Scotland: Walking the West Highland Way (Sept 30 to Oct 6, 2015)

After two months in Ireland, I returned to Scotland (see previous posts), this time to walk the West Highland Way. This 96-mi (154-km) long footpath through the Scottish highlands is listed among the top 20 epic trails in the world by National Geographic magazine (http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/best-trails/worlds-best-grail-trails/#/west-highland-way-scotland_56346_600x450.jpg).

So how did I spend 7 days in the Scottish highlands? Trekking of course!

Upon arriving in Glasgow, I reconnected with Dave (England) who I’d met in Chile (Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) and traveled with for almost three weeks in Argentina (El Bolson, El Chalten, and Bariloche). From Glasgow, we took a short train ride to the small town of Milngavie where the trail begins. After getting a map and taking a few pictures, we started the walk.

The West Highland Way links hike/bike trails between the small towns and villages it passes through. Per Wikipedia, parts of the trail follow ancient roads such as drover’s roads (to herd livestock), military roads, and coaching roads. Upon its opening in 1980, the West Highland Way became the first officially designated long distance footpath in Scotland, and in 2010, it was co-designated as part of the International Appalachian Trail.

While on the trail, Dave and I trekked through varying landscapes including rolling pasture lands dotted with black-faced sheep, native grass and shrub lands, and valleys bordered by rugged mountains, crossed numerous rivers and small streams, and walked for a day and a half along the shores of 23-mi long Loch Lomond. We also walked through patches of woodland and forest, some natural and some artificially created. Per the West Highland Way website, most of Scotland’s pine forests are made up of nonnative species such as sitka spruce, larch, and douglas fir. However, ancient Caledonian pinewood forests (consisting of Scots pine, juniper, birch, willow, rowan, and aspen trees) once spread across thousands of kilometers of the highlands. These native forests now remain at just 84 protected sites covering 180 km2 in the north and west where restoration is ongoing. Walking through the patches of forest was beautiful, contrasting sharply with the vast areas of pasture and grasslands, but walking through the patches of ancient pinewood forest was magical.

Along the way, we passed through several small towns and villages, the “villages” typically consisting of a hotel or lodge with a pub welcoming walkers to rest, use the facilities, and have a pint. Similar to my previous experiences in Scotland, the locals were very friendly, being used to hordes of walkers on the West Highland Way. Fortunately for us, we walked during the low season and therefore often had long stretches of the trail to ourselves, meeting only a handful of other walkers during the day. On our first day, we met Richard, a Scotsman, who we ended up walking and camping with intermittently throughout the rest of the trek. We was a wealth of information about Scotland, the highlands, and the walk. And, he walked in a kilt, adding to my Scottish walking experience (ha!). While many walkers opt to stay at the hotels along the trail, Dave and I tent camped each night, mostly at developed campgrounds. Besides having access to facilities (i.e., toilets and showers), camping at developed campgrounds also allowed us to enjoy a pint with our fellow walkers at the end of the day. A perfect way to end a long day of walking!

On our last day, Dave and I did a 10-mi (16-km) roundtrip side hike to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the United Kingdom at 4,409 ft (1,343 m) then walked the last few miles of the end of the trail in Fort Williams. The summit was cold, windy, raining, and thick with clouds, preventing any type of view, but it was a great end to our 7-day adventure.

Walking the West Highland Way was a great way to explore the beautiful Scottish highlands, and my experience was made even more memorable by the people with whom I walked. Oh, and by the amazingly good weather we enjoyed for most of the trek (which we were told repeatedly is quite unusual). Thanks Dave for trekking with me again!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/WVWTA4mPFrn3h1aB7

Enjoy!

DSC02709

DSC02717

DSC02763

DSC02791

DSC02875

DSC02926

Advertisements

UK/Europe: Ireland, Scotland, and France (July 7 to 29, 2015)

After exploring and trekking in South America for about 5 months (see previous posts), it was time to move on. I had an unforgettable experience in South America and definitely plan to return to explore the beautiful landscapes and cultures of the countries I didn’t get to visit, and revisit some of my favorite areas and new friends.

From Latacunga (Ecuador), I took a day bus to Guayaquil (Ecuador) where I caught a 14-hour flight to Dublin, Ireland, to join Steve and his mom, Glenda (Texas) and his brother, Jim, and friend, Sam (Illinois) on their 3-week vacation in Ireland, Scotland, and France. Steve, Glenda, and Jim had been planning this vacation for several years so I felt very lucky to be able to join them.

So, what did we do for 6 days in Dublin, Ireland? Explore the city and it’s pubs of course!

Dublin, the capitol of the Republic of Ireland, is a large bustling city (population 527,612) which, due to its accessibility, has a small city appeal. We stayed in a great apartment close to all the action. We spent most of our time exploring the city but also visited the small coastal village of Howth, about a 30 minute train ride northeast of Dublin. We had a great time walking around and checking out the sights, which of course, included the pubs where we chatted with the locals. Per Lonely Planet, “Dubliners at their ease are the greatest hosts of all, a charismatic bunch whose soul and sociability are so compelling and infectious that you mightn’t ever want to leave.” It’s so true! We were amazed time and time again by the genuine friendliness of the people we met on the street, on the train or bus, at restaurants, and at the pub.

From Dublin, we flew to Edinburgh, Scotland and stayed in Elie, about an hour north of Edinburgh and more importantly to Steve, Jim, and Sam, about 30 minutes from the town of St Andrews, the “home of golf” and the location of the 2015 Open Championship.

What did we do for 7 days in Elie, Scotland? Explore the beautiful Scottish coastline and immerse ourselves in golf of course!

We stayed in a beautiful house with a front patio overlooking the beach. Elie is a quaint, charming coastal village (population 940) whose resident population swells in the summer with tourists enjoying the beaches, watersports, and golf courses. We explored the idyllic coastal towns between Elie and St Andrews. While much larger than Elie, St. Andrews (population 16,680) is also charming. Per Wikipedia, “St Andrews is known worldwide as the “home of golf” in part because the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, founded in 1754, exercises legislative authority over the game worldwide (except in the United States and Mexico), and also because the famous links course is the most frequent venue for The Open Championship, the oldest of golf’s four major championships.” The day before the start of The Open, we toured the famous golf course and got to see several famous players (i.e.,Tom Watson and John Daly) on their practice rounds. I don’t watch or play golf, but even I couldn’t resist getting caught up in the excitement of walking on such a historic course and seeing some famous players. Steve, Jim, and Sam were like kids in a candy store walking on the course and even more so as they watched their favorite players battle it out on Day 1 of The Open from the sidelines of the historic course. While I didn’t go with them to The Open, I kept up on the golfer’s scores while relaxing at the house. That’s how infectious the vibe of The Open was!

Besides being the home of golf, St Andrews is home to the beautiful University of St Andrews, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world and the oldest in Scotland, founded in 1413. Notable alumni include England’s Prince William and Princess Kate. We also explored Edinburgh, Scotland’s capitol, for a day, walking around the large (population 492,680) but very accessible city and visiting the Edinburgh Castle (12th century). It’s a beautiful historic city which explains why Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And while in Scotland, we had to try the national dish, haggis, “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead.” It was….interesting. We had a great time walking around and checking out the sights of coastal Scotland, which of course, included the pubs where we chatted with the locals. Like the Irish, the Scots we met on the street, on the bus, at restaurants, and at the pub were genuinely friendly and fun to chat with.

From Scotland, Jim and Sam returned home, Glenda went to London, England for a few days before returning home, and Steve and I went to Paris, France.

What did we do for 9 days in Paris, France? Explore the well-known sights of the city and indulge in fabulous wine and food of course!

Paris is the amazing, vivacious city I always imagined it would be. This capitol city is large (population 2,241,346) and bustling but accessible and filled with history, and of course romance. We stayed in a lovely apartment close to Canal Saint Martin and Republique Square, an area with numerous cafes, patisseries, small markets, and shops. We spent the days visiting some of Paris’ famous sights including the Notre Dame Cathedral (12th century), the Saint-Chapelle (13th century), Louvre Museum (1792), Père Lachaise Cemetery (1804), Arc de Triomphe (1836), and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (1914). It was very cool to finally visit these places I’ve only seen pictures of. We also had the good fortune of hanging out with Steve’s friend, Eddie, and some of Eddie’s friends, all French. It was cool to hang out at their favorite spots and feel like a local. Along with hanging with the locals, we also adopted the local  lifestyle and picnicked along the Canal Saint Martin and the Seine. It was surreal to drink wine on the banks of the Seine while watching the daylight fading behind the Eiffel Tower. In addition to the good wine, cheese, bread, and fresh veggies that made up our picnics, we also enjoyed delicious wine and food at some fantastic restaurants, and, oh yeah, more than a few macaroons from the local patisseries. Holy crap, it’s no wonder Paris is a gastronomic capitol!

Exploring Dublin, Ireland, Elie and St. Andrews, Scotland, and Paris, France was a fantastic experience made much more special since I got to share the experience with Steve, Glenda, Jim, and Sam. Thank you all for letting me share your vacation and thank you Steve for a wonderful time in Paris.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/tTMnexAWsMG5UcUT9

Enjoy!

DSC00022

In Dublin, Ireland enjoying a beer with Glenda, Steve, Sam, and Jim before a tour of the Jameson whiskey distillery.

DSC00258

In Scotland touring the Edinburgh Castle with Jim, Glenda, and Sam.

DSC00147

In St. Andrews, Scotland walking the historic golf course before The Open.

DSC01425

DSC00460

In Paris enjoying wine with Steve on the banks of the Seine.

_20150808_082514

In Paris at the Louvre museum.