Muschamp Rd

Scotland Trip 2024: Planning

February 13th, 2024
Lonely Planet Scotland

Last year was a busy and expensive year thus I did not end up even coming close to traveling abroad. I did travel back to British Columbia several times, but I never managed to write a blog posting even though I saw a UFC event in Vancouver. I do however maintain this blog behind the scenes. I may fall behind, but I generally answer comments, fight spam, and try to keep this website online. While doing blog maintenance I realized it had been over twenty years since I’d been to Europe and I’d still never visited Scotland.

So when I was strongly encouraged to take some time off by my new boss. I assured him I would. My mom was expecting me home for Christmas and I would further take two weeks off after annual reporting. I didn’t dither much about my destination. I did consider visiting more than one country in Europe and because of Westjet I’ll be landing at Heathrow not Edinburgh, but having made multiple two week itineraries for my upcoming trip to Scotland last weekend I finished booking almost everything.

My trip to Scotland

As you may have guessed I did buy the Lonely Planet, a specialized version. Most of my trips are planned out of a guide book. I’ve always known where the ancestral homeland of the Clan MacKay is. However, it appears some of my personal ancestors came from Lanark but this is likely where they settled after the clearances. I of course will be heading North to Strathnaver, taking the train as far as I can go.

With a rough plan scribbled down I began to look into specific destinations and I consulted websites recommended in the book. Eventually I googled extensively having decided to take a whisky distillery tour as it would likely make my coworkers jealous. Eventually I was upsold and planned the first half of my trip and my departure date around a very specific semi-annual tour.

Usually when I travel, I have a rough plan. Sometimes I’m traveling with other people who make a detailed itinerary. I’ve yet to just offload my entire trip to a single tour company. Often I just pick a spot on a map and figure out how to get there because my boss finally gives me time off. That is what I did last time I traveled in Europe when I insisted on visiting the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade. For that trip I had to write the curator and be invited in the country as a visiting scientist.

Once I succeed in reaching my final destination which in Europe was Thessaloniki. I usually pay the piper to book a last minute ticket flying back having travelled and stayed as cheaply as possible. On my last trip I learned that if you don’t book early you miss out on tours recommended in the Lonely Planet. I also learned that I appreciate a better bed especially later in the trip.

Using Airmiles after all these years

Tradition dictates that my last night in a country is my most expensive hotel as I splurge on air conditioning, a bathtub and ideally a shuttle to the airport. This time I booked a lot of my hotels using Airmiles. Their website leaves a lot to be desired and after collecting points since 1996, after all those years, I had quite a few “air miles” but they don’t seem to go as far as you’d like. I didn’t even use them on a flight, instead using them to book hotels at Heathrow Terminal 4, Inverness and Edinburgh. Basically the largest cities I’d be visiting.

Besides Westjet’s much trumpeted direct flight to Edinburgh not being available in March I also learned a number of other things closed such as: hotels, castles, museums, even the Cape of Wrath. Other things are on reduced schedule such as ferries and buses. I did reach out to a number of tour operators, that is how I got talked into the Whisky Academy which as you can see by the screenshot, I spelled with an “e”. That is one of many habits I’ll have to break if I want to fit in with the locals. I’m not really a big whisky drinker, but I generally buy a bottle every now and then, especially when it is duty free.

Strathnaver was a must

When I wrote the Strathnaver Museum they said they would open in March a couple days so my second decision was I must visit that museum, so I will be in Bettyhill on Tuesday March 12th if at all possible. I may have to rent a car as I can get within 50 km by train but the last few miles will not be easy to cover using public transit.

Thurso is basically the end of the train line. Technically there is a more northernly spot in Scotland, but when I looked into what there is to do in Thurso I discovered of course they have a distillery. Originally I was just going to visit the odd whisky distilleries if I was passing by and it was convenient, but now in order make coworkers and others jealous I may be touring seven distilleries. I could of course do more as both Inverness and Edinburgh have them. Other reasons people go to Thurso is to go to the Orkneys or to travel the North Coast 500. It also may be the surf capital of Scotland and has several golf courses. Other wayward MacKays have made the trip back to Strathnaver.

Next time maybe I’ll take a trip further along the coast. I looked into going to Durness, but without a car it is a challenge, there is a bus every couple days. It definitely seems that if you want to take your time you need your own car, I looked into several different minibus tours some were as short as three days, some were longer, but I decided one group tour was enough for me this trip. There are many blog posts about making the drive along the NC500 and where you should stop along the way.

Speyside for whisky of course

I looked into doing both as group tours. However, I have reservations about spending too much time in a van, especially with a bunch of drunk guys. In the Philippines I took several mini vans and several day trips on boats. The Whisky Academy is supposed to be educational and crucially you sleep in the same bed every night. Plus I believe my boss’s favourite region is Speyside, but apparently it is Islay.

Just like my itinerary has a few blanks, a few blanks may yet remain in the Whisky Academy itinerary. It’ll probably arrive while I’m typing this blog post. You can spend a lot of money in Scotland. The Pound may no longer be as sound, but you spend well over one Canadian dollar per pound. This is the opposite of traveling in Southeast Asia. I have not set a budget, in fact I’ve been encouraged to splurge and spend money that hasn’t hit my chequing account yet, not to mention travel points I’ve been saving for over twenty years. Despite that, I couldn’t justify the 1300 pound tour of Highland Park Distillery. I will likely see that distillery, it all depends on the ferry schedule. The locals seem to think there is an 8:45 AM sailing on Wednesday March 13th. I booked ahead on that sailing, let’s hope there is good weather for the crossing.

Why not Loch Ness?

I am looking forward to Inverness. Besides it being my first free day by myself, it is near the body of water my dad is named after. No my dad was not named Loch Ness. I may take a river cruise but I am staying right on the river. After considerable thought I did not pay extra to have a window view of the river. I don’t mind staying in nice hotels, especially if I can get something of a deal, however I usually get a standard room. I probably spent too much time reading about whisky distillery tour operators, but for Inverness I may just wander. There are many many travel blogs who have written about the top ten things to do.

The largest used book store in Scotland, is in Inverness. Also in Inverness is a brewery and several bars which sound fun. I’ve resisted booking a tour, but certain things must be done on Saturday and other things are best done on Sunday. I’m not sure what my liver will be like after a week at the Whisky Academy. I really must lose weight and fix my back/shoulder when I get back to Canada. I have physiotherapy scheduled tomorrow, my therapist is a big advocate of me spending money on this trip, even my dental hygienist was excited to hear about it today.

The other thing I read about, in the blogosphere, and may visit is the House of Fraser. I don’t plan to buy a kilt. I want to lose weight and at 700 pounds that is probably well over the amount of goods you can bring back duty free to Canada. That is the plan buy a single bottle of whisky duty free, though I might pick up some miniature bottles for coworkers and friends.

There are actually a lot of blog postings about visiting Inverness. I’ve linked to two above but I’m going to add one more. I tend to rely more on guidebooks than websites, but when I finish my trip I usually link to websites. This trip I’ve been planning a long time, so I bought multiple books and read many blog posts.

The Orkney Islands

I decided I didn’t have enough time for the Shetlands and I’ll have to return to Scotland in another season if I want to see Islay and Skye, but after learning where the train ended, I had to push on to the Orkney Islands. The author of the guidebook made them sound great. They have a brewery and two distilleries. They are also famous for seafood and historical sites. I wish I had more time, but in order to maximize the time I do have I booked a tour. I ended up booking a bespoke tour, but I just let the experts choose the itinerary.

In Kirkwall, I’m staying at the Shore which the Lonely Planet recommended as a place to eat and I impulsively booked using Booking dot com much to the chagrin of my sister. According to Facebook they have been sold to the Kirkwall Hotel. I downloaded that app while in the Philippines as sometimes the only way to book ahead is through an app. We’ll see what I get for my 170 pounds. The address I have is “Shore Street, Kirkwall, KW15 1LG, United Kingdom”. I told my tour guide where I would be staying.

Usually, I try to book accomodation directly and my B&B in Thurso was booked via their website listed in the Lonely Planet. However, after learning that Airmiles couldn’t be spent in Kirkwall and having ensured I had booked a flight South first, I impulsively booked the Shore based on the location on a map, as I really want to cram in as much of the Orkneys as I can.

Using the Internet to plan your trips

I absolutely hate googling the Internet for hotels. In Cambodia I got so upset I flew to Bangkok without a hotel booking and booked whatever they recommended at that desk they used to have in airports. Now everyone has a smartphone and I’ll try for the first time in my life to buy a SIM card or otherwise work out how to have actual phone service and hopefully 5G. That said, unlike my last trip, I have booked not only all the hotels but multiple tours ahead of time, paying thousands of dollars up front. So if at all possible I don’t want to miss any of them due to lack of phone service.

Some travel blogs read too much like adverts, the posts are sponsored, they have blinking, flashing, popups. So I tend to link to more independent voices. The blogosphere ain’t what it used to be, but some bloggers, vloggers, podcasters, and social media influencers have become very famous and rich. I have not. Although I chose not to monetize my blog, most people have. I have a day job and I have hobbies and unfortunately I have blogged too much over the years, so I am more selective in what I write about and what I link to having learned the hard way.

Going down South

That isn’t just a song I’ve been playing obsessively for months, in order to save time I am flying via Loganair from Kirkwall to Edinburgh. I booked the early flight and paid extra to have 23 kg of luggage. I am of course bringing my backpack and hope to add an Orkney flag to it when I return to Canada. I don’t plan on having 23 kilograms in it, but I paid for it just in case. I also got window seats and escape rows where I could while flying, except the longest flight, then I want the aisle.

In Edinburgh I have no plans other than splurging via points on the hotel. I’ll definitely see the castle. When I was traveling in Europe Trevor said that was the best castle he had ever seen. I’ve seen Himeji so that will be the competition. Again I may book a tour, but Edinburgh though bigger than Inverness is still walkable and I’m staying in a very desirable location.

White Heron Castle

If I haven’t loaded up on nicknacks already, I’m sure I can get plenty in Edinburgh. I’ve yet to scour the internet for suggested itineraries. My sister was shocked Edinburgh isn’t covered in my guidebook, but neither was Aberdeenshire and I’m spending almost a week there. So after I include a few more links and pictures I will publish this blog post. If you have advice on traveling to Scotland specifically Edinburgh you can leave a comment below.

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