In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I live in “unconventional” mode as I endeavor to figure out this new post-Dan reality. I try hard to be a good person, but after decades of taking care of everyone else first, these days I do what I want. I don’t feel bad about eating or drinking like a rock star, sleeping in or staying out all night. I don’t feel guilty about leaving home to live the life of a nomad. I don’t feel guilty that I haven’t got a clue where I’m going next or when/if I’ll ever come home. I don’t even feel bad about the fact that other teenagers who have shown up with nieces and nephews were warned not to be shocked by their Aunty Pirate who SOMETIMES sports a colorful vocabulary that could make a Marine blush. Before you lecture me, they hear it all at school. And I kinda DGAF.
But there is one thing for which I give many f@#$s. I’ve recently learned there is a group of young people who are watching my every adventure move. Their parents are sharing my travel stories (language cleaned up, of course), or they are following on their own. (Dear parents, rest assured I keep Instagram clean). I have heard that teenagers sit around sometimes and talk about what adventure I had that week. OMG!
This knowledge is overwhelming on multiple levels. For the first time in life, cause it sure didn’t happen when I was one, some teenagers think I’m cool. I’d high five myself, but what a freaking responsibility. I’ve said from day one of this adventure that what I want my nieces and nephews to remember about me is that I lived the #$!@ out of every minute and that no matter how scared I was, I never let fear stop me from pursuing life and love. I want them to learn that risks are worth taking and that making memories will always be more important than acquiring things. I want them to know that sometimes life is $hit for no reason (thank you Sheila for this quote), but we have a choice in how we move forward when bad things happen. If your kids are following along, I wish the same for them too. And, no promises, I’ll see what I can do about the language.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
Before I left Scotland, someone in Glasgow described Belfast to me as very European, and I had no idea what that meant. I get it now. Belfast boasts a diverse population with a seemingly endless supply of shops, restaurants and pubs to enjoy. If Scotland’s landscapes and single malts are rugged and handsome, those in Belfast are smooth, charming and a helluva lotta fun. Wait, what were we talking about?
Unlike Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, this was my first trip to Northern Ireland. For those of you who didn’t pay attention in school, NI is a separate country and part of the UK. I’d heard that the people of Belfast like to have a good time, are iffy when it comes to the rules, and have a quick (and dark) sense of humor. All accurate from what I’ve observed. My outsider’s theory is that their experiences during the Troubles have cultivated a collective “Live Now” attitude, which resonates with my heart and might be why I fell in love with it instantly.
It hasn’t stopped raining since I got here, but it feels warm and welcoming nonetheless. I’ve spent a good chunk of my waking hours laughing, and laughter is good for the soul. The day I spent at the salon getting my hair cut, laughing so hard I was almost crying at my sassy young stylist’s descriptions of Irish men and football players by region. I’m laughing out loud right now as I remember it. She should take that comedy bit on the road! Or listening to my driver’s explanation why Belfast is the best city in Europe. (FYI every taxi driver in every city I’ve been in insists their city is the best value for the money). Or laughing while listening (it’s not eavesdropping if they’re so loud you can’t help it) to a group of university students’ thoughts on life, girls, and why they are going to solve the world’s problems. Cheers dudes, I genuinely hope you do.
Don’t get me wrong; Northern Ireland has its share of rugged beauty. With the Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-rede (not for the faint of heart) rope bridge, and countless miles of gorgeous hiking trails, there is a lot more to this place than just the city.
Although after just one afternoon I decided to make Belfast my home base for this week. I had to hopscotch my hotels a bit since the sold-out FIFA World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Germany affected availability significantly. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Right? I got laughed at by everyone I asked about getting a ticket, but thanks to some new friends I connected with a lovely gentleman who was too ill to attend (I really hope you’re feeling better Dave!) who agreed to sell me his ticket since I was a visitor. Wow. What a memorable experience! To all the doubters who told me to give up trying, this is a good reminder that all kinds of good things can happen in life if you have faith, friends, and don’t quit taking chances.
If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, don’t forget to head north. I fell in love with Belfast and will be back soon since a week wasn’t nearly enough time to get to know this city. (Details below as usual).
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
St. George’s Market.
Looking for Belle and Beast at Belfast City Hall.
That’s right you typo maniacs, now that I’m in Northern Ireland that’s how you spell it. There’s lots of it. Some of it is crap, some blessed by the angels. Maybe someday when I’ve completed the Scottish single malt challenge, I’ll start working my way through all the Irish stuff. Until then, you’ll have to decide for yourself what your favorite is. My current splurge is the Redbreast 21, and I will forever owe a couple of cool Canadian dudes for this recommendation.
There is no way to get through all of them, so here are a few I recommend.
Brennan’s Bar (City Centre):
Fabulous service, decent pub food, good wifi, and Sunday’s feature an all-male staff. Don’t judge me. It backs up to a tiny street called Bains Place, so I was obviously meant to be there. That and it came highly recommended by some Idaho friends who were recently here. Thanks Jimmy and Michelle!
The Crown Bar (City Centre):
Owned by the National Trust and directly across the street from the Europa Hotel, the Crown features some incredible woodwork and stained glass. This place is worth a look even if you don’t like pubs, but it’s likely to be packed at all hours of the day.
The Harp Bar (Cathedral Quarter):
This one came highly recommended by my Belfast guru, and I can see why. We loved it so much we went back three times! The live music and atmosphere quickly made it our favorite place. My only complaint is that my drinks were always double the price when poured by a female bartender.
The Dirty Onion (Cathedral Quarter):
One of several pubs that claim to be the oldest building in Belfast. Friday night was rocking with fantastic live music, and the patio was full. Sunday night not so much. It’s around the corner from Harp Bar and The Duke of York, so be sure to stop in.
Just like the whiskey and the pubs, there are almost unlimited dining options, so here are my two favorites.
Hadski’s (Cathedral Quarter): An epic Belfast Pub Crawl can really work up an appetite. We found Hadski’s and lucked out. They were full, but had two seats open in front of the chef. Are you kidding me? Those are the best seats in the house because your dinner comes with a show. The food was plated so beautifully I felt bad digging into it. Then I realized it was so delicious I didn’t care and had to refrain from licking the plate. If you’re going to be in the Cathedral Quarter, go there. Happy noms!
Fratelli’s (City Centre): I stayed in City Centre for a few days. I liked Fratelli’s and dined there more than once. I’d describe the food as Italian with a delicious twist, and the restaurant has a robust wine menu. Hey, a girl can’t live on whiskey and pub food alone. Excellent service despite being a solo diner on very busy evenings.
THE RUGGED STUFF
Giant’s Causeway: This lengthy stretch of hexagonal basalt columns is geology nerd cool, and far more accessible than Scotland’s Isle of Staffa. That may also be why it was less impressive to me. Sorry, Northern Ireland. I still liked it, just wish I’d visited the Causeway before Staffa. My recommendation is to get there first thing in the morning (or late in the day) to avoid busloads of annoying tourists.
I promise to give it another shot. I do appreciate that so many people can go to experience the science behind this world heritage site, and it looks like some fun hiking. Minus the tourists. And before you say it, I’m a traveler, not a tourist. Completely different mindset and behavior.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge: They closed the bridge for crossing the day I visited due to crazy high winds. While disappointing, I didn’t come all this way to die. It’s a freaking rope bridge. It sways in the wind. If the wind were strong enough to push grown men (and one short girl) around on the trail, attempting a crossing would be beyond terrifying. I’ll be back to take on that bridge another day.
The Troubles: In my opinion, political history tours about the Troubles are necessary for foreigners to understand the current culture of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. When I mentioned the Troubles to family and friends back home, I was surprised how few people knew anything about it beyond a song by U2 or some vague recollection of the IRA. I know it isn’t our country’s history, but it is part of our global history and no different from taking a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii or visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. I won’t go into detail (click the link to educate yourself) but felt the tour I did was pretty neutral and fact-based, and I learned a lot. Kudos to my guide JR because I was unable to guess which side he’d grown up on, and he still won’t tell me.
Another thing I think I liked about Belfast, is directly related to the Troubles. I can’t quite put my finger on it and will probably butcher this, but there were so many widows created here during that time frame that my being a young W is no big whoop since everyone knows one and it doesn’t make me a freak of nature like I often feel at home with non-W’s. The loss of life during The Troubles is horrifying but, for the first time since Dan died, I feel like my tribe has expanded beyond my local widow’s group to an entire community. As I said, there is no clear or easy way to describe it, it’s just a feeling I have.
Irish Genealogy: Do you claim Irish heritage? JR gave me a good tip, and I spent some time at PRONI, the Public Records office, trying to track down additional information on my great-great-great-great-grandparents who left Co Antrim sometime after 1802 for the US. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information available before the mid to late-1800s unless you know what church your ancestors belonged to, so the only new bit of information I was able to glean was the name of their parish. Kudos to the lovely Paul who spent a fair amount of time helping me search, even though I could tell by his facial expression that it was hopeless. And the fact he said to me that it was almost undoubtedly impossible if I didn’t know the church affiliation. (Dear Paul’s Boss: Please give him a raise because he didn’t roll his eyes once despite my endless and annoying questions and “what if” optimism).
There is no charge to visit PRONI, but you’ll need valid government-issued photo identification to access the records. Your passport will do fine to get your new official ID card. PRONI is just a short walk from the Titanic Museum, so if this is something you’re interested in schedule adequate time to visit. And bring as much information with you as you can. Names and dates alone aren’t very helpful.
Wow. It’s hard to believe I’ve been away for over a month on this grand adventure and, as I write this, getting settled into another new country. It seems like forever since I waved goodbye to my baby sister as she dropped me off at the airport. I was a little nervous, but filled with excitement. And it has been an adventure full of excitement and bliss and peace. As I continue to learn about the places I visit and the people I meet, I’ve learned a lot about myself as well.
1. I can do it! And I can do it by myself. Even though I hate managing the details, I’ve not been homeless once, and have lucked out with fantastic places to stay. I’ve learned not to wait too long, as tourist season runs a lot longer than it used to, but have ended up with some happy accidents because of that.
2. No matter how much thought I put into my packing list, I still brought too much stuff. It seems I end up visiting the local charity shop in every town I visit, shedding increasing bits of my old life (ten pounds o’ stuff to date). It has become surprisingly easy to learn how little I need and how little attachment I have to what remains. Even then, taxi drivers almost always complain about how heavy my bag is. Ahem, move aside gents and let a woman show you how to manhandle this beast up the stairs. <<Insert Who Runs the World? Girls! fist pump here>>.
3. I’ve learned that alone doesn’t mean lonely. I’ve met amazing people and had amazing experiences BECAUSE I was willing to go out and do things on my own. While I still have the occasional Table For One annoyance, for the most part, things have been great. I’ve been able to get seats on sold-out tours, free tickets to events when someone didn’t show up, and private history lessons in a lot of places I’ve visited. My favorites to date have been my spontaneous attempts that landed me a ticket to my first ever football game that happened to be a sold out FIFA World Cup Qualifier between Northern Ireland and Germany, and the opportunity to rappel (or abseil as they say here) down the side of the Europa Hotel.
4. I remembered I like meeting people. For a long time after losing Dan, I didn’t want to meet anyone new. I didn’t want to tell my story and had no room in my broken heart to learn theirs. That’s changed. Every morning I wake up and wonder who I will meet that day. I’m hungry to learn their stories and have no trepidation in sharing mine. Making real life connections with other human beings is glorious. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.
5. I can be pretty chill. I know some of you who have known me a long time are questioning the validity of that statement (or flat out laughing), but it’s true. In addition to the #LiveNow lessons I continue to learn along the way, I’ve gotten pretty good at going with the flow. I’m learning to sit back and enjoy the last minute changes that happen in this thing we call life. Somehow the universe always replaces it with something better, or at least something I need more.
If I can learn all this after just a month on the road, I can’t wait to see what else is in store for me on this journey.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
It may sound silly to say a country could sweep you off your feet, but that’s exactly what happened to me. When I first visited in the spring, it was enough to make me swoon and put Scotland at the top of my list for this adventure. I wasn’t sure if I’d fallen in love with Scotland itself or if it were because it was the first place I’d felt joy in a long time, but I knew I’d figure it out. I’m thrilled to report that it’s all Scotland, and I love it even more than before.
Here are the top 10 reasons I love this country. Believe me; it was a struggle to narrow it down to 10.
1. The Highlands. I’m afraid photos just don’t do it justice. The majesty and power and magic of the mountains and hills, the glens, and the rivers are enough to make me wish I was a poet or painter or that I had the resources just to get out and walk every last inch of it.
2. The skyscape. If I take any more photos of clouds, my camera may quit on me. But it’s hard to stop myself from doing it. The clouds are ever changing, which alters the light and the colors of everything you see. Time-lapse photography was made just for this.
3. The beaches. Okay, so the beaches here are a little different than the ones I enjoyed growing up in the tropics, but that makes them no less beautiful. The white sand beaches up in the Orkney Isles are crystal blue. And despite the cold wind, I’m already dreaming about going back.
4. The ocean. I’ve spent more time on boats and ferries in the last five weeks than I have in the last five years. Rough or smooth, always cold and windy, I couldn’t get enough of it. One of my favorite memories of this trip will be holding on for dear life (it was a titch rough that day) on the top deck of the ferry as I headed to the Orkney Isles, laughing like a maniac and keeping an eye out for the infamous whirlpools I’m told can appear.
5. The history. Scotland’s history is deeply rooted in the culture and people. It oozes out of the very earth under your feet and the abundant water that runs through it. Researching my Scottish ancestry made it that much more powerful and personal. Recognizing clan names from both our family trees was like winning the long-lost relatives jackpot, even when I was advised not to tell anyone mine and to use Dan’s instead. (this is hilarious for a number of reasons). And no, it’s not Campbell.
6. The casual vibe. I like getting dressed up as much as the next girl, but when you’re living out of a backpack, it’s convenient to be able to go pretty much anywhere you want in jeans and hiking boots. (The LBD remains packed in the bottom of the suitcase, just in case). No one ever seems to be in a hurry. Scotland may be the most chill place I’ve ever visited. And did I mention super dog-friendly? Dogs are welcome in most bars and cafes, so Fido doesn’t have to be left at home or in the car. Izzy-booboo would be in dog heaven here.
7. The people. And not just the rugged, handsome, kilt-wearing dudes. (Seriously ladies, you can stop messaging me pictures of rugged, handsome, kilt-wearing dudes). Every single person I met was kind, friendly and welcoming. In Hawaii, we call that the Aloha Spirit and the Scots are pros. Maybe that’s why I felt so immediately at home here. The only rude people I encountered were middle-aged American women, but that’s a post for another day.
8. The ease of transportation. For those days foot power just isn’t enough, you can get almost anywhere by bus or train. For everything else, you can hop on a tour or find a hired driver or a new friend who wants to take you there. It made it really easy to travel solo, especially since I didn’t want to rent a car and drive.
9. The single malts. You had to have known whisky would make this list. I accepted the single malt challenge while I was there. It will probably take me two years but, by the time it’s over, I will have sampled at least one offering from each of the 130 distilleries on my list.
10. The Idaho-ness. I haven’t felt homesick at all for Boise, but since Scotland reminds me so much of Idaho, it’s like I never left. Just like Idaho, Scotland is full of mountains, rivers, and people with a great love of the outdoors, family and friends. So yeah, Scotland reminds me a lot of Idaho, only with better weather.
If you’ve been thinking about visiting Scotland, do it. Don’t wait. And take me with you.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
11. Scotland’s national animal is a unicorn, officially making it the coolest country in the world.
Over the last few months, I’ve written a lot about going with the flow and trusting my intuition as I navigate this new post-Dan reality. Unfortunately, there isn’t a process map for picking up the pieces and starting over, and I have had to learn to trust my heart to guide me. It’s something I encourage my fellow W’s to do as well. No one knows you, or what you need, as well as your heart does. As much as I try to live that way, every now and again I still need a reminder, and Oban was most certainly a beautiful one.
Oban is best known for its single malt distillery, but this Western port has got a lot more than that to offer. The seafood is legendary, and it’s the jumping off point to explore the Hebridean Islands. I did a lot of research for this trip, so before I left home, I’d put it on my list of possible home bases.
But when I passed through Oban a few weeks ago on my way to the Isle of Skye, I found it underwhelming so took it off my list of places to stay. That was shortsighted and dumb. Due to some scheduling limitations, and the encouragement of my friend (and Scotland expert) Gavin, I decided to go back. Yay me! (Or, yay my intuition and Gavin). Out of all the places in Scotland I’ve fallen in love with (which is most of the country), Oban is the one I feel I could put down roots and stay long term. I can’t believe I almost missed out on that.
So my dear W’s, trust your heart. Trust your instincts. Only you can decide where this journey will take you. And wherever that may be, it will be the right place for you.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
Since I chose not to drive in Scotland, I relied on public transportation. Oban is a four-hour train ride from Edinburgh. The train ride was incredibly beautiful, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your trip through the Trossachs. TIP: The earlier you buy your tickets, the less expensive they will be.
I knew I wanted to stay on the Corcoran Esplanade, a short strip of super cute B&Bs right on the water and a five-minute ocean front walk to the center of town. I’d been referred to Kilchrenan House by my B&B Hosts at the Pipers Lodge when I was in Skye. Availability was an issue since I’d waited so long to decide where I wanted to go. So instead of a full week, I was only able to get four days. Four beautiful days! Book early, especially if you want to stay for awhile. I don’t think four days was enough and would have liked at least a week if not two. Frances and Colin are super friendly and welcoming hosts, and you can’t beat the amazing view of the ocean at breakfast, or the sunsets in the evening from the front porch.
If you tried to force me to choose between the ocean and the wooded hills and mountains, I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, in Oban I don’t have to.
The Inner Hebrides:
I decided to do a day tour of Iona, Mull, and Staffa, which are part of the Inner Hebrides. My scheduled tour got canceled due to weather the first day, but I was able to get on one the next day. Good thing, since it was sunny and the ocean was pretty calm.
It was freaking fantastic, although Mull was just a pass-through so shouldn’t be advertised as part of the tour. Staffa is the famous basalt column island that is home to Fingal’s Cave. I wish I’d had several hours here, but did get down to the cave and also had a chance to scramble around up top and enjoy the views.
Iona was stunning. Crystal blue waters, white sand beaches, and the greenest fields I’ve seen outside of Ireland. If you like to hike, you’ll want to spend a whole day here. I’ve already decided on my next visit that I’ll need to overnight on Iona to fully explore the trails.
I’d been advised by fellow travelers to make reservations at EE-USK as soon as I got to Oban, which I did. Wow! The seafood and service were superior. And despite being a Table for One, I was seated at a window table so I could enjoy the best view they had to offer. Top notch, so be prepared to pay for it.
First of all, whisky in Scotland isn’t called Scotch and isn’t spelled with an “e” so please stop messaging me about typos. This whisky woman knows what she is doing.
Now on to the business of single malts. Oban grew up around the distillery. That means it’s an entire town centered on the production of an amazing single malt. It also means that the distillery can’t expand. Their Instagram boasts “great from small, ” and they rock it. Their copper stills are works of art, and I would encourage you to do a tour (even the short one) to check it out. Here science and art come together to make beautiful single malt babies. If you’re a whisky fan, I also recommend doing the four taster, since we can only get one or two of those easily in the US.
Beyond the tour, go across the street to the Oban Whisky and Fine Wine Shop and talk to James. He was able to turn his single malt hobby into a business, which is both cool and makes me a little envious. And he knows his stuff. In addition to the tasters and education, he gave me suggestions on which newer distilleries would be coming online soon, and which whisky bars in Glasgow would likely have the lost and silent stuff on my single malt challenge checklist. And, now that I know the Old and Rare whisky festival is a thing, it’s going on the bucket list.
Okay, so I know adventure and slowing it down don’t usually go together. But that’s what this week was all about. I still have 11 months left to go on this adventure, and I’m notoriously bad at pacing myself. Hey, this is all new to me. I’ve never had a vacation where I could take so much downtime and not feel guilty about it. Sleeping in, coffee in bed, and writing for hours isn’t something I’ve ever gifted myself with on an itinerary.
I chose to stay in Edinburgh and rented a cute flat in walking distance to both Portobello Beach and Arthur’s Seat. Each evening as I sat enjoying the view with a glass of wine, Arthur’s Seat (on my list to hike since my last trip here) would silently mock me through the living room windows. Whatever Dude, I’ll get to you when I feel like it. (Which I eventually did).
I took time to smell the flowers, walk on the beach, people (and dog) watch, and eat ice cream on the promenade. There is something about the ocean that is soothing to the soul, even one as unremarkable as Portobello Beach. But this island girl will take any beach she can get and be happy about it.
This week was also a good reminder that we need to make time to rest on our grief journeys (and life in general). Sometimes we are so eager to get away from the horrible emotions and feelings that we choose “busy” as a shield as we run pell-mell towards grief recovery. The truth is, those feelings aren’t going anywhere, but if you’re too tired to face them you won’t get anywhere fast, and it’s easy to start drowning again. So be kind and every now and again give yourself permission to take a timeout.
Walk on a beach.
And eat ice cream.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
The super cute flat I rented was in Portobello. My Airbnb hosts (the same cool people who left me a bottle of wine when I checked in) were awesome! I’d mentioned how much I loved the beach, so they called one day to invite me to join their family beach walk out at Yellowcraig, a beach I wouldn’t have found on my own since it was about a twenty-minute drive away.
Their advice helped make this week so much better and relaxed, and they recommended all three of the pubs below.
Since it was practically across the street, I went for dinner almost every night I was there. The food was excellent, and the service even better. Light and bright, the vibe changed every night depending on whether there was live music or football on TV. It must have a loyal crowd because everyone knew everyone.
The Barrelhouse Bar and Grill:
After climbing Arthur’s Seat, I rewarded myself with lunch at the Barrel House. I was surprised with how many American items were on the menu, but the neon, “I am the God of Hellfire” sign above the bar was what drew me in since I knew there had to be a story there.
Right on the promenade, The Espy is home to the best cullen skink (seafood chowder) I’ve had in Scotland, a robust single malt menu and ocean views. A perfect spot for lunch during my beach strolls.
Sometimes it’s best to just hand the reins over to someone else and go along for the ride. Can you believe I just said that? I feel like I should get a “recovering control freak” gold star sticker for that one. This week a tour worked out great since I didn’t have to worry about scheduling ferries or buses or lodging. Instead, I just had a whole lot of enjoying the views along the way and taking time to figure out my next stop. (Still undecided as I write this).
I guess you could say it’s a mini-version of this entire year and my Grand Tour of Europe. Where to go? What to do? Who do I want to be? When your only plan is not to have a plan, it leaves the door wide open for adventure.
I was blessed to be able to cross another item off my bucket list: to visit the fairy tale Isle of Skye. It’s the first time since Dan died that I’ve crossed one off the list that was just mine, not ours…kind of like this whole adventure. And you know what? It felt amazing!
I’ve had so many people comment that they wish they could be brave and do something like this. Here’s the deal. I don’t feel brave. I do, however, believe that choosing to Live Now takes courage. Part of me misses the easy routine of my comfort zone. The other part of me is in a near constant state of bliss to be in a completely new environment. Living now is the only option that makes sense, especially to those of us that have lost so much. We know too damned well that tomorrow is promised to no one.
Live Now doesn’t mean selling everything you own to go on adventures, although that’s what I’m enjoying. It means squeezing every last drop of life out of the minutes we have. It means to be present in everything we do. And I wish for all of us to have a life full of Live Now minutes.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
The Isle of Skye
Visiting the Isle of Skye has been on my list for close to two decades. It didn’t disappoint. One of the bazillion things I love about Scotland is how the clouds and the light are constantly changing. It changes the colors of the landscape from minute to minute and, if you can stay put for a bit, you get a whole new perspective without even moving your feet.
Every time I rounded the corner, I’d think to myself that there couldn’t possibly be a more beautiful vista in the world. And then I’d go to the next place and think the same thing. Maybe it’s all the fairy magic, but it’s definitely beautiful.
The Orkney Isles
It’s a trek to get here, but it’s like being in a whole new country. Colder and windier, the Orkneys gave me my first beaches in Scotland. You know this island girl and beaches; when I see them, they make my heart sing. I don’t care if they are sunny and tropical or cold and windy. It was a bit too cold to put my toes in the sand and water, but I could have stayed and walked for hours if I wasn’t worried about being left behind.
The Orkneys are also home to Neolithic stone circles and Pictish archeological sites.
The ghosts of my Highlander ancestors must know when I’m back because it always works out that I have perfect weather. There aren’t enough words to describe the breathtaking vistas, so photos will have to do.
I didn’t realize we were going to stop at the Cairns of Loch Loyne. The first cairn was put there to honor Hugh Mackay. I left a few stones in memory of Dan. It was fitting since the Bains are part of Clan Mackay. There were so many stone piles, some with names and dates. To think that all these people had traveled here to honor their dead was overwhelming. It was moving and emotional and I bawled my eyes out for the first time since I left home. Actually, it was the first time in a long time so I guess I was due.
Since I had trouble narrowing down which photos to include, here are a few extras.
Is it possible to fall in love with a place a little more each day? At the rate I’m going, I’ll never be able to leave Scotland. After Edinburgh, I arrived in Stirling, a sleepy university town, and felt every cell in my body give up a big happy sigh. With a whole week to explore, I had the opportunity to slow things down and enjoy every minute of this town. How often do you go on holiday and get to spend a rainy day in a coffee shop or pub people watching for hours without feeling like you’re wasting time?
Just like everywhere else I’ve visited in Scotland, the people are friendly and welcoming. Out of everything Scotland has to offer, the people are what I love best. I’ve said more than once that with its rugged beauty and relaxed lifestyle Scotland reminds me of Idaho before the hipsters moved in, only with more rain.
September is a perfect time to visit. You can feel a hint of the crisp fall air in the mornings, and the leaves on the trees are just starting to turn even though summer flowers are still in bloom. A poet friend recently told me that all poets love the autumn. And while I’m no poet, the overwhelming desire to capture the beauty of this season is contagious.
My heart is well on its way to mending, but there is something about the fall that is cozy and snuggly and warm and nurturing. As my son-in-law likes to say, it’s sweater weather. I can’t think of a better place to enjoy it than Stirling. It became so comfortable, so quickly, I really didn’t want to leave.
The Wandering Widow
Stirling is so much more than a home base for other sites in the area, especially if you like the outdoors. I spent a week here and could have stayed longer.
If you’re not driving, Stirling is super easy to access by train and is only an hour from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Navigating Scotland’s buses and trains are easy, even for someone like me who has “getting lost” as my super power. The town is also easy to navigate, although I confess to getting lost once when relying too heavily on my GPS instead of my eyeballs.
There are a few local historical sites to see, but if you run around screaming “Freedom” at the top of your lungs, you’ll be asked to leave. Kidding. But seriously, please don’t do that.
If you can only pick one thing to see in Stirling, this is it. It’s worth the 246 step climb up a narrow spiral staircase to the top for the breathtaking views. And if your only knowledge of William Wallace was Braveheart, be prepared to have your world rocked with the actual history of the man.
You can access the monument easily by bus from Stirling (about a twenty-minute ride) if you don’t want to drive. If you’re feeling extra Genki, you can also walk from town, but don’t forget you then need to walk (or shuttle) up a hill to get to the base of the monument.
Not my favorite castle in the world, but I’m easily bored with castles, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. My favorite parts were the gardens and the view. Shocker, I know. But it was interesting to learn about the famous unicorn tapestry. In case you didn’t already know, the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal, earning the country serious cool points.
In my humble-non-castle-stalking opinion, this one was a lot more fun than Stirling. Well known for its use as an on-location film site for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones and Outlander, out of all the castle tours I’ve done, this has my favorite audio tour. Monty Python’s Terry Jones narrates and after each of the historical bits, are optional Monty Python details. There is something special about standing in a ruined castle hearing a Frenchman scream out that your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elder berries. Don’t take my word for it though, check it out yourself.
For you Outlander fans, the audio tour also provides filming updates from that Jamie guy.
The Dupplin Cross:
Venture out to Dunning and St. Serf’s church, and you can see the Dupplin Cross. It’s a Pictish stone carved in the shape of an Irish cross and is over a thousand years old. It’s free to visit, and the lovely docents will give you the history and point out important features, so don’t forget to donate before you leave.
The Bluebell Tearoom serves breakfast all day and has a gluten free menu, for those of you who care about that sort of thing. I loved that the hostess had been through Idaho, and we were able to chat about my home state.
The Friar’s Wynd is clean and bright, has great service, excellent food and is a great choice for a nice dinner.
The Smithy was a surprise. I wasn’t sure about trying it since my local friend hadn’t heard of it, but it got glowing recommendations for the “best food in Stirling” from another member of the Scottish travel group I joined on Facebook. I’m glad I tried it! It’s not far from Stirling Castle and is a light, bright cafe/tea house. The food was, in fact, the best I’ve had in Stirling and a great alternative to pub food. Everything was fresh and light (soups, salads, sandwiches, etc.) and delish.
In Dunning, have lunch or dinner at The Kirkstyle Inn. I had a superb dish of sea scallops, green apples, and black pudding. I can’t explain why that combo worked, but it was so delicious I might have licked the plate had I been by myself.
The Curly Coo is a must visit for whiskey drinkers, for the 130 single malt whiskey options as well as meeting Miss Mandy, the sassy pants proprietor. She recommended Deanston (among others) since it’s local. (I tried to get to Deanston Distillery later in the week for their whiskey and chocolate tour but the day I attempted to go the roads closed to buses, and my ankle wouldn’t agree to the 8-mile walk).
I’ve been chomping at the bit to get hiking since my last visit in April and was fortunate to have a friend here take me out exploring. We managed to get in a hike to Loss Hill before an old ankle injury kicked in and removed hiking (and dancing) off the list for a few weeks, but it was worth it.
Loss Hill was beautiful, and the irony of the name wasn’t lost on me. It’s just behind Dumyat Hill (where Wallace Monument is) if you’re looking at it from town. The beauty of hiking in Scotland is that you just decide which direction you want to go and start walking. In the states, property laws are pretty strict, and as I’d rather not get shot, I’ve never trespassed over fences before. It’s an entirely different scenario in Scotland, and I climbed over a bunch of fences (including barbed wire) on this hike. I also got to hike in the peat bog, which was new and different (and coincidentally the part my ankle didn’t like). In the two and half hours we were out, we saw sheep, deer and the weather change repeatedly from blue skies to storm clouds and back again. Classic Scotland! The only thing that could have made it better would have been some heilan coos, but I have lots of time left to see those cute furry cows.
The Lodging: Shona’s flat was my first Air B&B in Scotland, and ideally located in the middle of town (a five-minute walk from the train and bus station, and a ten-minute walk to Stirling Castle). While I didn’t need a three bedroom flat all to myself, it was nice to have all the comforts of home, including laundry and wifi. She was a gracious hostess, and I would stay here again.
I did it. I waved goodbye and set sail for a new life of adventure. I can honestly say that this is the first trip I’ve ever taken where I didn’t stress about the last minute details. Calm is a new thing for me. I like it.
The loneliness that I was worried about hasn’t shown up yet. I’ve met amazing people, learned new things, enjoyed fantastic food and whisky, and am sure I look like the village idiot because I can’t get this smile off my face.
I had someone tell me before I left that I was running away. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Those of us on our grief journeys each walk our own paths. Mine just happened to bring me back to my favorite country on the planet. I hope yours takes you someplace that brings you joy and peace.
The Wandering Widow
After a long day of travel, consisting of 20 hours, four airports, and three flights, I finally landed in Edinburgh. I had a stupid grin on my face despite the long line at the border checkpoint and didn’t care how long it took. I was back!
I bit the bullet and took a taxi (they are expensive compared to public transportation), deciding that the time saved was worth it. I was exhausted and didn’t want to deal with taking the tram, even though that would have only been £5. Some things are worth paying for.
I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Brown’s Bed and Breakfast. My hosts, Marion and Norie, were welcoming and I liked them immediately. The cleanliness stood out the most, which is saying something. I don’t think I’ve EVER stayed at a hotel or B&B this clean. Ever. After chatting them up at breakfast each morning, I now want to adopt them as my new Scottish grandparents. If you come to Edinburgh, book early so you don’t miss out on their hospitality.
Norie recommended the Theatre Royal Bar for dinner since it was a short walk away, the food is excellent, and is “woman friendly” for a solo female diner like myself. It’s also incredibly beautiful. If you’ve read my previous Table for One Posts and are looking for a hilarious story, you’ll be disappointed here. The food and service were impeccable. I liked it enough I went back several times during my stay in Edinburgh. (Try the steak and ale pie!)
The next day I headed out to catch up on the things I’d missed on my last trip to Edinburgh.
First stop was the Potter Trail Walking Tour. This free tour lasts about an hour and highlights key spots that influenced the Harry Potter books. Richard showed up in full robes, handed out magic wands, sorted us into houses, and commenced with great story telling. They also offer a longer full magic tour geared for kids, so if you’ve got your little ones make sure to book that one.
The next day I trekked out to Palace of Holyroodhouse. The entire tour of this functioning palace is great and full of history and art, but spend the extra £3 for the garden tour. That was the best part for this garden geek. Learning the history of the garden, the plants, and how involved the Queen and Prince Charles both are in the design was fascinating. Plus, with a guide, you get to walk on the lawn and see things up close and personal, like a rare elm tree that was thought to be extinct.
As you hoof it back up the Royal Mile, be sure to have lunch or dinner at The World’s End Pub. Not gonna lie, this is my favorite pub in Edinburgh. The food is fantastic, and the staff is friendly and funny.