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.

Scottish Highlands: Journey to Loch Ness

The Scott Monument in Edinburgh

Having travelled all the way north to the island of Orkney for a wedding weekend, I was now in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, from where I would be departing the next day on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with small group tour company, Macbackpackers.

Arriving into Edinburgh early evening, I got the airport bus straight into the city and found my way to my city centre Travelodge accommodation for the night. All checked in, I headed out into the city to grab some food and find the meeting point for my tour the next day so I wouldn’t be panicking looking for it in the morning then it was back to my room to catch up on some sleep before the early start the next day.

Crossing into the Scottish Highlands

After getting breakfast from a nearby cafe the next morning, I checked out of my hotel and dragged my luggage through Edinburgh’s cobbled and steep streets to the hostel my tour would be departing from.

There were a few Macbackpackers tour leaving that morning and we all gathered in the hostel’s common room where we could help ourselves to drinks while we waited for our tour to be called. Gradually working out who else would be on the same tour as me, we started to bundle together, starting the introductions.

Our tour finally called and our names ticked off, we didn’t waste any time loading the minibus with our luggage and climbing aboard. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one bringing a medium-sized case along rather than a backpack – always a worry of mine when I join a group tour!!

After formal introductions on board, we were off out of the city, across the Forth Bridge and heading towards the Highlands. We made our first stop of the day at the side of the road by the Scottish Highlands welcome sign taking pictures with it and tasting the occasion with a shot of Scottish Whiskey!

An old blackhouse at the Highland Folk Museum

Our next stop was in the pretty town of Pitlochry where we all piled into one of the cafes recommended by our tour guide for lunch then we continued on to Newtonmore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. The open air museum recreates Highland life from the past and we attended an old ‘school’ where the school mistress sternly watched over us as we practised our handwriting before exploring the old working croft with its traditional blackhouses, old farm machinery and chickens milling around.

Chickens roaming freely at the Highland Folk Museum, and below, at Culloden Battlefield

The museum was used as a location in TV series Outlander which excited some members of the group who were fans of the show.

From the Highland Folk Museum, we continued north to Culloden Battlefield, our guide detailing the story of the Jacobite Rising in the 1700s, culminating in the Battle of Culloden. We had the option of buying a ticket to the museum or just exploring the grounds, most of the group opting for the latter.

Outside the visitor centre, we also had our first encounter with some ‘hairy coos’, or Highland Cattle, the famous long-haired and large-horned cows which we were all very excited about!

Spotting some ‘hairy coos’

We made one more stop at a supermarket just outside of Inverness to buy supplies for dinner which we’d decided would be a communal effort at the hostel then continued on to our Loch Ness-side accommodation pulling over once more for a quick photo opportunity at a viewpoint overlooking Urquhart Castle and the Loch. There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster yet so with that, we went and checked into our accommodation where we were staying in dorms for one night.

View of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness and below, on the banks of Loch Ness

The hostel lay right on the banks of Loch Ness and after we’d made and eaten dinner, we fought through the mosquitos to walk down to the Loch, some of us paddling our feet while braver members of the group even took a quick dip in its freezing waters!

We spent the rest of the evening in the hostel common room continuing to get to know each other before retiring to our dorms, most of us getting an early night before the next day’s early start.

It had been a fun first day and we’d packed a lot in. Tomorrow we’d be taking a ferry across to the first island of our trip and we were all excited to continue our Scottish adventure!

Planning a trip to Scotland

About to board a Loganair flight to Scotland

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the USA, ticking off 49 of the 50 States so far, and travelling in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve taken plenty of city breaks in Europe too, travelling for concert breaks or just for fun. But I always feel I should spend more time exploring the UK. The events of the last year have given me some opportunity to do this and I had a great time visiting some of England’s National Parks last summer as well as making my regular annual visit to Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales but Scotland is a country I’d never spent much time in.

Travelling to the Scottish Highlands

When a Scottish friend from one of the Trek America tours I had done got engaged and invited all of the group to her wedding, it seemed like the perfect excuse to see some of this beautiful country. You see, my friend lived in Orkney, one of the northernmost islands of Scotland, and travelling there was going to cost a small fortune!

As much as I wanted to go, it almost didn’t seem worth it for just 2 nights. So I decided to extend my trip and take a solo tour of the Scottish Highlands while I was there.

Rather than taking a tour completely solo, I decided I’d rather join an escorted tour.

Some ‘hairy coos’

While I’d taken a few of these elsewhere – while travelling in the USA, Australia and new Zealand – I wasn’t at all familiar with any companies that operated in the UK. After researching the tours and companies on offer for a solo traveller on a budget, I decided to book with Macbackpackers on their 7-day Best of the West tour. The company aims it small group tours at the 18-40 age group and got excellent reviews and while I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of staying in hostels again, I felt I’d be able to cope for 6 nights if it meant saving some money!

To save a bit more money, I booked the tour through Touradar during one of their sales using credits I had with them from previous bookings to bring the cost down even further!

Ancient standing stones on Orkney Island

The tour left from Edinburgh on Mondays so I decided to join the one that left after the weekend of the wedding meaning I’d fly to Orkney on Friday, leave for Edinburgh on Sunday evening and start the tour on the Monday morning, arriving back in Edinburgh where I’d spend a few more days, a week later.

Deciding I’d need a break from hostels along the way, I booked a city centre Travelodge in Edinburgh for the nights either side of the tour within walking distance of the hostel the tour departed from. The hostels used along the tour were pre-booked through the company although the price wasn’t included in the cost of the tour, we had to pay cash upon arrival at each one.

With our accommodation in Kirkwall on Orkney Island sorted for us by our friend, I was excited for the trip, ready to explore somewhere new and ready for adventure!

A quick trip to Montreal

After a few days on a concert break to Toronto, we were catching a VIA Rail train to our next Canadian destination, Montreal. It was a long train journey but the scenery along the way was at least pretty. We arrived at Montreal’s main station mid-afternoon and walked the short distance to our Marriott Hotel, another 4-star hotel bargain from Priceline’s Name Your Own Price site.

After checking in, we ventured straight out into the city.

Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, and above, the view from our hotel room

Our hotel was close to the pretty Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and there were plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes nearby so we spent a bit of time exploring before choosing a small Mexican restaurant for dinner.

The next day was our one full day for exploring the city. We’d seen the City Sightseeing hop on/off buses go past the day before so decided to buy tickets for it as the quickest way to see as much of Montreal as possible.

The bus took us to Montreal’s old town where we hopped off the bus at Notre Dame Cathedral.

After visiting the Cathedral, we sat out at a local cafe before walking to Place de la Grande-Paix-de-Montreal. Exploring the pretty square, we then decided to visit the Centre d’histoire de Montreal, an interesting museum tracing the history of Montreal and significant events from its past which is housed in a building that was once a fire station.

Then we walked down to the waterfront enjoying the sunshine as we passed through the many pretty parks along the promenade and enjoyed the views across St Lawrence River.

Hopping back on the bus, we continued our tour of the city through Montreal’s financial district and looping round to Mont-Royale, Montreal’s highest point. Passing St Joseph’s Oratory, we then pulled up at a viewpoint over the city.

The Museum of Fine Arts

We hopped off again at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The museum was definitely worth a visit and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring its extensive collections.

Back by Mary Queen of the World Cathedral

Then it was back on the bus to complete our loop of the city and return to where we started, the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral just across the road from our hotel.

Back at our hotel room after the concert

That evening, we attended the concert at the Bell Centre arena. The next day, we’d be checking out of our hotel and returning home to the UK but we had a little time in the morning for some last minute shopping first. Then it was off to the airport ready to wave Canada goodbye – for now!