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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Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody

Hontoon Island State Park – Minutes from Orlando, Worlds Away

We’re a bit off-beat. We like off the beaten path adventures, off the tourist trail destinations, and off the major highway eats and treats. For New Years weekend, we decided to celebrate by camping in the wilderness, north of Orlando in Hontoon Island State Park.

The name by itself had me wondering an island exists in the middle of the state. Is it a hidden, lesser known version of Alcatraz? Is it the setting for a new series of horror novels? Is this Stephen King’s vacation residence?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), none of the above are true. I was delightfully surprised to find a hidden gem kind of place.

First of all, it’s only an island by about two hundred feet. That’s the span from the “mainland” to the “island”. This lovely little taxi (with room for only six!) schleps people to and from the parking lot (mainland) as needed from 8am to 5pm.

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There is no charge to park. Wheelbarrows are provided to unload camping gear into while waiting for this taxi. Hontoon Island staff make it very easy to move things about. A complimentary van ride will take you and your stuff to your campsite. When you are packed up, simply give them a buzz and that same van will pick you and your things up. Bear in mind that even though the website says a 2 tent maximum per campsite it’s not really enforced so long as you don’t cause a ruckus.

Wildlife:

There are bears. Yes. Bears on an island. Deer. Armadillos. Lots of ‘Coons running around. Poisonous snakes. And the most aggressive mosquitoes I have ever experienced. You’ve got to douse yourself in bug spray if you are camping from November to February because the mosquitoes will eat you alive.

Facilities:

There are public (hot) showers and public bathrooms. There’s a coke machine also. One of my friends remarked that, because of this, we weren’t actually camping (though I beg to differ). Everything was well equipped. We had a first time camper with us and she had a great time; moreover, the campgrounds are family friendly. A lot of people bring kids over for a day trip and everyone seems to have a ball.

There’s a small general store with postcards, bug spray, sunscreen, toiletry items and some snacks all at fair prices. This is also where you buy firewood, fire-starters and Duralogs.

Each campsite is outfitted with a firepit and griddle to cook on. There are trash cans by the public washrooms (and that nefarious Coke machine), so at the end of the night (due to the bears and other animals) it’s best to walk the trash to the bear-proof trash bins.

Things to do:

Fish. You can catch an assortment of freshwater fish. If you’re a Florida resident, it’s worth the $20 to get a fishing license which is valid for a year.

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Hiking is another great option, recommended earlier in the day as the air seems to stagnate until you get close to the water. Cypress trees are abundant here, and when you see a group of them together, create a feeling within that this is not that place to be once the sun goes down.

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A lot of people canoe and kayak around this area. In fact, Blue Springs is an hour away by kayak (without wind) or two hours with the wind blowing against you. To travel from Hontoon to Blue Springs, you have to traverse the St. John’s River, which has a very fast moving northbound current.  Blue Springs is a bit south of Hontoon, so you will be rowing against the current to Blue Springs, and with the current coming back. Even though it’s a hell of an upper body workout, Blue Springs is worth the trip because of some amazing emerald waters and the chance to see the manatee’s winter home.

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Believe it or not, the water is truly that green. Remarkably, you can see down into the bubbling spring from the boardwalk. (Blue Springs is swimmable when it’s not busy being the manatee winter home from October to April).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a spectacular Florida destination without a riveting sunset. This was taken right as we arrived back from Blue Spring, without any photo editing or filters.

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Cheers!

MarkandMelody