Travel Diary: An Adventurous Self-Drive into the Scottish Highlands

Exploring the Highlands, if only for a day, is a must for any itinerary to Scotland. Deceivingly, they look much closer than they actually are. This is because in order for the Highlands to be Highlands, they have to be mountainous, rugged terrain, that’s what makes them Highlands. Navigating a road on this terrain is no small matter, and neither is driving on it.

Most people opt for the road-more-traveled: a day trip in a coach where you are comfortable and a driver takes you right to the scenic area, you take a dozen snapshots and return to your home, satisfied.

That’s not how we travel. We like to do things on our own.

I would have loved to do this drive by myself except manual transmissions and I don’t always get along. In some cars, like Hondas, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to drive. But the car we had wasn’t a Honda. It was a manual transmission car on the opposite side of the road with the driver’s seat where the passenger seat usually is. So Mark had to do the driving. All six hours of it.

If you’re in Glasgow and you want to get a taste of the Highlands, go to Glencoe. You don’t need to drive to Inverness or even Cairngorns National Park, though both of those are beautiful beyond belief and you could spend a week in either location.

Glencoe is a good introduction to the Highlands that will leave you salivating for more.

Getting through and out of Glasgow is a pretty boring, but once you leave the area, the road starts winding and taking sharp turns, twisting and the roads are narrow. Not just American narrow, but barely enough to fit two cars around the corner. There’s no room for error. It’s difficult to shift, keep your eyes on the road, and take a sip of water, so for the driver, it’s generally a stressful drive. About 40 minutes north of Glasgow, we lost cell phone service and entered Loch Lomond.

One of the things we look for is a waterfall. Whenever we land in a new place, we immediately go on a waterfall hunt. We heard that a waterfall existed in Loch Lomond National Park (Which you have to drive through to get to Glencoe) but we weren’t really optimistic about spotting it since there were no exits off of the road. However, a lovely, poorly marked sign indicated a parking area for us to pulll off. We did, if for nothing else than to take a quick hike down to the river and take in some of the gorgeous scenery. What we found was Falls of Falloch, a lovely waterfall hidden nested back at the end of a moderate hike.

Falloch Falls
Falls of Falloch

Once we got out Loch Lomond, the scenery becomes much more dramatic and more beautiful.

Entering Glencoe
Entering Glencoe

The problem with doing a self-drive in Scotland is there is virtually no where to stop for a picture. Miles and miles of breathtaking, jaw-dropping lush green and towering waterfalls and there is nothing to travel on but this narrow two-lane road.

So when we finally saw a parking lot to stop, we slammed on our brakes for it. We missed it and decided to pull off on the side of the road, as it appeared to have a shoulder. We do not recommend doing this. Once we pulled over, the rocky terrain grabbed the tires and cut them to the left. The car sank into the mud. The entire left side of the car was in the mud. Tires spinning, clutch burning. I was definitely convinced we were stuck. We were hungry. Gas was nearly empty. It seemed like the beginning to a Stephen King novel. I tried to lift the car out of the mud (most European cars can be lifted by a person of moderate strength), but I couldn’t get a grip on what needed to be lifted up. So Mark trusts me to operate a left-hand drive car while he lifts the car up and out of the goo and…well, forty minutes later, we were back on the road.

Hellooo, Glencoe!
Hellooo, Glencoe!

Extraordinary right? I couldn’t get enough of it.

Another couple of hours later, we arrived into Fort William. I expected more of a town than It actually is, but on one side of the road is a row of bed and breakfasts, and on the other is a beautiful lake and mountains.

Fort William, where you want to stay if you're to explore all of Glen Nevis
Fort William, where you want to stay if you’re to explore all of Glen Nevis

We are looking for a place to stay, or get information, but things aren’t very well marked out. Apple Maps finally makes a comeback, as we haven’t had map service since Glasgow. What a relief. I find the tourist information center and the woman there recommends a park called Glen Nevis. Says it has some waterfalls and a few nice hikes, best part of everything? It’s free! Off we go to Glen Nevis.

Glen Nevis really is like walking into the wilderness of the Highlands. It’s one-way dirt roads with pullouts to let the other cars pass by. We drive 7 miles on this narrow, gritty dirty road all the way to the end and get out. There’s one waterfall at the end of the trail so we follow it. The trail starts out pretty easy but gets pretty dramatic. Water trickles over exposed rocks and the air begins to thin. Elevation gains are made quickly but the scenery is breathtaking. Strongly recommend hiking boots or strong sturdy hiking shoes.

Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won't do you any good on this trail.
Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won’t do you much good here.
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!

The trail opens up into a field, where you’re in the valley of the Highlands and you can see the waterfall. It’s possible at the end, to get closer to it, and you can climb over the rocks, I recommend you bring food, at least a few snacks, to sit on the rocks and enjoy the picnic time and the view.

A little impromptu rock climbing!
A little impromptu rock climbing!

We brought cheerios and we wish we had brought more. Keep in mind this is a national park of sorts, so there’s no trash or rubbish bins. There’s a rope bridge, which looks a lot like a tightrope, you can cross, if you dare. It’s a bit scary, the first few steps, but as long as no one else is on it, shaking it or moving it about wildly, it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s also a lot higher up than it looks from the underside of it.

Mark turned acrobat on the rope swing I crossed with great trepidation.
Mark turned acrobat on the rope bridge I crossed with great trepidation. How about that view though?

However, once you get to the other side, there isn’t much to see, there’s a house, but not much after it. We thought we could get closer to the waterfall and wound up stepping into a bog and getting covered in mud up to our knees.

The hiking back as or seemed faster than it actually was to get to the waterfall. Maybe it was because I was tired or maybe it was easier after the hike there. There are plenty more things in the park to explore. It’s worth at least two full days, as there are waterfalls in nearly every corner and dramatic drop-offs everywhere you look.

That’s the beauty of the Highlands.

Waterfall spotting on our way back up the mountain
Happy hiking!
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How A Missed London Flight Became the Best Day Ever

We had a flight from London-Gatwick to Oslo scheduled to depart at 6am. Following the guidelines of international flights, we decided to be there about 90 minutes early: 4:30. We were staying at Masslink Guesthouse so across the street from the airport. The alarm is set for 4am.

It doesn’t go off. Something wakes me up around 4am, but it’s not the alarm. I go back to sleep.

I wake up about an hour later, suspicious of how rested I feel. Light is peeking through the curtains. I know it’s not 4am. My eyes glaze over to the clock and in big red letters it proudly displays… Continue reading

Eating in Oslo is Outrageously Expensive

Eating Diagram

Oslo may no longer be the world’s most expensive city (it lost that rank in 2013), but it is still outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, for budget travelers looking to spend $50 USD or less, there is not a lot to do other than walk. Happy hour doesn’t exist here. Eating on the cheap doesn’t exist here. Thankfully the couple we are pet-sitting for left a fridge with some foodstuffs in it because otherwise we would DIE.

At an Irish pub, $120 was spent in Oslo on 2 Guinness, 2 ciders, a chicken club sandwich, Irish stew, and a whiskey.

We thought, no worries (actually Mark was like “WHAT!”), we’ll just eat from convenience stores and gas stations…

At a Shell gas station, $30 was spent on a Coke ($4), water bottle ($4), two Snickers bars, a muffin, and two hot dogs.

We learned that the city pretty much shuts down in July and it is cheaper to spend a month anywhere else in Europe than it is to stay in Oslo. We learned this after we walked around Oslo looking for cheap eats courtesy of Yelp, but two of the places we went to were closed.

We wound up… at a Norwegian version of Chipotle (one of two places open) where two burrito bowls cost $30.

We’ve finally given up on dining out, even as a treat, so we relegated to finding the grocery store. Only to discover…

Grocery stores close at noon on Saturday and are closed on Sunday.

When I said I wanted to lose weight, this is not what I had in mind.

What We’ve Learned After 3 Days in London

Our first stop on our 111 day journey around the world takes us to London. What a city. We had a lot of expectations, both of ourselves and of the city. Here’s what we’ve learned with a little bit of tough love from one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places, and see this link for how to do London on a Budget.

1) This is not a bargain town. With the USD-GBP exchange rate, we’re getting about 64 pounds for every $100 USD. Here’s a point of reference, all prices in pounds:

Cheap beer: 4
Nice beer: 6
175 ml glass of wine: 6-8
Appetizers (half the size of American apps so a bad substitute for dinner): 9-12
Cheap dinner: 13
Filling Dinner: 20-30

So you can see, a nice (non-budget) dinner for two could easily eat up your 64 pounds.
In other words, you’ve just spent $100 on one meal.
No tipping here. Please don’t do it. And no added-on tax. The price you see on the receipt is what you pay.

Picking up foodstuffs from supermarkets or grocery stores is key to saving money.

Cold/ Flu Medicine: 4 [please see note here about pharmacies in the UK]
Small bottle of water: 1
Large water: 2
Takeaway pasta from grocery store: 4 (or you can get lucky with a 3 for 3 deal at Sainsbury’s)
Box of tea: 2

NOTE: There are Panera Bread type places where you can purchase coffees, smoothies and bread items, but you will see two prices: a takeaway (to-go) and eat-in price. The eat-in prices are higher because of a VAT (value added tax) charge. Our suggestion? Get your items for takeaway and eat at one of the numerous parks and green spaces.

2) Please be extremely mindful of the amount of walking/ stair-climbing you do. It is very easy to wear out your body and thus make yourself sick. London is very walkable, but please please plan your visits to attractions in clusters and plan for no more than three attractions a day. It is not necessary to visit the Imperial War Museum and the National Gallery in the same day. They are on opposite sides of town and there is plenty in each “zone” to keep you busy for an entire day.

3) Buy an OysterCard the day you arrive (and think twice about the London Pass). They’re available at the airport, convenience stores, kiosks, and supermarkets. It gives you access to the tube (underground subway), the overground (above-ground subway), and the buses for very low prices. We took a bus during the tube strike: they’re great. Note: As of July 2015, the tube does not run 24 hours; in September 2015, 24 hour tube operations are scheduled to begin.

4) If you have an unlocked phone that can take a different SIM, we strongly suggest you seek out a LycaMobile SIM for 1 pound. The plan we purchased was 17 pounds and came with 2000 minutes, 5GB of data and unlimited text messages. This means we can load maps on Google with the route/ directions, put the phone on airplane mode to save battery/ data, and use the pre-loaded map. Genius. It works. It saves battery. We haven’t gotten lost.

Cheers.

xx

Our Most Oft Asked Question: Travel – on the Cheap!

One of the questions that we get most often is, “How can you afford to travel? You must be rich / rolling in the dough / get money from your parents.” While all of these things would make traveling long-term much easier…it just isn’t the case for Melody and I.

Knowing that we would need to find a way to do it a little cheaper, and also knowing the type of trip that we both mutually enjoy, we set out to discover some cheaper ways to travel.

In general, the two largest cost items while traveling will be lodging and food – these are inescapable truths. While it is certainly possible to eat ramen noodles and camp in a tent, sometimes the weather and local culture may just not let that be a possibility (not to mention that would likely become old, very quickly). Striking a little bit of the middle ground, the following are a couple of other options:

  1. House-sit!We would first like to say a big thank you to Hecktic Travels for their amazing blogs and advice, as well as informing us and many others about house sitting as a travel option. Cheers, guys!Anyone with pets that loves to travel knows that bringing their animals along can make for…less than ideal trips. Traveling with a pet is expensive, and depending on your breed of dog / cat / bird / other exotic animal, may not be possible at all. For the longer trips, it is also not possible to leave your animals unattended (you wouldn’t do that, right?).

    Boarding your animals is another option – but again expensive.

    Some are lucky that they have close family or friends to watch after their furry / feathered babies – but again, not always possible for longer stays.

    For people who fall outside of these lovely conveniences, consider having someone come sit your house!

    In exchange for lodging, you can have a trusted and verified traveler stay at your house and care for your animals / property. The requirements for the stays are clearly stated (expectations and duration), and there are even some that are paid – though not very many – your mileage may vary.

    For our uses, we used Mind My House and Trusted House Sitters, but there are many others out there. Not only will you get to visit some unique and interesting destinations, but in most cases your only costs will be transit expense, food and some time commitment. A secondary bonus for people like us who live in a place that having animals is forbidden – you even get to enjoy the company of the resident animals.

  2. Help ExchangeMelody and I both enjoy staying active. We also love to meet new people and immerse ourselves in new cultures – out of the city and away from the tourist areas. Don’t get me wrong, we love to see the sights too, but there is something powerful about the countryside and the people that live outside of the hustle and bustle of the city.Keeping these things in mind, we set out to find a way to immerse ourselves into the everyday life of a local – and save some money doing it along the route. When we came across Help Exchanges, we knew we had found a winner.

    For our uses, we use HelpX – although there are many more sites out there that do the same thing.

    Simplified, a help exchange is an exchange of your time and labor for lodging and food.

    This exchange comes in many shapes and sizes, but the postings usually detail exactly what the expectations are in advance. The number of hours you are expected to work will vary, but most that we have seen are between 20-25 hours per week.

    Some examples of what you might expect to find:

    Hostel Operator looking for help in maintaining hostel. 20 hours per week to include: Admitting guests, making beds, dusting lobby, preparing food, general cleaning. In exchange you will receive private lodging with bathroom. Minimum 30 day stay.

    or

    Looking for helpers to work in the garden with some experience of gardening and growing vegetables to get the spring work done. Four hours work per each nights stay in return for 3 meals per day and accommodation. Double en-suite bedroom and single bed. Fresh food from the garden where possible and all home cooked meals prepared for you.

  3. AirBNBIf neither of the above sound overly interesting, or you are not really interested in working for your lodging / food, fear not! There are other options for you.AirBNB is, in effect, a house / room / couch sharing site designed to allow homeowners the opportunity to earn a little extra income on empty or unoccupied rooms within their home. These rooms are usually priced substantially below what you might find at a hotel in the same area.

    For smaller groups 2-3, this might actually be cheaper than if you were to individually stay at a hostel.

    The site itself is very simple to navigate, and rooms are available in 190+ countries.Capture

    With an available mobile application, the ability to instantly book rooms, and read reviews from others who have stayed, Airbnb is a viable option for those planning far in advance, or on the fly.

For our purposes, we will be using a combination of the three, in addition to some other creative maneuvering to create the most memorable and dynamic trip that we can.

We have almost finalized our rough travel itinerary, so keep an eye out for that soon. In the meantime, keep thinking about that trip you would like to take, and… don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Cheers!

Mark & Melody