wild Irish and Scottish roads: an itinerary for adventurers

Twenty-two years ago, I saw a picture of Milford Sound, New Zealand in a travel agent's window. 

"I don't know where this is," I said to Andy, "But I want to go there."  

A few weeks later, we were in a camper van, on the road in New Zealand, with Milford Sound as our destination, stopping along the way for anything that looked interesting and exciting.

Our trip to Ireland and Scotland was composed this same way: beautiful images of far-flung places, stitched together with many kilometers of scenic roadways and surprising stops along the way.

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This was not a trip for the city-lover.  Although we did visit and enjoy the wonderful cities of Dublin and Inverness and Edinburgh, the cities were, for us, gateways to the open road and the beautiful, wild places.  

The absolutely fantastic thing about Ireland and Scotland is that you've arrived in the land of the B&B and the pub.  So, you can drive as far as you want, hike to your heart's content, and at the end of the day, someone will serve you up a wonderful dinner and a pint.  There will be music, and a fluffy duvet to burrow into until the morning comes.

Bring your rain jacket and your waterproof hiking boots, and you're good to go.

So, without further adieu, here's our five days of driving through much of Ireland, then three days driving in the Scottish highlands, with a day in Edinburgh to wander around.

(This is going to be a long post, so I suggest a cup of tea, perhaps a biscuit to nibble, and a comfy seat as you take it all in.)

Day 1: Dublin to Belfast

We landed in Dublin early, rented our car, and headed north. 

Or, as the signs on the motorway say in all caps, The NORTH. 

Like a prophecy.  Like a portent.

Our very first stop was the World Heritage site, Bru na Boinne, a Neolitic passage tomb older than the pyramids at Giza.  I don't yet have words for how I felt at Bru na Boinne.  I'm working on better words, but for now let me just say that I wept like a child and then couldn't speak without crying for an hour or so after.  It was one of the most deeply moving spiritual experiences of my life, feeling a deep connection to humanity throughout history, and the oneness of our common experiences with death, sorrow, hope, and light.

Wearing sunglasses because I'm crying so much at Bru na Boinne.

Wearing sunglasses because I'm crying so much at Bru na Boinne.

Our next stop was Monasterboice, site of a monastery founded sometime around 500 AD.  The high crosses here, including the highest in Ireland, date from the 9th or 10th century. 

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We stopped for lunch at the Monasterboice Inn. Don't worry, I'm not going to show you all our meals, but this one includes our first pint of Guinness, and the meal itself featured potatoes three ways: topping the Cottage Pie, and side dishes of mashed potatoes and chips.  We shared, because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert.  HEAVEN.

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After lunch, we wandered The Peace Maze at Castlewellan.  I wanted to find some labyrinths to walk on this trip, and when I Googled labyrinths, this came up.  It was gorgeous, and almost deserted, exactly the way we like our tourist attractions to be.  We were entering Northern Ireland at this point, and with its long history of troubles and painful division, a peace maze seemed like a spiritually appropriate beginning.

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By this time, it was late afternoon so we quickly nipped in to DownPatrick to pay our respects at the Grave of St. Patrick, quite remarkably humble and secluded.

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We spent the night at a Hilton in Belfast--the worst bed of the trip, but the best breakfast.  Fried soda bread.  Why don't we have this in America? 

Here we learned that our GPS can't pronouce the Irish any better than we can.  In fact, the GPS chick took words I can figure out, like "Templepatrick" and made them into unrecognizable things like "TempLEPatrick."  As a result, we couldn't always figure out what GPS-chick was trying to tell us.  Fortunately, roundabouts (rather than stoplight junctions) mean that you can just keep going around and around until you get back to the road you were supposed to follow.

Day 2: Belfast to Portrush

Our first stop of the day was The Dark Hedges in Balleymoney.  It's one of the most-photographed sites in Ireland, and was the film location for The Kings Road early on in Game of Thrones.  I love this picture Andy got with the tractor coming through.

Dark Hedges, photo: Andy Bruner

Dark Hedges, photo: Andy Bruner

After The Dark Hedges, we headed for the village of Cushendun on the coast, via the Glendun Scenic Route.  It was so beautiful, so lonely and wild.

Arriving in Cushendun, we went to climb around in this cool cave area we'd read about, and then found a sign saying that it was a Game of Thrones location, too.

Cushendun caves, photo: Andy Bruner

Cushendun caves, photo: Andy Bruner

The narrow roads in this area were bounded by huge hedges of fushcia in full bloom, and giant brambles of ripe blackberries. 

We'd seen so many enormous hedges by this point that I started hypothesizing that a biological imperative toward hedge-planting is likely an accurate test of whether you've got Irish roots.  Forget ancestry.com.  Do you feel a deep-seated need to plant hedges?  You're probably Irish.

We found our first red telephone box near Torr Head, where we stopped to climb the hill for a majestic view along the coastline.

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After spending the morning in this very remote and quiet area, we hit two tourist traps in the afternoon: Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and Giant's Causeway.  

The rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede connects a tiny island to the mainland, and was first built by local salmon fishermen, before America was even a country.  It's a tourist trap because it's cool!

Giant's Causeway is another World Heritage Site and simply spectacular.  There are tons of people around, but if you wait til just the right moment, you can get a shot without humans in it.  The guards told us we were too close to the edge and in danger of being washed away by crashing waves, so clearly a fine time was had by all.

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, photo: Andy Bruner

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, photo: Andy Bruner

Giant's Causeway, photo: Andy Bruner

Giant's Causeway, photo: Andy Bruner

We stopped by Dunluce Castle (Castle Greyjoy in GoT), where we were too late to get inside for a tour, but were able to climb around the outside, and even found a sea-cave that comes in under the walls. 

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Day 3:  Londonderry to the Cliffs of Moher

We started our day walking the medieval walls of Derry.  I took this photo on the wall near Bishop's Gate, and if you look on either side of the cannon, you can see Protestant church spires on one side, Catholic on the other.  I was glad we had already walked the Peace Maze.

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Other than getting to the Cliffs of Moher for sunset, we didn't have set plans for the day.  Andy looked along our route and decided we'd drive through Glengesh Pass to another set of cliffs called Slieve League, taller than the Cliffs of Moher, but very remote and less visited. 

When we arrived at Slieve League, we hiked up from the car park, past a lot of sheep, through gale-force winds, to a good picnic spot. We were eating a sandwich on a bench near the cliffs, when we saw a bit of a rainbow. 

This, in fact, was Rainbow Number 12 for the day.  But we were still liking them, so Andy took this picture.

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Then we realized that the wind, blowing strongly toward us, was pushing the clouds rapidly inland.  As the clouds cleared, the rainbow kept growing and growing and growing, getting brighter and brighter and brighter.

For at least ten minutes, we sat spell-bound, watching this rainbow being born, until a complete arch formed all across the cliff face.

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At this point, we called the trip a raging success and everything that happened afterward, a bonus. 

On this particular day, the bonus included WB Yeats' resting place in Drumcliff, the ruins of Clare Galway Franciscan Priory (now inhabited mostly by birds, St. Francis would approve), and the Cliffs of Moher (aka The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride) at sunset.

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Clary Galway Fransciscan Priory, photo: Andy Bruner

Clary Galway Fransciscan Priory, photo: Andy Bruner

Cliffs of Moher, photo: Andy Bruner

Cliffs of Moher, photo: Andy Bruner

Day 4: Dingle & Rock of Cashel

We got up early on Day 4 for a long drive around Slea Head Drive, Dingle. Afterward, we turned back inland to Rock of Cashel, headed back toward Dublin.  This was a very long days' drive, and that informed our decision to drive the smaller peninsula of Dingle, rather than the larger and more well-known Ring of Kerry directly to the south.  We were perfectly happy with our Dingle-drive decision.  No regrets at all, when your lunch spot looks like this.  No filter.

Slea Head Drive, Dingle, photo: Andy Bruner

Slea Head Drive, Dingle, photo: Andy Bruner

We took the guided tour through the Rock of Cashel, then stopped just down the hill to end the day with sunset at the ruins of Hore Abbey.

Rock of Cashel, photo: Andy Bruner

Rock of Cashel, photo: Andy Bruner

Hore Abbey, photo: Andy Bruner

Hore Abbey, photo: Andy Bruner

Day 5: Back to Dublin

Day 5 begins with the sad tale of Irish breakfast tea gone amuck. 

We spent the night at the lovely country home of Helen, whom we discovered through Air BnB.  Helen's home had the distinction of being the only place we stayed where there was a hair dryer (note, I wore a hat most of the trip).  More importantly, it was the place of the tea disaster.

Helen was a very friendly person who gave us great advice for our Day 6 itinerary, plus the run of her kitchen for breakfast.  She told us how to make ourselves REAL Irish breakfast tea, with leaves, in a pot, and not with those desecrations to good tea known as tea bags.

So, the morning of Day 5 arrived, Helen was off to work and we were on our own with the detailed tea instructions we had received.  We boiled the water, made the tea, sugared it, took a sip, and both went, "Faugh!" 

(Really, there's no other word.  Faugh is the best I can come up with.) 

"Why is this so SALTY?  Is real Irish tea made with seawater?" 

We could not understand why anyone would drink salty tea. 

But in Scotland, they have haggis, so Irish tea might be salty. 

Who knows.

Human taste is a mystery.

"There's no right or wrong," we said, "To each his own," we said, but we could not drink this tea. 

So we poured it out (sorry, Helen, sorry!!!) and went with the substandard tea bags for round two.

Meanwhile, poking around on the table, I found a ramekin of brown sugar and decided to try that instead of the white sugar in my second cup of tea.  The open bowl of white sugar was fairly depleted from our previous use, and I wanted to leave that for Andy.  So I fixed up my second cup of tea with brown sugar, and he dumped the remaining white sugar into his second cup.

"Faugh!" he says again, "Faugh!"

And that's when we realized: the little open bowl of white sugar, with which we fixed our first cups tea, and with which Andy fixed his second cup of tea: SALT.

After slinking away from the tea-disaster at Helen's, we managed to find ourselves in the best ruin of the trip: the Rock of Dunamase.  It was very early, we were alone in the quintessential Irish countryside, surrounded by rolling fields full of new-mown hay and grazing sheep.  Nobody stopped Andy from climbing the walls, and I took a lot of pictures of old rocks and ivy.

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I waded through hay and brambles to take my favorite photo of the trip, looking back at Dunamase.  Traveling in September, the rose hips were gorgeous everywhere and made wonderful frames for so many beautiful scenes.

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From Dunamase, we drove through the majestic scenery of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, to the estate of Powerscourt with its beautiful waterfall and gardens.

Powerscourt Walled Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Powerscourt Walled Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Finally, we wound up back in Dublin where we visited the Book of Kells and the Long Reading Room at Trinity College, then said farewell to the Irish countryside on the hill at Tara of the Kings. 

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That night, we had dinner and a cider at Merchant's Arch, where the music was not traditional, but where Stevie and Lee made themselves heroes when they mixed Let It Be with No Woman, No Cry.  The Beatles and Bob Marley, together, and everybody singing at the top of their lungs: musical perfection.  Thank you, Dublin.  You did not disappoint.

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Day 6: Edinbugh to Inverness

Early on Day 6, we were up and at the airport, into the complete chaos that comprises boarding a Ryan Air flight.  Getting on board this super low fare airline is a blood sport.  Come early, and bring your yoga breathing, that's my best advice.

Once we'd gotten out of the chaos and into our next rental car, we headed north out of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth, for a trifecta of Outlander-inspired destinations: Cullross Village, Clava Cairns, and Culloden Moor.

Cullross Village

Cullross Village

Clava Cairns

Clava Cairns

Culloden Moor

Culloden Moor

We also saw two wonderful bridges on this particular day: the 300-year-old arched bridge at Carrbridge, and Glennfinnan Viaduct, also known as the Harry Potter train bridge.

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Day 7: Isle of Skye to Glencoe

Day 7 found us hotfooting it out of Inverness at 5:45 a.m for a long day of driving.  Well, trying to hotfoot it, until our car set off its sensors, beeping and flashing a "puncture" warning.  Andy got out and looked around.  He didn't see anything obvious, there was no spare in our super fancy sensor-equipped rental, and we for sure were not going to call the emergency number and wait three hours for a rescue if there wasn't an obvious problem.  As a concession to the car's sensors, we decided to add air to the tire just in case.  The most challenging part of that operation was figuring out, in the early-morning dark, which coins made up the 50p charge.  Once air was added, the sensor stopped flashing and never bothered us again. 

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We drove down the western shore of Loch Ness, atmospheric with early-morning fog, stopping to look at Castle Urquhart and Eileen Donan, then over the bridge to Skye.

Castle Urquhart, photo: Andy Bruner

Castle Urquhart, photo: Andy Bruner

Eileen Donan, photo: Andy Bruner

Eileen Donan, photo: Andy Bruner

After greeting the local inhabitants (highland cows), we drove to the Fairy Pools.  True confession: we came to Skye because I saw a picture of the Fairy Pools on Pinterest.  I had been told by friends that Skye was a must, but the Fairy Pools photo is what convinced me that the extra long drive was worth it.

Turns out, the Fairy Pools are like someone you met on match.com: they may be perfectly nice, but they look absolutely nothing like their online photographs. 

Apparently, many visitors have trouble recognizing the Fairy Pools from what they've seen online, because a fair way up the track there's a sign that essentially says, "You've seen them.  Turn around and go back."

Me, about to get gently whacked by this cow's horns... photo, Andy Bruner

Me, about to get gently whacked by this cow's horns... photo, Andy Bruner

The Fairy Pools, as I saw them

The Fairy Pools, as I saw them

At the Fairy Pools, though, we met up with a family who gave us our hot tip of the day.  We absolutely HAD to go to the Fairy Glen, they said.  So off we went.  And it was magic: terraced hillocks, rocks to climb, stone circles, and a little waterfall with a red-berried rowan tree.  

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We had planned to do a couple of hikes on Skye that afternoon, but instead we hit an epic traffic jam.  Somebody ran off the one-lane road onto the boggy shoulder, which blocked traffic in both directions.

It was like one of those puzzle rooms where they lock you in and you have to work together to get out. 

Mostly a lady from Pennsylvania, wearing a red jacket, ran back and forth up the road telling which car to move next. 

After all that, we were not anxious to pull off the road into potentially boggy ground.  We made a couple of quick stops with well-graveled car parks, and kept moving along to the refuge of Glencoe.

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Lealt Falls, Skye

Lealt Falls, Skye

Day 8: Glencoe to Edinburgh

The drive from Glencoe to Edinburgh was everything I ever thought the Highlands would be: majestic mountains, windswept moors, placid lochs, crumbling castles. 

Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, swarms of midges that let you get just far enough away from your car, then attack with bloodthirsty intent.  If you wonder why nobody lives up here, the midges provide a clue.

Glencoe Moor

Glencoe Moor

Loch An-Achlaise

Loch An-Achlaise

Our favorite castle visit of the day: Castle Doune, which plays host to many film crews.  As you explore, you can sing along with Monte Python's knights of Spamalot, le sigh over Jamie and Claire's first meeting in Outlander, and roam the great hall of Winterfell from Game of Thrones.

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We made a wise decision at the end of Day 8: on our way back in to Edinburgh, we stopped at the airport and returned our rental car, then took the tram into the city.  Our hotel was just off the Royal Mile, in Advocate's Close.  A super cool and perfectly central location, but not someplace you want to try parking.

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Day 9: Edinburgh

In Edinburgh, we explored St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum, and even stepped into the Scottish Parliament to observe its session for a few minutes.

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Late in the day, feeling a bit worn out, we climbed Calton Hill where we could look over at Arthur's Seat without making the 45-minute climb to the top.  After snoozing in the sunshine for a while, we went down to The Elephant House, where JK Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter books, for afternoon tea before heading out to the airport for our long journey home.

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Andy and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this year.  We've been all over the world and back again.  We used to travel for work, and now we travel for fun.

I'm deeply, endlessly, grateful to be a witness to the beauty of this fragile and enduring planet, and to witness the wonder alongside my best friend. 

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My dearest hope and fondest wish that we'll always be singing along with David Francey:

Long road, dark night, nothing but headlights
But I'll see some bright lights, when I get home to you
Framed in your doorway with your arms open wide
I'll hold you in my arms, enfold you inside
And I want to tell you
Come rain or come shine
That I'll always be your love
If you'll always be mine

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