The temperature sits at 105 as I put away this summer’s travel clothes, consisting of long pants, sweaters and a raincoat. Every June, my forever boyfriend Jim Miller and I typically venture off to a hot climate requiring shorts, hats and sunscreen. This year we opted for Scotland and Ireland, the land of our distant ancestors, and despite the misty, chilly weather, our two-week trek rewarded us with dramatic views and magical experiences.
Knowing the impossibility of seeing everything recommended in guidebooks, we narrowed our visit to capital cities, the Highlands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland. This itinerary featured many incredible stops along the way. But the first order of business is mastering English-style driving.
After arriving in the charming Scottish capital of Edinburgh, Jim navigates as I drive. Within an hour of leaving the airport, I felt frazzled and decided it was a terrible mistake to rent a car. Steering from the right side while managing a six-speed manual transmission on the left offered up more than a few near misses—poor Jim—as I regularly skimmed too close to the curb on his side. But fortified by a delicious breakfast in the old part of the city, I renewed my determination to conquer driving on the other side of both the car and the road.
To stay awake all day, we leave the car and walk to nearby Calton Hill to get our bearings. There’s a modest climb to its summit, nicknamed Edinburgh’s Acropolis because of its many neoclassical monuments, with great 360 views of the city.
The next morning a taxi drops us off at the bustling Edinburgh Castle, the center point of the city. We plan to meander down the Royal Mile, a 500-year-old processional route created for kings and queens lined with all sorts of attractions. Along the way, we explore quirky nooks and crannies and find the National Library, which contains a cool little rare book exhibit featuring one of 14 Gutenberg Bibles still in existence. We also stroll through the Grassmarket, an open marketplace dating back to 1477, where I buy a handful of watercolor images of this beautiful city.
The Writer’s Museum was a fun discovery just off the top of the Royal Mile. Tucked down in Lady Stair’s Close, this free museum is in a small house filled with memorabilia from three of Scotland’s most famous writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stephenson.
The Mile ends at Holyrood Palace, one of the residences of Queen Elizabeth II. And she is there! Unfortunately, that also means the area is closed. So, we end the day with a delicious dinner of fresh fish in the port of Leith about 15 minutes outside of the city center.
The next day we drive north to Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. But first, we stop at the historic St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. The British Open is scheduled to tee off two weeks from the time of our visit and this small university town is bustling. Fortunately, we are there on a Sunday, which means the famous Old Course is open to the public. I am not a golfer but do respect the history and tradition of our surroundings as we stroll across the grounds and pose for photos on the famous Swilcan Bridge.
One night in Inverness and we are on our way to the village of Portree, Isle of Skye. En route, we stop at Urquhart Castle, an impressive ruin sitting on Loch Ness, the beautiful Eilean Donan Castle accessible only by a pedestrian bridge, and do not get any sighting of Nessie.
It feels impossible to describe the immense, vast gorgeousness of the Scottish Highlands. Our map indicates multiple “single-track roads,” and we maneuver them throughout the day while dodging roaming sheep. We take a blustery hike up to the rock pinnacle called Old Man of Storr. stop at Kilt Rock Waterfall, the small but beautiful Duntulm Castle high on a bluff overlooking the sea, and the Highland Folk Museum, where we got a taste of Highlands life from a less advanced era.
From there, we head south through the Sleat Peninsula with its beautiful beaches, lochs and glens. At the foot of the Black Cuillin Hills is a series of tributaries from the River Brittle that run down into a glen to form a series of waterfalls known as Fairy Pools. It takes about 45 minutes to hike up through mist and wind to experience these beautiful little pools winding down the mountain. We also stop at two monuments featured in the Harry Potter films – Glenfinnan and the viaduct which overlook the magnificent Loch Shiel.
Our time in Scotland winds down as we make our way to Fort William in the western highlands to the coastal town of Helensburgh, and finally to Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, a port city in the western Lowlands. After days in the remotest parts of this incredibly beautiful country, being in a crowded city is a shock. We spent the night at a funky, high-end dorm-like hotel called The Grasshopper above the Central Rail Station.
A short flight the next morning to Dublin and we are off in an even smaller car to our hotel in a former Catholic boarding school. A short walk takes us to the beautiful Trinity College where the ancient Book of Kells is housed. There are no tickets available, so we decided to explore other sights, including the Molly Malone statue, The Temple Bar and the famous Grafton Street, home to high-end clothing stores. Although we had been advised not to spend a lot of time in this city, we found Dublin to be vibrant and interesting.
Galway on the west coast of the Atlantic Ocean is next On the way are Trim Castle where parts of Braveheart were filmed; Kilbeggan Distillery, where you can taste the whiskey of the day; and the ruins of Clonmacnoise, a monastery dating back to 800 AD.
As we drive throughout the Connemara region of the coast, we are struck by how rugged and barren it is, made more dramatic by the ongoing chilly mist. Situated on a lake and surrounded by a gorgeous walled Victorian garden is the stunning Kylemore Abbey, a former manor house turned convent.
Unfortunately, fog was a factor on this leg of our trip and the famous Cliffs of Moher were invisible. We hiked out to the lookout anyway but the fog got worse so we continued on into the increasingly dense, rapidly moving fog, and consoled ourselves with a Guinness at lunch.
Another must-see on the Emerald Isle is the Ring of Kerry around the Iveragh Peninsula, which begins in Killarney. From start to finish the drive is a little more than three hours, but we spent 10, stopping at the many incredible attractions along the route. While it was another foggy day, we got a glimpse of Skellig Michael, featured in recent Star Wars movies. On the second leg of the drive is Staigue Fort, a ring fort dating back to 300 AD, Torc Waterfall, Ladies View, Cliffs of Kerry, and the 600-year-old Muckross Abbey.
Our flight home the next day is out of Dublin—a four-hour drive. The legendary medieval stronghold Blarney Castle is on the way. With a long line to kiss the Blarney Stone inside the keep, we chose to stroll the incredible grounds. Everything from woodlands, to ferns, fairy glens, and poisonous plant beds fill the more than 60 acres that surround the castle. And magically, the sun came out for the first time on our trip as we left. The 1,000-year-old fortress Cashel Rock is the last stop on our itinerary before getting to the city.
At breakfast one morning in Galway, a tourist bus driver asked us if we knew the difference between an Irish summer and winter. The answer? In summer the rain is warmer. Funny, but true. We found Scotland and Ireland to be a delightful mix of castles, moors, sheep, pastures, car ferries, monasteries, delicious fresh fish and chips, stews, and lager. Be prepared to make wrong turns, get lost and come hood-to-hood with cars on single-lane roads while frequently stopping for views, or a coffee and chat. The people are friendly, the roads are narrow and the vegetation is incredible. Pack layers, and a raincoat, and you will have an experience like no other.