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Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.

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We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.

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Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.

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We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.

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Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.

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We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).

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I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.

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We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.

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In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.

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The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!

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A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.

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In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.

Marshall:
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Waynesville:
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Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).

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The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.

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Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.

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By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.

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And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!

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We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!

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Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

Lasses (&Lads), Leprechauns and Limericks

Visiting Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland

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The world is a mysterious place. As a child, my fascinations centered on the Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness, and all things seemingly unsolveable. After a change in group travel plans in early 2018, I resolved to take a trip for myself. Scotland had always been on my radar, and given my love of castles (and leprechauns) I couldn't pass up the chance to visit northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Given my disdain for rain (even though I quite enjoy puddle splashing in Hunter's), I decided to book a trip for May -- statistically the sunniest month for that region.

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I flew through Dublin to arrive in Edinburgh early morning. A Scottish friend of mine who's now living in Amsterdam kindly flew home to reconnect and play tour guide for my first 3 days in her hometown. We headed to Haymarket area by tram (from the airport) where we checked into the Grosvenor Gardens Hotel. It's more of a quaint guesthouse - serving fried kippers for breakfast, and catering to elderly British tourists. It was definitely the perfect accommodation for slowly acclimatizing. It also happens to be located by an excellent restaurant called Noir, which served the most delicious rhubarb berry smoothie imagineable. Speaking of good food, if anyone is looking to try authentic Scottish haggis with a modern twist, I would recommend the Southern Cross Café. Although I ate my way through Edinburgh, it was certainly the historic sites that would probably be of more interest to most folks. You can easily walk through the old town and cross over to the new town, visiting the National Gallery, Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura and heading down the Royal Mile to visit Greyfriars Kirkyard (and then the Elephant Café) to add that magical dash of Harry Potter to your sojourn in the city.

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I happen to be a political nerd and my time would not have been complete without a visit to the Scottish Parliament and the Queen's Residence (Holyroodhouse). In fact, on May 15th I sat in the viewing area of the Scottish Parliament as they debated clause 11 - the Brexit EU withdrawal legislation and ultimately voted not to support it as it was written. They felt it ran afoul of Scottish devolution legislation (i.e. when Scottish Parliament reformed in the late 1990s). It was powerful to learn more about their history and also their vision for a Scottish future in the UK. Scotland had previously had its own Parliament since the 13th century but essentially gave that up in the 18th century. The current Scottish system itself is a combination of first past the post with proportional representation. Their members of Parliament are able to pass laws on devolved matters like health, education and so on whereas the UK Parliament passes laws on matters affecting the whole UK. The building itself is fascinating; opened in 2004 after being designed by Eric Miralles. He intended to make it local so the building is inscribed with local sayings like: "say but little and say it well". If only we could all be so Scottish. If only we could also all bake so Scottish. Hungry as I always am, I stopped by Clarinda's Tea Shop where one can learn more about the woman who was supposedly one of Robbie Burns' mistresses. How she had the patience to put up with a man who smashed windows because he was told not to graffiti them I'm not sure...

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Edinburgh has a plethora of sites to visit, and endless learning. I particularly enjoyed visiting the National Gallery, the Museum of Scotland (and the Scottish Galleries) and the Surgeon's Hall Museum. I learned how little I knew about Scotland and its history - from its geology to its inventors. I can proudly say though that I knew that Dolly the cloned sheep was of Scottish blood (... if clones have blood?). Being a fan of biology, the Surgeon's Hall Museum was definitely my favourite place of learning. It was fascinating wandering through the two floors of pathology, and also learning about Burke and Hare - two men who killed people and sold their bodies to surgeons who needed cadavers for dissection practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Edinburgh isn't all academic. In the center of the city, you'll find Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill. Both are excellent opportunities for some light (or steep) daytime hiking. I made the mistake of not wearing shoes with good grip for my climb up Arthur's Seat and managed to take a light tumble. Fortunately, I wasn't hurt and still managed to enjoy all the views from the multiple precipices without having to return to Surgeon's Hall.

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Edinburgh at night is a different beast. There is a booming comedy scene, and the mecca most certainly is the Stand Comedy Club. Surprisingly, the headliner I saw was a Jewish Englishman named Joe Bor whose show was called "Room with a Jew". In addition to comedy, there is an incredible variety of live music. I tried to make it to Rat Pack Piano Bar and the Piano Bar in new town but both were closed. Instead I made it to a jazz bar called The Jazz Bar (creative folks, eh?) where I listened to a 17 piece big band. A night in Edinburgh is not complete without a ghost tour. Edinburgh is full of spirits (both alcoholic and ghostly). I was particularly fascinated by Edinburgh's history as a torture capital given how sweet and stable it is nowadays. Apparently in the 16th and 17th centuries witch trials were rampant and people were tied up and thrown into a lake of sewage - if they floated they were witches who would be ripped apart limb by limb, and if they sunk they weren't witches (but were now dead in a pool of feces). Edinburgh stepped up its game in the 18th century by trying to clean up its image, and it was then burnt down in the 19th century. The eeriest portion of our tour was most certainly the underground portion. We went below ground on South Bridge st. near Infirmary st. where we learned about underground chambers for gambling, bodysnatching storage and murder - and some people felt ghostly breezes rush by them. I was too busy translating the tour for a group of Uruguayans who had accidentally joined the English tour rather than the Spanish one. Evidently the poltergeists weren't polyglots.

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If you're looking for a day trip from Edinburgh, I would recommend looking into lochs. You won't need a key to unloch all the natural beauty available. (No, I did not turn into a dad while in the UK). My friend, her brother and I did one day trip together to Loch Lomond. On the way we got quite lost looking for Finnich Glen aka the Devil's Pulpit. Sadly, I didn't find Scottish signposting to be particularly present so I would certainly recommend mapping your routes rather than spontaneously hoping for roadside literary guidance. When we finally made it to the town of Balloch, we ate at Palombos and the fish was exceptional. We drove around the loch past Duck Bay and Luss, which were both jam packed, and stopped at Firkin Point. I enjoyed the more solitary nature of our walk there, as I was really stoked to have time to catch up with my friend who I hadn't seen in 6 years. I didn't need strangers interrupting our rapid reflections.

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At the end of my time with my friend, I joined a Contiki group. This was my first Contiki trip and I wasn't without hesitation: Would I be too old? Would it be too much partying? My first night with the group I distanced myself from the activity and chose to play tour guide to a sweet Canadian couple who also chose to forego the expensive add-on. I enjoyed showing them all the Harry Potter connections throughout the city and splitting a deep-fried Mars bar with them. Embarrassingly, I spent the first full day on my own too. Obstinately, I decided I was more interested in accomplishing what I wanted in Edinburgh than having to bend to the wills of a group of people I didn't yet know. The highlight of my alone time (apart from the Scottish Parliamentary debate) would have to be a free adults-only walking tour where I learned all about the edgy past of Edinburgh including the cannibalism that supposedly occurred at Hollyroodhouse Palace under Oliver Cromwell. After assorted adventures, I decided to socialize and went for tea and scones at Eteaket with another girl from my tour.

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I chose to do the Contiki Scotland and Ireland tour. Contiki is fairly flexible, so a number of people actually started in England whereas I decided to skip that portion (given that I've been to England on a number of occasions already and had limited time). The early mornings were tough, but I appreciated that there was a lot to pack into a very limited time. There's also a considerable amount of time spent on the bus so it's very important to pick your seatmate wisely. I enjoyed a number of really deep conversations as well as some very silly sing-a-longs. It was always interesting doing some cross-cultural bonding through games like "two truths and a lie" -- I learned about Australian sheep shearing and German economics, for example. I joined the Contiki tour starting in Edinburgh but didn't really begin participating in the activities until we got on the road. Our first stop was St. Andrew's where Prince William met Kate Middleton. The town is very sweet and has a cathedral that was consecrated in 1318, the biggest in the country at the time. If I were a golf fan, I don't think I would have wanted to leave St. Andrew's. Surprise surprise, I am not a golfer so I was thrilled when we continued en route to Loch Ness in search of Nessie. Cruising the loch, I kept my eyes peeled but sadly the only thing I saw in the water was my own reflection. I expected a huge amount of tourism in the region, but instead was met with a few small guest lodges. We stayed at the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel in Drum Na Drochaid, and it was hands-down my favourite accommodation on the trip. From tartan floors to woodworking details, I was enamored. It's only downside was the lack of reliable wi-fi, although that turned into a blessing as it led to far more bonding time with my tripmates.

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From Loch Ness we moved quickly to the Highlands - full of mountains, waterfalls and most importantly a stop at Eilean Donan Castle. If I ever get married in a castle, I'd love for it to be this one. It's a spot first inhabited in the 6th century that turned into a castle in the 13th century - idyllic since it's where three lochs meet. This castle is still privately owned by the Macrae family but it's also open to the public (at a cost, of course). We finally came to stay for the night in Oban. If anyone ever passes through this quaint town, it couldn't be complete without a night spent dancing at the Skippinish Ceilidh Scottish Dancing House. Sadly, I can't promise you'll get the complete experience I did - a bagpiper accompanying you and your friends on a quasi-parade through town. I can promise you though that if you're even a wee bit fit, you'll be able to climb up McCaig's Tower and see the postcard view of Oban that I very quickly came to love.

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Glasgow wasn't quite the same love-affair, although I did enjoy the shopping and nightlife. In fact, I'd recommend a few spots near George Square: the Counting House, a converted bank bar; Waxy O'Connors, a huge bar punctuated by a mahogany organ; and Revolution, a slightly more trashy but still fun nightclub. The actual journey to Glasgow was historic - literally. We stopped at Stirling Castle, and the William Wallace Monument. We also saw a landscape dotted with hairy coos; not as historic, but far cuter.

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The tour left Scotland in search of Irish shores on the day of Prince Harry's wedding. We were able to watch the parade of hats from a ferry serving muffins and Barry's cream soup (coincidentally, Barry was also the name of our bus driver). After passing through County Meath, the first city we set up camp in was Dublin. Our hotel was chic but far from town: the Clayton Hotel in Leopardstown. We actually started and ended in Dublin on the Irish portion of the Contiki tour, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Trinity College is a gorgeous campus,Temple Bar is a phenomenal party, and the city itself is a spirited good time. The bar I spent the most time at was the Old Storehouse. My first night ended up being very eventful: I joined a Spanish bachelor party, Irish jigged to Ed Sheeran music, watched a police chase, was given a private tour of Temple Bar by a connoisseur, and also, unfortunately, witnessed a man having a stroke (the paramedics were immediately on the scene and attentive).

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On a lighter note, my time in Kilkenny rolled on by very quickly. Namely, on a bike. We rode by St. Canice's Cathedral, the castle, and plenty of people on tourist trains. One of the highlights of Ireland was the music. From an obsession with Ed Sheeran to classic songs, I enjoyed all the tunes I heard (and sang to, tone deaf as it may have been at times). The best music I heard on the whole trip was on the final evening in Dublin at the Merry Ploughboy. It's one of the oldest public houses in Ireland, founded in 1789, where you're as likely to hear "Wild Rover" as "Come What May". Another highlight, at times, was the food. I particularly enjoyed the White Rabbit's BBQ restaurant in Cork. Regardless of wherever I went, Guinness stew sat well. The best Guinness, by far though, was found at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. No trip to Ireland would be complete without a trip to the Guinness Storehouse or the Jameson Distillery. Ireland is probably as famous for its alcohol as it is for its leprechauns.

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Sometimes tourist sites are famous for good reason and Ireland is full of such crowded wonders. Appropriately, during my visit to Blarney it started drizzling. I hadn't realized how narrow and steep the stairs of Blarney Castle would be, and the slipperiness didn't set my mind any more at ease. That being said, we were there first thing in the morning so there was barely a line when we arrived. I had some trouble reaching the stone that would give me the gift of the gab, but on the plus side I'm more than gregarious enough as is. When you lean back to kiss the stone there are two men helping to support you and a number of iron bars preventing you from slipping through the cracks -- in my case, I had trouble trusting the man enough to lean back, but the woman in front of me was a little too trusting and the men actually let her slip through their weathered hands. And men wonder why women have trust issues... Damned if we do, damned if we don't. For those who aren't as interested in tight spaces and slippery cracks, the Blarney grounds are fabulous and have a poison garden (with toxic plants like nightshade), a horse graveyard, palmtree gardens and also the biggest Irish gift shop in the world just down the street. Sadly, they don't sell supersized suitcases to fit all their gorgeous goods.

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Near Blarney, one can easily hop on over to the Cliffs of Moher (just don't hop over them!). The views are stunning, but the visitor center is also impressive for its dedication to a sustainable approach to development. I'm glad I wore rain boots to the cliffs because it's quite the muddy trek. The mud contrasting with the green seemed like the most iconic Irish scenery... until we went to the Aran Islands...

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In fact, the Aran Islands had cliffs that rivaled the Cliffs of Moher. While living the island life, I convinced a number of the other Contiki crew to do a van tour of the westernmost island, Inishmore, with me. If you're feeling adventurous you can also opt for a horse-drawn carriage or bike rental when exploring the islands. Whatever you do, you should make sure to visit the 7 Churches Cemetery, and Dun Aonghasa Fort (built possibly as early as the 2nd century BC from which you can see stunning cliffs). There's an incredible amount of history on the islands, and the locals are doing a good job of living it. In fact, mainland children are often sent to Inishmore to learn Gaelic and better understand a more rural lifestyle -- many islanders still barter and they only got electricity a few decades ago. I was in awe of their patience, as their wi-fi situation is about on par with what I experienced in Loch Ness - about as accessible as the Loch Ness monster.

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An easy mainland base to go exploring Blarney, Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands would be Galway - famous for its girls... Its Galway girls! And Ed Sheeran, of course. In fact, Ed Sheeran has made such a name for this city that they throw a festival for him! Unfortunately, the city wasn't my favourite, as I'm no longer a student looking for cheap shots and all-night parties; however, one bar I adored in Galway was O'Connells Bar (where Ed Sheeran filmed part of the Galway Girl music video) as it has a fake alley with a bus, multiple venues and even a pop up barber shop and pizza truck. Galway is a small walkable city and our hotel was located close to Eyre Square, which was convenient as it's essentially the center of town. It's also close to the official Claddagh Jewellers store. I had no choice but to buy a claddagh ring to complement my Aran Island sweater - and hopefully the love, loyalty and friendships in my life. Another source of symbolism on the trip was the Giant's Causeway. Although it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its 40, 000 interlocking basalt columns (resulting from volcanic activity), it captures people's imaginations for its tales about Finn McCool - the giant that carved out the coast. The legend that sprang to mind for me in visiting the Giant's Causeway was the ancient tale of Mario of the land of Nintendo. I had a field day jumping from column to column playing the Super Mario Bros theme song in my head the whole time.

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From Mullaghmore Head beside Classiebawn Castle to Donegal with its 15th century castle I loved every castle I saw. Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland were full of castles for me to adore for their aesthetics and romantic touches but Northern Ireland was also touching for how people are carrying and simultaneously shedding the many years of conflict.

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Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland is iconic for its peace flame and murals but also its divided name. Our guide, Ronan, told us in no uncertain terms that the polite question to ask is never about people's beliefs but rather their pronunciation of the town's name - that tells you everything you need to know. It's still a very divided town even though it's the second largest in the country. Its walls are symbolic of the divisions - built in the 1600s it has been besieged by many forces and it remains the only intact walled city on the Irish isles. We heard about ancient battles (and famines and plantations) but also more recent conflict like the most explosive day during the troubles, Bloody Friday in 1972 when at least 20 bombs exploded within about an hour and a half in Belfast. We also heard about the Europa Hotel in Belfast which lived through more than 33 explosions between 1970 and 1994 (not exactly my ideal accommodation). The war itself went from about 1968 to 1998 when peace was brokered between the sides through the Good Friday Agreement. Our guide was unbelievably tactful in dealing with such sensitive subjects, particularly since he had lived through the violence. As he said, in those days Belfast was considered like Baghdad in more recent years. Thousands of people were killed throughout the decades and tens of thousands were injured. Before moving on to Belfast, I'm glad we had time to walk in the steps of someone as wise as Ronan. His approach to peace is exposure: through open minds people come to desire a shared future rather than their own starring role in a movie.

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Speaking of movies, our time in Belfast was mainly spent at the Titanic Experience. It's an incredible museum honouring those who died on the Titanic, but also acknowledging the role it has come to play in pop culture through the James Cameron film. It's an incredibly interactive museum: from its holograms and amusement park rides, to its trivia games. I was able to gain a better understanding of the Belfast context with its booming shipyard business to the current day oceanic explorations that Belfast leads. I felt torn at times wandering through the museum as it capitalizes on the kitsch, possibly at the expense of those for whom it could be a memorial site. The city itself had a number of memorials to victims of the Titanic that felt more respectful, including a garden with the following inscription on a statue: "Their devotion to duty and heroic conduct, through which the lives of many of those on board were saved, have left a record of calm fortitude and self sacrifice which will ever remain an inspiring example to succeeding generations. Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends."

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Through the solemn discussions about conflict and drownings, we still found time to enjoy the contemporary society. Belfast is a beautiful city, and I really enjoyed my time there with some of the American girls I had befriended. We had a fabulous dinner at The Kitchen Bar, a resto-pub dating back to 1859, later went to Filthy McNasties (which was filthy and nasty - hence our quick departure), and finally some jazz swing entertainment at The Belfast Empire Club. As a side note, I would never have gone to Filthy McNasties if it weren't conveniently located right beside our hotel (Hotel Etap) but the loud music and trashy scene weren't fun at all and in fact made it nearly impossible to sleep as the sound carried into my hotel room. So, not only did I not like the bar, but I really disliked the hotel with its tiny rooms and horrible soundproofing because of that very bar. To prove that I'm not a total curmudgeon, I'll just briefly mention that one of the many hotels I really liked was the Maldron Hotel Newlands Cross Dublin - spacious, clean, and modern!

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The Maldron was the last hotel I stayed at on the trip, and it was where I woke up elated when I learned that the Republic of Ireland had voted overwhelmingly to overturn a ban on abortion. Previously, abortion wasn't even legal in cases of incest, rape or fatal fetal abnormalities. It was a historic day for the nation, but it was also the culmination of a wave of change in the culture as witnessed by the many yes/no signs we saw through our travels and the plethora of petitioners on every corner. It's a very nuanced issue, particularly in a country with such religious leanings.

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For anyone curious about Contiki, I'll make some general closing statements. First thing's first, there are many different types of tours one can do, and I'm sure that much of the experience depends on your approach but also how motivated you are to connect with the people around you and make the most of it all - from early morning wake-ups to late night partying. It's also crucial that you do you. If you know you need a night in there's no shame resting in order to feel revitalized tomorrow. It's also crucial to bring sufficient vitamin C and zinc. The "Contiki Cough" is not a joke. After returning home I lost my voice... but gained loads of incredible memories.

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Posted by madrugada 18:38 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged castles rain glasgow scotland edinburgh united_kingdom cruises dublin lochs contiki celtic greenery harry_potter bagpipes blarney temple_bar loch_ness northern_ireland aran_islands republic_of_ireland ed_sheeran tartan wild_rover Comments (0)

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