Friday, June 28, 2019

Scotland (Edinburgh, Inverness, Loch Ness, Isle of Skye)


After reading rave reviews of Isle of Skye, Scotland kept jumping up on my travel list. Now that we were going to UK for the cricket world cup, I was all excited to go to Scotland for a few days before our England trip. So here we were. 
Our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in Manchester -> Train to Edinburgh
Day 1: Edinburgh
Day 2: Drive: Edinburgh -> Inverness -> Loch Ness
Day 3: Drive: Isle of Skye
Day 4: Drive: Portree -> Fort Williams -> Edinburgh
Day 5: Edinburgh -> London

When to go:


We got really lucky with the weather. There were no rains. Was cloudy and sunny mostly and we got a little bit of drizzle in Isle of Skye. From what I hear, you hit rains around 90% of the time, so we did well I believe. Even though it was summer, it wasn't hot. We had to use light jackets and full sleeves shirts to feel comfortable. It gets hotter in July-August though. And I am sure the winters here must be spectacular with all the snow covered landscapes, and bone-chilling too. 

Day 0


Getting to Edinburgh


We arrived in Manchester and after a brief rest stop at a hotel, we were headed to Manchester. We had pre booked our tickets to Edinburgh. Advance booking saves cost when I compared the prices. Also, you can book seats if you get tickets in advance. 
Our Edinburgh AirBnB
Train journey from Manchester to Edinburgh was about 3 hours and some change. But our train kept getting delayed. First due to a disruptive passenger. Then they didn't have functioning toilets, so they had to take a restroom break at another station. The train in-charge made an announcement that if anyone took a smoke break and took more than five minutes, she would leave, and boy, she meant business. Haha! Luckily we arrived only 25 minutes later than scheduled time. Had we been delayed by more than 30 minutes, we would have been entitled for 50% refund. Darn!
From the airport, our AirBnB was a twenty minute walk. Even while booking two months in advance, the availability of hotels and BnBs wasn't as great. Looks like the options are few and they fill up fast. Our BnB was located on Queen Street and we walked everywhere from here. So, anywhere close to Princess Street, or Old Town is a good place to stay. Our BnB was cozy and pretty. Such an English/Scottish feel to it. Lacy curtains, black and white pictures in old frames. Pastel wall paper in the room and a small balcony.

Hello Edinburgh!


Edinburgh Old Town
We were so jet lagged that we desperately needed a nap. Thankfully the sunset was at 9:40 pm, so even after we slept for a couple of hours, we had daylight for quite sometime. We went to Kamasutra Indian restaurant for dinner. Pretty decent food, and to my surprise, Edinburgh has quite a few Indian restaurants. If you are here on a weekend, it may make sense to make reservations for wherever you plan to have dinner at. The restaurants get crowded. 
After dinner, we walked to the Greyfriar's kirkyard, which is an old cemetery, but the main attraction for me was the statue of a dog outside the courtyard who dies waiting for his owner next to his grave, Greyfriar's Bobby. From here we just walked towards the High street. And walked along the Royal mile for sometime. The street is lined with souvenir shops and there are street artists performing in the evening. You will hear the sound of bagpipes at any given point in time. After a short stroll, we walked back home via Princess street. It is a cute little city where you can enjoy the local shops and cafe and just walk around and soak in the culture. Meanwhile, don't forget to stop by one of those many red telephone booths and get your standard UK touristy picture!

Day 1


Morning Run and Brunch:


Skilts everywhere
Thanks to jet lag, we were up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 7 am. So we decided to go for a run up to Calton Hill. It was a pleasant day with sun playing hide and seek with the clouds. The run included quite a few stairs to get to the top as well. Their is a loop around the hill to give you 360 degree views of the city. You get the views of the Holyrood Palce, the Princess Street and the sea. There are also a few old monuments and observatory at the top of the hill. 
After we got back, we were hungry, like really hungry. Luckily, yelp works in UK. And I discovered Dishoom. The one in other cities would have definitely had a long wait, so we decided this was our chance. On our way, we discovered that the St. Andrew's square, right where Dishoom is located had a fair and some bagpipers! It was armed forces day, so a lot of men and women in uniforms. At dishoom, we loved the ambience and the look of the place. Old style Irani cafes from Mumbai. We ordered chole-puri, vada pav and pav bhaji. All excellent. The flavors were amazing. I so wish we had a restaurant that served food of this quality in the bay area. 

The Royal Mile:


Up next was doing the standard Royal Mile walk. But first we walked along the Princess Street. Stopped by the iconic Scotts monument and got some good pictures and walked all the way till the end of the street. On our way was the Waterstone bookshop and cafe. I got in to use the restroom, but was pleasantly surprised by the views of the castle from their second floor cafeteria sit out. 
View from the Calton Hill
Continue walking and you are at the King's road. Its all uphill from here till you get to the castle entrance. If you have pre bought tickets, you get 2 pounds off each ticket and you avoid the long wait in the queues. We weren't too keen on going in, but wanted to hang around and take in some views. But our highlight was running into our friend Smita and her sister. We knew they were in UK to watch the world cup matches, but had no clue they would be in Edinburgh and we would just run into them on the streets. What are the odds!
St. Giles Cathedral
From here we started walking down the High street. We had walked a portion the previous day as well. But it being Saturday, it was crowded. Our next stop on this cobbled street was the St. Giles cathedral. Its very beautiful. The arches in the roof and the stained glass paintings are beautiful. There is a small room inside, I don't remember its name but it is used for granting the knighthood. The wooden engravings there are absolutely gorgeous. Its a small cathedral, compared to the ones you would see in Italy I guess, but is beautiful.
Moving on, we stopped for some street performers and then had to wade through small groups of pride parade. Then we took a break at one of the cafes for a quick bite and coffee.  There are narrow alleys that run all the way to the main street and give you the feel of old town. Plus, there are other spots to check out along the Royal Mile if you are interested. There is a museum of optical illusion, recommended by our friends, a dungeon (Mary King's close) and some galleries and museums on the parallel streets. 
Holyrood Palace
Holyrood palace will remind you some scenes from The Crown. The last entry is at 4:30 pm and of course we missed that. But were happy to get the view of the facade from the entrance. There is Scottish parliament right across the street. This is their new parliament house, functional since the last decade. The previous house was on the Royal Mile and is now closed. Apparently you can watch the parliament in action and see some live debates. The building is modern and the architecture so much in contrast to the Holyrood palce it stands across to. You can also listen to Rick Steeve's audio guided tour for the Royal Mile walk.

Arthur's Seat:


Arthur's Seat
Up next on our list was the hike up the Arthur's seat. It was a strenuous hike. About one mile each way with 1000 ft of elevation gain. It wasn't easy, but the views from the top are mind blowing. Do it if you have the stamina and the time. Gorgeous. Downhill didn't take much time and once back, we wanted dinner. We decided to meet with Smita and her sister at Mother's India Cafe. They serve small portions, so you can try multiple things and being four people we tried quite a few things on the menu. All were so good. This was our lucky day with some good Indian food at Dishoom and then here. I recommend panipuri and chaat for sure. Everything else was good too, so you won't go wrong with your order. I just loved how walkable this city was. There is uber too if you aren't too keen on walking. 

Day 2


Drive to Inverness:


Our plan for the day was to rent a car at the airport and drive. We ubered to the airport. Our Scottish driver was so chatty and so helpful. I loved our conversation for the fifteen minutes. He kept telling us basic road rules, how to get the gas at the station. And we passed by a beautiful school, which I assumed was an old palace or something, but I was wrong. It was built as a school for the deaf and the dumb and was not functional anymore. As you get out of old town, you start seeing newer construction and realize how big the city is. Anyhow, we rented our car and were off.
High Tea at Perth
Following directions wasn't hard at all. Scottish people love roundabouts and so do Chandigarh people. So we were home as far as navigating around the roundabouts was concerned. About an hour in, we decided to have brunch at Perth. Luckily, yelp showed this tea and breakfast place, Efiie's at Perth. I absolutely loved this place. The English setting and serving in fine bone china, was just too good of an experience. The food was okay and so was the tea, but I was wowed by the experience. Must go to a tea room if you are in UK. Must, must.
Driving further, we spotted Blair Castle. I had no intentions of going in. So, we skipped that part, but you could stop by and take some pictures of the castle. 
Inverness Castle
The views are pretty. Vast green highlands. A river at times next to the highway. Keep driving and you'll reach Inverness. A good place for lunch. We wanted to get our swim for the day, but their fancy athletic centre was closed for a swim meet that day. Hence, we ventured into the city. Very small old town area. You can walk the entire area in a 10-15 minutes. Got some good views of the Inverness castle from the Ness bridge. And next stop was a restaurant for lunch. While I got hangry looking for a restaurant, they started closing at 3pm. So I opted for whatever I saw next which happened to be an Italian place was pretty decent. 
Next we were driving along Loch Ness. 

Loch Ness:


Loch Ness
We drove straight to the Urquhart Castle. Very pretty castle, apparently at the deepest point in the lake. You have to buy tickets to go in and get some views. Its mostly in ruins, but thats the beauty of it. From here, keep driving to Fort Augustus. A small town to take a break and you could drive to the Suidhe viewpoint form here. We were tired and wanted to head back, so we didn't. This place has top views of the lake and the pictures are pretty, so might as well stop by if you can. You could follow this itinerary or viewpoints.
Urquhart Castle
Onwards, we arrived at our BnB place booked via AirBnB. It was a cottage at the end of narrow road in Dornie. Walkable distance from the Eilean-Donan castle. I'll write more about the castle on our way back to Fort Williams as that is when we visited the castle. The views from our room were amazing and once again we were served english breakfast in fine bone china by our host. Its Glennan House, and we recommend it, in case you are looking for options. The castle lights up at night and looks really pretty, but we both were tired and skipped it.

Day 3


Isle of Skye:


Today was the day for our highlight of the Scotland trip. The weather forecast showed mild showers all day, but it was a bit of drizzle in the morning and not at all disruptive. I am so thankful for the lovely weather that cooperated with us. Portree is definitely the town where you can get options to eat and drink. So we planned our trip around Portree. We started from Dornie and reached Portree in about an hour. We weren't as hungry, so decided to do the north out and back loop. 
Old Man of Storr
Drive is pretty and the first stop is Old Man of Storr. Its a rock formation that stands firm at the top along with other strangely shaped rocks. Its a hike from the car park. So, park the car and get your hiking bag out and start walking. It is a decent elevation gain to the gate from where you could either do a loop or go out and back. If you got a little up, you will get rewarded with beautiful views. Sumit hiked all the way up and I huffed and puffed till I saw him returning back. I realized I had hiked around a mile from the car park and the views were getting better and better. Also, the constant bleats of sheep and lambs were quite serene.
Kilt's viewpoint
Next stop was drive all the way upto flower cottage. Not a scenic viewpoint, but a hotel located at the scenic spot. We stopped, took pictures and started driving back. We stopped at the Kilt Rock viewpoint, which is a must stop. Offers the view of cliffs, a waterfall and the clear waters. Keep driving and their a waterfalls on the left. Its right along the roadside, so might as well stop. Now we were back in Portree and it was time for lunch before heading to the south loop. We got lunch at cafe Arriba. They had some decent vegetarian options, so no complaints. Also, we tried vegetarian haggis, which is a Scotland specialty. Umm, not that bad. I could get used to this taste.
Now, we drove to the Fairy Pools, Off the higway, it becomes a single narrow lane. And you must drive carefully. Pull into the passing lanes to let the traffic pass by. Fairy Pools are about twenty minute walk from the parking lot. Go and take some pictures, don't have to hike all the way up.
Neist Lighthouse
From here, it was a long drive to the Neist Point Lighthouse. My favorite attraction in the Isle of Skye. Find some car parking. Now you can either take the designated pathway all the way up to the lighthouse, or just go right from the cafe shop and walk ten minutes out to get the beautiful cliffs and the lighthouse in the view. We did the latter and oh boy, the views were amazing. I didn't think that hiking up to the lighthouse could give me the views of the cliffs and the lighthouse. So, we skipped it. Also, I was excited to get my cover picture. 
Up next, was the final stop of the evening, Dunveagon Castle. They close at 5 pm, so of course we were late. And I kept looking for some view points, which should be outside the castle, but didn't get any results. Later discovered that if you follow the road all the way till end you will be able to get views of the castle, but they are from a little farther away than you'd like. Now we were headed to our Airbnb, some five miles away from Portree. Nested in middle of the valley with such pretty views, these people get up to such view everyday! Again a decent experience with the AirBnB. 
We should have called it a day, but went for a swim to the Arainn Fhinn, the Fingal Centre in Portree. Excellent pool and some great facilities. You see, I try my best to get Sumit his training workouts even when we are on a vacation. We had dinner at Taste of India, which was pretty pretty bad. But some Indian food at 10 pm, is better than nothing I guess. 

Day 4


Bike Ride:


Biking the Isle of Skye
Plan was for Sumit to rent a bike at the Skye Bike Shack, close to Portree and go for a bike ride, while I spend time at various cafes and get this blog done. Portree is a cute little town and walking around was fun. I visited quite a few souvenir shops and also walked around the harbour.
Bike Route
Sumit completed this bike loop, about 40 miles from the bike rental place Skye Bike Shack. The owner was pretty helpful and a bike enthusiast himself. The roads are narrow, but the drivers are used to bike riders, so nothing to be really scared of but we mindful at all times. From here we were headed to Edinburgh, but not before making a few stops on our way back. Goal was to reach Edinburgh by midnight. 

Drive to Fort Williams:


Silgachen Bridge
Our first stop was Sligachan brigde on our drive back. It is a very old bridge and you get some great pictures of this bridge. Keep driving and admiring the views. 
Next stop was Eilean Donan Castle which we had skipped the day we stayed in Dornie. We went in the castle. It is a residential place and the inside is fully furnished. You get to see a few parts of the castle if you get the tickets. If you are interested in pictures, the best shots ate from outside. It is one of the most picturesque castles I have seen.
Viaduct view from Glenfinnan
Next up was drive to Fort Williams. We just drove straight to the town and headed to a restaurant we picked online. The restaurant food was okay, nothing great, but I was more excited to go to the Harry Potter bridge. It is 30 minutes from Fort Williams. The views of the viaduct however are not on the main road and you need to hike for about 20 minutes to get a to a good viewpoint. Its not difficult to find the viewpoint as you'll see a lot of people heading in that direction. It is located close to the Glenfinnan station. However, you must time your visit with the train times. There are regular trains passing the bridge, and also steam engine trains going a couple of times every day. Look up the timetable if you want to see a train on the bridge. Nevertheless, the views of just the bridge are spectacular too. You can also ride the train from Fort Williams to Mallaig and then then the ferry onwards.

Drive to Edinburgh: 


Next up was drive straight to Edinburgh. If you have time, you can stop by various viewpoints on the way, else drive straight to Edinburgh. I would suggest you stop by close to Loch Lomond for a day and enjoy the views and take pictures on your way back. We hadn't planned on visiting Loch Lomond, so we drove straight to Edinburgh If you have time, stop by to take in the views of Ben Nevis, Glencoe, three sisters and Brackfinn falls. We reached our rental center at 12:05 am, dropped off the car and hired an uber to our airbnb. Luckily, we had rented the same airbnb as before so we were familiar with the house and the owner had given us the keys to keep for our second stay. Worked out perfectly.

Day 5


Train to London:


Pre booking your train and making a seat reservation is always a smart things to do. We arrived at the station in the morning. Grabbed a couple of bagels and coffee and got on the train for our 4+ hour journey to London. Bye bye Scotland. We will be back again for some parts we missed, but our parents will be visiting next week on a pre booked tour.

Other pointers:

  • Must get a railcard if you plan to take multiple trips. Check out various options. The one that worked for us was "Two Together Railcard". It was easy to get and gave us deep discounts on tickets. We booked all our tickets from trainline.co.uk
  • Narrow single lane roads are everywhere, especially in the Isle of Skye. Follow the protocol and wait in the passing areas for other drivers.
  • Decided to skip Glasgow as it is "just another city"
  • Skipped Loch Lomond as we were short on time.
  • If going to Loch Lomond, might as well ride the jacobite train too.
  • Aberdeen is another popular city to visit.

Castles:

I personally don't like going inside the castles as much I like enjoying their setting and their facades. For me a castle nested in middle of mountains, on top of a hill are more picturesque than going inside these castles.  See below for the list of castles on this trip:

  • Edinburgh Castle - Set atop an extinct volcano, looks majestic from the city. Has exhibit of crown jewels and one of the oldest inhabited castles.
  • Blair Castle - Looks very pretty from the highway with green mountains in the background. Boasts of a good distillery closeby.
  • Inverness Castle - Smaller castle, but if you stop by in the city for lunch, take in the views from the bridge.
  • Urquhart Castle - Castle is in ruins. It is next to Loch Ness and you pay to go see. We totally enjoyed going in seein the ruins. Gives really good views of the Loch.
  • Eilean Donan Castle - Loved the setting of this castle. You take a footbridge to get to it. The better views of the castle and the bridge are from the parking lot. Fun fact: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai movie was shot here. See this link on youtube.
  • Dunvegon Castle - We missed this as we arrived late. It closes at 5 pm. But I anyway didn't intend to go in, but couldn't figure out where to get the views of this castle from. If you do, let me know and I will  add them here :)



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