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19 September 2012

Scotland Road Trip 2: Driving Around the Highlands

The weather was incredibly beautiful for the late May weekend thatwe were in Scotland. Remarkably, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the long late Spring days made for perfect sightseeing and traveling. As I awoke, I glimped outside my window and took in the splendor of Edinburgh and the hills surrounding the city.

After a long drive from London that didn't get us into Edinburgh until 3am, we understandably were a little slow to wake up for the first full day of our Scotland weekend. We picked up our other two travelmates (who were staying at another friend's place) and soon we were all on the road again.

It didn't take long outside of Edinburgh for the city to give way to countryside. Scotland is, after all, a mostly rural landscape. The motorway had a little congestion as we passed by construction, but all in all it was smooth sailing as we headed onwards toward our first destination: Stirling.

We arrived in Stirling, with its iconic castle on a hill, which looked stunning even from miles away. But first things first: We were hungry. We found a parking space and stumbled into the first decent looking restaurant that we could be find, which was a sort of family-style pizza/American restaurant. The iced tea was very bland, the service was slow, and the chicken caesar salad was the opposite of fresh; I won't go into more details.

We then walked up the hill toward the castle, through the old town centre of Stirling, which was beautiful, like a smaller and emptier version of Edinburgh. Atop the hill, just next to the castle itself, was a spectacular cemetery.

In the distance, we could see the Wallace Monument. We didn't have much time, as our car was parked in a 2-hour zone, so we took a few pitucres, enjoyed the view, and began to rush back downhill to our car.

After Stirling, we drove onward, Swag behind the wheel, me sitting to his left, discovering the different radio stations. Our next stop was Loch Lomond, a large loch (lake) in the southwestern Highlands that is a popular summer escape for locals but generally bypassed by tourists. It took about an hour or so of driving to get there.

We passed through the town of Balloch, which on the map looked to be a reasonable place to see the loch. We drove around in a few circles before checking out a waterfront shopping area that just was a little too developed for our tastes.

So we drove on, continuing along the western side of the lake. There was a road that led down to the waterside, which we drove onto, but it was crowded with cars parked along both sides, and the waterfront that was accessible looked to be part of a private dock of some sort. So, we just took a peek across the lake before continuing on.

A couple of miles down the road, we found some space to park along the main road alongside some other cars. So we did, and followed a tiny trail through some thick bushes to a semi-hidden beach. Well, it was a beach in the sense that it was some land between the trees and the water. But it was covered with jagged pebbles and stones. There, we stayed for a bit and enjoyed the rare Scottish sunshine.

It was actually almost feeling warm, and someone somewhere suggested going in the water. Dipping my toes in, I could tell that the water was still quite chilly. But somehow, we (the 3 guys) gave in, and we stripped down to our boxers and waddled into the water.

It was so cold! But at least I got to say that I swam in a Scottish Loch!

It took a while to dry out my boxers afterwards, but there was a pretty easy and quick solution when you have a car :)

From Loch Lomond, we drove north into the Highlands itself, headed toward majestic Glen Coe. The scenery became more surreal as we neared the storied valley.

It was just as nice I remember it from my visit 4 years ago. There were traces of snow still on the sides of the mountaintops. We parked and just took in the view. In every direction, there was something to take your breath away.

Fairy-tale waterfalls cascaded all around us. The afternoon sun turned the hills golden. The remote valley is truly a must-see in Scotland.

We continued driving through the valley onward toward Fort William, where we decided to see Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Unfortunately we were a bit confused as to the exact location of the mountain.

Somehow, we did manage to find it (it's the "peak" on the left).

The afternoon was wearing on, so we had to rush back to Edinburgh. It would take several hours, as we were pretty far into the highlands. Along the way, we tried to find a decent but affordable place to eat, which turned out to be difficult, so we kept driving.

Somewhere about an hour after passing through Glen Coe again, we found a roadside pub that looked pretty local, where we got some food. They had haggis, and I had to have it!

Slightly further, there was the "Hogwarts Express" bridge. It's not exactly the one used in the Harry Potter movies, but it's a scenic (abandoned?) viaduct just by the road.

It was maybe 9 or 10pm by the time we returned to Edinburgh; obviously with pub food in our stomachs we had no need for dinner. However, it was a Saturday night, and I for one was very keen to go out. So out we went to experience Edinburgh's legendary nightlife.

We all got together and jammed into a taxi and headed into the city center. We grabbed beers at a bar that was built like a cavern into a medieval-ish dungeon (or was made to feel that way). But the loud music and rowdy drinkers made sure that it had a much more upbeat vibe than any other dungeon I had been to.

The night continued, and we bar hopped a little bit, and we ended up at a hard rock club/bar underneath a bridge. A mix of heavy metal and classic rock hits to keep your head thumping. I enjoyed it.

We stumbled all the way back to our house, exhausted from the long day. It wasn't too late, obviously, as the sun wasn't out yet! And, believe it or not we'd have an even longer an more exhausting day ahead of us....

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