Otherwise Known As: How to Use the Explorer Pass Like a Champion
01.06.2012 - 11.06.2012
Date of Travel: June 2012
Travel By: Road
Length of Trip: 11 Days
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 7-but-practically-8), a YoungerBoy (age 4)
Itinerary: Days 1 - 5: Dunans Castle, Edinburgh, Doune Castle, Stirling, Inverness (where that monster named Nessie lives)
Base Camp: Day One: Glendalough. Days 2-4: Perthshire. Day 5: Inverness.
Trip Report: We kicked off our road trip by leaving England and driving towards Dunans Castle, a castle known only to those who happened to see a Groupon for "Buy yourself the title of Laird or Lady!" and actually did so. Yes, we proudly own an entire 2 square feet of Dunans property - not anything near the castle, in the woods actually, and where the bugs like to swarm - but we did buy it, and being land owners of Scotland officially gives my husband and I the titles of Laird and Lady. Well, probably not officially officially. More like semi-officially, where that semi translates to "bought a Groupon." But it's Groupon-official, and as such we have a lovely deed and it's got a wax seal on it, too. WORTH IT.
We own a bit of dirt near this castle.
(Now, if you are in the Dunans area, not to far from the castle is another castle, Castle Lachlan, which is such a fun ruin of a castle to explore, and directly across from it is a delicious restaurant, Inver Cottage. There's also a bit of water in between the castle and restaurant where little boys can throw rocks. We all just wanted to stay there forever.)
Castle Lachlan, hidden behind the trees.
After exploring the Dunans area, we headed to the Perthshire area, which was our base to explore the Edinburgh and Stirling areas. There's really nothing in Perthshire we wanted to see, but the lodging we found was about half an hour from Stirling and one hour to Edinburgh, and that was fine by us. Our accommodations were perfect - just know that besides a small convenience store, there really is nothing else worthy of visiting in the immediate area, restaurants included.
We spent one full day in Edinburgh. Our first task was to walk up the 287 steps to the top of the Sir Walter Scott Monument. I think we did this because there was a man in a kilt playing bagpipes in front of it, so it must have convinced us that this is what one does in Scotland. Also, this was the first bagpiper we saw in Edinburgh and didn't yet realize there are men in kilts playing bagpipes EVERYWHERE. Our kids are the kind of kids that don't actually care about climbing up 287 steps (much) and there were a few levels so we could break up the journey to the top. On one level, we learned that Charles Dickens had said, "I'm sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground." Hacked-off spire? Yes. But a failure? No. There's a good view of Edinburgh Castle once you get to the top.
Charles Dickens was jealous of this monument.
We left the monument and headed towards the Royal Mile so we could go to Edinburgh Castle. (It's a bit of a steep path up, since the castle is built on a cliff.) Before we headed out for Scotland, we researched the Explorer Pass, which is pass you can buy to get into unlimited castles on the list for a set amount of days. We bought the 3-day pass which you actually have 5 days to use. After visiting 2 castles, you are already saving money. We used them for Edinburgh Castle(Day One of the Pass), Stirling Castle and Doune Castle (Day Two) and the Loch Ness castle at Inverness, Urquhart (Day Four).
We made it just in time at Edinburgh Castle to hear the 21-gun salute, where they do indeed fire their cannon-like guns 21 times. My 8 year old loved it and stood up with my husband right at the front of the line. My 4 year old covered his ears and he and I stood very much in the back. Afterwards, we explore the grounds and the small chapel and the dungeon-like rooms. There actually was not a whole lot to explore on this day, and I'm not quite sure if it was because certain places were closed or if it is limited-viewing. To view the famous Princess Gardens of the castle, you need to leave the castle-on-a-cliff and head down and away. The gardens offer plenty of space for kids to run around, and there is even a great playground, not to mention a golden fountain and a beautiful view of the castle.
Older Boy taking a picture of the fountain in the Princess Street Gardens.
My husband would like me to mention that after Edinburgh Castle, he had the best meal of our Scotland trip, one that he still fondly talks about to this day. Caveat: you must like pork sandwiches (which I don't) because I believe that's all they serve. His included a generous lump of shredded pork on a bun, one side of the bun smothered in Haggis, the other in some kind of apple glaze, and apparently the pork was also seasoned with some kind of chili sauce. Sound appetizing? Then head on over to Oink. Not your thing? Go a couple doors down to Hula Juice Bar, where the kids and I had some very fresh and healthy sandwiches and smoothies.
We walked down to the other end of the Royal Mile by this point, trying to see the palace, but it was closing time. So then we walked over to the National Museum of Scotland, and along the way we were surprised and delighted to pass by The Elephant House, which was the cafe where J.K. Rowling would sit and write Harry Potter. The museum was also a delight - a great place for adults and kids alike. I believe it's actually made up of 2 different museums, which show both the natural history of Scotland and the ancient history of the country, and also a very cool technology area where the kids can play and you can see Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal from a cell. Yes, it's actually her!
J.K. Rowling wrote her masterpiece here. I think I updated a Facebook status in the same spot.
And on our way back from the historic part of Edinburgh, we headed over to Calton Hill, where we could explore some Greek-like ruins and catch a beautiful sunset over the castle. A wonderful way to end the day, I really recommend it. (PS: There's a model of a cannon that little boys may run over to and never want to leave again.)
Doune Castle and Stirling Castle, and William Wallace, too
Doune Castle and Stirling Castle are about 20 minutes apart by car, so it was easy to make the decision that we should see both. Plus, both castles work under the Explorer Pass. Plus, my husband really wanted to see Doune. Why? This is the castle they used to film about 95% of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (The other 5% was filmed at Castle Stalker in Scotland ... which we also visited, later.)
My husband storming the castle. He also stole a sword from our son.
There's not much to indicate that this was a movie set, except for a few relics in the gift shop. The castle itself is pretty bare-bones, you are walking through the courtyard and a few rooms that they have left open to walk around. But these are exactly the kind of places my boys like to explore, especially when you arm them with wooden swords (we bought these at a castle years ago, they travel everywhere with us). And the biggest boy of all was very excited to identify what parts of the castle were used for which scene. We spent about an hour here, enjoyably.
Stirling Castle is a different experience than both Doune and even Edinburgh. For one, the rooms are lavishly decorated and you are walking through as if the royal family is living there, right now. Also, if you get there at the right time, you will see characters in full dress, including Mary-Queen-of-Scots herself. The day we went (on a weekend), they had many activities for the kids, including "knight training" that pretty made this the BEST CASTLE EVER for my boys.
Stirling Castle on a cliff. Thankfully there's a parking lot up there.
From Stirling Castle, you can see the William Wallace monument in the background. We headed there next, about a 10 minute drive. You park at a lot at the base of the monument, and then walk uphill on a mostly-paved path (we had a stroller, it was fine). The trek is not horrible. However, once you get to the monument, put your strollers away, it 237 steps to the top. Considering what we'd done at Edinburgh the day before, no one actually blinked an eye at this. The steps are also broken up by various levels, the first level holding what may be the reason everyone comes to the monument, to see the sword of William Wallace.
This sword weighs 6 lbs. Only Mel Gibson can wield it.
Now, on our way out of the William Wallace/Stirling Castle area, we passed a charming-looking restaurant on the water and stopped in for dinner. We all enjoyed our meals. The atmosphere was nice. Two of us got food poisoning that night. So, I don't know know, maybe skip it.
Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
Because of our two sickies, we skipped a trip out to Balmoral Castle and headed straight to Loch Ness. (And honestly, it worked out better, Balmoral is out of the way. From the Perthshire area, we drove about 2 1/2 hours over to Inverness.) We spent one night here and just rented a room at the Premier Inn, which suited our purposes for a pit stop. We checked in and relaxed and got up bright and early to explore the surroundings.
Urquhart Castle is right on the famous Loch Ness, a castle of ruins. It is absolutely stunning and offers a beautiful view of the water. Don't miss the gift shop movie, which gives you a nice-and-short history of the castle and the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. And when the movie is over, you are in for a very cool treat.
There were at least two monster sightings at Loch Ness that day, and both of them were my children.
Now, because of the whole Nessie-the-Monster thing, there are A TON of horrible little tourist attractions around there. One that we visited was called Nessieland, and honestly, skip it. All of these places are overpriced and are not even interesting for the kids. The only thing I would suggest that would be fun is a boat ride out on the lake. Friends of ours have done this and it was fun for the whole family - I believe they even "point out" Nessie to you! But because we recently had a bout of sickness, we had to skip the boat ride.
After a nice time exploring Urquhart Castle (also on the Explorer Pass), we got into our car and headed over to the beautiful Isle of Skye (to be continued in another entry).