Sunday, November 15, 2015

Winter When and Where We Can Get It

A roadside stop to experience the snowfall near Northumberland National Park
We have had a long hot summer here in Central Florida this year. In the last week, Orlando had two separate days with record highs in the low 90s and that doesn't take into account the humidity. Needless to say, it has not felt like the holiday season is upon us which is a bummer.  In order to allay my disappointment in this unseasonal weather, I intend to remind myself with this post of the wintry weather we experienced in April and May of this year while in Britain.

On our second day there, we noticed sleet hitting our jackets while visiting Carlisle Castle in the borderlands. The next day, en route from Hadrian's Wall to Edinburgh, we experienced snow in Northumberland National Park. We were so excited that we stopped the car to get out and let the snow fall on us. The weather was cool and crisp for the duration of our travels in Great Britain.

The climax of the wintry conditions however occurred in the middle of our trip when we found ourselves near Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the British Isles. On a whim, we decided to ride the Gondola up to the snow line of the Nevis Mountain Range. The kids made snowballs and snow angels and even tried to bring snow home with them. We took a little hike out to a low peak at the worst possible time as the wind blew icy snow into our face. Poor Jonah was soaked through and nearly numb by the time we returned to the lodge to warm up with hot beverages. Looking out over the Great Glen, sipping coffee and hot chocolate is a memory we shouldn't soon forget.

This is not the only time we have experienced winter like conditions at an odd time of year. In 2013, we sold our house in North Carolina during the summer and headed north to Maine and Newfoundland with our RV. That year we experienced very cool weather during July through September (the hottest months here in Central Florida). We may just do that again next year, God willing.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cairngorm Reindeer Centre

On our trip to Scotland, we were able to get up close to real, free-ranging reindeer in Cairngorms National Park. This was a great stop that we may have totally missed if not for seeing an episode of Travel with Kids in advance of our travels.  
The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd consists of over 150 individuals that currently call the Cairngorms Mountains home. They were reintroduced to this area in 1952 by a Swedish Sami or Laplander named Mikel Utsi. For a fee, visitors can make a hill visit to feed and see the reindeer or for those with limited time or physical ability there is a quaint paddock at the Reindeer House where two or three are kept on rotation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hostels: Family Accommodations in the UK

Oban Youth Hostel, Oban, Scotland
During our trip to Great Britain earlier in the year, we found reasonably priced accommodations for a family of four a little hard to come by. In order to keep accommodation costs down, we spent a few nights in hostels. This was a first for our family of four. We had our doubts as to how comfortable and safe we would feel, but our experiences were generally very positive.

Our very first stay in a hostel was just one night spent in the Oban Youth Hostel in Scotland. This hostel had 4-person rooms (two bunkbeds) with an en-suite bathroom which worked out very well for our first hostel experience. Sharing a bathroom with others was our biggest anxiety about staying in a hostel. The location along the waterfront and walking distance to the center of Oban is superb at this hostel though parking is limited. We brought take-out (Indian food of course) to eat in the kitchen/lounge. Afterwards, we took a walk by the water since dusk in May at this latitude isn't until after 9pm.
Loch Ness Backpacker's Lodge in Drumnadrochit, Scotland

Our second hostel experience was a bit different. We stayed two nights at the Loch Ness Backpacker's Lodge located minutes from Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. This hostel has only two family rooms. Our room contained a full-size bed and bunk beds. The bathroom facilities at this location were shared with all the house guests. Fortunately, it was located right next to our room. I would have hated to traipse through the whole house in my pajamas every time I had to go to the bathroom. Still, it was odd to be taking a shower while an unfamiliar guest of the opposite sex brushed their teeth right outside the shower stall. Other than that bit of awkwardness, we had a pleasant experience. We were able to get some clothes washed for a nominal fee during our stay, and I had an enlightening conversation with a Scots and English couple about the impending elections.

Dorm 9 at YHA Oxford London
During the final days of our trip, we stayed three nights at YHA London Oxford Street before our departure. Here, we again had a 4-person room with two bunk beds. The bathroom situation was different from the other two because there were individual shower rooms with real doors and separate water closets to use a British term. All were just a few steps down the hallway and being separate facilities you never felt like you were "sharing" a facility at least not in the way they were shared at the Lock Ness Backpacker's Lodge. In addition, the staff at this facility were very helpful in getting us reduced tickets for bus tours and were invaluable in securing us a very early and inexpensive taxi to the airport for our return flights. The location near the Circus Oxford Station of the Underground is also a big plus.

When considering a family trip to the United Kingdom, don't rule out hostels. If you plan to stay at multiple hostels, you may want to consider membership in YHA or Hosteling International. With a YHA membership you are automatically made of a member of Hosteling International (HI). Membership gets you discounts on your stay as well as attractions and tours. Knowing a hostel is in the HI network gives peace of mind about cleanliness and safety. The Loch Ness Backpacker's Lodge is not in the HI network. We were in a pinch during those nights because of a 3-day weekend, however, I do not regret our stay there.

Keep in mind that not all hostels allow families. Hostels that do have accommodations for families can be more than adequate. The novelty of the accommodations can add to the family experience. For example, our children enjoyed sharing bunk beds with mom and dad and we appreciated the unexpected additional services not to mention the savings. So get out and go hosteling....

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, Drumnodrochit, Scotland
Image Source
What child doesn't know about Loch Ness and the fabled monster that calls it home? Loch Ness is a favorite tourist destination in Scotland as a result. Our own children's familiarity with Loch Ness motivated us to make it a priority stop during our trip to Scotland earlier this year.

Urquhart Castle is a picturesque ruin on the banks of Loch Ness. It is believed that St. Columba of Iona visited a Pictish nobleman on his deathbed here in about 580 AD and baptized him. Interestingly, one of the oldest stories about the monster of Loch Ness comes from a biography of St. Columba written in the 7th century. Supposedly, he rebuked a water beast who had just bitten and killed a man.

Not unexpectedly, we didn't see any signs of a monster from the promontory of Urquhart Castle. So we decided to tour the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition to get our Loch Ness Monster fix. Visitors are guided into several themed galleries where audio visual displays reveal historical references, foundational thoughts, and evidence that support the existence of such a creature. As the tour advances, the themed displays and video focus on the scientific expeditions that have endeavored to determine the existence of the Loch Ness Monster one way or another. Each expedition is described in detail - what tools were used and why, and what conclusions could be drawn from data collected. As someone with basic knowledge of the scientific method and biological sciences, I was very impressed with the flow and thoroughness of the exhibit. I would have thought the whole thing a bit too cerebral for our 6 and 8 year old to enjoy, but the quality of the exhibits and cinematography kept their interest. By the way, 6 and under go free.

All in all, if you are anywhere near Loch Ness on your Scottish travels, Urquhart Castle and the Loch Ness Center are a must see.

Jonah with the submarine Viper Fish used during a 1963 investigation into the existence of the Loch Ness Monster