Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
Every marriage has compromise. Where to go when we had only limited time to explore Europe was just one of the challenges that put our marital conciliation to the test. When to discipline the kids; How to manage the budget; What to do about dinner. These were just some of our other points of contention . . . but I digress.
“You only want to go because of the golf!” That was Carol’s reaction when I first recommended including Scotland. Truth be told, I am a golfer, but that’s not solely why I suggested it. Come on! I figured the boys would get a thrill out of seeing where the Loch Ness Monster resides and that all the castles would be a source of unending fascination.
What ultimately persuaded my wife to acquiesce, however, was a personal invitation to stay in the home of our Bhutanese expedition leader we met back in October. It seemed odd at first that a Scotsman would be the leader of a tour through the mountains of a Buddhist country, but it became obvious that few were better qualified than Richard Whitecross. The fact that he lives less than an hour outside Edinburgh ended up securing our ticket to Scotland.
With twenty-two countries and ten months on the road behind us, I can say that there’s nothing nicer than to be greeted by “a local” when you first arrive in a new country. We’ve had this good fortune on several occasions, and this one proved no less welcome. Richard lives in the very small village of Spott in a charming house overlooking acres of countryside leading to the sea. We could actually see a medieval castle nestled along the coastline from his kitchen window on a clear day, which in this part of the world is far from an everyday occurrence. This backdrop provided a wonderful first impression of a country that I figured would be pretty easy to predict. Cool, damp weather; Lots of sheep and farmland; Hardy food and robust ales; Rich Celtic history and traditions; Terrific golf (Scotland has more courses per capita than anywhere else on earth); and the first Buddhist temple in the western world outside Tibet?!
After getting acclimated, we insisted on visiting where Richard first got his exposure to the religion he would ultimately adopt as his own. This field trip proved inspiring indeed. Seeing the shining white and gold glow of the Samye-Ling Stupa nestled amidst the pastoral landscape of Scotland might have seemed out of place, but it served as a metaphor to the fact that it’s possible to transpose the magic we’ve experienced on this journey to wherever we might be – a point I’m sure to remind myself often after we return to the U.S.
But we didn’t come to this part of the world for its temples. Medieval castles are the main draw here. To get us started, we bought a Scotland Explorer Pass that would give us admission to dozens of castles around the country. We took full advantage by visiting eight of them before finishing up at the most prominent one in Edinburgh.
One of the more popular fortresses we checked out was the Urquhart Castle, known not so much for its history or preservation, but for where it’s located. I hadn’t realized that the famous Loch Ness was just one (and the largest) in a series of long, narrow and deep lakes running up the western half of the country into its famous highlands. The winding drive though the misty mountains on a brisk, cloudy afternoon only added to the dramatic atmosphere. The ambience was perfect for visiting The Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre and for our ultimate destination, the Inverlochy Castle Hotel. Although probably too formal for our purposes, the stay at this legendary hotel helped us experience some of Scotland’s more endemic pursuits – playing snooker, fly fishing, and whisky tasting.
Our next stop at the Gleneagles Hotel & Resort seemed more suitable for a family. Carol didn’t mind that I wanted to golf because she had plenty to keep her and the kids content. The spacious indoor/outdoor pool had the heat cranked up so high that it kept the boys splashing for hours while the spa offered terrific crystal steam rooms, vitality pools and yoga classes, which Carol also didn’t want to leave. Meanwhile, I played on one of their three legendary courses, the PGA Centenary course that will host the Ryder Cup in 2014. A good size pitch and putt course on its massive front lawn gave the kids an opportunity to hit the golf ball too, which made for an enjoyable activity for the whole family after I finished up my round. Although we didn’t participate in a formal clinic, we did wander around and checked out the birds of prey at The British School of Falconry right on the property, the first dedicated such school in the world.
Our last stop before coming full circle back to Edinburgh was a two-day retreat to St. Andrews. By this time, Carol had no more issues about the whole “golf thing.” The Old Course Hotel, ideally located along its famous finishing holes, offered yet another attractive spa, with a pool perfect for swimming laps, but not so kid-friendly (children under 16 are only allowed to swim between 2-4pm). While the kids played in the room, I took Carol up to The Road Hole Bar on the top floor for a drink, which offered incredible views of the West Sands Beach and much of the Old Course itself. Just looking at it from this perspective gave me chills. When I actually played it early the next morning, I had arguably one of the most memorable golf experiences in my life. Not only did I shoot a good score, it was awe inspiring just to be playing on such a celebrated and one-of-a-kind eighteen holes.
While most of its stores and commercial establishments cater to the golf crowd, St. Andrews still offers plenty to do for non-golfers. It streets and buildings are quintessential Scotland and being a university town gives it a fresh youthful edge. There was even a pretty decent castle and medieval cathedral to visit. But the main draw is still the Old Course. Of all the tourist attractions we’ve been to in our travels, the Swilcan Bridge was surprisingly one of the most phoyographed, and not just by the golfers.
Before we left, I managed to find a rugby match I could go to with nine-year old Stefan. It was the Scottish Rugby League’s Magic Weekend in Edinburgh, and the scene would surely be rowdy and boisterous, but Carol had no problem with me taking him, which seemed to be how things worked out for us in Scotland… but I digress.
Photos: Rainer Jenss