Texas Road Trip – Austin to Houston

I think the best way between here and there isn’t always the fastest. Instead of flying, I often choose a train or car so I can watch the geography change and more easily see the sights on the way. You can fly from Austin to Houston in under an hour, or drive directly in two and a half, but if you have a couple hours to spare, you can make some stops on the way that are worth the extra time.

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First stop, about 45 minutes south of Austin on US-183 is Lockhart, nicknamed the BBQ Capital of Texas. If you aren’t into BBQ or waiting in long lines (I’m not a fan of either), just appreciate the historic architecture and keep on going.

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Drive about 20 minutes further to Luling, which is also known for its BBQ, but even more for watermelon! Every summer, they have a famous “Watermelon Thump” festival to celebrate my favorite melon with music, games and contests.

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All that watermelon eating must bring out the playful side of Luling’s residents, because the town is also known for its decorated oil well pump jacks. Many of the wells are still working, and the little duckies shown above bob forward and backward with the motion of the well. Pretty clever!

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At Luling, you make the turn toward Houston on I-10 and drive about 45 minutes until you reach the Schulenburg area. There are several beautifully painted churches here in the towns of High Hill, Dubina, Ammannsville and Praha. They were built by Czech and German settlers in the 1800s who made the effort to establish communities similar to the hometowns they left behind. The Praha, High Hill, and Dubina churches are the closest from the highway (each one about 10 minutes off the highway), so if you only have a little bit of time, choose one or two of these.

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You can take a tour of the painted churches with the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce (reservation required) or just visit them on your own using this helpful map – each church is clickable and shows address information.

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From the Schulenburg area, you have just under a two hour drive remaining to Houston without much to see aside from the skies, which really do seem bigger in Texas so enjoy the ride!

Day Trip from Venice – Murano and Burano

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When Venice starts to fee a little congested, which is likely with the number of visitors the small island hosts every day, it might be time for a day trip to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. The vaporetto (water bus) heads to Murano from the Fondamente Nove stop in Venice, making just one stop on the way at the cemetery island of San Michele. Since the vaporetto comes by every 20 minutes or so, you can hop off the boat to walk around the scenic cemetery island (Igor Stravinsky is buried here), then catch the next boat to Murano.

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Get off at the first stop in Murano (Colonna) and walk up the main street, Rio dei Vetral, along the canal. The street is lined with shops selling mainly glass souvenirs and charming restaurants. The slower pace here is Murano is such a nice break from the crowds of Venice.

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The opposite side of the canal from where the vaporetto drops people off is much less crowded, and one of the cafes or restaurants there would make a great spot for a lunch break or just to watch people and boats pass by. You can watch glass blowing demonstrations, visit the glass museum, or buy souvenirs to take home – there’s a little something for everyone here.

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Once you’ve followed the main canal to the other side of the island, take the 30-ish minute boat ride on to Burano. Many people visit only Murano since it’s closer to Venice, skipping the farther Burano island, but I think they are missing out on the best of the outer islands.

 

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Burano, also known for its lacework, is mainly known for its photogenic, brightly colored houses. As you can imagine, the house colors are carefully planned, and must be approved by the government because you wouldn’t want to see two blue houses next to each other, now would you?

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You could walk the entire island of Burano in about 20 minutes, but I spent hours here wandering off the main streets into residential areas that were deserted aside from me, a few locals, and their laundry hanging overhead. I live for these moments of solitude while traveling that allow me to really “feel” a place without any distractions.

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The 45 minute boat ride back to Venice is especially peaceful at sunset. You can easily explore both Murano and Burano in the greater part of a day, and get back to Venice for dinner and a late night walk through the crowded streets, while thinking of all the colorful sights you saw and wondering if your friends in Burano took their laundry down.

 

Insider Tip: There could be a long wait for the boat from Burano to Venice, so be prepared to wait up to an hour if you plan to head back to Venice toward the end of the day. You might consider a tour with a tour company that would take you to the islands – downsides are that these can be sales pitches for glass factories and you will be on a tight schedule with no wiggle room, but if you aren’t comfortable figuring out the vaporetto schedule or need to be back in Venice by a specific time, a tour could be a good option. If traveling in a group of 4+, a private water taxi might even be worth the cost to avoid potentially long waits.

I found Rick Steves’ Venice travel guide to be so useful, in particular about how to get to Murano and Burano. I would have been pretty lost without it, since most of the information I found online was so fragmented or confusing. I’m not normally a guide book carrying tourista, but as a testament to how useful this particular book was, I carried it everywhere in Venice!

 

How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is disorienting and anxiety-provoking for anyone, no matter how confident of a driver they are. On a recent trip to Scotland, I wanted to experience parts of the country only accessible by car (or bus), and since I prefer more freedom than a group tour allows, I didn’t have much choice but to rent a car and drive myself around. Depending on where you are from, the “wrong” side of the road may be the left side or the right side, but either way, there are some things you can do to maximize the pleasure of driving in another country.

 

1. Learn the Basics

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal traffic signs and symbols? Unfortunately, there aren’t, so it is worth spending at least a few minutes learning the basic signs, symbols and markings in the country you will be driving in. You can’t assume symbols mean the same thing in another country as they do in your home country.

For example, a dashed white line in the U.S. divides two lanes of traffic going the same direction, while in the UK, it divides two lanes going in the OPPOSITE direction. Mistaking these could be disastrous.

Also, in the UK, you may see a flashing amber traffic light between a red light and a green light, which means that if there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk, you can go. It’s not dangerous to wait for the green, but it’s considerate to the drivers around you to know the rules and drive like a local as much as possible!

While driving in Scotland, I kept seeing a sign the read “Changed Priorities Ahead.” I couldn’t even fathom what this meant so I had to look it up – it turned out to be something about the right of way changing recently to alert drivers follow the new directions. This reminded me how different our signs can be from country to country. Just a little bit of online research before your trip can help you to know what to expect in terms of signs and symbols, so you have one fewer thing to worry about when driving in a new place.

Keep in mind different localities may have its own set of rules, as well. In New York City, you can’t turn right on red, while in California, you can.

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2. Let YouTube Be Your Driving Instructor

Whatever country you are traveling to, there are probably YouTube videos demonstrating basic driving scenarios that are unique to that country. I’m a visual learner, so I needed to see what driving on the left side of the road looked like before I felt comfortable trying it myself.

Watch lots of videos, especially if the country you are going to loves their roundabouts and you don’t have much experience with them. I watched so many videos about roundabouts before my trip to Scotland since I knew I’d be doing quite a bit of driving all over the country. Reading rules and instructions wouldn’t have helped – I needed to see real life examples of different types of roundabouts and realistic traffic scenarios. It is more confusing than you might thing, and in real life it happens very quickly because people are in a hurry, just like you are on your daily commute at home! I watched the videos (like this one) over and over until I felt comfortable that I understood the procedure, so I could be as safe and considerate of a driver as possible.

3. Splurge on the GPS in the Rental Car

Even if you have a smart phone with maps and the most powerful portable wifi, there are times when that rental car’s GPS system will save you. Like when I was driving in Scotland and the main route was shut down due to construction, and the GPS wouldn’t re-route us because it didn’t know that the road was closed, and the smart phone’s map wasn’t updating because we were in the middle of nowhere with no wifi service, but because the car’s GPS map was still visible, we were able to figure out an alternate route. Without the car’s GPS map, we probably would have backtracked about 30 miles to the last turn-off and hoped the GPS would re-route instead of saying “make a U-turn” to send us back toward the closed road, which would have been so frustrating.

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4. Book Your Rental Car Pick-Up and Drop-Off Points Strategically

First of all, don’t rent a car in a city that has ample public transportation or is walkable. You will save yourself (and all of the locals) a lot of headache, not to mention parking fees. When picking up a car to continue on your travels outside of the city, map out all of the rental car locations in the city and select the place that has easiest access to the highway with minimal driving in the city. Even if you have to take a longer bus/train/taxi ride to the rental location from your hotel, it is worth not having to drive through the center of town, especially if it’s your first time behind the wheel on the “wrong” side of the car!

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5. Ask the Rental Car Agent for Advice

Your rental car agent has probably heard every horror story about foreigners driving on their roads, so before I was handed the keys to my ride for the next week around the Scottish countryside, I asked the agent for any last minute tips for a first time driver on the left hand side of the road. In her sweet Scottish accent, she told me to just keep thinking “left” at any turn or roundabout, and also to try to follow the cars around me. Then, she told me I’d be just fine. With that final bit of encouragement, I set off through the green hills of Scotland chanting “left left left” (and my own addition of “watch out for sheep”).

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Driving can be the best way to experience parts of a country – to have the freedom to stop on a whim, explore without a schedule, and wander down side roads because something caught your eye. You will probably be surprised how driving on the wrong side of the road begins to feel natural within a few days, and when you return home, you may even have to stop to think about which side of the car to get into to drive!

 

America’s Best Castle – Hearst Castle

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The U.S. may be a bit lacking in castles compared to other parts of the world, but Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California makes up a bit for the lack in quantity with its playful extravagance with dashes of California nature and Hollywood flavor.

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The vacation playground for William Randolph Hurst, the newspaper magnate, hosted many celebrities in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. Guests entertained themselves during the day with the multiple pools, gardens, and the largest privately owned zoo at the time.

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I’m not exactly sure how one chooses between the outdoor Neptune Pool surrounded by white marble statues and colonnades, or the indoor Roman Pool with floor to ceiling (and walls too) mosaic tiles in cobalt blue and sparkling gold – sparkling because it is real gold!

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In the evenings, Hearst threw lavish dinner parties, and sometimes legendary costume parties where everyone dressed in costumes borrowed from movie wardrobes. This man really knew how to really enjoy his money!

Some practical advice for your visit – I’d recommend starting with the Grand Rooms Tour, which takes you through the social (“party”) rooms of the largest house on the property. Try to be at the back of the tour group so you can catch a photo of the spaces without too many people in them, once people move along to the next room.

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After the tour, take some time to walk around the entire property and appreciate the gardens, statues, and palm tree-framed views of the Central Coast below.

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Perhaps pick out a guest house you would have chosen to stay in had you been lucky enough to be invited.

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I’d highly recommend the Upstairs Suites Tour, in addition to the Ground Rooms Tour, if you have time for it. In the past, if you took two tours, you had to take the bus back down the mountain and wait at the Visitor Center in between them, but now they let you wander freely around the grounds for as long as you’d like. Why not lounge around by the Neptune pool in the shade of the colonnade? I sure did!

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The Upstairs Rooms Tour takes you into Hearst’s bedrooms and his penthouse library, which was my favorite room of the entire castle. I really wanted to grab a rare book from the collection and plop down on a chair and read for hours, but instead they kicked us all out (nicely, of course).

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And then, you take the bus back down to reality and dream of a life with Roman pools, zoo animals and costume parties…

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Ghost Hunting in Bodie, CA

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If you can survive the long drive to the middle of nowhere, the nearly 9,000 foot elevation and the last 3 miles of the bumpiest, windy dirt road I’ve ever experienced (in a car with intact shocks anyway), you could be in for a treat of one of the best preserved ghost towns in the U.S. Bodie is located about an hour away from Yosemite and is definitely worth the detour.

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What once boomed as a gold rush town with an estimated 10,000 people in 1880, the long-abandoned Bodie now sits in a state of “arrested decay,” maintained by the California State Parks System.

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The park is more popular than you might imagine, given its remote location. With the park entry fee, you have the freedom to wander around the grounds of the park, and despite the many people visiting, you will find yourself in pockets of quiet where you feel like you have the entire place to yourself.

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The interiors of some of the buildings have also been preserved, and I could have spent hours peeking through windows at all of the furnishings, clothing, and household goods, imagining daily life in Bodie’s heyday.

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Bodie was known for its tumultuous, unpredictable weather creating harsh living conditions that many people living there escaped by spending their free time in one of 65 saloons in the town. Even during my two hour long visit, I experienced about three different seasons. At first overcast with ominous clouds, a layer of clouds then broke to offer the brightest blue skies and puffy white clouds, only to disappear again behind clouds even more ominous.

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Though I didn’t meet any ghosts on this trip, I am still on the hunt. Have you visited any ghosts towns? I have a few more on my list to visit someday!

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

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The Getty Center was high on my list of things to visit while in Los Angeles, but not because of the art. There are a few Van Goghs and Monets worth a glance, but the real draw is the Richard Meier-designed space. An efficient tram takes you up a steep hill, and you exit to a space of serenity, dotted with quirky sculptures and native plants.

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Wait for everyone from your tram walk up the stairs, leaving you with a brief moment of quiet. You have about 5 minutes to take people-free photos before the next tram arrives.

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The views of Los Angeles all the way to downtown are lovely, and the cactus garden is a nice distraction from the ever-present layer of smog.

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I was surprised to see a sculpture of a man on a horse that I had seen for the first time just a few months ago in Venice, Italy at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Peggy’s version of the Angel of the Citadel has a screw-in “member” that she could remove when more conservative guests would visit. The horse’s silly smile really makes me laugh.

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The garden area provides a playful burst of color amidst the monochromatic architecture.

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All of that walking and stair climbing and picture taking might make you want to take a break in one of the inviting seating areas. Maybe find one that has a view of Los Angeles and cool off with an iced tea, like I did!

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Have you visited the Getty Center? I would like to see it during golden hour as the sun begins to set. The stone buildings must glow as if lit from within!

Luxury on a Dude Ranch: Exploring Contrasts at The Alisal

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On my first trip to The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (oh yes, there will be many more), I experienced the type of vacation I didn’t think existed anymore. Think the Dirty Dancing Kellerman Resort meets Santa Barbara, with a dash of horses. It has an old school feel with all of the modern comforts.

Tucked behind the town of Solvang about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara, Alisal’s grounds are fully embedded in the local nature. In springtime, the fields burst with yellow mustard flowers up to your ears, literally. Cantering through them off-trail on a is a memory that will not fade for a long time. The Santa Ynez mountains are known for wineries, and the hills remind me a little bit of parts of Italy.

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The ranch casually, yet luxuriously meets every vacation need with spa, fitness center, two golf course and large pool, but I was there for the horses (though the pool was very useful in cooling off between the morning and afternoon trail rides!).

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The attentive wranglers handle every riding need, pairing you up with a horse to match your skill level and personality. Having very little riding experience outside of an arena, I was tentative at first, especially about cantering on trails, and the wranglers not only picked great horses for my rides, but also checked on me often during the rides to make sure I felt comfortable. This personal attention helped me to feel confident on the trails and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes from being immersed in nature on horseback.

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The wranglers make the horse-rider pairings the day before your ride so they can have your horse saddled up for you when it’s time to ride. You walk up to the board to confirm which horse you are riding, then the wranglers retrieve your horse from where it is tied up, help you mount, and organize you into groups of about 4 to 7. You will always get to ride with your friends if you are going on the same level of ride. I have no idea how they keep this all straight with so many people at so many different levels, but they accomplish it effortlessly.

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After a warm-up trail ride at intermediate level, which involves only walking and trotting, I was ready for an advanced ride, where you canter in spots, allowing your group to go a bit further and see a bit more in the 1.5 hour ride. My first advanced ride took us to the top of this hill overlooking Solvang and Buellton below. Perfect spot for a water break and picture taking!

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Some of my favorite trails go around the lake, which also offers fishing and boating activities. We encountered so much wildlife on our lake rides – there is a bald eagle nest high up in one of the trees, and we saw not only the adult eagles, but also to babies still in the nest unable to fly! We saw baby deer that still had their spots, and of course the beautiful black and white Alisal cows.

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The best ride of all was the breakfast ride. This happens only a couple per week and it is a must. You can ride a horse out to the historic Adobe Camp, or opt for the hay wagon. Beginners take off first since it takes longer for them to get there at a walking pace, then the trotting intermediate group, then our cantering advanced group, and finally the hay wagon, and we all arrive at the Adobe at around the same time for a cowboy breakfast (if cowboys had chefs making custom omelettes and logo embossed pancakes). Over the best pancakes in history, fresh fruit and coffee, we sat at picnic tables making new friends, while being serenaded with music and cowboy poetry. It was on the breakfast ride that I got to ride the much-loved, often-requested, rarely-available Paint horse named Parker, and like every other person who has the pleasure of riding him, I wanted to bring him home as a souvenir.

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Did I forget to mention the petting farm? Miniature horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, and friendly roosters. I could hug and squeeze them all day!

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There are so many things that make this place special, but the most memorable for me are: the effortless luxury that makes you feel cared for in a relaxed way; the gourmet food made from local ingredients (breakfast and dinner are included in the rate); and the best bunch of trail horses you will ever encounter, probably anywhere. People travel from all over the U.S. to enjoy the unique Alisal experience, so I feel very lucky that it is just a 5 hour drive from my house, and I plan to make it an annual adventure! Until next time…

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3 Things to Do in Oceanside, California

If you live in Southern California, you have probably sat in traffic driving through the Oceanside / Camp Pendleton area many times, but chances are, you may have not explored what it has to offer once you exit the highway. Here are 3 things that are worth exiting the highway for.

 

1. Walk down Oceanside Pier and meet the famous brown pelican named Charlie

Oceanside’s Pier is by far its most well known attraction, and as far as piers go, it has a lot to see. First, you have to meet “Charlie the Brown Pelican” and his friends. You can feed them anchovies or just observe them against the backdrop of Oceanside beach, like I did.

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20140628-20140628-IMG_0102The waves are perfect for surfing on both sides of the pier – the south side for beginners and the north side for more experienced surfers. I can’t think of many other places where people surf so close to the pier so you get a unique vantage point when watching them catch waves directly below you.

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The beach will be packed on a summer weekend, but parking is easy and free just a block from the beach, or you can park right at the beach for a small fee. I was pleasantly surprised by the easy access to the beach and pier.

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2. Visit the Mission and the Oldest Pepper Tree in California

I’d love to see all of the twenty-one Spanish missions in California. They are spread evenly from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, about 30 miles apart, or a day’s journey by horseback. Tradition says the priests sprinkled the routes between missions with mustard seed so the paths were blooming in bright yellow. Follow the yellow bloom road!

The mixture of Spanish and Moorish style architecture at Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia makes me feel transported to Spain or Morocco.

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Say hi to the oldest pepper tree in California in the garden area – it’s nicely framed by a brick archway so you can’t miss it.

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3. Explore the Harbor

There’s something about a lighthouse that makes a scene so much more picturesque. The Oceanside Harbor has a beautiful lighthouse amidst the busy marina. With many shops and restaurants, and the best latte I’ve had since Italy (at the Nautical Bean), I will be back here again and again. Like at the pier area, parking was easy and free, which adds to the overall pleasant experience of visiting Oceanside!

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A wedding and a funeral in Japan

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Rites and rituals are fascinating parts of a culture, and I got to experience an abundance of them in Tokyo all in one day. The overcast Sunday began with my grandmother’s funeral. There are numerous ceremonies for the deceased in Buddhism, starting with a wake and cremation ceremony, followed by multiple memorial ceremonies, but this was one of the most significant ceremonies which takes place 49 days after the death (in Buddhism, 49 days is the estimated time it takes a spirit to be reborn). During the ceremony, a Buddhist priest chants from a sutra, then members of the family stand one at a time at the altar to offer incense to the deceased.

Following the ceremony, our grandmother’s urn was placed in the family grave located on the temple grounds. After a catered lunch of traditional Japanese food at the dining area of the temple, guests were given a parting gift (in the photo above, you can see us carrying gifts into the temple that will be given to guests) as a thank you for condolence money given to the family. Indeed it is a gift-giving culture, and gifts are as much a part of daily life as part of major rituals.

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Later that day, I got to witness the wedding of my sister’s friend in the famous Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Harajuku, Tokyo. The bride wore a traditional white wedding kimono called a “shiromuku” and I think she looked so beautiful!

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Traditional wedding ceremonies take place inside the shrine and are only for close family members, but friends and the general public can observe the procession from different parts of the shrine, complete with the ubiquitous red paper umbrella. If you visit Meiji Jingu during the weekend, you will likely see several wedding processions.

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Many couples these days opt for a Western style wedding in a church or wedding hall, rather than the traditional ceremony, because the Western ceremony is more romantic and informal, and leaves room for personalization. No matter what style of wedding, guests are expected to give cash in a special decorative envelope (usually around $300 or more), and as a thank you for the gift money, the marrying couple gives guests a catalog that they can choose their gift from – things like ceramics, travel accessories, and food items. How smart to allow the guests to select their own gift! I may have to adopt this idea in some way.

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Whether you are able to witness a traditional wedding at Meiji Jingu or not, the shrine and the long tree-lined walkway to the shrine are impressive, not to mention a welcome diversion from the bustle and sensory overload of Harajuku just outside the shrine grounds.

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Insider tip:

Keep an eye on the guards in the shrine as they begin to direct foot traffic away from aisles just before a wedding procession comes through, and be one of the first to pick a vantage point right along the path before the crowds form to get the best view!

 

Have you experienced a wedding or funeral in another culture that was very different from your own?

 

 

 

3 Unexpectedly Fun Things To Do in Scotland

It’s not hard to enjoy Scotland – there are castles everywhere, and of course those adorable sheep prancing on rolling green hills. But sometimes the best memories are made without direction from any guidebook, or even offering up that picturesque scenery so many of us long to capture. Here are three unexpectedly, surprisingly fun things to do in Scotland:

 

1. Watch Border Collies herd sheep

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Leault Farm in Kincraig is a working sheep farm that offers a herding demonstration a couple times per day. Neil, the man in charge (with a Scottish accent so thick I had to squint to understand even half of what he said) introduces his team of Border Collies, allows his herd of sheep to disperse across a large field, and then issues a series of whistled commands to the dogs to strategically herd them all back to us. Each dog has its own whistle call so Neil can direct them one at a time to run, crouch, crawl, and pop back up at the right moment to move the herd.

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We were lucky to visit when he had 3 puppies just beginning to learn to integrate with the working pack, and we saw how the herding instinct is so powerful that even without any training, the puppies knew how to crouch down and crawl toward the sheep so as not to scare them into running off.

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When a dog was not working at that point in the demo, they would come sit on the rocks with us in the audience, but they never took their eyes off the action. At one point, when the dogs seemed to be losing control over the herd, two of the experienced dogs bolted from their places next to us out to the field to assist their rookie brothers, even without being directed by Neil.

The demonstration is just for our viewing pleasure, but the place is actually a working farm where the sheep live and graze in peace for most of the year, except at shearing time, when the dogs are used to herd them in for their “haircuts.” After the demo, you get to bottle feed sheep and lambs. If you’re an animal lover like me, this place is heaven on Scottish soil.

Insider Tips:

  • The farm is hard to find so leave plenty of time to let GPS take you miles past the turn-off, then back again.
  • Catch the first demonstration and Neil will let you stay to watch the second immediately after for no extra charge.

 

2. Sit in a pub, order treacle and date pudding, and listen to the Scottish accent

20130819-_DSC5193A big part of traveling to a different country for me is to sit and absorb my surroundings – the sounds, the gestures, the accents. It helps me to feel grounded when I start to feel dizzy from all of the newness. One of my favorite memories of Scotland was sitting in a pub in the town of Inverness after a long day of chasing castles, listening to the especially thick Scottish accent in this area from a few groups of people nearby. That’s when I fell in love with that accent. And treacle and date pudding? Just the most intense explosion of flavor in dessert form.

Insider Tip:

Mums in Edinburgh has the best treacle and date pudding

 

3. Walk underneath the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

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The Real Mary King’s Close is a subterranean alley located directly under the Royal Mile that was the hub of Edinburgh between the 17th and 19th centuries. Eventually, the area was paved over to effectively “start fresh” with wider streets for better circulation and better quality of life, but much of the alleys and homes exist in their original conditions. Today you can explore these tenement alleys frozen in time on tours led by costumed guides who take on the character of a person who lived in the close centuries ago. You get a genuine feel of the claustrophobic conditions people lived in that also led to the spread of plagues and other desperate conditions. [Photo above is of the Royal Mile, as photos are not allowed on the tour]

Insider tip:

There are other underground / ghost tours heavily marketed in the area, but if you only have time for one, this one is the best because it has a richer story with more intact living spaces.

 

Have you gone to a place that was unexpectedly fun or memorable? I’d love to hear about it!