A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland – The Final Leg

This is the conclusion to my series documenting my road trip through Scotland’s remote rural areas. Start at the beginning (highlands), jump to part II (Skye), or see Part III (Ullapool to Durness). 

The crisp morning air made it difficult to drag myself out from beneath the mound of heavy down blankets the hostel had opted for in place of heaters. With a groan and a roll I pulled myself upright and then wormed my toes into my boots. It didn’t take long before I started to come back to life as I noticed that beyond the nearby windows, the weather looked pleasant. A revisit to Smoo Cave with its subterranean waterfall chamber had been one of the primary draws which had pulled me towards the northwestern tip of Scotland. With a yawn and a stretch, it was time to hurry down for one of the first cave tours of the day – all in the hope that I would beat out the inevitable flooding that came each afternoon as the Scottish summer rains dumped their load on to the rain-drenched hillsides of the rugged Scottish glens situated a few miles to the south. Inevitably, when the rains found their way to already damp creek beds it would quickly flood them and turn each into small rivers racing gleefully, like highland sprites, towards the coast.

A Cold Beach - Northern Scotland

The evening before had been uncharacteristically dry by the time I reached Smoo with naught but a gentle rain earlier in the afternoon. In the fading light of the late afternoon, I had paused to capture the beautiful colors and otherworldly visage of the waterfall from a wooden platform carefully constructed just inside the chamber long ago carved out by the falls’ hammering fists. Both that evening and the following morning found the falls relaxed, gentle, and calm. Nowhere near the raging torrent I’d encountered some years back during my first visit.  At that time, even to approach the railing left us with water in our eyes and our jackets soaked through.

The Portal to Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

To my delight there were only a couple of us waiting to commence the quick tour. With 4 GBP in hand I donned my hardhat and kept myself busy wandering the grand chamber that serves as the mouth to the cave. The chamber, carved by the sea, is a wondrous thing and the type of place that has shaped and inspired the greatest of stories through the millennia. From a dragon’s fossilized maw to a dark and treacherous home to trolls and sea sirens, Smoo Cave could easily serve as inspiration for it all.

Rain Soaked Textures In Bloom – Weekly Travel Photo

Flowers Blooming After Rain

I discovered these flowers covered in fresh raindrops just after a Scottish drizzle raced across the small village of Durness in Scotland’s far north western reaches.  The vibrantly colored flowers were in a small garden beside the road and I found myself separated from them by an ancient stone fence.  As I paused to snap this quick shot, I was forced to continually keep one eye on the flowers and the other on the small single lane country road that hopped over a small hill, turned a corner, and then raced along the coast with only a few feet on either side to spare.   Far from ideal, but never the less it did add a bit of excitement to an otherwise peaceful moment!

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Highland Reflections – Weekly Travel Photo

Scottish Reflections

Located along Scotland’s A82 a few miles before the world famous Glen Coe are a series of small lakes.  These lakes rest in the open, surrounded by a few hearty trees that stand as silent sentinels braving the area’s brutal winters, unpredictable weather and near-constant winds.  These pools rest as beautiful oases in the midst of highland grasslands ringed by the imposing figure of the nearby glens.

As I made my way towards Glen Coe a few hours before sunset I found myself chasing small patches of blue sky glimpsed amidst movie-perfect cotton-ball clouds.  The road slowly wound between hills before spilling out into the near-treeless flat lands and as I crested a final hill, I found myself greeted by vivid reflections in the still waters of the highland lochs.  Enthralled by the sight, I quickly pulled my sky blue Volkswagen Beetle Coup to the side of the road and strolled across the squishy peat, careful to step around small clumps of blooming heather. I found a small path which led me to the water’s edge, where I snapped this shot of the cloud’s reflection visible in the still waters of Lochan na h-Achlaise. The mountains in the background are the little siblings of the mighty brutes which famously make up Glen Coe and have been featured in movies and songs for generations.

It was a magical moment, one that embodied the ethereal spirit of the Scottish Highlands – a place where nature’s raw and primitive beauty is pervasive.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Highlands – Weekly Travel Photo

Scottish Highlands

It is no secret that Scotland is one of my favorite places in Europe.  Perhaps it is because I’m a child of the Colorado Rockies, or perhaps it is solely the pure rawness and majestic glory of Scotland.  A large part of the discussion about Scotland revolves around the Scottish highlands, and they are without question worth every ounce of praise they receive.  That being said, it is Scotland as a whole which is a wealth of incredible cliffs, wondrous lochs, and gorgeous glens.

This particular shot was taken en route between Scotland’s famous Glen Coe and its equally famous and picturesque Eilean Donan Castle.  I love it because it highlights the raw beauty, and incredible light that defines the Scottish Highlands. The true brilliance of Scotland as a destination is that it is, as a whole, a destination. Far too often a nation’s wonders, natural beauty and charm are relegated to a few small areas inundated with tourists and cheesy shops. With Scotland, breathtaking moments like this are everywhere. The challenge is less a matter of finding them and more a matter of battling the weather long enough that it breaks.  Yet, even the surly Scottish weather is part of the country’s deep charm. It provides grand vistas, beautiful waterfalls and perpetual change set to an ancient natural backdrop.

Scotland is a must visit and somewhere I hope each and every one of you find your way to. Just be forewarned. One visit is almost never enough.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here.

This post was made possible in part by Sykes Cottages who provide a wide selection of self-catering holiday cottages.

Rain Over The Scottish Highlands – Weekly Travel Photo

Scottish Highlands

Located in the heart of Scotland, this wonderful lake and overlook draws tourists in part because its shape mirrors a map of Scotland. Each time I visit Scotland I find my way back to it – Loch Garry.  During a trip this past August, however, I got a very special view.  The clouds were mixed and created a beautifully lit backdrop while a light, warm, summer rain fell.  As those who have spent time in Scotland are aware, these rains seldom last for more than a few minutes.  In this black and white photo, you can see the rain drops, which I think gives the whole image a pencil-drawingish feel.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

My Mistake – How I Overlooked Camden

The Camden Lock

Is Camden Dangerous?

Let’s start with the basics…this post should likely be titled – “Camden – You’re not going to get shot, stabbed, murdered, or bludgeoned to death” but that seemed slightly too long and obtuse. The short answer to this concern is, “No it’s not dangerous and in fact, it’s relatively safe and downright awesome”.

The Camden Lock

My first trip to London was as part of a study abroad program through Arizona State University in 2004.  I spent three weeks in the city based out of Kensington just off the Earl’s Court metro station.  I explored the city, wandered its streets, and was in that perpetual state of wide-eyed awe that goes with your first study abroad experience.  Since that visit I’ve been back to London several times for a variety of reasons.  In 2007 I paused there as part of the early stages of my 3 month solo jaunt through Europe.  Last year I found myself back in London for the World Travel Market conference to chat travel and travel blogs.  In between I’ve found myself in London for layovers and other similar things a number of times.  However, one area of the city (well at least one) slipped through the cracks: Camden.

The Camden Lock

Somehow, despite my many visits to London, I never made it to Camden. Given the area’s reputation as being somewhat less than safe and recent attention after the series of riots that damaged the district, I suppose it wasn’t purely accidental that I never made it to the area.  After all, getting stabbed or mugged doesn’t exactly rank on most traveler’s top-10 list for London.  The running commentary about the area from British friends did little to assuage my fears.

The Camden Lock

Still, when the time came to book a hostel in London just a few days before the start of the Olympics my options were fairly limited.  It doesn’t help that London, for all of its other fantastic elements, is really a dreadful hostel city.  Sure it has a wealth of them but, most are shoddy, overpriced, run down, or old-model Hosteling International bedbug-ridden flea traps.  So, it was with some trepidation that I eventually settled on St. Christopher’s Camden Town hostel.  The rating was better than most and I was familiar with the St. Christopher’s franchise, if not an overly enthusiastic fan.  As with the rest of Camden, I shouldn’t have worried.  The hostel was acceptable and perfectly located in the heart of Camden.  It served as an easy meeting point, as it was also where I met my folks who arrived a few hours later on the same day.  I’ll admit I was more than a little nervous about how they would deal with staying in a hostel – after all my Dad is in his 70s and my Mom her early 60s.  Luckily they braved the hostel eagerly and I’ll even wager they enjoyed it a bit but more on that soon!

The Camden Lock

The Camden Town Charm

But Camden is why you’re reading this post right?  So here’s the scoop.  Camden is a vibrant neighborhood.  It is alive with tourists, immigrants, and a smattering of Brits.  The whole area is a mixture of gentrified and partly gentrified blocks which boast a busy jumble of health stores, fashion outlets, and street markets in a vibrant explosion of colors, scents, and sounds.  During the day the streets are nearly overwhelmed with people, especially in the area surrounding Camden Lock.  The biggest safety concern most need worry about is the area’s skilled and apparently prolific pickpockets.  Still, as is always the case in these types of areas, it’s just a matter of being attentive and properly prepared. Or perhaps looking really, really mean?

The Camden Lock

The mixture of shops and street stands provide a fantastic opportunity for people looking to do a bit of budget friendly shopping.  I saw everything from ornately carved jade jewelry to steampunk/goth clothing on display.  The area also provides a top-notch mixture of culinary options including the quirky food court area of Camden Lock which features outdoor bench seating in the form of the back half of old mopeds bolted to long tables overlooking the canal.  Though the most common types of food are Asian and Indian I spotted a wide variety including Mexican and burgers. The local restaurants are also wonderful.  We used Yelp to track down a great Thai restaurant which was cheap and offered fantastic lunch specials.

The Camden Lock

In short, it’s a vibrant, energetic, and highly enjoyable area to spend time in.  As a visiting tourist it’s a great budget friendly slice of London.  It is also located within walking distance of classic English neighborhoods, a main train station, and parts of London’s thriving downtown area.  The neighborhood boasts a wonderful mixture of bars and pubs including a local Brew Dog where we paused to try their Tactical Nuclear Penguin beer. Some of you may recognize the name as it was, for a brief time, the strongest beer in the world at 36%.  As you might expect, it doesn’t taste much like beer.

The Camden Lock

No matter what you’re looking for you’ll probably be able to find it in Camden.  It’s high on my list of areas to return to when I visit London again and I strongly suggest you at least visit it for the afternoon.  It is worth noting, however, that it isn’t the world’s safest district at night.  Be careful where you walk, stick to the main streets, and you’ll be fine.  Stray down dark alleyways or wander too far off the beaten path and…well…you’ll no doubt find and experience a far less enjoyable side of one of London’s most famous districts.

Have any questions about Camden?  Or comments, tips or suggestions?  I’d love to hear them!

Scottish Museum at Night – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo


Late on a crisp Scottish summer evening I set out to explore the capital city of Edinburgh. As I wandered the city’s storied streets I eventually found myself standing before a beautifully lit Museum. The museum is built and styled in traditional Greek form with beautiful doric columns and white marble. The museum is situated where the old loch once sat which was drained more than 100 years ago. More recently the area has been replaced by beautiful parks, the central train station, and importantly several museums and monuments.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Reflecting – The British Isles

Hello again, I’m currently writing from Berlin – Sorry for the lack of updates – there just hasn’t been time or quality access. I also apologize as I will inevitably switch out Ys and Zs during this post – the keyboards here in Germany are different and I may not have time to correct/notice all the errors.

During the final day in London I explored the city a bit more. Unlike the previous days where I had started out at Picadilly Circus or Leicester Square I decided to head toward the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the map I’d purchased didn’t quite extend that far. As a result, I ended up kinda guessing as I picked tube lines…meandered in their general direction. Eventually, I made it to the Tower of London where I poked around the outside a bit, walked along the water front (it was a beautiful, crisp day, with the occasional light misting/bone chilling breeze), then made a huge loop around the entire Tower. I decided not to pay to go in, as I’d done the tour in ’04 and a lot of the info was still fresh in my memory.

From there I wandered north – exploring the skyscrapers and eventually ending up in the financial district. It was awesome, so much energy and bustle. The architecture – Lloyds building especially – is spectacular. It’s also a pretty eye-opening experience standing in front of a medium-sized old gothic cathedral, and being surrounded by massive skyscrapers that dwarf everything.

After my meanderings I made my way back to the hostel, ate, took a nap, and tried to connect with some family friends by phone but didn’t have any luck. Then, decided that despite my aching legs and feet I should hit up the salsa club again for round two.

I was not disappointed. The experience was a blast. Great energy, friendly people, great dancers. Met two French girls who I ended up dancing with for a good chunk of the evening. We had a fun political discussion before calling it a night and I caught the last tube home – the tube closes down around 12:20 which is a major PIA.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed, splashed some water on my face and made my way to London Heathrow where I caught a nice flight on BMI over to Amsterdam. I’ll leave off there on the update part and focus on general reflections.

I really loved my time in the British Isles. Even – and perhaps more so – after this second visit I’m definitely still in love-fascinated by the Highlands. The beauty, richness, and majesty of them is captivating. My taste of England was also reallz enjoyable. It wasn’t planned but between Leeds, York and London I feel like my experience was diverse. York was incredible from a historical sense, it was beautiful, and rich. Leeds was an awesome university experience. The warm reception I recieved from Meagan and the guys/girls in her dorm was reallz fantastic.

The other side of Leeds that was truly fascinating was it’s business and economic prosperity. The city, while possesed of historic architecture is also very modern. A feeling added to by the mixture of contemporary architecture and Victorian era shops, markets, and buildings. It truly is a youthful, vibrant, beautiful city. My hunch is between the universities and the economzy – that it pulls a lot of the best and brightest from the small English towns across the country side and retains them.

London – Well London is London. The city’s depth and diversity is incredible. The history is fantastic and for a big city the people were decent as well.

The pound-dollar difference was really rough. It’s incredible what a difference it makes and how it changes the way you calculate things and view them. I suppose the benefit is that it forces you to pick more carefully what you choose to do as well as really increasing your level of awareness about how much you spend, where you spend, and the spending habits you have that you don’t even really realize you have. The lucky thing is that in general things in England are slightly cheaper e.g. – where a burger might cost us $6 it will only cost 4 pounds. I think that slight difference more than anything really saved me…that and finding ways to avoid the tourist areas and exploit that cost of living difference.

I would have loved to visit one of the Colliers offices while I was in GB – but just did not have the opportunity. It was really fun though seeing Colliers-for-lease signs up all over the place. Though I didn’t see a ton in London, they seemed to dominate Edinburgh. There were also a decent number in Leeds.

The last 48 hours have really been a different experience. I’ll write a bit more about it later, when I write on Amsterdam and Berlin – but briefly, it wasn’t until I arrived in Berlin that the language barrier really hit me hard and I really felt like … Ok, here I am. Just me. Right now. Right here. What the hell have I gotten myself into. Oh well – time to swim.

The Isles and Amsterdam were really a great soft transition. The architecture is different (though not AS different as say, Germany). Even the simple difference in background noise really effects the way you feel and think. In the Isles it was familiar, normal, ‘right’ if you will. Now it’s different, it seems almost wrong on a subconcious level. I find myself in a different state of mind – different perspective on how I fit into the culture and need to approach things in part because of it. My ears and brain are constantly scanning. Trying to locate the familiar or make sense of it. It’s incredible, but also definitely tiring. Hostels – so far they’ve been really good. Better than I expect. Some are loud, some are dirty, some are less secure than I’d like – but all in all the people have been fun, decent people. While there have been one or two nights where I couldn’t find someone to explore with, or socialize with – in most cases I’ve met people and found things to do. It’s definitely a different experience sharing a room with 10-20 perfect strangers.

It’s also really interesting to watch how standard protocol and rules go out the window. The mixture between cultures and environment creates a very unique experience. Especially between the sexes. Since many of the dorms are mixed and everyone is constantly coming and going things are much more sexually relaxed. While not, per say common – it’s not overly unusual for people to change quickly in the dark, sleep/walk/mingle in their boxers, or wander around in towels. Especially since most of the bathrooms-shower areas etc. that I’ve seen so far are mixed sex even if the dorm itself isn’t. In a lot of ways it’s much nicer and more natural (in a completely non-sexual way) than things are normally. I think the longer people spend traveling and in hostels, the more comfortable they become not only with themselves but interacting with and being around others.

Some have kitchens, others don’t. So far one of the biggest things I’ve found is the importance of a common area where people can mingle – and a common area with a ‘backpacker’ feeling to it – so people WANT to mingle. The greater the number of long-term residents typically the colder and more clickish the crowd. This can make it hard when you first arrive to try and mingle and meet people.

Drinking – both a blessing and a curse. While in no way necessary, it’s a big part of the travel experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that a new designation needs to be created for young (and perhaps old) travelers alike. That of the TA – the Traveling Alcoholic. Short of Salsa, i’ve found few ways to mingle, meet people, and cement bonds as quickly as sitting around the hostel drinking in the common area, or heading to the local pub, or a pub crawl with people after a long day spent exploring the city. In many ways I think it’s a major component of the hostel culture. It is that one thing that brings complete strangers together, provides a common interest that then allows friendships or at the very least social acquaintances to sprout.

It’s really something else traveling on my own. I knew it would be, but theres even more to it. I have not quite figured out how to put it into words, but when I do – I’ll let you know. Beyond that though, being forced to deal with and push through highly uncomfortable situations is really an incredible experience…One that builds confidence and really makes you more comfortable with facing decisions that scare you, or you don’t want to make.

Times running down, I’ll try and post my Amsterdam – and First Berlin experiences later tonight.

Sorrz again for the ys and zs!