Category Archives: Our Travels

Cuba: Living Like it’s 1960

As mentioned in our last blog post, my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Cuba. Visiting Cuba is like stepping back in time — to the 1960’s. This post is to provide a little background information on Cuba (based on what we learned and by talking with Cubans). The Cuban people are friendly, warm, and welcoming to Americans.

Cuba From Ocean View

A Bit of Cuban History

Up until 1492, Cuba had been inhabited for 10,000 years by an indigenous people, similar to our Native Americans. The Spanish (Christopher Columbus) began conquering the island in 1492 and eventually killed off the indigenous population with European disease. The Spanish ruled until 1898 when Cuban and American forces defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War and made Cuba a free land.

After the war, America occupied Cuba for a few years as it transitioned to a democratic nation with elected officials. Corruption was rampant and the American mob began running the island with the backing of President Batista during the 1950’s.

In 1953, Fidel Castro (a well-educated lawyer) with a group of other intellectuals wanted to overthrow Batista by storming the Moncada Barracks, you can still see the bullet holes in the front of the building. Fidel’s aim was to free the Cuban people from corruption, eliminate the mob, provide literacy training for all Cubans and to provide a better life for Cubans.

Moncada Barracks Cuba

The coup attempt effort failed and the members of Fidel’s group were either killed or jailed. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years but was soon released by Batista as amnesty was given to many political prisoners. Fidel fled to Mexico and resurrected his attempt to overthrow the government. He succeeded in 1959 and Batista fled the country.  Fidel ruled the country as a communist state until his death in 2016.

Why Were Americans Banned from Visiting?

America provided arms to Batista during the revolution and Fidel resented it. In 1961, the USA also tried to overthrow Fidel’s new government when the CIA invaded the country at the Bay of Pigs but the attempt was thwarted. Relations deteriorated as Cuba began imposing high import taxes on American goods. America responded by imposing a trade embargo, not allowing any American companies to do business with Cuba and preventing Americans from visiting.

Cuba High Rises

The Soviet Union seized this opportunity by offering to support Cuba by replacing all American trade with Russian trade — Russia would purchase anything America was blocking with the trade embargo. As Russia and Cuba solidified a closer relationship, Cuba transitioned to a Communist state.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

In1962, relations deteriorated with Cuba and Russia when American spy satellites spotted Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, pointed at the USA. This resulted in a dangerous confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union, bringing the USA to DEFCON2 level — the closest we’ve ever been to a nuclear war.  After tense negotiations, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev quelled the crisis by Russia agreeing to remove the missiles if the USA agreed to remove nuclear missiles in Turkey and agree not to attack Cuba. If you want to learn more about this, check out this article.

The Cuban Revolution

After Cuba and the USA cut ties, Cuba began trading with Russia and transitioned to a Communist state. Cuba nationalized all American owned companies, which means the Cuban government took over the companies, the casinos that were previously run by the mob, and took possession of all of the mansions that lined the coast of Havana.

Cuban Mansions

Castro gave these mansions to Cuban peasants with several families living in the same home — an incredible improvement in their lifestyle. They also turned many of them into government offices.

Cuba Forts

Castro also implemented a 1-year project (Cuban Literacy Campaign) to eradicate illiteracy in small towns all around Cuba where literacy was just 60%. The effort was implemented by deploying teenagers, young adults and teachers all around Cuba to teach illiterate Cubans to read and write Spanish. This campaign was very successful, resulting in 96% of Cubans becoming literate within a year. Many of the Literacy Campaign’s volunteers went on to pursue teaching careers, and the rate of teachers is now 11 times higher than it was before the revolution.

A Socialist Cuba

As Cuba converted to Communism, the government continued to trade heavily with the Soviet Union and many Cubans will tell you that life felt better than when under Batista’s regime. Although Cubans could not start their own businesses, they received food, free education and healthcare, cheap housing and employment from the government.  Many of the peasants felt much better off but entrepreneurial Cubans felt trapped and many fled the country.

However, the government did not invest in Cuban infrastructure. We visited many parts of the town and you can see the impact of that with buildings beginning to crumble from neglect. Cuba is now starting to invest in renewing buildings but the problem is overwhelming.

Cuban Neglected Buildings

Cuba Neglected Buildings 2

This is not to say that Cuba does not have beautiful buildings, they really do. There are squares and really old buildings that are impressive, especially in Old Havana, where you see cobblestone streets and Spanish-inspired buildings.

Cuban Squares

Cuban New Architecture

Cuban Squares

As you take tours, they take you to the new Havana and they are very proud of this area. However, to Americans, it feels like a place stuck in time. The buildings are reminiscent of 1960, with an architecture similar to what you would have seen in 1960’s Miami.

Cuba New Architecture

Cuba New Architecture 2

Cuban New Architecture 3

And of course, you see all of the wonderful 1950 American cars. You will see some newer Russian and Cuban cars but about 70% of their cars are pristine 1950’s American cars. It is like being stuck in time — in a wonderful way.

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

American 1950 Cars in Cuba 2

American 1950 Cars in Cuba 3

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

Normalizing Relations with the United States

After Fidel Castro’s death, the USA and Cuba began normalizing relations. This now allows us to travel to Cuba as long as we do in as an Educational Exchange tour. I actually prefer this because you get to learn a lot about Cuba.

It’s not fully normalized yet. For example, if you bring American currency, they charge you a 10% tax just for converting the money. If you are planning to go to Cuba, purchase Euro or Canadian dollars from your local bank and convert those when you get to Cuba so that you don’t incur the 10% penalty.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba was left without a major trading partner and it really affected them economically. The average wage for a Cuban working for the government is just $25 per month but most get their basic needs met from the government with free education, healthcare, low-cost housing, and food.

Cubans are also resourceful. Many Cubans have relatives living in other countries that send money. Tour guides also take tips so they can earn hundreds of dollars per day — much more than the normal Cuban government wage.  We found Cuba to be extremely safe, you can walk around at night with no worries. The people are incredibly friendly and appreciate the warming of relations with America. Although they have endured hardship from their government, they are a proud people who love their country.

Now is a great time to visit Cuba because it still feels like a land stuck in time. Eventually, as normalization matures, Cuba will become more wealthy and this nostalgic feeling will subside.

Things to See

When visiting Havana, you will obviously want to visit Old and New Havana. But here are a few things you will surely want see that’s a little off the beaten path.

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia is a town on the outskirts of Havana that was renovated with ceramic tiles by a local artisan, fashioned after the works of Gaudi.  When we visited Spain, we saw similar architecture by Gaudi in Park Guell.

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

Floridita

Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for over 10 years and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls there. One of his favorite hangouts was the Floridita, the birthplace of the daiquiri. Enjoy latin music and sip on the best daiquiri you will ever drink.

Floridita

Old American Car Tour

For just $40 an hour, get a personalized tour of Havana in an old American car. Our driver took us to find Cuban cigars, to a nature preserve and a ride along the ocean.

American Cars

American Car Tour

American Car Tour

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Cuba, you can see last month’s post about Cuba here.

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had as we entered the bay into Havana as we viewed the iconic Morro Castle.

Morro Castle

 

 

Havana Cuba: Cigars and old American Cars

My wife and I were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary and began looking for a unique trip to remember. Previously forbidden for Americans, Cuba fit the bill and did not disappoint. In fact, it’s the best trip we’ve taken in a long time.

Havana Cuba Old American Car

Where is Cuba?

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island (about the size of Florida) and sits between Florida and Jamaica.

Map of Cuba

We elected to take a cruise from Jamaica (we spent a couple of days in Jamaica first) with Celestyal Cruises. The cruise took us to Santiago de Cuba, then to Havana, and finally to Cienfuegos. Because it was an educational exchange, we learned about Cuban history, the culture, the people, and the normalization process with America.

Celestyal Cruises

Why Cuba?

What made us want to go to Cuba? Until just 3 years ago, it was a forbidden land for Americans. Even now, the only way to go to the island is via an educational exchange tour where you learn about the history and culture of Cuba. I’ll talk more about Cuba history and why Americans were forbidden to travel there in an upcoming blog, but if you want to know more check out the Netflix series called The Cuba Libre Story.

Santiago del Cuba

Old American Cars

Havana is the capital of Cuba and the most vibrant city we’ve visited in a while.  It feels like a city stuck in time. Because of the American embargo, Cubans could no longer purchase American cars after 1960 so the streets are full of beautiful American cars from the 50’s and the buildings look like buildings you would have seen in 1960’s America.

American Cars in Cuba

Old American Cars Cuba

Old American Cars Cuba

Old American cars were everywhere. Not just a few — tons of them.

You can grab a taxi tour in an old car for about $40 an hour. Lynn and I took a 2-hour tour and thoroughly enjoyed it. Our drivers were 2 young men (23 and 21-year-old brothers) whose vintage car was handed down from their Dad. They took us to the major sites of the city and by special request, they helped us track down a specific type of cigar we were looking for (Montecristo number 2).

Cuban Cigars

Before leaving for our trip, I had 10 people ask me to buy as many cigars as possible to share with them.  As you may know, we can’t buy Cuban cigars in the USA and that’s what makes them so special.

With cigars, you have to keep them in an environment that’s about 70 degrees and 70 percent humidity or they will dry out. Cuban cigars are not cheap — between $10 and $30 per cigar is the norm, so you don’t want to pay that kind of money and have them dry out.

I decided to purchase enough cigars to give to a few to friends and keep a few. You can bring back 50 cigars per person but I brought back 38. I also bought a few humidors to ensure that they kept to 70/70 for the temperature and humidity. That amount filled an entire backpack. In hindsight, I probably could have brought back 100 (50 for me and 50 for Lynn) and put them in a humidor once I got back to the states because it is humid enough in Cuba and they would not have dried up by the time I made it back.

I had never smoked a Cuban cigar before now. I did a bit of research and found that the most popular brand is Cohiba. They range in cost from $10 to $50 each, the ones I purchased were just over $20 each.

Another popular brand is Montecristo. In fact, Montecristo number 2 was voted best cigar in Cuba a few years back, so that intrigued me. The cost ranges from $10 to $30 per cigar. Finding the Montecristo number 2 became a challenge because they are so popular. We visited about 5 cigar shops before I finally found them so I purchased more of these than the Cohiba.

I’m not much of a cigar smoker and have only smoked a few cigars over the years. I’ve never had a good cigar before I found the Montecristo cigar and boy do I get it now. What a great cigar, it has a smooth taste, does not leave a bitter aftertaste and does not wreck your throat the next morning.

The Floridita

Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for over 10 years and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls there. One of his favorite hangouts was the Floridita, the birthplace of the daiquiri. Lynn and I made our way there.

Ernest Hemingway

As we walked in, a Cuban band was playing latin music so we moseyed up to the bar and ordered a Mojito (a popular Cuban drink). The bartender said, “you sure you don’t want a daiquiri”?  Not thinking, we said “no” and the Mojito was great. Then we noticed everyone was ordering daiquiris and finally saw the sign saying that it was invented there. Wow, the best daiquiris we’ve ever had. One turned into two, two turned into three — you get the picture.

Floridita Cuba

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Cuba, keep an eye out for upcoming blogs on Cuba where I will explain more about the history and culture.

We found the Cuban people to be warm, inviting and full of passion. They love to dance and to spend time with friends and family. Even though they’ve gone through hardships economically and politically over the years, they take great pride in their homeland and are glad that relations with America are finally normalizing.

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I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had as we entered the bay into Havana.

Havana Cuba Bay

 

 

Lush Rain Forests of Tahiti

It was 2010, just a year after selling our business, and our boys were 16 and 17 years old at the time.  On our way to Bora Bora, we spent a few days in Tahiti.  Tahiti is in French Polynesia, halfway between the USA and Australia.

Tahiti map

If you zoom in, you can see that Tahiti looks like an infinity symbol. The left part of the infinity symbol is Tahiti Nui and the right part is Tahiti Iti.

Tahiti map

Tahiti was settled in about 1,300 BC by Southeast Asians wanting to expand east.  It is part of the “Polynesian Triangle” which includes Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the southeast, and New Zealand to the southwest. Tahiti has lush rain forests, waterfalls, lagoons, and black-sand beaches.

Tahiti Waterfalls

This was the view from our hotel room, the island you see in the distance is Moorea.

Tahiti Acommodations

During our stay, we took a bumpy ride deep into the rain forests in a 4-wheel drive.

Tahiti 4 Wheel Drive

Along the way, we stopped at massive waterfalls, water vapors filled the air as we got closer.

Tahiti Waterfalls

We visited several swimming holes where the boys and I practiced doing cannon balls after hurling ourselves off the rocks.

Tahiti Rock Diving

As we ventured deeper into the jungle, we arrived at a mountain home owned by a friend of our guide. We took that opportunity to learn more about their culture and to take in the views.

Tahiti Mountain House

Our guide was Polynesian. He sported many tattoos, each thoughtfully inked based on family stories. He told us that he continues to expand his tattoos as he ages and accumulates more life experiences.

Tahiti Tattoos

The word tattoo originated in French Polynesia. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all the oceans’ fish in beautiful colors and patterns. In Polynesian culture, tattoos have long been considered signs of beauty, and in earlier times were ceremoniously applied when reaching adolescence.

Tahiti Tattoo

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to Tahiti. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture taken on the flight from Tahiti to Bora Bora. If you would like to see more pictures from our Bora Bora trip, click here.

Flight to Bora Bora

 

 

 

Riviera Maya (Playa del Carmen): Mexico’s Caribbean Coastline

Slide the dial back to 2006 and our boys were 12 and 13 years old. After working long hours building our business, Lynn and I planned a family vacation to Riviera Maya, Mexico’s Caribbean coastline.

Playa del Carman

Located on the northeastern Yucatán Peninsula just south of Cancun, Riviera Maya has beautiful white sand beaches flanked by ancient Mayan ruins.

Play del Carman Mexico

Playa del Carmen Mexico

Playa del Carmen is a popular vacation destination for many Americans because it is relatively inexpensive, quick to travel to and offers access to a culture different from our own. It has also been popular with TV shows, as The Real Housewives of Vancouver shot a couple of episodes here as well as appearances on The Amazing Race and The Celebrity Mole.

Playa del Carmen resorts

Tulum Mexico

Just south of Playa del Carmen is Tulum, an ancient Mayan port city. Tulum was a thriving Mayan port during the 13th and 15th centuries, and was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya.  We took an excursion to visit the ruins and they did not disappoint.

Tulum Mayan Ruins

Mayan Ruins Tulum Mexico

On our way back from visiting the ruins, we stopped by a Mayan village. The villagers still live in small shacks with dirt floors and hammocks for beds. As we arrived, a group of women were making fresh tortillas and generously offered us a taste. It was the freshest and best tasting tortilla I’ve ever had.

Mayan Ruins Tulum

Xcaret Park

On our flight to Mexico, I was chatting with a couple that talked about a prior visit to Playa del Carmen. They said that when visiting, I had to go to Xcaret Park, so we planned an excursion.

Xcaret Park Mexico

Xcaret Park is an ecological park with jungles, beaches, caves, sinkholes and underground rivers.  It also sits atop an archaeological site.

XCaret Mexico Ruins

This was the first time I had ever done Snuba. Snuba is a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving. You wear a mask similar to scuba but the tank floats across the top of the water and moves with you. It is for shallow diving (about 15 feet) but gives you a taste of scuba diving without having to be certified.

Snuba Xcaret Mexico

Around Riviera Maya

We also ventured out a few times around the Riviera Maya area. We took a tour that had us cliff jumping. Well, I say us, Lynn watched safely from the shore. She almost had a heart attack as I coaxed our 12 and 13-year-old boys to jump off the cliff. As you can see below, Ryan took the plunge just after me. Cameron followed.

Cliff Jumping Riviera Maya

We also visited caves that normally just the locals visit, it was a treat to get off the beaten path.

Mexico grotto

We took turns diving off the rocks.

Mexico Caves

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to Mexico. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with one last picture of Cameron lazying around in Riviera Maya.

Riviera Maya

 

 

 

Dolphins and More in the Big Island Hawaii

This is another post from past travels our family took prior to me starting this blog. It was 2005 and our boys were 10 and 12 years old at the time.  Since we had already gone to a couple of Hawaii Islands (Oahu and Maui), it was time for something a bit different – The Big Island.

The Big Island is the biggest of all Hawaii islands and the first to be occupied. The Big Island was believed to be the first island Polynesian voyagers from the Marquesas Islands set foot on 1,500 years ago.

HawaiiMap.jpg

When we first stepped off the plane, we knew this island was like no other. Many of the areas of the island are volcanic rock.

bigislandrocks

bigislandrocks

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

One of first excursions was to visit Kaloko-Honokohau, a site early Hawaiians settled. They built sacred temples here and created fishponds that trapped fish.

kaloko-honokohau-1

kaloko-honokohau-2

You can see old artifacts that illustrate what life may have been like many years ago. The carving below was interesting enough to entice Ryan to stop using his Gameboy for a few minutes.

kaloko-honokohau-3

kaloko-honokohau-4

kaloko-honokohau-5

Here is a fishpond that would be used to trap fish to feed the locals.

kaloko-honokohau-6

kaloko-honokohau-7

Swimming with Dolphins

We arranged for the boys to swim with dolphins through Dolphin Quest at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and they loved it.  The dolphins are well trained and really put on a show.

swimwithdolphins

swimwithdolphins-2

swimwithdolphins-3

The Green Sand Beach (Papakolea)

The locals kept talking about the Green Sand Beach and how beautiful it was. So we took the 2.5 hour drive along the Kohola Coast to find the trailhead.

greensandbeach

What we didn’t realize was that it was another 2.5 mile hike just to get to the beach. Ryan was about to have a melt down by the time we made it there, as evidenced in the picture below.

greensandbeach-2

But it was definitely worth the hike, it is beautiful.

greensandbeach-3

The green sand gets its color from olivine crystals created from eruptions to a dormant volcano years ago. Nestled in Mahana Bay, this is truly a unique place and one of only two green sand beaches in the world.

Traveling around the Island

We saw most of the island and even took a helicopter ride to see the volcanic ash create new land along the ocean coast. I would love to show you those pictures but I accidentally deleted all of those pictures right after we returned. But I did save some of our pictures as we traveled around the island.

bigisland-5

bigisland-2

bigisland-3

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to the Big Island. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of Cameron and Ryan.

bigisland-4

 

Stingrays and Turtles in the Cayman Islands

This post is a blast-from-the-past. I started this blog after I retired in 2009 but we vacationed as a family since the boys were in diapers and experienced some amazing trips. So I figured I would go back and pull pictures from some of those old trips and post them on our blog.

We visited the Cayman Islands in May of 2001. Cameron was about 7.5 years old and Ryan was almost 6.

Cayman Islands 2001

Cayman Islands

If you’ve never visited the Cayman Islands, it’s located in the Caribbean just west of Jamaica.

cayman_islands_location

A British territory, the Cayman Islands was first discovered in 1503 by Christopher Columbus. He originally named it Los Tortugas because Tortugas means “turtle” in Spanish and reporting seeing lots of sea turtles on his first visit.

Cayman Turtle Centre

We visited the Cayman Turtle Centre where you can hold turtles of different sizes, check out their website here.

cayman-turtle-center

Stingray City

They also have a hefty population of stingrays. We visited Stingray City, a shallow area in the surrounding waters of the Cayman Islands where stingrays will feed out of your hands.

stingray-city-cayman

Ryan was a bit unsure what to think of the stingrays but our guide eased his fears. After feeding this one, it crept up on my arm and I felt a sucking sensation on my arm. I almost freaked out to find out that the stingray made a move on me and left a hickey to prove it.

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Meanwhile, Cameron sat quietly in the boat as the captain entertained him.

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Cayman Island Beaches

The beaches in the Cayman Islands are beautiful. The water is turquoise met by white sand. The boys enjoyed building sand castles, making a sand turtle and lazying around in the hammocks at the resort.

cayman-island-beaches-turtle

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Ryan Being Lazy

Devil’s Hangout

On one of our excursions, we ventured out to the edge of Hell and lived to tell about it.

Aye Matey

On our final excursion, the boys got to captain a pirate ship and were later forced to walk the plank.

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Co-Captains of the ship

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About to walk the plank

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Cameron snagged a life jacket before walking the plank

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to the Cayman Islands. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of Ryan hanging 10.

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Historic St. Andrews and Medieval Edinburgh Scotland

We end our trip to Scotland by stopping off at Culloden, then to a picturesque Blair Castle in Pitlochry, historic St. Andrews and medieval Edinburgh. Here is the path we took on our trip:

culloden-to-edinburgh

Culloden

The battle of Culloden in 1745 was the last battle between the Scottish and English. You may remember from my earlier blog that King Henry 8th started the protestant movement after the pope refused to allow him to have a divorce from his first wife. This was in 1521 and during the time between 1521 and 1745, Britan’s aim was to spread Protestantism throughout the UK and to convert Catholics to Protestants.

Bonnie Prince Charles Stuart was a Catholic and a Jacobite (loyal to King James) and wanted the Catholics to regain the British throne. Prince Charles was Scottish and he found backing from a long-standing Scottish alley: France. After years of fund-raising and planning for a rebellion, the battle was short. It took less than an hour for the Jacobite rebellion to be over and Culloden was the battlefield.  Almost 2,000 Jacobites were killed in the brief yet bloody battle.

We visited the Culloden battlefield during our visit to Scotland. Not much remains but an open field and a few headstones that mark the clans that participated in the rebellion.

culloden-battlefield fraser-clan-culloden

During our visit to Scotland, I learned a lot of British and Scottish history. One of the travellers in our group mentioned a Starz TV series called Outlander. After returning from our trip, we began to watch the TV series and really enjoyed it.

It begins in 1945 when a British combat nurse witnesses a witch ceremony that transports her back to 1743, just 2 years prior to the battle of Culloden. She falls in love with a Jacobite Scottish warrior who is part of the planning of the rebellion. Being from 1945, she knew the fate of the rebellion and works to try to prevent it. It is a really cool concept for a show.

Blair Castle in Pitlochry

Our next stop was Blair Castle, a castle occupied by several Jacobites including Bonnie Prince Charles Stuart twice.

blair-castle

The castle is quite a spectacle surrounded by beautiful gardens.

blair-castle-cannon

blair-castle-gardens

Historic St. Andrews

Making our way towards Edinborough, we stopped off at St. Andrews Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral built in 1158, long before King Henry 8th tried to put Catholicism behind the British empire.

st-andrews-cathedral

As you can see, it sits in ruins today because in 1559, the new Protestants stripped the cathedral of its altars and images. By 1561, it was abandoned and fell into ruin.

st-andrews-ruins

Just steps from the cathedral is the University of St. Andrews, the college where Prince William and Kate met. They pointed out the coffee shop where they met as we made our way to the cathedral.

Our next stop was at the St. Andrews Golf Course, the iconic Scottish golf course that’s known to most as the “home of golf” because golf was first played there in the 15th century.

st-andrews-old-course

The Old Course is the home of The Open Championship and has hosted this major 29 times since 1873, most recently in 2015.

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Medieval Edinburgh Scotland

Our final stop in Scotland was the Medieval city of Edinburgh. It is also the capital of Scotland and the 2nd most populous city. Notice the castle at the top right of the picture below, it is the Edinburgh Castle.

edinburgh-scotland-2

The castle is heavily fortified with cannons.

edingburgh-castle-2 edingburgh-castle

From the top of the castle, you can see the entire city.

edinburgh-scotland-1

Our guide was a stoutly Scottish fellow with a bit of disdane for the Brits. As he told us about the history of the castle, he intermingled British jabs along the way.

edinburgh-tour-guide

If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, Edinburgh will feel very at home to you. JK Rowling lived here while she wrote the Harry Potter series. She wrote a lot of the script in a coffee shot on Potter street and was influenced by the medieval look of Edinburgh. The owner of that coffee shop was named Harry. Howarts was influenced by this Edinburgh building:

hogwarts-edinburgh-scotland

During our stay in Edinburgh, we were lucky that the 2016 Royal Military Tatoo was being held. It was an incredible parade of military bands, music, dance and theater. It is held at the base of the Edinburgh castle at the beginning of nightfall. They shine images on the walls of the castle that are in time with the playing of the band. It’s really not possible to fully appreciate this event unless you see it yourself. One of the more moving parts of the show was a lone bagpipe man playing atop the castle.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed following along with our trip to Ireland and Scotland. In case you missed any of the other blog posts, here is a full journey of our trip:

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

Searching for Nessie, 007 and Herding Sheep in Scotland

The next leg of our trip to Scotland takes us to Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle, and to a small sheep farm in the Scottish Highlands. Here’s our route so far:

scotland-loch-ness-map

Loch Ness

From an early age, I learned about the Loch Ness monster. Portrayed as an aquatic dinosaur, it has eluded capture for ages. I was happy that we were visiting the famous home of Nessie.

nessy

There have been accounts of an aquatic beast living in Loch Ness for 1,500 years but the first official sighting was in 1933 as reported by the Inverness Courier.  Since then, there have been numerous sightings tracked here.

In the 1960s several British universities launched expeditions to Loch Ness, using sonar to search the deep. Nothing conclusive was found, but in each expedition the sonar operators detected large, moving underwater objects they could not explain. In 1975, Boston’s Academy of Applied Science combined sonar and underwater photography in an expedition to Loch Ness. A photo resulted that, after enhancement, appeared to show the giant flipper of a plesiosaur-like creature.

Loch Ness is a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling hills.

loch-ness-panorama

It is a huge lake, there is more water in this lake than all the other lakes in Scotland, England and Wales put together.

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The lake is over 22 miles long and a depth of 754 feet.

loch-ness

Inverness

Our next stop was Inverness. Inverness is located on the River Ness at the end of Loch Ness.

river-inverness

We only spent a few hours in Inverness but if I return I would like to spend a lot more time here. It is a large enough city to have lots of things to do yet it felt like a quaint city with a lot of character.

inverness-city

It also home to the Inverness Castle, a red sandstone structure that was erected in 1836 by architect William Burn.

inverness-castle-2

Earlier castles have stood where Inverness Castle is located today and have been recorded as far back as 1548. Here is a drawing of The Castle of Inverness of 1548 (thanks to Wikipedia for the photo).

inverness-castle-1548

Eilean Donan Castle

On our way to Culloden, we made our way to Eilean Donan Castle.

eilean-donan-castle

Eilean Donan is one of the most iconic images of Scotland. Located on an island where 3 lakes meet, it is surrounded by beautiful hills, valleys, and lakes.

eilean-donan-castle-and-bridge

First inhabited around the 6th century, the first fortified castle was built in the mid 13th century and guarded the lands of Kintail. Since then, at least four different versions of the castle have been built and re-built.

It has also been home to numerous movie sets. In 1986, Highlander was shot here. If you’re a James Bond fan like me, you may remember the 1999 movie “The World is Not Enough“, parts of it were filmed here.

highlander-movie

Sheep Herding

It was a real treat to stop at a working sheep farm. I was taken aback at how the farmer had such incredible control over his dogs. He would send a single dog out to round up dozens of sheep and the dog would take direction from whistles and hand gestures.  Many times the dog would be a quarter mile away and could still hear his commands.

sheep-herding

Pictures can’t do this justice, you would have to see it in action to truly appreciate it.

 

Next Stop: Edinburgh

We spent 2 weeks on this trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and I will finish up our trip blog next week. The last blog will cover our visit to Culloden, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Scotland: Glasgow and the Isle of Skye

The next leg of our trip takes us out of Ireland and into Scotland. We started our trip in Glasgow and made our way up to the Isle of Skye. Here is a retrace of our trip so far:

map

Glasgow

Our introduction to Scotland was a scenic ferry ride from Northern Ireland to Scotland. We drove up to Glasgow — the largest city in Scotland.  Glasgow is like any large metropolitan area, it has lots of shopping and restaurants. The city center has statues and is the gathering place for tourists and locals alike.

glasgow

They have a difficult time keeping the younger crowd from putting pylon cones on the statues in town, I took a quick picture of one on the back of Queen Elizabeth’s statue. As soon as the officials take them down, someone puts them back up again.

glasgow-statues

While we were there, they had a tennis court where you could receive serves from one of their more famous celebrities, Andy Murray. Of course, it was not the real Andy Murray, it was a machine that serves the ball as fast as Andy. If you were able to return 1 out of 2 serves, they would enter your name into a drawing for a prize. If you want to see my pitiful attempt at this, check it out here.

Glengoyne Distillery

In the neighboring community of Glengoyne sits a distillery for fine Scotch. It is located in a beautiful valley. In Gaelic, Glen means valley — that’s why you’ve heard of other Scotch whiskeys like Glenfiddich, they mostly put the distilleries in the valleys because it is away from the hustle and bustle of cities.

glengoyne

While there, we toured the distillery and were able to sample their Scotch. I’m not much of a Scotch drinker but it was very smooth.

glengoyne-distillery

We capped off our day with a dinner at Arta, a hip restaurant in the middle of Glasgow.

arta-restaurant

It had a cool and funky vibe, we walked into the restaurant with James Brown playing over the speakers.

arta

It was described as a Mediterranean restaurant but it was an eclectic mix of styles. It was a very interesting place to eat, I would highly recommend it if you find yourself in Glasgow.

arta-mediterranean

Loch Loman

Our next stop was Loch Loman. By the way, Loch means lake in Gaelic, so when you hear of Loch Ness or Loch Lowman, you will know it is a lake.

lock-lowman

After boarding our boat, we toured Loch Lowman. Each year, thousands of people hike the nearby mountains and Loch Lowman is a stop along their way.

lock-lowman-boat-ride

As you cruise around the lake, you see hotels and waterfalls, it’s breathtaking.

loch-loman

Isle of Skye

After a quick visit to Loch Loman, we headed north towards Isle of Skye. To get there, you must take another ferry. Isle of Skye is made up of a lot of sheep farms and fishing villages.

isle-of-skye

The island is pretty remote and you can’t count on Internet or other modern conveniences we’ve come accustomed to. The hotels are very basic but the scenery is wonderful. The hotel we stayed in had a dock that fishing boats came and went from.

isle-of-skye-fishing-village

There were some really old boats that I had to capture on camera.

isle-of-skye-boats

Next Stop: Loch Ness

We spent 2 weeks on this trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, so I will continue chronicling our journeys over the coming weeks. The next blog will cover our visit to the Loch Ness Scotland (maybe we will spot the Loch Ness monster).

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Giant’s Causeway and Belfast Northern Ireland

 

The next leg of our trip to North Ireland takes us to the mystical Giant’s Causeway then on to Belfast, the epicenter of the Northern Ireland “troubles”. Here is a retrace of our trip so far:

londonderry-to-belfast

The Giant’s Causeway

Giants_Causway.pngDrenched in myth and legend, the Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful coastal outpost located on the north shore of Northern Ireland.

The product of years of intense ancient volcanic activity, it’s 40,000 basalt columns provide beauty and mysticism and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.

Legend has it that it was carved from the coast by the mighty giant, Finn McCool. Gaelic mythology says that Finn McCool was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant, Benandonner. Accepting the provocation, Finn built the causeway across the North Channel to meet and duke it out with Benandonner.

giants-causeway

There are opposing stories of how the fight went. One legend says Finn easily defeats the Scottish giant. Another says Finn makes his way to the meeting point and sees how big the Scottish giant is and begins to hide.

Following closely behind, Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguises Fionn as a baby and puts him in a cradle.When Benandonner sees the size of the baby, he figures that Finn’s father must be a huge mighty giant so he retreats back to Scotland, destroying the causeway across the Northern Channel so Finn’s father cannot come after him.

giants-causeway-2

Evidence of Finn McCool are everywhere, you can see below that his Mom kept his baby shoes for posterity.

fin-mccool-shoe

The landscape here is beautiful, it is surrounded by basalt columns that extend up the to the apex of the cliffs.

giants-causeway-basalt-columns

We trekked to the top of the causeway and were rewarded with a spectacular view:

view-from-top-of-giants-causeway

After descending, we decided to test our lungs a bit more and climbed to the other summit of the cliff where we were met by sheep.

giant-causeway-sheep

The Gemstone Chronicles

Our story of the Giant’s Causeway would not be complete without sharing a book with you called The Gemstone Chronicles. Written by a high school friend, Bill Stuart, the story is about a couple of kids that discover a fairy cross while rock hunting with their grandfather.

After finding out that an elf was imprisoned in the fairy cross, they mistakenly released the elf and embark on a journey to a land of giants called Celahir to help in the elf’s return to his homeland. In book 3 of the 4 part series, their journey takes them to the Giant’s Causeway. If you like books like Harry Potter and Narnia, you’ll enjoy this story.

Belfast: A City of Troubles

Our final stop in Northern Ireland was the capital city of Belfast. Known to most as the “troubles”, Belfast has been the epicenter of violence between Irish Protestants and Catholics.

You may remember from my last post that King Henry the 8th started the Protestant religion when the Catholic church would not grant him a divorce from his first wife. Prior to this, Ireland was primarily Catholic and as the Protestant religion began to spread across the nation, it caused unrest and division within the country.

belfast-walls

After hundreds of years of religious strife, it all came to a crescendo in Belfast in 1920. Ireland was partitioned into 2 separate countries. The Republic of Ireland was mainly Catholic and Northern Ireland Protestant.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a campaign of violence against Catholics that lasted for several decades and most of this violence centered around Belfast. Of the 465 killed in the conflict, 90% were civilians. As we drove around the city, there were clear signs of the conflict, with tons of war graffiti and wire laced walls.

belfast

After the unrest cooled in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, the city began a rebuilding period. We visited the Titanic museum, this is just one example of the new Belfast.

titanic-museaum

Ireland and Brexit

You may remember that the Republic of Ireland is an independent nation while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland is part of the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom just voted to leave the EU.

This has major implications for Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland will continue being part of the EU and Northern Ireland will not, they may have to erect a border between the countries. Leaving the EU may also have trade implications for Northern Ireland as the EU provided free trade and travel between the participating countries of the EU.

For years, many Irish citizens have wanted to reunify the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland into a single country as it was before the turn of the 20th century. Now that the  UK is leaving the EU, this may be an opportunity to make this change. Then no borders would be needed and all of Ireland could continue to benefit in being part of the EU.  But there’s still a lot of deep resentment between the countries, so only time will tell if this will happen.

Next Stop: Scotland

We spent 2 weeks on this trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, so I will continue chronicling our journeys over the coming weeks. The next blog will cover our visit to the Scotland and the Isle of Skye.

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If you missed the prior posts, you can see them here: