his time on what has become an annual trip "across the pond" for Thanksgiving, I was persuaded by my fiancé (and by a string of Hollywood movies such as "Highlander", "Rob Roy" and "Braveheart") to take a side trip to Scotland. I imagined lush green hills, peat fireplaces, cozy reading libraries, the smoky flavor of fine single-malt scotch, and the haunting drone of bagpipes filling the air. Well....sort of. As usual when visiting somewhere you always wanted to visit, things were exactly as I expected and nothing like I expected.

e had the extreme misfortune to use the UK's public transportation system after a crippling series of train derailments and powerful winter storms that left the rail system in total chaos. This turned the normal 4 and 1/2 hour train trip from London, King's Cross to Edinburgh's Waverly Station into a 6 and 1/2 hour journey because of speed restrictions on the trains due to track repair and maintenance. This was not too bad, since some of the scenery on the North coast of England (north of Newcastle) is spectacular and the slower train speed allows you to take in even more of the scenery. It would have been great to see Hadrian's Wall, but unfortunately, the train route took us too far to the east to see this. Maybe next time.

e arrived at Waverly Station and proceeded to secure a car and a room at a local B&B from the local Thomas Cook booking agent at the station . This is only the second time that I have ever arrived at a destination without pre-booking a room for the night. As before in Amsterdam, I was very pleased with the results: We booked a car for 2 days for around £ 58 and a great little B&B right in the heart of Edinburgh (speaking of Edinburgh, the locals pronounce it as Edinboro - basically, substitute the 'burg' with 'boro' and you'll do fine) for £ 40. At this point, we began to feel like we really were in a foreign country: Supposedly, they speak English, but it takes a while to be able to decipher. It only took about 2 days. Just as we were leaving were we comprehend what people were saying.

ne thing that struck me was the odor of roasted barley that seemed to permeate the city from the numerous beer and whisky distilleries that turn out such fantastic whiskeys and beers (One can't go to Scotland and not have a pint of McEwans Export or a 'wee dram' of single-malt whiskey). Of course, there is another uniquely Scottish product made with Barley: Haggis. For the uninitiated, Haggis is (quite simply) "Sheep's stomach stuffed with wheat and barley" (recommended for adventurous epicureans only). This reminds me of a pun directed at English cuisine (do NOT make the mistake of calling a Scotsman 'English'): "English food is awful/offal".

he first thing that you notice coming out of the train station is: Edinburgh Castle. It looms over you dark and brooding, high on a hill to the left and is the ultimate landmark in the city. On the right is Princess Street, a very modern shopping district and in the valley between Princess street and the castle is a vast park with an amphitheater and full of monuments to famous Scots. We visited Edinburgh during the time of year that had the least daylight, so as a result, it was dark by about 3:30pm. This only made the area around the castle more spectacular. There were lots of people doing their Christmas shopping, lighted cathedrals, warm, inviting shops, Christmas villages, etc. all with a brilliantly illuminated Edinburgh Castle as the backdrop.

he original plan was to spend one day in Edinburgh, a day traveling in the highlands (including a night in a castle), and another day returning from the highlands and hitting things we missed in Edinburgh. As so often happens with 'best laid plans', ours went awry. The train from London consumed most of our 'day in Edinburgh' and we had to be content with dinner at a pub and a stroll along 'Miracle Mile' and Princess Street (by that time, most of the shops had closed). Edinburgh was fascinating and we would love to back and actually see more of the city than just the train station, our B&B and a few shops on the surrounding streets.

ur adventure in the 'countryside' actually started in Edinburgh...the dreaded Car Rental. I must make note at this point that my fiancé had lived in London for about 5 years and was comfortable with driving on the left (Americans can read this as 'the wrong') side of the road. Of course, someone (who shall remain nameless) forgot their driver's license which left me to navigate what is possibly the world's most confusing highway system in a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the road, driving on the left hand side of the road and shifting with my left hand. We rented a Vauxhall Corsa (for you Americans reading this, imagine a cross between a Yugo and a Ford Escort and you will have a pretty good picture of this car) from Melville's in Edinburgh just a short walk from our B&B. The rates were fantastic and the people more than friendly if not dubious about a six foot tall American complete with a pony-tail and an earring squeezing into a car the size of a lunchbox and tearing off around the countryside! After a few adventures in Edinburgh itself ("How do you get this damn thing into reverse?" and "Oh....I have to be in the left lane to turn left even if I already am on the left hand side of the road!"), we were off and running (or rather 'driving' in this case).

ur first destination was Stirling Castle, a pleasant hour's drive from Edinburgh. The castle is perched on top of a hill (well, in actuality, it's the top of a volcano) in a wide valley that sits right in the 'neck' of Scotland at one of its narrowest points. This position is not a result of accident: Scottish history is inextricably entwined around this strategic castle and town which were home to such historic notables as: "Mary: Queen of Scots", "Robert the Bruce", "William Wallace" and "Rob Roy". We wandered around the castle for a while on our own, then took one of the guided tours through the Great Hall, the Queen's Chambers, the King's Chambers, the chapel and (most interestingly) the Kitchens all the while being entertained by the stories of Robert the Bruce's "Battle of Stirling" in 1314, William Wallace's "Battle of Stirling Bridge" in 1297 (and who's monument can be seen in the background of some of the accompanying pictures) and of the Stuart Kings that reigned here.

rom Stirling (watch out for those evil, wicked roundabouts that are scattered throughout the town of Stirling), we headed through the Trossacks for Argyll and Lock Lomond. This was a very idyllic drive through pastoral countryside. We had a rather long, leisurely lunch at a hotel/restaurant called 'The Hungry Monk' in the village of Gartocharn near Balloch. The electricity went out during our meal, but we ate by candlelight and the light (and warmth) of the huge open fireplace in the middle of the exquisitely decorated dining room (highly recommended). The end of the day (or the daylight, rather at around 3:30pm) found us in the town of Balloch.

e decided to put off a visit to Balloch Castle and head to our castle accommodations for the night; Culcreuch Castle in the village of Fintry, one of several castles recommended by www.celticcastles.com. The enormous grounds (1600 acres according to their web page) were all but invisible in the darkness, but we got some idea as to the scope of the grounds during the mile long 'lane' that lead up to the castle (a very long, very small lane). We realized that it was dark, but only about 5:00pm in the evening, so we entertained ourselves in the 'Dungeon Bar' tasting local single-malt whiskeys and talking to a few "interesting local characters" who advised us on everything from places we should visit the next day to why they still hate the English so much. Most of the rooms at Culcreuch Castle are "theme rooms". We passed on staying in the 'haunted' Chinese Bird Room, but settled for the 'Keep' suite, right next door (supposedly also haunted by a benign, bagpipe-playing Scotsman). It is easy to see that this is an authentic castle...all you have to do is look at the windows which are on the outside edge of the castle's 6 foot thick walls. A beautiful four-poster bed with an authentic feather mattress made for a perfect night's sleep.

aving mastered the 'art' of driving on the left side of the road (notice how I keep bringing that up), we headed out to the Argyll region after first indulging in a 'Scottish' Breakfast (minus the Kippers....I just can't quite bring myself to eat salted fish that early in the morning). We also spent some time wandering around the beautiful grounds around the castle. We headed back to Balloch Castle. The castle itself was rather uninspiring (given that it is pretty small, and was closed for the season), but the grounds which slope from the castle down to Loch Lomond were breathtaking. After this breath of fresh air and exercise, we headed up the road to the village of Inverary. Inverary was our first visit to a brackish (fresh water, but opening to the sea) lock. Inverary Castle (basically a large mansion with turrets built in 1744) is the ancestral home to the Campbell Clan (and home to the Duke of Argyll). Unfortunately, this was also closed for the season. We settled for a light snack in a little 'Tea Room' out by the loch, where we sipped McEwans and relaxed by the peat fireplace. Our final destination before turning back to Edinburgh took us north up A819 into the southern edge of the highlands and Kilchurn Castle. At this point I must mention the rain. It had been pretty light during the morning, but by afternoon as we were making our way up to Loch Awe, the rain was becoming heavier. It totally obscured the view of our initial ascent into the highlands from the picturesque 'Rest and be Thankful' stop at the top of the pass.

n any case, the sun was starting to make a final appearance when we drove past the entrance to Kilchurn Castle. We were getting tired and were unable to find the parking lot in the dusk of the evening. All of the literature that I have read indicates that most people take a ferry from the town of Kilchurn out to the castle, but we were unable to find this either. Supposedly, back in the Middle Ages, this castle was once on an island, but now there is a pathway out on to the Loch. Given the amount of precipitation that the area received in the past month, we think that maybe the castle was once again 'an island'. We figured that we had exhausted the daylight possibilities and headed back to Edinburgh.

ll in all, we very much enjoyed our visit to Scotland. Next time we would like to spend even more time here in some of the northern highlands (there was just not enough time to do everything we wanted) seeing other sites such as Eilean Donan Castle on the Mull of Kintyre, the battlefield at Glen Coe, Fort William, Glenfinnan, Lock Ness and the capital of the highlands, Inverness, as well as spending a few days in Edinburgh. It's a delicate balance: If you visit in the summertime, you have plenty of daylight (light up until 10:30pm) but you also have lots of crowds. In the wintertime it is unspoiled by tourists, but there is precious little daylight available and many sites are closed for the winter. If you do decide to venture to Scotland in the winter time, pack plenty of warm (and waterproof) clothing and make sure that you are fully adjusted to the time-difference so you can be up at the crack of dawn so as not to waste a moment of daylight.

Other Destinations

Big Sur, California Lisbon, Portugal Paris, France Madrid, Spain
São Paulo, Brazil Caracas, Venezuela Amsterdam, Netherlands Arnhem, Netherlands
Nassau, Bahamas London, England Curaçao, Netherland Antilles Santiago, Chile
Edinburgh, Scotland Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Hyderabad, India Rome & Florence, Italy

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