Our Scotland Adventure – Day 2 Continued

The second half of Day 2 continued our tour of historic sites.  Our first stop after leaving Edinburgh was Preston Mill.  I’d stumbled upon information about the mill during my online searching for things to see in Scotland and immediately fell in love with it’s unique look.  When I showed it to the Hubs he was intrigued as well and agreed to add it to the list.  It was the end of the tourist season in Scotland and it was literally the last day before the mill closed for the winter, so we were very glad that we had decided to come when we did.

Luckily because it was the last day, the ice cream they sell in the small gift shop was on sale, so we got a couple to enjoy as we browsed the various displays about life at the mill and how grain was processed in the mill until 1959.  This sign gave an overview of the multiple steps the material went through in this particular setup.  Note the little mouse at the bottom of the sign, who told guests to be on the lookout for him around the mill.

There were also displays about how the mill had been transformed into the backdrop for several scenes of my favorite show, Outlander!  I hadn’t realized it when we added it to the list, but as we toured the property I could remember the scenes and recognize which areas they had used in the show.

There was maintenance being done on the grounds in preparation for the winter, and the heavy equipment in use to dredge the pond prevented us from touring the whole area, but this spot behind the mill was the first I recognized from the show.  In the scene Jamie hides in the water so the British dragoons won’t find him, while Claire and Jenny sit on the edge of the grass above the water, hiding his clothes with their skirts.  Obviously the area is a bit changed since filming, but it really felt like being IN the scene with the characters.  The gentleman giving us a tour of the mill had been present during the filming and noted that the creek had been dammed to create a large pool in this spot to fit the scene described in the book.

The guide also showed us how the wooden water gates were used used to power the water wheel, which turned the mechanics of the mill stones inside.  There was a wooden gate  just below the walkway which controlled the flow of water from the pond and the board you see at an angle would divert the water away from the wheel when it needed repairs.  If they wanted the wheel to go at full power they would open both gates and let the water flow toward the wheel.

The proximity to the river means the mill is always at risk of flooding, which has happened on a large scale many times in it’s history.  Our guide pointed out the high water marks that had been carved on the larger stones on the side of the mill.

Now it was time to head inside the mill and learn what the wheel powered.  The oddly shaped kiln section of the mill looked even more whimsical from this view point.  We asked the guide why it had been built with such an asymmetrical shape.  He explained that the Miller sent his son to the Netherlands to learn new methods to incorporate at the mill.

Apparently he came back from his journey with an idea to build this cylindrical style kiln and, much to his father’s surprise, a new Dutch wife!  The odd shape likely came to be because the kiln was built without a formal blueprint, based on the son’s memory of the Dutch kilns.  So in other words it was a DIY special which involved using locally available materials and tweaking the plan as it came together.  But it’s still standing today so that is a great testament to their ingenuity.

We started the interior tour upstairs where there were an assortment of tools and random parts typical for a working agricultural site – along with a few relatives of Mr. Mouse who we had seen on the sign in the other building.  The guide showed us the massive stones that would spin and grind the grain from the power of the water wheel outside. The large metal claws above them were used when they had to move or replace stones.

Then we got to go up the ramp to the kiln.  This ramp was likely added later when improvements were made to the mill.  Before then the Miller would have carried the bags of grain up the stone steps in the front.

There was an area to build a fire in the base of the kiln which would bake the grains that were spread across this metal floor so they were fully dry before being ground.  The Miller would have to come into the smoky kiln to turn the grain on a regular schedule several times a day.  The smoke would vent through the openings in the roof.  This was very hazardous work, as it was usually pitch black and filled with sooty smoke.  In fact it was common for Millers to develop lung problems due to this part of the process and it became known as “Millers’ Lung”.  Of course this meant that most Millers didn’t live long lives, but they and their families were indispensable to the region and therefore made a good living and always had a good variety in their diet.

The baked grain would be swept into a shaft that led back into the mill where it was bagged.  This was obviously a two person job and so often the Miller’s adult children would help manage the bag on this end.

It was interesting to learn that the farmers who brought in their grain would provide their own bags so that when the milled grain went to market customers could identify the various varieties from the different producers.  Early advertising and branding!

From there the grain was fed through a series of sifters and blowers to be ground finer and finer.  I won’t try to explain the whole process because I’m sure to get parts wrong, but it was labor intensive and yet quite efficient compared to how it would have been done by hand before the invention of a mill.  This video of a similar mill will give you an idea of the process.

We spotted a few more of Mr. Mouse’s relatives among the machinery, including this brave one who was riding the conveyor belt scoops!

Having seen all we could at the mill we thanked our guides and made note of their suggestions for nearby spots for dinner before heading to our next stop, the ruins of Tantallon Castle just a short drive away.

This great stone castle was the headquarters for the notorius ‘Red Douglas‘ family.  The castle itself covered a vast area at the top of the hill overlooking the water and the surrounding areas were arranged to provide and protect the stronghold.  Even in it’s current state of ruin it was impressive.

We walked the path up to the castle feeling dwarfed by it’s vast size and position.  There was a wooden bridge across a main ditch which served as a defense of the castle wall.

The small doorway was easy to protect and manage, but at one time had been quite ornate based on the carvings still visible.

We found stairs inside and made our way up to the top of the stone walls, which made the structure seem even more impressive.

The view from the ramparts was phenomenal.  You could see all the way across the water toward Edinburgh and all of the surrounding countryside.

The view toward the front of the castle showed the remains of an outer defensive wall that we had passed through to get to the castle.

The view toward the rear of the castle was of the main courtyard.  This would have been a busy area of the castle during it’s heyday, but today it’s a lush vantage point for the stunning scenery.

Across the water you could see Bass Rock which was formed by an extinct volcano.  This island has served many purposes including a lighthouse, religious retreat, and prison but today it is home to the largest northern gannet colony in the world.  We could see the masses of birds flapping their wings and could hear their vocals faintly.

Inside the various towers of the castle there were areas that had been walled off to better protect the castle from invaders, so some areas weren’t accessible.  One of the towers was where the soldiers would have kept watch.  This sign described their daily routines and showcased artifacts left behind from these residents.

There was also a servants area where a display detailed their typical routines and duties.  Pieces of pottery found on the site give clues of the tools the servants here used.

There were several stairways that connected the various sections of the castle.  Retrofitted with modern lighting and daylight from open sections of the castle walls, they appear much brighter than they would have back in their heyday.  This stairway led to the great hall where guests would have dined and been entertained.

Today the upper floor and back wall of this section of the castle are long gone, but you still get a sense of how grand the space would have been.  There was a massive fireplace to the left and a private stairway that led to the laird’s private chambers above.

The upper floors where the laird and his family would have had their apartments is gone, but this spiral section is where the stairs to their private areas were.

We wandered the back courtyard where the well was located, so they could draw water from under the clifs below.  This would have been a popular gathering place for many of the castle’s inhabitants.

Looking back at the castle from the corner of the courtyard certainly made you feel small and insignificant.  I can imagine those who were brought here through various circumstances envisioned it as very imposing.

Beyond the courtyard were cliffs that above a small rocky harbor.  This was a critical asset to the castle grounds because it allowed small boats to bring in visitors, traders and supplies, including food and weapons.  When the castle was under siege this area was heavily protected because it provided castle residents a means of escape or a method to bring in reinforcements even if the supply lines on land had been cut.

Lastly we investigated the doocot, where pigeons were kept to serve as messengers and a food source of both eggs and meat throughout the winter, especially at Christmas feasts.

The castle was closing for the day so we headed out along the coast line in search of the recommendations the guides at the mill had given us.  We ended up in North Berwick and stumbled upon the only eatery that was apparently still open this late in the season.

The Rocketeer is a small establishment on the spit along the coast with an open air dining space. It sits in front of the site of an old kirk where the Scottish Seabird Center now stands.

While we waited for our order to arrive I took in the nearby view.  Having grown up on the eastern seaboard of the US I’m used to coastal communities along beaches like this but seeing these historic stone structures right next to sand was quite different.  It was like an odd couple marriage of quaint seaside town and historic brownstone.

Soon my attention turned back to my belly, with the arrival of a simply presented but oh-so delicious clam chowder.  We were quite hungry after being active all day and only having small snacks along the journey so in addition to the chowder we both also ordered the fresh lobster and chips dinner.

It was also presented in a simple way, but it was even more tasty than the chowder!  The Hubs face says it all…

We savored our dinner and the view along with the nice weather as we shared our favorite parts of the sights we’d seen that day.  Dinner itself was a highlight for both of us because it’s hard to beat lobster at sunset along the Scottish countryside as you look out at the sea!  After dinner, the Hubs stayed at the restaurant to settle our bill and rest his knee after all the exploring we’d done throughout the day, while I wandered the spit behind the building.

It was a lovely spot to take in the sunset which is what several couples and families were doing as I made my way along the walkways.  I discovered there was also a lobster hatchery next to the seabird center.  I didn’t have the heart to tell the hatchery’s ambassador, Larry the lobster that his kin had made a tasty meal just moments before.

There was a small marina filled mainly with sailboats which I assumed belonged to the locals who would enjoy them in them on weekends and holidays.

I came back toward the road where we had parked to stroll along another large sandy beach with small pools created by an old foundation of some sort. The Hubs joined me there as he made his way to the car from the restaurant.

We headed back to the main highway as the last rays of light faded and made our way back to Edinburgh where we would spend the night before heading to the highlands the next day.  It had been a day of true holiday – leisurely enjoying a new environment and savoring a wonderful meal.  We knew the other adventures we had planned would also be pleasant, but the feeling from this day would be tough to beat.

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Our Scotland Adventure – Day 2

Our second day in Scotland was one of my favorite days of the entire trip, but it was a long one so I’m going to divide it over two posts.  We started the day at Edinburgh castle.  Driving in downtown Edinburgh is crazy and parking is downright insane.  After several loops around the castle on congested one-way roads we found a spot below the castle.  We paid at the parking kiosk and made our way up a large staircase to the Royal Mile a few blocks in front of the castle.

We were surprised to spot these iconic phone booths along the walk to the castle.  I’m not sure if they keep them just for the tourist attraction or if the locals still use them but they made me smile either way.

The crowds grew as we approached the main entrance to the castle.  This wide area is called the esplanade and was often used for large public gatherings and displays.  We made our way past the tour groups and headed inside.  As we waited in line to pay for our entrance tickets I took in the various textures of the inner wall, which showed the craftsmanship of those who had created it and the changes in material available as it had been built.

Once inside we stepped up along the walls to take in the view of the royal gardens below and the Firth of Forth beyond.  It was certainly impressive and a great vantage point to see the entire area.

The view toward the inside of the wall was pretty amazing too.  Because the castle had been built, rebuilt and added to over the centuries it’s now a combination of structures, each with their own purpose and look.

I’m a sucker for old world architecture and there was no shortage of that here.  The stone turrets on the corners of the walls were lovely and I marveled at the design skill it took to create them without modern day tools.

There was a row of small buildings that had been houses at some point, which were now a small cafe and gift shop.  There was so much texture and character every way I looked, especially in the smaller areas where the crowds weren’t filling the scene.  I felt like I’d landed in the pages of a story book and imagined the various scenes that likely played out in these very places.

Several of the buildings are still in use for official purposes, including military head quarters and private residences for castle officials.

In one of the alleyways tucked behind these buildings I spotted this cool vintage work truck and wondered what they use it for now.

We toured the military displays which included medals from various campaigns, artifacts from the daily lives of the soldiers and their leaders in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards regimental museum.  I also enjoyed the view of the historic homes below the castle from the windows in this area.

Next we toured the underground dungeon where prisoners were held during the various wars.  The extra lighting for tourists and my editing skills don’t paint the full picture of how depressing and dark this space must have been.  It certainly wasn’t the worst conditions but it wasn’t the most comfortable either.

Other areas of the prison had displays about how those held here would forge bank notes to pay off guards or for use if they escaped.   There were also several doors on display with carvings prisoners had created during their countless hours of time to kill to tell their stories.  It was the early version of graffiti.  Many prisoners also used their time creating hand-crafted artisan boxes and trinkets that they would sell to the guards and locals who came to the castle and when they were in the outdoor yards.

Back outside we wandered past several more buildings which included a war memorial and a small workshop that is now a retail space for the castle’s own brand of whiskey.

Then we headed into the main courtyard of the castle, which was flanked by the great hall, the Royal Palace which contains the royal apartments and the vault for the crown jewels and the stone of destiny which is used in coronation ceremonies for the monarchs of England.  The long line you see coming out of the tower with the clock was to see the jewels.  We did partake of that, but there are no photos allowed in that area for security reasons.

The arched doorway you see on the right of the clock tower led to Mary Queen of Scots royal apartments where her son, James VI was born. It was amazing to tour the spaces where so much history had occurred, especially a story line that has captivated generations and been retold in various ways.  Having watched several of the shows that depict Mary and her family’s role in Scottish history it was even more interesting to see where it had all really happened.  We saw the symbols of the lion and unicorn throughout the castle, which represent the United Kingdom.  The lion stands for England and the unicorn is for Scotland.

The great hall was an impressive structure indeed.  Built to showcase Scottish power and style it was used to impress visiting dignitaries and nobles.  The ceiling of the hall was built like the hull of a ship with massive beams that create an unique design.  The walls were decorated with various weaponry and armor and several of the windows had elaborate stained glass panels.  There was also a secret spy hole called the Laird’s lug where the King could see what was happening in the hall from above.  You can just make it out behind the light in the second picture.

Nearby is the very small St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh.  It would only hold about 29-30 people at a time, so visitors took turns viewing the interior of the chapel where there was a small alter at the front and a few benches to line either wall.  Stained glass windows were installed when the chapel was restored in the 1920’s and depict four saints including Margaret herself (the closeup below) and the national hero, William Wallace.

I was pleased to spot this dog cemetery along the edge of the castle wall.  The sign identifying it as such said that it had been in use since Queen Victoria’s reign as a burial place for regimental mascots and officer’s dogs.

We also got to watch the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. This is a long standing tradition which dates back to the days before accurate timepieces were available and the signal allowed sailing ships in the Firth of Forth to check and reset their chronometers.  I’ll try to share a video of the event on Facebook in the next few days.

Having seen all the major attractions at the castle we decided to head out to other sights we had on our list.  The view of the castle from where we parked was a great last look at the history this location has witnessed.

That excitement was tampered when we got back to the car and discovered that we had a parking ticket even though we had paid at the nearby kiosk.  We we decided to research our options and address the ticket another day once we were able to print out proof we had paid for a permit.  So we made our way out of the bustle of the city to see some more history in the nearby countryside.  I’ll share that next, so stop back by soon to continue the adventure. 🙂

Our Scotland Adventure – Day 1

Now that I’ve finished sharing our Iceland adventures it’s time to catch you up on the fun we had in Scotland.  We had an early morning flight from Iceland into Edinburgh, but by the time we got our luggage, rental car and made our way to the hotel it was time for a late lunch.  After lunch we made our way to the Royal Botanical Gardens near downtown.  It took a bit longer than we had planned to figure out the directions to the garden and the parking app since we didn’t have any coins to pay the physical meters.  And once we had paid for parking we realized we were a 2 block walk from the only open entrance to the gardens.  But it was all part of the adventure and it was perfect fall weather for a stroll through the gardens with crunchy leaves underfoot on the sidewalk along the way.

We wandered the various gardens only occasionally looking at the map we had picked up in the visitor center.  This area was one of the first we explored.  It had several different zones to showcase the various climates around Scotland and nearby areas of Europe.

I spotted this driftwood arrangement in one of the display beds and had to point it out to the Hubs as proof that his wife and his mother aren’t the only ones who decorate the garden with “sticks”.  See even the pros do it!

As we wandered to another area there was a unique looking tree.  From a distance I first thought it was a pine tree but upon closer inspection we realized it was quite different.  It’s called a Monkey Puzzle and was brought over from the mountains of Chile.

Just beyond the Monkey Puzzle tree was this MASSIVE green house.  I could see trees growing inside and was excited to investigate, but it was closed for maintenance work.

So I browsed the flower beds around the green house, where I found these amazing Arabian Nights Dahlias.  I’m going to see if I can find some to plant in the Gifted Garden this summer.  There were also some flowers that looked like ones I’ve seen on cactus in the dessert.  I haven’t researched them yet, but they were pretty cool looking.  I’m sure they wouldn’t do well here in Alaska though.  They were surrounded by moonfire dahlias so I’m assuming they would have similar growing needs.

Along the walkway was this sign notifying guests that there were robotic lawnmowers at work in the gardens.  We didn’t see any but I thought the idea was quite smart given the expansive areas they have to maintain.

We spotted this unique gate nearby.  It took me a few minutes to distinguish the design but once I did I though it was very whimsical and perfect for an English style garden.

Around the corner was this beautiful green house, which was also sadly closed to visitors.  But the giant log out front was a petrified tree that had been discovered in a nearby region.  I’d seen such pieces in the US at national parks, so I didn’t spend much time on that when there was so much else to see.

The next area was this beautiful green house and cold frame setup.  I about swooned when I saw them.  These ones were set up to display a variety of alpine plants, which  I thought was interesting given we have so many of those varieties just above our home on the mountain and they are a specialty garden item in the local nurseries for those who have the set up or right micro climate for them.

Next to the alpine displays was the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden.  It is a typical English style in honor of it’s name-sake, but the most stunning part of the garden was this small building in the back which was covered with a pattern of symbolic shells on all of the interior walls.   I can only imagine the man hours that went into creating this design and in maintaining it.

Nearby was my favorite area of the gardens by far.  This area was wild and free form with flowers and edibles mixed together.  There were trellises and archways made of bamboo and willow drawing you in to the various areas.  To one side was a knot garden, so-called because of the knot pattern the plants created.

The entire area was bordered by this massive hedge, which had openings cut into it to return to the other areas of the garden.  There had been some sort of event there in the days prior and a little flag banner was left up across the arch way.  It was just the right amount of decoration for the space.  You can tell the Hubs was super excited about my need to run back and get a shot of the whole scene.  Good thing he loves me and knows I can’t resist documenting pretty garden ideas.  😉

We stopped in the gift shop on the way out and I fell in love with several items they had in the outdoor area.  This bird feeder with a slate roof and stained wood definitely called my name, but the price tag and weight it would add to my suit case sure didn’t.  So I took a picture instead hoping I can find something similar when we visit my mother-in-law in Washington later this year.

I also considered this bug house for our garden, but it too had a hefty price tag and I’ve seen similar designs online so I passed.  I did find a smaller version that had a better price tag, so I bought that and will be adding it to the garden this summer.

I was surprised to find these hedgehog houses in the shop.  Apparently hedgehogs are great bug eaters and are often kept in gardens to help reduce pests.  I’m going to research if they would be able to survive in Alaska indoors during the winters and if so I might just try to talk the Hubs into getting one when we have our barn built in a few years, and then he can build said hedgehog a cutie garden house for a summer home!

There were also an assortment of bulbs that I really wanted to buy, but after checking online we were fairly certain they wouldn’t be allowed into the US due to agriculture laws.  The gardens were closing so we purchased some yummy treats and made the walk back to the car.  We enjoyed the old world style of the homes along the way noting how the gardens were part of the houses and helped provide privacy from the street.

We had planned to visit the Edinburgh castle that day as well, but I had spent too much time in the gardens we were tired from our flight and wandering the gardens so we opted to save the castle for the morning.  We headed back to the hotel and had dinner in the restaurant there before calling it a night to rest up for a full lineup of sights the next day.

 

Our Iceland Adventure – Day 3

Day 3 was all about the Blue Lagoon, which is a must experience for anyone traveling to Iceland.  The lagoon is filled with geothermal water that gets it’s blue color from the silica and other minerals on it’s way to the surface.  Having read reviews that the pools get more crowded as the day goes on we decided to make our reservation for when they first opened and not knowing exactly where to go we arrived a bit earlier.  That turned out to be a good thing in a couple of ways.  The first was that we weren’t stressed before our big spa day and the second was that we misread the signs and ended up at the Blue Lagoon hotel rather than the lagoon itself.  The hotel is surrounded by this unique landscape of lava rock and moss.  Since we had a little extra time I explored the trail near the hotel briefly taking it in.

There were several signs directing guests to stay on the trail as the moss is very fragile and that no smoking was allowed because the moss is also very flammable.  I’m not sure what that is exactly, but I’m guessing it has to do with the sulfur in the area.  There was a distinct smell of sulfur in the air through out the valley where the lagoon is located, reminding you of the natural geological processes at work.

The hotel had a modern design that contrasted the uneven texture of the landscape.  It’s what I envisioned a colony on the moon looking like – if the moon had vegetation that is.

Across from the hotel is an area that is being developed to expand the lagoon and create private areas for hotel guests to enjoy.  The construction on this area will continue through 2018.

We got directions from the hotel staff and made our way down the road a bit further to the actual lagoon entrance.  This large sign off the parking lot marked the pathway to the lagoon so we knew we were in the right spot now.

At the end of a short trail through a canyon of lava rock was the spa.  While also modern in design it seemed to fit right into the landscape with complimentary colors and textures.

Inside we found the correct line for our reservation and had a little time to take in the facility.  Beyond the check in counters was a cafe and to the side of the registration area was a gift shop packed with all sorts of creams and masques.

Through the large windows behind the registration desk you could see the lagoon.  The sun was still rising over the nearby mountains and the steam floated over the water, giving it a magical feeling.

Since we were visiting in the fall the outside temps were quite chilly.  We arrived in coats and boots, but pared down to swimsuits to get in the lagoon.  The short distance from the locker rooms to the water was quite cold, but once you’re in the water you don’t even notice the outside temperature.  Most of the lagoon is about waist deep so we wandered about keeping our knees bent so we stayed under water from our shoulders down.  There are also several areas with built in benches which were a great spot to sit and relax as you soak in the experience.

Because the water is filled with silica and minerals the staff advise you to take breaks from the water and stay well hydrated.  After an hour or so we took a break in the guest lounge where we had a bird’s eye view of the lagoon and the expansion area beyond.  We had a light meal and relaxed a bit.

The break from the water gave me an opportunity to get a few more photos since we had both decided to leave our phones in our lockers and enjoy the experience as it happened rather than try the dry bags we saw many people using.  Everything for your reservation is loaded to a wrist band that you wear the whole day.  You just hold it up and the staff scan it to validate your selection.  It’s also connected to your credit card so you can pay for additional items without having to leave the water or carry payment.

There was this cool grotto created out of the natural lava rock to the side of the main deck.  It was a good spot to get out of the wind and was nearby the silica bar where guests can enjoy facial masques, which is the white stuff you see on several faces in these pictures.

To give you an idea of what the outside temps really were I had to get a shot of the lifeguards.  It was pretty funny to see them insulated from head to toe in winter attire while the rest of us bobbed in the water in swimsuits.  Beyond him you’ll notice the power plant that helps generate the geothermal water for the lagoon from underground.

The Hubs and I did explore the whole area of the lagoon, but found we liked this corner near the bar the best.  There were benches along the boardwalk around the rock formation where the life guards patrolled and the rock acted as a natural windbreak, keeping this area a bit warmer.  There were also spots to stretch out and lay back on the sloped entrance to the pool along the handrail you see to the right with a great view of the surrounding hills.

Our reservation included a drink of our choosing at the bar.  Since we’re not big alcohol drinkers and we didn’t want to add to the dehydrating qualities of the lagoon we both opted for the Skyr smoothies, which were so delicious I had several.  Later in the day the Hubs decided to try their version of a slushie which is called Krap.  We got a good giggle out of that!  I forgot to get a photo of the cups when I was out of the water but I did see them advertised with an added i at the gas station that evening when we left the lagoon.

I opted to book the additional facial masques at the silica bar and an in-water massage.   I wasn’t sure exactly how getting a massage in the water was going to work, so I peeked over the rock wall to the massage area when we were exploring and saw earlier appointments floating on foam mats just under the water.

When I arrived for my appointment I was introduced to my masseur, Alexi who was most certainly descendant from the Vikings who first inhabited Iceland based on his broad and solid build.  He had me lay on one of the floating mats and covered me with a towel to keep me warm while above the water.  Throughout the massage he also would occasionally dunk me under the water from the neck down to ward off the cold from the wind.  The only thing I didn’t care for during the experience was that while floating on the massage mat the water surface is right at your ear level so there is the sensation and sound of water lapping against your ear.  It was a bit distracting and made it hard to hear Alexi when he was describing the next portion of the massage with his accent, but it was unavoidable and not something that would keep me from doing it again.

We had also made a dinner reservation at the spa’s restaurant, Lava.    We got cleaned up in the locker rooms and headed to the restaurant which get it’s name from the large lava wall that runs along the back of the dining room.  Our reservation included a complimentary glass of their specialty wine.  Since the Hubs was driving, I got to enjoy both his and mine! 🙂

It was still fairly early so there were only a few other guests in the restaurant, which overlooks the lagoon.  I snapped a picture of the whole space when I went to the balacony to go to the restroom.

We both ordered the grilled beef tenderloin, which was topped with wild mushrooms, crispy potatoes, onion jam and dijon mustard.  We both declared that it was delicious.

And after dinner we shared creme brulee, with the cutest lemon shaped scoop of lemon ice cream!

It was a perfect relaxing day after our adventures the day prior.  We opted to stay at a hotel in the town about 10 minutes away rather than the lagoon’s hotel which was much pricier and is often full.  It was no surprise that we both crashed and slept soundly soon after checking in.  I’ve got one more day of Icelandic adventures to share and then it will be on to our Scotland experiences, so stay tuned!

Our Iceland Adventure – Day 1

I’m finally finding time to sort through and edit the hundreds of images from our trip to Iceland and Scotland back in the fall.  We took the trip because I won a contest on another blog which included airfare to Iceland and a cash prize for accommodations.  We decided to add Scotland to the trip since it was nearby and held interest for both of us.  We planned the whole trip around my nephew’s wedding in Virginia since we had to fly out of an east coast hub and the timing worked for both the Hubs and I to be gone for a long stretch during that time.

Fall in Iceland is very similar to fall in Alaska – cold and often wet, but filled with amazing scenery.  We landed in Keflavík early on a Saturday morning thanks to a red-eye flight.  The airport had very modern architecture and reminded us of an IKEA store with a maze of shopping areas, resturants and gates to navigate.  We picked up our rental car and headed straight for the capital city of Reykjavik, which is about 40 minutes away, for some sightseeing.  The first stop was Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish, which is the city’s main landmark.  It is also the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in the country.

It was an overcast, rainy and windy day so the church’s smooth grey basalt stone blended into the sky.  Because it was so early, nothing was open yet, so we wandered the grounds around the church noticing it’s details, like the statue of Leifur Eiríksson in front of the church, which was a gift from the US commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of Iceland’s parliament and the modern clean lines of the clock at the top of the tower.

Iceland has seen a huge boom in tourism in the past several years so it’s often crowded at attractions like this, but the weather and early morning kept everyone at bay and we practically had the place to ourselves.  I was a little bummed we couldn’t see the inside and the massive German organ which has been used for a variety of famous recordings, but we couldn’t stay long as we had a full schedule of things to see in the couple of days we were there.

Having seen all of  Hallgrímskirkja that we could, we wandered the nearby streets taking in early morning life in Reykjavik.  A few blocks away I spotted this cute little pub with classic Icelandic style including a turf roof and rustic but modern vibe.  I wished they had been open so I could sample their fare – or get a warm drink.

Across from the pub was this public water closet, which required payment to use.  We’d never seen anything like it but thought it was a smart concept given the masses of tourists the city sees each year.

We got back in the car and drove down to the city’s waterfront in search of the Solfar Sun Voyager, a modern culture of a viking ship.  I’d hoped to catch a shot of it at sunrise, but obviously the weather had other plans. We met a Taiwanese tourist there who was by herself and obliged when she asked if I’d take a photo with her.  I’m pretty sure we both looked like drowned rats, but it was fun to experience another culture taking in the sights.

We had planned to check out a weekly swap meet where the prices were rumored to be the best, but weren’t able to locate it despite several laps of the city.  During one of those laps I spotted this church and asked the Hubs to stop for a few minutes to let me investigate.

I discovered that it is Landakotskirkja, the cathedral of the Catholic Church in Iceland.  You’ll notice that bot churches have “kirk” in the name.  We quickly learned that was a standard throughout the country, just as “foss” is part of all waterfall names.

The classic architecture make it seem much older than it’s 1929 consecration.  The only Catholic school in the city was located right next door and featured charming cottage style buildings.  I was drawn to the ornate door of the church, which had a unique handle that the door had been modified around.

Since most attractions wouldn’t open for a few more hours and we had time at the end of our trip to visit Reykjavik again if we wanted to, we decided to head out into the countryside toward our hotel for the evening, which was a couple of hours drive away.  As we left the city, the scenery quickly changed to wide open expanses of mossy landscape, dotted with structures, the occasional farm and power lines to feed the other side of the island.

We stopped for lunch along the highway at a lovely little café, where we enjoyed baked brie sandwiches, the BEST mushroom soup I’ve ever had and a wonderful hot chocolate for dessert.  We encountered several interesting vehicles on the road which we assumed were operated by the local wilderness or extreme adventure tour companies.  We’re accustomed to large vehicles accessorized for wilderness travel and the situations you may encounter doing so, but these rigs took it to a new extreme with massive tires and a variety of extra lights, even for us Alaskans.  But it’s better to be prepared when in the back country, especially in remote areas where help may  not be able to easily reach you and it’s certainly a new experience for tourists who likely only encounter small scale vehicles.

By late afternoon we arrived at Stracta Hotel in Hella, where we would be staying for two nights.  I was delighted to discover there was a small herd of Icelandic horses right across the street from the hotel.  Seeing this special breed up-close was at the top of my list for this trip and this was the perfect opportunity to spend a few minutes petting them.  They quickly realized we didn’t have any treats for them and lost interest in us, but I stood in the rain for a while longer admiring their unique features.

After checking in and getting our bags to the room, we explored the hotel’s café and gift shop before hopping on the wi-fi to check messages.  Jet lagged from the overnight flight and weather, we decided to take a quick nap to recharge.  Refreshed from our rest, we headed back to the café for a delicious farm-to-table style meal over candlelight and discussed our plan for the next day including more country side driving, waterfalls, a historic turf house and the black sand beaches and basalt pillars of Vik.  We called it a night soon after so we could further acclimate to the time zone and get an early start in the morning.  I’ll be sharing those adventures next so be sure to stop back by to see them!

It’s State Fair Time!

The approach of fall means it’s state fair time.  The last time we went to the fair was 2 years ago, when we went to attend a concert.  That was our motivation to attend this year as well, this time to see Josh Turner – one of my favorite country artists.

We arrived a little early so we could experience the fair before the concert and I made a bee-line for the livestock pens like I usually do, with a pause to check out this year’s garden display in the center of the fairgrounds.  This year’s design used simple plant types to create an amazing bear family and a stream of salmon.

Inside the livestock barn we spotted this unique art entry that took top honors.  You can see why!  I’d love to have something similar in my garden!  We wandered the rows of livestock stopping to talk with the 4-H and FFA exhibitors to encourage them in their upcoming time in the ring.  Of course I had to stop and visit every goat!  There were several breeds represented, but my favorites have always been Nubians, with their big floppy ears.  There were a couple of groups of sleepy goats all curled up together that were pretty adorable as well.

After watching a few of the livestock classes in the ring, I made a quick stop in one of the large halls nearby before heading to the concert to support a local vendor I’ll be working with soon.  On the way I spotted this great totem pole, which I’ve never noticed before.

We also stopped to get my fair must-have – funnel cake with raspberry topping!  Even thought it was messy to eat, and the developing breeze kept blowing the powdered sugar all over my outfit, it was delicious and so worth the mess.  The Hubs chose a steak taco, which he shared a bite of.  It was pretty yummy too.

Then it was time for the main attraction – the concert.  The opening act was The Last Bandoleros, who had a Tejano style mixed with rock.  I didn’t know any of their songs but now that I’ve heard of them I’ll have to learn a bit more about them.

And then that gorgeous country crooner put on quite a show. Unfortunately they don’t allow DSLR cameras at the concert, so I had to make do with my camera phone – but I wasn’t the only one.  How many camera phones do you spot in the picture below?

Mr. Turner and his velvety voice put on an amazing show.  The weather turned chilly and windy during the concert and both the Hubs and I had been fooled by the nice weather earlier in the day and had foregone jackets.  That just gave us a reason to snuggle and keep moving to the beat to stay warm.  It was pretty funny to watch Josh and his band rub their hands together to try to ward off the chill between sets.  They even commented how this was quite a change from the heat of the deep south they are used to, but they didn’t let that keep them from keeping us all entertained.

While we’re not typically fond of big crowds, parking was a nightmare and everything was expensive, it was all worth it to hear that wonderful voice in person – and yes it sounds as good in person as it does on the radio ladies! 😉

Have you made it out to your local county or state fair?  Leave me a comment to share what your favorite fair activity is!

Denali Road Lottery

9So apparently tomorrow turned into a week – but that’s how life happens around here.  Soon the projects that are pulling my attention in 200 directions will be complete and I can refocus on celebrating the holidays.

Ironically, I was feeling about the same way when we took our quick trip to Denali several weeks back.  Too much going on and not enough hours to get it done, but in desperate need of a break to recharge.  Fortunately winning the Denali Road Lottery gave us just that opportunity.  If you haven’t heard about the lottery here’s a quick recap – the general public pay to enter the lottery for a chance to purchase a day-long permit on one of four selected dates.  You can get the full details on the program here.  Both the Hubs and I entered this year and I won for a date in late September.  In that area of Alaska, September could still be fall but often, it’s the beginning of winter weather so we knew we could experience either.

The scenery was definitely fallish on the way to Denali from the Mat-Su valley.  The views reminded me of Colorado, but on a much grander scale.

12We went up the day before our permit so we could make the most of the trip.  We stayed at the McKinley Chalet just outside of Denali.  As we entered the lobby to check in I spotted this statue of Balto the famous sled dog from the Iditarod.

baltoOnce we were checked in and had dropped our stuff off at the room, we made our way over to the welcome center at the park to purchase our permit pass for the next day.  While standing in line I heard someone call my name and turned around to see a lady who had retired from the company I work for in line behind me.  We’ve run into each other on adventures like this a few times since she’s retired, so we had a good chuckle over it.

I had been to the welcome center once before but hadn’t had time to wander and explore, so I enjoyed checking out the many displays they had, including this large exhibit that had lots of information about the wildlife and local ecosystem.

wildlifecenterOf course we had to take a selfie with the giant moose, since you can’t do that in real life!  Other interesting animals were the adult and baby mountain goats, marmot and pika, which I’d never heard of before.

wildlifeselfiegoatgoatkidmarmotpikaThis display of the different types of volcanic rock in the park reminded me of similar exhibits we saw in Hawaii.

rocksIt was nice to see the local plants on display since most of them were now gone for the season outside.

flora2floraOther displays explained how researchers track the movements of predatory birds in the region and monitor the fault lines that formed the landscapes surrounding the park.

birdradiosfaultlineWe headed back to the hotel to get dinner and enjoyed the view from the dining room as we leisurely ate and chatted about the sights.3After our bellies were full we wandered out to the lookout on hotel property where a vintage tour vehicle was on display.  It was nice to see the time and effort the preservation groups had put into rescuing a piece of the park’s history so future generations could appreciate it.

86457Next, we hit the tourist shops where we tried out several crazy items like this mountain man hat that hid half the Hubs face when he tried to photo bomb me!

hatphotobombThere were also plenty of Alaskan puns on everything from T-Shirts to wall decor.  Here were a few of our favorites.

shirtakambearshirtakbearlyawakeshirtakchocmooseshirtakdeereshirtakhighlifeshirtakmealsshirtakmoosewmeshirtakpolarbearshirtakredbearshirtakredmooseAfter we had our fill of shopping we went back to the hotel where we decided to spend the rest of the evening at the new Denali square.  We browsed the artist gallery and the small shops around the amphitheater before snagging a spot at one of the many fire pit tables with a view of the mountains.

commonsWe sat enjoying the crisp air and the view as sunset faded.  Eventually we ordered a few drinks and some very yummy beignts with caramel sauce as dessert to our earlier dinner.  In fact they were so good, we had to order a second round!

firesideviewfiresidedessertWe stayed well after dark to chat with a group of tourists from the east coast of the US who joined our table.  We had lots of laughs as we shared the difference between real life in Alaska and what they see on TV.

The next morning we met up with friends we’d invited to join us on the road lottery and had breakfast together at the hotel before heading into the park.  Not far past the welcome center we spotted this big guy in the brush.

10As did several other park visitors.  He was apparently quite used to this chaos and wandered across the road right between the groups of cars before heading on out into the next field.

1211A little further up the road we spotted a flock of ptarmigan who were already switching to their winter camouflage, which made them stand out against the colorful vegetation.

13Soon the snow that had been forecasted made it’s appearance with a dusting over the low brush.  While not the look we were hoping to see, it was pretty in it’s own right.

14Now that there was snow on the ground we spotted these tracks on a hillside and all pondered what animal might have made them.

15We soon discovered the answer and watched as this ptarmigan darted up the hillside.

16It paused at the ridge to look back and before we knew it one had become many!

171819The weather made wildlife sighting quite difficult so we continued on to the Eielson Visitor center where there were several antler displays around the building.  The first was a caribou set that would have overlooked the view of Denali if it had been a clear day.  The most impressive was the two bull moose antlers that were locked together after their rutting battle led to them getting tangled.  Unable to pull free of each other, the encounter eventually led to both o their deaths.

202122The weather was cold and wet so we turned around to head back toward the park entrance.  Along the way we spotted a group of moose we’d seen on the way in and decided to sit for a bit to see if they’d come any closer.  All we could see of the bull was the very tips of his paddles above the brush, just visible through the misty snow.

23The cow on the other side of the same knoll was easier to spot.  She was very aware of the bull’s proximity and was keeping a close eye on her two yearling calves nearby.

24Eventually the bull decided to come out of hiding and show off his enormous rack.  The distance made his size a bit deceiving, but as the men in our vehicle noted very vocally you could sit a full grown man in his paddles and still have room to stretch!

2526We left the moose to woo his cow and headed down the road were we spotted a bear crossing the road in front of several cars on the hillside above us.  By the time we got to the same spot he was more interested in foraging in the brush, so all we could see was the top of his back.

27We came back through the lottery check point and were amazed at the difference in climate from one area to the other as we looked back across the landscape at this pull off.

28There were several more wildlife sightings before we left the park including this strutting male grouse who caused another slowdown in traffic and a small herd of caribou, including a few who had radio transmitters like the ones described in the exhibit at the welcome center.

29

30A bit further, we encountered a massive traffic jam which meant there had to be something big nearby that was causing everyone to stop on the road.  I hopped out to investigate while the Hubs navigated the congestion.  A few steps from the truck I spotted antlers in the brush.  At first I thought they were a shed from a bull last season, but then I saw them move and realized they were still very much attached.

31I rounded the bend to see this cow standing nearby and a few more steps brought the bull into full view.

3233He was absolutely stunning there in the colorful grasses.  He didn’t seem to interested in his crowd of admirers and neither did his female companion.  So when the Hubs had finished making his way through the congestion I bid them farewell and hopped back into the truck.

34We headed back to the hotel so our friends could pick up their vehicle and head home for a final exam the next day.  While we were in the parking lot with them we noticed just how dirty the truck had gotten on the back-country roads.

dirtytruckThe mud was so caked on that you couldn’t even read the magnet sign for my photography business on the tailgate!  I took the rare opportunity to leave a message for other highway travelers as we headed home, much to the Hub’s dismay.

dirtytruckmsgAlthough our friends had to head out, we decided to enjoy one more meal with the view.  Since the Hubs was driving, I ordered my new favorite liquid libation.  Made with an Alaskan wine, this drink is a very simple sangria mixture which is probably why I like it so much.  In fact we bought a bottle of the wine used so I can have them at home occasionally and will know what to buy when this one runs out!

drinkIt was the perfect ending to our little get away.  And thanks to the very nice ranger at the welcome center who pointed out that we could buy an annual pass for the same price we expected to pay for the per head pass this time we can come back to enjoy the park again through next September!  Although we won’t be able to access the entire road system, it would be nice to see the park in the other seasons and compare the differences.  There just might be a few more weekend getaways coming up next year to this destination! 😉

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