Day Five: Mallaig to Dunvegan

Day Five:  Mallaig to Dunvegan -- Kilt Rock, Dinosaurs, and Fairies

Another fantastic breakfast to start our day, and then we checked out of The Moorings and headed down the street to the Calmac Ferry terminal.  These are simpler ferries than the Alaska Marine Ferry system -- you drive on, cram your vehicle in between all manner of buses, RVs, and lorries, then climb the steps to the deck.  There is no covered seating area (except the toilet LOL) and, actually, very little seating at all.  It was drizzling so we pulled up our hoods and watched as the mainland slipped away and Skye came into view.  We kept hearing our car alarm going off and realized that the bus behind us was nudging our bumper with every swell.

Unbelievably, the same loud American Tourista family from the pub last night was also aboard.  Thankfully, we just ran into the adult son, and not Momma Sequin.  Son regaled us with tales of their visit the previous week to Ireland, how many accidents they got into while driving, and (in his opinion, not mine!) how unfriendly both the Irish and Scots are.  And people wonder why Europeans dislike Americans.


We decided to make a counter-clockwise loop around the Isle of Skye.  50 miles long, Skye is the largest of the Hebrides and probably the easiest and quickest to access.  Our first stop, just north of Portree, was be the Old Mann of Storr, a distinctive pinnacle rock formation.  Continuing on the east coast with its dramatic cliffs, next was Kilt Rock.  These vertical basalt columns rise up at the shoreline and resemble the pleats of a kilt.

Just beyond Kilt Rock is the Staffin beach with its remarkable dinosaur tracks in the rocks along the water's edge.

Circling around the top of Skye, we head south to the Skye Museum of Island Life.  Perched on a windswept bluff overlooking the Little Minch Sea, the buildings have rocks placed in the thatch netting to keep the roof on.  Here we saw the material culture -- everyday stuff -- of the island folk, including a clever chair made from bent tree branches (see below).


We ended our travel for the day at Dunvegan Castle.  The castle has been continuously occupied by the same family for over 800 years and is the ancestral home of the clan MacLeod.  Interestingly, quite a few castles in Scotland are still controlled by the family and are not part of Historic Scotland or the National Trust properties.  We purchased memberships in both, and did save quite a bit on admission, except at these family-run castles, where they charge their own admission fees, and generally do not allow photographs inside.


The tattered but famous Fairy Flag resides at Dunvegan Castle along with other clan heirlooms.  After a visit through the castle, we strolled the gardens.  These gardens had a more "wild" feel to them, like one would expect from such a wild and remote location.

In the town of Dunvegan, we checked in at the Atholl House B&B.  The property was up for sale and it was apparent that running the place was taking its toll on the proprietors, an elderly couple.  There were a few problems with the toilet ("ach, lass, ye need to give it a vigorous floosh!").  Donald sent us to a great pub called the Old School, where we enjoyed a lovely early dinner.



Day Four: Glencoe to Mallaig and the Harry Potter Train! Toot! Toot!

Day Four:  Glencoe to Mallaig and the Harry Potter Train!  Toot!  Toot!

After a hearty breakfast, with Loch Linnhe on our left we headed north towards Fort William and Neptune's Staircase.  Conceived by Thomas Telford in the early 1800s, this staircase-style boat lock serves the Caledonian Canal.   Heading westerly, running alongside Loch Eil, we searched out the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct recognized by Harry Potter fans the world over as quintessential Hogwarts.  We stationed ourselves near the tracks and in the distance, we could hear the steam whistle tooting. 

We had a fantastic lunch at the Dining Car Café in Glennfinnan:  Too-mah-toe Courgette Bisque soup with Cheese and haggis toastie.  Yum!  Great rainy day lunch!


As luck would have it, we managed to make it to Mallaig ahead of the train.

We enjoyed a walk-about in Mallaig prior to dinner at a local pub, the Steam Inn.  We were "treated" to an American family at the table too closely adjacent to ours.  Stereotype American tourists -- loud, opinionated about the roads and everything else Scots, and drunk. 

Crazy American Tourista, complete with sequined ball cap...

Crazy American Tourista, complete with sequined ball cap...

We had a wonderful overnight at the Moorings B&B in Mallaig.  Great view (above left) from the window.  Well appointed room, and even a gratis decanter of local whisky.  This one rates a 5/5, along with Castle Croft in Stirling!



Day 3: Stirling to Glencoe

Day 3:  Stirling to Glencoe

After a lovely breakfast at Castle Croft B&B, we headed north towards Glencoe.  Our first stop was the picturesque Doune Castle, site of Outlander and Monty Python scenes. Built in the 13th century, it was heavily damaged in subsequent wars like the Jacobite Uprising.  Strategically located on a bend in the river, the castle eventually went to ruin by 1800 and recently passed into the care off Historic Scotland.


Following a stunning but rainy drive through the Trossachs and Rob Roy country, we arrived in Glencoe.  A pop-in to the visitors center filled in a lot of historical and geologic information on the Trossachs and Highlands.

Nearby, the Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum was a treat.  Filled with local material culture, or everyday stuff, we learned more about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 and how that effected social change in the whole area.


We located our accommodation for the night, the Ghlasdrium B & B.  We are always very careful when entering any place after walking through the rain, but we did get some verbal abuse from the proprietress about wet shoes.  When we asked about face cloths or face flannels, she simply laughed, and said "Ach, no lass, I threw them away!"   There were no top sheets on the bed, just the duvet, which raised some concerns about laundry frequency.  It seemed quite clean, but we did have to ask twice to get the heat turned on.

We found a great dinner at the Laroch Pub in Loan Fern, Ballachulish and that sweetened our disposition for returning to the B&B, knowing we were only there for the night. 

Day Two: Coos Day at Stirling Castle

Day Two:  Coos Day at Stirling Castle

Day Two morning sees me back at EDI for a meet-up with my sister Gail and niece Christina.  Then we popped over to Hertz for our tiny but fantastic bright blue Mercedes rental car.  We be stylin' now!

With C'tina behind the wheel, we tootle north and west on the M9 to Stirling for our first sightsee and overnight. 

Stirling Castle rises high above the town of Stirling, strategically located on a knobby crag.  Legend has it that King Arthur snatched the castle from the Saxons, but solid proof shows a fortress dating from about 1100 CE.  The buildings presently on the site date variously from the 15th and 16th centuries with King James V's addition a striking warm amber, in sharp contrast to the more somber, older grays.

I was especially interested in the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry exhibition, reproductions which were woven here over a number of years.  The original set of 7 tapestries was likely woven around 1500 in Brussels to celebrate the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Louis XII.  Originally depicting a pagan story, the Hunt of the Unicorn was co-opted by Christians to tell a story of Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary. 

The original tapestries now hang in the Queen's palace.  The replicas were faithfully woven using traditional techniques and dyes that would have been available at the 1400-1500s.


Robert the Bruce ruled from this spot, and across the valley you can make out the William Wallace monument.

After a lovely castle café lunch, we hopped back in the car and crossed the valley to the Wallace monument site.  William Wallace was a Highland patriot and martyr who fought for Scotland's independence in 1297.  We were treated to an appearance by the patriot himself (a highly skilled reenactor) who drew us into the Wallace story.      After a blustery visit, we returned to our lodging for the night, the Castle Croft B&B, tucked right underneath the castle itself.  Stunning views over the castle's hunting fields, we saw our first coos of the trip, the ubiquitous Highland cattle.  Our room was lovely, spotlessly clean, and we looked forward to our first Scottish breakfast next morning!  

Ocean to Ocean, West to East: Scotland Bound

Ocean to Ocean, West to East: Scotland Bound


Monday morning my journey started spectacularly ... with a flat tire!  Big shout out to Les Schwab Tire in Jackson, California for a quick in/out.  Back on the road to San Francisco Airport in 45 minutes!  From my Sierra mountain home, I drove 160 miles est nly to hop on a plane heading 5,495 miles ast.

packing -- make it fit!   

packing -- make it fit!


The afternoon departure from San Francisco was stunning.  The late afternoon fog was rolling in over the coastal mountains, like drippy cotton candy.  A swing out over the Pacific treated me to an aerial view of Point Reyes and the shark-infested Tomales Bay.  Then we flew north over Boise, Idaho; further north and east to Winnipeg, Goose Bay, and the wild North Atlantic and into Dublin, Ireland airport by midmorning Tuesday.  This overnight polar route shaves a couple hours off the cross-pond trip to West Coasters.

Aer Lingus provided great service!

Aer Lingus provided great service!

A quick change of planes in Dublin from jet to prop, and a hop across the Irish Sea landed me in Edinburgh, Scotland by midafternoon Tuesday.  Cleared immigrations and collected my bag for an overnight at the airport Holiday Inn to sleep off the jet lag and an 8-hour time difference.  Wednesday morning, I will head back to the airport and meet up with my sister and niece as they fly in from Philadelphia.

Somewhere over Scotland

Somewhere over Scotland

Red Rock Canyon and Howard Hughes

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is another picturesque loop road side trip out of Las Vegas.   This route is about 28 miles.  Hop onto 215 and circle south then west onto Hwy 159 into the park, passing the aptly named Calico Basin.  As with the Alabama Hills in California, Red Rock Canyon was scene of a number of Hollywood epics.

The 13-mile scenic road winds through steep canyons showcasing the tremendous forces of geology through the vivid colors of Aztec sandstone.  You may also get a glimpse of the local fauna, including road runners and wild burros.  If you visit in early spring, you will feast on wildflower eye candy.

A little further beyond Red Rock Canyon near historic Bonnie Springs   is Howard Hughes desert home of Spring Mountain, now a Nevada State Park.

A simple rustic ranch, it is polar opposite of the opulence and glitter of the nearby Las Vegas Strip.  Nestled in amongst towering sandstone cliffs, this must have been the place Hughes came to totally relax.  Trained docents give tours of the house, including the secret room of former owner, German actress Vera Krupp.

If you return back to Hwy 159, you have a straight shot back into the Arts District of Las Vegas for some evening dining and entertainment, or drop back to the Strip.

Las Vegas: Explore the Great Outdoors

Just the names "Valley of Fire" and "Red Rock Canyon" spark imagination and beckon exploration.  Be sure to gas up you vehicle as fuel stations are few and far between.

Valley of Fire State Park is just about an hour's drive from downtown Las Vegas and conveniently located midway along a circle route which includes the Lost City Museum in Moapa Valley.  After a straight 55-mile shot up I-15, take a right on Hwy 167, Valley of Fire Highway.  Wind your way through the aptly named Muddy Mountains and enter through the west entrance station ($10/vehicle). 

Several loop roads enter and exit onto 167, affording you fantastic views of spectacularly colored rock formations called the Beehives. Tucked in between formations are secluded campsites ($10/night or $20 with RV hookups).  Stop in at the visitors center for an introduction to the rich prehistoric history and geology of the region. 

Many stops along the winding park road treat visitors to view of colorful rocks and intricate, detailed petroglyphs or rock art. 

To complete your circle route, continue on through the park and head north on 169 through the Moapa Valley about 9 miles to the Lost City Museum in Overton.  If you didn't take a picnic lunch to enjoy at Valley of the Fire, there are several good lunch spots in right in Overton.

Lost City Museum is a treasure trove of both prehistoric and historic artifacts beautifully displayed within a traditional adobe building.  The museum is situated at a prehistoric Pueblosite and incorporates some of the ruins within the museum to protect them. 

Meet up in Las Vegas

Meet up in Las Vegas

My niece, Christina was invited to give a presentation at a medical conference in Las Vegas in November.   My sister Gail shot me a quick email:  "Hey, want to do a meet up in Las Vegas next week?"   Our goal:  see the offbeat sites and not spend a dime on gambling.  Could we do it?  You bet!

Looked at the weather forecast, jumped in the car, headed to town and bought new snow tires.  Their flight from Philly would take a few hours and get them in Las Vegas at 9 a.m.  I left my west slope Sierra home the day before so I could have a leisurely 600 mile drive.  I chose my route for scenery, knowing I might hit snow, hence the new tires.

An early Monday morning departure from my rural Volcano, CA home saw me up and over snowy Carson Pass on Scenic Highway 88, and in Minden on Hwy 395 for gas and coffee by 9 a.m.  Highway 395 winds its way up-and-down and in-and-out of California and Nevada, hugging close to the east slope of the Sierra.  By late morning, I turned off 395 just south of Mono Lake with its mysterious tufa towers and east onto Highway 120.  This is high desert country -- high in both elevation and latitude -- so you will see no cactus here, but plenty of sage brush, pinyon and Jeffrey pine.  And wild horses -- did I mention wild horses?!

Nearing Carson Pass

Nearing Carson Pass

Just past Mono Lake, I began to encounter snow again on the road.  Not too much, but enough to tell me the plow had been through hours earlier.  Conditions were a bit slick, but not as troublesome as the facts that (1) no one else was on the road, and (2) I had to pee and no rest stop, no large boulder, or even a pullout to be seen.   Just a herd of wild horses in the distance, snow and sage brush.

wild horse territory (yes, there are horses waaaay back there)

wild horse territory (yes, there are horses waaaay back there)

Hwy 120 winds its way east to US 6, then up and over Montgomery Pass  between Mustang Mountain (elevation 9869') and Boundary Peak (elevation 13,143'), the highest point in Nevada.

Scattered here and there were abandoned mining sites and tiny ghost towns that beckon a return visit.    I finally popped out onto I-95, the Veterans Memorial Highway, at Tonopah and headed south through the cold Great Basin desert.  Passed by Nellis AFB and saw a couple weird-looking drone things flying next to the highway.  No one else seemed to think much of the sight, so I figured I'll just mosey on by.

My least favorite creatures - yellow jackets!   Hwy 120 x Yellow Jacket Road, Benton Hot Springs, CA

My least favorite creatures - yellow jackets!   Hwy 120 x Yellow Jacket Road, Benton Hot Springs, CA

My destination for the evening was the Desert Valley Inn & RV Park in Beatty, Nevada.  Clean, reasonable, and easy to find.  .  I was treated to a colorful desert sunset, only equaled by the colorful history of the area.  Now primarily serving tourists and interstate truckers, Beatty sits at the crossroads of I-95 and SR 374 and is a waypoint for folks Las Vegas-bound as well as the gateway to Death Valley National Park.

The Western Shoshone called the region home for centuries and then in the late 1800s non-indigenous people arrived, settling on ranches and mining claims.  When the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad came in 1905, the mining boom in Beatty and nearby Rhyolite really took off.  The Air Force came in the 1940s and the economy got a boost.

While Beatty managed to hang on, Rhyolite has become a ghost town.    Rhyolite's population peaked at about 5000 in 1908 and had plummeted to zero by 1920.  Today Rhyolite is a picturesque destination or stop off on your way to Las Vegas or further into Death Valley. 

Early winter sunset over Beatty, Nevada

Early winter sunset over Beatty, Nevada