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 --

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 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).

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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