Top 10 Things to See in Haiti

  1. Le Citadelle
Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016
Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

This is the landmark that I wanted to see most in Haiti, and it was everything I hoped that it would be. Le Citadelle is the massive fort that was built overlooking Cap-Haitien by the Haitian army after France was defeated. It was meant to protect the north from any attempt by the French to take back the colony, but such an attack never came. Now Le Citadelle is a UNESCO World Heritage open for visitors to learn about the history and heritage of the Haitian people. In order to tour the fortress, you first need to hike or ride a mule up a steep, cobblestone path. People with mules will follow you up the trail if you opt to hike, just in case you get tired, but it is just fine to keep going on foot. The fortress itself is well worth the struggle up the hill, for those of you uncertain about hiking, and the views of the verdant, surrounding mountains definitely add to the appeal.

  1. San Souci Palace
San Souci Palace (c) ABR 2016
San Souci Palace (c) ABR 2016

San Souci Palace is just down the mountain from Le Citadelle, and it is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. However, this beautiful ruin wasn’t as developed or crowded as the fortress. Here, we were guided through the building by a guide from the nearby town, and the only other people there were a couple locals enjoying the views and shade of the high walls. We learned that San Souci Palace was the home of Henri Christophe, also known as King Henri I, after the country won its independence from France. When it was built, San Souci was said to rival Versailles, and after seeing Le Citadelle, I could imagine that this was true. Much like the fortress, this site tells an important story about the history of this often misunderstood Caribbean country.

  1. Grotto Marie-Jeanne
Grotto Marie-Jeanne (c) ABR 2016
Grotto Marie-Jeanne (c) ABR 2016

Ever since I first visited Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, I have been in love with caves, and so far, I have had the opportunity to visit some in almost every country that I have visited. Haiti was no exception, thanks to the itinerary that Tour Haiti put together, and the cavern that we visited was Grotto Marie-Jeanne west of Port Salut. This cave was not well developed compared to some others that I have visited, but that was honestly something that I found very attractive about it. One half of the cave was easily accessible to the whole tour group via some stone steps. The other part of the cave required that we crawl through some narrow spaces, and carefully climb down some steep and slippery inclines. I would only suggest this for people that are good hikers and sure on their feet, but it was really cool. It was a true caving experience, even though it was not technical, so that was quite unique.

  1. Bassin Bleu
Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016
Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016

Bassin Bleu is one of the most popular, natural attractions in Haiti, and it is essentially a waterfall and a deep, stone swimming hole. Getting here is difficult, as the road to the trailhead passes through the river, and is quite steep. There is also a bit of a hike from the parking area to Bassin Bleu, which isn’t all that difficult for hikers, but might be hard for people not used it. The walk is quite beautiful, however. There are several pools below Bassin Bleu, as well as the river, which you cross on the walk there. Bleu itself, as its name suggests, has blue water, and it is deep enough to jump from the rocks into the water (but follow guide instructions for safety). There is also a lovely waterfall here that has a little nook behind it, where you can relax and enjoy this little, tropical oasis. It is a bit busy here, however, so it is good to go as early as you can.

  1. Beaches (Cap-Haitien, Jacmel-area, and Port Salut)
Coast near Cap-Haitien (c) ABR 2016
Coast near Cap-Haitien (c) ABR 2016

The Caribbean is known for its beaches, and Haiti is no exception, so it only makes sense to experience some of the country’s coasts. My favorite beach was north of Cap-Haitian, because it was very unique. The sand was dark here, and there were cacti growing on the coast; it was unlike any other beach that I have seen in the region. Alternatively, the beaches of Port Salut were nice, white sand that was fun to stroll along. Sadly, this area was hit quite hard by the recent hurricane, so I am not sure what the current state of this place was. However, there are many beautiful beaches in Haiti for the ocean-lover.

  1. The Observatoire
The view of Port-au-Prince from the Observatoire (c) ABR 2016
The view of Port-au-Prince from the Observatoire (c) ABR 2016

In the mountains above Port-au-Prince is a little bar that sits on the one of the best views of the city that you can get as a tourist. Catching a sunset here should be a priority if you are spending any time in Port-au-Prince. This viewpoint reveals the city’s beautiful side, and getting to see the surrounding mountains and the coast all at once really paints the perfect picture of just what a dynamic area Port-au-Prince sits in. The drive up here is beautiful, if steep and sometimes crowded, and the restaurant itself is a wonderful place to relax in the open air and take it all in.

  1. Jacmel
Jacmel (c) ABR 2016
Jacmel (c) ABR 2016

This little coastal town is a well-known tourist destination in Haiti. Besides its historic marketplace near the port, the mosaic along the shore is a common sight in pictures of the town. However, a good guide will show you the city’s other works of art as well. There are mosaics all over the city, and all but the one on the beach were done by the town’s own artists, many of them children. Jacmel is also the perfect place to buy paper mache, which is a true art form in Haiti. When I initially heard about it, I was imagining that stuff we all made in elementary school, but this is some real sturdy and beautiful paper mache, a must-buy in Haiti.

  1. Explore Port-au-Prince
The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016
The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016

This is low down on my list, just above two things that I wanted to do, but wasn’t able to, because Port-au-Prince actually kind of scares me. I have just heard so many bad things about this city through the media, and through some of my contacts in Haiti as well. That being said, I’m not sure a trip to Haiti would be complete without seeing some of the capital, and if you go with a good guide, it is no problem. The iron market in Port-au-Prince is really amazing, and has been rebuilt since the earthquake; it is also a great place to pick up souvenirs. Hotel Olofson is a wonderful stop, because of its historic and beautiful architecture, and Petion-Ville has some nice restaurants and bars to check out as well.

  1. Ile-a-Vache

I haven’t actually been to this location (or the next), but if I ever had the chance to travel back to Haiti, this is one of the places that would be at the top of my list of places to see. Ile-a-Vache is a small island off of the southern coast of Haiti, which is known for its pristine beaches. Based on what I have heard, I actually think that this may be one of the most untouched coastal areas of the Caribbean, but that is changing rapidly. Resorts and cruise ships have set their sights on this little slice of paradise, so if you visit here in the future, please be sure to support local people- find out what hotels and restaurants are owned by Haitians (and are safe) and give them a try. Anything owned by a large company is almost guaranteed to send most of your money out of the country.

For more information on this stop, check out Nerdy Nomad’s Post on Ile-a-Vache

  1. Pic la Selle: The Highest Peak in Haiti

Hiking is probably my favorite thing, period. So, while I had an amazing time in Haiti, I really missed it. Some of my fellows on the tour that I took to explore the country would consider the walk up to Le Citadelle to be a hike, but it was paved and it wasn’t all that long of a walk. So, for people like me, I would suggest trying something a little harder. Here I have listed Pic la Selle, the highest mountain in Haiti, because I love bagging high points (but I am no mountaineer). That being said, this isn’t actually a hike that I have done, and I am sure that there are alternative options for hiking in Haiti as well. I am listing some resources below for further info:

Summit Post Entry on Pic la Selle

Trekking in Haiti

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Adventuring in Haiti: A Photo Essay

 

As I have mentioned previously, Haiti has alot of bad press that it really doesn’t deserve. I think one of the best ways to share the reality of traveling to this amazing country is through photos, so I wanted to try my hand at a photo essay covering my journey to and from the Land of Many Mountains.

 

img_2120-copyThis is me when I first got to Haiti. The bus ride was so stressful, but the hotel in Port-au-Prince was a little paradise, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually there, in the country I had read about for so long.

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My first dinner in Haiti. This fish was unbelievable; and the plantains were the best I have ever had.

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The tiny plane that we took to Cap-Haitien. I love tiny planes.

Port-au-Prince from the air (c) ABR 2016

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My first introduction to Cap-Haitien, and the realization that Haiti has so much to offer, if only the government services and infrastructure were improved for the locals.

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Once known as the Venice of the Caribbean, Cap-Haitien has lost some of its flare, but there was still something elegant and beautiful about the way it stretched over the hills.

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There was intricate art everywhere in Cap-Haitien (and all around Haiti).

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You rarely see pictures of Haiti’s beaches, but they are just as much “paradise” as anywhere else in the Caribbean.

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Of course, there were reality checks while we were there. Unfortunately, Haiti’s government wasn’t taking care of the trash in Cap-Haitien. The Haitian people deserve better, and so does their lovely country.

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I had dreamed about seeing Le Citadelle ever since I read about it, and there it was, standing watch over the coast from out of the mist.

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Few people ever mention that Haiti is home to come of the most spectacular historic structures in the region. Here is San Souci Palace; its beauty once rivaled Versailles. Personally, I think it maintains its mystique and charm.

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Some of the best rum in the world comes from Haiti, and much of it in small places similar to this.

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This beautiful mosaic was made by the local kids!

 

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A post office in Jacmel!

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Bassin Bleu! One of the top attractions in the Land of Many Mountains. It did get busy here, so I had to snap this picture from around the corner before people jumped in.

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Heading out from Bassin Bleu, we had to drive through the river, following the precise directions of our guide. Unfortunately, Creole and Spanish are similar in that their terms for “right” and “straight” sound alike.

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The gate protecting the Grotto of Marie-Jeanne.

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Climbing down into the cavern. Alot of caves on Hispanola have openings like this one.

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The menu at a Haitian fast food restaurant in Port-au-Prince, complete with an add for the national beer, Prestige.

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I captured this beautiful scene in Port-au-Prince from inside a gallery that we visited on our last day.

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The beautiful Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. Supposedly, this is called gingerbread architecture- I’ll buy it.

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The city from the observatoire in Port-au-Prince.

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Driving back over the border into the Dominican Republic; these pictures stress me out because I hated the border so much.

Good-bye, Haiti!
Note: All pictures above (c) ABR (Nightborn Travels), please do not use without permission.

Exploring Haiti Part Two: Tips for Travel To and Through Haiti

haiti_blog_2

Getting There

There are three obvious ways to get to Haiti, by cruise, by air, and by bus from the Dominican Republic. More and more tourists are coming to Haiti via cruise, and I am not 100% supportive of this mode of travel, due to the behavior of many cruise companies. If this is the only way that you can visit Haiti, any support and good experiences are better than none, but just be aware that most, if not all of the money you spend will stay with the foreign company that owns the line.

First view of Haiti on the bus ride to Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016
First view of Haiti on the bus ride to Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016

Since I was living in the Dominican Republic for the summer, I opted for the bus route from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince because it was very affordable (only $70.00 USD round trip when I went in the summer of 2016 with Capital Coach Line). The ride from one city to the other took about 7-8 hours, and there were trips that left either 2-3 times a day. The buses are also not what comes to most people’s mind when I tell them that I did this; they are standard public touring bases, with AC, nice seats, and even movies that play. While you are riding in relative luxury, however, this can be a stressful way to travel, because getting through the border is no walk in the park, especially if your Spanish or Haitian Creole isn’t all that good. If you do travel this way, expect to be stopped on both sides. From Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince, you will get out on the DR side without your luggage and get your passport examined, and on the Haiti side they may or may not examine your baggage and they will need to stamp your passport. From Port-au-Prince you will need to get your bag and passport checked on both sides. It is likely that the bus company will collect your passport from you before you leave, so you will get it back during this time.

The being said do NOT give your passport to ANYONE except the bus company employees or the officials behind the passport windows. There are people that will insist on seeing your passport on the way up to the windows, and they may even flash forms at you to confuse you into thinking that you don’t have what you need. But if your bus line didn’t give it to you, you don’t need it, and if you do, let the official at the window tell you. You never want to let anyone get a hold of your documents. You will also have people try to take your bags from you. For the most part, they are not trying to steal from you, and just want to make money by carrying things for you, but I would suggest not allowing them to take anything from you. I just sternly told people no and kept my bag close, and that worked well enough. If you struggle with anxiety, I might suggest another route into Haiti, but I can say from experience that this is do-able, and I think that the bus-line that I went with knew what they were doing.

Getting Around in Haiti

The drive to Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016
The drive to Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016

Before I left for Haiti, I saw a lot of discussions about renting cars on Tripadvisor. While I love roadtrips and really enjoy driving in other countries, I would NOT suggest getting your own car. There are very few clear street signs or lights in Haiti, and the roads can be in sub-par condition. There was even one instance in which I thought there might have been people trying to build a roadblock on the highway, and we had a day where we got two flat tires in a row. The driver that we had on our tour, as well as the taxi driver that I had in Port-au-Prince, knew how to deal with all of these things in a safe and confident manner. Furthermore, you are supporting legitimate business in Haiti by hiring a driver, so it is good for your own sanity and good for the hard working people of this little country.

 

Port-au-Prince from the air (c) ABR 2016
Port-au-Prince from the air (c) ABR 2016

Besides driving, we also took a plane from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien, so while I don’t have experience with Port-au-Prince’s major airport, I can say a few things about flying here. First of all, if you fly into the country, expect to have people trying to grab your bags from you at the airport. Again, it is likely that they are just trying to get some money for carrying your things, but be wary. I would highly suggest flying in-country especially if you want to see the north and south of Haiti. The smaller airports aren’t stressful at all, and seeing the country from the air is really lovely. Just know that you don’t have assigned seats on in-country flights, even though your ticket will have a number. Just sit where-ever you can find space.

Quick Note About Haitian Currency

I had a hell of a time trying to get Haitian gourdes. My bank wouldn’t order any for me ahead of time, and the Miami airport had none available for exchange when I was there (not sure if they had just run out or what). People do take USD is many places in Haiti, but it is overall easier to use the national currency. I would highly suggest that you do try the above two options just to see if they will work for you, but they may not. So, travel to Haiti will small USD bills, that you can trade at the airport in Haiti (some larger hotels might also be able to help you, but don’t count on it if possible), or for use while traveling. 1s, 5s, and 10s are preferable because if you have to use your USD you will want to tip people, and buy snacks and drinks and this will be nearly impossible with big bills. I was also warned by a friend’s family from Haiti to avoid trying to get money from the bank. As a foreigner, it will be obvious what you are doing and it might make you a target.

Check out Tour Haiti and Port-au-Prince Taxi and Tours for resources for travel to Haiti.

Also, since I am in the middle of writing about Haiti, here are two links for some great organizations that you can donate to if you would like to help the Haitian people.

100k Jobs in Haiti

Konbit Mizik

Have any other tips on traveling to Haiti? Or questions about my experience? Comment below!

Exploring Haiti Part One: Truth and Lies about The Land of High Mountains

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Before I started my PhD, and started to learn more about the Caribbean and its many, colorful nations, I didn’t know much about Haiti. For the most part, American media focused on negative aspects of the country that shares the island of Hispanola with the Dominican Republic. I knew about the earthquake there, which shattered Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and brought the world, or so I thought, to their aid. Besides poverty and natural disasters, my time as an ecology student also taught me that Haiti had major problems with deforestation since they were said to only have 2% of their forests left (in reality this is likely to be closer to 20%).

Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016
Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

When I began my research, I learned other things about Haiti. In 1803, the country’s slaves freed themselves from France. It was the first in the Western Hemisphere to do so, and it has a proud heritage of freedom and resilience. The massive fortress of Le Citadelle is a testament to the perseverance of the Haitian people. And while most still associate the French language with Haiti, it is really Haitian Creole, a language unique to the country, which most people speak (although many Haitian’s speak two or more languages).

Another special aspect of this island nation is the religion of Vodou (or Voodoo). Although many American movies have painted Vodou as a form of witchcraft with curses, Voodoo dolls, and even zombies, but doing some reading on the topic reveals that this is a gross misrepresentation of the religion. In fact, Vodou is a mix of European, African, and native beliefs. Practitioners believe in a single, creator god or the Good God, who is sometimes seen as sharing an identity with the Roman Catholic deity. Like many religions in Africa, particularly on the Guinea Coast where many of the people brought to Haiti as slaves came from, Vodou holds that there are many spirits, good and bad. These spirits are more involved in the lives of regular people than the Good God, and the primary ones among them are often associated with Catholic saints. Like any religion, it has good and bad, as a reflection of humans themselves, but it is certainly not what it has been painted to be by entertainment.

The coast (c) ABR 2016
The coast (c) ABR 2016

In traveling to Haiti, I learned other things about this often maligned country. For one, its people are often straight-faced, and serious until you smile at them. They are also just as perseverant as their ancestors, finding ways to survive and thrive even while the rest of the world seems to work against them. Many of them are artists, capturing beauty in unique ways that can’t be found anywhere else. Their food reflects their creativity, rich in flavor and hearty in nature, even if it is much the same everywhere you go.

Finally, I discovered that the misinformation about Haiti can haunt you if you decide to travel to this Caribbean nation. Before I left, I made my mother very nervous by discussing my trip there, and when I arrived, there were people that scoffed at me for my decision. Even now that I have returned home, people are incensed by the idea that I went here for fun. But the key to seeing Haiti is going with a tour company or someone who knows how to drive, respect local customs, and stay safe in the country. Other than that, Haiti is a place rich in history and culture, and well-deserving of the attentions of adventurous travelers.

I will be working on writing about my time in Haiti for the next few posts. The next one will be about modes of travel to the western half of Hispanola, and I am planning on getting that up on October 10th. Please feel free to comment below!

Summing Up the Trip to Scotland

Made with Google Maps
Made with Google Maps

Day 1: Rest in Edinburgh. We took this day to explore the Royal Mile a little bit, and travelled by bus. Accommodation: AirBnb

Day 2: Edinburgh to Inverness (~3.5 hour drive). People in Edinburgh were dubious that we could make this drive in a day, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is because these people weren’t used to driving long distances. Google Maps says that this drive takes about 3.5 hours, although the two lane roads will slow you down. I would suggest leaving early in the morning for this drive, as there are some really cool things to see on the way. We stopped to hike around Loch Morlich in Cairngorm National Park. The hike was great, but we ended up not being able to ride the train up Cairngorm because we were too late. Accommodation: Touchwood House – This place was quaint but nice, and with free breakfast. It is also in a VERY nice neighborhood of Inverness.

Day 3: Inverness to Wick (2.5 hour drive). We drove a little out of our way on this day in order to see Urquhart Castle. The castle itself is mostly in ruins, but it is located on the shore of Loch Ness, so it is a great stop. Accommodation: Ackergill Tower– This is a very expensive hotel built on the northern coast of Scotland in what appears to be a stately castle. If you have the money to stay here, I would recommend it. For more info on this leg of the journey, see my blog entry here.

Day 4: Wick to Lochinver (~4+ hours). Our first stop this day was John O’Groats, or Scotland’s most northern point (not including its islands). Then we headed down into the highlands, and stopped at Smoo Cave on the way. This was the most scenic day of driving, but it was also fairly difficult. This part of road has many long sections of one lane roads- yes, one lane. You have to drive slowly, and when someone is coming in the opposite direction, you need to pull over and let people pass. It is not a place for impatient or rude drivers, so if you drive yourself out this way, be sure to expect to travel at a leisurely place, and be prepared to let people pass you in either direction. Accommodation: Inver Lodge Hotel– Nice, but pretty standard.

Day 5: Lochinver to Shieldaig (~2.5 hours). We did a good amount of hiking on this day as we took our time traveling south. This included a leisurely stroll in Little Assynt Estate, and a hike along the coast near Gairloch. Here we learned that you should be prepared for mud and ticks when hiking in the highlands. For more info on this leg of the journey, see my blog entry here. Accommodation: The Shieldaig Lodge: Very cozy little place, that has some nice character and good food. I would highly recommend it.

Day 6: Shieldaig to Portree (~2 hours straight). We did a lot more driving on this day than the time between the two cities that we stayed in suggests, because we took this day to not only get to the Isle of Skye, but to explore as well. We went to the Fairy Pools first, had to park about a mile away from the trailhead due to how busy it was, and then we hiked for a couple hours. After that we went to Dunvegan Castle, which I would honestly say wasn’t worth leaving the pools early to see. It was my least favorite of the castles we experienced. After that, we drove around the northern peninsula of the island, hitting the Museum of Island Life, the Kilt Rocks, and we stopped for a far away picture of the Old Man of Skorr (which was again very busy so we opted to not walk all the way down the street). Accommodation: The Portree Hotel. This was a nice historic hotel, with pretty small but updated rooms, and a nice restaurant.

Day 7: Portree to Oban (~3.5 hours). On the way down to Oban, we stopped at the Nevis Range, and took the gondolas as high as they go. There was some beautiful hiking up there, as well as a restaurant, which didn’t have great food, but it was a nice enough snack. I wanted to actually hike Ben Nevis, but we weren’t prepared, so this was a nice alternative. In the evening, we went to explore Oban, but we didn’t really find much to do there. Accommodation: The Royal Hotel. This was our second to least favorite hotel on the trip, so I would suggest staying somewhere else if possible, and if you have to stay here, don’t allow them to put you on the top floor. It is really really hot up there in the summer.

Day 8: Oban. We took the Three Island Tour on this day, hitting the Isle of Mull, Staffa, and Iona. Sadly, this tour doesn’t spend much of any time on Mull at all, you just drive across the island with an automated explanation for a few things. The visit to Staffa and Iona was perfect though, and I really enjoyed this day. For more info on the Inner Hebrides, see my blog entry here.

Day 9: Oban to Edinburgh (~3 hours). On our way back down to Edinburgh, we stopped in Stirling (I would have loved to see Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park as well, but we didn’t have time). While there we spent a few hours at Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, both of which I would recommend. Accommodation: Dalmahoy Marriot. After staying in Scottish hotels throughout our trip, this was place a rude awakening to the mediocre nature of cookie-cutter hotels. More so, this was an expensive hotel that didn’t live up to its price, in my opinion. The food and service at their restaurant was subpar and there is nothing included in the price of the room (aka no free wifi).

Day 10: Edinburgh. We went back to the Royal Mile for the day. We really needed more time there, and we managed to hike up Arthur’s Seat, see Edinburgh Castle, and do Mary King’s Close in one day. Of these, I would really highly suggest Arthur’s Seat to anyone who enjoys hiking, although it is just as busy as you would expect an urban hike. Mary King’s Close is also a great tour to check out as you get to see a new side of Edinburgh and learn from neat history along the way.

Day 11: Caerlaverock and Craignethan Castles. We ran out of things to do in Edinburgh, and got tired of the crowds, so we drove down south to see some more castles. Both of these are more like ruins than the Stirling or Edinburgh Castles, but they are in better shape than Urquhart. I would highly suggest them to anyone with the means to make it out there, as they are fun to explore and are surrounded by some lovely countryside. See Castles and Cities of Scotland for more information.

Another note for hikers:

(1) Walkinghighlands.com was the best resource that I found for looking up hikes in Scotland. If you are hoping to do some hiking (walking) in the wilderness, please give this website a peek. They rate the trails, and provide really good directions.

For September 1st, I am not going to be posting new material. The semester is starting up again, so I think it will be nice to have a little break, but I also want to get some pages up on my blog here and get all my social media outlets connected. So, I will be working on that for the next couple weeks.

Exploring the Inner Hebrides On Skye, Mull, Staffa, and Iona

(c) Wikipedia
(c) Wikipedia

Our adventures in the Inner Hebrides began in the Isle of Skye, and then through the Isle of Mull, Isle of Staffa, and the Isle of Iona. Of these, Staffa and Iona were my favorite and I will honestly say that we didn’t see much of Mull, although I would have loved to hike there.

Fairy Pools (c) ABR 2016
Fairy Pools (c) ABR 2016

The Isle of Skye is somewhere that everyone seems to love, but I found it a little disappointing after the highlands. The landscapes were beautiful and the culture is unique, but in terms of sheer amazement, the highlands took the gold and the Isle of Skye had far more tourists, which made parking and exploring that much harder. My favorite thing on the island, by far, was the Fairy Pools. We had to park about a kilometer away from them due to how busy they were but there were less and less people the further we went down the trail. The stream and the mountains were everything that I had been led to believe that the Isle of Skye was- breathtaking, somewhat eery, but inarguably beautiful. I only wish we had had more time to explore there. But we wanted to visit the Dunvegan Castle before it closed so we only had about 2 hours at the pools. Sadly, of all the castles that we saw, this one was the least interesting in my opinion. There wasn’t much to its museum, and the castle was really more like a mansion than anything else. After that, with time to spare, we

Museum of Island Life (c) ABR 2016
Museum of Island Life (c) ABR 2016

decided to drive the rest of the island before arriving in Portree for the night. While the Museum of Island Life was a very interesting look into the historical and current state of island life in Skye, the rest of the drive was just not comparable to what we had already seen. Kilt Rock was a nice stop for a few minutes, but the Old Man of Skorr was too crowded for us to really stop at. There was no where to park and we weren’t willing to hike down the street like we had for the Fairy Pools.

Countryside of Mull (c) ABR 2016
Countryside of Mull (c) ABR 2016

For the other three Inner Hebrides that we visited, we went to on a “Three Island Tour.” While I was overall very happy with this experience, I think that the better name for it would be the “Two Island Tour and a Drive Across Mull,” because while we spent the perfect amount of time of the Isle of Staffa and Iona, all we did was take a bus across Mull to get there. The bus included an automated tour as we drove across, but I found that very underwhelming. It would have been much nicer to have a bus driver that could actually talk to us about what we were seeing. For anyone thinking of spending some time in Scotland’s isles, I would highly suggest setting aside more time for Mull, as it looked very beautiful from the bus and had some intriguing history and folklore.

Staffa (c) ABR 2016
Staffa (c) ABR 2016

Staffa, best known for Fingal’s Cave, is a small island off of Mull. Here you find the same strange formations as on the other side of the sea in the Giant’s Causeway of Ireland. These giant columns some how formed (I don’t claim to be a geologist) during an ancient volcanic eruption, and during this time, created the island that we now know as Staffa. Visitors to the island can walk to Fingal’s cave, which is at sea level and is only fully accessible by kayak, although you can walk in a ways. I actually found the stroll to the cave more interesting than the cave itself, as this involved walking over the tops of the columns, and which gave you a sense for just how big and alien they are. There are also some tide pools in the area, but you have to exercise caution when approaching them because the surf can crash up over the rocks and there is no good place to climb out of the water if you get swept in. The best part of Staffa wasn’t either of these, however, because the island is also home to

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

puffins. If you climb the metals stairs up from where the tour boats leave you, and walk a ways through the green, wild grass on top of the island, you may be lucky enough to find these beautiful birds as they hunt, struggle to fly (I love their stubby wings), and play with one another. I do have my concerns about what the human presence on Staffa does to the puffins, as they are being observed for much of the day. This sort of attention can disturb animals and stop them from feeding, taking care of their young, or resting as much as they need to. So, if you visit, please be sure to be very respectful of these little guys, move slowly and be very quiet. Also, please educate other visitors about avoiding disturbance for these special birds.

Abbey on Iona (c) ABR 2016
Abbey on Iona (c) ABR 2016

Our final stop in the Inner Hebrides was the Isle of Iona. Now, as a fan of the Secret of Kells, I was really excited to stop here, and it was one of the most spiritual places I have visited. I’ve only previously experienced the same sort of spiritual experience in Japan and on Skellig Michael, so Iona is very special to me, especially since it has connections to my own religion. The island itself is a very peaceful place. It is easy to meander from the dock through the little, quiet town to the abbey. There are some small shops and restaurants here and there, as well as people driving the small roads (so please be courteous and make way for the residents), but it a breath of fresh air from modern life otherwise. The abbey itself has a little museum, which covers the history of the island, the abbey, and the people who stuck it out there despite constant attacks by the Vikings. Of course, there is a cathedral to visit, as well as a graveyard and a beautiful, rustic chapel. It is a very welcoming place, and a good representation of a loving Christian faith, being supportive of LGBTA, refugees, and gender equality. It just felt good to be there besides the amazing architecture and Celtic art that really makes this place unique when it comes to beautiful views and a place to explore.

My next post on August 15th will sum up the trip to Scotland and offer some suggestions to anyone that is thinking about going there and who might want to do something similar to our trip. After that, I am debating writing a piece about dealing with anxiety while traveling or diving into my journey to Haiti.

Castles and Cities of Scotland

View of Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat (c) ABR 2016
View of Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat (c) ABR 2016

My favorite part of our sojourn through Scotland was the highlands, hands down! But I would be remiss if I did not talk about Edinburgh and some of the castles that we saw. All right, the title says “cities,” but Castle and City just doesn’t sound catchy enough.

Edinburgh Castle (c) ABR 2016
Edinburgh Castle (c) ABR 2016

Our trip to Scotland started and ended in Ebinburgh, and while we were there, we spent most of our time on the Royal Mile. Even for outdoor buffs, this is a great place to spend a day or two, and it has all the things that most tourists like to check out while in the city. It goes without saying that there is a lot of tourist souvenir shops here, but there are also some authentic places along the way as well. There is great food all up and down the mile, as well as a lovely little tea room called Clarindas Tea Room that we made a point of visiting both days that we were in the area. Of course, I think the major draw to the Royal Mile, besides the food, shopping, and architecture, is Edinburgh Castle. It is a massive castle, and being there still impresses upon visitors the power of its original owners. Even so, I felt like it was more of a museum experience than a historic castle experience, but for those of you that really enjoy museums, I am sure that you will enjoy both aspects of this attraction. You could easily spend a few hours here exploring, and even if you don’t enjoy museums all that much (like myself) there are some very nice views of the city and the buildings themselves are beautiful. ALSO, before I dive into talking about castles more, if you are into castles and plan on seeing a bunch of them, check out some of the passes that are available, because we bought an Explorer Pass for the trip and it saved us a good chunk of money. Here is a link to the Scotland Historical Association which discusses the passes.

Caerlaverock Castle (c) ABR 2016
Caerlaverock Castle (c) ABR 2016

There were two things on the Royal Mile that were my favorite though, and neither the castle nor the shopping/dining scene won out. The first was Arthur’s Seat. This is a great spot for a little urban hiking, and if you aren’t going on a road trip out into the highlands, it is actually a nice spot to experience some Scottish nature, complete with gorse, and bugs of all sorts. Of course, this is a popular spot for people exercising and tourists, so it can get busy. If you want some peace and quiet, try going during the week. The second place that I really loved in downtown Edinburgh was the Real Mary King’s Close. This was a tour that we took which explores a now-subterranean street of old Edinburgh. You can’t take any pictures on the tour, so I don’t have any here, but it gave me a really clear (if somewhat horrifying) picture of what life was really like back in the day. We all know that it wasn’t just castles, and knights, and royalty, but that is most of what’s left of those times makes it feel that way. Seeing the ruins of what the city really was and how most people lived was very interesting. Furthermore, the guides on this tour are great and they get into character like you can’t believe. It was just an overall enjoyable experience, and I highly recommend it.

Now, in terms of castles, these were all the ones that I saw from my favorite to my least favorite: (1) Caerlaverock Castle, (2) Craignethan Castle, (3) Urquhart Castle, (4) Stirling Castle, and (5) Edinburgh Castle. So, over the course of two weeks we saw five castles, and this definitely wasn’t something that I was planning since I am more of an outdoor type, but after the fact, I would really suggest checking a handful of them out, especially if you have a car. And get the Explorer Pass if this ends up being your plan. Now, Edinburgh Castle I discuss briefly above, and I wasn’t a fan because I am extremely picky when it comes to museums, and it was also very busy there when we visited. Urquhart I discussed here.

Craignethan Castle isn't much to look at from the outside, but the rooms are very fun to explore! (c) ABR 2016
Craignethan Castle isn’t much to look at from the outside, but the rooms are very fun to explore! (c) ABR 2016

My two favorite castles were two that we visited on-the-fly on our last day, because we were tired of Edinburgh. The first of the two, Caerlaverock Castle, is far south near the Scottish/English border, and was just super interesting because of how different it was. It is a ruin, so don’t go expecting anything like Stirling or Edinburgh castles, but it takes less imagination to put it all back together than Urquhart. What’s really cool about this particular castle is that is was built on a triangular plan, and it has some interesting examples of mixed architectural styles from Scotland and the rest of Europe that I didn’t see anywhere else. Now, my second favorite, Craignethan Castle, isn’t much to look at from the outside, but once you walk in, it is just amazing to explore. The rooms are very well preserved here, in terms of the structure of the building, and again, despite it being a ruin, it isn’t hard to bring the an image to your mind of this place in its better years. An added benefit to this castle is that it is right next to the Nethan Gorge, where you can take a short hike.

Stirling Castle (c) ABR 2016
Stirling Castle (c) ABR 2016

Finally, Stirling Castle– this place is fairly similar to Edinburgh as compared to the other castles that I mention above, but here they have been working on restoring the castle’s outside and rooms to what it once was. I know that there were a lot of people who weren’t happy with it being partially painted its historical color, but personally, I like when these things are done. I’d rather see what it was meant to look like than what we imagine simply due to having lived with the aged version for so long. I get where the other side is coming from, but on a personal level, I just like these efforts when carried out with care. And let me say, while there were museum sections here, my favorite part of the castle was the reconstructed section. While we were there, we chatted with some very friendly and knowledgeable staff, it was such an enjoyable learning experience. The other draw for us in Stirling was the Wallace Monument, which again, had lots of museum bits in it, so I wasn’t a huge fan, but it was pretty fun to climb all the stairs and the architecture of this building is worth a look for sure.

All right! Internet and God willing, I will be back in about two weeks with an entry on our adventures in the Inner Hebrides. And after that, I will sum up our experiences in Scotland with an easy-to-use fact sheet on where we went, and what places I highly recommend for people with similar interests. Please leave sweet, thoughtful comments and questions below, and I will get back to you ASAP. Until next time- explore safely!

Wallace Monument (c) ABR 2016
Wallace Monument (c) ABR 2016