To check out Part I, featuring London and Edinburgh, please go HERE
Annnnnnnnnd… we’re back!
It seems like only yesterday when Kristen and I were headed to the Edinburgh airport to continue our Scottish adventures on Orkney Island. It had started snowing, my head felt like a bowling ball and we’d just learned the Northlink Ferries to Orkney had been cancelled due to stormy seas and there were flood warnings on the island. Additionally, flights all over the UK were being cancelled or delayed due to strong winds. The danger of making travel plans during December… However, our flight was still departing on time, so with fingers crossed, we Uber’d on to the airport.
We’d originally planned to take the ferry out of Scrabster, but since we were attempting to cover as much of Scotland as possible on our short holiday, we opted for a flight. (In hindsight, a good call as it would’ve been cancelled!) It seemed like a reasonable savings of time, but factoring in what would end up being the sickest I’ve been in 20 years, seven flights in nine days might not have been prudent. (Seven flights in nine days! What could possibly go wrong?)
The airport scene was relatively calm considering the time of year, but since I was rocking the DayQuil and a bit out of sorts, I may have bumbled my way through airport security. I’m usually fairly well-organized when international checkpoints are involved, but this time, not so much. I seem to recall forgetting to dump my water bottle until the last second and then forgetting altogether to remove my toiletries bag from my carry-on. This, in turn, flagged me going through security and then flagged me for an excellently thorough pat-down. The real win was the security agent being completely unfazed by my use of the toiletries bag to stow the mini liquor gift bottles I’d collected along the way. Come on – alcohol can be used to sterilize things. It’s a first aid essential. It rightly belongs in any well-stocked toiletries bag…
Once we finally made it through security, we were able to relax a bit before our flight. (For the record, Kristen breezed through this and all subsequent security checkpoints. Jerk.) There aren’t a lot of flight options in and out of Orkney and Scottish airline Loganair is the main operator. There also aren’t a lot of passengers going to and from Orkney, so the Loganair waiting area was roomy and low-key. We also had a lovely view of our tartan bedecked chariot parked out on the tarmac. (On a tarmac note: It’s been a while since I’ve walked on that much tarmac. Aside from the flights in and out of Heathrow, all of the flights we took required walking or busing to the plane and walking up stairs to board the plane. It was refreshing and really lent itself to the adventure aspect and took away a bit of the modern sterility of entering and exiting via a jet bridge.)
Once boarded, I knew we were in for an interesting flight. It was definitely very windy and we were on a smaller plane. The cockpit and pilots were about 10 feet away from my seat, which was cool considering how closed-off the cockpits usually are these days. The flight itself was relatively short and fairly easy going. There was a bit of turbulence and we did land a bit lopsided on one wheel, but it still didn’t match what we’d experienced during the first leg of our London flight. After just enough time to enjoy a cup of tea and snack we were on the ground, albeit via one wheel, in stormy Kirkwall. (We later learned we were the last flight to make it onto the island that night.)
Interesting tidbit: Loganair offers the world’s shortest flight (90 seconds) from Westray to Papa Westray. (Two of the smaller Orkney Islands) I fully plan on taking this flight next time I’m on Orkney.
Following a very windblown walk across the tarmac, we entered the welcoming warmth of the terminal. The Kirkwall Airport is very small – and I loved it. One check-in counter, one baggage claim conveyor, one little café/gift shop and one car rental desk. It reminded me of the television show Wings, from back in the day… There was also a giant distillery advertisement displayed in the center of the baggage claim area. I liked this place already.
We had arranged a car in advance and after grabbing our luggage, walked 20 feet over to the car rental desk and got everything squared away. The entire process took but a few minutes and we were back outside, beating our way through the rain and wind over to our tiny Ford Focus. And that’s where things got even more interesting…
“You’re drifting to the left, Kristen…” said Dayna, judgmentally from her passenger perch on the left side of the car.
Yes, I may have piously muttered these words a few times throughout our vehicular shenanigans, but in all fairness to Kristen, she was a champion driver throughout our travels. First on Orkney and later through the Highlands, she bravely tackled the absurdity of driving on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car. She also gracefully humored my sickness and the fact I was quite loopy at times from all the DayQuil. I did do the navigating (and occasional DJ’ing) and got us where we needed to go, but there was no way I was fit to get behind the wheel. Also, having driven in the UK on past visits, it is near impossible to not drift to the left. It’s in our North American DNA. It’s where that car BELONGS…
To say the drive to our lodging in the nearby town of Stromness was stormy would be a hilarious understatement. Not only were we being blown all over the road in our little clown car, it was also raining sideways and the island lanes were rather narrow – with no shoulder. There would be many times over the next few days where we would both cringe and shift (pointlessly) to the right side of the car when larger vehicles were oncoming. (Eeeeeeek!) The rain-induced lack of visibility and gale-force winds also did nothing to improve the situation. But whatever – the Vikings didn’t need visibility or silly paved roads to navigate their way to and around Orkney. I suppose we could rally enough to do it in a Ford Focus…
Even though it was only around 2pm, the winter light was dimming. The relentless rain also contributed to the waning visibility, but the scenery we could make out was gorgeous. The green of the rolling hills, the sweeping ocean views, the quaint little villages, the sheep… Right out of a fairy tale! We could practically feel the history (and wind) swirling around us and as we battled on towards Stromness, we channeled a bit of that Viking bluster to spur us onward. (From within the relative shelter of our heroic Ford Focus, of course.)
As it was mid-December, there weren’t many tourists on the island and it made for much smaller crowds on the roads and in town. This was very good when it came to driving around the narrow village streets and attempting to find parking. And then figuring out how best to maneuver into parking spots via the wrong side of the car and road… Once we did find a lot close to our lodging, we then needed to figure out how and when to pay for the spot. It was a never-ending parade of the clown car.
Located directly on the North Sea, the town of Stromness is a charming seaside haven. It’s also a strategically located port and plays host to the Northlink Ferries along with a bevy of seafaring fishing boats. These very boats – along with the rather sturdy ferry – were all stuck in the harbor when we arrived and rocking wildly with the stormy seas. The winds were like few I’ve ever experienced and near impossible to stand up against, but we did give it our best shot while attempting to document the scene on video. That said, we quickly recognized our defeat and retreated into the safety of The Ferry Inn, located directly across from the ferry terminal.
Hot Tip: Just like Washington State, Scotland and the Northern Isles have an extensive ferry system. It’s possible to reach Orkney from various points on the Scottish mainland as well as ferry to more remote locales such as Iceland, Belgium, Ireland and Norway. It’s always been and remains high on my list to take a ferry over to Norway. It WILL happen one of these days…
- Take the Northlink Ferries for travel out Scrabster, Aberdeen, Stromness and Lerwick
- General booking info for ferries to Orkney and Shetland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland or Iceland
- The Orkney Ferries operate between mainland Orkney and the surrounding smaller islands
The Ferry Inn was welcoming and cozy and we were happy to be in out of the storm. It had a full-service bar and restaurant downstairs and when we checked in, our host inquired if we’d be dining onsite. It reminded me very much of the inn I worked at so many years ago, the Ben Loyal Hotel in the village of Tongue. (More on that shortly) As it was the off-season and there didn’t appear to be a lot of dining options open in the vicinity, we said yes and went up to our room to layer up for a quick jaunt around the village.
By the time we got back outside, it was nearly dark and no one else appeared to be braving the wind and rain. Stromness is rather compact and walking around the winding streets was a great way to catch all the tiny details. The hidden closes off the narrow streets, the lights strung from shop to shop, the window-paned doors and cozy entryways – absolutely picturesque. I was sad we wouldn’t be spending much time in this quaint little town.
There were a few shops open, but for the most part the town appeared to be hunkered down. It made for a peaceful and slightly spooky exploration. We stopped in at the Waterfront Gallery, Stromness Books & Prints and the most AMAZING bakery/grocers, Argo’s Bakery. As I’ve typically found in my Scottish adventures – especially in the Highlands – the shopkeepers are usually more than happy to chat and are a great source of knowledge regarding what to see and do in the area. Stromness seemed no exception and it was great to learn a bit about the story of the area. (For instance, Gaelic isn’t spoken in the Northern Isles and they weren’t part of the Scottish clan system. Their Old Norse heritage featured the now-extinct Norn language into the 18th century.)
Once we’d made it back to the inn and I’d de-tangled my wind-ravaged hair for the nineteenth time, we sauntered downstairs to make our dinner reservations. Since it was the holiday season, each table was adorned with traditional Christmas crackers and the dining room was decorated for the festivities. In addition to hotel guests, there were a few tables of locals present and everyone was dressed for the occasion. (Ummm, we didn’t get the memo.) While there was indeed a traditional, British-style Christmas dinner on the menu, I opted to for the locally-caught haddock and chips and Kristen went for… wait for it… a MEAT PIE. Both meals were delicious and I was more than ready to turn in at the end of it all.
A poignant plea from the author: If anyone happens to visit Stromness before I return, PLEASE pick me up some of the Caramel Squares at Argo’s Bakery. I will pay you handsomely. I will do your bidding. Please. Oh, and also please grab me some of their delicious Orkney Fudge. Thanks!
After a mostly restful sleep, it was time leave Stromness and squire ourselves around the island in the Ford Focus. (I say mostly restful as even though our room was located on the second floor, up two narrow stairways and to the interior of the inn, the wind still managed to blow into the hallways and rattle our door all night. Crazy!) We stopped in for a quick breakfast in the restaurant, which was included with our room and headed out to enjoy one of the most incredible days of adventuring I’ve ever experienced.
If I had one word to describe our day spent driving around Orkney, it would be “SPECTACULAR.” Two words? Mind and blowing. It has truly taken me a while to wrap my mind around the depth of history and beauty we experienced within just an eight-hour tour of Orkney. I’m still working on it, but I’ll do my best to convey the sheer magnitude of it all.
We’d planned our first point of discovery to be the seaside Neolithic village of Skara Brae. The storm had dissipated and a beautiful sunrise shone in its wake as we wound around the Orkney back-roads. Beyond beautiful and idyllic, everywhere we looked was a glorious photo op. More of the rolling hills and sheep, but this time we were able to look out across the seaside inlets towards neighboring islands – AND we came across some very adorable hairy ponies! I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by the beauty of Orkney. I can say without any equivocation that I’d move there in a heartbeat.
As Orkney is somewhat compact, it wasn’t long before we’d arrived at Skara Brae. Thanks to it being the off-season and a few minutes before it was technically open, the parking lot was empty. This gave us a few minutes to walk around the grounds and take in the fringe sites. (Which, in and of themselves, would’ve been well worth the travels) In addition to the stunning landscape, the beautifully preserved Skaill House (c. 1600s) sits off to the left of Skara Brae. William Watt, the 7th Laird of Skaill, discovered Skara Brae in 1850 after a particularly bad storm partially unearthed a few of the homes. Skaill House is open April through October with lodging available in their self-catering apartments.
Before visiting Skara Brae proper, we checked out the informative displays in the visitor center followed by the replica house located directly outside. It was interesting to see a fleshed-out version of the most well-preserved home and even more so to realize how little it had actually changed over thousands of years. Considering Skara Brae was around before the pyramids were constructed and was long abandoned before Stonehenge was built is pretty mind-boggling. Granted, construction techniques have advanced since the later part of the Stone Age, but the fact Skara Brae is still standing speaks volumes to the ingenuity and skill of its inhabitants. Not to say that stone furniture sounds comfortable by modern standards, but a bedroom set that lasts for 5000 years? That’s some serious value and durability!
The path leading down to the village’s seaside location is lined with markers denoting pivotal moments in world history, starting from recent times back to 3100 BC and Skara Brae. It’s a fascinating walk when contemplating the 5000 years of history which has occurred since the residents of Skara Brae were walking that same land. At the end of the path, you arrive at the actual village – the real deal, in all its glory. The profound significance of the sight hit me full-on and I stood there, mouth agape, completely humbled by the history and stories all who had stood there, thousands and thousands of years before.
I would’ve liked to have spent all day exploring the different homes and walking around the shore, but the rain had returned with a vengeance and we had a few other must-see locations to check out before leaving. I don’t think I could ever shake, nor would I want to, the eerie beauty and unpretentious grace of Skara Brae. It is without a doubt one of the most momentous places I’ve ever visited and I’m fairly certain it will be rather difficult to top. But wait – there is another…
Not too far from Skara Brae are the breathtaking Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness. Both sites, along with Skara Brae and the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn combine to form a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. These were next on our list, but by happy accident, we were slightly delayed by a few spots along the way. (There were plenty more distractions to distract the distracted, but we were somewhat able to limit ourselves… Squirrel!)
A few of the incredibly worthwhile distractions we found on the way to the standing stones:
- I’d learned that Orkney Brewery, home of the delicious Skull Splitter was a short drive away. Since I’d already begun my whisky explorations, it seemed only fair to also invest some time in sampling the local ales. Additionally, Orkney Brewery is the northernmost brewery in the UK! (And the only brewery further north is located in Norway) For the record, I’m very glad we stopped. It did put us a few minutes behind schedule, but the staff was incredibly friendly, the beer was delicious and we had the place all to ourselves. (A theme for the day) I only wish we’d been able to stay on for lunch as the menu looked great!
- Back on the road, we came upon Earl’s Palace in Birsay. Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney in the late 1500s and half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, had this palace built beginning in 1569. It began pouring just as we got out of the car and probably helped save us time getting to all the places we planned to visit. The palace ruins were well marked with informative placards, but we didn’t spend much time reading them in the moment. We quickly walked around the grounds, snapping pictures and taking in the scene before racing back to the car.
- Directly across the way from Earl’s Palace is Magnus Church and Kirkyard. The current church was built in 1760 with renovations in 1867 and more recently, but a church has stood on the ground since 1064. Walking through the Kirkyard was both fascinating and eerie – especially factoring in the rain and mist.
- Just around the corner from the palace ruins is an absolutely breathtaking view of the sea and nearby seaside cliffs. There is also a tiny, windswept island across the way featuring a lone, stalwart lighthouse. There are parking areas along the side of the road and it is well worth the time – even if it’s pouring – to take a few moments to stand along the shore and take in the magnificent views.
Officially back on the road to the standing stones, we attempted to dry off before again braving the weather. There were, however, encouraging breaks in the clouds appearing and we raced on, as fast as the clown car would allow on the narrow Orkney roads. The first site we came to was the standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar. Again, we were the only people for miles and as we made our way from the car-park and adjoining trail, the clouds began to further break. What awaited us just ahead was unlike anything I’ve ever beheld…
In short, the 5000-year-old Neolithic Ring of Brodgar is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been or could ever imagine being. It is ancient, soul-gripping… magical. It is completely and absolutely mesmerizing. In addition to being stunning all on its own, the backdrop of the Loch of Harray adds a sense of grandeur to the scene which is difficult to fully comprehend or describe.
Unlike the youthful Stonehenge, you’re able to walk right up to the stones of Brodgar. You can touch them, hug them, have a conversation with them, wish-and-hope-and-will-yourself to walk through them to a waiting Jamie Fraser… (I’m not saying I did that. It’s just a story… Right?) The actual circle is about 435 feet across and consists of 36 stones. (There were originally 60!) There is also a stone ditch around the circle and approximately 13 burial mounds in the near vicinity. Some of the standing stones are thin and slab-like, some of them massive and thick, some of them are two stones cleaved together and some of them have the most amazing lichen “artwork” scrawled across their faces. They are all unique and have a story to tell, but what they all have in common is the mystery of why they’re there and their true purpose. And they all seem to possess a quiet, but very present sense of knowing…
Just a stone’s thrown down the road are the Stones of Stenness. It’s a smaller circle than Brodgar, but spectacular in that it’s possibly the oldest stone henge in the British Isles. It’s estimated to be around 5400 years old and roughly 500 years older than Brodgar – perhaps a training site for the bigger circle? Training wheels? We briefly visited the area, but as there was one other person already making their rounds, it felt a bit tourist trappy. I mean, come on – we couldn’t be expected to share the scene with someone else. Geez. (In all non-flippant honesty, we simply needed to keep things moving. I very much plan on spending more time taking in Stenness on my next visit.)
Note: I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten all the stone and circle puns out of my system, but I can’t be sure. Wheel just have to wait for them to cycle themselves out…
Because we’d caved to distractions along the way, we ended up just missing the last tour to the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. The gift shop was still open, however, and the very helpful clerk hipped us to the nearby Unstan Chambered Cairn. Smaller, but still epic, it was a few miles away, so we sped off down the road to do some exploring before sunset. We were very sad to miss our chance to investigate Maeshowe, one of the largest and most well-preserved chambered tombs in Europe, but we won’t miss it on our next visit. (Squirrel!)
In keeping with the day’s largely private adventures, no one was around when we got to Unstan. Except, of course, for the farmer on whose land the cairn happens to be located. Just behind his farmhouse, in fact – and you basically park next to the house and head towards his back yard! He paid us no mind as we made ourselves comfortable and trekked off behind his home. To be that nonplussed by having visitors traipse around your property OR to have a significant, ancient burial cairn located in your backyard is pretty mind-bending.
We’d been cautioned to bring flashlights and I’m glad we indeed had some on hand. There was a little light coming into the cairn from the tiny, claustrophobic entry, but it was otherwise fairly dark inside. There were also a few pinpricks of light coming through the miniature portholes in the rounded, grass roof, but they didn’t add much visibility. The structure was constructed of large, flat stones with small cubbies and shelves arranged along its interior walls. It was awe-inspiring to be so casually investigating this 5000-year-old cairn with a couple of flashlights. In the backyard of a farmhouse.
After contemplating the significance of the sights we’d just too quickly visited and enjoying a beautiful sunset from the farmer’s backyard, we took off towards Kirkwall. We had a 7:30pm flight and wanted to spend our last few hours exploring Orkney’s largest town and island capital. Along the way, I’d hoped to check out the UK’s northernmost distillery, Highland Park, but they were closed on Sundays. Same was true for Scapa Distillery, located slightly south of Highland Park. Curses! Next time…
Though I’d missed out on visiting the whisky distilleries, we were pleasantly greeted by newcomer gin operation, Orkney Distillery as we pulled into town. How convenient! Home to Kirkjuvagr gins, the distillery tasting room was modern yet comfortable and the staff was very knowledgeable and accommodating. I sampled several tasty gins while admiring their harbor view and offering of goods. They also make lovely cocktails and feature a full coffee bar – something for everyone. Additionally, they carry a delicious Orkney Fudge variety created for the distillery which features the Kirkjuvagr gin. (The aforementioned Argo’s Bakery for the win!) That very fudge and a bottle of their deliciously unique spiced gin successfully made their way home to Seattle with me…
After our gin break, we jauntily walked towards the center of town to scope out the sights. We were both getting a bit hungry, but decided to spend the rest of our Kirkwall time visiting some of the lovely shops and ambling through the picturesque streets and alleyways. We did pass by several delicious looking restaurants, but resigned ourselves to further investigating on our next visit. (Orkney Islands – 2020 or bust!)
A few of the spots we visited during our quick Kirkwall excursion:
- We again arrived mere minutes too late for an official visit, but walking around the grounds of the extraordinary Magnus Cathedral was in and of itself well worth the time. Built in 1137, it is a beautiful example of medieval stonework and craftsmanship. While we were unable to go inside, the gorgeous stained glass windows, elaborate doors and adjoining Kirkyard were plenty to take in and explore. We could even hear the pipe organist practicing what must’ve been a spectacular instrument. It definitely added to the mystique of the crisp, slightly foggy Kirkyard.
- Just across the street from St. Magnus Cathedral are the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces. The Bishop’s Palace was built around the same time as neighboring St. Magnus Cathedral and is a beautiful tribute to the medieval, Norse era of Kirkwall. (Then known as Nordreyjar) The Earl’s Palace was built in the early 1600s and is a fine example of the Renaissance style.
- Located in the center of town, the Ortak Gallery features a lovely display of local artisan wares. Among those were beautiful, handmade Viking-themed rings which I’m betting Kristen succumbs to ordering online sometime soon… It was also a testament to the ‘world is a small place’ notion when I learned, while chatting with the owner, she used to spend summer holidays in Tongue. She even remembered the owners who happened to run the Ben Loyal Hotel while I worked there. You just never know when you’ll make new friends!
- Across from St. Magnus Cathedral was the very eclectic, Judith Glue Real Food Café and Shop. I’m still regretting not sampling something from their café as the menu was very interesting, but I enjoyed checking out their unique clothing and goods. I also scored an entertaining magnet celebrating the nearby town of Twatt. There is also a Judith Glue shop in Inverness.
- Starlings gift shop, located in the center of town, featured a charming assortment of housewares, clothing, handbags and jewelry. There were many items I wished I could’ve fit in my luggage, but I settled for a divinely scented, prosecco-rose candle. Lovely!
Upon bidding farewell to Kirkwall, we jumped back in our trusty Ford Focus for one last drive through the narrow roads of Orkney. The Sunday evening scene was peaceful and unfettered by other drivers (or rain and gale-force winds) and we made good time to the airport. I was already missing Orkney as we returned our car to its spot and made our way to the lone terminal.
Since we’d neglected to dine in Kirkwall, we were both pretty hungry and opted to check out the airport café. It was a tiny operation, but the menu featured a good list of sandwiches and I was happy to grab a classic egg salad with coleslaw. I’d been hoping it would also include pickle, but alas. (Branston Pickle, the condiment – not the US dill variety) Next time!
Back in the sky with cozy Loganair and again sitting close to the cockpit, it was a much smoother flight back to mainland Scotland. My ears, however, were not enjoying the scene. By this point in my sickness, they had begun to seriously pressurize and this fourth flight of our itinerary was the tipping point for my hearing woes. But as I swallowed some more DayQuil and madly chewed my gum, I convinced myself everything would be just fine… What could possibly go wrong? I confidently looked out the window, sipped my tea, and said goodbye to the dwindling lights and tiny, outer islands of Orkney. We shall meet again!
I really was pretty convinced everything would be fine until we walked off the plane and into the freezing night air of Inverness. Yowsa! Memories of the ice-block feet of our earlier Edinburgh adventures came flooding back and we drew our coats in tighter and scurried towards the Inverness Airport terminal. The scurrying took a little longer than expected, however, as we were routed via a very bizarre, outdoor path around and finally into the terminal. We passed by many doors to the terminal on the way. Perfectly functional-looking doors. Doors which would’ve immediately opened to the warmth of the terminal… Hmph.
17 days* later, we finally made it inside the terminal and were able to warm up while waiting for our luggage. It was a daunting thought, but we then needed to grab a taxi outside to head to our lodging. After a 27-hour** freezing wait at the taxi stand, we were on our way to what would be our very cozy Airbnb in the storied Highland town of Inverness.
*Actual walking time to inside of terminal: Maybe 10 minutes
**Actual time waiting outside to get a taxi: 20 minutes
Inverness is an absolutely lovely place to visit and a must-stop – especially if it’s your first visit to the Highlands. The River Ness serenely glides through the center of town with wonderful inns, restaurants and shops lining both sides. Inverness is the “big city” of the North and serves as the epicenter of commerce for all the Highlands. This is true not only for present day, but also for centuries prior. It is a modern, efficient town, but boasts deep history around every corner. Not only does it serve as a singular holiday destination, it’s an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding greatness of the Highlands.
I was sad we wouldn’t be able to spend much time in town, other than what we spent resting up at our B&B. However, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Inverness a few times on past Scotland visits and even more frequently when I lived in the Highlands. I’ve stayed in student hostels and enjoyed humble jacket potatoes as well as cozied up in the nicer inns and dined on upscale bistro-fare. There is a great variety of things to see and do and it’s easy to make Inverness work on any budget. It is beautiful and accessible year-round and I don’t think I could ever tire of visiting.
Some of my favorite places in and around Inverness:
- Inverness is a very walkable town. There are so many fabulous shops and restaurants and you can’t go wrong whatever direction you take in the downtown area. The hop-on/hop-off tour buses can also be found in Inverness and are a great way to grab a rest while still checking out the sights. Be sure to check out the historic Church Street in the downtown area.
- There are lovely walks and bridges along the River Ness and if you’re up for it, the beautiful little Ness Islands are reachable further upstream via Victorian-era footbridges. Dolphins can also be seen in the river as it goes out to sea – at the mouth as it flows into the Moray Firth. (Where they can definitely be found)
- The Inverness Student Hostel, part of a chain of cool Scottish hostels, is a great place to stay if you’re on a budget. Many years ago, on my first visit to Inverness, I had very memorable stay there. I was traveling alone and went into the common room one night to hopefully borrow a book. There was a group of people getting ready to play Monopoly and they waved me over to join. We all spoke different languages, but through broken words, phrases and hand gestures we played a hilarious game of Monopoly and had an excellent time. Looking back, I can say without a doubt, it was key in formulating my making-friends-everywhere plan. Check out their sister tour-group MacBackpackers for interesting and sometimes irreverent Highland adventure opportunities. (I haven’t actually had the chance to try them yet, but Kristen swears by them!)
- For a night of film, theatre and more, check out what’s happening at Eden Court. They also have a great café and restaurant and are located right on the river. I fondly recall an evening with my friend, Jeanne who drove us all the way from Tongue to enjoy a night at the theatre. I think the play was called ‘Dead Guilty’, but I positively remember it starred Hayley Mills. (Star of the original Parent Trap Disney movie)
- There are many great restaurants and pubs in Inverness. We didn’t get the chance to check out any hot spots on this visit, but both Kitchen Brasserie and its sister restaurant, The Mustard Seed came highly recommended by our very cool Airbnb host.
- Located not too far out of Inverness lies the prolific Culloden Site of the final and defining battle of the Jacobite Rising, Culloden Moor is steeped in blood and history. Haunting, somber and ill-fated, it stands as the last will and testament to the Scottish clan way of life. In April 1746, the Scottish Highlands fell to the British and Highland life changed forever.
In the morning, we taxied back over to the airport to pick up our next rental car. (No Uber in Inverness) It was much warmer in the light of day and there was no chilly waiting involved to procure our ride. We’d also arranged for an AWD vehicle and were pleased to find ourselves appropriately outfitted with a Mitsubishi Outlander. As it was December and we’d be driving through higher elevations and mountain passes, we wanted a vehicle that would keep us on the road. I sure am glad we made that call.
We had originally planned to drive into the Northwest Highlands, around through Tongue, down along the coast and towards the Isle of Skye, but we were running short and time. Considering a forecast of snow combined with graveled, single-track roads in much of the areas we’d be traveling, it’s for the best we opted for a more southerly route. It’s been a while since I visited Tongue and I was really looking forward to it, but I know I’ll be back. They haven’t heard the last of me…
There are many things I love about the Northern/Northwestern Highlands and the North Coast. They are the lesser-populated part of the Highlands, they are sweeping and remote, the residents are full of stories and character and the history is deep. There are also a lot of sheep. A LOT OF SHEEP.
When I first arrived in Tongue in the mid-90s, I came via the back of a Royal Mail van out of Inverness. (3 hours on single-track, mostly gravel roads) Since there were no buses or trains out of Inverness, and nowhere to return a car rental, there weren’t a lot of transportation options. Hitchhiking was a legit form of travel to the North (still is), but for the low price of £2, you could hop a ride in the back of a mail van. Granted, you had to make quite a few stops along the way, but it could get you where you needed to go. I know the mail routes have been reduced over the years, but I sincerely hope this is still a valid form of transportation.
I arrived at the Ben Loyal Hotel in the remote village of Tongue, sight unseen. I was working in the UK as part of a work exchange program and picked the inn out of a program handbook. I did my “interview” from a pay phone in Edinburgh and the rest is history. I met so many great people during my stay and had such an amazing adventure. I visited Neolithic sites in people’s backyards, (Just like Orkney!) got eaten alive by midges and biting flies, did a lot of hiking and walking through boggy moors and around Ben Loyal and Ben Hope, hung out at Castle Varrich, a 1000-year-old stronghold, found “faerie circles” on tops of hills, ate amazing farm-to-table food everyday (before it was a foodie term), attended a real-deal Ceilidh with the locals, learned a lot about Scotch whisky and cider in the local pub at Tongue Hotel, attended the annual fancy garden event at the House of Tongue (Countess of Sutherland’s estate) and regularly made way for the gazillions of sheep living in the area. (They very much have the right-of-way.) A lot of amazing stuff!
One of these days, I plan on writing a longer version of my often hilarious adventures in Tongue and the Northwestern Highlands, but for now – here are a few more things I love about the area:
- Head over the Kyle of Tongue Causeway, just past Tongue and drive west along the coast. There are amazing, white sandy beaches and enormous caves along the way. You can even surf the Northwest coast! Smoo Cave is fascinating and the surrounding beaches are uncrowded and gorgeous. Other excellent beaches along the coast are Dornoch Beach in Dornoch, Oldshoremore Beach in Kinlochbervie and Sangobeg Beach in Durness.
- If caves are your thing, head down the west coast towards Ullapool and check out Inchnadamph and the River Caves/Bone Caves Circuit and the Traligill Caves. (Largest cave system in Scotland) On a related note, keep your eyes peeled and towards the coastline inlets while driving around the coast. There are some very cool examples of what had to have been pirate caves and coves…
- If you’re a horse lover, be sure to check out the Pony trekking in Sutherland and Caithness Counties. I did some very enjoyable, albeit somewhat awkward, trekking around the heather and bracken-laden hills and hidden lochs. (I say awkward as I hadn’t ridden English saddle at that point. Much different than Western!)
- Not too far a drive from Tongue and a favorite day trip destination of mine is Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point of the UK. (I’ve been to the most northwesterly point of the US as well – Cape Flattery in Washington State’s Clallam County! I’m collecting the set…) If you’re looking for the northerly most point of the UK, head to the famous John O’Groats and Dunnet Head near Thurso.
- On the topic of Thurso, if we didn’t have time to do the two hour supply drive to Inverness, Thurso was the next best bet. An hour’s drive from Tongue, it’s a cute little port town with quaint shops, coastal activities, (including surfing) restaurants and grocery stores. Also located in the area is the town of Scrabster and jumping off point for the ferries to Orkney.
- Heading down the east coast of the Highlands, you’ll come to Golspie. It’s a lovely coastal town with sandy beaches, shops, restaurants and cozy B&Bs. The local hike to Big Burn is particularly nice. If you’re visiting between April and October, a must-visit spot is the spectacular Dunrobin Castle.
- A little further northeast of Golspie, is the tiny town of Helmsdale, home to the well done Timespan Heritage Centre as well as several nice shops, restaurants and B&Bs. Helmsdale is a great place to stop along an east coast drive.
- Regarding driving in the Highlands, I have indeed driven (or been driven) on many of the Northern Highland highways and byways. My current driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-car-and-road dream is to tackle the North Coast 500. I want to take a couple of weeks and just drive it all… Yeah!
- Hopefully I can get a designated driver to join me on the North Coast 500 as I’d also like to thoroughly investigate the Scottish Whisky Trail. Och aye!
Note: I also plan on posting pictures of Tongue and related areas just as soon as I get my photos out of storage – Coming soon! The frustrations of moving…
The Mitsubishi Outlander was definitely more roomy and solid-feeling than the Ford Focus. After getting acquainted with the new set of bells and whistles, we were off towards the beautiful Isle of Skye. Along the way, however, we thought we’d take in a few key spots with Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle being first on the list. (Extra kudos to Kristen for conquering city driving in and around Inverness. It’s a little more daunting from the wrong side of the car and road.)
As we drove on A82 towards Loch Ness, the morning was crisp and bright with low-lying fog drifting over the scenery. It was still fairly cold, however, and most of the fields and pastures were covered in a layer of frost. It was chilly, but absolutely beautiful. The first close-up view of Loch Ness definitely prompted us to brave the temperatures and pull over for a photo op.
As we were again on the road quite early, we arrived at the visitor center just as it was opening. I’ve visited Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle on past adventures, but I could never get tired of wandering around the area. I’ve also taken one of the Jacobite cruises arranged out of Inverness and it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. The water of Loch Ness has little visibility and it’s truly spellbinding to sail through its murky depths. All that peat provides quite a nice cover for any fantastic beasties living below the surface…
I’m glad we arrived when we did because not too long into our exploration of the castle grounds, one of the tour cruises pulled up to shore, chock full of tourists. We were able to get quite a few good views in before things became much less serene and since we’d both visited before, it all worked out. The history and intrigue of both Loch Ness and the castle ruins are fascinating, making the area a must-visit destination. I do, however, highly recommend visiting during the off-season as it’s a small area and can get very crowded. On our way out, we stopped into the well-appointed gift shop and café for a bit of browsing and a quick snack. And the tour boat passengers hadn’t made their way in yet, so it was nice and peaceful.
Since we needed to make a lot of time on the road that day, off we sped off in the Outlander. Our ultimate destination was the coastal town of Portree, but there were a few gems along the way we knew were going to be worthy distractions. The roads we were traveling were well-maintained and main thoroughfares, but they were still windy and narrow. It was so nice to get a small break from the rain, but as we drove further up into the mountains, we started to notice the snow-covered peaks and hilltops. “We have AWD – What could possibly go wrong?!” and we continued towards the mountains…
The scenery was nothing less than extraordinary. Fresh snow on the mountains, waterfall after waterfall snaking their way down from the hills, beautiful streams running into beautiful lochs… Spectacular! In the summer months, these areas would be sporting amazing displays of heather, bracken, thistle and Scotch broom. (Which in Scotland is simply called… Broom.) However, since we were in the dead of winter, the landscape was speckled with browns, golds and a few stubborn patches of green. The sky was growing greyer as we gained elevation and the whole scene took on a surreal, otherworldly feel. We made a few stops along the way to take in the splendor and the crisp air combined with the stark, raw scenery completely took my breath away. Also, it was really cold.
As I mentioned in the Edinburgh portion of Part I, I am a fan of the movie and television show, Highlander. (But only the first movie. There can be only one.) A key scene towards the beginning of the movie takes place at a castle as the clan is on their way out to battle. That castle – the very castle where that scene was filmed – was just up the road. NERD ALERT – DEFCON 1.
In a word, Eilean Donan Castle is stunning. All my Highlander dreams were realized as it came into sight and we pulled into the car park. Situated on a tidal island in the convergence of three lochs and connected to land by its iconic bridge, the castle is the stuff of dreams. It is a much photographed location and no wonder why. Every angle of the castle provides fairy tale views and it takes little imagination to ponder all of the history that’s taken place within its walls. (The current castle was extensively restored in the first part of the 1900s after sitting in ruin since a Jacobite battle in 1719. The land on which the current castle sits has been inhabited since the 6th century with varying degrees of castles occupying the island since the mid-13th century.)
Privately owned by the MacRae family for the past 100 or so years, they regularly allow tours as well as host events and offer lodging in their nearby cottages. You can even get married there! Soooo dreamy… On a related note, it served as the backdrop for romantic comedy, Made of Honor. It has also played host to many other films over the years.
Walking across that bridge and getting to tour inside the castle was an excellent way to spend an hour. Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap, who purchased the island in 1911, did an amazing job of restoring the castle and various family members have called the castle home over the years. Much to my dismay, the family does not allow photos to be taken inside the castle. There are so many amazing, museum-quality displays and artifacts, I would’ve loved to have taken a few shots. I did, however, pick up a well-done picture book in the visitor center and was also able to take several great photos of the castle exterior.
On my next visit, I plan to investigate the Iron Age brochs of Dun Telve and Dun Trodden as well as take a cruise on Scotland’s last-remaining turntable ferry over to Skye. So many things to do in this area! And always, if you find yourself in the Highlands and are wondering what to do or see next, you need only ask a local. You will likely get several suggestions and a story to go with each one of them.
While the ferry to Skye would’ve been lovely, it was equally enjoyable to drive the expansive bridge over to the famed Isle of Skye. Additionally, I got to live out another nerdy dream as I giddily listened to the Outlander theme song, The Skye Boat Song as we passed “over the bridge to Skye.” (You can listen to the song in the playlist below) I’m fairly certain Kristen was on board as I know she also loves Outlander, but I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m a big nerd, too. Also, I was hopped up on DayQuil…
The closer we got to Portree, the more the weather seemed to turn and before we knew it, we were back in the wind and rain. It amped up further as we blew into town and located our lodging, appropriately situated on Stormy Hill Road. We’d booked ourselves at the Braeside Guest Rooms and were very happy to find the place nicely appointed and completely charming. We also ended up being the only guests that night, so aside from the crazy weather, it was quite peaceful. (Even the owner was gone for the weekend, leaving us alone and on our honor for the night. I love the Highland community.)
Since we were intent on packing in as much sightseeing as possible that day, we didn’t officially stop to eat. We’d both been collecting tasty morsels from little markets along the way, but were very much ready for a hot and hearty meal. Since Portree is a very walkable, compact town, we donned our rain gear and headed out to find some dinner.
Along the way, as well as after dinner, we walked around the very quaint town square and adjoining streets and investigated the various shops, pubs and restaurants. Portree is a coastal town, with an idyllic harbor and beautiful, colorful homes lining the shoreline – ridiculously picturesque. I very much wish we could’ve spent some of our daylight hours in Portree, but we had to make due with our nocturnal explorations. Accompanied by our old friends, Wind and Rain, of course.
For dinner, we settled on the cozy Isles Inn, located in the center of town. As the name implies, they also offer lodging as well as host a well-stocked bar. The staff was very friendly and the food, delicious. I enjoyed a venison burger with steak fries and Kristen got a nice salad. Wait a minute. That’s not right… She got the STEAK & MUSHROOM PIE! (Aka: MEAT PIE) I also tried what I now think is my favorite Scotch whisky: Bruichladdich – The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley – Unpeated Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. I’m not a huge fan of the super-peaty, tastes-like-a-Band-Aid whiskies and this whisky was unpeated. SOLD!
After we battled the storm and made it back to our lodging, it was time to turn in for the night. Before that, however, I had a luggage reorg project to tackle. I’d slowly been amassing items along the way and needed to somehow make room in my bags. The next day was our last day of driving – and our practice of cavalierly tossing whatever we’d purchased into the roomy Outlander wasn’t going to work for our tiny carry-on bags. It was time for some serious Tetris action.
Once I’d finished shoving around gingerly arranging the contents of my bags, I celebrated with some NyQuil and turned in for a dreamy sleep. Until the skylight in the bathroom blew open and it rained a bit in the bathroom. Soooo dreamy… It really did sell the story of a lonely night spent in a spooky Scottish inn, however. Perhaps that will be my next writing project…
It was a dark and stormy… morning. We’d planned on driving 15-minutes past Portree to check out The Old Man of Storr, the iconic, pinnacle rock on the Trotternish shoreline. In the same vicinity, we also wanted to investigate the Fairy Glen. However, since the storm showed no signs of letting up and it was rather foggy and misty, it didn’t seem worthwhile to make the trek. What did seem worthwhile was to go visit the nearby Talisker Distillery which conveniently opened at 10am. It was, after all, on the way towards Glencoe and Loch Lomond. It just made sense!
Since whisky on an empty stomach isn’t the best of plans, we set out to first find some breakfast. We settled on The Old Inn, which ended up being just down the road from the Talisker Distillery. It’s a classic Scottish inn tucked along the shores of Loch Harport. The pub and dining room looked cozy when we walked in, but no one seemed to be around. We noticed a few people in the breakfast room, but they appeared to be enjoying the buffet provided for guests of the inn. We did eventually locate the host and while she said their breakfast service was over, she totally made an exception for us and fixed us breakfast anyway. Highland hospitality is the best! And for the record, the breakfast she threw together for us was delicious! My favorite of the trip, in fact.
After breakfast, we drove to the trailhead for the nearby Fairy Pools. (Naturally occurring pools of crystal clear water in the River Brittle) They’re a short hike down to the river at the foot of the Black Cullins, the most formidable of the UK’s mountain ranges. We attempted to get down to the trailhead – or even just take a few pictures outside the car – but the wind and rain had really picked up and quite a bit of fog started rolling in. It was the perfect storm, but not perfect for slogging down a muddy trail, so we retreated back to the Outlander. Next time, Fairy Pools! (And I’ll definitely be investigating some of the climbing/hiking routes in the Black Cullins)
But you know what wasn’t outside in the stormy weather of Skye? That’s right – The Talisker Distillery whisky tour and tasting! Hooray for me!! We got there just a few minutes before the next tour was to begin, so it seemed like delicious fate. However, since Kristen really doesn’t enjoy the smell of whisky mash or the distilling process, she decided to check out some local galleries and leave me to the whisky portion of the morning. I do appreciate a good Scottish gallery, but I really appreciate a good Scotch whiskey…
The tour was very well done and the guide was completely knowledgeable of the legacy of Talisker and its place within the history of whisky. We were lead through the entire process of whisky making and learned of all the nuance and precision it takes to make a batch of whisky. Talisker has been around since 1830 and it was amazing to hear how their techniques have evolved over the years. I was also happy to put to the test my new skills gained at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. I’m pretty sure I passed with flying colors, if I do say so myself.
After visiting the Talisker gift shop and procuring what I thought I could stuff delicately fit in my luggage, we continued on the road towards Glencoe and Loch Lomond. We still had quite a few miles to cover and with the crazy wind and rain, the remaining daylight was half-lit at best. That said, we had to get going as we knew we’d inevitably come upon a few must-stop situations. Take for instance, the classic Sligachan Bridge in nearby Sligachan. I can’t count how many pictures I’ve seen of that bridge over the years and it was mandatory to stop when we came upon it. I’ve also always wanted to see the famous Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest mountain) up close and personal, but with all the rain and fog, it was a no-show. On the upside, we were able to see the mountain’s namesake distillery along our route. Glass half full as they say…
With the daylight continuing to dwindle, the race was on to make it to the fabled Glencoe Mountains. I’ve wanted to check out this area on every prior visit and for whatever reason, my plans have always been thwarted. But not this time – No siree, Bob! We continued to brave the sideways rain, gusting wind and giant lorries (semis) coming at us on the narrow, mountain roads. We stayed the course and didn’t stop to view any of the amazing waterfalls which seemed to be around every corner. We kept going. (Squirrel!) (No, Mr. Squirrel – we’re IGNORING you!)
Just before heading into the last stretch of A82 which leads into the heart of the mountains, we came to the small town of Glencoe. It reminded me a bit of Squamish, the last town before you get to Whistler, BC. It had that mountain community vibe where everyone is in love with nature and the mountains – and much of the town is dedicated to that pursuit. My kind of town all the way… I would’ve loved to have stayed longer, but onward we rode.
The light was almost gone and it was a full-on race against time to get to the top of the pass where we could in the least take some pictures. Due to waning light and insane weather, any sort of hiking was out of the question, but we were luckily able to still hit up a couple trailheads and snap some cool photos. Even with grey skies and little light, the area was one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been. It was rugged and graceful, all at the same time. It was also foreboding and absolutely possible to see how doomed a place it was for a battle to play out. Case in point, the Massacre of Glencoe of 1692. It’s not difficult to imagine how the narrow glen with its sweeping peaks could prove a hopeless undertaking for escape.
Until our visit, all of my Glencoe mountain experience had been gleaned from film and television. Glencoe has served as backdrop to some fairly epic films and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you look stretches a spectacular bit of scenery and everywhere you step, a bit of history unfolds in front of you.
A few of the films shot in the Glencoe area:
- Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Rob Roy
- Monty Python & the Holy Grail (Specifically, the Bridge of Death Better answer those five THREE questions correctly!)
In short, I CAN’T WAIT to get back to Glencoe. I want to spend several days hiking through the area and finally add some more names to my “munro bagging” list. (Ben Loyal will always be my first, but it’s time to play the field.) I’d also like to visit in the late summer/early fall when the days are at their longest and there’s no need to scramble for light. I remember late August in Tongue and hiking in nearly full daylight at midnight… Amazing!
Since it was now dark, there were a few places we had to strike from our list. It was sad, but a return in the late summer months will add plenty more opportunity to see everything. I’m counting the days!
A few of the places on the docket for the next trip:
- If it’s a summer visit, there won’t be any skiing opportunities, but Glencoe Mountain offers hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Sadly, even if we’d been able to drive up to the resort, there wasn’t quite enough snow for skiing yet. It does sound like they received a good amount of snow after we left, however. Also, I really want to stay in one of their micro lodges!
- We’d hoped to get over to the town of Fort William, but it wasn’t meant to be. Site of much history, its central Highland location makes it a great port of exploration for the surrounding areas. Located nearby is the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct. (Hogwarts Express, anyone?) Take a ride on The Jacobite steam train and live out your Hogwarts dreams!
- I will definitely be hiking down to the fascinating Devil’s Pulpit on my next trip. Located in Finnich Glen near Glasgow and Loch Lomond, it’s famous for its crimson-tinted water. (Resulting from the red sandstone rather than anything nefarious.) The area also served as the “liar’s spring” in an episode of Outlander.
Another area which would be much more enjoyably experienced in the light is the drive along Loch Lomond. We took A82 towards Glasgow as it goes through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and we’d both always wanted to check out the area. What I’m sure is a beautiful drive by daylight, is a gauntlet of peril by night. Crazy curves, super narrow lanes, major potholes, standing water, falling rocks and the intrepid theme of our trip, wind and rain, all stopped in to say hello! Many more kudos to Kristen for taking on the insanity. I hope her white knuckles have returned to their normal state.
Suffice to say, we were incredibly relieved to arrive at our Airbnb, located just outside of Glasgow and interestingly named, Witches Hat. In addition to the roof of the main home indeed resembling a witch’s hat, our tree house lodging in the backyard was beyond unique. That’s right – a TREE HOUSE! A tree house that jumped right out of a Tolkien story, I might add.
Once ensconced in the Hobbit hole, we took a few minutes to relax before formulating our dinner plans. For the record, I want an exact replica of that tree house in my own backyard. (When I actually have a backyard – or tree – to speak of) Remarkably packed inside was a decently sized bathroom with a full shower, a mini-kitchen cubby area, two very comfortable twin beds and the most adorable doors ever. (Mind yer heid!) Again, since we arrived late and left early the next day, we were only able to view our surroundings in the dark. Next time!
For dinner, we drove into the nearby town of Drymen. It was a cute little town and we settled on a place recommended by our Airbnb hosts called The Drymen Inn. Since it was to be our last proper meal in Scotland, we wanted to find a nice place. And by “nice place”, this meant it needed to have both MEAT PIES and good whisky. The Drymen Inn scored high on both fronts and a tasty last supper was had by all. It also was the carb-filled finale to our action-packed day and I’m pretty sure we were passed out within moments of returning to the tree house. Zzzzzzzz…
Very early the next morning, we got ourselves together, minded our heids on the way out the door and hit the road towards the Glasgow Airport. Because of our time crunch, we weren’t able to check out Glasgow, but after observing the morning traffic, I’m happy we didn’t have to navigate through much of it. I would, however, love to properly visit Glasgow on my next Scottish excursion as I’ve not yet been. (At which time I will happily make use of Glasgow’s extensive public transportation system) I might also consider flying directly into Glasgow rather than stopping first in London as it’s a strategically located jumping-off point for many Highland adventures.
After finally figuring out how to access the airport car rental area, we returned the Outlander and hightailed it through the chilly morning air and into the terminal. (Fare thee well, WRONG side of the car and road!) Aside from our flights home, this would be our last flight of the trip and my ears were seriously relieved. Adding to my relief was the fact I’d miraculously made it through airport security unscathed and unsearched. I was still deliriously ill, but managed to keep it together long enough to remember the drill this time.
To say I was looking forward to that afternoon’s activities would be putting is very lightly. I’ve previously confessed to being a total Harry Potter fan girl. This is an absolutely truthful statement and the closer we came to actually arriving on the WB lot, located just outside of London, the more I had to acknowledge just how big a fan I actually am. I LOVE HARRY POTTER!! There. I’ve said it. I am not ashamed. #GRYFFINDOR4LIFE
Upon arriving at Gatwick Airport (the day before they had the crazy shutdowns due to drones!), we needed to figure out the best means of transport to the Warner Bros lot. Keeping on theme, we were on a fairly tight schedule and decided a taxi would be the quickest option. (We had to make a 2pm tour on the lot!) However, after learning it would be around $200 (including tip) via a traditional Black Cab, we dialed up the Uber app and made it there for $108. I love the traditional London Black Cabs, but it’s hard to ignore a near $100 fare difference. There are many other transportation options to the lot and if you have the time, most are more economical.
Pro Tip: It is absolutely necessary to buy your Harry Potter tour tickets well before your arrival. It is an incredibly popular tour and tickets sell out well in advance. This should be considered non-negotiable if you indeed want to visit the lot.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day in London and our ride to the lot was fairly quick. We arrived at the studio in plenty of time to make the 2pm tour and queued up to go through security. (Thankfully not quite as involved as the airport, but still thorough.) Because we’d come directly from the airport, we needed to have our luggage both searched and stowed. They do have a very efficient baggage check, however, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Once we were all sorted, we ventured towards the inner sanctum sanctorum of all things Harry Potter.
Even simply walking down the main corridor to get to the tour waiting area was cool. It was lined with quotes from the books and just the scope and scale of it signaled the actual tour was going to be much grander still. Eventually, it leads to the main waiting area which also hosts a coffee shop (Starbucks – heh) and cafeteria. There is also an entrance to the main gift shop, but since we figured the tour would likely end at the gift shop, we refrained from purchasing anything. (We were right – it did.) (Also, why didn’t I look to see if they had HOGWARTS “you are here” mugs at the Starbucks?? IDIOT.)
They allowed our tour group to queue up earlier than expected and we made it inside by 1:30. Hooray! More Harry Potter time! Once inside, you learn about the tour in two presentation rooms, the second taking place before the grand doors to the Hogwarts dining hall…
It was AMAZING! We were there just before the holidays, so the dining hall was decorated in a “Hogwarts at Christmas” theme. All of the tables were laid for a holiday feast, the enormous fireplaces were lit (w/FX) and all the house robes and costumes were represented along the walls. In addition, the front section was set up for a holiday party, complete with Hogwarts orchestra. It was simply spectacular and I could’ve spent hours just walking around that scene alone.
Once through the dining hall, you’re left on your own to explore the displays at your leisure. Everything you could possibly imagine from the films was present and displayed in grand form. And everything was the real deal – all of the actual props, costumes, sets, creatures, etc. – All displayed in the actual studio where it was filmed! The moving staircases, props from the Room of Requirement, the portraits (the fat lady!), the flying car, Hagrid’s motorcycle, the ENTIRE Forbidden Forest (complete with spiders), Dumbledore’s office and staircase, the Gryffindor dorm room, a full-size Gringotts and Diagon Alley representation, the Ministry of Magic, Voldemort’s tombstone and re-creation of the Death Eater’s dining room scene in the final film… IT WAS AMAZING!!! And that was just the first section of displays.
Note: It looks like the upcoming tour feature will be ‘Gringotts Wizarding Bank.’ (April ’19) I’m so happy to have seen Hogwarts at Christmas, but I’m SO sad to have missed Gringotts. Next time!
About halfway through the tour, when you’re rightly in need of a snack, you enter the lot commissary. They actually have a Butterbeer bar where you can sample both Butterbeer AND Butterbeer ice cream. (Both are non-alcoholic) Clearly, I had an obligation to try them both! Duh. Being sick, creamy ice cream wasn’t terribly appealing, but I took one for the team and muggled through. For the record, Butterbeer in both forms has a distinct butterscotch flavor and both were really quite good. I even purchased them in their souvenir mug and dish set! (Of course I did) The crowning achievement of the whole affair, however, was the fact “Butterbeer” was listed on my credit card statement when I returned home. It’s rare that something on my credit card statement makes me smile.
After finishing my delicious Butterbeer feast, we exited to the outdoor portion of the tour to take in the actual Knight Bus, No. 4 Privet Drive (you can go inside!), the rickety covered bridge from Hogwarts, the ruined Potter house in Godric’s Hollow and the Wizard’s Chess pieces! And regardless of it being a beautiful, sunny day with blue skies, the magic of Hollywood made sure it was snowing outside. Christmas at Hogwarts, indeed!
Back inside, and gleefully beginning to suffer from Harry Potter overload, we still had yet to visit and walk through the actual Hogwarts Express, (“Anything from the trolley, dears?”), investigate the Visual FX and creature shops, check out the original Concept art, peruse Ollivanders’ wand stock, check out Snape’s classroom, circle a built-to-scale replica of the entire grounds of Hogwarts (amazing!) and finally arrive back at the epic gift shop. Even just writing all of this down blows my mind – I can’t believe we saw as much as we did in that short span of time.
Since I’d been so good about not making any Harry Potter purchases to that point, all bets were off as I entered the main gift shop. Did I have any room left in my luggage? No. Did I care? NO. With a little bit of elbow grease and channeling of Hermione’s magic bag, I fit a Gryffindor sweater, Gryffindor PJs, various magnets and shot glasses (HA!) and assorted other bits and baubles into my bag for the journey home. #ACCIOBIGGERSUITCASE
Sadly, our time at the Harry Potter tour had come to an end and it was time to depart. I will definitely return, but I could’ve easily spent all day roaming around the lot. Alas, the Hogwarts Express, (AKA: the Harry Potter Studio Tour Shuttle) was leaving for nearby Watford where we would board the Tube and head back to London Kings Cross. And the journey came full circle…
After a long day of nerding out, we arrived back at London Kings Cross and set out for our Airbnb which was supposedly located nearby. Long story, short – it was technically located nearby, but we took a wrong turn out of the Tube station and ended up walking 45min out of our way to get to our destination. My sickened body was prepared for a 10 or so minute walk, but definitely not a long-haul sort of operation. I was so completely relieved when we eventually made it to our place. Granted, we walked through the always amazing Kings Cross neighborhood, passing the glorious St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and St. Pancras train station (Catch the Eurostar train to Paris!), but I was very much ready for a rest – and some food!
Luckily, we were in a stellar neighborhood for dining options and after a short walk around the area, we settled on the funky and delicious Piebury Corner. As mentioned in Part I, I have an affinity for Scotch Eggs and Piebury Corner had a spectacular selection. In addition, they also had Kristen’s favorite… MEAT PIES! Apparently, the same maker of Scotch eggs for Buckingham Palace also makes the Scotch eggs for Piebury Corner. If they’re good enough for the Queen, they’re good enough for ME. (A sentiment also echoed on the Piebury Corner website)
On the way back to our flat, we passed by the iconic Scala concert hall and theatre. It is truly amazing to note just how many gems are located around every corner in London. I honestly don’t think one could ever run out of new things to see and do in London. (But I’d sure like to give it a go…) Once we arrived back at our very tidy and comfortable Airbnb, we both took a little time to re-strategize our luggage situation and then promptly passed out.
All journeys must come to an end… And in the spirit of The Hobbit, it was a “there and back again” sort of feeling that last morning as we readied ourselves for the Heathrow trek. Our flight wasn’t until noon, but we needed to get there via the Tube and wanted to allow plenty of time to deal with the morning commute and airport security. As we headed down the street towards the Tube station, a man came running out of the café on the street level of our flat. He turned out to be the owner of the Airbnb (and café) and was coming out to see if we wanted coffee or tea before we left – and to make sure our stay had been pleasant. We weren’t able to stay for coffee, but he made sure we had some Kit-Kats for the road and sent us on our way. Such lovely hospitality all throughout our journey!
Once back at Heathrow and through our last round of airport security, we did indeed find a nice spot for breakfast and savored a brief respite before the long flights back to Seattle. I was looking forward to spending a little more time in Reykjavik, but can’t say my ears were looking forward to a full day of flight. Taking time to appreciate a final meal in the UK was a great way to say goodbye and I was very sad as we boarded our flight for home. But I’ll be back in no time!
The flights home were wonderfully uneventful and our break in Reykjavik was short, but entertaining. I’m not gonna lie – I’m pretty impressed with just how many more items I stuffed daintily stowed in my carry-on for the flight home. I’m also fairly impressed with how many back-to-back movies I watched on the way back. The DayQuil had somewhat stopped working by that point and I knew I was in for a battle when I was finally able to collapse in my own bed. (i.e. double ear infection, double bronchitis, a sinus infection, two trips to Urgent Care, two rounds of antibiotics and several additional missed days of work. WOO!) Until that time, however, I kept staring at that tiny screen on the seat in front of me, whilst the guy behind me continued to kick my seat… You never know when you’re going to make a new friend!
In closing, one of the most profound and enduring things I’ve learned in my ongoing travels, is just how similar and connected we all are. Love, comfort, laughter, good food, music, friends, family – None of these themes are exclusive to any one ethnicity, religion, country or culture. They are fundamental pieces of everyone’s story and by reaching out and sharing and experiencing traditions, how can we not grow in understanding and respect for one another? Everyone has a story. Everyone comes from somewhere. Get out there and share your story – and gather new ones from the friends you make along the way. Eat the state. Eat the country. Eat the WORLD!
I Ate the State: Scottish Tour of Destiny – The Spotify Playlist
- It’s Oh So Quiet – Björk (from Post)
- Untitled #3 – Samskeyti – Sigur Rós (from album () )
- Prologue – John Williams (from Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
- You Do Something to Me – Paul Weller (from Stanley Road)
- Then I Met You – The Proclaimers (from Sunshine on Leith)
- Un Flambeau, Jeannette Isabelle – Loreena McKennitt (from A Midwinter’s Night Dream)
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Loreena McKennitt (from A Winter Garden – Five Songs for the Season)
- Standing Stones – Loreena McKennitt (from Parallel Dreams)
- Standing Stones – Jeremy Soule (from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Original Game Soundtrack)
- Stonehenge – Ylvis (from Stonehenge – Single)
- Who Wants to Live Forever – Queen (from Greatest Hits II)
- Princes of the Universe – Queen (from A Kind of Magic)
- Outlander – The Skye Boat Song (Castle Leoch Version) – Bear McCreary feat. Raya Yarbrough (from Outlander: Season 1, Vol. 1 – Original Television Soundtrack)
- Bonny Portmore – Loreena McKennitt (from The Visit)
- Hedwig’s Theme – John Williams (from Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
- Holding Back the Years – Simply Red (from Picture Book)
- Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly) – The Icicle Works (from The Icicle Works)
- Melt with You – Modern English (from After the Snow)
- End of a Century – Blur (from Parklife)
- Stillness in Time – Jamiroquai (from The Return of the Space Cowboy)
- Birds – Kate Nash (from Made of Bricks)
- Wings of Speed – Paul Weller (from Stanley Road)
- I Miss You – Björk (from Post)
- Svefn-g-englar – Sigur Rós (from Ágætis byrjun)
- Aurora Borealis – Ylvis (from Stories from Norway: The Andøya Rocket Incident)
More I Ate the State Adventures: