Friday, January 1, 2016

Scotland - Part II

I was officially on my own. Headed northwest for Inverness, I cruised along the motorway in my silver Ford focus weaving in and out of traffic. A short two hours later I arrived at the capital of the Highlands. The trip was off to a good start as the manager of the hostel showed me where free parking was and gave me a small discount on my room.

Inverness is a small village nestled in the mouth of the Great Glen fault. I wandered around, immediately acknowledging this little town’s charm and allure.  Divided on either side of the Ness River, the town is filled with historic legacy and tradition. Crossing over the first suspension bridge I decided to go enjoy my meal of the day, as I was officially on backpacker budget, at a delectable little bistro that overlooked the ebony colored river. With a perfectly full stomach and light heart I carried on to St. James Cathedral where I kneeled and asked for health and happiness for all my loved ones.

As River Ness expands and evolves into Loch Ness a few small islands are scattered throughout. Delicately decorative iron bridges connect the islands together and to the mainland. I moseyed through them, surrounded by tall pines and hanging lanterns. The mixed perfume of earth and water was intoxicating.  Leaving this mini archipelago, I wandered over to the Inverness Castle with a clear view of a lush valley and the distinctive river. There I took a few pictures for a friendly French couples and chatted with an Italian family, taking in the familiar dose of European company.

 A dark cloud rolled in from the west, saturated with rain and impatiently waiting to burst. Within the first few drops I found myself next to Leakey’s Book Shop and entered for refuge. First came the smell of well-loved books, and then came the sight of thousands and thousands of books towering over a white haired man who sat next to a wood burning stove. There, in Leakey’s Book Shop, time stood still for a few hours while I got lost in the works of Robert Burns and J.M. Barrie.  Perusing the shelves and admiring the old maps, I imagined my library one day, hoping to encompass the magic that Leakey’s held. I spent the later afternoon on a footstool with a pile of old hard cover books, in my glory and perfectly content.

After Applecross, I was not sure if anything could live up to that epic pass, but to my pleasant surprise, the Highlands continued to impress. On an adrenaline high, I drove around Loch Carron, finding myself in a curvy tunnel of blooming rodedendrums. As the thick vegetation cleared, the one-way road led me to Plockton, a seaside village with palm trees and crystal clear water in its harbor. After spending some time looking out onto a lone island, I found a few shops selling local crafts and admired the pottery and paintings. The pang of missed opportunity reappeared. Always throughout my travels I find objects that I would one day love to have in my future home –local artwork, plateware, garden pots, pillow covers. Nevertheless, my life fits on my back and there is not much more room for house décor. So I reason to myself that I will just have to return one day to purchase that coveted sculpture. 

When I reached Skye Bridge, the overpass arched so drastically it seemed as though I was embarking on a roller coast ride. Finally on the famed Isle of Skye, I went straight to Portree where the bustle of the harbor town was a stark difference from the quiet, winding roads that led me there. The capital town sits on a hill and overlooks the harbor where seagulls loyally guard. Pastel painted houses enjoy the same view, as well as the constant appetizing smell of fish and chips being made in the taverns below.

 With the sun not setting until well after 10pm, time was on my side so I followed the signs to the Fairy Pools. The steely Cuillin Mountains met my gaze as they towered over me. A glistening stream poured out from their heart center, their essence collecting in the pools at their feet.

The path to the Fairy Pools crosses a few meandering streams with oversized stepping stones leading the way. The river of Glen Brittle escapes the domineering Cuillin Mountains and transforms from a silver riverbed to turquoise pools separated by small but mighty waterfalls. Although there were a handful of tourists about, I was in my own ethereal world while climbing up the mountain side. With every passing moment I was transported to Thailand, Croatia, or New Hampshire. Thailand’s layered waterfalls and pools, Croatia’s blue water, and New Hampshire’s White Mountain’s landscape revealed similar nuances within Scotland’s Fairy Pools. I climbed higher and higher, leaving the sparsely wandering tourists behind and watching the evolution of Glen Brittle go from enchanted to eerie. Away from anyone’s vantage point I found myself alone at the base of Cuillin, with the sun poking through the clouds and casting rays of golden light on these dominating giants.

A chill came and never left, marking my time for decent. I checked into Skye Walker Hostel where mixed nationalities and mixed ages congregated in the outdoor dome to swap travel advice and quietly hope to see the Northern Lights. After an evening of therapeutic writing and lively conversation, I retired to bed with an alarm set for 3am. The owner of the hostel received a Red Alert, noting that it was very likely that the Northern Lights would be visible that night. I woke minutes before my alarm sounded and silently slipped off the top bunk and tiptoed outside. To my shock, at 3am the sky was still a glowing grey. The sun set a few hours prior and was due to rise within the next three. Perhaps I missed the darkest point of night or perhaps it never came, nevertheless I returned to my bunk for a few more hours of rest before it was time to take off again.

I parked and exited my little silver car at one of the most peculiar sights. A wispy fog brushed up against me as I stood in the midst of Fairy Glen. Massive cones of layered earth were stacked around me. Rogue sheep grazed along the hills, oblivious to the magic of the space. At the heart of the glen was a placid pond with steam rolling off it. Fairy Glen is a place from another world, filled with a mischievous energy.  

I carried on North toward the Quiring without seeing another soul on the road. Awake and invigorated from the magic of Fairy Glen, I soared through the narrow roads to kneel at the foot of the massive Quiring. A fog so thick it could have been a velvet drape enclosed the canyon. Peaks of towering earth poked through the white curtains, daring the world outside to enter its depths.

After rounding the Isle’s peak I turned off the road to see Kilt Rock – another stop timed perfectly as other visitors were just leaving upon my arrival. Icy water poured over the side of the cliff into the sea that swelled below. The cliff-side has eroded into perfectly formed pleats, giving the view its name. Basking in the glory of the sea, my thoughts were drowned out by the roar of the rushing waterfall. Beyond a few lazy seagulls, the sea and sky merged into one infinite vision.

I was hesitant to leave Isle of Skye. I was under its spell and utterly captivated by the island. I am an optimistic realist and an extroverted introvert. My soul craves moments of recluse and Skye mirrors this mentality. I quickly pondered not returning my rented car in Edinburgh and hole up in a quiet village for the summer to write instead. Then flashbacks from the past housebound winter left me yearning for adventure and living on the go. I have found a few special places in my travels where time and space align, creating an open well of energy and inspiration. I tuck those places into the safe chests of my mind, knowing that I will return to them some day.

So I drove on with the Isle of Skye fading behind me and the mountains of Glencoe rising before me. Misty clouds hung around the necks of green peaks. Crags and valleys branded the vast landscape, allowing a lone farmhouse to share the land. I gasped with every turn, simply amazed by Mother Earth. I stopped every few miles to walk along a river bed, sit in front of a serene lake, or stand before the Three Sisters. Something greater than science, greater than the coincidence of perceived Creation, formed a landscape so pure.

Acres of bog and rolling mountains transformed into acres of hilly farmland and stone walls. With one turn onto a hidden road, a forest bloomed and engulfed the sparse cottages. I drove down a winding one way road for 15 miles to arrive at the middle of nowhere by Loch Lomond. Everything was wet with dew and vibrant green. 

My boots sunk into the soaked moss as I looked up at a log cabin where I knew a warm bed and a glass of wine were waiting for me. The owner-bartender-host-chef greeted me with a thick accent and a genuine smile. His banter kept me laughing past midnight until I finally held up my white flag and retreated to my bunk. The early rays of dawn reflected off the dew coated leaves and peacefully woke me from my slumber. That welcomed waking inspired a morning hike and run to explore. A narrow trail veered off of the property leading me up a small peak that overlooked Loch Lomond. The stillness of the water and the woods around me matched the stillness in my body. I hadn’t felt so much peace for such an extended period of time in a while. Taking another path that was clearly less traveled, I traipsed ankle deep in mud following animal tracks and shallow streams until I met a groomed path along the lake. Then I found my stride and ran along the water’s edge seeing Long Pond’s Moose Island and Breadloaf in the crisp reflection.

Eventually the time came for my Edinburgh homecoming for rest and reunions. As an official pro of round-abouts, I confidently drove back into the city and returned my loyal rental car that conquered the Highlands. Throughout that week I planned to meet up with Camp California friends from my first and last summers.

I met my petite Lucie at the train station and we strolled through side streets to sit in a quiet corner of a pub and effortlessly share each other’s world. From the moment I met her in sunny Croatia, her confidence, passion, and craze had me hooked. There is something about my French friend that tears down the walls I have defensively erected. I see a lot of myself within her and that has allowed us to build a friendship that is quite honest and raw. So we sat with ciders and skeletons and lifted each other’s burdens in that moment without question.

Lucie joined me to collect Nick at the train station who traveled North from England for the weekend to wander Edinburgh with me. Masses of people scurried around us but time stood still as we three came together, from separate worlds yet all connected by a small seaside village in Croatia. After a night of swapping camp stories from respective years, Lucie ventured off to a birthday celebration and Nick and I returned to the hostel. My heart was full from friends meeting and my camp lifespan coming full circle.

I met Nick my first summer in Croatia and we instantly bonded. Haircuts and boat day off excursions led to us backpacking with a group of friends through the Balkans. Traveling through Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Hungary together we discovered that we are perfectly compatible travel buddies. So when my favorite teddy bear of a friend arrived in Edinburgh I knew we would enjoy another adventure together. I hadn’t seen him in three years but upon our reunion it felt like only three weeks. We have always kept in touch and updating each other on life milestones and life trivialities.

Over the long weekend we walked the Royal Mile at least a dozen times in search of homemade fudge and the best carrot cake. During the day we climbed Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat for sunshine and panoramic views this quirky city. Museums, old cemeteries, and beer gardens kept us strolling the city for hours. Between alleyway cafes and hostel lounging, the conversation flowed and we seamlessly fit back into each other’s lives. As we layed atop Calton hill one night and watched Edinburgh light up below us, I felt such comfort and surety in his presence and in our friendship. We departed knowing that there would always be a next time and knowing that we will embark on another backpacking adventure soon. Now I am in the process of luring him to America with quintessential pictures of New England so we can start a cross-country road trip from the North East.

A plane ride over the Irish Sea brought me back to familiar Dublin where I was bunking for a few nights with the Original Camp Mom, Carol, before my flight to Greece. As probably the kindest and most genuine person I have ever met, Carol welcomed me into her home in true Irish fashion. We met Clare one night for my first cheeky Nando’s, although I was lost on all the hype. Then the following morning Carol and I set off to hike through Glendalough. There we were attacked by pesky flies but silenced by the heavenly views.  

Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland hold not only some of the best landscapes I have ever witnessed, but they are also home to some of the best people I have ever met. It is rare to enter a place and immediately feel at home. It is rare to meet people and immediately know you’ll be friends for a lifetime.

I am never ready to leave this part of Europe, but this time the Greek Islands were calling and couldn’t be ignored.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Scotland - Part I

The sign read “This road rises to a height of 2053 feet with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. Not advised for learner drivers.” Well, since a few days prior I had never driven on the left side of the road and the route to Applecross seemed like a good way to test how quick of a learner I am.

I began my ascent slowly, silently praying I would not meet another car on the one way road, with the cliff a few dusty inches from my tires. The thrill of being in the Highlands and the surrounding views kept my adrenaline pumping so that I did not notice my white knuckles gripping the steering wheel.

I could see fragments of the snaked road ahead of me, carved into the mountain and twisting upon itself. Every quarter mile the view became that much more dramatic. Mossy green hills grew into interwoven mountain ranges.  Eventually on my climb up Bealach Na Ba, I met a little white car coming from the opposite direction. Luckily, or perhaps well timed, I was nearing a ‘passing area’ so I pulled off to the side to let them go. With a quick wave of the hand, a gesture so widely used throughout the Highlands, both parties carried on their way.

Jeremy Loops was singing a tune through the car speakers as I reached the peak. I parked the car and ran over, audibly hooting with delight and breathing in the view as if inhaling it would allow Bealach Na Ba to become part of my body.  This was the most epic way to start my solo trip in the Highlands.  Eleven miles of a one way, spiraling road with blind summits and surprising dips carried me from sea level, arching up to an alarming peak, and back down to a quiet bay with a welcoming inn. After a quick espresso amid some bikers, I turned on my little beast of a Ford Focus to make the same winding route for the return. The road to Applecross is a ribbon in the sky, just as elusive and magical with its ever-changing views and strange serenity.


Exactly one week prior, the Ryan Air flight bumpily met the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport and the kind Dutch lady seated next to me, who admitted to her fear of flying, released one deep sigh of relief. Two weeks in Scotland had commenced.

Clare and I had a few days left before she had to return to Ireland early for work. Teachers, overworked and underpaid, spend summers dancing between the ecstatic feeling of time off and the convincing fear of vacation clashing with their bank account. After a few days in Edinburgh we would make our way up the coast to Aberdeen for the Highland games and there we would part ways.
Edinburgh is a city layered upon itself, oozing with a quirky vibe. Scottish and English traditions compose the landscape and attractions. A young man in a kilt playing the bagpipes will stand next to an English built castle. Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, haunted underground past, and secret alleyways.

Knowing I would return later the following week, Clare and I skipped all the main attractions and moseyed around the labyrinth city. We caught a comedy night at a local dive and some late night music at a quiet pub. During the day we took the Dungeon tour where I was repeatedly startled and thoroughly entertained, not only by the incredible show put on, but also by the 21 year old boy who was petrified in every room.

The time had come to pick up our rental car and I was nervous with anticipation. With Clare’s impending departure I had to be the driver and tackle the wrong side of the road. As I handed over my credit card, my gut churned at the thought of the total cost. However, freedom in the Highlands certainly trumps a predetermined tour. I told myself, as I always do when justifying a travel purchase, money comes and goes. I will not recall the cash spent a year from now, but the memory will last forever.

Exiting the city center was an adventure in itself, mainly consisting of Clare holding her breath. Nevertheless, we kicked off our road trip by heading toward Scotland’s true capital, Stirling. We parked at Stirling Castle and quickly decided that the 16.50 pound entrance fee didn’t quite justify a break into the backpacking budget. Thus we took to the grounds, casually wandering around the fortress until a peculiar monument in the adjacent cemetery caught our eyes. Amidst gravestones from the 1800s, a massive stone pyramid was erected along the far wall. Built by William Drummond as a dedication to the martyrs for religious and civil liberties, it remains an interesting Christian sentiment in the graveyard. The cemetery’s exit led us into the heart of Old Town Stirling, which is simply a few meandering stone roads whittled into the hillside. The architecture, constructed at a time when structures were made to last, is well in tact with hidden messages and treasure built into them. The following morning I finished my run atop a hill where the beheading stone presides, only to find the additional company of half a dozen rabbits enjoying their breakfast. Looking out over the town in a clearing of rabbits and total silence was an oddly comforting moment, adding a little magic to Stirling.
Just a few miles west of Stirling stands a castle that is most likely easily recognized by any avid filmgoer. Castle Doune, built in the 13th century, has seen a lifetime of wars and film crews. The Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed here in the 70’s as part of the film’s hilarious parody of King Arthur. More recently Outlander and Game of Thrones have set up filming as the castle’s size and condition is quite valuable. With a free audio tour, and an additional one put on by the local school children in period costume, we discovered the charm and purpose of every part of Doune.

Leaving Stirling County and headed towards Aberdeen, we took the coastal route which not only meant seaside villages but also countless roundabouts. At one of those tricky circles in Arbroath we saw a sign for cliffs and had to take a detour. Along the far side of the harbor leads a path to Seaton Cliffs. Inlets, blowholes, hidden beaches, and rock arches make up these impressive red sandstone cliffs. Walking through wildflowers we found a few narrow paths that led us down to the sea level to explore the cliffs even further. Tiny colorful pebbles embedded in the sand stone added a sense of décor to the area. Decades of sea erosion lay in front of us with seagulls calling out overhead to the fisherman collecting their catch out in the sea.

After Seaton Cliffs we decided to stop in Stonehaven, knowing simply that it was a small town with a castle and nothing more. We parked across the street from Carron’s fish and chip shop that had a line snaking out the door and is evidently home to the deep fried Mars Bar. We waited in line for our dinner, skipping the famed dessert, and enjoyed the lightest and freshest fish and chips by the ocean. Afterwards, we left the rascal seagulls that were waiting for our meals to find accommodation. Walking in to our first hotel we caught eyes with a woman who looked like she might be in charge. There was no room in the hotel but her daughter rents out an apartment down the road. Within ten minutes we found a place to lay our heads for a price cheaper than a hostel and discovered that an international Beer Fest was in town. Within a few connected marquee white tents, 150 international craft beers formed a square in the center. Live music bellowed in the north of the tent and traditional Scottish cuisine was being cooked outdoors. It was eclectic and a wonderful surprise discovery. While tasting a double IPA from Scotland, a native and an Irishman came over to chat, sharing travel tips and providing Clare with Irish banter. During our conversation the local Scot put the bird in my ear to drive through Applecross Peninsula as it will be the ride of my life. He painted an impressive picture and set the bar quite high but easily added another destination on my Highlands road trip.

The morning came, and with it mist and clouds. Dunnotar Castle of Stonehaven sits upon a narrow cliff facing the North Sea. A true Scottish castle, the medieval fortress boasts a dramatic presence with its steep drop offs and scenic surroundings. As Clare and I were taking in the view from the cliff-side, a Belgian man grabbed my attention to ask a strange favor. He had a fear of heights and kindly inquired if he could hold my hand to walk over towards the edge. Living his life in a flat country, he had never seen a cliff before so his fear of heights was quite understandable. With many thanks he was off to the second day of the Beer Fest, and Clare and I were off to Aberdeen.

I am an avid fan of the Outlander book series as well as the Starz show; therefore stone circles in the Scottish Highlands were a big perk to taking a holiday in the country. Through some quick research I found that there are many stone circles in Aberdeenshire. With some American charm and a touch of curiosity, I convinced Clare for us to go find one. Knowing that one was hidden within Glassel Wood, we pulled over and wandered into the forest. Patches of bog lay below fallen tree and branches. Walking along resting tree limbs and protruding rocks we made our way deeper. A large fawn scrambled past us as we apparently disturbed her grazing. My heart was buzzing with excitement in the midst of this quiet wood. With no path or ground for our feet to actually touch, it was more of an obstacle course. Just as I was about to consider looking for another one, Clare shrieked and waved her hansd in discovery – she had found it! Hidden behind a growth of yellow flowered, scraggy bushes stood 5 granite stones in an oval setting. Of course I touched them all because, well you never know, and embraced the magical charm of these ancient structures.

The Granite City did not end up luring us into its center. Clare and I relaxed in our accommodation outside of town waiting to head to the Highland Games. Located in Hazlehead Park, the Scottish circus had come to town. Immediately upon entry we were presented with husky young men in kilts throwing wooden logs across the field. Girls were dancing the Highland Fling behind them and an ongoing competition of Pipe Bands was taking place on the far side of the field. Surrounding the games arena, dozens of stalls selling haggis and sweets sat in a row. The scattered downpours were not ideal and sent many to the beer tent, which is where we met New Zealand and South African expats that were living in the area. They shared their coveted table and their company as we waited out the rain. When the rain cleared we went off to explore tents of Scottish traditions and watch men turn horizontally in the tug of war. As this entertaining day came to its close, it also marked the end of my travels with Clare but the beginning of my Highland road trip. Thankful to have a travel buddy as easy going as she, we said goodbye at Aberdeen Airport before I headed off to conquer Applecross. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

14 Days of Sun.

We sat on the tarmac patiently at first, yet when the third announcement from the Captain about delays came over the speakers, the masses have given up. Disgruntled whispers devolved into audible complaints. The reality of missing our connecting flights shred the last strands of hope we held on to.

I sat back and shut my eyes during take-off, saying my usual prayers and wondering if the words are now more of a superstitious ritual rather than a prayer of protection. I came to terms with knowing that I would most likely miss my flight from Philadelphia to Dublin, as it was out of my control, so I drifted off into light rest.

A rough sleepover in Philadelphia Airport, a stand-by flight to Charlotte before sunrise, an afternoon downtown in the Southern city, and a six hour flight over the Atlantic later, I stood at the baggage carousel in Dublin not expecting to see my blue backpack. My sneaking suspicion was confirmed as the kind Irishman behind the luggage counter explained that they failed to load the bags onto the next plane departing Philly like they were supposed to. The small crowd behind me protested in frustration, yet I had been down this road before. Almost exactly three years prior, my black suitcase was lost on route to Croatia when I commenced this soul searching journey.

The other half of the Dream Team, Clare, was waiting in Arrivals for me. We hadn’t seen each other since Camp Cal Summer 2014, but picked right back up where we left off. After breakfast in Howth Harbor, we swapped stories of job woes and dating disasters while visiting Hill of Tara and Trim Castle. Irish banter never fails to entertain, once again proven by the witty guide sharing the Castle’s past.

The following day Clare introduced me to megalithic passageway tombs. Nestled in Boyne Valley, a set of passage tombs dominate the landscape. Older than the Pyramids and built over 5,000 years ago, they have served as a central place for sacred rituals, burials, and later as a means for defense. The megalithic art carved into the stones in and around the passageways are left to interpretation and transport you to another time.

After a surprising night in Dublin, Clare and I drove west to Achill Island. A new adventure for Clare as well, this quiet island blew us away. With only 1,000 loyal habitants year round, the summer months bring 2,000 more mainly for the surf conditions. Graced with clear skies, we explored the Island, shrieking with delight with every turn. Crossing the bridge at Achill Sound we carried on to Keel Beach where massive cliffs rose above calm turquoise water. A crescent strip of white sand framed a wonderfully picturesque view. 

We hopped back in the car and took the extremely windy and narrow Wild Atlantic Way, not knowing where it would lead and stopping along the way to be repeatedly stunned by increasingly impressive viewpoints. Rogue sheep marked the way and paid no regard to vehicles crossing their territory. We reached one summit and looked down upon quaint Keem Bay that rested on the other side of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Sufficiently satisfied with the day, we returned to the hotel to set up shop at the bar and learn a bit more from the locals.

We arrived a few weeks before tourist season begins so the island felt desolate in comparison to a bustling Dublin. There were probably only a dozen other tourists on the island, if that. The only traffic consisted of tractors crossing to the next field or sheep moseying on to a new patch of grass. Over the next two evenings during residence bar, the barman shared his wit, stories of Irish weddings, and knowledge of what the Gaeltacht on Achill is like. The next day we drove through the peat bogs and then explored the Deserted Village, brought to silence from visually seeing the morbid legacy The Great Famine left behind. Afterwards we started to climb up Slievemore Mountain to find a small Megalithic tomb and a group of archeologists excavating a Bronze Age farm house.  From Slievemore, we looked out over Keel Beach and directly at the chiseled cliffs of Minaun, then deciding we needed to stand upon them.

A short drive alongside a steep spiraled drop off brought us to a plateaued lot of land. The wind was already whipping when we parked and headed up to the peak. Climbing through soft bogs and scattered stones we reached a statue of a welcoming Virgin Mary who stood upon a pillar with an old blessing for sailors engraved on its side. Standing 466 meters above the sea, we had a 360 degree view of Achill Island and County Mayo with the wind roaring in our ears. Yet, after passing over the peak and walking among travelers’ markers, the wind abruptly ceased and we were able to sit and take in one of the most incredible views of my life. A familiar feeling returned with the disappearing wind  – whether I am on a cliff on an island off Croatia, atop an active volcano in Indonesia, looking over the desert in Arizona, or above the tree line in the Alps, I feel in the presence of something greater than humanity can ever be, something more deliberate in creation than coincidence.

We stopped back in Dublin on our way home from Achill Island for Clare’s friend’s comedy gig. I went to my first comedy show when we were staying at Clare’s apartment and immediately regretted not going to more in the past 26 years. In both shows I was clearly pegged as an American, perhaps due to my massive smile while sitting in the front row, and I became a recurring theme throughout the sets – all in good Irish banter fun.

The weekend had us crossing the border to Northern Ireland to meet two other Irish friends from camp, Carol and Shelley. We all have not seen each other since August of 2012 so we knew it would be an entertaining reunion. We met in Belfast at the Titanic Museum and were surprisingly impressed by a museum that did not hold any artifacts – holograms, virtual tours, and rides took their places. Afterwards we continued driving north to Ballycastle where we would soon explore the Giant’s Causeway.

Over a delicious meal with plentiful white wine, we exchanged the primary updates from the past three years and immediate plans, if any. Traditional music playing at the pub across the street lured us over so we set up shop there for the night. The lock in turned into a session night when fellow patrons sang a few tunes, Clare and her incredible voice included. Over a connection of duets and pints we made friends with a group of guys rowing around Ireland in a small wooden rowboat for Cystic Fibrosis. All the fun from the evening’s entertainment left us struggling the next morning; however we were on a mission.

Headed west a few short miles down the coast we reached the rope bridge. Although the sun was blazing, the on shore breeze kept our jackets zipped and tight. The coastal cliff walk offers stunning views of the bold sea and rocky islands. After meandering through wildflowers a simple suspension bridge hangs 30 meters above the water connecting the mainland to Carrick-a-Rede. Once a prime location for salmon fishing, it is now only frequented by tourists crossing the bridge to explore the island and bird watch. Looking down over the bridge, vibrant turquoise water swirls in caverns and lagoons, making you forget you’re so far north.


We arrived at Giant’s Causeway just as our energy levels were dipping but the bizarre landscape shot them right back up again. Backed by dramatic cliffs, the Giant’s Causeway is battered by the Atlantic with each passing tide. Lava from an eruption 60 million years ago has cooled in a very peculiar way, spurring folklore to make sense of the wonder. Thousands upon thousands of polygonal columns at alternating heights make up the causeway. Whether Fionn the Giant left the remains of his causeway or a volcanic eruption created this strange formation, you can’t help but be amazed while walking among the stacks and towers.


After our reunion weekend Clare and I returned to her hometown in Wexford. I was warmly greeted by her parents and just in time for tea. When I was last in Ireland I visited the Model County, home to the best strawberries and new potatoes, and met Clare’s family and farm. My welcoming was just as grand the second time around. Even though I had only lefts the states a week and a half ago, home cooked meals and a mother’s attention was beyond appreciated.  Being able to spend the next few days among Clare’s incredible family, chatting about the farm and life in general, was exceptional and heartwarming. 

That’s the thing about the Irish – they are truly the kindest and most hospitable people I have met.  Throughout the past 14 gloriously sunny days in Ireland, Clare has introduced me to her friends and I was given the chance to see some old faces. I have enjoyed delicious meals, thirst-quenching pints, and spectacular views – all thanks to my wonderful friend and tour guide, Clare.  She is a light in my life, an effortless friend whose company, wit, and charm give comfort like a full Irish breakfast prepared by a loving mom.