Our Trip to Scotland, Part Two

The national capital region has pretty much shut down due to the extremely high winds we’re experiencing from the nor’easter that’s hammering the East Coast. School and other plans have been cancelled so we’re staying put and declaring today Family Game Day – which sounds like the perfect way to kick-off a three-day weekend. This post is the second recap of our amazing trip to Scotland from June 2016. See Part One here…

Within the blindingly green and blue landscape the comprises Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is Ben Lomond, a 3,196 foot mountain on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. One of the most popular hikes in the Highlands, the main path for ascent is scattered with tourists, all eager to see the famed Highland views for themselves.

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We chose to hike Ben Lomond on the lone Saturday of our week-long vacation because the skies were blue and the temperature a perfect 70 degrees. We ate a traditional Scottish breakfast at the restaurant attached to our inn and made the 90 minute drive to Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The trail entrance is near the Rowardennan Hotel on the shores of Loch Lomond and we were able to park our car in the car park for a minimal fee.

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This hike was my first and only time wearing shorts on our trip to Scotland. Because it was a Saturday, the trail was busy but not overwhelmingly so. Our first hour was spent hiking through wooded areas and gradually making our way up the base of the mountain.

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The trail became a bit more rigorous but totally manageable as we began the steep portion of the hike.

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Water breaks were the perfect excuse to just sit and soak in the view along the way.

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Seriously, the views were so stereotypical Scotland that we couldn’t stop exclaiming, “Wow!” Not surprisingly, as we climbed the temperature dropped and the air became thick with fog.

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And midges began to attack my legs and face. About halfway up the mountain, I realized my mistake in wearing shorts. Not only was it freezing at the summit, these little buggers hurt and left welts. It was worth it, though.

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We’d together for almost 15 years on that trip. Over the years, we have experienced a lot of wonderful places together. I love our everyday life and I love our adventures. Hiking Ben Lommond together and sitting side-by-side in silence at the top – gazing at the seemingly never-ending Highlands is definitely deserving of our highlight reel.

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We chose to go down the mountain on the much less-traveled back-end trail.

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We treated ourselves to well-deserved pints and food at the beer garden located at the base of the trail. My face may have been covered in welts and my feet a bloody mess but I couldn’t have been happier. This hike was our favorite of the trip and I will recommend it to anyone traveling to Scotland until my dying day. It had all the elements for a perfect Clay & Karen Vacation Day – rigorous hiking, spectacular views, beer, and food. And what’s not to love about that?

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The following day we went into Edinburgh and spend the day eating and drinking our way around the medieval city in the drizzling rain. So it was pretty much a quintessential Scottish day.

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The Royal Mile was touristy and awesome all wrapped up in a tchotsky package. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend anymore time there than we did but it is worth a visit, if anything to go to one of the many kilt and tartan suppliers located along the famed mile. And since I am from McIntyre blood, I was sure to purchase my family’s tartan in a variety of mediums.

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We had a blast wandering around the city and seeing where all the courts, tunnels, and walkways took us. My favorite experience of the day was attending an evening service at St. Giles Cathedral, which dates back to the 14th century. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and we’ve been attending Episcopal services for awhile now so being able to experience an Anglican service in Scotland was quite special.

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For our last full day in Scotland we did something a little different because we were absolutely worn-out from all our days of hiking (and drinking!) so we booked a last minute tour through the Highlands out of Glascow. We don’t consider ourselves tour-bus people and after experiencing our first one in Scotland, I doubt we will ever go on one again. But it was a welcome treat to just be able to sit and have someone else drive the mountain roads.

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There were a lot of stops along the way to Loch Ness. I’m pretty sure every person who has taken a Highland tour has a picture of this guy.

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I didn’t accidentally eat reindeer in Scotland like I did during our Alaska vacation.

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The infamous Skyfall mountain. Sadly, no Daniel Craig.

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When planning this trip, we originally decided not to incorporate Loch Ness into our travel. But since it was part of the tour package we booked for the day, we didn’t really have a choice. Yes, it is very hokey. But the lake itself is quite spooky with deep and dark water – Loch Ness is the largest lake of the British Isles by volume.

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We took a cruise around Loch Ness, which included fantastic views of Urquhart Castle. We chose not to tour the castle and instead extended our time on the water.

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After a quick top in Pitlochry for a pint and ice cream we were on our way back to Glasgow.

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Our trip to Scotland was amazing and we can’t wait to go back with the kids someday.  We flew out of Edinburgh, where I had the best breakfast of the trip. Yes, at the airport. So if you find yourself at the Edinburgh airport, get the Asparagus Benedict at Sir Walter Scott and a pint of Tennent’s Lager to either begin or end your trip to Scotland (or both!)…you won’t be disappointed.

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Flight delays at JFK ensured that we didn’t get back to Atlanta until well-after midnight but when our kids came running into our room at 6am, it didn’t matter that we had gotten only three hours of sleep. A wonderful trip ended with the best reunion possible – snuggles and giggles and all.

St. John – The Crown Jewel of the Caribbean

The infamous DC snow hole struck again yesterday – place south of us got snow and places north of us got snow, but we just experienced dark skies and the threat of snow. Many local meteorologists were declaring this storm to be the last for the area before the promised spring-like weather.

Because yesterday was cold, gray, and damp – despite nothing falling from the sky – it made me think of some of our favorite trips to tropical destinations. St. John is definitely on the highlight reel – Clay and I went there, sans kids, in August 2014. The highlight of our vacation to the USVI was easily our time spent on St. John. When planning the trip, we ultimately decided to stay on St. Thomas because we managed to score a great rate at the Marriott. And we really did have a fantastic time on Rock City. But St. John is in a different league all together – we knew we would love the island but we didn’t expect to fall as hard as we did. St. John is known as the crown jewel of the Caribbean and I can’t think of a more deserving title for what just may be the most beautiful place we’ve been to yet (for inquiring minds – Alaska, Scotland, and St. John are the frontrunners but we still have so many more places to go).

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New York City (Why We Want a Redo)

It’s Spring Break (check out this Mental Floss article about how Spring Break got its start)! Clay left the country for a handful of days so the kids, Lucy, and I are making our way to Florida to join my parents at their beach place. It’s impossible to think of this time of year and not be reminded of our disastrous Spring Break vacation to New York City a few years ago. The 2400 mile trip we made over the course of 10 days in effort to escape middle America during our Fort Leavenworth, Kansas tenure was a journey that involved a gastro-intestinal virus so intense that clothes were incinerated, hotel parking lots eternally scarred, and a shared car-puke-bucket that became the sixth member of our road-trip family.

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The trip began innocently enough. As a family, we decided to go to Philadelphia and New York City for Spring Break and because Clay and I planned to vacation in Scotland later that year, we knew that driving to the East Coast was the only way we could afford to do both trips without forgoing IRA and 529 contributions. So whenever one of the children complained about being stuck in the car during the 1150 mile journey to the Philadelphia suburbs, we would just remind them that we were saving them from the frustration of having to begin their adult lives with student loan debt. And because they were six and two at the time, they seemed befuddled by our response and would then just ask for the iPad. Lucy (our elderly chocolate lab) also joined us on the journey, because you know what makes a multi-state road trip even more fun? A dog.

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By the time we reached Ohio, the children were slightly delirious and happily proclaimed this particular rest area “the best ever!” because we let them run up a hill and buy a candy bar from the vending machine. The bar was set low for this trip from the beginning, apparently.

img_1198.jpgWe were sure to eat at Skyline Chili before stopping for the night in West Virginia. Had we known that 3/4 of us would be channeling our inner-Regan McNeil’s later on, we would have settled on a more neutral dinner choice.

The following day, we arrived at my sister’s house in suburban Philadelphia and hung out, being sure to head to bed at a decent time because the four of us were going to leave for New York City in the morning while Lucy stayed behind at my sister’s.

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Despite Violet getting sick overnight a couple of times (we chalked it up to her stomach not agreeing with something she ate…spoiler alert….we were horrifically wrong), she woke up her normal rambunctious self so we continued on with our place to drive up I-95 toward New York City – Staten Island, to be exact. Because why stay in chic Manhattan when bargains can be found on Staten Island at The Navy Lodge (e.g. see comment above about IRAs and 529s)? After checking-in early, we drove down to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and parked the car in a municipal garage a couple of blocks away.

 

 

 

Now the ferry is nothing glamorous but it is free, fast, and great for spotting people who may have been extras on Law & Order SVU. Since this was our kid’s first trip to New York City, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t just expose them to the swanky parts of the city. And because we don’t have access to a time machine in order to show them 1970s-era Times Square, the Staten Island Ferry is a nice alternative. In case you were wondering – the Staten Island Ferry and the stomach flu make horrible bedmates but luckily, we wouldn’t discover that little factoid until the following day.

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Despite whatever feelings you may have toward the Staten Island Ferry, it does offer a nice view of the Statue of Liberty along the journey.

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And the financial district upon the approach to Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan.

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We spent our first afternoon and evening walking around Lower Manhattan.

 

 

We spent a lot of time at World Trade Center. The little guy was (and still currently) obsessed with architecture and world records for building height, so he was in awe to be in the presence of One World Trade Center. Weston has basic understanding of the events surrounding September 11th so while sitting near the memorial, he asked Clay some difficult questions about his deployments to Afghanistan and about the attacks themselves.

 

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We then took the kids to Wall Street – where Violet proceeded to puke right near the Stock Exchange, much to the horror of important people in expensive suits. It’s like they could sense we came over on the Staten Island Ferry.

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We used this as our cue that we should probably head back to the hotel. Once back on Staten Island, we ordered food to-go from a nearby Italian restaurant and went to bed, deciding that if Violet (or anyone else) woke up sick, we’d cut our losses and head back to Pennsylvania.

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Thankfully, we all woke up feeling okay so back to the ferry we went! We decided to take the subway uptown and then use the rest of the day to work our way back to Whitehall Terminal.

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Clay now admits that it was on this subway ride that he realized that the sickness had crept it’s way into his body but being the trooper (ha!) he is, he put on a brave face and didn’t let on that he wasn’t feeling 100%. It is also why this post is lacking my typical food/drink pictures because we really didn’t eat or drink anything of value during our time in the city.

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We spent time in Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and of course, the Empire State Building. We then took the kids to Times Square, which I absolutely loathe. And it was after Radio City Music Hall that things went south. Fast. I won’t go into detail what  happened at the restaurant during dinner to protect all parties involved but I was only one with dinner left in my stomach as we rode the subway during rush-hour back down to the Financial District, boarded a ferry (Weston spent the entire ride puking into a trash can…not one other passenger even batted an eye), and crawled our way back to the hotel.

 

 

 

 

I remained the only healthy one during the night, so I cared for my family (and cleaned up after them) in the Staten Island hotel room. In the morning, we waved the white flag and forwent the rest of our time in New York City. I drove back down to the Philadelphia area while the rest of my family shared a puke bucket…my sister’s house never looked better as we pulled into the driveway.

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Needless to say, we want a mulligan of our trip to New York City. Now that we’re stationed on the east coast again, we have plans for a redo – hopefully this summer. However, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, that trip was a not-so-gentle reminder of the G.K. Chesterton quote – “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” While getting sick wasn’t in our plans, it certainly added to our family-lore and honestly, the trip would have been less exciting if there wasn’t the added fear that one of us could throw up at any given time. Additionally, the trip only confirmed what I’ve known since I was 18-years-old…Clay is the peanut butter to my jelly. There is absolutely no one else I’d rather drive over 2400 miles, board ferries, ride subways and trains with over the span of 7 days than this guy – all with two kids in tow. I’d even hold his puke bucket. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is.

The Importance of Vacationing Without Kids

We leave today for our family vacation – to say that we’re excited is an understatement. Feel free to following along on Instagram. While we’re so thankful for the opportunity to travel as a family, we’re also keeping our fingers-crossed that Clay and I will be able to get away for a few days in August – sans kids. Ultimately the Army will make that decision for us but in the meantime, we’re brainstorming places to go on the East Coast within driving distance so we can maximize our time together. Over the years, Clay and I have taken our fair share of kid-free trips and to date, have yet to regret doing so. In fact, I am always encouraging married couples to incorporate kid-free trips into their marriage.

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Not that everybody feels that way. In fact, a few years ago, I had acquaintance tell me that she loved her children too much to be away from them for longer than a night. I didn’t take her words personally. I’m secure enough in my mothering aptitude to know that spending time with my husband away from our kids doesn’t lessen our ability to parent effectively or have any bearing on our love for them. It does, however, mean that we celebrate our relationship and each other outside of our parenting roles. And it’s not like we’d be able to take our kids on a distillery tour in Scotland.

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I get it – it isn’t easy. Our sans kids trips absolutely take more planning than our family vacations because they often involve multiple moving parts.

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We took our first kid-free trip when the little guy was 15 months old, shortly after Clay returned from a year-long deployment. We left him with my parents and flew out to exotic Lawton, Oklahoma in order to look for a house. We didn’t have luck securing a house and the scenery wasn’t exactly what one pictures for a post-deployment vacation but we had a nice time, despite almost dying of cigarette smoke inhalation at a casino located on the outskirts of town. We’ve since traveled kid-free quite a bit – a mix of true vacations and PCS-induced travel. And I’ve learned a few things along the way…

It can be a logistics nightmare. I’m not going to lie – securing childcare isn’t easy. Both sets of our parents live far away from us and it always involves lots of logistics for us to get the kids (and Lucy) to them before setting off on an adventure. Most of our kid-free trips start off as family road-trips to get to either the Atlanta area or Wilmington, North Carolina. Therefore, we usually either fly out of Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta or Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Being nervous is okay. The night before we left for Scotland, I tearfully told Clay that I was worried that six nights was too long to be away from the kids. He reassured me that it will be okay but if needed, we can always reschedule our flights once in country and return a day early. Just knowing we had that option was enough to calm my fears. And to be honest, the minute we stepped foot in the Atlanta airport excitement overtook my apprehension and I took comfort in knowing that our kids were safe and happy to be at their grandparents.

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You’ll miss the kids. But not too much. We love traveling with our kids. They’re resilient, fairly well-behaved, and up for almost anything. But they’re still kids. Our kid-free trips are typically more extreme versions of our favorite activities. We’ll kayak for hours. We’ll hike 10 miles. We’ll swim super further out than we would with the kids. We’ll eat fancy meals and we’ll drink a little more. Because we’re doing things that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do if the kids were with us, we don’t feel sad or guilty about not having them with us. And they’re having too much fun with extended family to miss us anyway.

Just do it. So while the logistics of childcare and budget restraints don’t always make it possible, it is definitely worth putting forth the effort to try and make it happen – even if it is just for a night at a nearby location. You won’t regret it. I promise!