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Scottish Highlands

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The Highlands is the Scotland I imagined in my dreams. We drove from Stirling Castle north to the highlands. The drive was about 3 hours past rolling countryside, green hills, farms and small villages. As we grew closer, the hills grew steeper and the vistas longer. Lyn’s extensive travel knowledge once again brought us to a marvelous destination. Once we saw the glimmers of the lake, the homes grew more and more magnificent.

We stopped at a beautiful country inn, a former estate. Wandering through, we settled on a boathouse restaurant. It was charming! We enjoyed one of the most delicious bowls of clam chowder I can remember along with spectacular onion rings. Outside, small boats glided past. A nod to the affluence of the resort included a sea plane and a helecopter.

After enjoying our lunch, we drove north

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Scotland: In the Footsteps of Royalty – Stirling Castle

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While on a trip to Scotland, my husband Lyn and I visited Edinburgh, Scotland. We had hoped to spend more time, but our itinerary included Stirling Castle, Edinburgh the “jewel of Scotland” and the Scottish Highlands in one day!

We awoke early to make the trip to Stirling Castle. We arrived even before stores were open in town. We found a restaurant featuring “American breakfast”. Given that it was rainy, we lingered as long as we could. The roads leading up to the castle were narrow and one way (previously for horse-drawn carriages). Stirling Castles was built on a high point allowing it to command lands all around it. Stirling was the center of art, culture and celebrity in the 1600s.

Stirling Castle brings history to life. While there, you become acquainted with the people who lived and were imprisoned there. Guides share about the plots, passion, intrigue and high fashion of the inhabitants. Historical reenactors brought people and history to life.

After parking, we came towards the Forework gate. Once inside, a large cobblestone courtyard unfolded with gardens on the left and another gate higher up the hill. The entire castle was built on a hill – it seemed we were going up hill the entire time. The great hall featured soaring ceilings. It was the largest banquest hall in Scotland. The palace unfolded with receiving rooms, bedrooms and private areas for royalty. Mary Queen of Scots lived at Stirling for much of her life.

When we came inside the Chapel Royale, we were treated to a beautiful children’s chorus:


After the Chapel Royale, we visited the Scottish Clan museum. It was so intersting to see the tartans, the beautiful dining rooms for celebrations and the history of those who protected the royalty. We found the tartans and history for the “Baxters”, “Aiken” and others we recognized. I didn’t find “Ballantine”, my ancestors, but I was given a poem about the tartan of the Ballantine’s:


The Grey Hill Plaid
by James Ballantine
ballantine plaid
Tho’ cauld and drear our muirland hame
Amang the wreaths o’ snaw,
Yet love here lowes wi’ purer flame
Than lights the lordly ha’;
For ilka shepherd’s chequer’d plaid
Has room enough for twa,
And coshly shields his mountain maid
Frae a’ the blasts that blaw.
Then hey the plaid! the grey hill plaid,
That haps the heart sae true;
Dear, dear to every mountain maid,
Are plaid an’ bonnet blue.

What tho’ we’re few upon the muir,
We lo’e each other mair,
And to the weary wanderin’ puir
We’ve comfort aye to spare.

The heart that feels for ither’s woes
Can ne’er keep love awa’;
And twa young hearts, when beating close,
Can never lang be twa.
Then hey the plaid! the grey hill plaid,
That haps the heart sae true;
Dear, dear to every mountain maid,
Are plaid an’ bonnet blue.

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Scotland: Golf at Turnberry; Visit to Robert Burns Home & Poetry Reading

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Well, our clubs finally made it to Scotland on our last day. Lyn extended by a day so that he could play one round of golf. It was going to be “we”, but I didn’t think we should pay for my golfing. I was just as happy to be caddy and photographer.

Initially, it didn’t look like Lyn was going to get out onto the Ailsa course, the main and famous course at Turnberry. It is his favorite golf course in the world. My heart was breaking for him. I happened to mention to the man who brought our dinner that we weren’t able to get on and he said he would look into it. Within an hour, we got a call that we could come to the course for an 8am tee time.

Rain was predicted, so I bundled into rain pants, multiple layers, rain coat and rain hat. It turned out to be clear! Still, with the stiff ocean breezes, I was glad I had a solid windbreak.

Named after the third Marquess of Ailsa, who owned the land on which it was built, it is easy to see why this is one of golf’s storied places. By the end of the round, we had walked over 8 miles! Home to four Open Championships, Ailsa has shaped some of the most remarkable moments in the tournament’s history. While we were there, the tents were being set up for the European Open tournament. Throughout the Clubhouse, photos of famous players line the hallways.

Things are different at Turnberry and it seems this way at all courses in Scotland. People walk. Golf carts are only used with a medical waiver and, even then, only on certain courses. The emphasis is on nature and purity of play. It was quite unpretentious for being Turnberry after all. You can walk right up to the 18th green, people walk their dogs through the course and down to the beach and families quietly strolled through with children hand in hand. Young children are clearly used to golf – you can see them sprinting as soon as a golfer hits his tee shot.

We arrived at the starter shed before anyone else. The starter was a tall, kind, enthusiastic Scottsman in his senior years. He warmly greeted us and presented Lyn with a starter package. It was a very cute light blue tartan bag with a scorecard, yardage book, tees and a pencil.

The holes at Turnberry have funny names which are Scottish words such as:

#2: Mak Siccar (Make Sure)
#3: Blaw Wearie (Out of Breath)
#13: Tickly Tap (Tricky little stroke)

We made our way to the #4 tee to start by walking along the holes 1-3. We started out on hole #4 due to a shot-gun style start. This gave a taste of the challenges ahead. This holes was named “Woe-Be-Tide”. It ran right along the ocean.

All I heard was water. there were no sounds of engines, people talking or distant parties from homes along the courses we typically play. Just stillness.

Its first three holes pose a fairly tough opening, particularly when the wind blows from the direction of its namesake, the brooding isle of Ailsa Craig, 11 miles out to sea. It is said that if you can’t see Ailsa Craig, it’s raining. If you can see it, it is about to rain. From the 4th to the 11th, the coastal scenery is magnificent and the course is demanding. Lyn had several incredible drives and a few birdies. There were a few lost balls and I quickly learned there is NO finding them.

Lyn had one experience in the famous pot bunkers of Turnberry. It bounced off the top. They really are a thing of beauty and engineering (if you are not a golfer).

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We had been told that the course was busy, but we rarely saw other players. It was refreshing to play without golf carts. Pushing a cart and walking up to your last shot this way really gives a different sense of preparation and stillness.

The 5th to the 8th holes are framed by sandy hillocks. You can hear the ocean hitting the rocks on the otherside, but you can’t see the surf. Leaving the 5th, you climb a big hill to reach the #6 tee, “Tappie Toorie (Hill to the top)”. Emerging from the 6th, the lighthouse comes into view.

The 9th, 10th and11th are flanked by craggy rocks. #9, “Bruce’s Castle”, is called the “Pebble Beach of Scotland”. On its stony ridge on the edge of the sea, the 9th hole is Turnberry’s trademark. The landmark lighthouse casts shadows over the 13th century ruins of Bruce’s Castle, the reputed birthplace of Scotland’s hero king Robert the Bruce. I am not sure this fable is true because Donald Trump is about to put a green through it. There is a narrow path to the tee. The drive must be perfectly straight or it will land in the rocks below. Lyn had no problem.

While the rocks came come into play, it was fun to play a course without trees. I am used to hearing the crack of a golf ball hitting a tree somewhere during my rounds. Here you can see across fairways and there are no tree lines.

Hole #10 was my favorite, Dinna Fouter (Don’t Mess About). It ran along the ocean and had an island bunker (picture a donut of a bunker). Not sure what would happen if you landed on the island….

IMG_9184

Hole #12 is called Monument. This hole get it’s name from the monument on the hill that commemorates the airmen who lost their lives while stationed at Turnberry during the World Wars. It’s interesting to note that the whole course and region was heavily involved in WW2. Some of the fairways were converted to landing strips, and the hotel was used as a hospital to treat the wounded. You can see photos inside the hotel from these days.

All through the course, you can always see the Scottish flag flying high and the hotel comes into view from #15 on. Ca’ Canny (Take care), #15, is a par 3 with very steep sides going down to a creek.

The 17th, named Lang Whang, Long whack, is the only par 5 on the course. A short but challenging hole, its subtle contours slightly obstruct each shot-characteristic of the trickery of Turnberry. I would run ahead to keep an eye on his ball.

On the 18th, Duel in the Sun, with the red-roofed hotel in sight to distract, gorse running down the right side and small dunes peeking up just enough to block your view of the landing zone, finding the fairway is even more difficult. Not for Lyn; however, he was on the green in two.

We finished up on #3. Lyn had an amazing drive and excellent putting. He finished the day just over 80. He was very pleased.

11,000 steps and nearly 8 miles of walking, we hobbled a bit getting back to the clubhouse. Lunch in the restaurant, “Duel in the Sun” of soup and sandwiches hit the spot. Coming out after lunch, I smelled the sea air again and was reminded how much the ocean and this course are in harmony.

After golfing, we contemplated going for a hottub and a nap, but we decided to do some more sightseeing. I wanted to see Robert Burns’ birthplace and museum. Robert Burns, as you may remember, is a famous Scottish poet. It was very inspiring.

When we returned, we had a drink in the lobby sitting in the window. We were treated to a Robert Burns poetry reading complete with a charming man in a kilt. As he finished, a bagpiper began (in pouring rain) piping and marching in front of the hotel back and forth for about a half an hour.

As I write this, the wind howls outside our windows. I can see the grey Firth of Clyde from the windows. It matches the heavy grey clouds above. It stays dark until nearly 10:30pm here. Golfers play in the rain and even into the dark…

Another Honeymoon Everyday!

Ca’ Canny!

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Arriving at Trump Turnberry – Turnberry, Scotland

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After a nightmare travel experience with our bags still missing, we had been awake for two full days. From Glasgow airport, we drove to a “TKMaxx” (that’s not a typo, in the U.S. we say “T.J. Maxx”) to find a few emergency clothes and toiletries (little did we know we didn’t need them after all given the sweet staff at Turnberry). The hotel’s directions begin to hint at the enchantment and adventure to come:

80km/50 miles
Driving time: approximately 1 hour

Take the M77/A77 southbound from Glasgow signposted to Kilmarnock
Continue on the A77 southbound through the outskirts of Ayr
Follow the A77 southbound through Minishant, Maybole and Kirkoswald
2 miles after Kirkoswald, take the right-hand turn signposted to Turnberry
After half a mile, take a right-hand turn into the hotel driveway

As we drove through the roundabouts in each town, the towns grew more quaint and the meadows extended. We arrived in the late afternoon with the sun setting which turned the fields golden and shimmering. While eager to get to the resort (and exhausted!) we made one stop at an anciet abbey, Crossraguel. Crossraguel Abbey is one of the best preserved, most varied and most interesting of the many abbey ruins that are dotted across Scotland. It is just to the south of the A77, about two miles south west of Maybole. As we drove away from Maybole, we saw Baltersan Castle on our left.

Once we turned onto the hotel driveway, the beautifully-manicured lawns hinted that the resort wasn’t far. The golf courses of Scotland are rolling and look like elegant lawns as seen from afar. Just beyond the beautiful grass the Irish Sea waves crashed on the rocky shore. To the right, Trump Turnberry came into view. Sitting atop a high hill, the resort looks like a sweeping country home. The driveway brings you across the resort climbing the hill providing sweeping views of the golf course and the ocean. The hotel entrance is nestled in the center of the property surrounded by two wings of the hotel. A circular driveway surrounds a fountain. Two doormen in full Scottish regalia greeted us with a cheery brogue and personally escorted us inside directly to our room. We didn’t linger long as we were famished and we knew if we even sat down – we wouldn’t get back up again. We walked to the main dining room and enjoyed a glass of wine, the sunset and a classic Scottish meal: Fish and chips with “mushy peas”. Delicious!

After dinner, we wearily collapsed into bed at Trump Turnberry. Our room was true to the resort’s aristocratic roots from the turn of the 20th century. Trump Turnberry’s guest room description is worth sharing,

“Inspired by traditional stately homes, each room features an indigenous selection of tweeds and tartan. Scottish curtains are complemented by cashmere throws made in Ayr, just a few miles from Turnberry. Surrounding the room’s centrepiece—a sparkling Austrian chandelier—are rich mahogany furnishings with exquisite gold-leaf accents, as well as a 65-inch flat screen TV. Hand-carved walnut-burl mahogany beds are accompanied by handcrafted bedside tables. Choose from a king-size, one queen, or two twin beds—some with beautiful canopies inspired by Turnberry’s indigenous tartan. The marble bathroom boasts a spacious walk-in shower adorned with Italian marble and solid brass fittings. Most of these rooms also include an indulgent freestanding tub. Morning rituals are enhanced by premium Arran Aromatics bath amenities.”

We awoke the next morning just after 10am. I took my second bath in the “indulgent freestanding tub”! Lyn ordered room service of “Scottish Breakfast”. Everything came on an elegant trolley with a linen tablecloth, china, sparkling glasses and silver coffee service (so grateful we get all meals at 50% through Starwood!) . Scottish breakfast consisted of small homemade English muffins (more like a thick crepe about the size of a small jar lid than our wonder-bread-like big circles), a fluffy sausage (I know that sounds strange, but the sausage was light and airy) topped with a beautiful egg (the yolk was the color of an apricot!). The hearty toast was arranged in a silver caddy that resembled a CD holder, only just for toast! We savored our breakfast in our bright and sunny bedroom planning our day. Since golf was not in the cards (clubs and bags still missing), we opted for sight seeing.

After breakfast, we drove to Culzean (pronounced “cull+aine”) Castle. Culzean Castle sits on the top of steep cliffs overlooking the Firth (Bay) of Clyde. The firth of Clyde runs between Arran Island and the mainland of Scotland. We turned off the A719, a beautiful country road passing fields of gently-blowing wheat, sheep and cows and charming homes. A tree-lined long driveway leads past fields, a deer meadow, walled garden and then to a compact parking area. As we arrived, families were already setting up picnics all around. One thing I was struck by and I found touching were the multiple generations of families traveling together. Most famililes had three generations and some four! Grandchildren (many Scottish redheads) patiently held onto their grandparent’s canes; grandparents pushed their grandchildren’s “push chairs” (their word for strollers). Through the very formal castle, a small lego man was hidden in each room of the castle to keep children entertained. No wonder the Europeans appreciate their history!

The 17th Century castles starts with an extraordinary armory room with swords, guns and military items artfully arranged on the walls. We then walked through a beautiful library. The Scots choose to build low bookcases in several rooms so that the walls can be used for art. Fresh flowers from the gardens filled each room. We witnessed some of the “flower ladies” carefully watering an arrangement. Throughout the library and all rooms were reminders that a family lived in the castle, family photos of children, couples and families at all ages and time periods were placed throughout. The dining room featured portraits of all of the Marquesses of Culzean which led to early decedents of the Kennedy family. One thing I was struck by was a small glass bowl with lips on either side at the head of each dish. Evidently, glass was very expensive at the time. Glasses were rinsed in these special dishes whenever wine was changed.

Other highlights of Culzean were the bells placed in each room to summon the servants downstairs. Beautiful handles next to beds and dining tables were as beautiful as the chandeliers or silver. There was a child’s bed made to look like a small boat. Even the bathtubs were lovely.

The gardens of Culzean unfolded behind walled gardens, the lower terraces of the castle and throughout the property. Gardens are maintained by the National Trust for Scotland Garden Trust. Trust properties represent almost every style of Scottish garden history – ranging from the late medieval herbal, kitchen garden to be found at Culross Palace, the extravagant Georgian expanses of Culzean and Victorian formalities at Haddo and the House of Dun to the new ideas and varieties coming forth in the early 20th century at places like the ‘Secret Garden’ at Arduaine and Priorwood in the Scottish Borders (all places to put on our “garden bucket list”!)

After the castle, we drove to Balmoral Mill in Galston. The Mill has sustained the town since the 1700s. They made carpets, plaid, lace, stockings, damask and other fabrics of all kinds. Now, they make knit fabrics. We visited the coffee shop afterwards which looked more like a tea room. Though we arrived a half hour before closing, the lady running the place was clearly not ready for new visitors. She apologized later for “throwing the coffee at us”. This was our only bad case of inhospitableness since our arrival. On the whole, the Scottish are a very friendly people.

Coming home, we drove to Troon and then along the ocean. We drove past Royal Troon golf course (actually, there is a golf course here about every three miles, some just have beautiful clubs with them). Even on the side of the road you see people carrying golf clubs. On the golf courses, people push trolleys. There are no carts.

We took the coastal road from Troon towards Ayr. The towns are very orderly and charming. They look a bit like a cross between Georgetown and Philadelphia.

One of the interesting things we came across by accident was a “Holiday Park”. These dot the landscape just outside of most major cities. In desperate search of a potty break, we came across mecca for families. If I ever travel here with our kids, I would seriously consider this. The parks are essentially orderly streets surrounding a central entertainment area. The lots have what we would call trailers, but they are far more charming than that. Each has nice architectural details, porches, window boxes and other cute items. We stopped in one of the central areas and walked into an open area with indoor badmitten, trampolines, playground, art area and families of all ages. Like the most amazing campground you’ve ever seen only everywhere.

Traveling back towards Turnberry, we passed many beautiful meadows. At sunset, the sun strikes the wheat in such a way as to make it seem that it glows. You can see the pattern of the wind swaying and swirling the grains almost like an invisible hand is gently caressing the field. We stopped many times to photograph sheep, cows and picturesque vistas of the Firth of Clyde. Along the way we drove through the “Electric Brae”, a section of the road where your car can appear to roll uphill if in neutral (we didn’t try it!).

Before coming home, we drove past Turnberry towards Girvan. We arrived just as the fisherman had come in for the day. Seagulls were swirling and darting in hopes of catching scraps the fisherman tossed into the water. The boats were beautifully colored and artfully named. A man walking his dog offered us the passcode to the pier so that we could clamor up and watch everything from a great vantage point.

One thing about the Scottish accent, I can HARDLY understand them. From my first encounter at the Hertz counter, I find myself staring at the person to make out a few words. While it is English, it is SO accented and so varying in tone, I can’t make out much of it except for “Okay” which they pronounce like “Uh – KAY!” The rental car still terrifies me with Lyn driving on the right and me sitting on the left. Every time we made a turn my heart leaps thinking we are driving into oncoming traffic :)

After our magical day, we dined in the beautiful Turnberry dining room. To start, Lyn ordered smoked salmon. It was sliced thin and placed on a white plate. To the side were thin slices of brown bread, sour cream, diced onion and capers. For dinner, Lyn had a filet and I lamb (I know, a bit strange after having photographed cows and sheep all day). Again, we were grateful for the “starhot” discount.

Tomorrow we drive to the highlands. We leave at 4am. I am totally off on my time. Lyn is hoping to get back and play some golf tomorrow. His clubs still haven’t arrived :(. At least our suitcases are here.

One good thing about missing bags is that you realize how little you actually need….

Scotland is a romantic, calming and magical place. The air is cool. Even when it rains it feels gauzy and gentle, not hard droplets. We are both relaxed.

I’d better turn in. I’ll write about our first day at some point. It was a hellish nightmare which I hardly remember due to not having much sleep, multiple missed flights and no bags. Perhaps I’ll never write about it?

Still on our Honeymoon Everyday!

Links:

Trump Turnberry
Crossraguel Abbey
Culzean Castle and Country Gardens

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The Hague, Netherlands – a royal city.

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Hotel des Indes seen from Lange Voorhout.  A beautiful hotel in the Starwood Luxury Collection.
Hotel des Indes seen from Lange Voorhout. A beautiful hotel in the Starwood Luxury Collection.

We traveled to The Hague from Aalsmere floral market. The Countryside was very flat with windmills dotting the landscape. I nearly caused Lyn to swerve the car when I exclaimed seeing the first windmill. The amount of wind in the Netherlands was evident from seeing the windmills turning. We even saw a field of birch all growing in the same direction.

The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, has an elegance about it. It is, in fact, a royal city. There are palaces along with embassys from many countries. The Hague is also known for its peace and human rights commitments. There is even a peace palace, The Vredespalais.

We had planned to stop by the Central Train Station, but we couldn’t find it. The signs disappeared that we were following and our navigation wasn’t helpful. The Hague is a combination of old and new. Centuries old buildings lining the canals with tall buildings in the distance. The buildings in the center of the city were very innovative. Architects seem to get their way…

Our hotel, once a large palace, sat at the end of a park lined with stately homes and establishments in both directions. It must be very pretty in the spring and fall. The park was beautiful in winter too. With no leaves on the trees, we could see sweeping views across.

Hotel Des Indes (pronounced “Hotel ‘Days’+’Ahn’) gleamed. The hotel is a warm yellow and the front entrance gleams from the polished brass revolving door, lanterns and other accents. Formal doormen greeted us. One took our car and luggage. The other stood holding the door and pushed it as we went through. We walked underneath the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland and Belgium.

Once inside, a sparkling chandelier in the foyer led us up to the registration area which consisted a desk with efficient-looking (blond and very Dutch looking) attendants. Each guest was comfortably seated (a nice change from standing in line). They said things like, “It will be very wonderful to have you for the length of your stay which will be no more than two nights, yes?” “You will leave your luggage here because your room involves steps. Come, I will show you.” “Should you wish to have high tea or afternoon tea or your dinner, please let me know so that I can notify my colleagues to welcome you….”

Staircases (perfect for making a very grand entrance) made their way down to the lobby foyer, down to the restaurant, into the ballrooms. Once could imagine the Queen (she used the hotel for hosting State guests), nobility and other special guests coming down these steps. We decided these grand staircases were a far better way of moving about than a (very tiny) “lift” (elevator).

Once settled in our room, we walked back to the train station to retrieve our Holland pass. We like to buy museum passes in cities not only for the discounted admission, but with the passes you can also find charming cafes (and clean restrooms).

The double-decker bicycle “lot” gave us a hint of how many bikes we would see on our visit to the Netherlands. Out in front of the train station was a parking garage equivalent for bikes. Astonishing looking.

Due to the canals weaving their way through many Dutch cities, one is never far from a stroll next to water. Right in the heart of the city there are ducks, wetlands and pretty park trails for walking and bicycling. We learned quickly to discern the two!

Just along the path was a one-story building that looked a bit like Tavern on the Green. The name hinted of pancakes (which I read we must try) and I declared a stop for lunch. We ordered a Kaas en Ham (crepe with ham and cheese) and proffertjes kleine portie naturel (beignets with butter and powered sugar). Not the healthiest of lunches (which we regretted later), but both dishes were delicious and we were starved. Outside our window, an endless flow of bicycles entertained us including one man with a suitcase on his handlebars. I was enchanted by the families.

We came home and took a much-needed nap (at this point we had not slept for nearly 20 hours). I. Could. Not. Go. Any. Further. The plan was to go to Delft, but a bath and crash was in order. A planned one hour turned into four. By the time we awoke, it was 5:30 and we felt a bit hungry. Also, we didn’t want to miss the afternoon tea (which we had heard so much about).

After tea, we walked through the hotel admiring the beautiful decor designed by the owners over the years. We saw the guest book signed by many famous people including several Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bing Crosby.

After tea, we decided to take a walk through the neighborhood near our hotel. Seeing the canals in the evening was such a treat. The shop windows so artfully designed felt like being in a whimsical gallery. While it wasn’t raining, there was a light mist falling which made for a dreamy setting. The street lights cast glowing pools of light on the water and the streets. If it weren’t so charming, one could easily imagine someone turning a corner and the shadow casting its way down an entire block.

Before heading back, we found a little market for some nibbles and juice for the morning.

Just about the moment I typed my final words for this memory, I fell into bed and hardly moved until the next morning.

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Cairn – rock stacking and other international traditions

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Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland
Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland

While traveling through Switzerland, we saw many rock formations. We were particularly enchanted by the man-made formations sometimes seeming to defy gravity. In Zermatt, another theme is finding rocks resembling the Matterhorn. These rocks adorn rooftops, serve as table centerpieces, mark entrances to homes, restaurants and hotels.

A welcoming cairn (rock stacking) in Zermatt, Switzerland
A welcoming cairn (rock stacking) in Zermatt, Switzerland

I read up about this phenomenon and learned that Cairns have been built since prehistoric times to mark graves, to mark trails and even to mark the divisions between countries. In Europe, Cairns most commonly mark hiking and biking trails. They have even been built to note land outcroppings and noted on navigational charts. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing, “Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn” translates to, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn”. It is believed that the Highland Clans, before they fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. (Credit Wikipedia/Cairn). In German and Dutch (my heritage), the cairns are anthropomorphized refering to “large man” or “small man”.

Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland seen on a rooftop terrace.
Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland seen on a rooftop terrace.

Looking out from our hotel balcony in Zermatt, Switzerland at the Walliserhoff, we noticed a cairn on the rooftop terrace across from us. Each day we were there, the tower of balanced rocks grew higher.

Along the shores of Lake Zurich, you can see incredible formats which appear to be held together with glue or cement, but they are all balanced.

Rock stacking along Lake Zurich (photo courtesy Happy Scientist)
Rock stacking along Lake Zurich (photo courtesy Happy Scientist)

Back home in Maryland, I can now appreciate the unique rock formations adorning my neighbors front lawn, rock wall and front doorway. She is from Switzerland. Another clue to her European-ness is seeing her outside nearly every day with her daughter regardless of the weather.

Suggested links:
Read more about Cairns
The Happy Rock Stacking Tradition in Switzerland by HappyScientist

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Why you should write a letter with your will (my most popular Pinterest pin)

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I once posted this on Pinterest and it is my most popular “repinned” pin of all time.

Leave some words of comfort with your will.  Photo credit:   http://professorjaszczerski.wordpress.com/
Leave some words of comfort with your will. Photo credit: http://professorjaszczerski.wordpress.com/

Elsie Baxter Heckel, my children’s grandmother and a lovely woman, mother, grandmother, aunt and sibling, did an amazing thing. In the same file where she kept her will, she also collected inspirational articles, quotes, photographs and special letters. I remember how comforting it was for her family to find this file when the time came. It made it helpful to write her eulogy knowing the quotes and things she found inspiring (of course she had also mailed many special things).

I am reminded of this as I am preparing for our next trip and making sure that we have all of our “affairs in order”. Of course, we are focused on trip planning and the fun stuff, but it is also a good mark in time to do some paperwork housekeeping.

Most people have their will in a logical place and, surrounding that, all other important documents (article on the 25 documents you should have in order).

However, most people don’t keep in that same place things that would provide some comfort to their family and friends who must go through such things should something occur.

All of us probably have a file of special letters, quotes, memorabilia, etc. But do you keep it anywhere near your important documents? If not, consider keeping the “best of” near your will. These days, so much is electronic that there will be an electronic archive – at least for a while – that captures your best Facebook-worthy or Pinterest moments, but after a while those sites stop being populated and who knows whether those sites will exist long into the future.

It goes without saying that having a copy in a safety deposit box or with an attorney is an important added measure of peace of mind.

It pains me to write this, but a huge percentage of Americans do not have a will. Never got around to writing one. If you are in that percentage, PLEASE, rectify that now. You do not need official legal help. You can follow some simple sites to create your own.

Write a letter. Do it now. And share this with your friends….

Helpful links:
Writing a will
Emergency Plan – every HOME and VACATION needs one.

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Emergency Plan – every great vacation (and home) needs one.

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Every vacation needs an emergency plan...
Every vacation needs an emergency plan…

This may seem like a “downer” topic for a blog about travel, food and other pleasures of life; however, I make this post in memory of and to honor the memory of the Pyle family. And because a hotel near-disaster hit me a little too close to home.

In January, 2015, in the middle of a cold winter night, the Pyle grandparents and four of their grandchildren perished as a result of a raging four-alarm fire in their home after spending a happy outing together. The family tells that the grandparents bought costumes for the children and they attended a meal together at Medeival Times. Sometime in the middle of the night, their neighbor (an acquaitance of my family for many years) awoke to find his bedroom glowing orange from the light of the Pyle home burning. Fire boats could be seen racing down the river. The fire burned all night and left nothing other than a chimney, the outline of the home and twisted metal. The home was called “The Castle”.

As of this writing, the cause of the accident is still under investigation. Foul play is not suspected. The fire made international news for the tragedy of so many members of a family lost as well as the elegance of the home (designed to look like a castle). I’ll spare links to the images except for one to emphasize my point about why you should have an emergency plan.

Pyle family lost six in house fire.

News reports have said that there were not fire detectors. This seems odd for a multi-million dollar home not to have the most advanced fire protection. Assuming this is true, having and regularly TESTING fire alarms may have made a difference.

Have and maintain fire detectors. Test them regularly. When clocks change, replace batteries — and conduct a fire drill with your family.

What if this type of fire happened on vacation? It could happen in any hotel. In my own community, there is a hotel that had a carbon monoxide scare (from a clothes dryer with a faulty venting system) that sickened two workers and several guests. Had the leak occurred at night, there could have been devastating loss of life. I know intimate details about this emergency because my husband works at the hotel where it happened. The hotel took every precaution and, thankfully, there was no loss of life. This hotel is now one of the safest in the region because – did you know – hotels built before 2012 are not required to have carbon monoxide detectors. This hotel now has them everywhere in addition to fire protection. Another hotel in Pennsylvania had a late night scare.

CO2 Alarm for travel
CO2 Alarm for travel

Consider traveling with a portable fire and carbon monoxide detector. After the fire in the hotel near me, several of the airline flight crews began including them in their travel essentials.

Even if this were in English, it probably would not help you much in the middle of the night with people shouting in another language.
Even if this were in English, it probably would not help you much in the middle of the night with people shouting in another language.

So, what can you do at home or traveling? Have an emergency plan. At most hotels, there will be a map posted on the inside door of your hotel room. For good measure – and for exercise – consider walking that route at least once during your stay. Plus, you’ll probably get some extra exercise taking the stairs. If a true emergency comes about, knowing the way out could be a lifesaver. Having been evacuated from two hotels in the middle of the night, I strongly suggest always hanging your warm coat in a convenient place so that you can find it in a hurry. Also, having a grab and go travel safe can be helpful when dashing out of rooms quickly.

Trip insurance often provides medical evacuation.  We came close to needing this!
Trip insurance often provides medical evacuation. We came close to needing this!

My mother, while traveling to Mexico, had a very bad fall. Fortunately, she did not break anything, but she discovered quickly the gaps in coverage and care in a foreign country. As a result of this, my husband and I looked into trip insurance and found that the coverages were reasonable and would save us far more than additional insurance we had to purchase for our rental car. We are using an AIG product for our next trip which covers changes in flight plans, medical evacuation, rental car coverage (saving us as much as the premium costs) and other features for both peace of mind and practical convenience.

Finally, before you leave home, be sure that a trusted friend or family member has a copy of your detailed itinerary. Furthermore, be sure all of your important documents are up-to-date. As accidents can and do happen at any time, it provides peace of mind at all times and some comfort to your survivors if something were to occur. Don’t forget to write a loving letter to accompany your will, but that’s for another post….

Recommended links:
BETA – emergency evacuation
U.S.-based FEMA Emergency Preparedness
FEMA Emergency Supply List (PDF)
Travel CO2 Alarm
Passport Office Safety Advice
Travel Safe
International Travel Insurance (includes medical evacuation, rental car and other great coverages)

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Baja Fish Tacos (Food-truck inspired)

Just like in Baja California from the food trucks at the beach, a fresh and flavorful fish taco.
Just like in Baja California from the food trucks at the beach, a fresh and flavorful fish taco.

It took me 43 years to discover fish tacos. I loved traditional tacos and so never ventured beyond them to discover the unique and fresh creation that is a traditional Baja fish taco. My first was in San Diego, California from a food truck (with a VERY long line) at the beach. I was HOOKED. Since then, I’ve been on a hunt for the “perfect” fish taco. The good news is, unlike a traditional taco, a fish taco can be made at home and tastes close to – if not better than – the original. I’ve made some substitution suggestions along the way.

Live. Love. Travel….