If you have ever travelled with Ryan Air before, you’ll know that the flight schedule can be a little erratic. As mentioned in my previous blog post, we arrived late on a Thursday night in Scotland and the next flight to return wasn’t until Tuesday night. This gave us a full five days to explore beautiful Scotland – which is bigger than you might first think!
We woke early (we didn’t get a sleep in the whole trip – what kind of vacation was this?!) and headed back to Edinburgh airport to pick up our rental car. Given it was a Sunday morning the trip only took about 20 minutes on the Airport Flyer bus. The bus dropped us back at the main terminal in the same spot that we had caught it from on Thursday night.
Edinburgh Airport has a separate area where most of the rental car companies base themselves. The signs quickly led us to where we needed to be. The building houses about six to eight of the main rental car companies. We had opted for Hertz as I had heard horror stories about some of the British rental car agencies. We paid about $100 USD by booking directly on the US version of Hertz which gave us 36 hours in a class C car which was the full price with no added charges.
After a long wait behind some Germans who were being very Germanic with the customer service representative, we were finally on our way in our little Kia – which had diesel fuel that ended up being an awesome added bonus that we weren’t expecting. Nick was a pro, as usual, at adjusting to driving on the other side of the road. We had brought along our own GPS from Germany. It amazes me that the GPS has so far taken us all around continental Europe, but also Mallorca (a Mediterranean island) and then also the UK! A GPS is by far the best investment you can make on arrival in Germany.
Our first stop of the day was to visit my penpal that I mentioned in the previous post, Kimberley. Many years ago, my mum was an avid ‘Your Dog’ magazine reader. The magazines were about three or four months delayed by the time they reached NZ from the UK. There was a penpals wanted section. Mum posted an ad and before the magazine even hit NZ for sale, she started getting letters. Some were really odd, I remember her getting one from a man who wanted to know if she ran around in grass skirts all day! I guess he liked the idea of a native. The best, though, was when a letter arrived from a lovely lady in Scotland who had a daughter the same age as me.
Whenever a letter came for my mum from Michelle, one would also come from Kimberley. We figured out that this started about 20 years ago! It was always really exciting to get a letter from so far away. Stand out letters were one where I got a Teletubby toy (which you couldn’t get in NZ) and also one where they sent us a tape with them talking on it. We could only understand about every third or fourth word (hey, the Scottish accent is strong!) but it was awesome to hear how our penpals talked!
Eventually, as life and time goes on, we stopped writing letters to each other. However, as so happens with the internet, we reconnected and were all able to message each other on Facebook! When we planned our visit to Scotland, my first thought was to message Michelle and tell her that we would be coming to visit! My last minute planning almost failed when it turned out Kimberley had to work the night I had thought we’d be able to meet up, but as luck had it, our road trip was going to take us close enough by that we could all meet up.
The meeting point was set for Perth, Scotland. This was kind of ironic, given that I used to live in Perth, Australia! It was nice to see the little namesake. It didn’t look anything like Australia, for the record. We met up with them at a local’s hangout for a late breakfast. It was wonderful being able to meet the whole family that we had heard so much about. They were as nice as we had always imagined and the chats were great. It felt so natural, and I’m so glad we could meet them. I hope that we can meet up again before we leave Europe! I feel like we have a Scottish family and I’m really thankful to have that kind of relationship with people when we are so far from our respective homes.
Unfortunately we had to get back on the road. Our drive took us through the Highlands on extremely narrow roads. In some parts there were pull away bays – however it didn’t work so well if there were blind corners. Nick just committed and we made our way through safely. There were often sheep right next to the roads – some choosing to graze partly on the road. Our destination was Balmoral Castle, another place I had heard so much about growing up in NZ. It would be the third British royal castle we had visited!
We thought that the GPS had led us astray at first. It said we had arrived at our destination with no castle in sight. It turned out it was just a little further along the road – but bare in mind that if you do decide to visit that it isn’t well marked until you actually arrive. It was a very different experience than Windsor and Buckingham Palace. I had pre-purchased our tickets online – as usual – so we just had to walk up to the ticket centre and pick up the physical copy.
I wish we had known how casual this place was. It is the private property of the royal family and is not owned by the Crown. The estate covers 50,000 acres! It is a working estate hiring a large majority of the locals in it’s upkeep of forestry, farmland, herds of cattle and ponies – although we didn’t see any of those. Balmoral Castle has been an official residence of the British royal family since 1850, but it’s history dates back to the 1300s.
Access while visiting is limited to one room in the Castle, but you are free to walk the grounds. Gates close at 1700 but we were told you can walk the grounds after this. There was also a café on site serving drinks, warm food and snacks. I cannot reiterate enough how casual it was. Dogs were welcome, so dogs were everywhere. Families were having picnics in front of the castle that they had brought from home. There was a small pond we found and I couldn’t help but imagine all of the little royal children running around there over the generations, discovering the little frogs that we discovered and burning off some steam after the stuffy formalities.
We left as the weather started turning a little. The GPS took us on some crazy back roads that again ended up being single track for about half of the way to Inverness. The weather really rolled in over the Highlands, which I imagine is a daily occurrence with how green it still was. At some points it felt like we were really in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t come across another soul sometimes for several miles – and I loved it. So often our travels involve being packed amongst thousands of other tourists, all vying to get the best spot to see the same things. In this instance we were able to go at our own pace, experiencing the backlands of Scotland.
It took us about two hours to get from Balmoral Castle to our B&B in Inverness. It was our first experience in a B&B and I don’t think we would do it again. Our room was lovely – very homely and better than we could afford to pay at a hotel in the area. However, we weren’t allowed to eat in our room (and it was a decent walk to get food – particularly since it was pouring). People going to the bathroom and talking also woke us up – I guess the walls were a little thin. All of this for the especially cheap price of $150! Scotland was incredibly expensive – the pound conversion is not friendly to anyone. We ended up walking down to the nearest sit-in restaurant which was a Chinese place called Charlie Chans. It tied us over.
Our B&B provided breakfast between the hours of 0800 and 0900. This worked out well as we had a cruise booked the next morning to explore Loch Ness. As luck would have it, the horrible weather that carried through the night ended up clearing for us in the morning. After a hearty Scottish breakfast, we walked about six minutes down the road to the cruise ‘port’.
We opted for the ‘Reflection – The Queen’s cruise’ through Jacobite Cruises. The cruise was a little over three hours in duration and began by quietly sailing through the Caledonian Canal. There was a brief stop to pick up more passengers where we were able to experience a change in current height at the Victorian Lock Gate. It was breathtaking when the river opened up to the famous Loch Ness. The views of the surrounding Highlands were spectacular and uninterrupted with virtually no other boat traffic on the Loch.
The weather really helped the experience. The lake at one point was perfectly clear with no ripples apart from those caused by the boat. Apparently we had perfect ‘Nessie weather’ but unfortunately we didn’t catch a glimpse of any monsters. Even without the legend of Nessie, this area is still stunning and would absolutely draw visitors based on its physical beauty. Loch Ness holds more water than the rest of the UK combined – at some points it is deep enough to hold Big Ben twice over. No wonder there is the legend on what lies beneath!
On our return we drove out of Inverness to do a spot of grocery shopping – like we always do when we head to the UK. Afterwards we decided to walk back down into Inverness to check the town out and get some food. It was an odd kind of vibe. On the one hand, there were the obvious tourists. But, there appeared to be a lot of locals for a downtown area. It was actually a little depressing around there, but there were lots of shopping options to check out to ignore the odd undertone. I’m not quite sure, but I’m guessing there is actually a decent amount of drug use around there. Or maybe the weather just drives you insane. The weather of course turned, it is a necessity to carry an umbrella in Scotland at all times. Thankfully we had figured that out earlier.
We eventually ended up finding a place for dinner at one of the local pubs. For about 20 pound we got two huge pub meals and a few drinks – definitely the cheapest food we had experienced to date, even if we were sitting on beer soaked furniture! After a few drinks I decided that since we were in a pub that we had to have a game of pool. Except, it turned out it wasn’t a pool table. Hopes dashed. I think it was snooker.
After the huge pub meal we made our way back to the B&B, happy that we had umbrellas and rain jackets! We put in earplugs and ended up getting a good night of sleep.
The weather decided it wasn’t going to hold out for our last day in Scotland. We had figured that out the night before and we weren’t surprised to wake up to the consistent beat of rain against the window.
We rugged up and had our last Scottish breakfast before getting in our trusty Kia to head towards Drumnadrochit. We had sailed past the township the day before, but this time we would be heading there to check it out on land.
At 0915, we arrived at Borlum Riding Centre, 15 minutes early as stated in the email confirmation. Along with the four others on our ride (including a young girl aged around 8 or 9) we were promptly mounted on our steeds and set out at exactly 0930. Trail rides are available to children aged seven and over. Younger children are able to have pony rides at the stables. The rain persisted; however it didn’t appear to dampen any spirits. We all talked about it being more of an authentic experience in the Highlands.
When I had emailed about the trail ride, I had asked to ride a Highland pony. I have always had a weird, secondary bucket list of experiences rather than places. One of them was to ride a Highland pony in the Scottish Highlands, one is to ride a Connemara pony in the Connemara region in Ireland and the other is to ride an Icelandic pony in Iceland. A far off dream is to pat a Shetland pony in the Shetland Islands. I was duly placed on Bilbo, a 14hh Highland pony. He was incredible, such a lovely, well-schooled pony and I would love nothing more than to have him as my own!
The one hour long ride took us through gorgeous, lush green paddocks where spring lambs were still on their mothers. We made it up to a lookout over Urquhart Castle, which was unexpected and it was wonderful to see it from another angle that can’t be seen by walking around the ruins or from the boat like we had seen the day before.
Our horses took us over the hill and back down through the paddocks to return us to the stables. There was only a short period of crossing back over the same path, meaning there were different breathtaking views and scenery throughout the whole trail ride. Sadly, the one-hour ride was too short for me. I would have loved to keep riding Bilbo all day.
Sadly, we said good-bye to our horses and headed to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. This is one of the main attractions in Drumnadrochit and one we absolutely wouldn’t miss. I had actually assumed that it was going to be a museum-like place, but it wasn’t. We arrived and were ushered through different areas with different videos played. It was actually a good way of doing it though, as I find I lose concentration in museums and just rush through exhibits. This way, you’re kind of forced to hear all of the information. It only took about 30 minutes and then we were released into a small exhibition area.
I guess I had expected a little more for the entrance fee, but then again, I do feel like we found out a lot surrounding the legend and how it came about. I wasn’t aware of most of the scientific experiments (most of which took place in the 1980s) and how a lot of the photographic evidence has since been debunked.
It was time for us to head back to Edinburgh. The weather packed in pretty badly on the way back which slowed the drive a little bit, but we did make it back in the time that the GPS said it would be – about three hours. Just beware, if you do take the main road from Inverness to Edinburgh, there is a large period where there didn’t appear to be any food or petrol options. Fill the tank before you leave Inverness!
The checking back in of our car with Hertz was incredibly easy. It ended up that the guy checking us in was a kiwi, so as we were part of the expat kiwi club, we were quickly checked back in with no hassles. The Kia only took half a tank of diesel for the entire trip! We filled her back up before returning it to Hertz, I think that cost about 40 pounds.
I hope that we get to return to Edinburgh at least once before we leave – maybe next time we would try to make it to St Andrews and the Isle of Skye. I did mention Shetland Islands earlier – I think we could make it happen with some good planning!
Until next time!