Beyond the Isle of Skye

We were headed to Scotland and thus faced with the usual dilemma—deciding where to go and what to see. Our first thought was to go to the Isle of Skye. I’d heard about it for years, seen the photo of the famous castle at water’s edge, etc. and thought it would be a natural destination for this trip. Plus it has a neat-sounding name. “Isle of Skye” conjures up all sorts of misty and mystical images in my mind.

It turns out that it’s pretty darn difficult to get oneself to the Isle of Skye. It is at the northern tip of Scotland, and from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, it would be pretty much a full-day journey. Once on Skye, transport options were also a bit limited. Bus service didn’t seem to be that frequent and we were’t particularly interested in renting a car. (Despite living in Hong Kong for six years, the thought of driving on the left gives me the heebie-jeebies.) With just 10 days, we didn’t want to devote two simply to transport.

So we looked elsewhere and discovered a whole other section of the Inner Hebrides that was well worth visiting. A friend suggested the Isle of Mull, which is much closer to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Isle of Mull, which it turns out is the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides (after Skye)  but fourth largest Scottish island, proved to be a great base for exploring land and sea.

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This map’s waterproof feature proved to be very handy!

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Austin IS Weird

One of the things we’d heard about Austin was the slogan Keep Austin Weird*. Having never been, and looking for a place that would be relatively warm in early January, we decided to go. We were very wrong on the weather— just bad luck that they were having unusually cold temperatures—but right on the money with our decision to check the city out. Quirky but sprawling, Austin is definitely “weird” and in a very good way.

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A Texas-size welcome Photo: C. George

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On Foot and In Depth

Oh my. It’s been three years since that trip to Sweden, and three years since that last post. I have no idea where that time went, but it sure has gone quickly. During that time we have been to many places and had many adventures; more about those later—fingers crossed!

One thing that I have discovered during that time—and have begun utilizing and touting ever since—is the free tour phenomenon. These are walking tours where there is no fixed cost; instead you tip your guide what you thought the tour was worth to you.

The first time I had heard of a free walking tour was late in 2015, when I joined one in Riga. It was a city I had never been to in a region I had not been to, and my travel buddy and I were interested in learning as much as we good about it.

In short, it was fabulous. Our guide had a wonderful sense of humour and a way with the crowd. He spoke excellent English because he had been a youth hockey player and traveled many places to tournaments, including the US, a place that mesmerised him.

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Tweets from the Sled

We recently took a four-day dogsledding trip in Northern Sweden as part of our quest to see the Northern Lights. Our number one instruction was “Always have one hand on the sled”, and since I don’t have the talent to tweet with one hand, much less with one hand in winter gloves while cruising along at 10-15 kilometers per hour, I stored all my Tweet-like thoughts in my head and have compiled them here. Overall, they provide some insight as to what the experience was like!

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So here, in no particular order, are some random thoughts from the sled.

  • I love the smell of dog poop in the morning #dogsledding (with apologies to Robin Williams)
  • We followed a reindeer for ages – he didn’t cede the trail, we couldn’t pass
  • Reindeer have an incredibly awkward gait
  • Gorgeous blue color revealed when snow sections separate and sink
  • Knives are incredibly useful tools: poker, potholder, opener
  • Prettiest outhouse I’ve ever seen – or used
  • Love that lingonberry juice, especially warmed at lunch
  • Swedish children begin learning English in First Grade
  • Almond potatoes are a new find – they make great potato chips!
  • Candlelit walkway to the outhouse was a nice touch
  • I’ve never seen Styrofoam seats in an outhouse but they make perfect sense!
  • I can’t believe they let just anybody drive a dogsled
  • Saw the Northern Lights!
  • Sunlight makes the snow sparkle
  • Saw a moose!
  • These dogs are STRONG and they are happy to be home

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What’s an Architecture Fan to Do in Chicago?

Entry at Wilson Station, Chicago's Red Liine. Photo Courtesy Chicago Detours

Entry at Wilson Station, Chicago’s Red Line. Photo Courtesy Chicago Detours

It took me a long time to get to Chicago, a city I’d heard and read so much about in architectural history classes. When I finally made it, years ago, the first thing I did was head to the Chicago Architectural Foundation and sign up for one of their boat tours. We all – child, grandma, husband and self – loved it.

Today I just discovered Chicago Detours, a company offering bus and walking tours of Chicago’s history and architecture. This is is kind of stuff I just love, and so apparently do lots of other people looking to get more out of their travel experience. Next time I get to visit the Windy City, I won’t need to go to an office and sign up…I can do so from their website.

Nice to know that while technology has changed, Chicago’s committment to showcasing its fabulous architecture hasn’t!

Switzerland’s Strada Alta

You take the high road, I’ll take the low road… We were in Switzerland rather than Scotland, but we couldn’t help but repeat this refrain on our recent adventure in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

We had friends coming for a visit and knowing how dismal it can be in October in Basel, we decided to play it safe and head to the sunny side of Switzerland, as their very fun ad campaign calls it. The sun is very much a part of the culture of Ticino. It directed the way life developed there. There are vineyards and terraces, beautiful gardens. In fact, if not for the Swiss stores and the prices listed in francs, you would think you were in Italy proper.

We made a good decision: it was grey and rainy in Basel as we departed but when we came out of the tunnel into Ticino, the sky was blue and bright. Hooray!

along the Strada Alta

The Strada Alta (high route) is a trail in the Leventina Valley. To access it, we took a train from Bellinzona to Airolo, and then headed to the hills. The train did most of the uphill for us, so our 17 kilometer trek took us on an undulating path through a few villages. As usual in Switzerland, there are places to stop along the way for snacks and meals, making multi-day hikes a breeze to plan and easy to do, even with kids along.

The woman at the Leventina tourism office was very friendly and helpful. We were clearly not the first people to take this hike, but despite its popularity, we pretty much had the trail to ourselves, seeing just one couple during our hike. And lots of cows.

We spent the night in Osco in a dormitorio, then hiked out the following day. The poor weather caught up with us, but the forecast promised snow at higher elevations, which was extremely exciting for our friends from warmer climes. Of course the thought of it was better than having to deal with is and fortunately we were below the snow.

Back in Basel later that day, we went to the corn maze up in the Bruderholz, and from the platform in the center, we could see the fields of freshly fallen snow in the nearby hills. Winter is on its way!

If you go:

Book accommodation ahead if you’re going in the busy season as options are limited. You can find travel details at the Leventina Tourismo site.