As my pals down in Leith would say, 2018 has been a beezer of a year for travel. As well as several trips abroad, one of my missions for the year was to spend more time exploring my home country. Turns out, Scotland is pretty hard to beat for road tripping opportunities! As well as several trips up into the Grassic Gibbon-inspired Aberdeenshire, I’ve taken on the Cairngorms, toured around Loch Ness and Loch Lomond, soaked up the atmosphere at The Orkney Folk Festival, burled around Glencoe and the Isle of Skye, stepped into an Enchanted Forest and explored various tucked-away castles. Of course, there was also an epic tour of Southern Italy and a wintry jaunt to Krakow thrown into the mix, but I have to admit, it was nice to be reminded how beautiful Scotland can be, and how much it has to offer travelers. It just goes to show you don’t always have to look far or hammer the purse strings to find adventure.
Here’s a round-up of my top travel experiences of 2018:
Our (very snowy) jaunt into the Scottish Highlands
2018 got off to a glorious but chilly start with a trip up to Aviemore. Although I was there primarily to review the gorgeous Macdonald Aviemore Resort (more on that here!), our days were packed full of activitity. First up was a visit to the Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie; sadly we were there just a little too early to meet Hamish the baby polar (a.k.a Scotland’s cutest celeb). The next day was spent driving the length of Loch Ness – something I’ve wanted to do for years. After starting our day at the Culloden Battlefield, it was on to the gorgeous bayside village of Dores for lunch before making our way round to Urquhart Castle. Sadly we didn’t encounter any monsters, but the scenery more than made up for it.
Heading for a highland adventure? Check out my guides below:
Falling a little bit in love with Newcastle
Several times a year, I would hop on a train down to London and think to myself “damn, I really should visit Newcastle some day”. Everything about the town seemed to catch my attention; the bridges, the redbrick factories, the characterful castle, the accents… My partner Fraser had been working in Leeds and so naturally, we had an excuse to meet up half way.
We only had a couple of days in ‘the toon’ but that was enough to find myself falling for its charms. As we wandered round the River Tyne, checking out the impressive concert halls and historic archways, I couldn’t help but kick myself for not visiting sooner. Top that off with a visit to the castle and we were well and truly on to a winner.
I’ve been back a few times since for various nights out and can safely say that the city’s party scene lives up to its reputation in all the best ways.
Here’s my guide to making the most out of a short visit to the city:
Treading the boards of the Teatro San Carlo, Naples
Any time I visit a new city, the first thing I want to do is check out the concert halls! I’ve worked in theatre for the last four years, and have been a musical fanatic since I was just a wee’un, so I always get a bit of a buzz checking out performance venues. The older, crumblier, and and more packed full of history the better!
Getting to step inside the San Carlo Theatre in Naples was a real treat. This opulent opera hall has been on the go since 1621 and has survived fires and wars alike to reign supreme as one of Italy’s most cherished venues. You might recognise the auditorium, as it’s often been featured in Hollywood numbers like The Talented Mr Ripley. Check out those mirrored boxes!
The San Carlo is ridiculously beautiful, and was an absolute highlight of our time in Italy.
You can read about our tour here:
Tucking into the best seafood pasta on the island of Procida
Every time somebody asks where my happy place is, I’m going to say the island of Procida.
We actually discovered this little gem by accident. We knew, staying on the Bay of Naples, that we’d want to go island-hopping at some point. After listening to a bit of local advice we decided against Capri, purely because it has a reputation of being so busy.
Looking for a more relaxing experience, we headed to smaller Procida, an hour’s journey away.
This was true Italy at its best. Vespas hurling down cobbled streets. Bells chiming from tucked-away cathedrals. Washing hanging from the lines overhead.
We had a brilliantly unplanned day, strolling aimlessly through squishy little piazzas and climbing steep, winding hills to watch as the sun bounced off the colourful townhouses below. The absolute highlight though was having lunch at Corricella, wee fishing port on the North East of the island. We found ourselves a seafood jaunt just inches from the water. It was the kind of place with no English translation on the menu, and it tasted all the better for it.
Perhaps it was because the sun came out, perhaps it was because the Peronis slid down too easily, but Frase and I continue to refer to this as the “best meal of our lives” to this day.
Enjoying our very own view out over the Amalfi Coast
I was so, so lucky to be asked to review a stunning apartment on the hilltop village of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast.
In all honesty, I’d have been happy with a wee ramshackle shed just to get to stay in this neck of the woods; instead we got the gorgeous La Dolce Vita all to ourselves.
Apartment aside for a minute (you can read my review here), what really blew us away was the view. In fact, it was a view we loved so much that we barely left the balcony in two days, even spending an entire night outside as rainstorms swelled around us and lightening crackled away in the distance. Sitting under the canopy as the lights of the Amalfi towns twinkled away below, we didn’t have a care in the world.
Exploring the ruins of Pompeii
Ever since I was little (back in the days when it was okay to think I might one day become a world-famous archaeologist) I’ve wanted to visit Pompeii. Of course there’s a huge sadness to this ancient city, wiped out by the forces of nearby Vesuvius.; to think of all the lives, culture and stories lost to the volcanic ashes is heart-wrenching. But there’s also a magical element to it; the fact that it has been so well-preserved by the very ash that destroyed it means we can learn so much about Ancient Roman society and being able to wander its streets gives you such a unique and informative perspective on how the city would have looked.
We only had half a day to spend at Pompeii but it could easily have been a week!
I loved it so much I had to write a feature:
Catching up with the locals at the Orkney Folk Festival
I’m lucky to come from the Orkney Islands for many reasons, but perhaps my favourite of all those reasons is its musical connections.
The music scene is huge in Orkney. Whether it’s classical, jazz, blues, rock, pop or some other genre I haven’t even heard of yet, music seems to run in the veins of Orcadian folk. Growing up, I was lucky enough to be involved with several bands (including Orkney’s only all-girl rock band, thank you very much!), but secretly I always envied the folk musicians. I’ve dabbled a bit with guitar, mandolin and folk singing, but sadly my violin skills leave a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I love listening to folk music, and it seems to be the one genre which really unites folk back home.
The Orkney Folk Festival is one of the largest folk music festivals in the world, drawing in renowned musicians in the field, both locally and internationally. It’s always a bustling weekend for the islands, as nomadic musicians make their way up north, some even breaking into sessions on the ferry across from the mainland, and as music spills onto the streets for four days solid.
I was really excited to be asked to do a little coverage for the local newspaper, The Orcadian. It was also Fraser’s first time up to Orkney and the sun, miraculously, was shining; by day, we were off exploring the archaelogical sights and sunbathing by the sea; by night, it was off to concerts and to the local pubs to check out the rammies. All bias aside, any lovers of music should consider heading up to Orkney for the end of May; I defy you to find craic better than the Folk Fest!
Cooling off in the waters of Loch Lomond
This summer, Scotland was caught in the grips of a ridiculously prolongued heatwave. For sun-worshippers like myself, it was bloody excellent. For the other 90% of the population, it was probably a bit of SPF-smothered nightmare.
Thankfully, this heatwave also coincided with a weekend that my cousin and I had planned exploring the bonnie bonnie banks of – yep, you’ve guessed it! – Loch Lomond.
This is one of Scotland’s best-loved holiday hotspots, and with good cause. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park spans 1800 square kilometers, and has some of Scotland’s largest lochs and munros all ripe for exploring.
We spent three days in the pretty lochside village of Balmaha, and made use of the good weather by spending every waking minute outdoors. From climbing to the top of Conic Hill for panoramic views over the eponymous loch to scrambling to the top of a very misty Ben A’an, there wasn’t an inch of the park we didn’t explore. Naturally, we needed to find a way to cool off;
If you fancy an outdoors adventure, pack up the camping gear and hit the road to Western Scotland. Here’s my guide to the area:
Luxury glamping at Glencoe
How on earth did I manage to go 28 years living in Scotland without visiting Glencoe?!
This steep-sided valley is one of the country’s most impressive, with its towering mountains, tumbling waterfalls and notoriously changeable weather.
We were lucky enough to visit in late summer, when the sun was still shining and the views were at their clearest. As we drove through the winding landscape – recently made famous all over again in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall – I was completely blown away, and could absolutely understand the allure for keen hikers and mountain climbers to head up into the hills.
After a busy day outdoors, and exploring the nearby Folk Museum, it was time to unwind; thankfully we had a gorgeous base to come back to, with a cheeky wee press stay at Riverbeds Luxury Lodges. Based on the edge of the Dragon’s Tooth Golf Course in the beautiful hamlet of Ballachulish, these glamping pods were something out of the ordinary, with every mod con you could ask for, breakfast provided and a hot tub to boot! Wanna know more about our luxury glamping experience? Check out my review here.
We loved the hot tub so much that even after returning from dinner at the lovely Ballachulish Hotel, we couldn’t resist a late night dip. Believe me, there is nothing more relaxing than having a midnight glass of proscecco in the warmth of a bubbly spa as the stars twinkle away above, knowing that you’ve got a full day of adventure ahead when tomorrow comes…
Want to know more about this gorgeous part of Scotland? Check out my feature below:
Road tripping around the Isle of Skye
“Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
onwards the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be King,
O’er the sea to Skye.”
I remember first hearing the Skye Boat Song as a child and being fascinated, not only by the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his escape to the island, but by this land of dramatic beauty and mystic intrigue; this island full of myth, legend and folklore.
For years, I’ve been dying to go. It’s a not an experience I wanted to rush, however. This year, the time was right. It was time for the ultimate road trip.
After our night in Glencoe, we continued up Scotland’s west coast to Mallaig, passing the Glenfinnan Viaduct and falling for the charms of the Road to the Isles, despite the rain which had decided to rear its ugly head. From Mallaig, we caught the ferry to Armadale, and so began our adventure on the isle of Skye.
We spent three days driving around and falling in love with the island, its scenery, its whisky and its stories. You can read all about it here:
Stepping into the Enchanted Forest
Every year throughout October, Scotland’s Faskally Woods come alive with a magical light and sound display.
The Enchanted Forest, just outside the bonnie town of Pitlochry is a hugely popular event, drawing in crowds from across the country. Using the forest and the loch as a natural backdrop, clever illuminations, visual effects and original score music are played out as visitors walk through the 1.5km circuit, visiting cleverly-placed food and drink stops along the way.
It’s pretty darn stunning, and made all the better with a late night slot, as the darkness envelopes you and the mulled wine stalls beckon.
If you’re planning a trip to the Enchanted Forest, don’t forget to check out my guide first:
Getting to operate an actual lighthouse
This was ridiculously exciting for two reasons; one, I love lighthouses. They remind me of the sea, and of the Orkney Islands where I grew up. Two; my Granddad, who passed away when I was just a baby, was a lighthouse keeper. The more I learn about him, his life and his work, the more I grow curious about his profession; what must it have been like to work at one of the rock stations, miles from land? How did they cope with the isolation?
The last of Scotland’s lighthouses became automated in 1998, meaning that today they are controlled electronically, and the keeper profession has died out. All that remains of this once highly respected career are the stories, passed down through families, letters and photographs.
I’ve been intrigued by these stories for a number of years now, so much so that I’m actually in the process of writing my first professional play about the profession. Okay, it’s actually a bit of a murder mystery too, but that’s a side note…
This December, I headed up to the brilliant Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. I was going mostly just so I could have a wee nosy around the lenses and do a bit of research on day-to-day life as a keeper; I had no idea we’d actually get to climb to the top of a lighthouse and learn about the mechanics too!
Many thanks to the staff for letting us have a shot at operating the lens too!
Getting our Christmas fix with a winter jaunt to Krakow
What a way to end the year!!
We debated endlessly this year about where to go for a Christmas jaunt. After all, our expectations had been set pretty high after last year’s trip to Budapest.
In the end, we couldn’t get the idea of another Eastern European city out of our heads; top of the list was Krakow, Poland’s cultural gem. With accommodation provided by the wonderful Hotel Stary (a little more on that here), it was a decision we would not live to regret.
With its Medieval architecture, complex history and endless lists of things to do, Krakow would be a brilliant city to visit any time of the year. I’m so glad we went in December though. This is a city which knows how to give you those essential Christmas feels! Bustling markets brimming with locally-made goods? Check! Christmas trees which scrape the sky? Check! Snow flurries, twinkling lights and the best hot chocolate you’ll ever experience? Check, check, check!
Planning a winter jaunt for 2019? You might just want to add this one to your list…
2018, you were an absolute gem.
So what next?
This has been such a fantastic year for travel, but by heck has it been busy! I’ll be taking a few weeks in January to have some much needed R&R and get my plans in order. I’m also making it my new year’s resolution to get cracking with my first professional play (eeeeek!) so I’m pretty excited/nervous about that. That’s not to say the travel plans are on hold though. Anything but! I’ve got a late winter jaunt to Copenhagen already penciled in, as well as a trip to the French Riviera to look forward to and lots of exciting projects in the pipeline with various clients across Europe.
I also plan on continuing on with my mission to help promoting travel opportunities across Scotland!
Got any leads? Give me a shout, or check out my page here to find out a little bit more about working together with Blethers from Afar.
As always, thank you for reading and joining me on my rambling journeys!