Category: Island Travel (Page 3 of 5)

Beyond the Overseas Highway: Three Fabulous Places for Nature and History in the Florida Keys

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

For most, the Florida Keys is an alluring road trip destination due to the Overseas Highway, which takes drivers through the keys and over the ocean, as its name suggests. The sights and sounds of the Florida Keys may be a little bit disappointing to nature lovers when the ocean is out of sight, because human habitation here feels thick and unending. But as I always say, there is something for everyone in all destinations, and the Keys are no exception. So, fellow outdoorswomen and men, here are my top three activities for you in the Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Seventy miles west of Key West lay the seven small islands of the Dry Tortugas, now home to the historic Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Fort construction began in 1846 but even after 30 years of progress, it was never completed. This massive complex was meant to help the United States control the Caribbean Sea, its strategic position is pretty clear even to the casual onlooker. The fort itself offers at least an hour or more of thorough exploration, with three levels and the sandy trail that loops around its top and base. But aside from the fort, the Dry Tortugas are also a splendid place to snorkel, and in the right season, you can get some casual hiking in as well. Mid-October to mid-January is when the beaches of Bush Key are open – a unique ecosystem and an important nesting ground for several species of marine birds. The easiest way to get out here is with the Yankee Freedom, which can either take you out for the day, or deposit you on Garden Key for some camping.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Arguably, Biscayne is more part of Miami than the Florida Keys, but the main part of this Floridian wonder is the tail end of the Keys, along the shore of the mainland. There is a visitor center on the mainland, but this is really just a gateway to the keys that are part of this protected area including Adams Key, Elliot Key, and Boca Chita Key. While they are close to Key, they aren’t accessible by land, so taking a day tour with one of the companies that works with the National Park Service is necessary if you want to snorkel, kayak or hike in the park.

Florida Key State Parks

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

So, we have nice nature stops at the base of the Keys, and far out to sea past Key West, but what about all those islands in the middle? Is there anything other than concrete bridges and strip malls? Well, of course! First of all, there are plenty of places to park at near the bridges where you can stop to fish or walk around. But more importantly, there are multiple state parks throughout the Keys that give you a glimpse into what these islands were like before humans started paving them. Florida Hikes has a great post about this that I referenced when driving through. You can give yourself a driving break AND support Florida’s protected areas, making checking out these parks a true travel perk.

If you enjoy this post, you may want to learn more about the Florida Keys:

Travlinmad’s A First Timers Guide to Key West

If you want to see manatees in the Florida Keys, be sure to look at MBsees Manatees! Enough Said.

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Top 10 Things to Do 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

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.

True Haiti: 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%). These weren’t fair depictions of the True Haiti, however.

A Fascinating History

Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

When I began my research, I started reading more about the history of Haiti. In 1803, the country’s people (many of whom were enslaved) freed themselves from France. Haiti was the first country 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, that most people speak (although many Haitian’s speak two or more languages).

Religion in Haiti

Another special aspect of true Haiti 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, 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 not the boogie monster that movies make it out to be.

The coast (c) ABR 2016

The coast (c) ABR 2016

Learning On the Go

Of course, without visiting a place, it is hard to really get a sense for what it’s like. So, when I had the opportunity, I took a tour of the country to learn more. I picked up a few interesting things, although this merely scratches the surface of true Haiti.

To outsiders, Haitian people often seem straight-faced and serious until you smile at them. Being friendly,  genuine, and respectful is the way to see how kind the people of Haiti really are. They are also just as resilient 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 (and their plantains are superior to the Dominican Republic recipe, I had to say it!).

true haitiFinally, 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 there just to explore. But the key to seeing Haiti safely 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, true Haiti is a place rich in history and culture, and well-deserving of the attentions of adventurous travelers.

Safety and Respectful Travel Tips

true haiti(1) Do not attempt to drive yourself in Haiti; hire a driver. Visitors will have no idea what the traffic rules are, and local drivers/guides are better equipped for the road conditions.

(2) Be aware of volatile areas (especially in Port-au-Prince) and stay away from them. Again, going with a guide will make this much easier and safer.

(3) Do NOT take pictures of people without their permission. This is a general rule of thumb, but often visitors seem to forget this when visiting Haiti. No one wants their picture taken without their knowledge. If you do ask, be prepared to offer a little money.

(4) While tempting, try not to give money to people begging. It is far better to support Haitian businesses by buying food at local restaurants, buying arts and handicrafts from artisans, staying in hotels run by local people, and supporting local guides. Bring your business and a better image to Haiti. There are so many amazing, talented, innovative people there, looking for the resources to support their career and their country.

true haiti(5) Learn a few words in Haitian Creole. French may be the language of the cities, but everyone knows Haitian Creole and its the really heart and soul of true Haiti.

(6) Go with the right attitude. Haiti is not an easy place to go, and you will see hard things, but remember, everyone already knows about Haiti’s struggles. Look for the story few people are telling, and see the potential in this country. It’s time to shine a light on all the good things that Haitians are doing to build their country up.

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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

The Scottish N500: The Scenic West Coast of Scotland Part Two

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Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

Waterfall in Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

Waterfall in Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

One of our first stops on the N500, after John O’Groats, was a place called Smoo Cave . I simply love caves (although I have not had the chance to go caving, I have visited caves in several different countries and continue to make it a priority when I travel), so based on that and my immediate love for the name, I just had to check this place out. The outer part of the cave that opens out onto the beach is a sea cave, while the inner cave, past the waterfall is a karst cavern. For the casual passerby, there is a section of Smoo that is freely available to anyone that hikes down the path that winds its way down the sea cliffs from the parking lot to the beach-front. This includes a large, stone room that is covered by a thin carpet of green, and a wooden walkway that leads back to a view of the waterfall that is the main visual prize of the location if you can’t go on the tour. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the tour ourselves, although it was very affordable, because we weren’t sure when the last group had left, and we didn’t want to wait around for a half hour for the next one. Pretty lame excuse! But we did still have a lot of driving left to do, and the weather was steadily going downhill, so we weren’t even sure that there would be another tour at that time, since rain can cause flooding in the cave.

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The bridge between Loch a’ Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh (c) ABR 2016

The views coming south from Smoo Cave south to Lochinver were some of my favorite from the trip, and heavens, I was sad that we weren’t prepared for a hard hike. For one, if you ever drive this way- please stop at the turn off just north of the bridge between Loch a’ Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh. The bridge isn’t particularly artful, although it is oddly pleasing to the eye… perhaps due to the juxtaposition of the concrete structure and the towering highland mountains beyond. The Lochs are breathtaking too, and I hate to say it, but in my opinion, much more beautiful than Loch Ness, although they are much smaller and lack a prehistoric monster (as far as we know). Driving past the bridge (south) you will then get some great views of the mountains that have stuck in my mind ever since the trip- three peaked Quinag to the west and Glas Bheinn to the east. Even when we visited the Isle of Skye, there were not mountains that outmatched these for beauty and mystique, in my opinion. And regardless, they are both great examples of highland mountains, and worth a gander if you like challenging hiking.

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Little Assynt Estate (c) ABR 2016

There is also some easier walks that you can check out on the way down from Lochinver to Gairloch. For instance, the Little Assynt Estate has a very nice area to walk around in with great views of a little loch and the mountains, as well as a place to sit and relax (and maybe fish as well?). The trails are dry and mostly flat here as well, so they make for a nice break from driving if you don’t have the proper equipment for a highland hike. We also walked up from Gruinard Bay to Eas Dubh Falls – which was a nice stroll along the beach, but the hike itself, up from the ocean into the hills to the waterfall, was quite boggy. Due to this, and our lack of proper, high-top hiking boots, forced us to walk through the bracken more than I would have liked, and I ended up getting a tick. So, do plan ahead, bring good, waterproof shoes, and be aware that Scotland does, in fact, have ticks. I definitely did not regret this second hike, however, as the waterfall was beautiful and the trail was deserted.

If you want to see more picture of my journey through Scotland, as well as past pictures, check out my travel Tumblr here.

On July 1st, I am planning on posting about the cities and castles of Scotland.

Feel free to leave relevant comments and/or questions below.

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Eas Dubh Falls (c) ABR 2016

El Yunque Y San Juan!

There are two big attractions in Puerto Rico that I knew about long before I got there- Old San Juan, and El Yunque, representing the rich history and natural beauty that La Isla del Encanto has in spades. For anyone staying in San Juan, they are both very accessible as well, since El Yunque is only about an hour away and there are plenty of tours to get you there if you don’t have a car. Both are expansive enough to spend an entire day, depending on what you like doing, so research both and plan accordingly.

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Castillo del San Felipe del Morro (c) AB Raschke

Old San Juan is home to two major forts that are part of the US National Park system- Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal (as well as Fort San Juan de Cruz across the bay). These were our first stops during our visit to the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. It can be a little tricky to find parking in this area, so I would highly suggest trying to get there a little early in the day. Also, if you park in a parking garage and happen to come out and find a car parked behind yours, just look for a parking attendant. They really make good use of all the space they have in those parking structures, but from what I saw, I don’t think they will leave you penned in by other parked cars. Both of the main forts are covered by a single ticket, and have a tram that runs between them and into the city for anyone who needs a lift.

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Casa Blanca (c) AB Raschke

While I am not a huge history buff myself, both Castillos were so well maintained, expansive, and all-encompassing that I really found myself feeling like I had been teleported back in time. This is a truly inspiring place, and it is just amazing to see what was built to protect Puerto Rico’s main port in the days of European powers scrambling for footholds in the New World. The views of the city, the ocean, and the island itself are also just breathtaking from the National Park. It was more spectacular than I could have guessed, even though this was something that I have been looking forward to seeing for a long time.

Outside of the national park, Old San Juan has a variety of museums, historic buildings, shopping, and delicious dinning opportunities. Like I said, it is the kind of place where you could spend all day. We stopped at a little Jamaican restaurant on a side street for lunch, and enjoyed a large, Caribbean lunch in a cramped, but welcoming little building who’s age I could only guess at. Afterwards, we wandered

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Old San Juan (c) AB Raschke

around, enjoying the architecture of this part of the city. The buildings here are not only beautiful in a way that only historic buildings can achieve, but they were all the colors of the rainbow, and a clear inspiration for the setting of Pirates of the Caribbean. During our time exploring, we happened upon Casa Blanca, the first fortification on the San Juan islet according to Wikipedia, and one of the oldest, still-standing buildings in the Americas. Entry was free, and the area was tucked away enough that most of the crowds appeared to be elsewhere. We took our time exploring the rooms, and looking at the colonial furniture and technology… imagining life in another time. Despite its age, it would still be an enviable house today, as it has remained lovely and airy, and has some fantastic views of the bay.

Besides Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital has other great places to visit, including beautiful beaches, modern shopping and dinning areas (including Plaza Las Americas the 13th largest mall in the US), and some great cultural experiences like bomba dancing in Loiza. To top it all off, the public transit in the city is fairly expansive and easy to use, and San Juan even has a very nice train that runs through the center of the city. While it doesn’t currently connect to Old San Juan, it does have an extensive bus network that it can get visitors to.

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La Coca (c) AB Raschke

Finally, last but certainly not least, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Puerto Rico is El Yunque, the great rainforest of the eastern side of the island. The visitor center here, as a gateway into the park, made me feel like I was entering Jurassic Park (can you tell I am a nerd yet from this entry?). The forest is dense and feels like the setting of a movie, rather than reality. It is just that beautiful. The buildings of the visitor center kind of play into the whole Jurassic Park feel as well, but that is neither here nor there. The main attractions of El Yunque are up from the visitor center in the mountains. There is enough hiking here to spend the whole day exploring, and trails for all different skill levels. There are also two main waterfalls – La Coca and La Mina, and a historic observation tower to explore. There are also restaurants and little places to buy snacks and refreshments along the road, that shouldn’t serve as your primary source of water while exploring, but are wonderful places and recharge and cool down after hiking in the heat and humidity.

My sole complaint about El Yunque is its popularity. It

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La Mina (c) AB Raschke

is out of this world, so as soon as you get there, you can understand why it is so crowded, but some of the more popular areas can be a drag to negotiate. First, parking can be a real problem. In order to hike to La Mina, we had to park about 0.5 miles away and walk up the road to the trailhead. The trail itself was so busy that sometimes it felt like we were waiting in line, and once we got to the waterfall, we didn’t even bother staying because it was swarming with people. I was happy to be there, and it is definitely a place that I would suggest to anyone who likes hiking and natural beauty, but it is good to go with some expectation for how crowded it can be there. If you would like to avoid the crowds, come during Puerto Rico’s slow season, arrive at the park early, or drive up to the very top of the road and explore one of the more difficult and remote trails.

Isla del Encanto Roadtrip: Puerto Rico Oeste

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Ponce (c) AB Raschke

I have to say, the Western side of Puerto Rico was my favorite, even though I loved El Yunque. There is SO much on this side of the island, and I thought that the Karst formations here were fascinating and endlessly beautiful.

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Ponce (c) AB Raschke

First, I’m going to include Ponce in my discussion of the Western side of the island. This was the first city that we stayed at in Puerto Rico (driving for ~1.5-2 hours after a full day of airplane travel was not pleasant), and it was our introduction to real Puerto Rico, rather than the place that I had built up in my head. It was my awakening to the fact that Puerto Rico is its own country, with its own, unique culture (which I discuss in my previous Puerto Rico post- link), The architecture here is unlike anything I have ever seen in the US, and it is really a testament to the age of the city (founded in 1692- which is pretty old for the “new” world). Just taking some time to walk around and appreciate the buildings downtown is a great use of any traveler’s time. However, on top of the lovely buildings like the Cathedral of Our Lady Guadelupe and the Parque de Bombas, there are also a bunch of nice museums in Ponce. I have heard that the art

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Ponce (c) AB Raschke

museum here is well wroth the trip, but I was only able to visit the Ponce Museum of History, which I enjoyed as it gave me a chance to both practice my Spanish reading abilities and learn more about Puerto Rico. This museum is also free, but be sure to sign the guest book when you visit. Finally, keep in mind that a lot of museums may be closed on Monday or Tuesday in Ponce, so try to do a little research when deciding what days you will be there and what you want to see. Also, I would suggest doing a little reading on safety in Ponce, because there have been some issues with crime against tourists in this area- link .

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Toro Negro (c) AB Raschke

While in Ponce, I also visited Toro Negro  for some hiking in the rainforest. Trying to use a phone GPS to find this place proved to be quite difficult, so I would suggest following the directions on the site I have linked to above if you want to give it a visit. The site says that the ranger station here may no longer be manned, but when we went it was open and we were able to get maps and suggestions for what trails to see in the time we had. Not having a lot of time, because we decided to visit last minute and had some trouble finding it, we just hiked to Charco La Confesora, which was a nice swimming spot, and wasn’t too busy (especially compared to El Yunque!). There is enough here to spend the whole day exploring, however, as there are some architectural points of interest (an old observation tower and a swimming pool- no consensus as to whether this is open now or not) as well as some waterfalls- Dona Petra and Dona Juana Falls. I would have loved to spend more time there exploring, and it was so much quieter than El Yunque. I would highly suggest spending some time here if you are looking to experience the rainforest of Puerto Rico at all.

Finally, to my favorite part of western Puerto Rico- the north where

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Rio Camuy Cave Park (c) AB Raschke

the Karst is. The place that I read about most for this area was Rio Camuy Cave Park , and since I love caves, I absolutely had to visit. First, here’s what is great about this place: the ride and hike into the cave are mind-blowingly beautiful; I just love descending through the forest into the shady caves, and it was wonderful to see how the life of the forest really invades these caves and adapts to life here. The formations in the main part of the cave are massive, and finale of the tour is an overlook down to a river that gives the cave its name, and in my mind, makes it s unique spot worth checking

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Rio Camuy Cave Park (c) AB Raschke

out. All that being said, this is not the best cave tour I have been on. For the size of the cave, the tour was far too long, and this was due to several things: the tour guide had to say everything in Spanish and English (probably my fault- let’s be honest), the trails were very slippery and some people had to take them slowly for safety’s sake, and the tour groups were huge, so everything took longer than it would have otherwise. It really felt like they were just trying to get as many people through the cave as they could, but even so, if you aren’t careful, you might not be able to visit, because the park wisely caps how many people can come per day. So, if you do decide to stop by (the views are worth the downfalls of the tour, as long as you get there early enough), come early! If you don’t, you may need to wait for a long time for your tour (some reviews I read said 3 hours- not sure if they are exaggerating or not, but I got there by 10a and I had to wait an hour) or you may not get to go at all. Once you get there, you will get a number as you drive in (your place in line), then you pay for parking, park, pay for your ticket, and wait for your number to be called. Keep the process in mind, and I think the visit will be much more enjoyable; I didn’t have problems because I read up on it beforehand.

An alternative spot to visit (or a great addition) is Cueva Ventana

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Cueva Ventana (c) AB Raschke

or the Window Cave (aptly named). On this tour, you will climb through two caves. The first is quite lovely in that there are tree roots and even little plants growing in the cave, surviving on the bare minimum of light. The second cave has a room full of bats, which was amazing to see, especially at such close distance. It then leads to the cave’s namesake, a large opening that looks out onto the countryside and a curving river. The view alone is worth the price, honestly, but the wildlife that we saw in these caves was exceptional. I saw my first amblypygi here! I liked this tour a little better than Rio Camuy, but there were a few things that concerned me. First, I thought we were disturbing the bats, and while some of the visitors were just shining lights on the animals or screaming a little because they were afraid, I know from my PhD work that this can add up to some serious problems for the animals. Also, the tour groups here were also very large, which made it hard for the guides to make sure that people were following their directions. Overall, it was a great place, however, and both caves really gave me the opportunity to get to know this beautiful area.

 

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