What would you do if you only had four days to visit a country, to experience as much of its culture, countryside, arts, architectural splendors, festivals, gastronomy, among the many other countless reasons one travels? Would you go to major cities and walk around sightseeing and eating to your hearts content? Would you seek out specific festivals for cultural engagement? I know when I start to think about a country or exotic city I have never been to before I think about what it is that exactly draws me to this place. I was drawn to Paris and London and Barcelona for the exact reasons that they are large marvelous cities with much to see and do; however, I realized through several of these big city trips that they certainly are not necessarily representative of the culture and people of those countries – the dark side of globalization, but I digress. The ultimate question remains: why do each one of us that enjoy travel, travel? For me it’s the seductive draw of making the unknown known and hopefully discovering more unknown along the way. And with only four days to tour through Scotland, seeking out and experiencing the unknown surrounded by lush verdurous terrain only proved to me once again of why I’m passionate about travel.
The beauty of the U.K. and Ireland is that it’s a short flight from Spain, usually a direct flight, and everything is drivable. Granted, it is a bit unusual at first to drive on the opposite side of the road but after a couple hours of white knuckling the steering wheel and a few cars blaring their horns at you, you eventually find your pace and shifting with your left hand becomes quite enjoyable. We landed in Prestwick, Scotland, which is located about a half an hour south from Glasgow, and immediately drove three hours north to Inverness. The name of the town might not seem all that memorable, however, the loch it borders has been famous for decades due to a timid monster that only appears to the lucky few every couple of years or so.
When I was a kid I believed that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, existed. My belief in Nessie was set in stone long ago and withstood the destructive forces that come from an elementary school’s cafeteria where often other fairytale hopefuls found their demise. And it was for this reason alone Loch Ness was to be the first stop. We chartered one of several boats that cruise the loch in hopes of finding the Loch Ness Monster. Several other Nessie hunters also accompanied us from several other countries. It appears now that the legend of the Loch Ness Monster is a world phenomenon and not just localized to western cultures. We cruised the open waters and made our way to the Urquhart Castle that stands dilapidated, overlooking the loch; like some ancient stone caretaker watching over the waters and the creatures within, yet to relinquish its post. And though the wind was frigid on our skin we kept our eyes steeled upon surface for any disturbance that could result in humanities ultimate prize. Nevertheless, Nessie proved elusive that day and did not appear.
After our failed hunt and disembarking the boat with our heads hung low, we made our way north to Dingwall. Some of you may recognize the name from the Pixar animated film Brave which lampooned the Clan of Dingwall in a very humorous light. The fact is, is that there is no clan of Dingwall, only a town with a tower and small castle that has since been transformed from housing its original lords to a B&B for tourists. We went to Dingwall because I once had a grandmother with the same last name. Like most Americans my ancestors came from somewhere else and Dingwall was one of those places. Which also may explain some of the red I get in my beard when it grows to a respectable length. However, there is not much to see and do in this small town except for one who may have ancestral ties. We visited a small museum, took pictures of the quaint street full of shops for local residents – no tourist shops – and ate lunch in a small cafe. After about an hour of seeing if a part of me may encounter nostalgic feelings on some genetic level – I may have felt a whisker tickle – we left south to Fort William.
Fort William is an outdoor tourist town that sits near the base of Ben Nevis, which of course as one local explained to me is “the highest peak of the British Isles.” The height of Ben Nevis is not that formidable. Sitting at 4,409 feet it is definitely no Everest, heck, it’s not even a Mt. St. Helens. But for a hike that one can do in a single day reaching the peak of all the highlands, not to mention the U.K., it is quite formidable in its elevation gain ascending 4,344 feet over five miles of grueling loose rock to reach its summit (ten miles round trip). I have most certainly hiked higher peaks, most hikers have, but to hike not only in the beauty of the Scottish highlands, from lush green valleys into clouds and sparse terrain of stone and snow, this hike was and is an adventure waiting to happen for anyone willing to take up the challenge. Just make sure you come prepared. My legs remained sore for nearly a week after the hike, but it was an unforgettable experience and something that I will have with me for the rest of my life. After descending the “Ben” we went to the visitor center where we washed the sweat from our faces, changed our aching feet from our boots and drove three and a half hours south to Ayr. I initially feared that the drive would be difficult after such a strenuous hike and so I drank whatever caffeine was available – one coke. What I wasn’t prepared for was a drive through a part of the highlands we didn’t know even existed. Soon after leaving Fort William the west highlands and their true beauty laid out before us, untouched and wild with low mountains and valleys and green, everything absolutely green. Simply amazing. We remained in Ayr the last night we stayed in Scotland and flew out early the next morning.
And that’s the thing with travel, isn’t it? We travel because it’s the experiences that put us out of our comfort zone just enough to get our hearts pumping, literally. What ever that may be. There were countless options for our trip we could of done. But for me, when I had thought about Scotland the only thing that stood out in my mind was adventure. With only four days, that adventure for me was to search for Nessie and conquer the highest peak in the highlands and all of the U.K.