Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Scotland the Brave

Our favorite part of the vacation was our stay in the Scottish Highlands. There are so many gorgeous places, but due to our interests in whisky and wilderness, we chose to stay in Speyside-- an area along the river Spey. This is the malt whisky capital of Scotland due to its good water. Its also nestled in some beautiful countryside, right next to Cairngorms National Park.
Hiking in the Cairngorms

One of the highlights for me was our first whisky distillery tour and tasting. There are so many distilleries in this area, and many of them offer a free tour, but I really recommend springing for the Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 tour if you're planning on Speyside. Our guide was hilarious and we learned about the different factors that make whisky taste the way it does. When you do a tasting, they typically give you a place mat with several small glasses of different whiskies, but our first glass had a clear liquid in it. Our guide, Dennis, explained that he wanted us to taste the pure spring water that went into the whisky. We all tossed it back, only to discover that it was actually the super-strong "wine" part of the whisky before it is aged in the casks. Dennis was very funny.
Another great part of the trip was the village we stayed in, Dufftown. We were right on the main square of this busy little town. Its very well set-up for tourists, although there were hardly any. All the restaurants around the square were super, including a very interesting Scottish/French fusion place. Dufftown has events many nights of the week, so tourists will find plenty to do. Our favorite was the Stramash, a gathering of local musicians in the British Legion Hall. We had a drink and chat with some locals and enjoyed wonderful music all night. We had to leave early the next day, but found ourselves saying "one more song, then we'll go" several times before it stuck.
the clock tower on Dufftown's main square
We wrapped up our trip with a visit to Edinburgh for The Fringe Festival, and popped down to London to visit my friend, Bonnie. We saw lots of theater and enjoyed catching up. I typically think of my ideal vacation involving beaches and drinks with umbrellas, but despite a certain chilliness and no pool boys, Ireland and Scotland made a wonderful vacation. Writing about it all now makes me want to go back soon. I would definitely recommend it, Speyside especially.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


We wrapped up our stay in Ireland Ireland and crossed the border to Northern Ireland's capital.  Belfast is a pretty Victorian town, with a downtown picturesque enough to make one forget about the city's darker side.  Belfast's night life is considerably quieter than Dublin's, but we enjoyed a nice tour of the city's historic pubs.
The Crown Bar-- beautiful old bar, complete with walled booths for the discreet drinker

 One of the most interesting things in Belfast are the murals, some painted in peacetime, others a reminder that tensions still exist between the two communities: Catholic vs. Protestant, Unionist vs. Republicans. 
"Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding."

The masked gunman's eyes seem to follow you no matter where you are.   

Belfast has the feeling of many middle-sized towns in the UK, which is quite cozy.  Despite the "Troubles", the city is very friendly and lovely.  I was surprised that Dublin felt much rougher than it's norther counterpart. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Western Ireland

The west coast of Ireland is rugged and rainy due to the pounding Atlantic Ocean. We only had a few days and wanted to spend time exploring the rugged landscape. Although the Dingle Peninsula was highly recommended to us by both Rick Steves and a few friends, we opted for Doolin in County Clare. Doolin is a tiny village known for good live music and located on the coast near The Burren national park.
Apparently, we weren't the only ones who heard about Doolin's music scene. The four local pubs got mobbed with tourist buses (the bane of my existence) every night. Not only that, but the music wasn't as good as what we'd heard in Dublin. But we made the most of it by chatting with some visiting Germans. It was a very funny situation. Two other couples and we were crowded at a table together, when the Irish couple asked the Germans where they were from. The Irish couple replied, "Wirklich? Wir haben in der Schweiz gewohnt." To which I replied, "Also, alle in Doolin sprechen Deutsch." ("Really? We lived in Switzerland." "Apparently everyone in Doolin speaks German.") The German couple were quite surprised that the Irish people and the Americans sitting with them could all speak German, and we had a very nice conversation, and the German couple were nice enough to give us a lift back to our hostel. (It was pouring by then.)

We drove along the coast and hiked in the Burren. The landscape was unbelievably rocky; I can't imagine trying to farm this land. The Burren was unfortunately very touristy, but we did have one nice hike away from the crowds.
atop a huge hill in the Burren

The main draw of the Burren are the neolithic sites. We managed to see a few-- the frustration was a lack of trails, which made me hesitant to wander too far away from the car, there aren't exactly a ton of landmarks on this kind of terrain. But maybe with better organization, one could see more of the neolithic sites away from the crowds. Here is a very visited tomb entrance that was pretty cool.
All in all, western Ireland is very cool, but if I were to go back, I'd probably pick a different place to stay.

Friday, September 3, 2010


We got back from our vacation a few days ago, and I have so much to write about I don't know where to start.  I guess I'll start with the beginning, a very good place to start.  On the flight over we were magically upgraded to first class.  I'd never flown first class before, and although our flight was only an hour and a half,  I decided to take full advantage of my privileges, by ordering many beverages and eating a fancy salad although it was 4pm and not anywhere near actual meal time.

Dublin is not a beautiful city.  Its roughness was illustrated within our first hour as we witnessed the end of a vicious bar fight.  Despite its roughness, or perhaps because of it, there is a certain charm to it.  While there are prettied up, touristy bits, the city at large seems rather indifferent to tourists.  Maybe it sounds strange, but I like it.  Some places you visit are so keen on selling you the "real" experience that the town starts to feel more like Disneyland than a place where people actually live. 

But disregard all that, and let me hypocritically point out that my highlight of Dublin was The Guinness Experience.  Much like Swarovski Kristallwelt in Innsbruck, Austria, some of these corporate "museums" take themselves so seriously you just have to laugh.  A lot.  Did you know that the five ingredients of Guinness are water, yeast, barley, hops, and Arthur Guinness? (Not literally, I hope.)  But Guinness did include a pint with a view, whereas Swarovski didn't give me any crystal thingies as part of admission.
The main attraction of Dublin is the night life.  Many bars have live music, and it ended up being the best we heard in Ireland.  Try not to get obsessed with this song, I dare you.  Half the places we went were also engraved with quotes from James Joyce's Ulysses, which I've always been to intimidated to tackle, but at this point my curiosity might get the better of me.

Our stay in Dublin was brief, but satisfying.  Stay tuned for the next blog: "Driving around Ireland in the Rain"....or something like that.