Revisiting Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – Part 1

Having been holidaying in Tenby, a popular seaside resort in the south end of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park since I was a child, I know that area of the park at least pretty well so when we decided to include this park in South West Wales in our Welsh National Parks Road Trip itinerary, I knew I wanted to make sure we included some places and activities there I’d either not done before, or hadn’t done since I was much younger while still revisiting what I consider to be some of the park’s highlights for my friend who had not been before to see.

Views walking along the sea wall from Wisemans Bridge to Saundersfoot

With this in mind, we planned a 5 night stay in the area. With many of the hotels in the park itself sold out or way too pricey by the time we got around to booking and many holiday parks only offering the standard Sat-Sat, Mon-Fri or Fri-Sun stays which didn’t suit our itinerary, we eventually decided on a roadside motel in the small village of Llandissilo, a few miles north of market town Narberth and, while quite a way outside of the park, a pretty central location to reach all parts of the park from with pretty much everywhere being within a 20-40 minute drive!

Arriving early on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t what we had planned – we’d expected to spend most of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but the weather had had other ideas – so we made a hasty decision to stop off at Wisemans Bridge at the southern end of the park and the closest point of the park to our motel. When we had to queue along the a-road out of Carmarthen into the park, I should have realised how busy everywhere would be on a Saturday afternoon and we arrived to find all the spaces in the free car parks at Wisemans Bridge completely full. Continuing on, we came to the car park for Coppets Hall, a small bay lying between Wiseman’s Bridge and the popular seaside town of Saundersfoot. Although busy, the car park had an attendant who directed us to park along a grass verge despite there not being an actual marked space there. It didn’t cost much for a couple of hours parking so all paid up, we picked up the coast path and headed through the old railway tunnels and on to the sea wall path back towards Wisemans Bridge.

Rocky coastline at Wisemans Bridge

The Wiseman’s Bridge to Saundersfoot walk is one of the easiest walks along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path being along flat and wide paved footpaths so it didn’t take long to reach the pebbly beach at the other end. We spent a bit of time wondering along the beach looking in the rockpools revealed at low tide before retracing our footsteps back to Coppets Hall and walked in the opposite direction to the bustling town of Saundersfoot where we treated ourselves to an ice cream and wandered around the harbour.

After returning to Coppets Hall, we drove to our motel to check in deciding to have dinner in the restaurant on site realising it was unlikely we’d find anywhere with space for us to eat out at that evening!

For our first full day in the park, we had booked tickets to visit Skomer Island. Worried about things getting booked out, we had done this quite a bit in advance which meant we couldn’t check the weather first.

Walking along the coast path near Martin’s Haven

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side that day. Arriving in Martin’s Haven to check in for our boat trip an hour before it left, we were met by high winds and heavy rain. After checking in and looking around the small gift store,we found the rain had eased a bit so I decided to go for a walk along the coast path while we waited for our boarding time. The views were stunning as I watched the waves crash up against the rocks.

Once it was time to board, we walked down to the small bay and onto the awaiting boat. Just as we set off, the rain started to pour once again making for a rather uncomfortable crossing only cheered up by a seagull deciding to hitch a lift on the corner of the boat to save him the flight across!

Arriving at Skomer, we climbed a set of steps up to a ranger station where we were met by an island ranger who explained a bit about the island, what we might see and the rules for our visit.

Above, and below, exploring Skomer Island

Because of Covid restrictions, the paths around the outskirts of the island had been made one-way in an anti-clockwise direction from the visitor centre and picnic area at the centre of the island. We had 4 hours until we needed to be back at the ranger station and were told that that should be more than enough time to walk the perimeter and be back with time to spare.

As we set off along the path to the centre of the island, the rain finally stopped and we made it about half way around the perimeter path before it started up again. The path around the island lead to many beautiful viewpoints from the cliff tops but wildlife wise, being slightly too late for ‘puffin season’, we instead had to make do with spotting a seal frolicking in the waves crashing against the rocks below.

The pouring rain and strong winds made the last section of our walk slightly more uncomfortable than we’d have liked and with not stopping as long as we otherwise would have to enjoy the views and speeding up our pace a bit to get out of the rain, we ended up back at the centre of the island quite a bit sooner than we had expected to.

The rain sets in again as we walk the coast path on Skomer Island

Luckily, we managed to find an empty bench in the covered picnic area so spent the last hour on the island having a leisurely picnic lunch and looking around the small visitor’s centre before making our way back to catch our boat back to the mainland. Just as we were about to depart, we spotted another seal playing in the surf then scrambling up onto the rocks just off the island.

The rain had stopped again making for a much drier and more pleasant boat trip back to the mainland. Arriving back late afternoon, we drove back to our motel and change into some drier clothes before going for dinner there.

Above, and below, taking Reggie the Alpaca for a walk

The next day, we were pleased to wake up to a much drier day and a forecast of some sunny spells! We had booked an alpaca trek for that morning and tickets to Heatherton World of Adventures for that afternoon so after breakfast, drove out to a farm near Manorbier to meet our furry friends for the morning. Having never walked an alpaca before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but it turned out to be a really fun activity even if we were technically just walking around a field.

My alpaca, Reggie, was pretty obliging, trotting alongside me and posing for photos when we reached the halfway point in return for a few handfuls of food.

After returning Reggie to his pen and saying our goodbyes, we drove on to Heatherton, an activity centre just outside of Tenby. This was a place I’d always go on a cloudy day with my family when I was younger. Back then, it was a much smaller affair and billed as a ‘country sports’ and golfing centre. We’d spend our morning on the pitch ‘n’ putt course and our afternoons trying out archery, pistol shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, croquet, boules, and, of course, take a few trips round on the bumper boats. Now the park has extended to occupy a site across the road from when the original activities are still housed and the list of activities on offer has more than doubled to include baseball, ropes courses, slides, a hedge maze and many many more. I mainly just wanted to revisit all my old favourites for nostalgic reasons so we bought an 8-credit pass which we calculated to be enough to spend on all these with a couple left over for anything else that took our fancy.

Upon arriving, we couldn’t quite believe how busy the centre was, especially as passes had to be pre-booked due to ongoing Covid restrictions and were supposedly limited each day. We struggled to even find a parking space in the overflow but once we had, went to pick up our passes from the main reception. Seeing that there were long queues for everything, we went with the one that currently seemed to be the shortest/moving the quickest and that was the bumper boats. Within 10 minutes we were sat in the boats – which didn’t seem to have been updated at all in the slightest since my original visits in the late ’90s – racing (well, more like crawling) around the small course trying to bump into the other boats. Great fun!

Having forgot to take our lunch with us that day, we grabbed sandwiches from the on-site cafe before our next activity. We went with pistol shooting next. Although we were the next group to take part when we joined the queue, there was a loong, tedious wait as the group before us had their safety talk then slowly worked their way through their 20 pellets but once it was our turn, it was a fun activity to try out and when I collected my target after our session finished, I hadn’t done too badly!

It was another long queue next, this time to try out laser clay pigeon shooting. This was always my favourite when I was younger as I was always pretty good at it but not today, as I failed to hit all but 2 clays as they flew through the air! At this point, having only averaged one activity an hour since our arrival and with still over half of our credit to use up, we were slightly worried we wouldn’t get through everything but as we headed across the road to try out the park’s new Dragon Slide – where you sit in a giant rubber ring, a bit like a water park slide but without the water! – we found a much shorter queue time and were on and off in 5 minutes. The slide was so much fun that we decided to use another credit up to ride it again!

Crossing back under the tunnel to the other side of the road again, we found the crowds had started to empty out a bit. We had 3 credits each left to use, 2 of which we knew we wanted to spend on the still extremely busy Adventure Golf, the other, we originally planned to use on archery but seeing there was still quite a queue for this and no queue at all for the bumper boats next to it, we decided to jump on these again instead!

Having left Adventure Golf to the last hoping the crowds would clear, we decided it was now or never and went to get our clubs and golf balls and were warned that we’d have to queue to play each hole. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad with just one group in front of us to wait for each time. Seeing how busy the park had been put us off booking to go to Oakwood, a nearby theme park, over the next few days as we worried we’d just be spending the whole day queuing so instead we decided to use the day we would have spent there exploring the coast a bit more.

It had been a fun start to our time in Pembrokeshire and we still had a few more full days left to explore the park as well as the morning before we left for Snowdonia. With the weather forecast not looking too bad, we were looking forward to spending a bit more time out on the coast.

Brecon Beacons National Park

After a few weeks of planning, we were starting a 2-week tour of Wales concentrating our time mainly on the country’s three National Parks. First up was the Brecon Beacons, situated in the middle of South Wales. The park was one I’d driven along the outskirts of many a time, bypassing it on an A-road at least once a year for the last 25 years as we headed on family holidays to South West Wales and I’d visited the town of Brecon as a ‘halfway to our destination’ stopping off point many times over. But I had never crossed that busy A-road to see what lay on the other side!

At the trail head to climb Pen y Fan

We arrived at our motel for the next three nights early evening on a Wednesday. We were staying in the town of Merthyr Tydfil just outside the southern end of the park as prices were a lot cheaper here than to stay in the National Park itself but in just a 5 minute drive, we were across the park boundaries.

After settling in to our room, we went out in search of dinner thinking that we’d have no problem getting a table anywhere on a Wednesday evening.

As restaurant after restaurant told us they were full though, we began to realise we were once again going to have to plan ahead for our meals this trip, pre-booking and making sure we were back in time rather than seeing where the day took us and grabbing something wherever we ended up. Finally finding a Pizza place that could squeeze us in, we had dinner a little later than we’d hoped but still found time to fit in a walk around town after our meal.

Sheep near the top of the mountain

Our itinerary for our stay in the park was more a list of ideas and suggestions than a definite plan. A walk up Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in Southern Britain, was top of that list and we were keeping an eye on the weather to decide which day was looking best for it. The weather looking to be ok and expecting the National Park to be pretty full with the August summer holidays in full swing, we were up early for our included breakfast at our motel the next day, aiming to be at the car park for the main path to the top of Pen-y-Fan by 9am to beat the crowds.

While the car park was by no means empty when we arrives, we did comfortably find a space and when we returned later to find cars parked everywhere in the main car park, along the road and in lay-bys within a mile or so either way, were glad we made the effort for an early-ish start.

View from the top

The weather was pretty clear for the most part, the sun shining as we set out. The path was easy to follow and the instructions I’d downloaded from a National Trust circular walking route helped us work out which of the two peak we were aiming for when the path split – and it’s a good job it did, We reached a very windy peak of Pen-y-Fan just as the cloud started to move in, some kind of view still visible to us from the top but just minutes later, we made our way across to the peak of Corn Du, the second peak to find ourselves completely immersed in fog and cloud and unable to see Pen-y-Fan, or anything else, anymore!

On top of Corn Du in a cloud!

From Corn Du, we retraced our steps back down the path we had walked up rather than taking the circular route down an alternative path to the road. Exhausted, but feeling a sense of accomplishment, we collapsed into the car feeling grateful that we had a space so close to the path entrance so that we didn’t have to walk any further, and treated ourselves to our packed lunch and a nice hot cup of tea from a flask!

Lunch over, we drove north and seeing the National Park Visitor Centre signposted, decided to use the facilities, get some more park information and buy some souvenirs. There were a number of walks signposted from the visitor centre of varying lengths and difficulties but deciding we’d done enough walking for the time being, we moved on to do a circular scenic drive through the east side of the park.

Above, and below, Gospel Pass drive

Driving up towards Brecon, we turned off back into the park and followed an extremely narrow, steeps, twisting and turning track which, judging from the grass growing up the middle of the road, is rarely used. Thankfully, we didn’t meet any oncoming traffic and just as we were wondering where the sat nav was taking us, the road opened out to reveal Gospel Pass, the road we were aiming for, in front of us.

This mountain pass is seen as a ‘must-do’ drive in the Brecon Beacons for it’s stunning views and we made our way along it past pretty countryside and wild horses roaming the hills. We pulled up at Hay Bluff, a parking area from where we could admire the views.

Llanthony Abbey ruins

After taking in the scenery, we continued along gospel pass, the road again narrowing and heading through woodland. Eventually, we reached Llanthony Abbey. The abbey ruins are free to visit and there was a cafe on site run by neighbouring Llanthony Priory Hotel for refreshments.

From here the road continued to a main A-road which we then followed west back to our Merthyr Tydfil Hotel giving us a few hours to relax and freshen up before our dinner reservation in town that evening.

The next day we were once again up early, this time to drive out to the car park at the start of the Four Waterfalls walk. As the name suggests, here there is a circular path with paths leading off it at various intervals to see four waterfalls!

Above, and below, on the Four Waterfalls walk

Finding the car park almost empty at around 9am, we chatted to the car park attendant who explained to us that none of the waterfalls are visible from the main circular trail and that the paths leading down to each of the falls were quite strenuous. He recommended we did the loop in reverse to see the most impressive waterfall first so if we were to decide we’d had enough at that point, we could just retrace our steps back still having seen a pretty good waterfall!

Although we were pretty sure we’d not give up after one waterfall, we decided to take his advice so we could at least get the waterfall with the most steps up and down out of the way first!

The main path to the waterfall exit was easy but we could straight away see why we were warned over the path to the waterfall itself. The steps down were often uneven, made of slippy blue stone and way too deep for our short legs to manage easily without grabbing onto something for support as we lowered ourselves down – and often there was nothing to grab on to! But it was worth it once the waterfall was revealed. It was possible to scramble across some rocks to go behind the waterfall but seeing as we’d had a tough time just getting down to that point, we stayed to admire it from the base of the steps before climbing back up to the path again – surprisingly, it was easier going up than down!

We continued along the path which narrowed, had frequent unpaved sections and rocky sections and was in itself, not an easy walk anymore, until we reached the next branch off to another waterfall. Again, we found a steep path with loose gravel sections, muddy areas and even a few boulder sections! It certainly made the walk more interesting though. It took us about 3 hours to complete the full walk with stops for a bite to eat along the way and taking our time across trickier sections of the path and we made it back onto the main paved section of the path back to the (now packed) car park just as it started to rain, grateful that it hadn’t rained while we were scrambling over already slippery rocks to see the falls!

Pretty views from the lay-by opposite Crai Reservoir

After a lay-by late lunch stop, we looked at a map and consulted our list of itinerary ideas deciding to loop around to the centre of the park and visit one of the park’s many reservoirs. We decided on Crai Reservoir which would put us back on a road heading towards Merthyr Tydfil again rather than taking us out of the way. We had read that there was a path you could walk there towards the reservoir dam with great views across but upon pulling up at the car park across from the reservoir, we couldn’t actually find this path!

There was a bridge across a valley stream leading off from the car park which offered a pretty view of the hills and some footpaths signposted up into the hills but across the road, we walked along the grass verge alongside where we could barely even see the reservoir peeping out from behind dense hedgerow, never mind find a path to access it.

Carreg Cennen Castle

Giving up and returning back in the other direction, we walked a bit further south of the car park to a driveway down to a house where there was a public footpath sign which seemed to be pointing along the side of the house’s grounds but a path was barely visible and overgrown with nettles to the point that we weren’t completely sure if it was even there or if the sign was pointing along the road we had just walked along instead.

Not wanting to end up walking across private property, we instead returned to the car and, as it was now nearing 3pm anyway, took a scenic way back to the southern end of the park looping background to our Merthyr Tydfil motel.

Nearing the castle

With no rush to get to our Pembrokeshire National Park destination the next day, we had planned to spend the majority of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but checking the weather, we saw there was heavy rain forecast the next morning. We checked to see if there was any availability at the Dan yr Ogof Welsh National Showcaves but fond all the timed slots already sold out so decided to see what the weather was like the next day and take it from there.

We did indeed wake up to heavy rain and cloud and decided our original loose plans to hill walk to a view of a glacial lake Llyn y Fan Fach or to drive along Black Mountain Pass at the west side of the park were probably not worth it as the views wold be obscured by cloud.

Exploring the castle ruins

Instead, we decided to begin our drive to Pembrokeshire making a stop at Carreg Cennan Castle on the edge of the Brecon Beacons along the way.We had downloaded instructions for a circular walk around the castle providing views it without having to pay to go in but once there, the weather still not great, we decided to pay the small fee to visit the ruins instead. Luckily, the weather started to clear just as we were about to leave so we got to see a bit more of a view from the top!

It was great to finally see what lay on the other side of the busy A-road bypassing Brecon that I’d driven down so many times in the past and as it turned out, our 3 nights in the Beacons was nowhere near enough time to see anywhere near all the park has to offer but it was a start. I was glad I had the chance to visit and definitely plan to return sometime!

A Wales National Parks Road Trip

Who’d have thought when our US National Parks Road Trip planned for last summer had to be cancelled that we’d be unable to reschedule it for 2021 either?! But with Covid still dominating new headlines around the World, the US still not allowing UK visitors and strict rules on entering and exiting the UK still in force over a year on, we realised pretty early into the year that making any plans to travel out of the UK was not a good idea. Despite some travel being allowed out of the UK to the few ‘green/amber list’ countries who will have us, with all the uncertainties over how long countries will remain on these lists for and all the complicated – not to mention expensive – testing rules to travel, we decided we were best to make summer travel plans a bit closer to home again.

In the beautiful Brecon Beacons

We had a few early discussions about possibly travelling to Ireland, a country I’ve seen very little of, for a road trip around the coast but not being sure if we’d both be fully vaccinated in time to go there, that idea was soon put hold for the future and our thoughts returned to the UK National Parks.

After a successful 2-week trip to the National Parks of Northern England last summer, we narrowed this year’s options down to the parks in Southern England, a trip up to Scotland for a mixture of National Parks, isles, highlands and cities or heading west into Wales. We eventually settled on visiting the 3 National Parks of Wales, a country I am very familiar with having holidayed there at least once a year for the last 27 years. In fact, my annual family holiday is usually taken in Tenby, a seaside town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park but as this is mainly spent as a beach holiday with the occasional trip out to other nearby beaches, there was plenty of the National Park I’d not seen as well as some activities and attractions I’d not visited since going as a teenager which I wanted the opportunity to relive. I figured I could then play tour guide on the day we planned to spend in the southern end of the park which I know and love.

Regularly visiting Snowdonia National Park too with a friend having a holiday home at the southern end of it as well as often taking out of season trips there with the dog meant I was somewhat familiar with this area too although once we started looking into what to do there, I soon realised I’d actually seen very little away from the southernmost tip where the seaside town of Barmouth is located.

One of the many waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons was a National Park I was totally unfamiliar with outside of the town of Brecon itself where my family would often make a pitstop at en route to Tenby so I decided to concentrate my initial research here.

Looking at a range of websites, blogs etc on each of the parks, we eventually came up with a plan to split our time with 3 nights un the Brecon Beacons and 5 nights at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Snowdonia National Park respectively during which time we’d tackle some of the big hikes including Pen-y-Fan and the Four Waterfalls Walk in the Brecon Beacons and, of course, Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park.

On Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire National Park

Despite pretty much having our trip all planned out, we put off booking longer than we usually would as we waited to see what restrictions would or wouldn’t be eased. Then, just as we were starting to think about booking hotels for our stay, our plans had to be briefly put on hold as my friend suffered an injury which could have put an end to any hiking and long days driving followed by a death in the family.

When we finally came to book some places to stay we found very limited availability and extremely high prices, especially as we’d decided to book fully cancellable options just in case things changed before we went.

Walking an alpaca

We eventually settled for a pub/motel room in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, a few miles south of the Brecon Beacons National Park and just a short drive from some of the walks we planned to do. The motel was within our budget and included breakfast and its location was also convenient for eating out in the evenings as there were plenty of cheap and cheerful chain restaurants just a short drive from the town centre.

For Pembrokeshire National Park we had to stay quite a way out of the park in a roadside motel near the town of Narberth. The motel cost us a lot more than we’d wanted to pay but was still the cheapest place we could find. It did include breakfast though and although being a bit out of the park, was at least pretty centrally located meaning we never had more than a 40 minute drive to the north or south end of the National Park from there.

Snowdonia proved to be the most difficult and expensive park to find accommodation for and we ended up having to split our stay between 2 places, choosing a small farm guesthouse just outside the south-west end of the park for the first 2 nights and a chain motel in Bangor, a seaside town north of the park for the final 3 nights.

Visiting Snowdonia National Park

With our accommodation finally sorted, we moved on to the activities. Whereas many of the activities and attractions in the park are usually turn up and go, many of them currently had pre-book only rules which can be difficult when you’re going somewhere with very unpredictable weather! We had the National Welsh Showcaves at Dan-yr-Ogof pencilled in as a rainy day activity for the day we left the Brecon Beacons in case it was too wet to hike but decided to hold off booking in case the weather did turn out to be ok.

As soon as we realised it was almost certainly going to pour down that morning, we went to book only to find we were too late and it had sold out. That wasn’t our only booking failure – we also left booking activities at the popular ZipWorld attractions in Snowdonia way too late, finding the Velocity 2 zipline and the mountain coaster we really wanted to do both sold out until the autumn (we did eventually manage to get a cancellation slot on the ziplines at a later date!)

We did manage to pre-book a boat trip to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire National Park – something I’d wanted to do for years – but pre-booking weeks in advance meant it was pot luck with the weather and, of course (spoiler alert!), it ended up absolutely pouring down that day.

About to zipline over an old quarry in Snowdonia

We were luckier with the date we picked to walk Alpacas or that would have been miserable too. Other activities such as visits to Heatherton World of Activities and Oakwood Theme Park both in Pembrokeshire, we decided to leave til the last minute and check on the weather and luckily, when we did decide to attend Heatherton, there were plenty of tickets left booking the day before we attended.

Despite everyone staycationing leading to accommodation prices shooting up and activities selling out way in advance, our trip was, overall, a success and while it still wasn’t quite up there with our US adventures, we were grateful to be able to get away at all and had a pretty great time.

An East Coast road trip: NYC

Spending 3 nights in New York City

We’d been on the road in the USA for weeks travelling through Florida with visits to Miami and Disney World, on to Savannah, GA, up through the state of South Carolina to visit Charleston and Congaree National Park, on to Atlanta, GA, into Tennessee to visit Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, spent a day in Washington DC before arriving in Baltimore, MD. Now, it was off to New York City and after a stressful drive through New Jersey state, we were breathing a huge sigh of relief to finally arrive at our motel accommodation in Jersey City, just across the river from Manhattan.

It was already late afternoon and we had evening plans in the city – tickets booked for the sunset hours at Top of the Rock, one of the three observations decks to choose from in New York City.

The view of downtown Manhattan from the Top of the Rock observation deck

Now we just had to find our way to the nearest New Jersey Transit station and catch the PATH train the few stops into Manhattan. Sounded simple enough and we’d researched train times, routes to get to midtown and where to get tickets from. What we hadn’t prepared for, was rail works meaning the line we needed to get to midtown was closed. This, coupled with there being less trains because of the Sunday service timetable, put us into a bit of a panic that we wouldn’t make our Top of the Rock timeslot!

The only trains running into Manhattan were running to the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan which meant we’d then have to catch a subway train up to the Rockefeller Centre. Luckily, I’d spent enough time in New York over the years (this would be my 10th visit to the city) that I was pretty familiar with the transport system.

On the Top of the Rock observation deck overlooking Central Park

The platform at the New Jersey stop was extremely busy but when the train arrived, we managed to squeeze on. We were given free transfer tickets to use on the subway at the other end to make up for the inconvenience and were soon on our way on the uptown line to the Rockefeller Centre. From here, we quickly found our way to the Top of the Rock entrance just in time for our timed entry slot.

Top of the Rock has always been my favourite of the three observation decks on offer in New York. There’s more space on the viewing decks than the Empire State Building and I prefer the view, especially as you get the iconic Empire State Building in your pictures. I also prefer my observation decks to have an outdoor viewing area so you can avoid glare from windows in your photos, something the Freedom Tower’s observation deck lacks. Historically, I’d always found Top of the Rock to be the quietest of the three attractions too and had never had to fight my way into a space to take a photo.

That was until tonight anyway. Whether it was because we’d booked one of the sunset viewing slots or because it was a just a busy Sunday summer evening,I had never seen so many people up there! It made our visit a lot less relaxed than my previous visits had been and we stayed for less time than we probably would have done otherwise.

Despite the crowds, the views from the top were as amazing as ever.

After our Top of the Rock visit, the only thing on our mind was food. We had originally planned to eat before our Top of the Rock timeslot but our delays driving through New Jersey followed by the train problems getting into Manhattan meant we didn’t have time. It was late and we didn’t really want to hop on a subway to a different part of the city but Times Square was busy and everywhere we looked at either had queues or, predictably, an overpriced menu. So instead, we decided to catch the train back to New Jersey figuring we’d be able to find something once back there.

The view of Manhattan from the Statue of Liberty Pedestal

With the train delays, it took us a while to get back and once we did, we found the malls we had passed walking to the station earlier closed for the night along with the restaurants. Luckily, the McDonalds not too far from our motel was still open so we resorted to grabbing some fast food from there to satisfy us.

The next morning, the trains were back to running as normal so after breakfast, we walked to the station to head into Manhattan. Despite it being my tenth visit to the city, there is always something new to experience and I like to make sure I always do something I haven’t done before.

This time, I would be returning to Liberty Island to visit the iconic Statue of Liberty but for the first time, actually going inside the statue. Despite visiting Liberty Island twice before, I’d always had an island only ticket so not even been as far in as the pedestal which the statue stands on.

Once in downtown Manhattan, we made our way to Battery Park to catch the ferry across, enjoying the skyline views as we looked back at the city. Our tickets this time, gave us access to the crown of the statue and we knew there were a lot of steps to climb to reach this so, with some trepidation, we handed our tickets in at the entrance to the pedestal and began our climb. There was an option to take an elevator to the pedestal for anyone who didn’t want to climb the entire up but we decided to walk it taking our time and enjoying the views whilst catching our breath once we reached the lookout point.

Then, from the pedestal, we began our climb up to the crown. It was a strange feeling being inside the huge statue and being able to make out the shape of the the gown as we climbed up through the hollow structure. The stirs got narrower the further we climbed and when we finally reached the crown, the viewing deck there was extremely compact meaning we didn’t feel comfortable spending a lot of time there. After a quick chat with the park ranger who told us a bit about the statue and what we could see, we took a few photos of the view and what was visible of the structure itself and then began our descent. It was a really interesting experience getting to climb up inside the statue and if you can manage the 354 steps to the crown (or just 162 from the pedestal if you use the elevator!) then I’d definitely recommend going up there!

After our climb, we caught the ferry over to Ellis Island where the Immigration Museum stands. Having both visited the museum previous trips, we opted to stay on the ferry and continue back to Manhattan.

That afternoon, we had plans to meet up with a friend from the Trek America Northern states tour we’d done, a New York native. Our meeting point was the amazing Grand Central Station and from here we made our way to Washington Square Park, one of those places I had passed many times over the years but never actually stopped at. The small park was buzzing as groups sat around the central fountain. Walking out of the park under its large, marble arch, we made our way towards Nolita. We were in search of ice cream and our friend recommended the area’s Milk Bar, a ‘hole in the wall’ dessert shop specialising in milk flavoured products. Here, I tried their ‘cereal milk’ flavoured ice cream, supposed to taste like the milk left in the bottom of the bowl after a bowl of sugary cereal. I was a little unsure after my first taste – the smell was more of sour milk than cereal milk! – but found myself quite enjoying it by the time I took my last spoonful!!

From Nolita, we strolled west into Greenwich Village to find the ‘Friends apartment’ – the building used for the exterior, between-scene shots in the famous comedy show. Being a huge fan of the series, I’d visited before but my friend hadn’t so we thought we’d stop by while we weren’t too far away.

Downtown views from a pier along Hudson River Park

After taking a few photos with the building, we continued west along to the Hudson River Park, the pedestrianised greenway which runs north to south along the west side of Manhattan. Strolling along the walkway and along some of its piers, we paused to take photos of the views across the river and of the downtown skyline as the sun started to dip.

The sun setting over the River Hudson

In need of some proper food, we then walked in land again towards Chelsea Market. The market is known for its abundance of food stalls but with so much on offer, we couldn’t settle on anything. Deciding to see what else the area had to offer, we eventually decided to grab some typical New York pizza from a local pizzeria before heading back across the Hudson River to our New Jersey motel.

Interviewing my travel mascot, Mr Ted, at the NBC Studios

We had one more day left in the city and plenty more to pack in. First up was a trip back to the Rockefeller Centre where this time, we’d be visiting the NBC Studios. I love doing the studio tours in LA and while I knew there wasn’t a lot in the way of films and major TV shows filmed here, I’m a fan of old skool Saturday Night Live and mainly wanted to see the studio it is filmed in. The studio, and that used for Jimmy Fallon’s late night chat show, were so much smaller than they appear on TV!

Despite not being familiar with a great deal of the shows mentioned by our guide, it was still really interesting to get a look inside both of these studios as well as a news studio and various other production areas.

Off to shop at Bloomingdales

From the Rockefeller Centre, we headed uptown, popping to Bloomingdales for a bit of shopping and then Dylan’s Candy Bar for some souvenirs and snacks to keep us going on the road for the next few days! It was almost lunch time and while we knew we wanted to eat at the always entertaining but rather touristy Ella’s Stardust Diner that evening, we also really wanted to visit Serendipity, a New York restaurant that had been on my places to visit list for years but I hadn’t yet made it to!

Visiting Serendipity

What we really wanted to try was it’s frozen hot chocolate but after being seated in the quirky dining room, we noticed there was a minimum charge per person that was quite a bit higher than the cost of the frozen hot chocolate between us would have been.

We debated just leaving but really wanting to try the famous dessert, eventually found settled on a plate of fries to share and a drink to just tip is over the minimum spend once the frozen hot chocolate was added in.

It was worth it as the dessert was delicious, like a huge, extremely cold, chocolate milkshake!

After demolishing the delicious dessert, we started to work it off by walking to Central Park where we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine.

While in the park, we made sure to tick off our favourite park highlights including some of the bronze statues, the boating pond, the lake, Bow Bridge and Bethesda Fountain.

Above, and below, dinner at Ella’s Stardust diner

After all that walking, we were soon hungry again so made our way out of the park and back towards Times Square to visit the nearby Ella’s Stardust Diner. A complete contrast to the small, cute surrounding of Serendipity earlier, Ella’s Diner is a huge, loud diner where the waitstaff are all Broadway wannabes who sing to entertain you as you eat. It’s always great fun and this time was no different.

After dinner, we walked to Times Square to take some last minute photos of the bright lights. You can;t visit New York without taking in a show so we finished our trip to the city at the theatre watching Frozen on Broadway.

Heading back to our New Jersey motel, I was sad to once again say goodbye to the bright lights and noise of the city. We’d crammed a lot in to our short visit but there was lots we hadn’t got round to. Hopefully sometime in the future I can return again. For now it was back on the road ready to visit some of the states of New England.

Returning to Nashville, TN

I was on a self-planned road trip, driving mainly up the East coast of the USA, and after stops in Miami, Orlando, Savannah and Charleston, we had started to venture in land, visiting the city of Atlanta, Georgia and were now heading for a 2-night stop in Nashville, Tennessee.

Entering the state of Tennessee

I’d been a fan of Nashville ever since our brief stop in Nashville on my coast to coast Trek America Southern States tour. That time, a winter storm had delayed our arrival in the city giving us just a couple of hours to explore before line dancing the night away.

My second visit, also part of a Trek America tour, this time of the Deep South, had given me a bit more time in the city – enough to briefly stop by the famous Blue Bird Cafe, visit Nashville’s Farmer’s Market and spend the afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame before our night out on Broadway but one night was again not long enough and there were still things I wanted to do and see there.

Leaving our overnight motel in Alabama state, we crossed the border into the state of Tennessee and drove towards our first stop of the day in the city of Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniels Distillery.

Above, and below, touring the distillery

The distillery offers various tours all offering slightly different extras depending on how much time you have to spend, how much you want to pay and how much you like Jack Daniels!!

We opted for the most basic option, a guided tour which took about an hour. The tour talked through the history of the drink and the factory and gave us an insight into the distillery process.

After our tour, we walked the short distance to Lynchburg Square, having dinner at one of the diners before continuing our journey to Nashville.

Our stay in the city happened to fall on a busy event weekend meaning many of the city hotels were sold out or out of our price range.

Above, and below, a fun night out at the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville

We had been forced to split our stay across 2 hotels, spending our first night at the Clarion, just outside of the main city but with a free regular shuttle service offered to Broadway and back. After arriving late afternoon, we got ready for a night out before catching the shuttle into the city and heading straight to our favourite Nashville venue, The Wild Horse Saloon.

Strolling along Broadway, Nashville

Here, we had dinner while enjoying the live country music then line-danced the night away, not leaving until the early hours. As the hotel shuttle was no longer running by the time we left the venue, we had to get an Uber back to the hotel but we managed to find some wifi and order one without too many problems.

The Ryman Auditorium

The next morning, we checked out of the Clarion ready to move to our second hotel near the Grand Old Opry, but first, we planned to spend a bit more time in the city and after catching the shuttle back in, we took a walk along the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, enjoying the views over the Cumberland River and the city.

Then, we strolled along Broadway before taking a self-guided tour of the Ryman Auditorium, a famous country music venue.

While my knowledge of country music is basic at best, it is a genre I’ve become a lot more familiar with the more I’ve travelled in the USA and as I’d recently watched the Nashville TV show, it was interesting to look around one of the venues frequently mentioned featured in the show.

Arriving at the Grand Ole Opry

After our tour, we had a bit of time to spare before the next shuttle back to our hotel left so we decided to pay a fleeting visit back to the Wild Horse Saloon as it was open for line-dancing all afternoon and free to enter.

We went straight to the floor to line dance to a couple of songs one last time then left to get back to our hotel and pick up our luggage, driving out towards the Grand Ole Opry for our second night in the city.

Above, in the auditorium at the Grand Ole Opry, and below, touring the famous country music venue

We had a tour of the iconic country music venue booked for that afternoon so after checking in to our motel, we took a stroll across to the grounds. Situated on a large entertainment complex with a mall, cinema, restaurants and a huge nearby luxury hotel, it took a while to find where we needed to be to check in for our tour. After exchanging our confirmation emails for timed entry tickets, we took photos in the ground while we waited for our group to be called and were then taken through the backstage corridors and rooms of the theatre before walking out into the auditorium where the weekly Grand Ole Opry Show takes place.

Despite being just a casual country music fan and not even recognising the names of some of the many artists mentioned along the way, the tour was still interesting and I was glad to finally tick it off my Nashville ‘to do’ list!

After our tour, we wandered back to our motel, later walking to the nearby Cracker Barrel for dinner.

It had been another fun trip to Nashville. The city has a great atmosphere about it and I always leave wanting more. But the next morning it was time to move on once again as we got back on the road to our next stop in Tennessee state, Gatlinburg for a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Going to Miami

Starting our East coast road trip with one day in Miami

Early evening on South Beach

After spending months planning another adventure driving through the USA, it was finally time to set off. We’d be catching a morning flight from Heathrow that would have us in Miami mid-afternoon. Once through passport control at Miami airport, we followed signs to the station to catch a bus into the city. We’d researched which number bus to catch and which stop to get off at for our South Beach motel and as the stops flashed up on the screens inside the bus, it was a pretty straightforward – and cheap – way to get to our destination.

On South Beach with Ocean Drive in the background, and below following the path behind South Beach past some colouful beach huts

Once checked in, we went out for a walk. Our motel was conveniently located across the road from the famous South Beach so after heading north along Washington Avenue finding somewhere to grab a snack and popping into the few souvenir stores we passed along the way, we walked east along Lincoln Road Mall, a shopping and entertainment district and looped around to South Beach following the path that runs behind the beach south, parallel to Ocean Drive with all its art deco buildings.

The sun was setting by the time we reached our motel so being jet-lagged from travelling, we called it a night making sure we got plenty of sleep for the busy day we had planned for the next day.

Early morning on South Beach – a colourful Miami beach hut

Having just one full day in the city, we had decided to take a combo tour which would include a visit to the Everglades, a city tour and a sightseeing cruise on Biscayne Bay. From the reading on the booking site, we were expecting this to be one long day tour run by a single company where we’d be with the same group all day but we soon realised this was not the case but instead, 3 different tours run by 3 different companies tenuously linked together in a rather disorganised way!

Cruising through the Everglades

After checking in for the tour at a Lincoln Road Mall tourist information centre, we were told we had some time to kill before our scheduled departure so we walked along to South Beach to get some photos with its colourful beach huts. Then, back at the tour company office, we were eventually shepherded onto a double decker bus to be ferried out to the Everglades.

After being dropped at the head quarters for boat trips in the Everglades, we were given a number depending on the type of boat trip we had opted to take.

Above, and below, taking an airboat trip through the Everglades

Having taken a private airboat trip along the Platte River in Nebraska the year before, we had opted to take a standard boat trip this time. Once our number was called, we queued up to board a larger airboat and this took us through the swamps to spot some ‘gators. As we cruised through the Everglades, we made regular stops so our guide could talk to us about what we were seeing.

It was great fun speeding through the swamp land and we managed to spot a few alligators hiding in the lilies and reeds along the way.

After our boat trip, we were given the opportunity to watch a presentation about the alligators and to meet one then we were provided with a sandwich lunch before boarding the bus again to return to Miami.

Back in South Beach – art deco buildings

Once back in Miami, we were expecting to begin our city tour straight away but instead arrived back to chaos as various groups of people all booked onto different combo tours etc were gathered trying to find out where to go. We were eventually told by harassed staff that the buses lining the road were not the ones we needed to catch and that our bus was running late so we used the opportunity to go get cold drinks to cool down from the heat returning just as our bus pulled in.

On the tour bus through Miami

Our city tour turned out to be similar to a hop on/off tour bus. The bus had a live guide who gave a commentary as we travelled through the city along Ocean Drive, Will Smith’s Miami blaring out, and out towards the downtown financial area. We sat on the outside upper deck of the bus and typically, as we drove towards our first stop in Little Havana, it started to rain heavily. Luckily, it was just a short, sharp shower!

Once in Little Havana, we were lead immediately into a Cigar shop to try and entice some group members into buying something from there. After a quick look at the staff rolling the cigars, we made a swift exit and instead wandered down to ‘Domino Park’ where locals famously sit and play dominoes and chess. The heavens opening again, we found shelter looking around some of the local store then under a shop parapet until it was time to board the bus again.

Continuing our tour through Miami

Leaving our first stop in Little Havana, the rain stopped again but we were instead harassed by an alarming number of low hanging branches on some of the residential roads! It was lucky that there wasn’t really anything to see at this point as we all spent most of the ride ducking down between the bus seats to avoid being smacked by a branch! While we all laughed about it, it wasn’t the safest I’d ever felt on one of these sightseeing tours!

The tour continued towards downtown Miami but we found that there was still very little of interest to see along the way, or at least on the route we were taken.

Above, almost at the marina, and below, at Bayside waiting for our cruise

We were dropped off downtown at the marina a couple of hours before our Biscayne Bay Cruise was ready to leave by Bayside, a large shopping and entertainment mall by the marina, so we spent some time looking around and having dinner at pizzeria there until it was time to board.

Above, and below, ending a long day with a boat tour of Biscayne Bay

While we had enjoyed visiting the Everglades, the organisation once we returned to Miami and the city tour being a bit of a disappointment had put a slight dampener on our day but I was looking forward to our cruise and it didn’t disappoint. The views were beautiful, especially once the weather started to clear and the dark clouds dispelled and I enjoyed the commentary as we sailed pointing out some of the celebrity homes we passed as well as Miami landmarks.

By the time the cruise finished, we were exhausted by what had been a long and busy day. We once again boarded the city tour bus and were dropped back by Lincoln Road Mall from where we once again walked the short distance along Ocean Drive back to our motel.

Trying to see Miami in what was effectively one day was probably not the best idea in hindsight and I would have liked to have been able to take more really exploring the different districts and just to have spent more time around South Beach enjoying the atmosphere and relaxing. But the next day, we had to be up early to get to the airport and pick up our one-day hire car to drive to Orlando for a few days of Disney fun. I really hope I get to return to Miami sometime in the future and give it the time I feel it deserves.

Planning a second USA road trip

After a pretty successful first attempt at a self-drive road trip through America’s Midwest states and beyond, we decided to plan another trip, this time aiming to tick off some of the East coast states missing from our lists.

One of lorida’s roadside attractions

We’d learnt a few lessons from our first trip – mainly, not to plan quite so much!! Many of the more random road side stops we had down on our itinerary the first time around ended up being kicked to the kerb after we realised we were adding up to 3 hours onto our travel time estimates due to little things like supermarket stops, petrol stops, comfort breaks, food stops and, of course, unpredictable traffic and roadworks!

So this time, the idea was not only to plan less for each day, but to keep our drive times down to an estimated 4-5 hours at most, less if we only had a one night stop between.

Visiting another National Park

We’d found that some of the most fun stops last time had been the random roadside attractions so we were still planning to use some of the same road side attraction websites we had used to plan our Midwest trip in the hope we’d find some more “World’s largest…” etc sites to jump out and grab a photo with and we again wanted to include a mixture of cities and National Parks along the way.

Looking at the map, there were a range of states from Maine at the northern tip of the east coast, right down to Florida and the most southern tip that at least one of us hadn’t visited before so we wanted to try and cover the entire coast in 3-4 weeks as well as heading inland slightly revisit one of our favourite cities from our Trek trips – Nashville – and head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park while we were in Tennessee state.

A trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Deciding to travel South to North, we plotted out a route starting with a couple of nights in Miami then, following a few days at Walt Disney World, continuing into the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina ,Virginia and Maryland. Then, after a few nights in New York, we’d head into New England stopping in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, looping round from Boston through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and back to Boston, MA before flying home.

Revisiting Washington DC

It was going to be a long trip and it took a lot of hour looking at google maps and investigating what there was to see and where the best place was for overnight stops along the way but once we had a rough idea of what was going to work, we were ready to book our outbound flights to Miami and our inbound ones from Boston and start looking at each day in more detail.

Walt Disney World was our next priority and we decided to stay on site for 6 nights at their Little Mermaid themed motel as booking this direct through Disney got us ‘memory makers’ with fast pass access and photo passes included. As this meant we didn’t need a car for this part of our trip, we decided to make 2 car hire bookings – day hire to get us from Miami to Orlando then the main long term car hire from Orlando to Boston for the rest of our road trip.

Back in New York City, and below, making stops in Connecticut and Rhode Island

For our accommodation, we decided to stick to a similar formula to last time and mainly have a mixture of one and 2-night stops. For many of our one-night stops we looked for roadside chain motels along our route with free parking and breakfast included and for city stops, tried to find budget hotels with reasonable parking charges.

Pretty-as-a-picture scenery in New Hampshire

New York City was the big challenge here. Neither of us really wanted to drive in the city so somewhere outside of Manhattan but with good transport links into the city was what we were looking for. We eventually settled on a Jersey City hotel right by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel and walking distance from a metro station with connections to both midtown’s Penn Station and downtown’s World Trade Centre.

Arriving to a beautiful evening in Boston

Some of our our original plans changed slightly as our research revealed attractions and even National Parks we didn’t know about (Congaree in South Carolina?!) that weren’t far from our original route and therefore just had to be added into our itinerary but mainly, our final itinerary resembled our original plan.

And as the summer approached, we couldn’t wait to get back to the State and on the road again!!!

Scottish Highlands: Oban and the Inner Hebrides

On the ferry from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland

I was coming to the end of a one week tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands, I’d flew back to the mainland to begin the tour in Edinburgh. Travelling minibus with a small group of other, mainly solo, international travellers, we had so far visited Loch Ness, the Isle of Lewis and Harris and the Isle of Skye and today I was briefly waving the Scottish Isles goodbye as we took a ferry from Armadale on Skye to Mallaig on the mainland.

Heading back to the Scottish mainland

It was the shortest of the ferry crossings so far at just 45 minutes but also the most exciting as we saw porpoises swimming nearby from the deck.

Once on the other side, it was back on the bus to make our way to Glenfinnan.

Above, and below, the train crossing the viaduct

The Harry Potter fans amongst us were very excited as here, we’d be going to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct in time to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ cross it. The steam train and viaduct are the ones seen in the film and it is possible to purchase tickets to take a ride on it. While we didn’t have time for this, it was fun to see the steam train race across the viaduct from the crowded viewing point.

The Glenfinnan Monument

Glenfinnan is also home to the Glenfinnan Monument and there was a visitor centre with a store and cafe by the car park which we had some time to visit after watching the train go by.

From here, we drove towards Fort William where we’d be stopping for lunch, making a quick stop at a viewpoint of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Once in Fort William, we had some free time to wander through the town, looking in some of the local stores and having lunch at one of the many cafe’s along the high street.

Stopping to take in the view of Ben Nevis, and below, hiking at Glencoe

Our main stop today would be at Glencoe where we’d be hiking to the Lost Valley.

Above, and below, hiking to the Lost Valley at Glencoe

The 2 mile hike was challenging in parts as we followed a path that was steeps and rocky in parts, crossed a river by either paddling through or hopping over rough stepping stones, scrambled up loose rocks and over fallen trees and climbed boulders masquerading as steps!

It was all worth it though as we were surrounded by pretty scenery throughout the walk and the views in the valley itself were amazing.

After taking photos and sitting down for a while to consume our snacks and drinks, we followed the same track to return to the car park rewarding ourselves after with food and drinks at a nearby pub before continuing on our journey to Oban.

McCaigs Tower in Oban, and below, views from the tower

We’d be spending the next 2 nights in the town of Oban, staying in a busy hostel where the group was split between 2 dorms. The next day was a free day for us to spend as we wished and after grabbing dinner from the local chippie, we sat down to discuss the options on offer. Activities on offer included a trip across to some of the nearby Inner Hebrides islands, kayaking in the bay, cycle hire, distillery tours or just having a relaxing day exploring the town.

After dinner, some of us walked up to McCaigs Tower, sat on top of a steep hill in Oban, taking in the views across the town and its bay.

On the ferry to the Isle of Mullfrom Oban

With two of us deciding to spend our free day on the island-hopping tour, I had an early night as it meant foregoing the planned lie in.

On the boat to the Isle of Mull

The next morning, I was up early to get breakfast and the two of us then made our way down to the marina. We had purchased our tour tickets on line the night before so just needed to check in before catching our first ferry of the day.

This ferry took us from Oban across to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.

On the Isle of Mull, and below, arriving on the Isle of Iona

Upon arrival in Mull, we were met by a coach which we boarded to drive us across the island. Our coach driver pointed out anything of interest along the way but it was difficult to see through the not-as-clean-as-they-could-be windows and we didn’t make any stops until we reached the marina to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Iona.

Fingal’s Cave

Once on Iona, we had the rest of the day free until we had to catch the ferry back to Mull at the end of the day. Our day ticket included a return ferry to the nearby Isle of Staffa and although we could catch this across at any point of the day, we decided to do it immediately so we wouldn’t be rushing to fit it in later in the day.

Peering into the cave

The uninhabited island of Staffa is famous for two things – Fingal’s Cave and its abundance of wildlife, especially it’s puffins! Fingal’s Cave is at the Scottish end of the Giant’s Causeway and is formed from hexagonal lava flow. While we couldn’t go inside the cave, as we approached the island by boat, we sailed as close to it as we could to get photos from the sea and once on the island, were able to walk down and along the rocks to peer inside.

Puffins on Staffa Island, and below, exploring the island

We then walked across the island and along the cliffs to see some of the puffins gathered around the rocks. Obviously used to being stared at by visitors to the island, I was surprised at how close we were able to get to the small sea birds.

After spending some time watching the colourful birds, we made our way back along the cliff tops and down to the boat to make our way back to the Isle of Iona.

Once back on Iona, we spent a few hours exploring, wandering around the ruins of the Isle of Iona Nunnery and paying the small fee to visit Iona Abbey.

Above, and below, visitng Iona Abbey

Then it was time to board the boat back to the Isle of Mull where the coach was waiting to transport us back across the island to the ferry terminal.

We caught the ferry back to Oban having dinner at a pub by the marina before returning to the hostel.

That evening, after meeting back up with the rest of the group and swapping stories from our day, it was time to make sure everything was packed and ready for the last day of our tour. Tomorrow, we would be boarding the minibus for one last day on the road as we returned to Edinburgh where I’d be saying goodbye to the rest of the group and spending a couple of days exploring Scotland’s capital city by myself!

Scottish Highlands: Isle of Skye

Heading over the sea to Skye

Following a trip to the Orkney Islands for a friend’s wedding, I was half way through a 7 day small group tour of the Scottish Highlands with Macbackpackers. Since leaving Edinburgh we had travelled north past Inverness to Loch Ness before catching the ferry across from Ullapool to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Today, after waking up in our blackhouse accommodation on Lewis, we were travelling south into Harris to catch the ferry from Tarbert to Uig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

Visiting Flora Macdonald’s grave

Arriving in Tarbert, we were told we’d once again be boarding the ferry on foot, our guide driving the minibus on and meeting us on board. Tickets in hand we had a bit of free time before the departure so we spent it looking around the gift store at the nearby Isle of Harris Distillery before settling down at a table in its cafe for a mid-morning snack of tea and cake!

The ferry crossing took just under 2 hours. It was a much nicer day than it had been for our crossing to the Isle of Lewis and Harris a few days earlier and I spent most of the time out on the deck hoping (but failing) to spot some wildlife.

Coastal views at Duntulm, and below, walking towards Duntulm Castle

Once on the Isle of Skye, we didn’t waste any time, continuing our Scottish adventure by driving to Duntulm Castle. Along the way, we made a stop at a cemetery to see the grave of Flora Macdonald, our guide telling us the story of how she famously helped ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ evade capture following the Battle of Culloden in the 1700s.

Then it was on to Duntulm where we were dropped at a nearby viewpoint from which we walked along the coast path towards the ruins of Duntulm Castle.

Views hiking the Quiraing

After spending some time enjoying the views and taking photos of and with the castle ruins, we walked back to the minibus ready to continue to our next stop, The Quiraing. Formed by a huge landslip, The Quiraing is now said to provide some of the most spectacular landscape in Scotland.

After parking in a nearby road, our guide led us towards the rocky hills and cliff in front of us and started following a steep path up into them.

While it was difficult to keep up sometimes, most of the group having to stop to catch our breath as we climbed the steep, grassy hillside, it was definitely worth it as we were soon met with stunning views stretching out in front of us.

Sitting on a cliff top, we then downed water and caught our breath again before beginning the almost as difficult descent and returning to our bus. We then continued our drive through Skye.

Above, watching the sheep shearing, and below, walking to Lealt Falls

Our next stop was at Lealt Falls. Just before we arrived, we spotted some sheep shearing going on at a farm we were passing so pulled over to get a closer look!

Arriving at the falls, we followed the path to a viewing point from where we could see the waterfall in the distance then carried on following the path around to a coast path with some pretty views of a beach below.

Lealt Falls in the distance

With early evening now approaching, it was back on the bus to drive to the nearby town of Portree. We made a quick stop along the way to see famous Isle of Skye landmark, the Old Man of Storr, a distinctive rock formation high up on a hillside then arrived in the pretty harbour town of Portree for a spot of shopping to top up on snacks for the next day.

Our final destination on the Isle of Skye was in Kyleakin, a seaside village on the east coast.

Sunset at Kyleakin

Here, we were spending one night in a local hostel. Unlike at other hostels where the only other people in our dorms had been other members from our group tour, here we found we had all been split up with some of us sharing dorms with other people who just happened to be staying there that night but it was nice to get the chance to speak to other people and hear their stories of their experiences in Scotland so far.

We had arranged to all meet to walk to one of the local pubs for dinner. When we arrived it was way busier than we had expected but after a bit of a wait, we were eventually all seated in small groups and couldn’t wait to tuck in to our ‘pub grub’.

As we walked back to the hostel afterwards, the sun was just starting to set.

It had been a busy but fun day exploring the Isle of Skye.

Tomorrow, we’d be up early to drive to Armadale and catch a ferry back to the mainland and continue our adventure.

Scottish Highlands: Outer Hebrides

Visiting the Isle of Lewis and Harris

A rainy day on the ferry from Ullapool

Having decided to tour the Scottish Highlands to justify the cost of flying north for a wedding in Orkney, I was one day in to a small group tour with Macbackpackers. We awoke this morning in our hostel dorm on the banks of Loch Ness after a busy first day travelling there from Edinburgh and following breakfast in the hostel’s common area, we loaded up the minibus, climbed on board and set off for Ullapool. From here, we’d be boarding a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, spending 2 nights on the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Arriving in Ullapool ahead of schedule, we were given our tickets to board the ferry as foot passengers – our guide would be driving the minivan on board and then meeting on the ferry – and then had just under an hour of free time. It was pouring in rain so we decided to spend this time in a local cafe drinking tea and sampling the homemade cakes before walking over to the ferry terminal in time to board.

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

It took just under 3 hours to make the crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis during which time we amused ourselves playing I-Spy type games, going for walks out on the deck to enjoy the views once the rain had stopped and looking around the ferry’s gift stores and cafes, buying some snacks for lunch.

As we approached Stornoway, we all made our way back to the minivan parked in the bowels of the ferry and once we had docked, our guide drove us off the boat and back onto dry land.

Above, and below, views from the coastal walk at the Butt of Lewis

From the ferry terminus, we drove straight to the most northerly point of the island, known as the Butt of Lewis. Parking up by the lighthouse, our guide then lead us on a circular walk along the cliff tops with some beautiful coastal views along the way.

After our walk, we made a quick supermarket stop to pick up supplies for the next few days then drove towards our accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we’d be staying at Gearrannan Blackhouse Village in a restored traditional Scottish blackhouse built in the 1800s.

View of the beach from outside our Blackhouse and above, our Blackhouse accommodation

We had a building to ourselves – a large, stone blackhouse with a dorm at each end of the building and a common area and kitchen in the middle. The building was situated right on the coast and after settling in a few of us went for a walk down to the beach before dinner. We spent the rest of the evening cooking another group meal then chatting and playing party games over drinks.

Dun Carloway Broch

We got to have a slight lie in the next morning then after breakfast, boarded the minibus to be taken to our first stop – Dun Carloway Broch, a stone structure found only in Scotland which was thought to have been constructed around 200BC. The Broch had recently been closed after becoming unstable so we had to admire it from afar but the museum was open giving us a chance to learn more about it and see what it would have looked like inside.

Sheep near the Broch

As we left the Broch, we were excited to see a huge herd of sheep being driven down the middle of the narrow country lane as they moved fields!!

Then it was back onto the minibus to head to our next stop, another ancient structure, the Callanish Stones.

Above, and below, visiting the Callanish Stones

Similar to the stones I had seen in Orkney a few days earlier, the Callanish Stones are large, ancient stones arranged in a stone circle with a central stone in the centre. We spent some time exploring the site as well as making use of the facilities including a cafe.

Above, beginning our hike, and below, hiking on the cliffs at Bosta Beach

Stop number 3 of our busy day on the Isle of Lewis was at Bosta Beach. Here we went on a lengthy circular hike up onto the cliff tops. The views along the way were incredible and we finished off with a walk down onto the sands.

Miavaig Harbour

We made a quick lunch stop next at Miavaig Harbour where some of the group chose to sample the fresh seafood. Then, after a snack and petrol stop, it was on to Uig Bay where we walked along the beautiful, huge expanse of sand at Acosta Beach, paddling in the sea when we finally reached it!

Mangersta Sea Stacks

The rain started to set in just as we left and it started to really pour down as we drove to our final stop of the day, the Mangersta Sea Stacks. With the rain not showing any signs of abating, the stop was a lot quicker than we had originally planned with most of us having a quick look and taking a photo before jumping back on to the minibus.

Looking back at the beach while taking a cliff top walk from the Blackhouse Village

Back at our blackhouse accommodation, we cooked dinner and had a quiet night relaxing and an early night – we had an earlier start the next morning to drive down to the ferry terminal on the Isle of Harris (not actually a separate island to Lewis but just the southern third of the island!).

From here, we’d be catching the ferry across to the Isle of Skye.

Up and ready early the next day, a few of us took a walk along the cliff tops, following the coastal path from the Blackhouse Village and back. Then, it was time to load up the minibus, wave goodbye to the Isle of Lewis and Harris and set off for our next destination.