Travel by Train, It Makes Sense

virginWhen traveling in another country, you may not have the luxury of taking a car and just going. Cars can be rented, but can be more costly in the UK and Europe to rent and run. Of course you can have fun driving on the left side of the road, or maybe find a place in Germany that rents American Muscle Cars and drive the Autobahn (always a bucket list item). Trouble is that renting a motorcar in the UK or Europe is very expensive and you may return from your trip with additional costs for a slight car ding ranging in the £€ 1,000.00 2,000.00 range. Yes, even if you buy insurance, there will be some additional costs, and petrol is very high in Europe. So often a train ride is a better option. And trains can be fun, especially if you can get on a historic one. Many of the train options are for diesel or electric and some are well cared for, and some are not. But you need to get where you are going, and travel bus is not for everyone.

Scotland

Hogwarts Express – Scotland The Jacobite Express First Class £ 59.00 £ 35.00 standard return.

http://www.westcoastrailways.co.uk/

This iconic train is booked well in advance as you can imagine. I couldn’t get it for my dates. If you are a train lover, start planning your vacation around the trains and trips months in advance. This train encompasses the Glenfinnan viaduct, Arisaig, Mallaig, Fort William areas and is a great trip across the Highlands and on a clear day you can see many of the islands from the shores. Their’s full tea service as well, and you know how fun it is to take tea on a classic train.

If you want to see Hogwart’s locations, head to University of Glasgow, and Edinburgh’s streets.

The Flying Scotsman

http://www.flyingscotsman.org.uk/ Site is very image intensive

To book, go to this site http://www.railwaytouring.net/

This train recently started touring again and has been quite a hit. However there was a performance safety issue this last season and you need to check if it is running again on the http://www.railwaytouring.net/ site. It’s a classic good run on a restored train, so keep an  eye out while you make your tour plans this season to see if you can catch a ride.

Scotrail

Luckily, Scotrail was not on strike action this season, like it had been the summer before. The trains had showed it and I had been rerouted by bus at least once on that trip. This trip, 2017, was smooth sailing, except when I was stranded in Kyle of Lochalsh due to rocks falling on the tracks for 2 hours with a cancelled train. The rest of the trip, the trains ran on time for the most part and were cleaner than the previous year. Of course going through the Highlands is always breathtaking so it was worth the trip. Great conversations with fellow travelers.

Virgin Trains The Highland Chieftain

On my final rail around the Highlands for the 2017 tour, I got a real sweet deal on Virgin Trains for a first class in the quiet car at just a few pounds more than 2nd class. A bump of £ 4.00 per seat got me on a single side seat facing the Eastern Coast of Scotland down to Edinburgh. Very smooth ride and great scenery of Stirling and all places in between. It was a bittersweet farewell to the Highlands, but a really fabulous experience. If you time your ticket right, in the middle of the week and mid to late morning, the price is fair. The only problem was one car had no WiFi working or any of the charging ports for phones and people kept coming into our car. It wasn’t really a problem as it was half full and you get to meet more people that way. Wait, it was supposed to be a quiet car, right? But most were pretty good about it. A very good trip all round on that one.

Ireland € 16.00 -30.00

Irish Rail http://www.irishrail.ie/

Traveling in Ireland this summer I spent time on some very clean trains that kept good time. I was lucky on the two trips I had to make, plenty of room and easy storage for my cases, cars were clean and comfortable. I had booked a month in advance and got very good pricing. It was under € 20.00 to get to Galway and the return trip on to Belfast was under € 30.00. Considering the high cost of being in Dublin for 4 days, it was helpful on the budget to get the tickets in advance and pick up at the kiosks. Smooth rides on both trips.

The trip to Galway was filled with amazing green fields, passing through Athlone, the true countryside of Ireland. And there is a reason it’s called the Emerald Isle, it’s amazingly green even in the high summer. It was a record high temperature week when I was there, but the trains were comfortable and clean. Conversation was good, and trains always provide an opportunity to talk with local people about where they live and what is going on in their lives. And the Irish love to talk about their lives and where they live, and great deal about politics

But Can the Train Get Me to Where I Want to Go?

In some cases, you can take trains to some of the national parks in countries, or take a link ride with a bus. Sadly this will cut into some of your travel time and limit some places you can get to. If you have a car you can tour the Highlands for better access, get closer to a Munro for that great climb. However cars make you take on big responsibilities in other countries. Please take the time to familiarize yourself with the country’s driving laws and customs for driving country roads. Many tourists do not get the right of way on one lanes in Scotland and the rest of the UK much to the chagrin of locals. When in doubt, always err on the side of letting others pass. Then there are the smaller roads like coffin roads on some of the isles. You can get really lost on an island. In many cases, such as Isle of Skye, too many tourists are renting cars and not parking with care. Skye is boggy and loamy right off the road and if you get in the mire, the car will sink. Getting it pulled is very costly.

Walking and Hiking Tours

Really want to tour the countries and get to know them? Then walking tours and climbing in parks may be your best bet. Many of these can be accessed by public transport and many back packers go this route. It can take a bit longer to get somewhere, but is well worth it. Try joining some of the hiking and walking boards for the country you are visiting. You can check on the best climbs for a novice or find out about roadworks and diversions for trails. Most large cities like Dublin and Glasgow have rail to bus link services, it will take more time but it can be done.

https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/

http://www.theirelandwalkingguide.com/

http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/

Train Touring Companies

http://www.railwaytouring.net/

https://www.vacationsbyrail.com/europe/ireland

https://www.steamtrainsireland.com/whats-on

Irish Rail Strikes

http://www.irishmirror.ie/news/irish-news/every-public-transport-disruption-you-11419344

 

Over the Sea to Skye, by Rail and Bridge

skye1Over the Sea to Skye, by way of train, taxi, and a bridge. I had reached the halfway point of my travels this season, and was dead tired. The end of the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail. Months of gym training and still you get wiped out by the travel. It doesn’t help that the two places I stayed in Glasgow had terrible bed accommodations. Mostly it is that pure exhaustion of trying to get so much out of your travels, that another train journey has occurred and this is a long one, and your brain just seems fried. I am traveling to Inverness, then to Kyle of Lochalsh, a journey of about  6 hours, winding through the Highlands. There’s nothing better than winding through the Highlands, though, whether it’s car, bike, or train. But eventually I will be on the Isle of Skye, a destination I could not get near on my last adventure. The destination is so popular that you have to book months in advance for a place to stay.

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I spent yesterday on a Rabbie’s Tour of Loch Ness and other Highland destinations, a round trip from Glasgow that encompassed a good 12 hours. It was an exhausting swing through of the area, but I had wanted to see some of the Highlands I could not see from the train ride. I was well rewarded. But the train rides are always fun, I found that this trip was just as rewarding with the views of rolling hills, then great Munros loom and you want to climb them. Realistically that will have to be the next trip, and another year of training at the gym and smaller mountains practice back home.

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It was truly a Scottish summer arrival, with rain, sun, wind and more rain. But luckily the day of the trip was a good clear sun filled day. I regretted not bringing the sunscreen. The tour was with Skye Tours, and was a small group tour in a van. We travelled the route but missed a few key spots I had hoped to see, namely the castle and the Fairy Pools. There was some event going on there, a rather big one as a local funeral was taking place for an island native, and we could not get near. The tour covered some places on the island and had a knowledgeable driver. We did cover The Storr, Neist Point, Quiraing, the Cuilins Black and Red and a few other areas. I was not happy that we could not get to some of the sites, and sadly part of that had to do with a great deal of tourists using hire cars and not being prepared for the terrain of Skye and it’s boggy wet. Many a car was sunk in the muck.

skye4

All the bother aside, it was breathtaking to see some of the highest Munros in Scotland, walk around and just breath in the air of the magical island. I do recommend doing research and planning your visit well out, especially the accommodations. If I can make it back, I will be doing some training to do a hiking tour of the island instead, but must train and be with a group. I was told by locals that many people come and are not truly prepared and end up in great trouble with the bogs.

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Book for your stay a year ahead. Or stay in Inverness and take a day tour. It is not suggested to do hire car, and with good reason. Sadly the island gets too many people with cars who don’t understand the driving rules or where not to park. Accommodations can be good or really bad. Really read your reviews on accommodations, once you are booked you are stuck with your decision.

skye6

 

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/09/skye-islanders-call-for-help-with-overcrowding-after-tourism-surge

http://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-40872328/does-the-isle-of-skye-have-too-many-tourists

Inverness; Touristination Place

 

 

Belfast Blast: 48 Hours in Belfast, Northern Ireland

titanic

Belfast is a historically diverse and eclectic city. It’s historically one of the biggest shipbuilding behemoths of Europe, home of the shipyards that built the Titanic, the most tragic and beautifully engineered ships of a bygone era. Belfast has had it’s political upheavals, but now is a blossoming, burgeoning city with a huge tourist industry. And food and entertainment to match. It’s hard to choose a place to eat or drink, there are so many choices.

My decision to visit this amazing gem on the north of the island of Ireland was influenced by history and great beauty, and a fangirl urge. I wanted to see where the Titanic was built and experience some of the natural wonders of Northern Ireland I had seen in books and in one of my favorite television productions, Game of Thrones®. So after my tempestuous visit to Galway, I headed to the northern country for a 48 hour period of history and a locations tour of the countryside where filming took place. What an adventure.

Titanic Museum and SS Nomadic

I got of the train and settled in quick. It was a clear, puffy clouded day with long daylight hours of summer. I had only 48 hours in this town and had to get in as much legwork and sites as I possibly could. I hopped a taxi to the Titanic Museum on the shipyard docks to check out this architectural wonder and museum exhibit center. The building alone is worth a tour and crowns the historical docs that have built many a sea faring vessel. Going through the exhibit halls in and interactive affair and when you get to the bottom level, you have a great treat with an exhibit that mimics the seafloor and you, standing on it. There are exhibits of rooms on the Titanic and narratives of passengers and people who worked on the monstrous ship that should never have  sunk. The engineering of the vessel was the most forward of it’s day, but it was not match for the iceberg it met. It’s a great museum for all ages and don’t forget to visit the SS Nomadic which is part of the tour. It’s a bit of a hike to the shipyards part of the exhibit, but worth it to see the drydocking works, the sheer size of the dock Titanic was housed in while building will amaze you and give you a sense of the size of the massive ship. Added bonus, you walk past the Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is produced and filmed. If you are traveling this Fall, you may get lucky and see actors going in and out for final season.

highstreetThe Neighborhoods

All cities have neighborhoods, some great places and some not so good. Throw in some politics a traveler may not be aware of and you can get in some trouble. Belfast has come a ways from the Troubles, but remnants are still there. If you are touring around the city walking or in a cab, you will note neighborhoods and areas with flags of identity, with areas where religion and politics go hand in hand. You should always do some research about where you go, and not just the older history, for history is being made every day.

I had a great conversation with a Scotsman on the way back to Glasgow on the plane. He had just marched in one of the Summer Marches with this extended family and friends. Most of the convo was about spending time with family and friends and participating. Nothing to do with the politics. Belfast has changed  a lot in the last 30 years and will continue to do so. It’s filled with warm people and smiles, pride of place, and cultural growth. A place well worth visiting.

Everyone I met and everywhere I went I was met with kindness. But I didn’t ask questions and always waited for someone to bring up anything. However, since I am a big street art fan, and one of the things I was most keen on this tour was mural walks. I started on one in the city, then found I had better think about that a bit, as the murals are very extensive, politics and religion laden in this city. But what street art isn’t a commentary on the times? There are a huge amount of murals. There are political and community ones. If you plan on doing the while walk, plan for several hours. The neighborhoods where people are still very aligned with religion, staying with the UK, becoming independent, or unifying with Ireland are there. I toured the areas I could manage to get to in the short time I had and met with, briefly, a fiercely proud people going about their day or evening activities.

What I have to say is that I saw a lovely city with people living and thriving just like any other, and while the past will not be forgotten, I felt that people were truly just living in this great city. I would say that you just have to be mindful as in any city, that you are not living there, you are a visitor. Just love thy neighbor, even if they are yours for five minutes. The city has much beauty about it. I stayed near the Queen’s University, a great foodie area with a few guesthouses with easy access to transportation. A great walking area and that I did.

arya

Game of Thrones® Tour

I have to admit that this particular tour was the one big blast that I absolutely had to have for my time in Ireland. Having been a fan of the series since day one, when I found out tours to various sites used in filming were being included in a tour, I had to book.

Using Viator.com, I booked with the Irish Tour Tickets company for their Game of Thrones Tour with a guide, Adrian, who has been an extra on the series and knows in depth trivia and information about sites used. We went to several locations including Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede bridge, two places I have wanted to see for many years. The tour was packed with fun, behind the scenes information and a great understanding of what it takes to get some of these sites ready for filming. Oh, and you better bone up on your GOT facts, because Adrian has a mean bus quiz for points on the last leg of the trip, with prizes. If you are an enthusiast and fan of the series, don’t miss this fun tour. Adrian has a lot of fun tidbits from BTS and will give you insight on what it is like to be an extra on such a big show.

shadowassasin

Birthplace of a Shadow Assassin

Warning: as with all tours, you should dress for travel, but especially on this tour. Wear trainers or hiking boots, no dress shoes or sandals. This is a very physical, climbing around, adults only tour.

As part of this tour you will see the Dark Hedges, a long, spooky line of trees between fields. People have been coming to see the feature for years now, and the trees are sadly at the end of their life. Two trees came down in a storm recently and the wood was used to create a series of doors dedicated to the Game of Thrones series Westeros locations. You can download the maps to tour for Game of Thrones Doors and seek them out while you tour the north of Ireland.

hedges

The Dark Hedges

Reality check: Yes, many of the Northern Ireland Game of Thrones® locations, with a few exceptions, are really car parking areas during summer months. Tourism is so invasive that they are having to build and reconsider tourist attraction areas in the north. The spaces are built up for the shoot then cleaned up. Exception, there is one secret place we went by where there are guards that deny access year round. Winterfell perhaps?

Bring cash for other tours. Each tour usually has an additional attraction that is part of their route, and you will need to pay other fees.

On this tour you will see where scenes were filmed and two additional sites:

Causeway3

Giants Causeway

After the 10 hour tour, I was fatigued and dead hungry. I wandered downtown Belfast a bit and was concerned about getting to a kitchen that was still open, on Sundays sidewalks still roll up on the island, and pub and other kitchens will only be open so late. I found a great Japanese fusion restaurant called Zen, a huge cavernous place with great food. Filled up so much it was a hard walk back to the B&B.

The Game of Thrones® Doors story and self guided tour

http://www.ireland.com/en-us/what-is-available/ireland-on-screen/game-of-thrones/destinations/northern-ireland/county-antrim/articles/doors/

http://visitbelfast.com/things-to-do/theme/game-of-thrones

A Peaceful Walk in Belfast — Leya

causeway2

causeway1

Scotland in Six – Kennetpans Distillery — Travels with a Kilt

Kennetpans Distillery Having spent some time in the spring touring around underrated Clackmannanshire, one of the things that lingered on my to-do list was a deeper exploration of Kennetpans Distillery. Truly the stuff of historians’ dreams, this seemingly insignificant ruin by the River Forth is nothing of the sort and it can be looked upon…

via Scotland in Six – Kennetpans Distillery — Travels with a Kilt

Tour Packages: Are They Worth The Costs?

glasgow-cathedral-and-infirmaryIt’s a month out from your trip and you are contemplating your very tight budget. Some of the considerations are that you really want to see a bunch of castles near where you are staying, but can’t do a hire car because of the cost. That will leave you with a tour option. However there are so many tours, how can you find one that fits your needs and well, isn’t too touristy?

Hint: For larger cities like London, you will always find a tour. But really good ones can fill up in advance. If a tour has really good ratings, also check for complaints against it in a search. You may want to book a few weeks out, especially in high summer, August.

I don’t know about you, but I really am not a fan of traditional tours. Tourists can be so distracting and well, in some cases, behave poorly when on a trip. When I am traveling, I usually avoid the traditional tourist traps if I can, or try to see them at off times, and visit spaces like someone who may live there might. However, if you really want to see a land feature or castle and it’s out of city limits, you may have to resort to a tour. Or do you?

Commercial Tours €£€£

If you really have limited time and want to pack in as much as you can, the commercial tour companies that depart from most city squares are your bet. You will pay between £30-50 for these tours on brightly colored buses from most metropolitan squares. Then you have to deal with densely packed buses. You can get to a great many sites in one day. I find if I do use these services, I will plan one day to be used up, and of course get back into town and head for a neighborhood I like, just to get some sense of people and community. They are noisy, smelly affairs.

Avoiding Commercial Tours: Compromise €£€£€

There are smaller, more intimate tours for the areas you may be visiting. These are usually smaller vans and smaller busses affairs. They will, however, cost more than the massive tour bus companies. You are paying for a smaller comfort and more intimate and personal tour. Sometimes these are run by smaller family businesses, groups of friends. You can even get specific tours that may follow a theme. Keep in mind that these can cost over €75-200 per person, but may be over several days. Also, check Twitter. Some smaller companies have accounts and you can check out their feed and see what tours are going on and what people are saying.

Walking Tours €0-10

Finding walking tours in cites whether guided or self guided means doing some research. If you check out a tour guide like Trip Advisor, you can get a good selection of these tours along with paying tours listed. There are tours operated by independents that may involve a small group that hires themselves out. These can be really entertaining as many of the guides are locals and you can contribute what you like and tip them. You may find that it is easier to meet groups of other travelers and then have a meal afterwards. Check for local online and hard copy community newspapers and magazines. They will have a good listing of these tours. Also, research alternative tours of the area.

Public Transport Tours – Self Guided £5-10

If you have a few days in an area, using public transit and getting around on your own tour can be done. Many local cities and towns even have tourist maps and bus route information on their city websites. There are also many touring apps that have city walking tours and tours that venture out. Now, these are free for the most part, and may not be up to date. There may also be roadworks and improvements going on that may delay you, you will need to check local information. I did quite a bit around Inverness last year via this route. You do not get as much packed in as an organized commercial tour, but it can be much easier on the budget.

There are many guided tours apps created by enterprising individuals or tourist boards. If you visit the App Store, you can find many of these. Also check online for local What’s On publications for the city. There may be an app they have created. And don’t forget local book stores. They carry these things called maps that fold out.

Booking

Trip Advisor/Viator are the same company, just different formats. One is the classic Trip Advisor green and the other is a bit more supped up and takes more bookings.

https://www.viator.com

Tour Radar

http://www.tourradar.com/d/europe

City Specific

London

Manchester

Cardiff Wales

Glasgow Tours

Edinburgh Tours

Dublin Tours

Belfast Tours

London Pass

Articles and Resources

https://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-tips/choosing-the-right-tour-company/

http://www.scotlandmadeeasy.co.uk/

http://www.irelandmadeeasy.eu/

https://www.vacationsbyrail.com/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/12-of-the-best-self-guided-tours-of-scotland/

https://www.myirelandtour.com/travelguide/solo-travel.php

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/the-50-best-travel-websites-8646338.html

 

 

 

Great Escapes From Glasgow

Finding The Devil’s Pulpit and More in the Trossachs As a Glasgow boy, vacating the city for the outdoors leaves numerous open roads, all incentivising and grappling for your attention in their own unique way. None are more convenient or more accessible though than the fabulous Trossachs. In addition to my top picks in the…

via Day Trips from Glasgow – The Devil’s Pulpit and More — Travels with a Kilt

Saturday Travel Musings: Glasgow

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It’s another rainy April day here in Portland, and the petals are flying from the trees. A young hipster is wearing a Ramones tee, and I fondly remember my first tee back in the Uni Days. I am drinking coffee in the Hawthorne and planning my escape. Thinking about my travels in 2 months and reading a local digital paper for Glasgow, Scotland since I will be going back in July. I highly recommend you read the local rags online for what cities you will visit. It helps get you ready to plan on what you can do while there and it’s highly intertaining to see that your town is not the only weirdville around. Not to mention that things sell out like theatre and music shows, so visiting the local indie papers for What’s On is a good deal. get a feel for your adventure in urban exploration.

Planning out the visit, I had been thinking about where to eat. Being foodie is crucial on vacation as it is for the rest of the year. Glasgow has definitely got the eats. As in my previous article on socially conscious eating, I had mentioned finding cafes and restaurants that give back to the community. In reading Glasgowlive.com the last few months, I had been tracking a feature on a cat cafe opening to benefit cat rehoming schemes, The Purrple Cat will be at 2 Trongate this July. I’m there, love a good cat cafe. But not to leave out the dogs in this dog loving town, because I know I met quite a few last summer there. If you want to visit with dugs while visiting this town or others in Scotland, check out the dugswelcome.com page to find food, drink, and dug friendly spots. Even if you can’t bring Fido on your travels, you can meet other dug friends in these places. An hey, most of them still have their tails.

http://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/whats-on/food-drink-news/location-finally-revealed-glasgows-new-12923091

Glasgow Science Centre

I also see that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon album will be celebrated at the Glasgow Science Centre tonight, with tickets having sold out some time before. I remember my first planetarium experience with a light show and Floyd back in the early Uni days in California. I can tell you the technology has advanced greatly since then and this show looks really amazing. So popular that they had to extend showings until May and June. So if you are traveling to their city you may want to hook up at the tickets page if you can before they sell out. Sorry to go on, but this iconic album is always made spectacular by added show, so enjoy if you can. Here’s hoping they can add on July.

What city are you traveling to this month and what’s on there?


Photos by Lonni and Alastair McMillan