Friday, June 21, 2019

Spanish Public School

We have officially made it through one full school year of the Peanut attending Spanish public school and I wanted to write about it all!  It was a lot to take in and learn over the year -- so sorry with all my ramblings but I really want to get it all down.
first day of school
First things first -- this is only our experience at our specific school, with our specific teacher and class.  Every American sending their children to Spanish school has different experiences but this is ours.

Schools in Spain don't look like schools in the states -- no big fancy building, no parking lot or kiss/drop zone or bus parking, no big playgrounds... They often look like a random building in the middle of a neighborhood.  The classrooms are much (MUCH) smaller than what you would find in the states.  Serafina's classroom is easily half the size of a classroom in an American school, but it still has tables with chairs for each kid, centers to play in and a circle area for group lessons.  And while the younger kids do have a separate playground, it is not fancy and not big.  The older kids have a large concrete courtyard to run and play in -- but they all seem to enjoy themselves and love recreo (recess) which is a lot longer than in the states.

Kids in Spain start school (like real true elementary school) when they are three years old (or the year they turn three).  I talk a lot about the details in this post and about the crazy registration process in this post.  We were placed in a neighborhood public school that was our top choice (mainly because I knew we could get in) -- and it is a large school.  There are three classes per grade level at the infantil level (the younger kids aged three to five).  Each class at the infantil level has one teacher and 25 kids, but usually they have aids/paraeducators coming and going from what I can gather.  And an insane level of parent involvement (more on that later).  Serafina was placed in a class with a male teacher -- we will call him Profe J (kids call their teachers profe for males (short for profesor) and seño for females (short for señora) + their first name).
learning about jet packs
School is from 9am to 2pm every day (for elementary -- high school has a little longer hours, but not by much).  School starts promptly at 9am and you really can't be late -- every single school (from what I understand) has huge gates/walls around it, very similar to all the houses here so this is not unusual.  But this means that you can't walk on campus whenever you want -- the gates are opened by a city worker about 8:55am each day (and then typically they are closed by 9:10am so you can't linger).  The gates open back up at about 1:55pm each day (again by a city worker) and then close again about 2:10pm.  So it seems pretty safe -- you have to be buzzed into the building if you come outside of the pick up/drop off times.  From what I understand, you can drop your kid off late and/or pick up early, just have to sign them in/out with whom ever is in the office.  While each school does have a secretary, s/he has specific office hours so if you need something from the secretary, you often have to wait for the office hours.

For pick up/drop off -- only parents* with kids in the infantil classes can go inside the gates as the building/courtyard area is not large.  All the other classes line up in the courtyard but kiss their parent/family member goodbye outside the gates.  The infantil classes line up outside their classrooms and when the bell (sounds more like a siren) rings at 9am, the teacher comes out and brings their class inside.  Then at the end of the day, the kids are released when the teacher sees a parent (or guardian) outside the classroom door.  This is only for the infantil classes, I am not sure how it all works for the older kiddos.

There are no half days or early release or anything like that which is nice as I can rely on the same hours every day.  There seems to be no teacher work/in-service days -- also, I am fairly certain that the teacher doesn't even have a prep period everyday and for sure doesn't get a lunch break as everyone goes home for lunch.  The kids eat a snack or desayuno (breakfast) at school but then go home and eat lunch with their families.  There is a lunch program for kiddos of parents who work called comedor -- and you have to prove that you are working and your kiddo doesn't have other care.  If kids do any after school activities, even those provided by the school, they tend to start after 4pm. 
There are no school buses for any school (as far as I know).  So even if you don't live within walking distance, no bus will pick you up.  This means that parents/grandparents/other family members pick up and drop off kids every single day.  You either walk or drive to school but there is no parking lot for our school, only street parking so it can get tricky finding parking and people get creative.  But it means that everyone is walking from home or their car -- and it can get a little crazy with the whole school walking/driving at the same time.  So many schools (ours included) have police blocking off roads and directing traffic both at the beginning and end of the school day to help with the chaos.  But it is also quite fun walking with everyone.  And also fun to walk with friends too.  I seriously love when we meet Serafina's classmates on the walk to/from school -- she will run ahead with her friends while I attempt to speak with the parents :)
Communication with the teacher is very different from anything I experienced in the states (I was a special education teacher for 8+ years before moving to Spain).  I have no email for the teacher and no class phone number.  Teachers do have office hours (for lack of a better word) -- Profe J has them on Mondays from 6-8pm so if I need to have a meeting with him, that is when it happens.  However, we also have a lot more face to face contact with the teachers daily so no formal communication doesn't seem like a big deal.  I see Profe J every single day at drop off and pick up so this is when I share anything with him and he can briefly share with me as well (anything major then we set a meeting but we haven't needed that yet).  We did have a parent/teacher conference in November (as did all the kids in Serafina's class) but I don't think this is a common practice as I know friends who have not had parent/teacher conferences.  We also get notices/newsletters each trimester on the new unit/theme -- explaining what the kids will be doing and how parents can get involved.  There are also permission slips for anything happening that requires payment or leaving school grounds (field trip, fun events and the like).

While the communication is different, I am not saying there is no communication.  There is so much communication I don't always know what to do :)  Each class has at least one group WhatsApp chat -- sometimes one with the teacher and one just the parents.  Our class has one group chat of just the parents and only the delegada or class parent has Profe J's number and communicates with him, then passes along information to us.  So if you have a question for the teacher -- you message the delegada or group chat and ask the question, then the delegada messages the teacher (at least this is what seems to be happening).  I honestly don't even know how to accurately explain the group chat.  This is a common topic of horror and humor among my friends here in Spain who have children in Spanish schools.... when something is happening (field trip, end of year party, anything major) the messages come in fast and furious -- we are talking hundreds of messages in a short amount of time.  It is not unusual for me to go to bed and wake up to hundreds of missed messages which of course are all in Spanish.  And translating is not always easy as they use an extensive amount of text language that no online/app translator recognizes.  This is when I often message the delegada separately and simply say ayuda (help)!  Our delegada does not speak English but she will tell me what is going on -- she and her husband have been a huge help to me this year.  I have also been very lucky because our delegada will put any important message with big bold red explanation marks so I know I really have to pay attention to those messages. There is also a PTSA but called AMPA (stands for the exact same thing) and any information they want to share goes through our class delegada to the parents through the group chat.

The school also has a lot of parent involvement and from what I understand, this is fairly normal for other schools as well.  Each trimester parents/families are encouraged to create some sort of project/presentation relating to the theme/unit.  There is usually a fun, hands on activity at least once a week (usually more) that requires parent volunteers.  Parents decorate the classroom according to the theme -- so at the beginning of each trimester, we spend a few days in the classroom after school putting up new bulletin boards and creating some seriously intricate decorations!  The teacher will gladly do any art projects to help make the room more personable for the kids -- for example, when the theme was the universe, the parents created a solar system mobile and then also had the kids make rockets to put on the door.  The parents supplied all the things needed for the kiddos to make the rockets and even came into class to do the project with the kids.  Speaking of supplies.... Parents pay for ALL of the supplies for all of these activities and also ALL school supplies for the entire class for the entire year.  AND the parents buy these supplies and bring them to the teacher.  The delegada gets a list from the teacher at the beginning of the year of everything that s/he will need -- and s/he will go buy it all and the parents split the bill evenly.  If the teacher needs anything else throughout the year, the parents buy it.  Freaking genius.  Our family has not spent more than 50 the entire school year for supplies and teacher gifts.  But as a teacher in the states, I spent so so so much more than 50€ out of pocket for supplies.
going to the cinema

learning about rocket ships and space
Serafina gets grades three times a year and they are not mailed out -- or given to the students to be taken home.  The whole school has a parent/teacher night at the end of each trimester (with your own teacher/class) where the teacher basically does an open house.  They talk about how the trimester went, what the kiddos learned and also what they will be learning in the next trimester.... And then they hand out the grades and student work from that trimester.  Parents sign a formal sign in sheet to say they have received the grades and then can ask any questions to the teacher.  Our grade meetings typically only last about thirty minutes but they can go longer (depends on the parents and teachers).  I tried explaining to some parents that this doesn't happen in the states and they thought I was crazy :)

Another thing that is different -- teacher gifts for Christmas and end of year.  Instead of each kid bringing if a gift, every student puts in a few euros (usually no more than 5) and the teacher gets a HUGE gift from the whole class.  For Christmas, our class bought Profe J a leg of jamon including some other local foods and treats.  And for the end of year, we got him and his wife a spa day at a local spa.  Students tend to not bring in individual gifts, it can be considered offensive as a lot of thought and time goes into the whole class gift.  Class gifts are also bought for any aids/paraeducators that work in the classroom.

Serafina was placed in a classroom with no other American students.  There are other Americans in her grade level, but not in her class (and actually both of those students have since moved so now she is currently the only American in her grade).  And it did bring about some challenges but also some seriously amazing experiences.  None of the parents speak English and neither does the teacher.  Or if they do speak English, they sure have not used it with me!  And obviously because we are attending a Spanish school, everything is done in Spanish -- as it should be.  But it can seem like a full-time job just to translate all the communication that goes on -- the parent group chat, the permission slips, the newsletters, etc.  We also don't think Serafina's teacher quite understood what it meant to have an American in his classroom.  The first few months of school we were constantly trying to explain to him that Serafina only speaks English at home, that we as a family do not speak Spanish.  Luckily things did start to click for her after Christmas break.  And oddly enough our other major challenge has been that I send a very LARGE desayuno (breakfast/snack) to school because it is eaten at American lunch time.  So all the other kids have small, normal sized snacks for desayuno whereas Serafina takes a Yumbox (bento box) for her desayuno each day!  It took some explaining to Profe J that Americans function on an entirely different schedule than the Spanish and that while we live in Spain, we have not fully adopted the Spanish schedule/lifestyle.  All is well now and she keeps bringing her large desayuno to school!

Serafina also has the most amazing class -- kids, parents and teacher.  They have been so welcoming of us outsiders.  Even though the parents (or kids or teacher) don't speak English, they have attempted to talk to me so frequently, letting me stumble through my beginner Spanish and helping me when I get stuck.  They love on my kid, always giving her hugs and kisses and being genuinely happy to see her each day!  Sadly, I know this is not always the norm for Americans entering into the Spanish community.  We live in a very small town and most of the kids in Serafina's class knew each other long before they entered the school -- parents are friends, families are friends (and this is very similar in other schools as well).  It can be hard to be an outsider in this very tight knit community.  While we did get lucky with an amazing group of kids and parents, I also worked hard to be present and attempt to get to know some of the parents.  I show up for the parent meetings, I volunteer to help decorate the classroom, I attempt to chime in in the group chats, I talk with the parents at pick up/drop off as best I can...  It isn't easy and it takes so so so much courage and bravery on my part but it has made our year that much better.
sensory play activity
The activities they do are so cool and so much fun!  During Carnaval the whole school has the same theme/unit and so much instruction is related to the theme -- this year Serafina learned ALL ABOUT the planets and it was so amazing.  Then everyone dresses up according to that theme and parades around the streets by the school.  The whole school also has a big end of year celebration called Fin de Curso -- again there is a school-wide theme, this year it was cinema so the students learn all about cinema while preparing a performance/dance for fin de curso.  Each class does a dance to a song relating to the theme -- Serafina's class did a dance to Hakuna Matata and all dressed up as characters from the movie.  The party is after school on a Friday or Saturday with the whole school and their families in attendance where each class performs their dance and then parties the night away -- complete with bounce houses for the kids and drinks/food for the adults (yes, alcohol is served at school functions).  And the party goes late -- we left about 9pm and it was really just getting started!
science day

working with a parent volunteer

fin de curso
The infantil classes typically have fun events to celebrate the various seasons -- eating roast chestnuts (an actual roaster came to school), having churros con chocolate (a churro truck came to school), walking to see all the churches are their nativity scenes at Christmas time, having a Christmas performance, planting flowers, a end of the year party at a local park and more...  They've had whole school wide celebrations for Fiesta Nacional de España (national holiday), Dia de Andalucia (regional holiday) and various other holidays!  The whole school also does what Americans would consider field day -- but they call it fiesta de agua (water party).  They always seem to be celebrating and having a blast learning at the same time!
Christmas performance
fiesta de agua
end of year party at the park


It can be challenging not knowing exactly what is going on at school -- and it has taken some stepping out of my comfort zone to make it all work.  Serafina has been in a Spanish school setting since she was two years old; it isn't new for her to speak Spanish or to be confused sometimes.  She is a pro at switching between Spanish at school and English at home.  With her preschool the director/principal spoke English as did some of the parents, so I often got notices in English or could have someone explain things to me in English.... with her current school, that is not the case.  So while it can be really frustrating to not really understand all that is going on, we are giving Serafina an amazing opportunity to learn a second language and we are giving our family some pretty cool experiences being immersed into the culture!






*I use the word parents but it is not uncommon to see grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle... or any other family member dropping off and picking kids up.  Sometimes the whole family comes to get the kiddos -- I often see both mom and dad picking up (and dropping off) kids in Serafina's class every single day.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Longer Travels {Edinburgh + St Andrews}

This is the second (and final) post about our amazing Scotland trip we took last month.  Read the first post about our adventures in Inverness and the Isle of Mull -- I wrote the posts a little out of order to make sense geography wise but this was our itinerary: St. Andrews --> Inverness --> Isle of Mull --> Edinburgh.  These are the places we stayed/spent the night, we also took day trips from these places or saw places traveling along the way.

And if you didn't read the first Scotland post then here are some quick tips -- we rented a car because it worked best for us, but be prepared to drive on the left side of the road.  And know that many places that serve alcohol don't allow children inside (this includes many of the distilleries). 

So here with go with St Andrew and Edinburgh (and area) --

St Andrews
Trevor and I both really wanted to see St Andrews -- so this was a great way to start off our trip.  We landed in Edinburgh and drove the hour or so to just outside of St Andrews and stayed at the most amazing bed & breakfast and never wanted to leave.  The room was awesome and the breakfast was so good (and so family/kid friendly).  Getting to St Andrews from Edinburgh is not easy without a car or a guided tour so this was why we decided to spend the first night in St Andrews rather than doing it as a day trip from Edinburgh.  Parking in St Andrews is readily available in pay lots -- either use coins in the machine or download the app to pay by card (which is what we did and it was very easy).
If you get to Falkirk (another town near Edinburgh), you should go to Maley's Chocolates which is owned by the same family as our bed & breakfast and the chocolate is fantastic!
We spent about a half day + lunch exploring St Andrews.  St Andrews is considered to be the home of golf and something to be seen if you have any interest in the sport.  Booking a tee time is an absolute must for any of the courses at St Andrews (the exception being the 9-hole course) and you have to have a certain handicap to play the famous Old Course.  Sadly, Trevor didn't get a chance to play but you can walk parts of the course or take a guided tour (book in advance) -- we opted to just walk the course ourselves and it was great, very impressive and amazing to see.  We also wandered through the town, saw the gorgeous university area and the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, and walked past the ruins of St Andrews Castle before heading to lunch at Mitchell's and it was so good and so kid friendly (kids cutlery, kids menu, toys....).




After St Andrews we drove straight to Inverness with no stops because Serafina fell asleep in the car -- oops!  Read about our adventures in Inverness and the Isle of Mull here.  And after we spent time on Mull, we headed back to Edinbrugh by way of --

Stirling
We drove from Oban to Stirling through the Trossachs and past Loch Lomond -- we choose this route as it is a little more main road/highway and we needed something less windy for our sweet little lady.  We arrived in Stirling later in the afternoon which worked in our favor since majority of the tour buses were gone making the whole area a lot less crowded.  We parked in the lower town and hiked up to Stirling Castle which is very impressive (and known from the movie Braveheart (but the movie was not filmed here)).  The castle is dated from the 14th century and was once the resident of the Stuart monarchs.  The castle is fairly large and so just wander throughout the various buildings and take it all in, including the gorgeous views of the town and valley below.  There was a hands-on area for kids which Serafina loved and also had so many unicorns throughout the whole castle so it kept her very entertained.  We used the stroller to walk up the hill but the actual castle isn't stroller friendly (lots of stairs -- so we tucked ours out of the way and left it while we wandered about, worked great)!
If you have the Explorer Pass you can use it here.  And the town is worth a wander through, especially the old town up on the hill -- we did it quickly as we needed to keep moving towards Edinburgh.  Stirling is an easy day trip from Edinburgh by car or train. 





Edinburgh
We stayed in Edinburgh for two nights -- which gave us one full day and a morning to pack it all in before our flight back to Spain.  We stayed a little outside the main part of Edinburgh but still within walking distance of everything -- we stayed here and again, just fine.  And we shockingly didn't take any public transportation (we walked everywhere with the exception of the royal yacht); Edinburgh does have one metro line running through the city and to the airport and a very extensive bus system if you need it.  But Edinburgh is really walk-able especially for the main tourist sights -- most sights are along the Royal Mile (the main street running through the old part of the city).  Because we only had one full day, we stuck mostly to the main sights, so here we go --

Edinburgh Castle
The castle sits atop Castle Rock and at one end of the Royal Mile (I recommend starting here so then you are walking downhill the rest of the day).  The castle has been used as a royal residence (as early as the 11th century) and also a military stronghold.  The castle is large so take your time but also be prepared to wait in some lines to see the more famous items/places within the walls -- such as St Margaret's Chapel (oldest surviving building in Scotland) and also the crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny (ancient symbol of Scotland's monarchy).  Serafina of course absolutely loved the crown jewels -- and we got super lucky because it was pouring rain and had our stroller so we got to cut the long line into the crown jewels building and sneak up the back elevator!
You can use your Explorer Pass to skip the long line or buy tickets or buy online.


St Giles Cathedral
The cathedral dates from the 15th century and is worth a quick run through -- Serafina actually begged us to go inside as she has a love of churches and could spend hours looking at all the details and stained glass!  No pictures were allowed but there was a gorgeous stained glass window and the Thistle Chapel was very cool.
I broke the rules and took a picture
 Greyfriars Bobby Statuelife sized statue of a Skye terrier who stood vigil outside his police officer owner's grave in the 19th century -- capturing the hearts of many.  The statue is right near the kirkyard (churchyard) which you can wander through if you want.  Serafina of course loved seeing the doggy!
Princes Street + Gardens
Princes Street is like the Champs Élysées of Edinburgh (and is a famous shopping street).  Even if you aren't shopping (thanks sassy four year old), it is worth heading to the New Town to see.  You can also check out the Princes Street Gardens -- gorgeous gardens/park that was once a lake, the area is now known for its flower clock (which was being worked on when we were there).  The gardens separate the Old and New Town and worth a walk through.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The palace is the Queen's official residence in Scotland and was home of Mary. Queen of Scots -- and you get to see her bedchamber where her secretary was murdered by her husband.  The self-guided audio tour was amazing; it was a hand held mini screen and they also had a kids audio guide (Serafina was sound asleep the entire time we toured the palace -- worked for us because we were able to take our time and thoroughly enjoy the palace, not so great for Serafina who probably would have loved the really big princess castle).  We took our time here and really enjoyed it, the self-guided tour was very well done and it was very cool seeing some more modern history unfold since the Queen has welcomed and entertained many people in the palace.  The bedchamber of Mary is not stroller friendly but Trevor and I were able to take turns seeing it and meeting each other on the other side.  The gardens were very impressive as well and you can hike Arthur's Seat from here and have an amazing view of the city and beyond.     
Just note that the palace is closed during royal visits so check the website for when it is closed -- we got very lucky and missed a royal visit by one day.


famous Abbey next to the palace
Royal Yacht BritanniaThe royal yacht was used by the British royal family as their home for holidays and foreign travel from 1953 until 1997.  The yacht is now permanently moored in Leith, the port of Edinburgh.  The tour is self-guided with an audio guide and again there is a kid's version as well as a teddy bear treasure hunt for kids.  As someone who loves the British royal family, I seriously loved touring the boat and learning more about the royal family.  I recommend trying the homemade fudge on board the ship too!
We drove out to Leith since we flew out that afternoon, but you can take a hop on/hop off bus or a city bus.  Parking was free at the Ocean Terminal Mall.  You enter the mall to access the museum/yacht -- there is a soft play area (pay by the hour) right by the museum, so if needed you could take turns touring the yacht while your kid plays! 



We ate really well in Scotland and that did not change in Edinburgh.  When we learned that Dishoom opened up in Edinburgh, we knew we had to go -- we fell in love with the Indian food in London.  Just be warned that Dishoom is very popular so make reservations if you can.  We also ate at Ola Kala an amazing Greek place, it was seriously so yummy and they were so kind to Serafina.  If you want good Scottish comfort food then head to Mums (we got unlucky and had a terrible waitress but the food was really good).  And finally, for the best breakfast (and a wonderful kids menu) -- head to Loudons, it was seriously so good.  And if you need a yummy ice cream treat (with a great view of the castle) go to Mary's Milk Bar.


For Harry Potter fans you can swing by The Elephant House (claims to be the birthplace of Harry Potter), head to Greyfrairs Kirkyard to see Tom Riddle's grave and walk up Victoria Street which was the inspiration for Diagon Alley -- there are many more places but these three are very easy to walk past yourself and are quite close to each other.

I know we are missing a lot of things to do within Edinburgh -- we had a rough start to our full day in the city (with a sassy little lady who was over traveling) so we made the most of it and hit the items that we for sure wanted to see.  One thing we wished had time for was the Scotch Whiskey Experience but we weren't sure how kid-friendly it was (even with a barrel ride through part of it).  A few other places that interested us were required to have a pre-booked guided tour which doesn't always work for our family -- we need to be able to go at our own pace and be flexible.  We had heard great things about the Edinburgh Zoo but ran out of time. Overall we really enjoyed Edinburgh and would love to go back one day!

Despite some not so great weather, we really enjoyed our time in Scotland and we loved exploring the gorgeous country.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Longer Travels {Scotland -- Highlands + Isle of Mull}

We recently took an insane road trip through Scotland and it was amazing -- a little jam packed and ambitious but still awesome.  Scotland had been on our bucket list forever so this was a huge trip for us and we wanted to pack it all in!

Scotland has a lot of offer and while it is not a huge country, it isn't always easy to get to the various places so it takes some serious planning if you have longer than a few days.  We flew in and out of Edinburgh and had a full week.  We rented a car and it was necessary for a lot of what we wanted to do (I have been told the trains are fairly easy to use, they just didn't go where we wanted to).  Driving can be a little challenging as Scotland drives on the left side of the road and well, similar to Ireland, the roads can get a little narrow and windy.  We had been told (by numerous people) to get the extra roadside assistance/tire protection with your car rental -- and luckily we didn't need it but we know plenty of people who have.  I also recommend getting a navigation system as in many of the more remote areas, you won't have wifi/cell service -- so either download the maps for offline use or get a navigation system!  (And I did all the driving as I have experience driving on the left side of the road and I will say by the end of the week, I felt like a pro.)
And a quick note about Scotland and kids -- while everyone was extremely nice and accommodating, things weren't as kid friendly as we had hoped.  Much of what Scotland has to offer is outside and with not always the best weather, this can get tricky -- especially for our sun and warm weather loving kiddo!  Scotland also has pretty strict laws regarding alcohol so in most pubs and distilleries (or any place that serves alcohol), no kids under the age of 14 are allowed.  Some places have a children license which means kids of all ages can be in the establishment but only until 8pm.  And most tasting rooms will allow kids, but only some whiskey distilleries will allow kids on a tour.  Luckily we knew about this law from friends so we were able to plan accordingly.  This isn't to say don't take your family to Scotland, just be prepared!

Because I am breaking up our Scotland trip into two posts -- this was our itinerary: St. Andrews --> Inverness --> Isle of Mull --> Edinburgh.  These are the places we stayed/spent the night, we also took day trips from these places or saw places traveling along the way.  

So I am starting a little out of order since we started at St. Andrews but it makes more sense to group the Highlands and Isle of Mull together.  So without further ado --

Inverness
We stayed two nights (mostly just one full day) and at an AirBnB apartment and the location was amazing.  The actual apartment was just okay but it had what we needed and was right in the walking area, close to everything.

Inverness is the hub/center for the Highlands and a decent place to stay if you plan on doing a few day trips from here.  While the city is growing quickly, the parts to see are fairly close together and right in a downtown area -- easy to walk and see the main sights in a half day or less.  While we spent two nights in Inverness, we actually only saw the town for a short early evening of walking because we spent more of our time in other areas of the Highlands.

In Inverness -- I would recommend walking a very small portion of the Great Glen Way, basically walk along the River Ness and see St Andrew's Cathedral (we didn't get a chance to go in because we missed the opening times, but even from the outside it is spectacular).  We walked up to the Inverness Castle for the views of the city.  You can't go into the castle because it is a working building and courthouse, but the views are worth the hike up.  Inverness has a lot of places to eat but because it is such a busy tourist hub, make reservations if you can -- sadly we didn't know our day trip plans and missed out on eating in Inverness for dinner but I do recommend Perk Cafe or Coyote Coffee & Donuts -- both for coffee and yummy doughnuts to start your day!
Perk Cafe is vegan so I couldn't eat anything (all made with either nuts or soy products) but Serafina and Trevor loved the donuts.
Culloden Battlefield
The Battle of Culloden was fought in 1746 and the last pitched battle (a set time/place) on British soil -- read more details here but it was a turning point in history and if you are an Outlander fan, you know of this battle.  I love Outlander and loved it before it became hugely popular with the TV show (it started out as books), so going to Culloden was amazing for me, however, go if you love history as well.  The museum -- the visitor center was so well done, easily one of the best laid out museums I have ever seen in my life.  There were even some hands on parts that Serafina could enjoy while I spent so much time wandering around.  There is a movie playing but we had read (and signs at the museum told us) that it was not appropriate for young kiddos so we skipped that part.  Then you head outside and walk the battlefield, where you can see the memorial cairn and other stone grave markers for the clansmen.  The battlefield is quite large and has paths you can follow -- it was a tad rainy and cold up on the moor, so we didn't spend too much time outside.  But this place was really amazing and I am so happy we were able to experience it.  (And just an FYI -- super stroller friendly!  We didn't take our stroller but we saw a few people walking the field with strollers, the paths are wide and compact gravel/grass.)
As we were leaving, we saw notices that due to a mild winter there was a higher presence of ticks on the field.  We did a quick check of all of us before we got in the car but we were all bundled up -- so just be aware if you walk the field.



Beauly
Beauly is a small town about a twenty minute drive from Inverness and worth a drive for lunch if you have time.  We ate at the Corner on the Square and it was so yummy -- a cafe and delicatessen serving amazing local food.  The menu was extensive and they had a great kids menu and the desserts are a must.

Urquhart Castle
Gorgeous partial ruins of an impressive castle overlooking Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle was once one of Scotland's largest castles and a medieval fortress for hundreds of years.  This was actually very cool to see and walk around and Serafina loved it (they had a fun quiz for kids to do while walking around the castle and grounds).  Sadly, she did sleep through part of our time at Urquhart (old cold in the carrier on my back) but it was a fairly kid friendly, just not stroller friendly because of all the stairs needed to see the castle area.  And because it sits right on Loch Ness (yes that famous lake with a monster), the castle is a great place to see gorgeous views of the lake -- and even touch the water (it was freezing!).  Neither Trevor or I had any desire to do a boat cruise on the lake or go to the museum but you can take a boat cruise from the castle grounds and the museum is right down the road.
We learned later, but if you plan on going going to at least two castles in Scotland (especially Edinburgh Castle) buy the Explorer Pass at any of the castles -- you can skip ticket lines, which is huge for Edinburgh Castle where lines can be long.



We then drove from Inverness to Oban to catch a ferry to Isle of Mull -- Oban is a great little town to stay in if needed, especially to explore many of the islands.  On the way to Oban, we stopped at the Tomatin Distillery (kid friendly!!!) and while we couldn't take a tour due to timing, we were still able to watch a short video and Trevor tried some whiskey.  We kept driving and stopped in Fort William for lunch.  Known as the Outdoor Capital of the UK, this is a cute town to walk around and take in the gorgeous views (seriously magical).  We ate at DeliCraft and it was another amazing place for lunch (really good cheese pizza for the kiddos too).  We shopped at The Highland Bookshop and found two really cool books for Serafina and also an awesome map of Scotland printed on cloth.
Ft William
And then it was onto the --

Isle of Mull
Quick notes about Mull and getting there -- we took the ferry from Oban and we booked almost a month in advance.  We wanted to make sure to get a spot for our car (and make sure you buy tickets for the car and all the passengers in the car).  The island is fairly large (4th largest in Scotland) and a car is needed.  There is a public bus, but I would still recommend a car.  But a huge caution about driving on Mull, all but about eleven miles of road is single track or one lane with areas for passing/pulling over fairly often.  But it takes some serious getting used to having cars come straight at you while also driving on very windy and narrow roads.


single track road (passing area by white/black pole)
We stayed here on the island for two nights (one full day) and it was interesting.  It was a self-catering lodge/family run hotel and it was our first experience with self-catering.  We never saw the hosts even though they lived right next door and while there was breakfast available, it was a plant-based cold breakfast (guess we accidentally booked a vegan place).  Overall, it was a decent place and a good location (close to the only real town -- Tobermory).
view from our room
We chose Mull for various reasons but mostly because it offered more than just gorgeous scenery and hiking -- Mull is a large island and has some seriously amazing landscape and it is also very different from one side of the island to the other.  But most importantly to our family, the island has an abundance of wildlife.  We had one full day on Mull and our plan was to take this boat tour to go to the small island of Staffa to see the basalt columns and also the puffin colony that lives there (our sweet girl is slightly obsessed with puffins).  We had to drive clear across the island (a good two hour drive) which was going great -- minus the stops for sheep, cows and other cars coming at us -- when poor Serafina proclaimed she had a big burp and projectile vomited ALL over.  For the first time, our kiddo got car sick and threw up all over the car, so plans changed...
view as we cleaned up vomit


So instead we took a short ferry boat ride (which was a much bigger boat) to the small but famous and holy island of Iona.  Iona is quite small and very walkable (if it isn't pouring rain like it was for us).  Iona is most famous for it's Abbey -- while heavily reconstructed, it is known for the place where St Columba sailed from Ireland and created a monastery in 563 and where the Book of Kells (yes, the famous one in Dublin) was believed to have been transcribed.  And Macbeth is buried in the graveyard next to the Abbey.  On a clear (or even dry day), the island can be great to walk around as it isn't very large, but even on the nasty day we had -- the water and views were still gorgeous.  But because we were soaked from the rain (and quite cold), we chose to head back to the ferry dock to grab some warm coffee before taking the ferry back to Mull -- for the ferry, you can buy round trip and we just bought our tickets from the person checking everyone in for the ferry.


Once back on Mull we went to Ardalanish Weavers -- a working wool farm and store.  We had a quick tour of the small factory and then got to shop and see some baby lambs.  We then took the long drive back to Tobermory so Trevor could go to the Tobermory Distillery while Serafina and I went to the Mull Aquarium.  This was the smallest aquarium we have ever been to but seriously one of the coolest -- it was really well laid out and had some fun information and we were there for a touch pool talk so Serafina got to hold some sea creatures and look at others up close!
We ate both nights in Tobermory -- the first night at the Fish & Chip Van, it was really good and had more than just fish.  We had fun enjoying the rare sunshine and eating on the pier (Serafina thought it was great to have a picnic).  We also ate at The Tobermory Hotel and it was pretty good -- Serafina sure liked their pea and Parmesan risotto!  And I also recommend grabbing some Island Bakery Cookies at any local grocery store or cafe, they are SO yummy (the chocolate ginger are my personal favorite).
Tobermory

Despite the terrible weather and not being able to see puffins in real life -- we really loved Mull and still got to see some wildlife (lots of birds, lambs/sheep, cows/calves, otter, geese and their babies....).  The scenery was unbelievable and extremely entertaining driving around the island, trying not to run into cows, sheep/lambs, other cars or run off the road!

And then it was time to head to Edinburgh -- back on the ferry to Oban and then across to Edinburgh.... continued in the next blog post!


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