Scotland Diaries: Flying Home and Final Thoughts

Saturday, August 24

Soundtrack: “The Skye Boat Song”

In the morning, we did the last of our packing and tidying up of the Airbnb. I swear that somehow, dirty clothes gain mass because it was way tougher to get all of my stuff back into their packing cubes  (the whisky, cashmere, and woolen goods I had accumulated didn’t help matters).

The entire trip, we didn’t post any driving photos so we wouldn’t jinx ourselves. After returning the car to the Hertz lot, we finally took celebratory photos of our two fearless drivers, Adrienne and Elizabeth, who took us across Scotland and back with nary a scratch in a rental Mercedes. I don’t think the Hertz employee who checked us in had ever witnessed such a lengthy photo sesh in their parking lot.

At the airport, I perused whisky in the Duty Free shops for too long, and ran out of time to fill out my VAT forms. This was a Big Mistake (see my travel tips below). We boarded our first plane to Heathrow and said our final goodbyes to Scotland.

Obligatory airplane window shot

As we descended towards Heathrow for our layover, I serendipitously spotted Windsor Castle on my side of the plane. Gahhh I’m dying for season 3 of The Crown.

Windsor Castle

On the long flight to Chicago, I watched two Harry Potter movies, feeling a little zing of happiness each time they showed the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Scottish countryside. What a magical trip we had. My heart was bursting with love for my friends and the week we got to share together. And now, I was grateful to be zooming home towards Kurt, hoping he’d bring our dog when he picked me up at the airport.

He did!

River!

 

In my final post, I typically share a few tips for anyone traveling to the same destination:

  • Driving: Everyone asks what it was like to drive on the left side of the road. Since I didn’t get behind the wheel myself, I can’t comment, but I think all four of us agreed that our plan worked out for the best. Having two drivers allowed for trading off throughout the trip, while also giving them both enough practice to get confident at the varying challenges (city traffic, narrow winding country roads, all the roundabouts, driving in all kinds of weather, etc.). Whoever was riding shotgun took an active role in assisting the driver by navigating and letting them know if the car was drifting too close to the left side of the lane. Renting a car allowed us lots of freedom to create our own schedule, but it added a sometimes stressful element to the trip. If you’re considering renting a car, definitely balance out the pros and cons of driving vs. taking trains and make whatever is the best choice for you.
  • VAT tax refund: gah, so I ran out of time to fill out the forms that I had been given in shops where I purchased whisky and cashmere. My best advice is to fill these out ahead of time, and allow extra time to find where you need to submit your claim at the airport in case of a line. If I had had my forms ready at the Glasgow airport, their process was quick and simple, but instead I filled them out on our first flight thinking I could take care of it at Heathrow. Once we got there, I had to track down the VAT window, which had a looooong line. They also required you to have the goods you were claiming with you, and I had checked all of my stuff in my luggage back in Glasgow. You can’t claim the refund once you’ve left the UK, so I missed my chance to get about £30 back. Ah well. Learn from my mistake!
  • Packing: The week before we left, the four of us had an ongoing text thread as we figured out what to pack. Be prepared for rain every day in Scotland. However (at least on our mid-August trip), it tended to be the kind of light rain that comes and goes throughout the day, and I preferred wearing a light rain jacket over carrying around an umbrella.  Wearing layers is definitely the way to go, as mornings and evenings are cooler and it warmed up quite a bit when the sun came out. Packing for outdoors activities like hiking, camping, and horseback riding is easy for me, but I struggled with figuring out a second wardrobe for city nightlife while still trying to travel as light as possible. Thankfully, people dressed pretty casually in the cities we visited, and I never felt underdressed in a pair of black jeans with a nice jacket. Here’s what I brought, which fit into 4 packing cubes and in my carry-on suitcase (I ended up wearing every single item at some point):
    • rain jacket
    • fleece layer
    • sweatshirt
    • flannel shirt
    • thin thermal wool camping shirt
    • water-resistant camping pants
    • 2 pairs of jeans (1 blue, 1 black)
    • 1 “going out” v-neck top
    • 4 t-shirts
    • 1 black long-sleeved shirt
    • 1 pair olive cotton capri pants (worn on plane)
    • black faux leather jacket
    • black short boots
    • waterproof hiking shoes (worn on plane)
    • stocking hat
    • pajamas, socks, and underwear
  • I also brought a small backpack which fit beneath the airplane seat, in which I carried my device chargers, universal converter, Kindle, notebook, sunglasses, and toiletries. The backpack has a lot of room to expand, which helped for the return trip and all of my souvenirs.
  • Just do it! This trip all came about because my friends and I first starting talking about going half-jokingly after I got everyone into Outlander, but then grew more serious over time as we started thinking, why not make it happen?. If there’s a place you’re dying to visit, do it–start putting aside money when you can, start doing your trip research, pull the trigger and buy that plane ticket, whatever it takes to make it into a reality. It will be worth it.

 

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Scotland Diaries: Last Day in Glasgow

Friday, August 23

Soundtrack: “Scotland” The Lumineers

Itinerary:

  • sleep in
  • late breakfast
  • sightsee
  • souvenir shopping
  • dinner
  • final nightcap

Finally, the first morning of our trip where we could actually sleep in!! It was sorely needed after the previous night’s karaoke journey. Our only plans for the day included some final sightseeing and shopping, so we had most of the morning to get ourselves together and properly turn back into functioning human beings.

Necropolis/Glasgow Cathedral
For our day of sightseeing, we met up with Elizabeth’s friend (hi Erik!) who had recently moved from Chicago to Glasgow, his wife’s hometown. We grabbed a pint in a beer garden near the Cathedral to catch up/chat for a bit, then walked to the Necropolis, a Victorian-era cemetery situated atop a grassy hill.  Among the crypts and headstones are monuments from various architectural styles, and from the top of the hill, you get an incredible 360-degree view of Glasgow.

I am almost as obsessed with medieval cathedrals as I am with castles, pretty much ever since reading The Pillars of the Earth in high school. Glasgow Cathedral first opened in 1136, and it’s one of the few Scottish medieval churches to survive the Reformation intact. With dozens of other tourists, we walked through the nave, gazing at the intricately carved ceiling and admiring the way sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows. It’s impossible to capture the beauty and ornamental details in iPhone photos, especially with a bunch of other tourists wandering into the shot, but I tried my best. I also lit a votive candle (something I do in every church I visit).

Outside near the St. Mungo Museum, we spotted a Clootie Tree, covered with pieces of cloth that have been blessed in a holy well and left as offerings by people seeking healing.

We walked back to the city center to get some food and do the last of our shopping. A sausage roll and a Diet Coke was exactly the fuel I needed to finish up my shopping and make important decisions like, Do I need this cashmere scarf? (yes!), and Do I need this kilt yoga calendar (decided no but I already regret it!!). Erik pointed out the statue of the Duke of Wellington, which locals consistently top off with a traffic cone on his head. The prank first began in the 1980s, and in 2017 the city gave up fighting it and proclaimed the cone an official part of the statue. This is a true story and I love it.

After walking all day, we were ready to sit down and eat a real meal, so we made a quick run back to the Airbnb to drop off our purchases and begin packing up some of our suitcases (insert all the sobbing emoji). We headed back to Argyle Street and made a few stops for pre-dinner cocktails, including a nice outdoor gin garden (as Elizabeth put it, “Scotch is like the deep dish pizza of Scotland because everyone who lives here drinks gin”).

For our final meal, we went to Fanny Trollope’s Bistro for traditional Scottish food (I highly recommend that you read their story because it is great). I ordered cullen skink,  a thick soup made with smoked haddock, onions, and potatoes, and it was delicious. Seriously, anyone who claims that the food in Scotland isn’t good didn’t go to the right restaurants, because I loved just about everything. We all felt the emotional weight of it being the last night of a fantastic trip, and so we went around the table and shared all of our favorite moments. After dinner, we walked to another bar for a final nightcap and a toast to our Scottish adventure.

 

 

Scotland Diaries: Glasgow Karaoke

Thursday, August 22

Soundtrack: “I Wish I was Sober” Frightened Rabbit

Itinerary:

  • surviving the night in a ghost-ridden castle
  • breakfast
  • horseback riding!
  • Clydeside Distillery tour
  • karaoke in Glasgow

Dalkeith
In the middle of the night, I had to pee. Not wanting to turn on a light and wake up my roommate Anita, I made my slow, careful way down the stairs of our suite towards the bathroom. At the bottom of the stairs, a mirror hung on the wall. GODDAMNIT. If I’m already in a scaredy-cat mood, as one might be when staying in an allegedly haunted castle, there’s nothing that scares me more than a freakin’ mirror in a dark room. I tried to not look directly into it, avoiding any chances of seeing the ghost of Mary behind me. I’m not sure what I would’ve done had I seen anything–maybe blurt out “So what do you think of Saoirse Ronan?” then dive back into the bed and cower beneath the covers. Thankfully, I made it to the bathroom and back unscathed, and was able to fall back asleep.

In the morning, the four of us met up for continental breakfast; no one reported any ghostly encounters though some had had a rough night of restless sleep. We’d been going hard nonstop this whole trip so far, and exhaustion was catching up.

BUT! It turned out that there was a stable nearby, and they had availability to take us out on an hour-long trail ride. So far on the trip, our only major disappointment had been missing out on riding in the Highlands, so this was our chance to make it up.  We checked out of the castle and drove a few short miles to nearby Lasswade Riding Centre.

besties

Amongst our group, we had a mix of experienced riders and beginners, and the folks at the stable matched us up with appropriate horses. I was put on a dappled gray named Oscar, and we got along swimmingly. Our guide took us on an ambling trail across a river, then through a scenic meadow and a wooded park. At one point, we rode on the road (on the left side!! I was all geeked out about that), and did some light trotting. I love going on trail rides in Europe because they use English saddles, so I get to brush up on my posting skills from junior high. Everyone did a good job, and nobody died!

Our horses: Hugo, Tom, Oscar, Lucy

After an hour on the trail, our inner thigh muscles/allergies were fully awakened. We stopped for some Benadryl and Doritos, then got on the road to Glasgow, our final home base.

Glasgow
We had booked an Airbnb in Finnieston (the Logan Square of Glasgow), and our first destination, the Clydeside Distillery, was an easy 5-minute walk away, which was fortuitous because our legs were fried. We had signed up for a tour and tasting. Our guide was informative and the facility was located in a scenic spot right on the river, but let’s be real, the reason anyone tours a distillery is for the tasting. The Clydeside is so new that they can’t serve their own brand yet–since they opened in 2018, their premier whisky is still aging. But, we got to sample some whiskys provided from distillery friends of the brand, and if you are knowledgable about your spirits, you can even try to guess what they are Blind Date-style (though our guide swore she’ll never confirm nor deny a guess). We grabbed some bites in their cafe, and I enjoyed a dram with my coffee.

After resting/napping/reading for the rest of the afternoon, we geared up for some Glasgow nightlife. We grabbed dinner from an excellent seafood place called Crabshakk within walking distance from our flat, then went in search of karaoke.

From that point on, the night became a blur. I sang “Party in the USA” at the first bar and was pleasantly surprised when a woman stood up and yelled “Yeah Miley!!” and everyone began dancing (Glasgow is Team Miley, y’all). After getting in a few songs, the host stopped taking new slips so we moved on to the second karaoke bar, where things got even more hazy. Rounds of St. Mungo lager were purchased. Shots were shot. A fog machine overtook the karaoke stage.

who knows, honestly

We let the night take us on a real journey. We danced, sang, went in search of late night pizza, then settled for McDonald’s. I challenged a Scottish man to a pushup contest in the street. We met a squad of Glaswegian college cheerleaders and one of them did a backflip for us. Sometime around 3 a.m., Adrienne flagged us down a taxi and we poured ourselves into the backseat. Everyone did a good job, and nobody died!

 

 

Scotland Diaries: Chillin’ with the Ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots

Wednesday, August 21

Soundtrack: “Mary Queen of Scots” Scottish BBC Symphony Orchestra

Itinerary:

  • breakfast at Spoon
  • explore Victoria Street
  • whisky tasting
  • dinner in Edinburgh
  • overnight stay at Melville Castle in Dalkeith

Edinburgh
For breakfast, we went to Spoon, a cafe noted as one of many places where J.K. Rowling spent hours writing the first few Harry Potter books. The book series would dictate many of our stops for the day, as I was now focused on the pop culture pilgrimage aspect of our time in Edinburgh. Rowling drew inspiration from spots all over the city, including Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh Castle, and Victoria Street.

On my way to the Leaky Cauldron for some firewhisky

After fueling up on toast and jam, we walked to Victoria Street, the muse for Diagon Alley. We wandered in and out of shops (many of them Harry Potter-themed), tried a hog roll from Oink (perfection), and took photos with an owl for 3 quid. A violinist performed in the street, playing the theme from Game of Thrones. Victoria and the surrounding streets capture that magical, storybook feeling, with turrets and maze-like alleyways, centuries-old churches, and towering castles. Listen, I live in a neighborhood where our most historic building is a mattress store, so this was awe-inspiring.

Scotch Whisky Experience
I know nothing about whisky. I typically drink beer or wine, and I have little to no developed palette for spirits. But I’m also game to try anything new, and Kurt asked me to bring him home a bottle of Scotch, so I gladly signed up for a tasting. Our server was incredibly helpful in creating a tasting flight that suited our requests (we wanted to try options that aren’t easily found in the States, along with some samples from the Highlands, Speyside, and Islay). Elizabeth helped guide me through the tasting. It was fun to learn something new and expand my taste horizon; for example, I learned that I like a smoky whisky with some peaty notes. Also, my favorite bottle turned out to be £179, so I also learned that I am an expensive bitch.

A great thing about traveling with a group of friends is that you get to branch out of your typical box by trying out things that they enjoy that you might not done before. In my case, I did my first ever Old Time Photo. We touched down in the studio like a human tornado of various requests for capes, crowns, and swords, while also letting the photographer know that we only had 15 minutes before we had to get to a Fringe show. The photographer was a true professional, guiding us with the expertise of someone used to dealing with tourists: “You want traditional, or the Outlander look?” We sped through the photo shoot, and at the end, he thanked us for being decisive and quick: “If only you had more time, we could have done a beheading scene.” Damn.

The final, amazing result:

The Fringe show we had planned to see ended up selling out before we could get to the box office, so instead, we stopped for a pint, then took a leisurely stroll towards dinner at Scran & Scallie. Contrary to stereotypes of Scottish food, we’d been delighted with nearly every single meal, and this dinner was among the absolute best. Oh and as general rule, when in Scotland, eat oysters whenever possible–the  country’s abundance of clear, cool water makes them incredible-tasting.

Melville Castle
One of the overnight stays we were most excited for were our suites at Melville Castle, just outside of Edinburgh in Dalkeith. For one night, we were rolling all fancy like royalty. YOU GUYS, Mary, Queen of Scots(!!!) vacationed at this very castle, and supposedly haunts the first floor to this very day, searching for her secret lover. Spending the night here is even better than my childhood dream of visiting the castle from the 1988 Steve Guttenberg movie High Spirits.

Melville Castle

Midlife Crisis board game in the Library Bar

Upon arrival, we checked in then settled into our suites. My room’s window faced the expansive grounds behind the castle, including a fountain, wooden sculptures, and horse paddock. After a full day of exploring, we were pretty exhausted, so it was a good evening for long baths, curling up with a book, or taking a leisurely stroll on the castle grounds. Sometime in the evening, I ran into Elizabeth and Anita in the library bar, and we found a board game called Midlife Crisis hidden among the typical selection of Monopoly and Life. Obviously, we had to play it. Sample card: “At 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, you discover that you have no moral values. No answers as to what is important or worthwhile in life. This is cause for concern–or is it? Add 200 stress points.” I was the only one who didn’t land in Divorce Gulch or Bankrupt City, so I won.

After the board game, we found a second wind, so we poured a few glasses of wine for the castle version of wine hiking. Quietly tiptoeing through the castle, we peeked into turret staircases and checked out the antique art in the staircases. Anita and I went for a walk in the garden to see the view of the castle lit up at night. (If you’ve seen Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, you will understand why the appearance of a ‘red room’ at night freaked me out.)

whut

Eventually, we tucked ourselves into bed in our fancy chambers. After we turned out the lights, we braced ourselves for any ghostly visitors.

 

 

Scotland Diaries: Doune It Right

Tuesday, August 20

Soundtrack: “Take Me Out” Franz Ferdinand

Itinerary:

  • breakfast in Inverness
  • explore Doune Castle
  • drive to Edinburgh
  • ghost tour of the catacombs

Inverness
After a night of wine hiking and campfire, my body was calling for a big, hearty breakfast. We drove into town for a traditional Scottish fry up at the Rendezvous Cafe (fun fact: the Beatles performed there in 1960). Our breakfast included: a fried egg, bacon, link sausage, lorne sausage,  Stornoway black pudding, haggis, tatty scone, baked beans, mushrooms, sliced tomato, and toast. I tried haggis for the first time and enjoyed it. It has a savory flavor that Anita described perfectly: “It tastes like Thanksgiving.”

nom nom nom

Doune Castle
The drive to Doune took us through  beautiful Caingorms National Park (and thankfully, it had wider roads than Loch Lomond & The Trossachs). There’s so many places in Scotland that I want to return to for camping.

Doune Castle was originally built in the 13th century, and rebuilt a century later after it was damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence. In contemporary times, it’s served as a shooting location for Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones (used as Winterfell in the pilot episode), and Outlander (Castle Leoch). These are three of my FAVORITES, so we were psyched for the tour. I have a lifelong fascination with castles, likely due to my love of historical fiction and fantasy novels, and this documentary that we watched multiple times in high school World Civ.

A Stark must always be in Winterfell

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone

The self-guided tour features audio tracks recorded by Terry Jones and Sam Heughan, which is a fun touch. Strolling around a castle courtyard with Jamie Fraser’s voice murmuring in your ear is about as good as it gets. The gift shop even features an Outlander-themed selfie station, complete with Claire’s costumes that can be slipped on over your clothing.

Edinburgh
We arrived in the city around mid-afternoon. Being in town during the last week of Fringe meant that the city was packed with people, but it also added a buzz of energy to the atmosphere. Street performers were ubiquitous, and we stopped multiple times to take in a song, drum line, or puppet show. I turned a corner and was awestruck by my first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle looming atop a hill above the city.

A troupe of drummers performers near Edinburgh Castle

After dinner at BABA, an excellent Mediterranean restaurant, we grabbed a few pints at a bar that featured haggis bombs (Irn-Bru with a shot of Jägermeister). From there, we walked to the Old Town area near St. Giles Cathedral and Mercat Cross, the starting point of our ghost tour. As twilight set in, the golden lighting made the city even look more storybook magical. A gothic tower twisted against the backdrop of blue sky, which at first glance looks like the home of a Disney villainess (in actuality, it’s Scott Monument, a Victorian-era spire honoring Sir Walter Scott). I’d only been in Edinburgh for a few hours and I was completely enchanted by this place.

Scott Monument

On High Street, we reached peak Fringe Fest crowds, and dodged people passing out fliers for their shows while navigating the packed cobblestone roads. The ghost tour took us through the alleys and closes of Old Town, and our guide shared informative stories about life in Edinburgh in the late 1700s. Eventually, she led us underground into the catacombs beneath the city, lit solely by candlelight. The air in the vaults was thick and humid, and we listened to true stories about murderers, bodysnatchers, and ghostly encounters.

inside the Edinburgh Vaults

To cap off the night, we had a few cocktails at a speakeasy hidden beneath a vintage barber shop. An elaborate menu noted the techniques used to create their cocktails, including Sous vide, fat washing, and centrifuge. We stayed until the bar staff announced last call, then walked back to our Airbnb, giddy on handcrafted cocktails and love for Edinburgh.

Scotland Diaries: a Day in the Highlands

Monday, Aug. 19

Soundtrack: “Forests and Sands” Camera Obscura

Itinerary:

  • horseback riding in the Highlands hiking near Plodda Falls
  • look for the Loch Ness Monster
  • high tea at The Loch Ness Country House
  • glamping in Inverness

The Highlands
One of the first lessons we learned in the Highlands was to add 30-40 minutes onto all our driving times previously estimated from our ignorant positions in front of Google Maps back home. We had booked a horseback riding tour through the Highlands, supposedly 90 minutes from Spean Bridge. However, the final stretch took us on a single-lane winding road in and out of a valley, with multiple byway stops in order to let oncoming vehicles pass. By the time we reached the stable, we were nearly an hour late and our group had left without us. Even the sheep on the stable grounds ran away from us before we could pet them. Our disappointment was palpable. But sometimes, things are just not meant to be, so we pivoted to a new plan: hiking to Plodda Falls.

Plodda Falls

The hike turned out to be the perfect thing to lift our spirits. A short walk from the trailhead led us to the top of the falls, and we ventured out onto a wooden bridge over 40 meters (131 feet) above the riverbed. Among the treetops, we had a fantastic view of the forest all around us. I’m telling you, the greens in Scotland are unreal–leaves, lichen, and moss saturated with chlorophyll and rain and fairy magic probably, to the point of bursting with color. We followed the trail down alongside the waterfall, where we got drenched with mist. I was thrilled for this chance to do some hiking before we reached the city-bound stretch of our trip, and happily stomped my way through puddles to get the most of out of the waterproof hiking shoes I’d hauled across the Atlantic.

Loch Ness

It’s a Sassenach summer

Fun fact: I have a Loch Ness monster tramp stamp (or as I call it, a Triassic stamp, ba-dum-bah!) I am a sucker for any sort of mythology, especially if it involves fantasy creatures. The area surrounding Loch Ness is full of kitschy tourist attractions, pretty similar to what I experienced recently in Roswell, New Mexico. This was where we did some souvenir shopping browsing the selection of t-shirts, tchotchkes, and calendars of men in kilts. We paid £7 each to enter a Nessie exhibit, which I found rather disappointing until we discovered a hidden OUTLANDER-THEMED ROOM (seriously, way to bury the lede, Nessieland!). After doing a quick change out of our hiking clothes behind a shed in a parking lot, we rushed over to our next agenda item, traditional tea service in a country house. Though first, we did a shot of whisky sharing Adrienne’s family name as we stood alongside Loch Ness, toasting with her clan motto: “If not peace, war!”

No Nessie sightings today

During our tea (which included Prosecco, cold sandwiches, appetizers, and a crowd-pleasing three-tiered tray of desserts), we noted the background music, a Spotify playlist of acoustic covers. Little did we know at this point the popularity of this particular playlist in Scotland, as John Mayer and Ed Sheeran would continue to follow us the entire week, crooning from hidden speakers in the corner of multiple coffee shops and restaurants. I always get a kick out of seeing what is popularly used as atmospheric music (for example, Sweden had a preference for pop tunes straight off every Dawson’s Creek soundtrack from the mid-aughts).

our tea time view

Inverness
We stopped at a Tesco to pick up wine and snacks for our night of glamping (I can’t think of the popular UK grocery chain without hearing Lily Allen sing in my head “She was struggling with bags from Tesco”). Our glamping pod was located in the outskirts of Inverness, a round little hobbit house with a fire pit. The pod was an adorable decked out with a double bed, two bunk beds, and a shower that made me feel like I was in a transporter from Star Trek. It was a cool night, slightly misty, and we craved a little more exploration, so we embarked on a “wine hike” through a nearby park. The wooded path was lined with holly shrubs, and followed a winding little creek.

Back at the pod, we made a fire, had some more wine, and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and lack of John Mayer.

our glamping pod

 

Scotland Diaries: Three Ravenclaws and a Slytherin Walk into a Bar Car

Sunday, August 18

Soundtrack: “Hedwig’s Theme”

Itinerary:

  • leave Glasgow for Oban
  • lunch at Oban Fish & Chip Shop
  • drive to Fort William
  • depart on the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig
  • sightsee in Maillaig
  • dinner at Ben Nevis in Fort William
  • drive to Spean Bridge and check into cottage

Oban
The 2.5 hour drive from Glasgow to Oban takes you through Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. It makes for stunning scenery but a white-knuckled driving experience, especially if you are Americans just adapting to sitting on the right side of a vehicle on the left side of the road. Elizabeth was our steadfast driver for this leg of the trip, and I can’t give her enough high fives for her excellent, Toretto family-level skills navigating narrow winding roads while trucks barreled towards us on our right at full speed (oh, and in the pouring rain, for additional funsies).

now entering the Highlands

We had lunch at Oban Fish & Chip Shop, and the haddock was  fresh, perfectly cooked, golden flaky deliciousness. I’d say it was well worth driving out of our way to make the stop, but that’s easy to say as someone who never got behind the steering wheel.

Fort William/Jacobite Steam Train
This is it nerds, the big Harry Potter moment that I’d been looking forward since the second I bought my plane ticket to Scotland. The Jacobite steam train departs from Fort William to Maillaig twice a day, and its route over the Glenfinnan Viaduct was famously used as the journey to Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. I can’t tell you how many travel blogs I scoured to figure out the best way to view the Glenfinnan Viaduct from aboard, so I will give you the full scoop here:

  • Book your tickets on the Jacobite as early in advance as possible. This train fills up fast, especially during the peak season.
  • You want to sit as close to the back of the train as possible so you can get a good view of the front steam engine as it curves around the viaduct. Aim for Carriage G, or as close to it as you can.
  • This part is hard because the seat numbers make no goddamn sense (everyone was in the wrong spot when we boarded), but for the route Fort William -> Mallaig, you want to be on the left side of the car when facing forward. For the return trip Mallaig -> Fort William, you want to be seated on the right. The view of the aquaduct is best when traveling northwest (from Fort William to Mallaig) so do your best to get your photos and have your big nerdgasm moment on the first leg of your journey (assuming you’re going roundtrip).
  • If all else fails and your assigned seat is terrible, start jockeying for a spot at any window on the left side of the train shortly before arriving at the viaduct about 45 min or so into the ride. There’s windows in the passageways between each car, located near the bathrooms. Slide the window down to get the best possible photo, and keep a tight grasp on your phone. You should get a clear view of the train turning west, steam trailing behind, and the rolling green hills in the background. There will likely be a horde of tourists standing on the hill to get photos and videos of the train in motion.
  • Congrats, you’re now at Hogwarts! Please check in with your House Prefect for the password to your Common Room.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up as we crossed the Viaduct. It was a perfect storm of events that got us into exactly the right place on the train at the right time, and my heart was bursting with gratitude for this fantastic adventure I was on with my fellow witches. We spent the rest of the train ride purchasing ciders and chocolate frogs from the bar car and reveling in the view of the lochs, the ocean, and hillscapes too green to seem real.

Mallaig
The Hogwarts Express allowed for a 90-minute layover in Hogsmeade Mallaig. There’s a lot of cute coffee shops, gift boutiques, and Harry Potter-themed merchandise to browse through. I’ll be real, I was celebrating pretty hard on the train so most of my memory of Mallaig involves having to pee and looking for a bathroom.

Mallaig

Spean Bridge
By the time we left Fort William for Spean Bridge, it was dark out. This made for some more harrowing driving, and it is especially jarring to see headlights coming at you fast from the “wrong” side of the road. Thankfully, we eventually found our cottage and got settled in for the night, though we’d have to wait until the morning to appreciate the charm of the area in the fresh light of day.