Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Loch Ness & Environs

Another day filled with driving. I am better today and able to stay awake for a lot of it. We plan to visit a set of standing stones near Loch Ness but, miles later, find ourselves still stoneless, although with a lot of driving behind us. Craig is now navigating the roundabouts with more ease and loves making left turns. We get lost a fair bit and, thrice, Craig actually descends from his masculine tower of eternal competence to ask directions of a passer-by. Alas, the first, a blond cyclist, speaks no English. The second, a hopeful looking pair of walkers, are also American, and the last, a proper Scottish native does not know where the stones are. She does, however, send us round back of a closed pub to ask someone who - finally - directs us there. When we get there, we see why no one knew where they were. The Stonehenge wanna be has one nice sized stone, but the rest are tiny rocks arranged like Snow White and the 20 or so dwarves. If these were the center for Druid worship, then surely these druids rode the short bus. We head on to the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre.  The museum consists of multiple large rooms meant to look like underwater caverns. A short film strip is played in each room and then everyone walks on. It you aren’t planning to attend, here’s a synopsis: People see monster. Scientists look for monster. No monster. There ya go. That ought to save you a few pounds sterling and a plane ticket. I still want there to be a monster (so does Craig). So there.  After lunch at the Ness Cafe (gotta love all the puns in this area) we return to our B and B. 

Scottish Coast Guard practicing over Loch Ness

Our view of Loch Ness 

The Great Cat Doctor (USA) examines Ness Kittie (UK).  

From the Official Hunt Expedition for Nessie
Don't go into the Deep Water!

This is the point at which our trip took a little toggle from our plans formed nearly a year ago. We had planned to stay at Loch Ness on Sep 5 and 8, while spending Sep 6 and 7 in the Hebrides. However, a little mix up of the dates ( I still say the chart Craig made up was misleading…) meant that we had to change Loch Ness to Sep 4 and 5 and go direct from the Hebrides to Glasgow later. This ended up being a less complicated itinerary, it just necessitated early rising to catch the ferry. Leaving before breakfast when one is staying at an excellent B and B is always a sad thing, but our hostess packed us marvelous sausage sandwiches for the road that quite alleviated our sorrow. We are falling in love with breads in the UK. They all seem so much more hearty and packed with flavor than even designer breads in the US. Is it all in our heads or is it that we detect the absence of Roundup? Not sure, but I’m pretty sure I’d never want to go low carb around here. 

Driving the Highland Backcountry

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Scotland Calls!

DAY 1 -- 2 September 2017

It's my 55th birthday and we're going to Scotland!  I deliberately picked this day to travel because Craig HATES all the security hassles when traveling and I figure he'll have to be nice since it's my birthday. We've travelled more than usual already this year, and have been lucky enough to go through the TSA Precheck lines, which is slightly less annoying but we're told Iceland Air doesn't participate in the program so here we go with shoes off and all the usual.  As is typical, they strip search Craig, I'd think it was because he looks dangerous with that TSA Scowl he is wearing, except that they're doing the same thing to the tiny Asian lady in a wheelchair who looks to be about 100 years old and can barely stand. Every time I go through this, I think of my sister's friend- who is black- saying, "It's like they suddenly forgot how to profile or something. They've had hundreds of years of practice on us."
We make it through security and enjoy waiting in the Iceland Air Lounge, a privilege for traveling business class. Sated with tomato soup and hummus and cookies, we finally head to the gate. The plane is scheduled to leave at 4:30 and they start boarding at 3:45. At 4:00 we show up and are hustled right aboard. The flight crew showed up early, we are told, and they want to get an early start. We are the last to board. We act properly chastened but are secretly delighted. To be last aboard is always a worthy goal to aspire to.
Business Class on Icelandic Air is quite a bit cheaper than other lines and you get to break up your flight way through with a layover in Iceland. They feed you well, too's still an airplane ride. The seats are bigger but they don't lie flat and it's still difficult to sleep. Whatever, it's a lot better than the poor folks in cattle car behind us. 
We arrive in London and stand in the long long lines to go through immigration. When we finally get to the desk and the officer finds out we're veterinarians, our interview turns into a long discussion of his labrador's allergies and possible remedies. He writes down our suggestion (Cytopoint) and sends us off so see this corner of the world. Just listening to the accents all around us is fun. We have some time to kill until we need to find our train to Inverness.

"This is the Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters."

DAY 2 -- 3 September 2017

We arrive in London Sunday, September 3; it’s no longer my birthday. We are tired but we have about 6 hours before it’s time to take the sleeper train to Scotland. We get to try riding the tube! It is really hot overground/underground train and we have about 15 stops (and 1 transfer) until we get off at Euston train station. I am holding my rolling suitcase and my bag in my lap but I keep falling asleep. When I do, my suitcase goes rolling into the passenger across the way. I’ve read so much fiction that talks about the London Underground or the tube. I keep expecting something interesting to happen - monsters, murder, mayhem but, alas, it’s just hot. “Mind the gap.” “This is the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters.”  I fall back to sleep, lulled by the repeated recorded messages until my bag rolls away again…
Arriving Euston, we pay to store our luggage and, vastly unburdened, set off to walk to the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221 Baker Street. Me being me, this trek is hampered by my need to seek restroom facilities annoyingly often.  Toilets are hard to find in London. Only some tube stations have them and sometimes it costs 30 pence to use. (Not that I mind that, it’s the fact that no stores and only some restaurants even have them available to the public. I am super ticked when we spend over 30 pounds for a ticket to the Holmes museum and, not only is it rather boring- with mostly period pieces that don’t particularly relate to Holmes or Doyle, but they also fail to have a working restroom. Really? So, the museum is a bust we still have a great time seeing parks and monuments. The monument to the Animals in War is particularly impressive. If I’m walking, at least I can stay awake, but it’s getting harder and harder to fight the jet lag. When I’m past walking, we head back to the train station, where I put my head down on the table and snooze until we can finally board our train shortly after 8 pm. The little train cubbies with their narrow cots are the prettiest sight we’ve seen all day. We gratefully shuck our clothes and enjoy sleeping as the train rumbles northward through England on its way to Inverness.


The cars come from the OTHER direction here

Not sure I want to eat here...

Always with the Villain Selfies.

Terminology is EVERYTHING

Neither was it blue, nor bigger on the inside.

Gotta find the Sleeper Train.

Craig barely fits in the sleeper berth, but he cares not at all.

DAY 3 -- 4 September 2017

Near the Inverness Railway Station.

All too soon it is 6:30 am and time to get up.They feed us porridge with honey and a bacon roll. (Bacon here is more like Canadian bacon or ham.) Craig and I both remark that we wish we could just stay in the sleeper cabins another day as we wander the quiet streets near the Inverness Rail Station to locate our Car Rental company.  The laconic young Scotsman hands Craig the keys to a Nissan and says, “It’s a manual. That’s nae a problem, is it?” “No”, responds Craig bravely, “Standard 4 speed?” “Ach Noo, it’s a 6 speed. They’re all the rage.” So, okay, I’m glad I’m not going to be the one driving on the left side and shifting a 6 speed with my left hand. Craig, however, looks like someone has just handed him a brand new, fully loaded Apple computer. He is clearly excited and trying to act nonchalant. “Is there somewhere around here I can practice, get the feel of the car?” He asks. “Nah, yoo just drive.”

Last minute instructions before the Great Driving Adventure.
And, just like that we are driving in downtown Inverness traffic. Craig has brought his dashcam and I’m sure the audio captures all of our tense gasps as we hit our first roundabout (right away) and subsequently clip the mirror on a parked van as another van (lorry) crowds us into it. Even on 2 lane roads, the lanes here in the UK are narrower than in the US (and the parking spaces tiny!) A lot of the roads are one lane with little spots to pull over and let the other fellow pass - sort of an ongoing but mostly very polite game of chicken. Driving is complicated by the presence of the bravest people in the world: The Bicycle Riders. There is no shoulder here on the UK roads. None. We have become accustomed to that comforting few feet of road, paved or unpaved, on either side of the highway in America. That little cushion of safety, an extra margin of comfort. No such grace is accorded us here. Over that white line and you’re straight off a cliff or into a wall. And drivers go FAST. I though speed limits would be in KPH and, at first, we were driving ridiculously slowly for traffic until we figured out the metric system has not got the quite the hold on the country that we were all taught. Little one lane winding roads that might be 35 at home are 60 here - and that’s just for people who are keeping to the speed limit. Into this narrow, shoulderless, fast paced world we add.. the cyclists. These spandex-clad intrepid souls ride double and triple file in packs or pairs, their mighty thews straining as they eschew the polluting fumes of deceased dinosaurs in favor of their own carb-loaded muscle fibers. They sneer at the weaklings who resort to the metal and leather carriages and rely on horsepower not their own. With contemptuous bravery, they pit their own self righteous strength against the impatient UK drivers and the uncertain tourist drivers, not to mention the lorries and tour buses and parked cars already competing for the very limited lane space. If it’s true that one only has so many heartbeats in a lifetime, I’ve used up a lot of them already on the roads of the Old Country. 

We stop by Culloden Field, its museum teeming with Outlander fans, and spend some time learning about the battle and events leading up to it. When we go out to tour the field, the guide wearily points out the location of the Fraser gravestone, after which a hoard of (mostly female) tourists leave the party. I am so sleepy at this point I can hardly stand - jet lag has really set in - so I go back to sit (sleep) inside while Craig finishes the tour.

The idea for tourism here is over 100 years old.

Neither Leader fared well after it was all over, typical; only the Scots suffered longer.


Then we are off to our B and B - which has the musical name of Balaichladoch. It is a lovely large house right on the eastern shore of Loch Ness. After a nap to restore my energy we headed to Cameron’s Tea Room for lunch/dinner. A herd of Scottish Highland cattle (hairy coos) grazed right outside the window as we ate our hearty, if a bit bland, lunch of soup and sandwiches. Still groggy, we went to bed early after more time driving through the green sheep-dotted hills.

Friday, September 18, 2015

General thoughts about Australia

I have been home for a couple of days, and have a handful of overall observations:

Everyone says "Beautiful" as an all purpose answer instead of "sure" or "thank you" or "okay."

It's just as hard to get ice in Australia as it is in Sweden. Beg, and you might get 2 cubes.

They have a really great no tipping system there where everyone gets paid a living wage, you order at the counter, and they bring your food to the table. It's really efficient and I can see why Australians who come to the U.S. think our way is crazy. On the other hand, try getting any water refilled at your table. Even the classiest restaurants think you're a pain if you ask more than once.

Baked beans are a staple for breakfast. Must hearken back to the bush days.

"Nah worries, Mate" is addictive and I think I'll just adopt it too, instead of "you're welcome."

All the Pizzas of Australia:

One thing that's different about traveling with a teenager is that they aren't really adventurous eaters. Rob was really good. He even had kangaroo, but every few days, he had to go back to the main ingredient of life; pizza.





Wow! Sydney!  It's amazing! It's the most beautiful city I've ever seen. Sparkling blue water, acres of stunning parks and gardens, exotic birds everywhere. Even the seagulls look different. Rob says they taught him in PE class that Sydney is the fittest city in the world and I believe it because, linking things like the parks and the water and the Opera House together is one thing, or, should I say, many things: Stairs! All parts of Sydney are connected by one steep, hellish staircase after another. 

The first day we walked out to Circular Quay and caught a ferry to Darling Harbor.  We'd bought a pass that allowed discounted admission to the aquarium, wildlife park, and wax museum. (True, we had just been to the aquarium in Melbourne, but this one had the one Australian animal on our list that we'd yet to see: the platypus!)

The aquarium was a HUGE disappointment. First of all, we entered right after a group of Chinese tourists numbering just under the total of population of Taiwan. Unable to see anything past the sea of camera-toting humanity, we squeezed on past, deciding to forego the other creatures for the platypus. Imagine our dismay at finding them moved out for the season. Dispirited and dismayed, we trudged through the sharks and penguins. Only when we emerged did I find an employee to whine to about the platypus betrayal. "Oi, did you miss her?" She swept us back in to a tiny tank that had been covered by tourists an hour before and we joyfully watched the bird/reptile/mammal cavorting in all her glory.

Faster than an iPhone Shutter

Mission accomplished, we now began the long trek and endless stairs back to our apartment, a distance roughly equivalent to the distance to the moon. Fortunately, we cut off at least 1/2 the distance by walking through the Botanical Gardens....which closed at 6 pm. We wandered in the dark to gate after locked gate, finally finding a turnstile through which to escape, returning to our apartment probably having walked as many miles as ever before in my life.

The next day we went to the wax museum and wildlife park and then to the Sydney Tower, all included in our tour package. This day was notable for 2 reasons:

1)  Spencer disappeared somewhere in the tower. Rob thinks he fell out of my pocket after we did his photo shoot. I think he decided to emigrate.

2)  They closed the botanical park before we got there, leaving us to try to hoof it the long way around. Mind you, my calves are already screaming from the stairs the day before and I'm limping down stairs backwards and up stairs at the speed of a dead wombat (see picture,) so you have no idea how much the extra miles terrified me. Suffice it so say that, by the time we found the taxi, I would have paid pretty much anything.

Aussie Gulls

Sydney Tower Elevator, very cool!

At least I did not have to climb a million stairs to get this view.

Kookaburra, not in the Gum Tree...

Tasmanian Devil

Tired Wombat

On our last day, we saw the play "Anything Goes" at the Sydney Opera House. I was excited to sit in the front row balcony and just drink it all in. But, to get there, well, have you ever seen the STAIRS at the Opera House? Let's just say we didn't do much else that day and we were darn sure to get there before the park closed…



The flight home was long but uneventful, except that they tried to give away our Skycouch (it's not much, but I paid for it!) and I was soooo glad I was still lugging my itinerary around instead of having checked it with the luggage, otherwise I'd have had yet another tale of woe. We return with lusty tales of adventure, a fondness for wallabies and a strong desire never to own a stair stepper.

**Last Known Images Of Spencer**