Tag: Nature (Page 1 of 2)

Take a Trip on the TSS Earnslaw: Queenstown, NZ

If I learned anything during my trip to New Zealand last year, it’s that even in what’s supposed to be the beginning of summer, its weather can be pretty unpredictable. Especially in Queenstown, a town in NZ’s South Island, where one day it could be pleasant and sunny and the next, snowing.

We had planned a trip for Milford Sound, a nature cruise in a fjord renowned for its beauty. But as our luck would have it, bad weather had closed the only road in. No tours were running – no buses, no boats or helicopters. We woke up that grey and drizzly morning feeling deflated. All the articles we Googled recommended activities that were inside and we didn’t want to waste our last day. As we lamented over breakfast, our lovely Airbnb host offered us the perfect solution – a trip on the TSS Earnslaw.

The TSS Earnslaw is a nautical marvel – a steamship built in 1912 (the same year as the Titanic) that’s still running today. You do have a book a tour to get on the boat, but it’s worth it, and I would 100% recommend the Walter Peak Farm Tour package (roughly $66 U.S.).

It’s general seating inside the ship, and most of the boat is free to explore. It was EXTREMELY chilly on the day we boarded, especially when the ship got moving across Lake Wakatipu, but being outside the main cozy seating cabin meant spectacular views and some seriously fresh air. (My advice: If it’s cold, layer up and bring gloves and a hat!) Plus, if those teeth start chattering, you can pop into the toasty steam room (think coal, not sauna) where you can actual see the ship’s staff shoveling coal to keep the boat running.

Refreshments also are available inside the cabin, but if you chose the farm tour, save your appetite for the delicious tea and snacks that await you when you dock. Though I love tea, the highlight of the visit for me was getting to MEET and FEED the farm animals. Never before have I seen such an adorable combination of ducks, sheep, cows and more. You also get to see a truly impressive sheep herding demonstration by the herding dogs who work right there at the farm.

On the way back across the lake, enjoy the ride while a charming gentleman plays familiar piano tunes and other ship-goers sing along.

New Zealand is definitely one of my all-time favorite travel destinations and I can’t wait to go back. If it’s not on your list yet, it should be!

xo,
Katie

A Love Letter to Arizona

Dear Arizona,

Look, I’ll just say it – I love you.

I know it’s been a long time coming, and that maybe I’ve denied it in the past.

I’m sorry if I’ve ever called you boring, or unwelcoming, or even threatened to move.

I hope you didn’t take it personally. I was young and foolish when I said all those things and hadn’t taken time to travel or open my eyes to all your wonderful features.

And what would those features be? Well, Arizona, how do I love thee?

Let me count the ways.

  1. I love your industrious, final frontier spirit.

    Somehow you got me enthralled in the mining history of many of our cities. But when you visit a town like Superior and stand amongst century-old brick buildings, frankly, it’s easy to get caught up in the romance of it all. Can you imagine leaving everything you knew behind to move westward with dreams of striking it rich?
  2. I love your ghost stories.

    The Old West was truly wild. It left behind ghost towns, usually settlements that were mining boomtowns abandoned after their mines closed. It also left behind tales of the people who lived here before us and those who may still haunt our buildings’ hallowed halls.
  3. I love your small towns.

    Globe, Kingman, Florence – Arizona has an abundance of small towns. And each of them has its own charm. These are why I hate hurrying on road trips. I always want to stop and see what little gems I can find.
  4. I love your nature.

    From desert to forest to canyon, Arizona’s landscape is beautiful. Add in a dollop of sunshine (though the summers be brutal) and you have the perfect recipe for some great outdoor trips and hikes.

So there you have it, Arizona. I hope you can forgive my past misgivings about you and accept that I’m in it for the long haul.

Yours Truly,
Katie

Want to discover your love for Arizona? Explore with us.

Four of the Best Spots in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is an idyllic country of windmills, tulips, and a collage of unique culture, art, and nature. There is something for every kind of traveler in there, and we’ve covered our own adventures and itineraries there in our Guide to the Netherlands. But the best thing about traveling is that there are always things that you can’t see in the time you have, so there’s always more to explore next time. In honor of that, some awesome travel bloggers have come together to bring you more information about some of the best spots in the Netherlands.

De Biesbosch

where to go in the Netherlands

(c) Daniela (Ipanema Travels)

De Biesbosch is one of the 20 national parks in the Netherlands and perhaps the biggest freshwater tidal wetland area in Europe. It’s a serene place, where you can detox from the busy city life. Lakes, creeks, marshes and islands form this unique nature reserve. Dutch are really good with water management, so they’ve gradually kind of “tamed” the area and gave a hand to nature by creating this amazing wetland area. De Biesbosch is a real paradise for the birds and the only place in the Netherlands where you can find beavers.

The best way to explore the area is by boat. The smaller the boat, the better, as you will be able to enter the tiniest of the creeks. If you are in De Biesbosch for the first time, then you should visit the Biesbosch Museum. You can learn a lot about the area and the history of De Biesbosch. There are also walking and biking routes in the national park.

I love visiting De Biesbosch as I enjoy the tranquillity of this green oasis. Whether you are spending there a long weekend or go for a short walk, you’ll feel recharged and re-energized.

To learn more about De Biesbosch, be sure to read up at Ipanema Travels To…. You can also follow Daniela’s adventures on Instagram!

The Hague

where to go in the Netherlands

From Pixabay

The Hague seems to have it all – culture, architecture and best of all the beach! Located just a 50 minute train ride away from Amsterdam, the Hague can be a great day trip, or is a good location to spend a couple nights away.

The Hague is the political capital of the Netherlands. Smack in the middle of the city you’ll find the Binnenhof, which is the parliament building. This is just a short walk from the Hague Central station, and also conveniently located next to Mauritshuis, a world famous museum that houses Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. You can stroll through the Binnenhof, and likely you’ll catch a glimpse of politicians, and if you’re lucky, maybe even the prime minister! Things are pretty laid back here, so you might see him arriving to his office by bicycle – there’s no secret service! Besides Mauritshuis, the Hague is also home to the MC Escher museum, also located in the city center. Here you can see Escher’s mind bending sketches up close and personal.

Once you’ve strolled around the city center (don’t forget to pass by the King’s working office on Noordeinde street), head over to the beach by catching tram 1. Scheveningen is the largest beach in the Netherlands, and is hugely popular in the summertime. Head down the beach past the pier toward Zwarte Pad, where you’ll find dozens of laid back beach bars pumping laid back house beats where you can kick back in the sun all day long, or even stay into the night for a beach party.

For more tips on what to do in the Hague, check out Gabby’s post on Boarding Call. Gabby is also on Facebook and Instagram!

Keukenhof

where to go in the Netherlands

(c) Bruna Venturinelli

The world’s largest tulip park, and probably the most colorful place in the Netherlands, is definitely my favorite place to visit in the country.

The Keukenhof only opens for a couple of months every year, so I always make sure to plan my visit ahead. This is essential as people from all over the world go there and the park can be very crowded.

One of the things I love about Keukenhof is that the park’s theme changes every year. In 2018, the theme is Romance in flowers. Isn’t it lovely?

Keukenhof is a perfect day trip from Amsterdam and if you want to see it for yourself, reserve a whole day for it because the park is huge! It has around 7 million flower bulbs, just so you can have an idea of how big it is! One more tip: don’t forget to ride a bike along the tulip fields around the park. You won’t regret it!

Discover more from Bruna and MapsNBags on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest!

Maastricht

where to go in the Netherlands

(c) Jenn The Solivagant Soul

My favorite spot in the Netherlands is Maastricht. It is a little town in south of the NL, really close to Belgium. It is very hipster but without reaching that annoying level found in some neighborhoods of bigger cities. Filled with bike shops turned into coffees and boutiques the like of everyone, it is the perfect place to go for a shopping spree any day of the week. The center of the town is just made out cobblestone streets, old bridges and a church here and there. If you want to do something out of the ordinary, you can visit St Peter’s Caves or St Peter’s Fortress, visit the oldest working watermill in the Netherlands or take cruise through the Limburg province. You will love it!

From Jenn at The Solivagant Soul! Also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Backyard Discoveries: Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Just south of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is Liberty Wildlife – a hidden gem, nestled away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and planes flying overhead.

I can’t remember this owl’s name and I feel like he’s judging me for it.

Liberty Wildlife is wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center, that specializes in avian, reptile, amphibian and small mammal species. Though they are kept busy caring for animals seven days a week, they open to the public on Wednesday, Saturdays and Sunday for us curious visitors.

This lil’ guy had part of his left wing amputated. 🙁 The hardest part of visiting Liberty Wildlife is hearing what happened to some of these guys before they arrived.

Tips to Know Before You Go to Liberty Wildlife:

  • As mentioned above, the visiting window is limited each week. The facility is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Admission is very reasonable! Adult – $6, Seniors (65+) & Veterans – $5,   Children K-12 – $4  and Children Under 4 – Free admission.

A feeding demonstration with one of their Bald Eagles, Sonora.

  • Primarily, you’ll be seeing the birds that they are rehabbing or now live at their facility. They also have a couple big windows that let you catch a glimpse into the rescue rooms, where they work on and keep other animals that they take in.
  • If you visit earlier in the day, you have a better chance of catching their programs and feedings – where you get a closer look and learn more about the wildlife that they rescue.

Sonora was full of sass.

  • If you come upon an injured wild animal (no matter how small), you can call their Wildlife Hotline at 480-998-5550 for further assistance and information about animal drop-off and tours. The Hotline is manned to return calls from 8 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • Consider them for your next creative event or party idea! They actually had a kids’ birthday party going on the day that we visited.

Aside from just enjoying seeing all the birds at Liberty Wildlife, I was impressed by how knowledgeable the staff and volunteers are and how good they are with the animals. You can tell that they truly care about conservation and their work.

Having a bit of an afternoon snooze.

It’s worth noting that they are a non-profit and could use your support in a number of ways! Check out their website for more information on how you can donate, visit their facility, attend one of their upcoming events or even volunteer.

This is a Golden Eagle adorably puffing up her feathers so they lay back down in a way that would impress her audience of admirers, said a staff member.

Be good to each other!

xo,
Katie

A Hike Worth Hollering About: Tanque Verde Falls

It’s rare for us Nightborn Travel gals to pass up a chance to hike. On our recent trip down to the Ol’ Pueblo (or Tucson, as normal people would call it) we decided to venture out to Tanque Verde Canyon for our first time hiking Tanque Verde Falls.

View from the top of the trail – close to the trailhead.

This trail is located east of Tucson, just barely outside of the city – maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Take note that the paved road leading to the trailhead becomes a dirt road, so take that into consideration if your vehicle isn’t suited for dusty and slightly bumpy (but still driveable) terrain.

A comically angry-looking cactus near the creek bed. You’re welcome.

The hike itself is only about 2 miles long, but if you want to actually make it to the falls, there’s one BIG thing to take into consideration, and that’s water. Should you bring it? Yes. But also, has it rained lately? Because if it has, the creek along the trail will be running and while it will be beautiful, it will make your hike to the falls less of a hike and more of an… attempt.

Mmmm, sweet brown rainwater. (We did not drink this water, nor do we endorse drinking this water.)

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s exactly what happened to us. We made it about halfway up the trail before a mini-waterfall blocked us from going forward. We talked to a couple locals who told us that if the creek is dry or at least more of a trickle, you can scramble your way up the falls.

The mini-waterfall that hike-blocked us.

And here’s another thing to consider, the trail going down to the creek bed is relatively easy going, but from there on you’ll be encountering rock pile after rock pile and some times it will feel less like hiking and more like bouldering.

Rocks on rocks on rocks.

That being said, the area the trail is in is wonderful and the falls are said to be worth seeing, so there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be back. And, keeping what you’ve read in mind, we’ll hope you visit, too (if you’re not a big hiker, it’s a great little spot to find a rock along the creek and relax).

Happy hiking!

xo,
Katie

Four Tips for Auckland Day Trips

So dear reader, you’re telling me that you’re having a grand old time in Auckland, New Zealand, but you’d like to venture outside of the city a little bit.

Do you have time to drive to NZ’s south island? It could be an 8-12 hour trip depending on where you go. No?

Well, luckily for you, I have some wonderful day-tripping options for you to choose from. Keep on reading, you intrepid traveler.

Things I recommend for day-trip travel:

  • A vehicle, preferably a car (if you’re looking for a place to rent a car, I recommend GO rentals)
  • A good sense of direction OR access to GPS navigation
  • PocWifi – so you can use wi-fi at any time, at a relatively affordable price
  • Cash, just in case
  • Snacks??? I mean, it’s up to you, I just very snacky when I roadtrip.

I’ve given you some one-way travel times from Auckland to all of the listed destinations below, but take these with a grain of salt. Traffic, road work, your own driving speed, etc. will all flex these times.

Hobbiton

Travel time from Auckland: About 2 hours

If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or even if you aren’t, Hobbiton is beautiful venture in the countryside to the movie set where scenes from the Shire were filmed for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

During the tour, you’re able to walk through the actual set and take photos, while a guide tells you all sorts of movie trivia (a delight for any nerdy heart). If you’re lucky, the weather will be sunny and light up the green hills of the Shire, making you feel like you might ACTUALLY be a little hobbit. (Shoot for summer or maybe late spring.)

I recommend that you book your ticket online in advance, because the time slots can sell out and you can only visit the set if you’re on a tour. Also, since you book a time and they ask you to check in 15 minutes before your tour, you should give yourself enough time to get there. Even if you arrive early, they have a gift shop and a cafe where you can kill time.

Rotorua

Travel time from Auckland: About 3 hours

Rotorua is an excellent place to visit for nature and culture fans.

Whakarewarewa Forest

The Whakarewarewa Forest is only about 5 minutes from downtown Rotorua and is a great place to stroll, hike, bike and even ride on horseback. For travelers from the U.S., the huge trees that the forest is famous for might look a little familiar, and that’s because they’re actually California Redwoods!

Geothermal Activity

Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone resulting in a ton of geothermal activity! We visited Hells Gate – both a geothermal park and spa. When you visit and find yourself encompassed by the warm steam and surrounded by volcanic rock, you’ll understand how it got its name. I recommend choosing the tour and spa package, so you can take a self-guided tour through the sulphur and mud pools that make the naturally-heated spa pools possible.

Lake Taupo

Speaking of Taupo, if you have a little more time in Rotorua, Lake Taupo is just about an hour’s drive away. It also has a lot to offer! Apart from a HUGE natural lake that you can take boat and kayak tours on, there’s also Huka Falls, known for its beautiful icy blue water. Huka Falls has a few different hike trails of its own – including the Spa Walk, which actually leads you to a natural hot spring.

Maori Villages

If you’re interested in learning more about Maori culture, there are a couple different Maori villages that you can visit in Rotorua. If you’re not sure which one you’d like to visit, ask the locals. Some of them are actual living Maori villages and others are a bit more… tourist-y. We had planned to visit the living village, but after freezing our buns off on a brisk Lake Taupo boat tour, we opted to warm ourselves up at a local pub.

Waitomo

Travel time from Auckland: About 2-and-a-half hours

One of the big attractions in Waitomo is their cave system. You can visit Ruakuri, Aranui or their Glowworm Caves – all of them offering a different experience. Feeling particularly adventurous? Try black water rafting or tubing through the caves (we were a little too chicken to try this – plus, it was already pretty chilly OUT of the water)!

However, if you’re finding yourself short on time like we were, I would make the Glowworm Caves your Waitomo stop. When you’re in the sitting in the darkness of the cave, only illuminated by the soft blue lights of the thousands of glowworms – you forget you’re in a cave. It’s almost like looking up at a bunch of little stars. It’s truly beautiful, and honestly, my words do do it justice. You can’t take photos in the cave because the glowworms are very sensitive to lights and sound, so it’s really something you have to see for yourself.

Tauranga

Travel time from Auckland: About 2-and-a-half hours

Tauranga is for lovers – beach lovers, that is. The Mt. Maunganui Main Beach has been voted New Zealand’s best, and I can totally see why. The long stretch of beach is a great place to stroll, relax on the soft sand and swim.

If you want to get a hike in, the beach is also conveniently located at the base of Mt. Mauao. If I recall, there were a couple main hiker trails – one that loops a bit more gently up the mountain and one that’s a shorter, but steeper climb up to the summit. We took the steeper climb, which was QUITE the haul, but we were rewarded with gorgeous views along the way and at the top.

If you can believe it, I cut this day trip round-up short for you, dear reader. There’s just SO much to do and see in New Zealand. That’s why I’m definitely going back in the near future and why I’m creating these helpful guides for travelers. If you’re looking for a place to start in Auckland, check out my budget traveler’s guide.

Happy travels to you!

xoxo,
Katie

Navigating Ecotourism Certification

A guest post by Ryan Davila

Ecotourism is commonly defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Simplifying this definition, ecotourism exists at the intersection of conservation efforts and sustainable development. While the idea of ecotourism sounds promising, there are many instances of ecotourism operators not delivering on the stated goals of the industry, creating concern that ecotourism is doing more harm than good on both conservation and sustainable development fronts.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

In order to combat these potential negative impacts and identify those businesses that are living up to the promises of the industry, many international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations have implemented ecotourism certification programs. Certification programs are defined as “a voluntary procedure that assesses, audits and gives written assurance that a facility, product, process or service meets specific standards. It awards a marketable logo to those that meet or exceed baseline standards set by the certification program” (definition by Martha Honey). The key word that I want to emphasize in this definition is the word “voluntary.” Explaining further, only the ecotourism operators that want to go through the certification process will be assessed.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

The first programs were developed in 1985 and most focused on the environmental impacts. Many of these initial programs existed at the international level, meaning that these certification programs certified ecotourism operators all over the world. Fast forward to the present day, there are now roughly 200 ecotourism certification programs in existence. These programs are very diverse and, as mentioned, exist at virtually all geographic scales, ranging from international to local, and can include a variety of criteria and standards used to evaluate ecotourism operators. Although most, now include criteria that assess the socioeconomic impacts in addition to the environmental impacts of ecotourism.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Today, certification programs and certified ecotourism operators can be found all over the world in virtually every country (and to make is easy on you, you can find information on most online).  Some of the most common certification programs to look for include, but are not limited to: Green Globe, Green Key, Rainforest Alliance, Green Leaf, and TravelLife. If there are multiple certification programs available in a specific destination (which there usually are since an operator can apply for as many certification programs as desired as long as the operator is within the geographic scope of the project), it’s a good idea to see which operators are certified by multiple certification programs. This is not to say that these highly certified operators are the best in the destination, just that they are more likely to be dedicated to accomplishing the goals of ecotourism.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

As ecotourism continues to grow and become more and more popular, it is important that we, as ecotourists, begin paying more attention to the impact that we have on both the communities and the natural areas that we visit during our expeditions. If we research certification programs and choose ecotourism operators that are certified at our destinations, we starting on the right path to becoming more conscious travelers.
*If you desire more information on ecotourism certification, please visit The International Ecotourism Society website (http://www.ecotourism.org/) or the DESTINET website (http://destinet.eu/who-who/market-solutions/certificates/fol442810).*

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.

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

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