Travel Journal: Scotland & Ireland 2017

Overnight Flight

July 9, 2017

Board your overnight flight to Edinburgh today.

I’m sitting at an airport bar worrying about:

  • My flight to Newark. It’s showing on time right now, but the guy at the bag check told me it will be delayed and that Newark is a pain in the ass. He says I should find the bus, not the train, to get between terminals.
  • My tummy. It’s doing the nerves thing. I’m trying to shut it up with beer.
  • There’s a woman at the bar who’s flying to Newark and then London. Her Newark flight is delayed and she’s going to miss her connection. So now I’m worried about her. And still me. Because fucking Newark, man.

Later that same day:

Saw the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty out the airplane window when we landed in Newark. Fitting that my heart should swell with American pride two hours before leaving her shores, I guess.


Edinburgh

July 10, 2017

Welcome to Scotland! Arrive in Edinburgh, then transfer to your hotel and get settled in. Later tonight, meet your tour director and fellow travelers at a welcome dinner.

I got the entire row of seats to myself on the red-eye flight! It was pretty amazing.

And then at the airport I met my new friends.

I wasted no time sitting down with them for my first beer in Scotland, at the bar next door to our hotel. I’m here! I can’t believe I’m here!

No one could figure out the light switches in the hotel. Turns out you have to holster your room key in this cradle on the wall to make them work.


July 11, 2017

View from the top of Edinburgh Castle

Sightseeing tour of Edinburgh

Follow a Scottish local on a sightseeing tour of the city.

  • View the Georgian New Town and the Royal Mile, two UNESCO World Heritage sites.
  • Pass the Sir Walter Scott monument.
  • Enter Edinburgh Castle to view the Scottish crown jewels and Stone of Scone.
Abbotsford House and gardens

Abbotsford House & Melrose Abbey

Travel through the Scottish Borders region to Abbotsford House, the 19th-century estate of Sir Walter Scott. The poet designed his home in the Romantic style to imitate the elaborate baronial estates of British aristocrats. Today it serves as a museum for the Scottish memorabilia and artifacts that Scott collected throughout his lifetime.

Later, visit the ruins of Melrose Abbey, one of the most impressive of the four Borders abbeys.

I tried traditional British thick, soggy bacon this morning. Still prefer crispy American bacon, to be honest.

So far everything’s been lovely. The people on the tour are lovely. The tour guide is lovely (not in a sexy way, just in a nice way). The scenery is lovely. The beer is lovely.

Some punchlines I have delivered since arriving:

*in the middle of a conversation about putting funny hats and things on dick pics to make them more acceptable*
Kate: Maybe a pirate hat and an eye patch.
Me: Well. It does have one eye.
*innocuously doing girl talk about hairdos* No, my hair is coarse and dirty. Like my mouth.
Me and Jaimie, cheesin’. Photo credit: Kate

There’s a woman in our party (Jaimie) who’s about my age who makes “that’s what she said” jokes every hour or so. I like her. Surprising no one.

We played a game on the bus called Cow Cow Cemetery. Every time you see a cow (or group of cows) the first person to yell COW gets a point. If you see a cemetery, the first person who yells CEMETERY gets to keep all their cow points but knocks everyone else back to zero. It’s surprisingly addictive and fun. And I have never shouted CEMETERY so gleefully in my life.

Margaret leans over the cannon (as one does) for a photo of Edinburgh.

One of the ladies on the tour teaches English to high school students in Alaska. She and I and the tour guide (who is Irish and named Colm, no joke) stayed up tonight until 12:30 talking about American politics. Margaret and I mostly tried to convince Colm that we’re not all Trump supporters.

I pet two friendly dogs today. One was a golden retriever who wandered in the gift shop at Abbotsford.

The other one was a chow mix outside an ice cream shop at Melrose Abbey. The chow was owned by an American dude from Tennessee who was living in Scotland with his Scottish wife. Our favorite line from him, delivered in a Tennessee drawl: “I hate Alabama. That whole state can kiss my ass.”

Climbed to the top of the ruins of Melrose Abbey. It’s a little scary climbing up 900-year-old stairs. Worth the view though.

On Scottish bus tours, sometimes they give you whiskey when you get on the bus.

I now silently read all the signs in Scotland in a harsh, deep Scottish brogue. My favorite so far has been, “Slow Down,” which sounds like, “SLOH DOON!” in my head and makes me giggle.

Enjoying myself greatly.


July 12, 2017

Greyfriars Bobby statue: Boop his little nose for good luck.

Today was our free day in Edinburgh, so we walked allllll over the city. We touched a brass doggie’s nose for good luck, went to a museum and pointed out inappropriate things (“Oh a penis. And a bum. Oh there’s baby Jesus’ penis. It’s a holy penis.”), ate meat pies for lunch, went shopping, and then we did a tour of hidden underground vaults in the afternoon.

The vaults were cool. I get a little claustrophobic, so I had a panicky moment right at the beginning, but once my eyes adjusted and I figured out how to stand at the edges of the crowd, I was ok.

We all met up for dinner and I laughed so hard I cried and broke a sweat. It was lovely. I think I like this mode of travel. I was a little uncomfortable the first day, but now I feel like they’re actually my friends, which is so nice.

I believe I did under pack, but I can’t bring myself to give much of a fuck at the moment. If I have to, I’ll wash some stuff in the sink somewhere. I am also running out of toothpaste but am told Glasgow (our destination tomorrow) has such things.

Bought a souvenir — a sterling silver thistle necklace. Thistles are everywhere here. They’re a national emblem of Scotland.


Glasgow

July 13, 2017

Travel through the picturesque Scottish countryside to explore Stirling Castle, where King James VI once lived.

A bit patriotic at Sterling Castle

Then, continue on to Glasgow for a tour with a local guide.

  • Discover local highlights, including George Square and the River Clyde.
  • Admire the city’s university and medieval cathedral.
  • Visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which features everything from medieval suits of armor to a collection of works by Scottish artists.

Said goodbye to “Auld Reekie” this morning. On to Glasgow!

Today we did Stirling Castle and then a museum and tour in Glasgow. The castle was gorgeous, the sun was shining yet again, and I am a happy girl.

Left to right: Kate, Margaret, Jaimie, Sara K., Sara Jane, Viki, me at Stirling Castle

I really like the women I ended up with. There are 20 people (well, 18 now) on the tour. (Two people left. It was an older couple and they somehow managed to misjudge how much walking there is and how profoundly unable to walk they are. So they went home. Sad, but I’m a little glad we don’t have to try to haul them around everywhere.)

I ended up in a group of seven, all connected somewhat to the central figure of Kate, who sort of organized the thing. I know Kate from an online writers group I’m in, but had never met her in person before.

Viki and Sara K. sharing a laugh at a country pub. Photo credit: Margaret

I actually met Viki and Sara K. in line at the airport when Viki saw my travel tag and recognized it from our tour group. Viki is quickly becoming one of my favorite people. She’s smart and hilarious and has the most amazing stories. For work she is a “medical educator,” and what that REALLY means is that she takes medical students on a guided tour of her vagina. Yeah. She teaches how to do crotch doctor stuff (bedside manner, how to use the speculum, etc.) using herself as the example patient. She says, “Basically I do for a living what everyone else has nightmares about: stand in front of a class naked.” She’s amazing.

Sara K. is quieter, but still really interesting. She was married for 11 years and has four grown children. She’s a hospice care nurse. Viki and Sara live near each other and Viki says Sara is basically a celebrity there in the Jewish community. She knows and interacts with everybody. The most interesting thing she’s said so far: “You know what they call it when you’re going into the worst part of your childbirth labor? Transitioning. You know what they call it when you’re being taken off medical treatment and allowed to die? Transitioning. I’m basically a midwife, except for the other end of life.”

This is a restored building in Stirling Castle. It’s this gold color because the building was covered with plaster. It looks weird next to the stone buildings now, but when the castle was new, all of the sandstone would have been this same gold color. It was basically a shiny golden Disney castle.

It’s been really sort of healing to be around all these women, most of whom have gone through their own heartbreaks and divorces and hardships. They’ve all talked a bit about it, as have I, and I think we rarely, as people, get the kind of opportunity we’re getting to talk and share and learn about each other and connect. It’s sort of transcendent, I’d say. And also really fun.


Belfast

July 14, 2017

Make your way to the village of Cairnryan where you’ll board a ferry for your voyage across the Irish Sea to Belfast.

Today was our crossing from Scotland to Ireland. To board the ferry, we drove through this little coastal Scottish town that was so charming it physically hurt me. Like, oh my god, ow, it’s so beautiful and adorable and lovely and what do I do with these feelings?

Then I drank myself silly on the ferry and took a nap in my hotel room (complete with drooling in my hair), then went out to a bar with the girls, then had dinner. We lingered and chatted after dinner, which we usually do.

Margaret teaches high school English in Fairbanks, Alaska. She used to teach indigenous Alaskan kids out in the bush! She’s a former opera singer and just a gorgeous lady, with a surprising and youthful sense of humor. She and Sara K. have paired off a bit. They end up sitting next to each other a lot and they walk faster than the rest of us louts.

Jaimie is 40 and the woman closest to my age on the tour. She’s never been married. She lives near San Francisco and trains the power pole guys at the power company there. She’s half Filipino and fully hilarious. She is always willing to join me in another drink or another inappropriate joke. She says, “Atta girl,” a lot. She bought me a Diet Pepsi today. Must remember to return the favor.

Left to right: Jaimie, Kate, Sara K., Sara Jane, me, Viki, Margaret sitting in a “snug” at The Crown, Belfast’s oldest bar. Photo credit: Tour guide Colm

Tomorrow we’re touring Dublin and doing the Giant’s Causeway. I am very excited about both. Just the word “Ireland” gives my heart a little thrill. Then we’re going to meet an online friend of Kate’s and mine for dinner, Carol-Ann. And hopefully I can convince people to get up to some trouble after.


July 15, 2017

Sightseeing tour of Belfast

Get to know Belfast, the cultural heart of Northern Ireland, from a local’s perspective on a guided tour.

  • Glimpse the copper-domed City Hall and the recently restored Grand Opera House.
  • Learn all about Belfast’s long history, from its origins in the Bronze Age and rise as an international seaport to its role in the conflict known as “the Troubles.”
  • Enter the Titanic Belfast Museum for a look at the vessel’s infamous history.

Giant’s Causeway

Pay a visit to the rugged Giant’s Causeway, a series of naturally formed basalt columns. The hexagonal columns, which you can walk on, are 60 million years old and originated as volcanic lava. A colorful local legend says that mythical giant Finn McCool built the walkway so that he could cross the sea to Scotland.

Signed the Belfast peace wall — a reminder that we still have so much to learn as humans. 
Love one another, y’all.

Today we did a tour of Belfast, which was largely boring and a little depressing. There’s still a “peace wall” up between the Protestant/loyalist side and the Catholic/united Ireland side. Tensions are still high. Bombs were going off not twenty years ago. Our bus driver had two little flags on the dashboard — one American and one Irish — and he took the Irish one down today because we were driving through Protestant Belfast and a Protestant village. Humans are gross sometimes. I can’t believe we bomb each other over this shit.

We also did the titanic “experience,” which was mostly just stuffy and crowded.

But then. Then! Then we drove to the coast to see Giant’s Causeway. I can’t even describe how beautiful the coast of Ireland is. I just don’t have the words. It’s breathtaking.

That combined with the mist and the wind and the basalt columns and everything was just almost more than my poor heart could handle. I loved it. Loved it. I want to live there and wear duck boots and cable knit sweaters all year. I want to spend every day scrambling across slippery rocks and squinting against rain and wind as I lean up a grassy hill. It was just the best.

Sara K. and I walked both ways up and down the Giant’s Causeway trail. Here we are soaked in some Irish sunshine. (Our tour guide says it’s good for the skin.)

After dinner we found a bar with live music and then the remnants of a wedding reception at the hotel. We drank and laughed and danced and took stupid pictures and I am full to the brim with joy and booze.

Stupid pictures:

Left to right: Jaimie, Sara K., Kate, Viki, me, Margaret, Sara Jane in downtown Belfast. Photo credit: Carol-Ann
Left to right: Kate, Carol-Ann, me.
Left to right: Sara Jane, Viki, Kate, Margaret, me, Jaimie, Sara K. Photo credit: Carol-Ann

Galway

July 16, 2017

En route to Galway, stop in the town of Kilbeggan and take a tour of the historic whiskey distillery.

Yes, this wall is at a historic whiskey distillery. Ireland is pretty, y’all.

After a tasting, continue on to Galway for a sightseeing tour of the city.

  • Stroll past Lynch’s Castle, Galway Cathedral, the Druid Theater Company and the broad expanse of Eyre Square.
  • View the city’s medieval walls and Spanish Arch.
  • Peruse authentic Claddagh rings in a local shop.
  • Watch fishermen at work in the traditional fishing village of Claddagh.
Photo credit: Jaimie

I must admit I’m longing for home a little bit today. I miss my bed and my quiet time and my food (hard as that may be to believe since mostly my food is cereal and ice cream). I just need a bit of sleep, though, and I’ll catch my second wind, I’m sure.

We are in Galway today. On the way, we stopped at a distillery, which was super fun and at which I acquired the fake tourist title of official whiskey taster. Or some shit like that. I got a certificate. And a buzz.

Then we had a forgettable tour of Galway, which was disappointing. Galway seems really wonderful. It’s small and sort of hipstery and right on the ocean. There were people everywhere, just enjoying the unusually gorgeous and sunny day.

Very boring tour of Galway happened. (Local tour guide’s fault. Galway is lovely.) The highlight was these guys practicing handstands in the park. Heylo, Irish lads.

We saw a wonderful Irish music and dance show after dinner. During one of the slower songs I closed my eyes and it felt like the music and the air and the experience was filling in all the little cracked pieces of my soul. I know that sounds sort of cheesy, but I guess I mean this trip has been healing me in a lot of ways.

Sara Jane, Kate and Viki take a seat in Edinburgh.

Ah, so Kate. We have taken to calling Kate our Mama Duck. She’s the glue of the group. She leads us, literally and metaphorically, in a quiet way. She’s cheerful, not boisterous. Smart, not a know-it-all. A story teller who’s just as interested in listening as telling, if not more so. She is good people.

Sara Jane is still a bit of an enigma to me. She’s the quietest member of the group. She lives in Vermont and has five kids. Three of them are older and two of them are foster kids that she and her husband adopted. She is kind and thoughtful and funny as hell. She and Viki have been friends since forever and Viki claims Sara Jane is always the one whispering, “Do it! Do it!” in her ear. I think she and I are maybe the most similar of the group.

We stopped at a convenience store and I got these. They taste like orange flavored heaven.

July 17, 2017

Kylemore Abbey & Connemara National Park

Make your way to the island village of Cong, situated on the border of counties Galway and Mayo. Here, enjoy free time to stroll through the town’s charming streets, catching glimpses of the nearby Ashford Castle. Then, continue on to Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle. Here, you’ll have time to explore the abbey’s interior and walled Victorian gardens. Then take a scenic drive through the Irish countryside to Connemara National Park, one of the country’s most beautiful and unspoiled places. Make photo stops in the Inagh Valley and Maam Cross before returning to Galway.

I’m having trouble picking a photo to show you how beautiful Connemara is. It’s heart-stoppingly, magically beautiful. Pictures will never do justice.

Drove around the Connemara National Park. So beautiful. Green with perfect reflections of the grassy hills in the lochs. We honked at sheep in the road and backed down a street to look at a baby donkey. We shopped and ate and strolled and napped.

This is a faerie tree by Killary Fjord. The locals leave offerings for the faeries on the tree.

On the way back in we drove by the coast. Our guide tells us that the best vacations are on the Aran Islands smack in the center of Galway Bay where the Atlantic sea salt sandblasts your skin to a fine, smooth finish. There are no cars allowed on the islands and the only plane belongs to the priest who uses it to travel between the three islands. It sounds perfect. I want to come back and do that.

I took a lot of pictures of thistles because they’re neat.

Or rent a summer cottage in Speidel, a little beach town outside Galway where caravans (campers) share the ocean front with low rock walls, old farm houses and cows. I might have to learn Irish Gaelic, but I think I’m game.

Tomorrow: cliffs on the other side of Galway Bay. I’ll see how close to the edge I can stand…


County Kerry

July 18, 2017

Travel through the Irish countryside to County Kerry today, taking time to view spectacular scenery en route.

  • Pass through the Burren, a unique limestone plateau where fields of rock are dotted with wildflowers.
  • Pay a visit to a local crystal and marble factory.
  • Walk along the mesmerizing coastline of the majestic Cliffs of Moher.
  • Take a guided tour of the 13th-century Bunratty Castle.
The Cliffs of Moher, whose scale you just can’t get from photos.

I’m tired today. I’m still having a lovely, wonderful time but I’m tired. I miss my bed and not living out of a suitcase. I didn’t know where I was when I woke up this morning. I guess I’m really just a homebody at heart, although I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

The Cliffs of Moher were spectacular, as were the other sights while driving to and from.

So. Many. Castles. This one is Bunratty Castle.

I also climbed to the top of a castle today. I think I can say on this trip that I’ve climbed to the top of every attraction we’ve visited. This one was 75 steps to the top. Not sure how many floors, but a good way up. In Irish Gaelic, a tower is a “tar,” and our tour guide always says, “tar,” and it takes a second to translate in my brain.

I got displaced from my usual bus seat today and had to sit in front of the woman we’ve dubbed Kicky McKickerson. I’ll let you guess how that went. Tomorrow I may move to the front. Other nicknamed members of the tour group include King Harold, Bonnie & Clyde, and Sarah Palin.

Souvenirs today: A handmade necklace from the Cliffs of Moher and a hand-painted shamrock ring from Bunratty. The guy made the necklace for me while I waited.


July 19, 2017

Dingle Peninsula & Killarney National Park

Make your way along the dramatically rugged terrain of the Dingle Peninsula.

  • Take a scenic drive along the Slea Head Drive, enjoying impressive coastal views as you go.
  • Enter the Gallarus Oratory, an early Christian church overlooking the harbor at Ard na Caithne.
  • Enjoy photo stops at Coumeenole Beach, Slea Head and Dunbeg Fort.

After free time for lunch in the town of Dingle, head to Killarney National Park for photos at Ross Castle on Lough Leane.

Finished tonight with some music from our bus driver (no kidding) and then a band in the hotel bar. Now I’m about to pass out because I’ve had four drinks today and just blerg.

One of today’s drinks was an Irish coffee to go, which I drank on the bus.

We went all over today and my new favorite place in the world is the Dingle Peninsula. I’m going to pull an Anne of Green Gables and call it something different, though, because Dingle is too weird a name for such a lovely, lovely place. Maybe Innishspeir (Heaven Island) or something. It was absolutely amazing. It was so pretty I actually cried.

Tomorrow is Waterford and then we finish up the tour in Dublin. I’m sad to be leaving County Kerry, which is where we are now. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I’d stay forever if I could. It’s all water and green and cliffs and wind and drama and the power of the whole thing is nearly indescribable.

Met some doggies today: Brian the Irish wolfhound and Daisy the Pomeranian. I much preferred Brian. He was only eight months old and probably as tall as my chest just standing on all fours. So sweet and gentle though. I got wolfhound kisses from him.

Photo credit: Jaimie

Also met a donkey named Betsy and a horse named Sally. I pet Betsy a bit, but I admit I kept my distance from Sally. We were told she was a half Irish drafthorse, half Clydesdale. She was small but mighty. She pulled six of us plus a driver around for about 45 minutes through Killarney National Park.

Photo credit: Jaimie

I had a beer at lunch, a Guinness at dinner, an Irish coffee after dinner, and a Jameson neat just to round out the night. I am a vacation lush, turns out. (I’m sure this surprises no one.)


Waterford

July 20, 2017

Pay a visit to Blarney Castle, the home of the legendary Blarney Stone, said to grant the “gift of gab” to those who kiss it. Then, continue to Waterford where you’ll tour the city’s famed crystal factory.

Blarney Castle. I didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone, but I did kiss a corner of the castle, passionately. That should count.

I’m exhausted and all the days are running together. I’m tired of buses and hotels and too much food. I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of Ireland though.

More thistles. Shut up.

Today we did Blarney Castle and Waterford Crystal. Neither were my favorite. They were both pretty touristy. But, as always, I had fun with my new friends.

Dinner tonight was really the highlight of my day. I ordered gin pickled salmon for my appetizer which was fuckin amazing. Viki shared some of her pâté, which was also fuckin amazing. I had duck leg for my main course which nearly made me weep it was so delicious. And then I had some kind of lemon mousse thing for dessert that was like angels shat in my mouth. The whole meal was the best I’ve had here.

Got some snuggles from the hotel kitty in Waterford.

Then I had some laughs and drinks, as has been my wont. There’s an Irish word “craic” (pronounced “crack”) that means loosely “good fun.” It has really nice connotations. It’s never mischief or fun at someone else’s expense. It’s always inclusive and joyful. I’ve had A LOT of good craic on this trip.

I passed by a window today with pretty little curtains and I remembered how pretty my little curtains are and I had a moment where the homesick punched me right in the chest and all I wanted was my place and my bed where things smell right and are clean (and if they’re not clean, it’s my mess so it’s fine) and there’s a sweet curly headed man in my bed sometimes who says charming things in my ear and makes me laugh.


Dublin

July 21, 2017

Take a comprehensive tour of Ireland’s capital city with a local expert leading the way.

  • Stop in Phoenix Park, site of the presidential residence, and pass by the Guinness Storehouse.
  • Step inside the soaring St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ireland’s largest church.
  • Pass St. Stephen’s Green and admire the Georgian architecture of Merrion Square as you go.
  • See Trinity College and walk past Grafton Street to the Molly Malone statue, ending in the Temple Bar district.

Dublin is a big city. Today it’s extra big because people are in town for tomorrow night’s U2 concert. It’s bustling and crowded and frantic and loud. It’s a bit shocking after the quiet of the Irish countryside.

Colm bought us ice cream in Phoenix Park this afternoon. It was cold outside, but the ice cream was great and the craic, as always, was excellent.

Had a “99” from an ice cream truck.

Weird things about Ireland:

  • They like American country music, especially Johnny Cash.
  • There’s much less waste here. No paper towels (only hot air hand dryers), no plastic bags anywhere (and no bags at all unless you ask), no power in your hotel room unless you put your key card in the slot in the wall.
  • It’s not odd at all to go to a bar that’s been in existence since the 1700's.
  • Ice water is not really a thing that happens.
  • The flower boxes and gardens are just insanely pretty everywhere, so either people here are better at plants or Ireland is magical.
An example of gorgeous Irish flower boxes, this one in Dublin.

Tomorrow’s my last day before I head home. I’ll miss Scotland and Ireland, but most especially Ireland’s beautiful Atlantic coast.


July 22, 2017

Powerscourt & Glendalough

The tower (TAR!) at Glendalough

County Wicklow is home to some of the wildest and most spectacular scenery in Ireland, as well as two of the country’s most important historic sites. Your first stop is Glendalough, which became famous throughout Europe as a center of Christian learning before it was sacked by Viking crusaders in the 10th century. You’ll also see St. Kevin’s Cross, the remains of the 6th-century cathedral and the remarkable Round Tower, thought to have been used by the monks as a place of refuge. Later, continue on to the picturesque village of Enniskerry, where you’ll visit Powerscourt, an elegant country mansion with the finest formal gardens in the country.

We took it easy today. The first stop at Glendalough was largely laughing about St. Kevin. (St. Kevin? Really? Is there also a St. Jerry? Or a St. Buzz?) We got shushed by an angry French guy. Mission: Accomplished.

Margaret, Sara Jane, Kate, and Colm cut up at Glendalough. Most people take pilgrimages here for serenity and peace. We apologize. Photo credit: Viki

For lunch we put together a picnic with cheese and crackers and chocolate and hummus and bread and sat in the gardens at Powerscourt to eat it all. We lounged and snacked and laughed and did minimal walking around. (“I guess we should see some of this garden shit, huh?”)

Hey, look! A cool tree!

We had dinner as a group in a restaurant in a converted church, complete with pipe organ.

Jaimie, me, Sara Jane … Why you gonna act like that in church, though? Photo credit: Kate

And then we did our last bits of souvenir shopping in Temple Bar.


Departure

July 23, 2017

There are tears and hugs as we say goodbye, and we’re already frantically texting each other with inside jokes and whines about missing Scotland and Ireland. The trip was wonderful. The scenery was mind-boggling. The friendships I made filled my heart.