Monday, March 31, 2014

High on Life in the Highlands

Just last night I returned from the most magical weekend of my life to date. I started doing research on Highland excursions at the beginning of the semester, determined to make it to the legendary Isle of Skye, but most I found left from Edinburgh or Glasgow. However, at an international Dundee University event, I discovered Heartland Travel, the relatively new company that picks students up from their universities before making the drive to the Highlands! I found a weekend that worked with my schedule and booked it immediately. None of my other international friends chose this weekend until the trip was full and it was too late for them. So I arrived at the meeting point on Friday morning and met 15 new friends. There were two girls from St. Andrew's, three of us from Dundee, and the rest were from Stirling. 
Nori, our faithful leader, gave us a run-down of the weekend as he drove us North. We passed countless sheep and precious lambs as the Glen Coe mountains slowly came into view. Letsbehonest, every single point along the route was a scenic lookout, but we stopped at a particular pretty one to eat lunch in the van before beginning our hike to The Lost Valley. Along the way I drank the absolute best water from a freshwater stream and struggled to find words to describe the looming mountains. Everything around me was so still and it felt irreverent to shout among the peaks. We finally made it to the snowy bit near the top and I swiped a taste of Scottish snow. While we stood there in The Lost Valley, which used to be MacDonald clan territory, we began to be hit by tiny snowflakes. If I had to choose one astonishing sight from this hike, I would say the frozen waterfall had me speechless. We did not get particularly close to it, but to be able to see it from the distance we were was spectacular. I could not help but imagine what it would be like to witness the ice melt. 
Would it happen slowly, one trickle of water at a time? Or would The Lost Valley echo with the crack of ice and the gush of finally freed water? To stand among such giants...it is no wonder such special writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott sprung from Scotland. Words meander down the peaks in quiet streams and adamant waterfalls. On the hike down, I found an elevated rock in the middle of the path and took a break to lay on it and stare at the blue, blue sky. We had beautiful weather and everywhere I looked the view was always different. We also saw two stags standing near the side of the road before climbing back into the van. 
Our next stop was the grocery store to get ingredients for a frozen pizza feast for the evening. As we were checking out, an upbeat song came on the stereo and all of the kids in the store started to dance! It was such a cool thing to witness and I refuse to believe it does not happen everyday in the Highlands. I mean, I would dance in grocery stores if I lived there. 
The next stop was likely a highlight for a lot of the group, but since I am not a Harry Potter fan I appreciated the beauty of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, rather than the significance of the railroad being in the films. Of course, if this was a setting from the classic film "Mean Girls" I probably would have fangirled just a wee bit more. A man, who I'm assuming owns the surrounding land, stopped us on our trek to the rail bridge and informed us about the process of filming and the presence of Loch Shiel in the movies as well. I was more enamored with his very Scottish tweed trousers, but he was so nice to stop and talk to us!
The bridge was the final stop of the day on Friday and we continued our scenic drive to Stromeferry, where our 130-year-old hostel was located. The sun set and dusk came upon the most reverent night I've ever seen. The clouds enveloped the tips of the mountains so that I couldn't tell where earth ended and the heavens began. The Highland mountains are boldly blunt, a stark contrast to the various lochs they encompass. They are unapologetically rough, virtually no plants cover the rocky surfaces unlike the green mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. I felt equally protected and supported by the Highlands, whether I was standing in the midst of mountains or standing on one. 
We finally reached our destination and I scarfed down the pizza before falling into bed. The hostel was really nice, though it had slightly dodgy Wifi on occasions. But who needs Wifi when Lochcarron is outside the window? 
Saturday was fully dedicated to the Isle of Skye. We passed an old Viking castle before crossing over the iconic Skye Bridge, the most expensive bridge in the world. It used to cost 6 pounds each way before the people of Skye began to show their distaste for the toll by paying in pennies. After picking up sandwiches for lunch, we stopped to take pictures of the stunning Cuillin mountains before driving to a 2,000 year old broch, a defensive building from years ago. We caught a glimpse of Dunvegan Castle before stopping for lunch at my new favorite place in the entire world: Coral Beach. 
It's a mile long walk from the car park, but I would have walked three to experience this place. The water was resort clear, with two distinct shades of blue near the shores and in the middle. When the tide is out, one can cross on stones to an island, but we saw two travelers do this and then have to wade through knee deep water when they came back after the tide came in. We applauded their soggy efforts when they reached shore. The sand is made up of coral, hence the name of the beach, and I picked up three shells to add to my Scottish collection. 
I didn't want to leave Coral Beach, but the next location was almost better! Fairy Glen is just as magical as the name suggests. There is a small valley in between the hills and vistas for miles. I rearranged the rocks in Fairy Glen to make my own special message and ran around the fairy circle forwards and backwards, trying to see the sprites. 
It didn't work at the Fairy Glen, but I did see some fairies at the next rest stop! I met Laura and Kiera, the two girls who had to take a different tour since ours was full, and we had a dramatic three-way hug reunion even though I had seen them a few days earlier.


Our final stops in Skye were the Quiraing, Kilt Rock, and the Old Man of Storr. The views of all three were indescribable. I now want to permanently move to the Isle of Skye, but would the views lose their magic if I saw them everyday? Is the beauty of the vistas in the fleeting moments? 
Nori made us spaghetti on our final night and we sat around a bonfire, perfect for bonding and talking about cultural differences. 
The time change occurred in Scotland on Saturday night so when the clock struck 11 PM it was technically midnight for this Cinderella and I crawled into the sheets, feeling about as spry as a 90-year-old woman. 
If I could describe Sunday morning in one word it would be: opportunity. We got the chance to go fishing for scallops with a local fisherman! After sifting through all of the other sea creatures we unearthed, we tossed the scallops into a bucket. And then ate them raw. Yes, I tried a raw scallop. I'm still in disbelief myself. 
For lunch we ate at the cafe of Eilean Donan Castle on the shore of Loch Duich. It was built in 1214 by the Mackenzie clan and destroyed during the Jacobite rebellion. 
On the way to Loch Ness, we stopped for a photo opportunity with Highland cows and one lucky hairy guy posed for a selfie with me. Urquhart Castle was the next stop and finally, I saw Loch Ness. The place, not the monster unfortunately. It was probably the mistiest loch of all so I wouldn't be surprised if a creature did lurk under the water. 
Our final stops were sobering, but important. First, the Battlefied of Culloden, where on April 16, 1746, 1500 men fell in the Jacobite rebellion. The location is essentially a mass grave. 
Lastly, the Dundee and St. Andrew's crew parted from the Stirling babes at a McDonald's. So sentimental. We hugged our goodbyes and promised to visit (I'm already trying to work out when I can visit Stirling in May) and one of the Swedes gave the best farewell when he said "Goodbye, Miss Freedom." #merica! 
All in all, it was definitely one of the best weekends of my life and the perfect way to kickstart my summer! Can I be A Very Lucky Highlander? 

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