Saturday, December 23, 2017

2015 Rambles: Table of Contents

After thinking she'll never go overseas again, Caz learns that nothing is impossible.

Day 1: New York
In which Caz discovers that New York City can be quite smelly in summer.

Day 2: New York
Caz and her fiancé get inside Lady Liberty's head.

Day 3: New York
We look down on Manhattan, chase down Finch and Reese - and my leggings cause a stir!

Day 4: New York
Caz finds the one place in New York City where she doesn't feel grumpy.

Day 5: New York
A parade derails our plan to touch a bull but fails to stop us joining the Ghostbusters!

We discover a preferred filming location in Canada.

Day 7: Niagara Falls
A giant tourist trap - with a side order of wonder - keeps us captive for a day.

Day 8: Hamilton
We skulk around Hamilton and happily do not run into Magneto.

Day 9: Hamilton
In which laundry is done and Caz reads a book.

Day 10: Dundurn Castle & Stoney Creek
The War of 1812 features heavily in a tale of two houses.

Day 11: Toronto
Caz discovers another filming location and her fiancé braves the CN Tower.

We do absolutely nothing for 3 days and then have to say goodbye to Tim Hortons.

Day 15: London
Sherlock Holmes, Kingsman and Kensington Palace end up on our hit list.

Day 16: Dover
Dover offers us a fantastic castle and a surprising amount of Roman ruins.

In which Totnes is evil but Berry Pomeroy Castle makes it all better.

We travel in style and Caz fulfils her dream of buying more cashmere.

Caz and her fiancé go in search of St Anthony's Chapel.

We head to Glasgow via Bothwell Castle.

Caz ambitiously tackles three castles in one day.

The UK's most photographed castle gets another photo taken of it.

Dunvegan Castle surprises us with its secrets and Skye stuns us with its beauty.

We fail to find a souterrain but we do find an epic broch.

Caz's second visit to Loch Ness begins with some vehicular trouble!

Relying on a dodgy spare tyre, we set out on dodgier B roads.

We manage to squeeze in a flying visit to St Paul's Cathedral before we board a day-long flight.

Caz shares yet more travel tips that no one asked for. ;)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Conclusion: Don't Dream It's Over

There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead, many battles are lost 
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're traveling with me

- "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House

This time when I returned to Sydney I did not fall into despair, thinking my dreams were dead. I know that there will be plenty more adventures in my future, so long as I have my soulmate beside me. My whole world has opened up, quite literally in this case, thanks to a wonderful man who gives me courage. He kept me afloat while I was stuck in a queue at US customs and after a tyre blowout in  the Scottish highlands.

I thought I'd learned most of the stuff I needed to know about travelling from my one epic trip to the UK in 2013. But there were plenty more experiences to be had this time around, especially as I hit up two new countries. So here you go, 15 essential points I gleaned from my 2015 trip.

1) Never go to popular Northern Hemisphere destinations in summer. Just don't. You will find yourself battling queues and crowds and your photos will always have someone's nose or hand in it.

2) AVOID New York in July. It is disgustingly hot and smelly.

3) You can share a MetroCard on the subway in New York. This is handy because you only need to carry around on of the cards.

4) If you are visiting Toronto, don't stay in Hamilton. Only two trains before 7am to get to Toronto? Dismal.

5) Try to get to Niagara Falls either early in the morning or in the evening when it's not too hot. It's also okay to park a little further away from the Falls to save money.

6) Tim Hortons is a Breakfast God.

7) Research the events going on in the place you intend to visit. This stops you from accidentally going somewhere during a busy sporting event or a freaking parade.

8) St Paul's Church is NOT St Paul's Cathedral. You probably didn't need to hear this, but I wish I had.

9) Always go the speed limit in Britain. They too have discovered average speed cameras and they are not always obvious. On the flip side, you will annoy the shit out of people stuck behind you!

10) Know how to change a tyre with confidence. You never know when you'll be stranded near Loch Ness!

11) Skye is the prettiest place on Earth.

12) Always check seasonal opening times. This is particularly helpful if the attraction is only open at 12pm or closes entirely for a few months.

13) It is illegal to share a hotel room in Dubai with a person of the opposite gender if you are not married. Though according to some people as long as you don't mention it, you should be fine. Still, why risk it?

14) I can't wait to marry the man I love.

15) Don't ever let yourself think you will never get to go on another epic trip!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Days 27-30 - The Long Journey Home

Day 27

Had a lazy morning involving a trip to Pret-A-Manger for a late breakfast. We found Waverley Station easily and began the long wait for our train to Kings Cross. I had to climb my way through a long queue to use the toilet! We got our luggage stowed without having to fight people then sat back to enjoy our first class trip. It’s always nice to travel in style.

When we arrived in London we took the taxi at 6pm to our hotel. It was still light and warm as we walked the short distance to the Gourmet Burger Kitchen across the Thames - we used the Millennium Bridge which is for pedestrians only. It still had slow-moving traffic, caused by tourists, nut vendors and idiots on their phones. We enjoyed our burgers in Southwark (along with an elderflower drink - I’ve become too fond of elderflower during this trip and I have no idea how I will survive without in Sydney) then it was my turn to cause a hold up on the bridge.

There are nice views either way on the Thames - especially if you want a shot of The Shard! I also realised how close we were to St Paul’s Cathedral (not St Paul’s Church which I mistakenly went to at the beginning of the British leg of our trip haha!), rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

A brilliant summer evening in London.

The late evening lighting was beautiful on the cathedral, giving it an almost divine look. The blue sky above it - sublime. The closed doors drawing no tourists into my photos - perfect. One could have a religious experience just taking photos of it!

You can't ask for better lighting than that.

Went back to the hotel. This trip is winding down. I don’t want to leave but I want to go home. I miss it. I miss reliable and fast wifi!

Hopefully the flight goes well tomorrow. As we are not married, we need to avoid hugging and kissing at Dubai International Airport because of their laws. I will also wear my demure “I’m on a long trip” clothes.

May the Force be with me.

Days 28-30

Yet another lazy morning before transferring to our “day room” where we passed the time with free wifi. We got to Heathrow a little after 6pm - did VAT refund, had food etc - then we were boarding, bound for Sydney via Dubai. I spent this first leg watching movies.

Dubai was far less painless than the flights. I always had someone behind me (a different person both times!) who kept putting their feet on my armrest! I crushed their toes with my elbows until they learned their lesson. Also, the button to put my chair back didn’t work which made me upset until an attendant revealed to me that there was another button under the chair. Thank goodness!

On the second leg I finished a book then listened to thunderstorm ambient music so I could sleep. Eventually I gave up, but soon enough we were in Sydney at 5:15am but wait - some non-QANTAS ground crew had left shit all over the bay we needed to pull into it. We had to wait for it to be cleared. Ugh.

Customs were not bothered to search our bags after we revealed we were declaring teabags. I suspect they rolled their eyes once they let us through. We were met by my parents outside and were driven home just as darkness lifted. :D

Our house-sitter, my future brother-in-law, had washed the bed sheets - what a wonderful thing to come home to!! Now to wash everything else…

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Day 26: Balmoral & Braemer

We were served breakfast bang on the dot (8:15am, as requested) downstairs by our hostess’ harried husband who was attempting to serve people who evidently had turned up before their order time. He explained patiently to an American couple how to properly smoke salmon and outlined how Grantown-on-Spey came to be to four idiotic Australians (sometimes I despise my countrymen) who seemed to be more interested in pestering him with questions than letting him do his job.

Grantown was ordered to be built by Sir James Grant, a local lord who, after “clearing” his tenants, wanted a place for them to live, rather than lose them overseas. We had just missed the 250th anniversary of this - our English host seemed quite enamoured with this Sir James and his practices (he was also against deforestation in the 18th century!).

While I ate my porridge (“nasty stuff” our host said - I held up Nutella and assured him “I came prepared!”), the Aussies then got the year of the First Fleet’s arrival hopelessly wrong. We left at 9am because A) I wanted to avoid crowds at the castles, B) I wanted to get there before the Aussies who were also planning to go and C) I was desperate to get to Edinburgh at a reasonable time, made slightly difficult by the spare tyre.

I was cautious on the B roads and single lanes. Some idiot bus driver ignored a sign that showed a sharply rising and falling bridge. It was tiny so the bus could not cross it - but we did, dodging the pedestrians it disgorged. Oh how I hate passing places that look dodgy to a spare tyre.

Balmoral Castle awaited. We walked over the river to the ticket office where we boarded a trailer pulled by a Land Rover which took us up to the castle. We had a pleasant walk past the stables (these held vehicles important to the British royal family, including one which was tall enough inside for the Queen to exit standing up) then through the gardens which were bursting with produce and flowers due to be cut for the royal family on the weekend.

Flowers and food fit for a queen.

The castle would be closed the next day so that the Queen could enjoy her summer holiday there. Yesterday Antiques Roadshow filmed at Balmoral. Staff members were still fussing about how they had looked on television. Apparently the grounds had been crowded - we timed our visit perfectly.

The castle was folly-like, built as a summer escape. The only large room was the ballroom. It held a dinky car used by the Queen then Prince Charles in childhood. It was sweet, watching a reel of child!Charles playing with his sister.

Balmoral Castle

The ground staff were friendly. Ride On Mower Guy even helped a woman get a better shot of the castle. We walked around the part of the castle where Queen Victoria would have stayed then had pancakes at the cafe before being driven back to the gate. A nice little place. It has freaky natural water though. The “brown water” feeding Balmoral comes through peat so it looks like dark urine, even after you flush the toilet!!

I wonder if Queen Victoria ever had pancakes here?

We left just as the crowds were arriving then drove 9 miles to Braemer Castle, which had a slightly more impressive past. It was a fortified 17th century hunting lodge turned anti-Jacobite garrison turned family home. It began as a tower so the guy who owned it wouldn’t get nabbed by jealous neighbours!

A wall encircles the tower. The stairs inside were wider than I expected, but it was never meant to be a stronghold. The family left some years ago so the community runs and restores it now. There was a very friendly woman in the gift shop who I discussed the weirdly negative reviews on Trip Advisor with.

I especially liked the 18th century soldier graffiti in the mess/dining room. Touching it sent an exciting shock from my fingers up my arm. There was a tartan on display in another room; it was given to the lady of the castle by Bonnie Prince Charlie in return for her help. Very interesting castle.

We headed back to Edinburgh at the excruciating speed of 50mph which pissed off a whole bunch of people (trucks and caravans included!) on the dual carriageways. Damn spare tyre of doom. I got honked at by one truck. But we made it back!

We dropped off car, explained the spare tyre to a guy and then got very lost with heavy suitcases on our way to out hotel. Tears and sweat were shed until I, the introvert, asked a nearby smoker where to go. It worked!

Then we had a lunch/dinner at 4:30 at the Hard Rock Cafe. I figured I’d be okay having two meals in one - haha nope. My lack of gallbladder causes some interesting side effects, but I am very glad to be without that dastardly organ.

Later I put on an episode of Star Trek Enterprise which was on TV but my fiancé hadn’t seen season 4 - shock, horror!!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Day 25: Loch Ness

The day started well. We left beneath a very well-behaved sky, putting behind us Skye and its terribly slow caravans and roadworks. We grumbled about idiots going at slow speeds and refusing to pass slower vehicles, causing queues. We complained about still more slow idiots who held up traffic without pulling into a bay. Little did we know we would be one of those idiots by the end of the day.

We parked back at Eilean Donan Castle for a bathroom stop. I was alarmed at how long it was taking to get to Loch Ness. By the time we pushed off from the castle, I was thinking we should avoid Fort George because I was tiring and wanted to get off the road.

I cruised at 60mph. The road narrowed. A caravan came at me. I moved to the side - looked like a slight ditch there maybe - then boom-psshh! Crap!

My fiancé confirmed my hypothesis by saying he thought we’d blown the front left tyre. I found a safe place to pull into on the second attempt, then re-parked to ensure my fiancé had enough room to change the tyre without hanging out onto the road. I had heard horror stories about people being hit by cars while doing this. While I freaked (I had been very calm until I had nothing to do!), my fiancé set to work, jacking up the car and getting out the shitty “space saver” spare tyre which looked awfully thin. A sticker said we could only go 50mph on this!

I managed to help at one point by showing my fiancé how to loosen the nuts - I never knew being forced to do this one task at a Year 12 camp would come in handy! Then I stepped back, conceding to greater knowledge and experience. I rang the car hire company who put me onto a call out. Talking to the call out people was faking annoying. The guy needed to know exactly we had stopped. I was on the A887 but where? Near the A87 intersection? But where?

My fiancé had to rejack, having used the wrong spot. I firmly told him not to rest his foot under the car. Yikes! Finally he got the spare on - oh dear, his hands were filthy! As we cautiously drove on, he rang to cancel our call out then asked what to do. Our car hire company suggested we find one of their tyre places but we had no idea when we’d find one. Because we were returning it the next day at Edinburgh, they seemed alright with us just dropping it off as is. We had paid for full insurance.

After driving like a slow idiot and not being able to overtake caravans, I got us to Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness (my fiancé wondered just how many of the people we got annoyed with earlier had been on spare tyres). I somehow nabbed the last parking spot. Crazily busy! It wasn’t like this in spring!

People. People everywhere.

Cafe stop for a late lunch - badly needed. I was still shaking from adrenalin as we went outside and I could barely focus, even though the weather was much better than during my spring visit in 2013. It took a late phone call to Australia, finally achieved while I stood on the Grant Tower, to calm me down. My dad reassured me that people could drive on spares for weeks. An extra day would be okay. I finally, finally relaxed.

Grant Tower

The castle was crawling with tourists. So frustrating! Summer is not a good time to explore Scottish landmarks. Getting up and down the Grant Tower in this day and age, with queues and screaming children, was surely harder for us than the armed men who stormed it multiple times. Damn!

You know you want more photos of ruins. Admit it.

I loved explaining the ruins and telling my fiancé about the stupidity of the castle owners. They had such an impressive gatehouse, but a shit narrow wall on the water gate side - and this gate was not so strong and used more often! We discovered that the bagpipe music pervading the area came not from speakers but from an actual player. Lovely.

*hums loudly*

I left, feeling calmer, though I did not acquire the desired coasters to match the one I have at home. Sadface. I continued to drive at 50mph as dictated by the shitty tyre, annoying the hell out of everyone on the roads. The car insisted tyre pressure was off (ya think!?) and the bigger blown out tyre took too much room in the boot. Grrr!

We arrived unscathed in Grantown-on-Spey which looked peculiarly neat - I later discovered it was a planned Georgian town. That explained the vaguely English look! Our hostess at the B&B was very helpful and chatty. She booked a place for dinner for us.

We were amused by the waitresses at the restaurant - there wasn’t much to do before the rush so they were very chatty. Some were newbies and just learning. One discussed Cecil the Lion with game hunters. Others made fun of the hostess at our B&B (!!? that is just not on!). But the food was good.

Hopefully tomorrow’s trip to Edinburgh goes well on that blasted tyre…

Monday, September 28, 2015

Day 24: Skye

Firstly, and most importantly, we woke to this magnificent view.

Skye is such a try-hard.

After breakfast (my fiancé ordered kippers which he regretted - so many bones to pick out!), we set off for Claigan, determined to find the souterrain once and for all. The one lane road was quieter and mostly there were locals turning up to park, though there were some people in vans and caravans who had obviously ignored or misinterpreted the sign that said “O OVERNIGHT PARKING”. The N was absent.

Following the instruction of a map we had seen online, we followed a track past two gates, many properties, lots of sheep and thousands of pieces of shit! We found remnants of Neolithic activity - stones and lumps and bumps, etc. But the actual position of the souterrain - behind a fence!

Disheartened and uncertain about the unusual law in Scotland that allows you free reign on private property, we turned back. Later my research would conclude that it might have been feasible to continue but under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code you can’t damage things like fences and we could have done that trying to get over it. Still, my fiancé decided it as a win as we had actually found the souterrain, according to the Internet.

We dashed off to Dun Beag Broch. I consider brochs to be the stage between Neolithic stone houses and medieval castles. I managed to park in the wrong spot - but so did the family we ended up climbing up to the broch with.

It rose impressively on a hill, dominating all of us. The sheep didn’t seem so bothered. The climb wasn’t too bad, though the grass was studded with stones that were scatted as though they had spewed from the broch like ash from a volcano. Had they fallen over time or had they been smashed down?


We fought rough wind which made me feel like TV presenter Neil Oliver with my hair blowing all over my face while my fiancé tried to take a photo.

A sign claimed the broch had only been abandoned in the 18th century - that’s almost 2000 years of continual habitation! I noticed what appeared to be the ruins of a 19th century cottage nearby, made of bastardised stone.

I enjoyed this broch. It was slightly different in format to Carn Liath on the A9. We could climb small stairs and even walk around a passage (sadly the wall only came up to below our knees) between the double walls. There was a “guardhouse” as at Carn Liath but the entrance faced inside instead of to the side. Dun Beag Broch is an impressive structure, even in ruins with its carpet of grass.

Dun Beag Broch won't be winning any interior design awards.

This broch had a much more commanding view than at Dunvegan Castle - makes you wonder if Leod’s ancestors lived in this broch before upgrading, keeping it as an outpost! This is the best place for a broch.

I could live here.

We left the others there, pleased with this find at least. Back in Dunvegan, we ate at a cake shop. I enjoyed the jasmine tea but my liver protested over the triple chocolate muffin. Thank God I no longer have a gallbladder! We then ducked into a tiny cottage which was signposted as the Great Angus MacAskill Museum.

It held a life-sized replica of the man himself who was nearly 8 feet tall and performed great feats of strength. Angus MacAskill had emigrated to the US after the highland clearances and did well for himself. A distantly related clansman runs the museum. Apparently Angus was a true giant, not one afflicted by gigantism. Interesting but not sure it’s worth the 2 pound entry fee!

Our day was done. We relaxed the whole afternoon away before a nice dinner at the bistro. I had a surprisingly good chilli con carne. Back to the B&B for photo editing.

Now watching BBC iPlayer while writing this exact sentence.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Day 23: Skye

We awoke with the alarm, then had a lovely breakfast (here I finally had a salty start to my day, care of Marmite). We sat by the window closest to the loch, admiring the view. The clouds were so low in front of the mountains that it looked as though they were moored there, invisible anchor lines thrown down into the loch. Our host, after feeding us, gave us advice and a map showing us how to find nearby walks. After days in the car, my feet were rearing to go.

We began the Two Churches Walk which started at an ruined chapel on an ancient religious site. I roamed the graves before my fiancé found a way out. He headed for the Duirinish stone; I followed. Squishy shoe-stealing ground (the beginnings of bogs, I suspect) prevented us from getting close. Not a huge loss - it was only erected in 2000. Sensibly, they placed a time capsule at the base so no one will be confused when collective memory fails.

We rejoined the muddy track that was littered with glossy black slugs, both alive and smushed. The track turned into dense, prickly vegetation before we were regurgitated on the side of the road near out destination.

The site of Dunvegan Castle has been lived on for 800 years. It is the seat of power for the MacLeods! We ambled through the gardens towards it. At first I denounced it as indefensible and 18th century in date, as the crappy bridge and entrance screamed “folly”. Hmm, but it was on a rock which would have been able to use the loch waters as a moat…

A nearby sign revealed that the bridge and entrance I despised had been added by some clan chief or another. The castle had once been accessible by boat only. The keep boasted a longer history. Intrigued, we stepped inside, cameras dutifully put away.

If it looks like a folly and quacks like a might not be!

The living areas had a distinctly 18th century flavour - they were also painted a hideous soft pink. While placards told us this or that room was medieval, they were dressed from a newer century. A pleasant sitting room was revealed by a guide to be a former Great Hall but was reduced by 10 feet so it would be more comfortable for a clan chief and his family. We were promised that the stonework was beneath the timbers under out feet. This was in the original medieval keep that replaced an earlier fort. The windows showed just how wide the walls actually were, built in the castle’s defensive past.

Then it began. You’d turn a corner and find a room so much more ancient in appearance than the one before it. The dungeon remained, a tiny pokey room with a floor cell. Creepy. We admired the Great MacLeod Sword, made in the 16th century, and we read the family tree - Leod was at the top, of course.

Outside in the back courtyard, we saw the seagate, originally the only entrance. The guide was pointing out to a group how the new additions and the old stonework were rendered so that it all matched. No wonder I had thought the whole thing was a folly!

Sinful chocolate was to be found in the gift shop. Omnom.

We walked back to the B&B and passed the post office which had five Royal Mail vans squeezed outside it. It must be a depot! We had lunch at the oldest bakery in Skye (150+ years old) where we both had burgers. I was not enthused until I received the tasty meal (but I put too much hot English mustard inside - my nose was unpleasantly jolted!). My fiancé was enthused, but only until he received a bun - with unmelted butter! How he hates that!

We drove to Claigan to walk to the coral beach. It was windy, but hot and cold by turns as we were walking a fair distance. Despite seeing evidence of Neolithic habitation (including a suspiciously burial mound-shaped thing we posed on for photos) I could not find the Claigan souterrain (a later Google search would reveal its location - may go back tomorrow).

A view worth questing for.

Claigan is beautiful and practically Atlantic. Crazy parking though - everyone just goes where they want, despite the marked areas. A douchey caravan parked in a passing place, so badly he overhung onto the… “road” is a generous word.

It was single lane traffic back to Dunvegan Castle - what a nightmare. Such a busy road. Good amount of passing places though.

I had headache so my fiancé got me takeaway dinner and snacks!