My 2008 adventure took me and my sister-in-law Carol (who perfectly matched my hit- the-ground-running style of travel) to Scotland. Our eleven-night journey took in three separate cities – Edinburgh, Inverness, and Glasgow – and the barge cruise! We anticipated this trip for months but it far surpassed our expectations. We were so pleasantly surprised at the scenery, the history, and the very courteous and friendly people. The Scottish Highlander took us on the beautiful Caledonian Canal a series of four lakes (or lochs, in Scotland): Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Dochfour and of course the famed Loch Ness! We floated from east to west between Dochgarroch on the Inverness end and Banavie at the Fort William end. We found breathtaking heather filled mountains, bagpipe concerts, romantic castles, awesome waterfalls with rainbow backdrops and battlefields and museums filled with Scotland’s long turbulent history.
Edinburgh: We arrived on a Thursday and began sampling many of the fun-filled activities this city is so famous for. We immediately made our way to the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s most historic street: anchored by the Edinburgh Castle on one end and the Royal Palace on the other. The Royal Mile is a hub of activity-loaded with street performers and a rare mixture of shops. It is here that J.K. Rowlings went to school. It is easy to see where she got her inspiration as we passed many magical and mystical shops. For sightseeing, I would recommend the late night haunted tour of the underground vaults and the great malt whiskey tasting. Walking to the train station on Saturday allowed us to shop along Princess Street before boarding our train to Inverness.
Inverness: We arrived in Inverness on Saturday afternoon. Just to get the feel of the place, we walked from the railroad station to the Glenmoriston, our barge pickup hotel. Our room had enormous windows over looking River Ness. We immediately set out to explore. Inverness was a charming, smaller city filled with weekend warriors. Boisterous singing and laughter could be heard from every local pub. We choose to stroll along the River and enjoy the beautiful scenery outside. Carol wore her “Ohio State Mom” sweatshirt. People approached us all day to talk football! That night I had to be dragged back to the hotel (it stays light almost 17 hours a day in summer) but we did have to be rested for our 7-day Scottish Highlander cruise!
Sunday – We board in Inverness: Pickup wasn’t until late afternoon so after breakfast I went shopping. I managed to find a local flea market located just over the bridge. It was fun bargaining in pounds. Yes, I did get some deals! For the shoppers, there were cute little streets everywhere with a variety of stores. We even found a two-story mall tucked in the corner but the day was too nice to be inside. The rest of the afternoon we sat in the village square listening to local musicians, sampling foods and just enjoying being part of the local scene.
At 4:00pm Captain Dan and Tour Guide Ryan met us in the lobby of the Glenmoriston and escorted us to the Scottish Highlander moored at nearby Dochgarroch. We were greeted with a Champagne Welcome and shown to our cozy rooms. The evening was spent getting to know our fellow passengers, who soon became fast friends. There were two other couples besides us. Ron and Pam were from Georgia and Nicole and Alain were from France. What a great mixture of cultures! Mealtime soon became my favorite part of the day, as our fellow passengers were so fun and interesting.
Monday-Dochgarroch to Loch Ness: Breakfast was creamy Scottish Porridge. Today we toured the 14th century fairytale Cawdor Castle. Someone actually lives in this castle during the winter and opens it up for the tourists during the summer months. The inside was decorated with lavish tapestries and furniture while the outside had the most inviting and beautiful gardens. In the afternoon we also visited Culloden Moor, a new museum and battlefield site recreated to show the bloody battle fought in April 1746 killing over 1,200 in just one hour. It was the last battle to be fought on British soil. You really experience first hand what the Jacobites saw on this day.
We cruised across Loch Ness, which was much bigger and deeper than I had imagined. The Highlands are very sparsely populated. You see wonderful ferns, evergreens and beautiful purple heather wherever you look. That night we moored on the south shore of Loch Ness near Fort Augustus Abbey.
Tuesday-Loch Ness to Fort Augustus: Two of us were brave and tried kippers for breakfast. Everyone else ate a full Scottish Breakfast of eggs, ham or bacon. As we cruised up the staircase of the five locks leading into Fort Augustus, I felt like a celebrity. (People gather to watch and cheer the vessels coming through these locks.) We moored at Fort Augustus, a tiny town on the Canal between Loch Ness and Loch Lochy, and took off to explore. I found a wonderful glass shop and bought an adorable wine stopper. Of course there is always the shop for kilts and sweaters. There was also a free museum showcasing the canal. You would not know this was a small town from the amount of people walking around.
After lunch we returned by van to Loch Ness and toured Urquhart Castle which hugs the shore. Urquhart Castle is a ruin overlooking the most spectacular views imaginable. This was a magnificent day. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing making a perfect setting for photo shots. Not to mention this is a top Nessie-spotting location. No luck for us! We also toured Invermoriston Falls. This was another beautiful area with rolling waterfalls and hiking trails. It was great to get out and walk through the middle of all that nature. We returned to the barge moored at Fort Augustus and dressed for dinner out at the Boathouse Restaurant.
Wednesday-Fort Augustus to Cullochy Loch: Our van drove through the most dramatic views I have seen yet. Imagine being face to face with a rainbow! We were really high up in the mountains going through Glen Moriston as we drove to the romantic medieval Eilean Donan Castle, setting for the film Highlander. This 13th century stronghold of the clan Macrae was a ruin until a complete restoration was done in the 20th century. This is one of the most photographed castles in all of the U.K. because of its mountainous setting. We were amazed at the wonderful artifacts, furniture and photographs as we passed from room to room.
Carol and I went for a bike ride after lunch and found a great 4-mile long towpath. We brought the rest group back for a walk. Dinner was Turkey rolled and filled with stuffing. That evening we went to a very impressive Clansman Exhibit of the life and weaponry of the Clansman. The Highland people are very proud of their ancestry and try very hard to keep it alive. I enjoyed this demonstration immensely.
Thursday-Cullochy Lock to Gairlochy: We cruised through Lochs Oich and Lochy to Gairlochy. After breakfast we sat on deck and admired the scenery floating by. Our tour today was to the woolen mill at Spean Bridge that sells beautiful traditional knitwear and tweeds. One of our fellow passengers was on a kilt quest. The fisherman of our group, Ron decided to stay back and try his hand at catching us lunch. After our shopping spree Captain Dan let us steer the Scottish Highlander. Dinner was a Salmon dish, my favorite. We spent the evening playing games and cards. I enjoyed the spontaneity of the day. The crew was very accommodating to our wishes. Sara made sure we were always well taken care of while we were on the barge.
Friday-Gairlochy to Banavie: We went to Ben Nevis Distillery to see one of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland. This distillery is nestled at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, which has a summit elevation of 4,406 feet above sea level. It was fun to get an insight into the various stages of Whiskey making and a tasting was included. We returned to the woolen shop so we could finish up with last minute souvenirs. Someone suggested having an impromptu afternoon tea party so we picked up some scones and the crew surprised us with a magnificent presentation of whipped butter and jam. The crew was so sincere in making our trip memorable.
Tonight was the Captain’s dinner and we met at 6:00 for cocktails. While getting ready I could hear laughter coming from the cabin next door to me. We soon found out why. Alain, our mischievous fellow passenger emerged from his cabin wearing the kilt he had hunted so hard to find. We were having a great time sipping Champagne and laughing when suddenly we heard a bagpipe getting closer and closer. We had our own bagpipe concert right on the barge. He was the bagpipe player in the beginning of the Highlander movie. What a treat that was! At dinner, Captain Dan was a very charming host and surprised us afterwards with his own accordion solo. It was a wonderful way to end our stay aboard this charming country barge that we called home this week. Carolyn our Chef did a fantastic job and we all wanted to take her home with us!
Saturday-Arrive in Glascow: A very sad day as we ate our last breakfast aboard the barge. We left by 10:00am for the train station. All of us were on the same train to Glascow together. Our friends went on to Edinburgh. We walked to our hotel, which was a few blocks from the train station and right in the heart of the shopping and cultural district. We immediately went out walking around but one night just wasn’t adequate to see everything.
I was extremely happy with The Carlton George Hotel a four star hotel. The room was exquisitely decorated and included a complimentary minibar, a selection of teas and coffees, crystal decanters of whiskey, gin and sherry, robe and slippers and wireless internet. The staff was very friendly and helpful in every way. Also exclusively for Hotel Guests there is an Executive Lounge open from 4-11pm serving complimentary beverages and snacks. It is a wonderful relaxing atmosphere with an open fireplace. Most of the guests were waiting to be seated in the popular Windows restaurant located right down the hall. We choose to eat at the Waxy O’Connor’s which is 6 unique bars covering 3 levels that are linked together by a maze of staircases and passages. You enter Waxy O’Connor’s through a private door. What more could you ask for on our last day in Scotland.
Sunday-Depart to Chicago: Our sad farewell to Scotland. We were adventurous and took a bus from our hotel to the airport. It was amazingly easy. The bus stop was a block away, went straight to the airport, cost 4 pounds and had plenty of storage racks for luggage. We made it with plenty of time to spare. What a memorable and exciting trip!!!