Monday, October 10, 2016

Scotland 2016

Ten Years.  It’s a milestone, and after ten years of blissful marriage, a travel-loving couple ought to celebrate with a trip worthy of the event.

Scotland and Iceland have always been on our wish list, and although the original plan included visits to both, my “European Work” event of 2016 and all the additional travel that created for everyone meant that scaling back to “just Scotland” was the smart thing to do.  Kelly set out planning our next trip of a lifetime, and left me in the dark – just as I requested.  “I don’t want to know what’s happening until we pull into the parking lot,” I said quite bravely.  

Our flight out from Chicago was a bit delayed in departing, but it’s funny how that’s not really a big deal when sitting in International First Class – HA!  We enjoyed the fine dining, cocktails, and cushy lie-flat reclining seats for the nine hours to Dublin.  Then reality slapped us around a bit on our propeller powered puddle hopper (we got bumped due to the plane being above weight). We arrived a few hours late, unscathed and welcomed by unseasonably dry and warm weather in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle
Friday: Day one started with a short nap in the swanky Old Town apartment that Kelly booked – a veritable stone’s throw from Edinburgh Castle.  Jet lag induced Zombie-ness  subdued, we went out for a walk through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival followed by dinner at a proper pub.  That night we could hear the bagpipes and drums from the Castle just up the hill.  

Saturday: Day two in Edinburgh, we visited the excellent National Museum of Scotland listened to a few street buskers, and caught a decent comedian putting on a free show.  After dinner we enjoyed premium seats at the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, which showcased bands, pipes and drums, drill teams and dancers from all over the world, capped off with fireworks and more perfect weather.
Glengoyne Distillery
Sunday: The next morning we drove north – out of the hectic city and quickly into the countryside. First stop was the Glengoyne distillery where Kelly had arranged a private Malt Master class for us to tour the facility and try our luck at mixing our own whisky from cask samples.   The results were…interesting…?  We managed to swill our own very booze throughout trip (and also used a bit of it to clean cuts and scrapes acquired during later hikes, but never mind if it served better as an antiseptic). Yeah, it was a wee bit strong. 

Finnich Glen
On our way north to the Highlands we found a hidden place called Finnich Glen.  We hiked down a muddy gorge to a spot called the Devil’s Pulpit, located in an 80-100 foot ravine, cut by a copper colored river.  There are mysterious light shafts and features in the rock walls that seem to form faces that follow your movements.  We were a bit apprehensive about the approach (known as “The Devil’s Steps”), a steep, slick, muddy descent with nothing stopping a potential fall - until we saw a couple kids and a Shih Tzu come bounding up the gully.  So um, yeah, guess we’re goin’ in, damn the consequences and white fluffy dogs be damned too.  Safely at the bottom and only slightly butt muddied, we wade in the frigid waters and were surprised to find that we could see our breath in the cool air. Properly wet and dirty, we left there and started our real journey – to Glencoe. 

You know, I’ve heard people talk about how beautiful the Scottish Highlands are.  We’ve been around the world a bit, and seen some pretty cool places, natural wonders, etc. so like, how “beautiful” could the Highlands possibly be…honestly?

Holy.  Fu&k!ng.  Sh/tB@lls.

I don’t think there has been anywhere as stunning as the landscape we’ve enjoyed as much as the Highland mountains and hills around Glencoe.  We can’t take a picture or describe in words how remarkable it is.  Driving around windy roads, hiking on trails, and saying to each other, “oh look over to the left, the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.  And to the right, the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.  And straight ahead oh DAMMIT IT’S THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEW I HAVE EVER SEEN. Just knock it off already OMG…SERIOUSLY?!?!?  WITH THE RAINBOWS???!!!”
We stayed at a lovely Bed and Breakfast, and had dinner that night at the famed  Clachaig Inn, sharing a table with a honeymooning Dutch couple (seriously…who do I need to pay off for these people to leave me alone?) while listening to live Scottish music. Monday We hiked the Devil’s Staircase – a wee hill trail that’s included as part of the West Highland Way (think Appalachian Trail but shorter, and with a Scottish accent). Upon advice of our B&B host, we went off trail the extra 150 meters up to the top of Stob Mhic Mhartuin for fantastic views down the glens. Later that day, thoroughly exhausted and blistered and windblown , we drove the road to James Bonds Skyfall house – in Glen Etive. 
Munro - Stob Mhic Mhartuin

Tuesday: Next day was spent on a quest for a mysterious art gallery somewhere on the road to the Isle of Mull, and another in Oban…which involved 3 increasingly larger ferry rides and a glimpse of the outer highlands before the Western Isles and the Hebrides rise from the sea– definitely places on our itinerary for the next visit. 
Somewhere on Mull

 Wednesday: Sad to leave Glencoe, we took a drizzly drive east to Cairngorms National Park, making a stop at the Highland Folk Museum to check out how folks in the 1700’s lived in the mud and thatched roofs and stuff. And some crazy talk about it being an “Outlander” film location. Not necessarily “riveting,” but interesting, and enough of a time killer until Kelly’s next surprise...

Highland Folk Museum
Kelly navigates us to our next stop - rather sheepishly...(ha!) a working sheep farm with BORDER COLLIES!!!   I try to contain all the feels and watch the black-and-whites at work during a herding demonstration.  And I really had held it all together quite well…Until… 

They unleashed.  The PUPPIES.  And I seriously considered the ramifications of sneaking one lovely little lady out in my jacket.  No, I’m NOT CRYING.  I just have a little dust or something.  In both of my eyes…

We expected the Cairngorms to be of “lesser” grandeur than Glencoe, but honestly they did not disappoint at all.  We enjoyed driving on steep and windy roads past rivers and castles, in and out of little towns and villages, past rolling hills of heather, arriving at a cabin in the woods that Kelly had booked for 3 relaxing nights.  

After using the first day to stock the kitchen and catch our breath a bit from all the week’s activities, Thursday finds us just chilling out around the property, walking among the forests of the estate, which whets our appetite for something “bigger.”  So Friday we went to the Linn o’ Dee (such funny names around these parts) for a seven mile hike towards An Sgarsoch (we stopped at the White Bridge). The delightfully flat path took us through a winding heather covered valley next to the River Dee. 
Linn O'Dee
Luckily we picked a nice breezy day in an open locale to avoid the midges (nasty, bitey, little nosee-em bugs…way worse than any mosquito swarm…) and for mile after mile enjoy sun and clouds, wind and a misty rain, bikers and hikers, and saw stone settlements along the river valley that were abandoned long ago.  We said a cheery hello to several packs of unsupervised teens on scout camping trips – after all, with basically zero crime and benign wildlife, how much danger could they possibly get into?

Saturday was our drive from the Cairngorms back to Edinburgh, with a stop off at Kelly’s final surprise destination – the Braemar Gathering – for a day of Highland Games. 

Once again we’re flooded with the sounds of bagpipes and drums and thick Scottish brogues as we watch foot races, dance-offs, high jumpers, tug-o-war contests, and big stout men in kilts throwing unreasonable large objects.  There’s whisky and food, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.  No, really!  The spry 90 year old monarch, being the patron of the games, attends them almost every year, so we chummed up, shared some grub, whisky toasts, and talked about the whole Brexit nonsense.  She liked my ideas, totally has a plan now.

From Braemar, we drove all the way back to Edinburgh, with a quick stop in Perth.  It took some mental adjusting as we got closer and closer to the capital city as the roads got busier and busier.  We returned the car and made our way to the hotel for our flight to Amsterdam the following day.  Don’t worry, we only spent about 24 frantic hours in The Netherlands to gather up my things from the work assignment which is now ended.  The following day we caught a flight with Iceland Air back to Chicago, which is cool because it means a quick layover in (duh…) ICELAND!  Although we didn’t leave the airport, we did get our passports stamped, and got a chance to speak to some other travelers about their visit and are certain that we’ll make it there for a proper vacation in the future.  Until then, we’re both back in the US for the foreseeable future.

A map of our travels:

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Cheese Curds & Beer

Once again, the Claytors were lucky enough to accept an invitation to the Wisconsin north woods and join the Nobles at their family’s lake house.  This was especially great this year because it meant that a much needed break for Chris coming home from working in Europe…
Did someone order some kick-ass with a side of freedom?
Sadly we were short one kid, Colin had scored some concert tickets that he didn’t want to miss out on. And besides that, he had already endured 2 full weeks vacationing with us in Holland (poor kid) so it was all the “drinking age” Claytors on this trip!
Cocktail Cruise – Engaged!
As happened last year, there was all manner of swimming, boating, watersports, paddleboarding, and good ‘ole relaxing family time.

We all again flexed all our foodie muscles and cooked up steaks, chicken, brats, and Chris’s Maryland Crab Cakes (probably made enough for half the houses on the lake…!)

And no matter how life is treating you, we’re pretty convinced that the cure for anything that ails you, is a good soaking in fresh water, a bold refusal to count calories, being out of wifi range, and falling asleep to the sounds of loons calling across a north woods lake. Kelly and Caitlin had a close up encounter when a tiny hummingbird hit the cabin window and fell into Caitlin's hoodie. Kelly carefully extricated the bird and let it sit out the next round of cocktails while it recovered. The bird flew off into the pine trees a little while later - with Kelly yelling, "It's ALIVE!!!" and throwing her hands up, victorious. She sure does like The Nature.

We can’t wait for next year to hopefully do it again!

Kelly and Colin go Europe-ing

While discussing the trivialities of completing his freshman year at high school over caviar and crumpets, Colin and I decided to jet off to Europe like proper spoiled people do in the summertime, and track down a particularly misplaced guy we all like to refer to as “Chris”. Don’t worry – we held our pinkies out while drinking our Perrier, pushed our noses high and wore cashmere. As people do. Cause this wasn’t the Boy’s first foray to Europe…it’s all so “been there done that”, you know? I’d actually never been – was always smart, and stopped when I got to Ireland or the UK, no need to go any further. 

We packed our bags – proper Euro travelers with our nifty backpack suitcases – mine weighed 873 pounds, the Boy’s pack weighed 7 (that should have been a clue, but we’ll just leave that there…cause, you know, it’s not like I asked him 27 times if he’d packed, you know, pants.)

We arrived in Amsterdam and found the train to Dordrecht. When we arrived, lo-and-behold we got off the train and there stood the walking epitome of America, right before our very eyes…the only thing that would have made Chris stand out more is if he had wrapped himself in an American Flag with cowboy boots and a couple of pistols strapped to his hips. Freedom. 

Next day, Colin and I head off to Rotterdam via the water taxi and I got to try out my Dutch skills. Yeah. I don’t have any Dutch skills. But lucky for us, I know how to say “Do you speak English” in five - that’s right FIVE - languages. But really, there was no need…the Dutch look at us and automatically speak English without even having to ask. Could be the ‘Merica hat and absence of an infinity scarf... hard to say. 

In Rotterdam we saw funky architecture – the Market Hall and the cube houses and a variety of tall buildings that looked like stacked shipping containers on steroids. Rotterdam had been obliterated in the war, and instead of recreating and building what once was, the people decided to be avante garde and progressive instead, which is pretty damn cool. 

Then we found our way to the museum campus, and Colin elected to go in the Natural History Museum. This was not your usual Natural History Museum – I affectionately refer to it as the “Museum of Mostly Dead Things” -   primarily because the very first exhibit we looked at was – and I’m not exaggerating at all – “Dead Animals with a Story” and the very first item on display was a homosexual necrophiliac duck. I kid you not (the link is a fairly entertaining read). It was followed by a sparrow that was shot and killed after it knocked over a large domino display, a half smashed mouse still stuck in a mousetrap, a rat found behind the wall after it received a nail gun to the head during a renovation, a gopher with its head stuck in a yogurt container, and a pigeon that had an unfortunate run in with the museum ceiling fan. The next room was filled with floaty dead things in formaldehyde, followed by furry stuffed dead things stuck to the walls, and a room full of the bones of dead things…and of course, the hall of skinned dead things. I’ve just now realized: Dutch museums are super creepy. You all should totally go.

We ventured out the next day to see a medieval castle. We had to take the scenic route, as we found out that in order to take the ferry from a fort to the castle, you had to call the ferry guy ahead of time for a ride…it was an on demand personal ferry…that’s fantastic. 

Two things noted while gallivanting through the Netherlands countryside: there’s a lot of water…like a lot, and it’s way flatter than Chicago – which is to say, it’s pretty damn flat. About half the country is below sea level. Chris actually rode his bike every day downhill (from the river) to work. I know that the Dutch were invited to the USA to help New Orleans work through solutions after Hurricane Katrina – and they certainly have centuries of experience making it work. Except that one time when the sea took out an entire town…but Chris can tell you about that a little later.

We went to De Hoge Veluwe, a National Park located towards the center of Netherlands. It’s a pretty cool set up – there’s a free bike rental system with open/on demand white cruiser bikes available at various locations throughout the park. There’s 40 kilometers (see how Euro we are now – METRIC!) of bike trails that take you through evergreen and deciduous forests as well as an odd section of sand dunes. 

Colin and I spent a fine damp day at the windmills in Kinderdijk (Chris was working). It’s the largest remaining concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands, built in the 18th century, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. A few windmills are set up for tourists to go inside, but the remainder have been modernized and people currently live in them. 
We stopped in a little shop on our way back to get a gift for our neighbors – they take care of Otter when we travel and we take care of Riley when they do – so we always exchange trinkets as a thank you. Had a lovely chat with the owner of a little sort of antiques shop and settled on a little etching of a windmill from the 1740’s. He commented “I always sell windmills to Americans” and I explained to him that for the most part, Americans identify “Holland” with Amsterdam, Windmills, and wooden shoes. I thought the little picture I bought was quite a steal, until I realized that over there – it’s not old. The church they have in town has floor tombs dating from the 1300’s. So yeah, some little trinket from the 18th century just isn’t that big a deal to them. It just so happens to be before we became a country…but yeah, whatever, right?

That ended my time as a Netherlands tourist. Colin got to stay another week – and Chris can pick up how that all went down…
What?  Who says it went “down?” I mean, yeah Colin voluntarily stayed an additional week with his wayward father in a very wet and below sea level country…what were we talking about?

Right. Freedom.

After depositing Kelly at the bustling Schiphol Airport, Colin and I continued north a few more train stops to Amsterdam.  After a proper English Breakfast at a Turkish diner in the Dutch capital, we set about wandering.  Colin really dug seeing all the canals, bridges, boats, and bikes.  After a while, we arrive at a tour kiosk and select a package deal for the Amsterdam Museum, Madame Tussaude’s Wax Museum, and a Canal Tour.  

The Amsterdam Museum was nice, but basic history as expected, and we practice a few Dutch phrases with the staff.  At one point an older American Couple very slowly and with exaggerated enunciation asked if we’d take their picture.  “Wow…they must think we’re ‘slow’ or something” I thought, until they ask politely if we speak English.  Pretty funny stuff.  Clearly I’ve been here too long. 

Madame Tussaud’s was both impressive and creepy – the wax figures are as realistic as advertised.  At some point as Colin and I wind through the halls and stairwells, we realize that we’re somehow mixed in with a young school group about Colin’s age. “Hey Colin…” I nod in the direction of the herd… “there’s a young girl over there…you should go talk to her…”  Slightly embarrassing the poor boy only encourages me to continue every time we see a suitable target…it's a father/son right of passage, amiright?

We do some more wandering taking in the culture and old buildings and alleyways, and even skirt around the very edge of some kind of “district” that has a lot of “red.” light bulbs.  I have no idea what that’s all about but I think the locals should invest in some additional articles of clothing.  Although they must have been cold they sure looked awfully friendly?  Oh well…maybe someone will explain it to us one day.

Lastly we board a Canal Tour consisting of us Americans and about 50 Indonesians, and after an hour long ride through the city, caught the hour long train back to my temporary home in Dordrecht.

On another day we took a drive to the Zeeland area of Holland – out on the edge of the North Sea. After a 1953 storm basically wiped out the entire province, significant engineering projects were implemented to protect the land and residents from flooding.  We visit the Deltawerken Museum on Neeltje Jans,  dedicated to both the disaster and building projects which includes (ironically?) a water park.  There’s something about these Dutch folks that isn’t quite right…

On work days, Colin was left to his own devices with a pocketful of Euros and a vague sense of where we were living.  It all worked out fine, as the most trouble he could get into in my sleepy little town was to go out and get a haircut.

After his week "solo" in Europe, we had back to Schiphol Airport on a rainy Monday (they’re all rainy in Holland, by the way) for his unaccompanied flight home to Kelly. I'm sure it went fine. No doubt he made it there...what could could possibly go wrong with a fifteen year old kid flying through Europe alone...right?

Anyone seen Colin?