Posted in travel

Trip to the Honey Moon

Visiting Islay, Scotland and Reykjavik, Iceland

For the six years that Nicholas and I have been together, we’ve discussed places we’d like to travel A LOT. We’d sit on the couch and spin up fantasies of visiting the UK (mummified bog bodies, whiskey tours, stone circles, biking), Iceland (hiking, hotsprings, northern-lights) and many other places too. Up to that point, I’d mostly taken practical trips and the idea of a vacation dedicated to enjoyment, a trip to celebrate our new life together was a revelation.

Planning this fun trip, however, ended up being surprisingly difficult because, at the end of a work day, we’d get bogged down by deciding where to go and why, and feel fatigued before actual arrangements were made. After googling one point of interest like ‘Northern Lights’, so many options would come up that we inevitably would become overwhelmed and need to set the planning aside. We wished for a travel agent to take care of the arrangements, but knew that our particular interests meant that we’d need to specifically pick the most inspiring things for us to do to keep us motivated through the length of the trip. Also, do travel agents still exist? Anyway, we procrastinated on final decisions until about ten days before we were to arrive in Glasgow, making slapdash hotel reservations that seemed to work with the Scottish ferry schedule. We would go in a loop around the Lower Hebrides of Scotland, and then go on to Iceland because of Iceland Air’s ‘Stop-Over’ deal.

Being a tourist is not a role I prefer. I’m aware that visiting interesting and delicate places puts a strain on the very place that draws people. Getting to see a unique place without contributing to its degradation in some way is virtually impossible, but we can try to soften the blow. In this case, we used public transportation when possible, we walked a great deal, and, something I came to understand later, we mostly visited locations that already had the infrastructure to accommodate tourists because they’d been holiday destinations for decades. (This was not the case for Iceland unfortunately.)

We did get a new camera for this trip; there are many more pictures than you’d probably like to look at. (Sorry!) Also, I twisted Nicholas’s arm to allow me to take many selfies with the two of us.

Scotland

Here is a map of our initial plan. Our changes to the itinerary were because of bad weather. We opted for the public bus on Islay because of high winds. Also, because of swells, our ferry didn’t dock at the island Colonsay and continued on to Oban.

Trip to Scotland
Trip to Scotland

We flew out of Raleigh, NC, and arrived in Glasgow excited, but jet-lagged and grimy, but manage to head out for a walk and some dinner. We discovered a marathon in George Square.

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The next morning, we went to the bus station to make our way west.

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Traveling via bus to Kennecraig Ferry Terminal was beautiful. After we arrived at the coast, we walked around and looked at some of the views and plant-life. This is where I ate some berries growing by the side of the road (next to sheep-farm run-off) that probably gave me a bout of food-poisoning that night.

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Lesson Learned: Don't eat road berries.
Lesson Learned: Don’t eat road berries.

The ferry ride from Kennegraig to Port Ellen, Islay, was lovely. We were astonished to see the rising mountainous hills on the island Jura at a far distance. Seeing these peaks made me wish that all maps had elevation lines, even though the surprise was magical.

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We arrived in Port Ellen in the dark and awoke the next day to a shining ocean view next to quaint tufted and rounded hill tops. I felt I could see how golf would develop naturally in an environment like this. (Did it? I have no idea.)

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Later that day we went on to the little town of Port Charlotte (Islay) on the other side of the island, arriving by public bus. We stayed at a BNB near the water, where the owner was a British transplant and florist who loved busy patterns and ruched curtains. The next day we visited the Bruichladdich distillery and enjoyed the historical whiskey-making machinery still in use. The tour included steamy rooms with massive batches of grains fermenting.

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Our taxi ride to Port Askaig area was interesting because our taxi driver spoke Gaelic natively, and told us about the 5 or 6 people he knew who still spoke the language with him. We’d heard snippets of Gaelic on our hotel television and I’d been surprised at how much it sounded like a Scandinavian language. After plugging in our camera to charge, we hiked a couple of miles to the Caol Ila distillery, awed by the Jura’s peaks rising in front of us. The air and views reminded us of the northern California coast.

View of Jura from Port Askaig, Islay
View of Jura from Port Askaig, Islay
View of Jura from Port Askaig, Islay
View of Jura from Port Askaig, Islay

At 9AM in the morning we were scheduled to ferry over to Colonsay Island. However it was not meant to be. Many of the ferries that service this region are older and sometimes cannot navigate through difficult weather. That day the ferry came close to Colonsay but passed it and kept right on going to Oban. There is a restaurant and bar on the ferry, luckily, but by the end of that long ride we were quite ready to be off the boat. Nicholas was developing a head cold so we searched for hotels where we could have a quiet couple of days of R&R as we neared Oban.

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One place we’d wanted to see but hadn’t scheduled into our trip was a fascinating place called ‘Kilmartin Glen’. Here burial cairns more than 4000 years old, stone circles over 5500 years old, and a 16th century castle ruin were all together in small area (about a 5 mile radius). We arrived Kilmartin village for 2 nights and were treated royally by the local hotel/restaurant (there was only one), and encountered only helpful and unassuming locals, who directed us to the correct pathways. We loved this place.

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Panorama of Temple Woods Stone Circle (Kilmartin)
Panorama of Temple Woods Stone Circle (Kilmartin)

The museum in Kilmartin was excellent, and the most quiet and peaceful museum experience I yet had. The cafe had a view of the valley with the cairns, and we marveled at the view while eating sandwiches and drinking tea.

Kilmartin Museum Timeline
Kilmartin Museum Timeline

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Our last day in Kilmartin, we decided to hike out to nearby Carnassarie Castle, where 16th century John Carswell first translated a law book into written Gaelic. The castle was destroyed by later generations who antagonized the ruling powers, and it was left to crumble into scenic ruins. We clambered around the sections of the castle we could get to, and at the top of the tower we were once again amazed at how pretty views of green hills with fluffy cotton-ball-like sheep could be.

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We then traveled back to Oban to take in the sites for a few days and visit the Oban distillery and Dunollie Castle. To answer your question, we don’t know why there were long knitted socks on the street utility poles.

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Iceland

After one last night in Glasgow, we were off to Reykjavik. Looking up the exchange rate and maps of the city, we realized that getting around would be more expensive and challenging than what we’d experienced in Scotland up to now. The easiest way to see some hot springs and other sights would be to go on group tours, which was not something we were thrilled about. As we exited the packed Reykjavik International Airport, we began to enjoy snippets of Scandinavian design here and there. Our first hotel was a large and monolithic chain hotel. We spent two nights there, then switched to a small but pricy BnB in the center of downtown for one night, and then for the last two nights moved a hotel in a suburb of Reykjavik where we would have access to nature trails and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights during a walk.

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Near our last hotel in the suburb Álafoss, we walked around near the local knitting factory and found a few interesting things of note. The light was very flat so it was difficult to capture much of the natural beauty, but Nicholas got some great shots of the knitting machine. Here is a link to more of his fabulous photos.

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Mysterious terminal in a grassy field near Álafoss knitting factory.
Mysterious terminal in a grassy field near Álafoss knitting factory.

The ride on the way to the cave tour was almost as lovely as the cave.

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Here’s pictures of the lava tube cave, a beautiful but very cold and very wet environment. There were many kinds of rock formations (I didn’t take notes) and lots of beautiful colors. Deep in the cave, our tour guide had us turn off our lamps and contemplate the darkness for a while. (Ever heard of a deprivation chamber?) That was an interesting experience too.

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Here’s pictures of two different hot springs we visited.

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A few pics from the drive back.

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We didn’t end up seeing the Northern lights (bad weather) and I would warn any travelers that the National Reykjavik Airport was miserably crowded on our flight back west. People were crammed in that little airport in like sardines, and we repeatedly heard from locals that estimates for tourism the following year were twice as full. One disappointing aspect of Iceland was that its transportation infrastructure is designed mainly for use by individual cars, much like many cities in the US. We did use the bus system, but sparingly, because the exchange rate wasn’t in our favor. I’m glad we came to Iceland, but I don’t see us going back anytime soon.

However, this was a fantastic trip overall! The sights were beautiful and we loved talking with all the people we met. I’ll add that we were so spoiled by the hospitality of hotel breakfasts in Scotland, that we still haven’t adjusted to cooking our own breakfast back home. (Where is our tea and fresh-cooked eggs & mushrooms every morning?!) We miss you, Scotland. Hope you enjoyed our pictures of our adventure!

sky
Flying away from Iceland. The End.