve been to the Wallace Monument when it was shrouded with clouds and you couldn’t see anything from the top of the hill.
Finally, we head to the small town of Balloch at the bottom of Loch Lomond, where I had found a small hotel on Groupon for a good rate. The hotel also included a free dinner and breakfast.The three-course dinner was amazing, although it ended up being way too much food!
The next day started off with that Scottish breakfast Stacy was looking forward to so much. NOT! Well, maybe most of it, but she’d heard about the infamous black pudding, and she definitely didn’t like it when it was brought out. Hey, it’s an acquired taste (sort of, and she’s not the first traveler I’ve met who didn’t like it. Personally, I can never seem to get enough.
After checking out, we headed up to Glencoe for a hike up the mountain. Well, maybe not all the way up the mountain, but at least to the Coe River at the bottom. It was a beautiful day and Glencoe is just one of those places you don’t really have to do anything at besides be there and admire the beauty.
The Isle of Skye was about five hours drive away, so we just head straight there with only a short stop at Eileen Donan castle. We got to Portree just a little before 6 pm. There, we met another traveler from New Zealand, Maud. I had originally met Maud in Edinburgh, where I took her to the top of Arthur’s Seat after a tour of the city center. Later I found out she was going to be on the Isle of Skye at the same time I was, and offered to give her a lift in the car while I was there.
After picking her up, we went to the market to get food, and then spent the rest of the evening trying to find a campground that had a kitchen. In the end, we checked into the Torvaig Campsite, and then used the kitchen at the Portree Independent Hostel for dinner. Bolognese pasta with mushrooms and black olives. We got to the campground for a spectacular sunset, and our first onslaught by the highland midgies. I hadn’t experienced them the other two times I’d been to the Isle of Skye. This night, they were out in force! We were going to play cards outside, but it was just too painful and we just retired for an early night.
The next morning we got up early, used the shower facilities at the campground and the kitchen at the hostel to make a scrambled eggs breakfast. We stopped at the Co-op again for more groceries, and then set out for our next destination: The Old Man of Storr. Stacy wasn’t up for a hike, but Maud and I made it to the viewpoint, and then to the pinnacle itself.
After that, we skipped Lealt and Mealt Falls, and went straight to the Quiraing. We didn’t actually hike the trail here, but got some amazing photographs nonetheless. It was a very clear day, and the landscape was stunning. Considering my hike in the Quiraing the next week was cloudy (you’ll read about that shortly), I probably should have gone this day.
It was time for lunch at this point, and we stopped in Uig for a quick bite to eat. Then we backtracked to find the Cave of Gold. It’s not on Google Maps and locals don’t even know about it. If you want to find it yourself, you can read my blog post for directions. It wasn’t as high as the towers of the castle, but Stacy still had her fear of heights, and it took quite a bit to coax her down the side of the cliff. But I prevailed, and I was also able to climb down myself to the actual opening of the cave. If the tide was just a couple inches lower, I could have actually gotten into explore. Next time.
Then we went to one of my favorite locations in the world. The Fairy Glen. Maud and I went into the faerie rings, leaving our gifts for the faeries. I honestly don’t remember what my wish was, but I’m assuming it came true, considering how amazing this month has been!
Our next stop was supposed to be St. Columba’s Chapel, but I wasn’t sure where it was, and I was trying to get to Skyeskyns before they closed. We barely made it, arriving just in time to get a tour and view the show room before they closed.
Luckily, sunset isn’t until about 10 in June on Skye, and we had plenty of more sunlight. However, we were getting hungry so went to the Stein Inn for dinner, as recommended by the proprietor of Skyeskyns. Stein Inn is the oldest inn on Skye, and the fish and chips were honestly the best I’ve had in Scotland, only to be rivaled by Bankers in Brighton.
From there we made a quick stop at the Fairy Bridge, and then headed all the way out to Neist Point to see the lighthouse for sunset. Unfortunately at this time of year the sun is setting behind you when you look at the lighthouse from the cliff. But it was still a stunning view, and so far it’s the only time I’ve been there.
Finally, we drove down to the Glenbrittle campsite to spend the night. Unfortunately, if we had thought the midgies had been bad at Torvaig, we hadn’t seen anything yet. They were absolutely SWARMING here. They got everywhere, and even the Smidge spray we were using didn’t seem to help. While we were trying to sleep, we thought it was raining, but it turned out to be the tiny insects dive-bombing the tent. In the morning, having sprayed the inside of the tent with repellent, there was a layer of dead bugs on the floor! Getting to the showers was almost more than it was worth, and I wish I had photos of them crawling on the toilet paper! It was probably the only negative aspect of the entire month!
June 5th started off with the Fairy Pools. These are another one of my favorite spots in the world, and in 2015 I jumped into the water to swim to the waterfall. However, last year the water was so cold that I lost my voice afterwards. This year, the weather was quite warm, and the week before on the Haggis Adventure I had tested the water and found it was much warmer. So without further ado, I jumped right in and swam through the underwater hole to the waterfall. A rather long while later, I was finally successful in getting Stacy to swim too (without the jump). Suffice to say, it was some time before we finally left.
From there, we went to Carbost, first for a couple oysters at the Oyster Shed, and then down for a tour of the Talisker Whiskey Distillery. The tour was quite interesting, and we had a tasting of Talisker’s Storm Whiskey. Then we went back to the Oyster Shed for a full lunch, although I’m still not quite sure why we picked that sequence.
Just a little ways further on the road was the Skyewalker Hostel, which has been rated the top hostel in the UK. Maud had stayed there a couple nights earlier, and said it was definitely high quality, although a little quiet for her taste. We went to check it out, and I could definitely see why the high rating. I had a great chat with the owner. He also confirmed that the midgies the night before had been particularly bad.
That completed the attractions on the Isle of Skye. We went to Broadford to drop off Maud at her hostel. I was a little jealous when I saw she ended up on the Outer Hebrides enjoying some true highland culture a couple days later. But Stacy and I went to Loch Ness next, which I can’t complain about.
By the way, when you get to the Isle of Skye yourself (which you must do), you can either follow this post or read about my guide to exploring the island in two days. That also details how you can explore the highlights in just one day, if that’s all the time you have.
That evening, we made it to Fort Augustus just in time to check into our guesthouse and then head to the local tavern for dinner before their kitchen closed. It was late by the time we finished, and time for bed.
Monday morning, I had a surprise planned for Stacy. After another another Scottish breakfast where Stacy discovered she did NOT like haggis, we went out to the loch. I had teamed up with Cruise Loch Ness, and at 11 AM we set out for a high-speed RIB tour of Loch Ness all the way up to Urquhart Castle! It ended up being the highlight of Stacy’s stay in Scotland, and her entire European trip for that matter. The tour was absolutely fantastic, and as mentioned in my blog post (click the link above), I think the driver of the boat made it a little more wild just for us.
After the tour, we set off north to get to the the top of Scotland. I had heard about several amazing towns to visit, including John o’ Groats and Dunnet Head. However, we only made it to somewhere around Helmsdale before I realized we wouldn’t have enough time to drive the full northern loop of Scotland, and instead we turned around to head back to Loch Ness and then to Edinburgh.
We did get to a couple good attractions north of Inverness, including the Clootie Well (as mentioned in the post on my Hebridean Hopper), and Glenmorangie Distillery. We didn’t do another tour of the distillery, since we had already been to Talisker, but we did have a whiskey tasting. Don’t get the idea that I’m a heavy whiskey drinker, but I do take my opportunities to drink it, especially after Talisker where we learned how to properly do a whiskey tasting.
That evening, we found another B&B in Drumnadrochit, just a couple miles away from Urquhart Castle. We didn’t actually get to the castle; that was next week (coming up). Nothing special for dinner that night. We went to Lidl, which is the cheapest way to eat in Scotland.
On the 7th, we continued down to Edinburgh. On the way, we stopped at the Adventure Park at the Hydro in Crieff. They have practically everything there from zip-lines to paintball. But they were really busy so after a few minutes at the driving range, we moved on.
Next we went to Drummond Castle. That place is impressive! It’s actually an occupied by the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. You can’t go into the castle itself, but you can tour the gardens. They date back over 500 years, and are ranked one of the best in Europe, and certainly the best in Scotland. If you ever saw the movie Rob Roy, there was a scene filmed in these gardens.
Finally we made it back to Edinburgh. I found a flat for three days, a little outside the city, but on the 7th floor and with an amazing view of the castle and the rest of Edinburgh.
The 8th was busy! We started with lunch at the Maki and Ramen Bar, my favorite sushi restaurant in Edinburgh (suitable for budget travelers). Then we parked in the city center and went to check out Edinburgh’s first Cat Cafe. Maison de Moggy. They have all kinds of cats, including a Sphynx and two Bengals. Stacy loves cats even more than I do, and it was her second favorite location in Scotland (after the Loch Ness cruise). This is definitely a place I would recommend everyone coming to Edinburgh to visit. Well, at least those who like cats.
After that, we went to Camera Obscura. I’d always passed them by as just another tourist trip. How wrong I was! This place was fantastic, and we felt like kids the whole time we were there. They definitely have activities for all ages. Too bad I didn’t get a picture of Stacy running into the wall in the mirror maze!
Finally we went to La Favorita for dinner. They’re considered the best pizza in Edinburgh, and I have to agree. Can you even imagine a pizza like this? A creamy asparagus base laden with stracchino cheese, asparagus spears, the finest porcini mushrooms & slices of speck (cured and spiced pork), finished with a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano and a drizzle of walnut pesto.
On Wednesday morning, I returned the rental car to the airport, and then we got bus tickets for the day and headed out to the harbor where we took a tour of the Royal Yacht Britannia. We both had past experience with ships, and it was a really nice tour. The harbor was one of those places where I had sent several other travelers to explore, but I hadn’t been down there yet myself.
That evening we had sushi dinner at Koyama (did I mention we both really like sushi?). Finally, we had one last adventure. That was a ghost tour with Mercat Tours. This one was more extensive than the one I had done in May, and unfortunately I have to say I enjoyed our guide more this time too. The tour ended with a whiskey tasting as well, and an extra hour of additional stories and Q&A. It was the perfect close to our time in Edinburgh.
Finally it was time for Stacy to return to New York. Early the next morning I took her to the airport and said our goodbyes. Or rather “see you laters.” I believe I restored her faith in European travel. I will be forever grateful to Stacy for her friendship and fun this month, as well as her assistance to make our travels a reality.
I checked back into the High Street Hostel (my favorite hostel so far in Edinburgh), and got to work. I finished my blog post on the Loch Ness cruise, tagged a few hundred photos from the trips and got started on a few more blog posts. With so many activities, there was a lot to write about!
That evening, another traveler arrived in town whom I had arranged to travel with as well. Kelly had come from Taiwan and was spending over a week in Scotland. She arrived late that night and went straight to a friend’s house. On Saturday we spent the day exploring the city center, including another visit to Camera Obscura and a tour of Mary King’s Close.
On Sunday, she walked around the town while I stayed at the hostel to get more writing done. And just relax. After two weeks of whirlwind travel, it was nice to have a “day off.” As if such a thing exists for a travel blogger.
Then on Monday morning, we went out to the airport to get our rental car. Unfortunately, this one cost a little more, and what’s worse, it had a limit of 100 miles a day, or 700 miles for the rental week. To put that into perspective, Portree on the Isle of Skye is 235 miles from the airport on the shortest route. The way we wanted to go, along Loch Lomond and Glencoe, added a few miles. In the end, by extremely precise planning, I was able to pull off the week with only 685 miles of driving. But it was a little Fiat 500, and an absolute blast to drive!
After getting the car, we drove to the east side of Loch Lomond to find a mountain to hike. We intended to get to Ben Lomond, but it turned out that that one was a little far, and we wouldn’t have made it to the top and back before it got dark. Instead, we settled for Conic Hill on the West Highland Way. The hike took about 45 minutes each way, except that we spent at least an extra hour along the way getting photos of the stunning views.
From there, we drove to Glencoe for another hike up the mountain. We went further than I did on the Haggis Adventures tour, or with Stacy the week before. The trail goes a full two miles into the mountains, but we only did about half that to the waterfalls. The sun was setting and while that made for some wonderful photographs, it was time to find where we were going to spend the night.
We tried one hostel in Fort William, asking if we could use their facilities before wild camping that night. They didn’t allow that, but the Bank Street Lodge did. Well, sort of. It was more like “Yeah, that’s fine but don’t tell anyone.” So don’t say I told you. We used their showers and kitchen, and then ended up sleeping in the car outside in the parking lot.
The next day we got up early and after making breakfast at the hostel, we drove out to the Glenfinnan Viaduct. For those of you not familiar with this place, or who haven’t seen my photos, think Hogwart’s Express. That’s exactly what we got to see. After a bit of a hike, we positioned ourselves on the hill above the viaduct and waited for the stream train to come by at 10:52 in the morning. It’s modeled on the train in the movie, and even gave us some toots just for good effect.
Next, we drove down to the Glen Nevis Visitor Center, and then hiked out to Steall Falls. The hike itself was phenomenal (except for the midgies). When we made it into the valley where the waterfall was, we received a breathtaking surprise. A righter jet zoomed through the valley barely 50 feet above our heads, the sound pounding into us from the hills to our sides. Never have I been so happy that my Samsung Galaxy S7 takes approximately 1.2 seconds for the camera to open, and then can instantly take a photo of a jet flying past at top speed without any blur!
Just before the waterfalls, we had to cross the river. They only way over was a cable bridge, two for your hands and one to walk across. It took some coaxing, but I was able to get Kelly to follow me across. From there, it was only a couple more minutes to the waterfall. You could actually get right underneath. This isn’t one of those where the water falls hundreds of feet, but rather cascades down the rocks. It was the kind of place I really just didn’t want to leave. But all good things must come to and end.
Finally we made our way up to the Isle of Skye. That night, we stayed at Skye Backpackers in Kyleakin, part of the same chain as High Street Hostel. For £2.50, we were able to use their shower facilities and kitchen, and then sleep in the car again in the parking lot. We had the option of pitching our tent in their back yard too, but the midgies were just too think for that. Besides, the seat in the car was actually really comfortable.
The next day truly was a day off. We had booked the next night to sleep in the hostel itself, and we didn’t have enough mileage to explore the island and get back to Kyleakin. Instead, we just relaxed and went on a couple hikes in town. I had left my laptop behind in Edinburgh, the only thing we could do was relax and enjoy nature. Well, I did get out a couple Instagram photos. The sunset the night before at the Skye Bridge was pretty phenomenal. And just as good that night as well.
On Thursday, we set out to explore the Isle of Skye. I’ve already detailed all the different places (which you can also read fully in my blog post on the Isle of Skye). We basically did Day 1 of that post, circling through the Fairy Glen, Gold Cave, Quiraing, Lealt Falls and Old Man of Storr. The difference was that we actually hiked to the pinnacles in the Quiraing. The trail was stunning, but the wind was strong enough to knock you over if you weren’t careful. Later when we got to the Old Man of Storr, it was in a thick cloud bank with horrendous winds that really frightened Kelly. I felt bad having her hike up to the top with me.
That night we went into Portree, paid £2 to use the facilities at the Portree Independent Hostel, and slept in the free parking lot on the harbor.
Finally on Friday, we went the Fairy Pools, although this time we didn’t go swimming. We just went for the walk and photos, and then revisited the Oyster Shed afterwards. Kelly absolutely loved the oysters, and I got the smoked salmon fillet this time, which was delicious! But because we were limited on mileage, we called it a day after that and drove back to Kyleakin to spend the night at Skye Backpackers again.
Saturday, we went off to explore Loch Ness. We hiked a trail to the waterfalls in Invermoriston, and then went up to Urquhart Castle. I had seen the castle from the water on the Loch Ness cruise the week before with Stacy, but it was really nice to actually explore the castle itself. I managed to join in on the tour just after we arrived, and even saw the RIB tour as it passed by later on. Of the castles in Scotland I’ve been to so far, I liked this one the most. It’s no wonder a photo of it comes up when you search for Scotland on Google Maps.
After the castle, went down to check out Fort Augustus, again. There, we spent the night at Morag’s Lodge (I think it was £2.50 for their services). This was the lodge I stayed at on the Haggis Adventures trip, and I really fell in love with the area and the staff. I later applied to work there, but unfortunately the position was taken just before they received my application. Phooey!
Finally on Sunday we returned to Edinburgh, dropped off the car and went our own ways. The week wasn’t as packed as it had been with Stacy, and Kelly didn’t want to go to the paid attractions along the way (except Urquhart Castle). The hostels were all booked in town, but I was able to get a host for a couple nights via the Edinburgh Emergency Couchsurfing Group on Couchsurfing.com. Luca and Maureen were fantastic as hosts, and we shared all kinds of travel stories. They were also just outside of Dean Village, and I finally got to explore that part of town, as well as Stockbridge and the Water of Leith. I was amazed. Edinburgh was already my favorite city in the world, and I hadn’t been to the best parts yet! These places surpassed anything I’d seen in the city center.
On Tuesday, after spending the day with a migraine (I thought I was past those), I checked back into the High Street Hostel again (I was quickly becoming part of the “family” with all the volunteers there), and set to work catching up on my blog.
But I didn’t get to relax forever. On June 25th, I ran the Tough Mudder at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway. Since that blog post is over 3500 words in itself, I won’t repeat it here. But do read the post, since the experience now sits as the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.
The rest of the month was again spent at the hostel, finishing up more blog posts, tweaking how the blog looked, networking with some travel companies and establishing myself more in town.
Then on June 30th, my life changed forever. Well, technically it was July 1st, but it should have been the day before, since this is a story about June. While I didn’t officially get the package until the 1st, on the 30th, MY UK PASSPORT ARRIVED! That in itself is quite the story, which you can read about here.
So that was June. Sure, there were a few moments here and there which weren’t utterly fantastic. But nothing really bad happened, except maybe the migraine one day. Even that was worth it, compared to everything else. Now we’ll see what July brings. Today I board a plane to Copenhagen for a couple days, and then onto Stockholm where I’ll be attending the TBEX (Travel Blogger EXchange) conference. I plan to get travel sponsors for my blog, and I’ll be networking with some of the best travel bloggers in the world. Stockholm isn’t so bad either. In my post last year, I mentioned it was one of my favorite cities in the world. It doesn’t surpass Edinburgh, but it’s close.
In closing, I want to thank everyone who helped make this month the best, including Stacy, Kelly, Alex (who set up Tough Mudder), Luca and Maureen, Vee (whose address the passport was received at) and all my friends in Edinburgh. You guys rock!