Saturday August 2- Monday Aug. 4
We had originally intended to take the West Highland Line up Scotlands very scenic west coast - it is supposed to be one of the most spectacular rail lines in the world - but accommodations were proving difficult to find, and the 5-6 hours of train time seemed excessive for such a short trip. We finally opted for Aviemore, about 35 miles south of Inverness, in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotlands highest and also very scenic. It is more in central Scotland, and only about 3 hours from Edinburgh. In the winter Aviemore is a winter sports hub, in the summer a popular tourist destination. It seemed well located among many interesting places to visit. We arrived in the early afternoon, and trudged what seemed like way too far with our heavy backpacks to our B&B, Dunroamin (I never got around to asking the proprietor if that was a Scottish term, or a play on Done roamin). Our room was pleasantly large and airy, with a landing outside that was good for reading, childrens play equipment in the back yard (for her two daughters, but Colin enjoyed it as well), and best of all
(for Colin), a Spanish family across the landing with a 2 1/2 year old son whom Colin had great fun playing with over two days. They didnt understand a word the other said (the father was the only one who spoke much English, and his was poor), but that didnt matter at all.
After resting a bit we walked back down the main street to have lunch, collect tourist information, and generally look around. Emilys fleece jacket had been damaged by high heat in the dryer at the last launderette we took it to, so we were also keeping our eyes out for a new jacket for her (the surface in some areas had been left a bit blackened and burnt looking and feeling - not very visible on the dark green fleece, and it was still quite wearable, so this wasnt urgent). It was a pleasant, busy little town, with gorgeous mountains rising on both sides. We got a booklet on many walks and hikes in the area, and planned to take one or more. Not far from our lodging was a small amusement park, apparently permanent, with several rides suitable for small children, as well as an arcade. Needless to say we made several stops here with Colin in the course of our stay. The rides are paid for with tokens you buy at a machine, so the place is minimally staffed and relatively cheap.
Our big mistake was in not researching local public transportation (buses) immediately. By the time we had looked at enough maps to realize that none of the things we wanted to do were quite within walking distance (well, they were, but several miles away), and that taxi fares were usury, it was Sunday and we were pretty much stuck with what we could do on foot. We opted to take the scenic little steam railway line that ran from Aviemore to another nearby town, Boat of Garten. It took us up the mountain valley, through forests of Birch and Scots Pine, and heather-covered hills. It was pretty and fun, especially for Colin, who was impressed by the chug, chug of a steam engine starting up - the origin, of course, of the term Choo-choo train. We got off in Boat of Garten, took a nice walk in the woods and had a picnic lunch, then came back on the next train. Apparently conditions were dryer than they looked because the train twice had to stop to put out small fires, and finally there was a long stop while they changed the steam engine to a diesel one (much smellier) - the steam engine had started a total of 4 fires that morning!
Monday I went into town first thing to find out about buses, and after asking at several places and getting conflicting answers, finally found a bus pulled over and asked the driver. He immediately produced a schedule which gave us all the information we needed. Later in the morning we caught the right bus to the Landmark Heritage Park in the nearby town of Carrbridge - of all the activities I had collected flyers on, this was the one the kids wanted to do most, and it looked interesting to us too. As with Bonfante Gardens in California, this was no ordinary amusement park. In fact, the only rides it had were bumper cars, and a huge triple water slide one went down in boats. The line for this was quite long (but invisible from the ground), so we waited, and waited, for Emily and Colin to come down, and they only did it the one time. There was also a climbing wall which Emily attempted (didnt quite make it to the top in the allotted time) while Colin played on a huge playground structure. Then we all went through a long and fun maze built of walkways over a bog, and set off for the more unusual areas. There was in particular a long nature walkway through the tops of the forest trees. This forest was mostly Scots Pine, not very tall but quite ornamental. The ground cover was a beautiful tapestry dense with heather, Blaeberry (a relative of blueberries), Cowberry (a currant relative), and a couple of other low evergreen shrubs. Along the walk were placed informational boards about the wildlife (which we didnt see any of, except a few birds), each with a mystery question that would be answered at the next board. Colin found these fun, except the last few which got into conservation topics that were beyond him.
After the forest walkway we had lunch near Microworld, the only indoor exhibit, and checked that out afterwards. As the name suggests, it dealt with the microscopic, with many of the exhibits being blowups of microscopic things, and others actual microscopes. It was moderately interesting, but enough of the things didnt work right that some parts were disappointing.
Then we headed for the literal high point of the park, the outlook tower - a very tall (perhaps 100 feet?) wooden tower like a fire watch tower, which afforded magnificent views of the forest and mountains all around. Rich didnt come up because he doesnt like heights, but I got my creaky knees clear to the top with the kids. There was a telescope at the very top on a small platform, with a great crowd of kids around it jostling for a look, and much shoving and crying. Colin wanted to look, and of course it was placed too high for the smaller children to look through effectively. After I lifted several small children up to look, and then Colin, things were a bit clearer, but I didnt try to look through myself.
The remaining major area was devoted to the lumber industry in Scotland, and was very reminiscent of similar displays in Oregon. The steam-powered sawmill was much like the one we saw at the High Desert Museum in Bend, which was just as well as it was closed for maintenance today. There were several large machines, and the ones he could climb on were of course Colins favorite part.
After we finished at the park we had a couple of hours before the next bus back to Aviemore, so we wandered through the town (very pleasant, and with an enjoyable art gallery), and used a map we had picked up at Landmark to take some of the way marked forest trails around the town. We started at the old bridge the town was named for, a now-unused arched stone bridge almost in ruins, but very scenically placed. Then we took a trail down along the river, meeting a friendly horse along the way; stopped at a beach for the kids to throw stones in the river (one of their favorite pastimes); and crossed another bridge back into the forest. The forest was my favorite part. In this area, at ground level, it was almost magical in feel - the pines, the dominant tree, are not very tall, maybe 40-50 feet, but they have an elegant shape with most of the foliage spread at the top of a gnarly, rough-barked, reddish trunk; and the under story plants, the ones we saw at Landmark, are beautifully varied. The affect is of a very open, light forest, undulating with green or mossy hillocks - totally different from the dense, tall, dark Northwest Douglas Fir forests we are accustomed too, and not much like deciduous-dominated forests I have seen, either.
Tues. Aug. 5
This was pretty much it for the Aviemore area. We had hoped to take a cable car up to the top of a nearby mountain for a wonderful view of the Cairngorms, but between its own cost and the considerable cost of a taxi there, it was too spendy. Instead of taking any of the hikes around Aviemore we did the one in Carrbridge, and Tuesday morning it was time for us to leave already.
Our next stop was a single night in St. Andrews, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh and right on the coast. We took the train to the nearby town of Leuchars, and a taxi from there. St. Andrews is a small, elegant, old town renowned for its golfing. It was cool and misty, and even rained a bit (a typical coastal town) while we were there. Our reason for coming here was to visit friend Jane and her husband David, who spend half of each year at St. Andrews, the other half in New England. Unfortunately we had arrived on the same day as her son and his family, so things were very busy, but we arranged to walk over that afternoon. Meanwhile we found our way to the St. Andrews Botanic Garden, which was small but very nice. When we got to Janes we found her home to be a magnificent high-ceilinged half-mansion (it had been divided at some point into two adjoining houses, as had most of the others along this street), with a large and interesting garden. Colin got right to playing with Janes granddaughter, age 5, and as the number of children gradually increased, with local visitors and other arrivals, he had a terrific time. The rest of us talked and caught up on each others lives (except Emily, who mostly just listened), and enjoyed wonderful chocolate biscuits and tea.
Afterwards we went back into town for dinner, and opted for an Indian restaurant, since both Emily and I had been wanting Indian food again. Alas, this was one of our few seriously disappointing meals of the trip - it was very expensive, and all the food was too hot, and oddly-seasoned. None of us really enjoyed it. The only other time I recall being really disappointed by Indian food was at a restaurant in Salem, Oregon that was just plain bad.
Wed. Aug. 6 - Fri. Aug. 8
Wednesday morning we headed back to Edinburgh, a quick 1-hour train ride after taking a taxi to Leuchars again. This was what Emily had been looking forward to for weeks - our friends the Fisks were to be in town, and with them one of her best friends, Maddie. After a garbled phone message, a note on the door of our B&B (just a couple of houses down the street from theirs), and local input, we figured out what restaurant they were planning to have lunch at, and I escorted Emily there while Rich got lunch for him and Colin, then put Colin down for a nap (he was very tired after several days without one).
We mostly spent the rest of Wednesday and Thursday getting ready to leave the country. We had loads of laundry to wash, things to package up to mail back home, books to dispose of, new books to buy (Emily was out of reading material), and careful, flight-ready packing to do. We also needed to get on the Internet and phone and book our first few nights lodging in Cape Town, which we really should have done earlier. We sent Emily off with the Fisks so she could spend as much time as possible with Maddie, and when Rich and I werent dealing with the other stuff, one or both of us met them at the Museum of Scotland (actually two museums, one culture and historically oriented, the other natural history and artifact oriented, and we only saw a little bit of either) and the Edinburgh Botanic Garden (for a repeat visit, this time including the Glasshouses), and we finally, our last night, had a really good Chinese dinner just down the street from our B&B (Rich had been looking for a good Chinese restaurant for some time).
We had planned to take an 11 am train to London Friday morning, for our 7:15 pm departure from Heathrow, but a heat wave was beginning (temps into the 90s in London), and there were reports of trains being terribly delayed because of heat-related problems, so we decided to move the time up. (The heat wave had been in Europe for quite awhile, and continued after we left, with record-breaking temperatures, fires out of control, and many deaths from the heat. We were very glad we hadnt tried to go to Europe as well, as we had originally planned!) The only other train we could get was at 8 am, so we had a very early departure, and a nice cool trip down to London (about 5 hours), arriving dead on time. I think they had the air conditioning on full, even though it was cloudy almost all the way, as it was actually a bit chilly. Not so the London Underground, which we took for the last hours travel across London to Heathrow. True to its reputation, it was stiflingly hot, especially in the station where we had to wait in a long, slow queue to get tickets. Colin slept for most of the hot train ride, and the rest of us just suffered. We had considered checking in our luggage and then using the 3 or so extra hours we had to go visit something in London, but none of us were inclined to leave nice, comfortable Heathrow for the Underground again! Besides, Heathrow has so many amenities it was not hard to kill a few hours. There was a nice childrens play area, lots and lots of shops, and plenty of places to get a light snack (we knew wed get dinner on the plane, so didnt want to buy that). After spending most of our remaining pounds for some minor things in the shops, we exchanged the rest for South African rand and were ready to go.
The flight left about half an hour late, but was pretty comfortable, and had even nicer amenities than the American Airlines flight we had taken the first time. The seats were three-aisle-three-aisle-three, rather than five in the middle, and we had the center three plus one across the aisle - still no window seats, but three aisle seats between us. The seats were a bit more comfortable than the last flight, too, with better headrests. There were the TVs for each seat, and pillows and blankets, with the addition of a little packet containing socks, eyeshades, and a toothbrush and toothpaste! (I had actually remembered to bring our toothbrushes in the carry-ons this time, but it was still a thoughtful touch). They also handed Colin a nice Winnie-the-Pooh bag filled with crayons and an activity book, so everyone was well set. We were very impressed with British Airways and would certainly fly them again!
As soon as we took off and the TVs started up, the kids turned them on, Colin watching Jungle Book 2 and Emily watching Little Nemo. When dinner was served at 9 or so Colin was barely able to get through it and started drifting off while chewing, so we laid him right down with a pillow and blanket, and he settled in for quite a good sleep. Emily, on the other hand, wasnt able to sleep at all, and mostly rested or watched TV. I dozed some between about midnight and 4 am, and Im not sure if Rich slept at all. Colin woke up at one point, sat up to see what Emily was watching, asked for some water, then laid right back down to sleep until breakfast. Lucky kid. Needless to say, he was the only one with much energy when we arrived at 7:45 am in Capetown after an 11 hour flight. Customs was fast and uneventful, and very soon we were ready to make our first foray into the Southern Hemisphere.