Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Belfast Endcap

Stacy and I flew to Belfast Northern Ireland so that I could participate in my Fulbright Endcap meeting.  I am not exactly sure what Endcap stands for but I imagine it is something to do with the ending of my year abroad and capping the experience off.  We planned in advance and arranged for my parents to stay with Carter and Cara, so Stacy and I got a three day vacation without the kids.  I know it was tough for Nana and Grandpa to have to take care of those troublesome kids but I don’t think they were too upset about it.  We arrived in Belfast on a Wednesday and we met up with several Fulbright teachers that evening before settling in for the night. 

Thursday morning for me was full listening to presentations about our year abroad.  My fellow teachers shared their highs and lows, things they have learned, and places they have visited.  If I am completely honest, I was not looking forward to this, but it turned out to be an enjoyable time.  We had loads of PowerPoint’s, several videos, and even a sing-along presentation and none of them felt tedious (except maybe mine).  

On Thursday morning I joined some other Fulbright family members for a bike ride through Belfast. I love a little exercise and it’s such a fun way to see a city. In the afternoon we got to join in on the tour with the exchange teachers.

After a lunch break, we all (teachers, spouses, and kids) took a bus tour of Belfast.  It was interesting to hear about the “Troubles” and see some of the consequences from it.  In the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Belfast was basically a city engulfed in a mini civil war over religion; Protestants vs. Catholics.  Much of the city is still split along those lines, and in many places there are a huge walls and fences to protect and separate the people.  On many buildings are murals in remembrance of people that died during those troubling times.
Artwork on one of the walls that still separates the city
After our bus tour, we went to the Titanic museum and got to see all sorts of things about how the Titanic was built, the people on the ship, and how it went down.  

Dinner that evening was at Pizza Express with all of the current Fulbright teachers as well as some Alumni that were going to take us to some schools the next day.  We finished the evening by going to the Duke of York pub, drinking a Guinness, and listening to an Irish music jam session.  In a corner of the bar were several people playing violins, a harp, banjo, guitar, and other musical instruments.  At one time I counted at least 7 musicians. Listening to a jam session was something that I had been dying to see and hear so I am glad that I finally got to do so.
Duke of York
The next day, I went with Fulbrighters Cindy and Stephanie to the Royal Belfast Academy where former Fulbright Exchange teacher Stewart Graham teaches.  He had this great program for us to follow, but President Obama messed it up.  Seriously this is true.  The Royal Belfast Academy was scheduled to have Sports day of Monday but President Obama came to Belfast as part of the G8 Summit.  Because of all of the dignitaries travelling about (especially Obama), most of the schools in Belfast were closed due to transportation issues.  This cancellation caused the school we were visiting to move their sports day to the day we were visiting.  So we really did not get to see the school in operation other than watching some of the kids participating in a few track and field events.  We did have a good chat with two Fulbright Alumni so it was not a wasted morning.  Lunch followed our school visit and we wrapped up our discussions about how to prepare for our returns to the US.  

Friday I headed out to see a food market called St. George’s which had all kinds of fresh seafood and baked goods. I also explored an observation deck inside a mall which gave a great view of some of the highlight buildings in the city. Then I met up with the Sturges family and we walked to the Ulster museum and explored the highlights of Irish and world history.

Our afternoon-evening activity was another pub with more music.  There were 5 older gentlemen sitting around drinking beer and playing instruments.  It sounded very much like blue grass music and it makes complete sense when you think that much of Appalachia was founded by people of Scotch-Irish descent.  We stayed at this pub (McHugh’s) for about 3 hours listening to the music and visiting with my fellow exchange teachers.  It was a most enjoyable evening.
at McHugh's enjoying some music
Saturday morning, Stacy and I rented a car and drove along the Northern Ireland coastline.  It was a very pleasant drive, looking out on the Irish coastline, and listening to a mix tape that Fulbrighter, Nikki Holmes, created.  We stopped for lunch at a nice tea shop and then went to the Giant’s Causeway.  

We had stopped here on our fall holiday, but we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it again, and it did not disappoint.  

Afterwards we, drove some more, exploring Northern Ireland and then headed for the airport for our return to Scotland.

Castle hopping

Virginia & I in the gardens at Balmoral
While most of the family returned to school on Monday, Virginia and I headed out for a two day jaunt of visiting castles. We went to Balmoral, which is one of the Queen’s summer places.
Afternoon tea!
After a beautiful afternoon tea for lunch, we headed to Crathes Castle and also enjoyed exploring the gardens which were color themed like rooms in a house might be.

We spent the night in Aberdeen and headed out early the next morning to Dunnottar Castle which is a seaside ruin in a beautiful setting. I looked all over for puffins but they weren't close enough to see, but I did spy a gull with two chicks in it's nest!
We found a bakery for lunch where Virginia tried a sausage roll and macaroni pie (yum!) while I had a mince and onion bridie (too many onions). We finished off the afternoon with a visit to Glamis Castle which included an hour long guided tour of the inside. It was a unique castle because much of it is still lived in by a family.

Aviemore weekend

Pielows at Loch an Eilein
We met Jim’s parents in Aviemore for an overnight and fun filled day’s visit. We arrived in the evening after work on Friday and headed out exploring on Saturday. First we drove to Loch an Eilein and walked along the shore and in the forest. The loch has a tiny island with an old ruin. The family enjoyed the peace and quiet of a beautiful walk, as well as a rock skipping competition.

Next we headed to see a herd of wild reindeer. The walk took us into an immense fenced area full of about 40 male reindeer. Since it was almost summer, they were all molting fur and getting down to their summer coats. They were also growing fuzzy antlers which would be shed later in the year. We weren’t allowed to touch the antlers because they contain so many nerve endings it would have bothered the reindeer. Our guide took us along a low boardwalk and a few reindeer got onto it and followed us as well because they knew what was coming next. After giving us all kinds of interesting information about the reindeer, the guide put down a long line of feed. Then she came back and offered some more reindeer food to anyone who wanted to feed the reindeer. What fun! Reindeer are not as slobbery and messy as a lot of other animals, so it was pretty cool. However there was one reindeer named Macaroon, who was a pig and wanted to eat everything!!
Feeding time

As we were leaving the main animal field, we had to walk through another paddock where two mama reindeer and two baby reindeer came to see if we had any food left for them.  One baby was 14 days old and one was 10 days. The older one was still taking an occasional bottle feeding, so we got to watch it being fed, too.
Our princess at our lunch spot
After lunch, we drove up to Cairngorm Mountain which has a funicular train close to the top of the mountain. This was the 6th highest mountain in the United Kingdom and is used for snow skiing in the winter. The views from the top were pretty amazing.
Carter riding the funicular

Edinburgh weekend w/Nana & Grampa

Edinburgh Castle
Jim’s parents flew in to Edinburgh, and after resting at our house, we all headed in to Edinburgh on the train. We stayed 2 nights in Edinburgh and the girls all enjoyed visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens while they guys took a hike to Arthur’s Seat.
Cara & Nana in the Royal Botanic Gardens
Carter & Grampa on top of Arthur's Seat

Grandpa has very much wanted to climb Arthur’s Seat which is the ancient remains of a volcano that overlook Edinburgh, Carter, Grandpa, and I set out to do that on Saturday morning.  We took a taxi to the backside of Arthur’s Seat so we could start a little higher up the trail.  The weather was perfect for a climb, a little chilly in the shade but lots of sunshine.  Carter agreed to be Grandpa’s pack horse and carry his daypack around for the day.  We climbed to the top and then descended to Salisbury Craig which happens to be rocky cliff that also overlooks Edinburgh.

After our separate morning adventures, we ate lunch at Oink and took a 2 hour walking tour of Edinburgh and learned a little of its long history.
Cara with the meerkats
The next day before heading back home, we took the kids to the Edinburgh zoo (and ticked another item off Cara’s top ten list). The highlights were seeing the pandas and the penguins.

St. Andrews with the kids

After a long bank holiday weekend , the kids had Tuesday out of school while Jim had to go in for a teacher workday. The kids and I drove to St. Andrews for a day of fun! We played mini golf on the Himalaya course for Ladies. 

After a challenging and fun 18 holes, we went out onto the West Sands beach. It was a beautiful, warm (for Scotland), sunny day. We played in the sand a little, played some beach soccer/football, and Carter & Cara went into the water. At first they said it was COLD, but they stayed in until they were satisfied (and frozen). We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the beach with some fresh strawberries and raspberries. After we had had our fill of the beach, we walked in to town and found ice cream to top off a wonderful day!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Hebrides (J&S version)

At the beginning of June, teachers got Monday off from school and Tuesday was a teacher workday, so we had to plan another trip.  Stacy and I have investigated possible trips to Orkney, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, and I’m sure a half a dozen other places, but we could never quite make them work for us.  So with less than a week before the long weekend, we finally decide on a trip to the west coast of Scotland to visit the Hebrides.

Saturday morning we drove toward Oban, with the intentions of taking the scenic route through Glencoe to see some more of the Scottish Highlands.  However, there was some type of bicycle ride going on and the road was very congested with bicycles.  Since the roads here are rather narrow, it made driving a great deal slower and a bit more challenging, so we opted for the shorter direct route to Oban, electing to see Glencoe on our way home.  We arrived in Oban and went to McCaig’s Tower, which is on a hill that overlooks the city.  
McCaig's Tower
The tower was built in the late 1800’s as a family monument but was never quite finished, though it is quite impressive.  Next we took a stroll through downtown Oban, purchased our tickets for our island tour the next day, and did a little shopping.
Oban Harbor
During the mid afternoon, we checked into our B & B and took a quick walk up another hill that overlooks Oban.  The weather up here was brilliant and the views were pretty good as well.  I believe that we could see Ben Nevis which is about 35 miles away.  Dinner this evening was at Cuan Mor were I got to try a cask ale called the Kilt Lifter from the Oban Bay Brewing Co.  Stacy won the award for the best meal with her langoustine seafood pasta.  Our post dinner activity was an evening at Skipinnish Ceilidh House where we got to listen to some Scottish music, sing some songs and do a few line dances.  I even wore my kilt out for the evening (yes, I now own my own kilt- albeit a rather inexpensive one).
almost professional Ceilidh dancer!
The next day was our ferry boat ride from Oban to Craignure on the island of Mull. 

The trip took about 45 minutes and once again we were blessed with fabulous weather.  The views from the ship were great and we landed on one of the Treshnish Islands, Lunga. This is an island of bird colonies including puffins and guillemots. The puffins were very friendly and had holes in the ground for their homes/nests and would come within a few feet of us. 
Look at the one taking off
The end of Lunga was Harp point and absolutely full of noisy guillemots which are interesting looking black and white sea birds.
Puffin time!
Bunnies lived among the puffins
We also saw seals along the way
Leaving Lunga, we made sure to get a spot on the top of the boat as we rode to the island of Staffa. 
Island of Staffa
This island is formed of basalt columns which are between 3-6+ sided columns all stuck together. We first walked up the stairs on the side of the cliff to visit more puffins (and Carter and Cara off raced in front of us and got too close to the edge of the cliffs for my comfort). We then returned to explore Fingal’s cave which you could walk along the side of the cliffs holding on to a railing and part way into the cave. 
Fingal's Cave

We returned home on Sunday evening to find that much of Oban was closed down for the evening, but we enjoyed eating our fish and chips & pizza on benches along the harborside.
Glencoe area
We had Monday off from school (it was a bank holiday), so we took our time driving back home through the Glencoe area, took a few short hikes, ate lunch with a view of the mountains outside in the sunshine, and even visited the area where portions of James Bond’s Skyfall was filmed!
newest Bond girl?
Skyfall area
COLD water!

Oban weekend (Carter's version)

This weekend we went to Oban. It was supposed to be a 2 1/2 hour drive, but there was some kind of bike race on the road that we took so it actually took 3 hours to get to Oban. Time actually passed pretty quickly on the trip thanks to an app on mom's iPod called heads up!

When we got to Oban, we didn't actually go to our bed & breakfast right away, so we went up to a place that looks out over Oban called McCaig's tower, which had an awesome view. We wandered around town for a while, looked in some stores, and then went to our B & B. When we got there and up to our room, Cara and I had the usual argument about who got which bed. In this case, we had a bunk bed which usually is a pretty big argument. This may sound weird to people that know me well, but I actually wanted the bottom bunk this time! The reason I wanted it was because it felt exactly like my bed back at home (in Scotland). For some reason Cara's bed was too soft.

After we got settled into our room, we went on a hike up a big hill. Fortunately, our B & B was about halfway up the path already, so we didn't have to hike for long or that far either up or down the mountain. We had views of Oban and the bay, as well as of McCaig's tower. Then we hiked back down, drove into town, and went out for dinner. As usual, I got fish and chips. After that we went back to the B & B rested for an hour, got changed, and went to our ceilidh. I didn't dance at all, just because I didn't feel like it and had a bit of a headache.

The next day, we woke up, got breakfast, went to Tesco to get some snacks for the day, and went to the ferry terminal to catch our ferry. We arrived in Craignur, on the Isle of Mull, where we caught a bus to Ulva ferry, which would take us  on our boat tour of the Hebrides. The first boat ride took a long time, close to an hour!

We got off on what I call puffin island, but was really called Lunga. We hiked up onto the mountain, and got our first look at a puffin. I thought that they would be rare to see even on the island, but I was wrong! There were gazillions! The weird thing with them was that they didn't make any sound. The loudest sound they made was flapping their wings. We went for a hike around the island, saw even more puffins, and then hiked up to the highest point on the island. Then we came back down, and sat on the grass next to the puffins. They never came closer than 2 feet of us, but we could still get good pictures of them.

We got back on the boat, and went to Staffa. Staffa is another island with puffins, though not as many. But the main icon on Staffa is the hexagonal columns, which lead into Fingal's cave. The cave went in about 70 metres, and the ground was completely covered with water. Then we went back to Ulva ferry, got the bus back to Craignur, and then got our big ferry to Oban. Then, we found a chippie, and got fish and chips. The surprising thing is that mom and Cara got pizza there! A disgrace to fish and chips.

The next day, we got up, had breakfast, got packed up, and left. We drove to a place where we went on a hike to a place called Signal Rock in Glencoe area near Oban and then had lunch at a place called Clachaig Inn. 

A weekend on the coast in Fife

Saturday we met with the Scottish Teacher’s Exchange Club and went on a coastal walk. The coastal path is 117 miles long and stretches from the Tay Bridge near Dundee to the Kincardine Bridge! Our walk started in Burntisland where we walked out on a point of land and saw some old lime kilns. 

We also explored a little of the historic part of Burntisland and found an old building that had 3 sundials, one that said “Time Flies”, another “I Mark Time Dost Thou”, and the third “I Only Count The Sunny Hours” because it was on the afternoon side of the building!

Our guide, Angela, who is a teacher at Jim’s school pointed out several marriage lintels on old buildings which were the couples initials and date engraved in a piece of stone and mounted above the doorway. Leaving the town of Burntisland, we went by Rossend Castle which has its beginnings in 1119 and was where the Abbott of Dunfermline lived.

We continued along the 5 mile hike, stopping along the water for a nice picnic lunch and time for socializing. Walking in to Aberdour along the harbor, Cara found several volunteers to play “Pooh leaves” with her (a variation of Pooh Sticks where you and a partner drop sticks over the up-river side of a bridge and then look over the other side to see who’s stick comes out first).

Because the day way SO sunny and beautiful, the sandy beach in Aberdour was packed with people enjoying it, although there weren’t too many actually in the water. We stopped for a spot of tea before heading on to the second beach area and up the road to the playground in Aberdour.

Our evening ended with a cookout at Gillian’s house, sitting on the back patio area enjoying the last bit of sunshine and lots of good company!

Sunday the four of us headed out for another coastal walk as it looked like it was going to be another beautiful sunny day. This time we applied sunscreen since I was especially pink from the day before! We drove to the beginning of the coastal “chain walk” near the town of Elie. Although I was REALLY excited about this hike/rock scramble, I was a little apprehensive about two parts of the chain walk. First, would Cara be able to handle such a difficult area, and second, there were warnings about only hiking for 2 hours after low tide, and that was just about when we started our hike! Well, we decided we’d go a little ways and could always turn back if need be.

Their warning sign at the beginning of the hike did nothing to relieve my fears, but Carter & Jim found a cool cave to explorer and we started off! 

There were eight sections of cliff with huge chain-link chains bolted into the cliff to help us scale and descend various sections. The chain links were so big in some parts that it was quite easy to hold on to them and felt very safe. There were also small footholes in the sides of the cliff to help make it more manageable. 

Carter scrambled off usually in the lead while Jim or I assisted Cara. I was SO PROUD of how well she did. She was a little scared at first, but she gave it a go and did so well. It’s always an amazing feeling do overcome something you’re not quite sure about! At the end of our walk was a sandy beach and a return walk to our car along the tops of the cliffs to make it a 3 ½ mile trip.

The scenery along the hike was amazing with ocean views, pinkish purple flowers growing right out of the rocks, and even a Cliffside covered in a variety of flowers and a nesting seagull.

We finished our afternoon by treating ourselves to a take away lunch of fish and chips from Anstruther (I’m sad that we probably won’t get another chance to eat here) and ice cream as well as being serenaded by a group of 5 bagpipers playing at the harbor-front. 

On our drive home, we went right alongside several fields filled with the beautiful bright gold rapeseed in blossom. 

We finished off with a stop at a playground we had discovered the day before in Burntisland with playground equipment that was brand new and so unusual that even Jim & I had to play!