On my bucket list when I planned my route for my round the world trip in position numero uno was the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the largest arts festival in the world. The Fringe was one of the few non-negotiables because if I was going to traverse the planet, by god I was going to see some good theatre in the process!
And so that’s how I set my route around the world; it’s that simple really. Pick something you’re most passionate about and just do it!
I discovered a fantastic new use for Twitter that I plan to use on many of my future travels—and again, I owe it all to my new friend Andy. When I emailed Andy with a question about Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows, we arranged to meet up for a drink and chat. Once he decided that I wasn’t psycho (I promise, although I am a spaz, I’m actually quite nice in person!) he invited me to attend the weekly Twitter coffee meet up in the city.
Apparently these “coffee mornings” happen all over the world and all you have to do is know the secret code. Okay, it’s not secret, but it’s also not entirely intuitive unless you’re searching for it. In this case, every Friday really great Twitter people get together at a local restaurant for breakfast, light networking, and general conversation.
The Edinburgh Coffee Morning
The Twitter tag #EdCM (Edinburgh Coffee Morning) unlocks the magic and within moments I discovered that Mari Smith, a social networking expert, planned to attend the meeting too—what fun! I may be crazy for wanting to do a little bit of business while on the road, but it also served as the perfect way to connect with new people, network a little, and learn more about how to use Twitter.
That’s the crux of the dilemma for so many other travelers I have met—they log onto Twitter, add a few friends, talk about what they ate for breakfast, and then quickly decide that Twitter is boring.
Yes, it is surely boring if you’re sharing breakfast details with total strangers. But for networking and building relationships within a specific community, well, that’s where Twitter’s strength lies.
I have to say, Mari was truly excellent at working the table. Basically, she flawlessly carried on interesting conversations with individuals while seamlessly integrating her social networking capabilities into the conversation. As you’re chatting, she may casually research more information about a conversation point on her phone, then jump over to Twitter to add you as a friend—all while carrying on the conversation—now that is skill.
Over the past several months, I’ve found Twitter a vital tool to develop relationships with other backpackers and travelers in the community. This new coffee meet up element is one that I had never considered previously but that has some very real potential. Though I may not seek out a business-y meet up in every town I visit, I certainly feel like these small Twitter communities have the power to unlock a whole new side to my travel experience.
I loved it thoroughly and appreciate all of the warmth from the #EdCM regulars who took me in for a day and welcomed me into their conversations. Cheers and many thanks and I’ll be back next time I’m in Edinburgh!
Travel Twitter Tips: Making Travel that Much Better:
Follow the conversation taking place in the next city your visiting by searching Twitter using hashtags. Simply search #Edinburgh to find the most current Edinburgh tweets!
Ask for tips by using the city name and a hashtag in your own tweet.
Use the “#” in front of an upcoming event to find the beating pulse of the event on twitter. Fringe was the perfect example: #EdFringe and #Fringe contained an unfathomable number of Fringe related tweets giving reviews of the shows all month long. Posting a valid question to the #EdFringe would have definitely garnered many quick responses.
At reply (@TwitterNameHere) to people you tweet with and meet up for a coffee in their local town…although social networking is fab, it’s a great way to facilitate face-to-face relationships too.
All photos courtesy of Mike Coulter, check out his photos on Flickr or connect on Twitter.
I first met Andy by reading his travel blog. Then we started chatting more on Twitter, so naturally I thought to connect when I passed through his city. I was in Edinburgh for the annual Fringe Festival, a huge highlight on my RTW itinerary, so I sent him an email asking for Fringe show recommendations, and warning him that I fully hoped to meet up for coffee and drinks while I was in town. Before he would send over a list of his recommendations he asked me:
“Fringe can be pretty experimental and risqué, are you ok with nudity and profanity in the name of art, or do you take offense easily?”
Well, after watching his favorites—it’s probably a good thing he warned me!
Edinburgh Fringe is unjuried and entirely experimental for a lot of the Fringe performers. And while I certainly don’t offend easily, the more than a dozen shows I saw ranged from campy but skilled musicals to raw-and-gritty physical theatre—and everything lying between those two extremes.
It’s the creativity that just kills me, I love that no two shows at Fringe were even remotely alike—there was nothing formulaic about it.
The Best Shows at Fringe 2009
Zeitgeist was one of the most compelling shows at Fringe this year. The Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company out of Australia put on a provocative physical performance that mixed Burlesque, Japanese, and Cabaret styles in a contemporary dance piece that had my jaw dropping and laughing in equal measure. Andy wisely suggested I avoid the front-row, and since I try to minimize the number of times I absolutely must wash my clothes, I was glad not to have saliva and chocolate hurled in my direction.
And then in an entirely opposite direction from the intensity of Zeitgeist was Bloodbath the Musical. This fell a lot more into the “campy” category and was a guilty pleasure. The show centers on a cliché high school murder storyline and the main quartet of cheerleaders prance around the stage in various stages of undress. But it was so thoroughly entertaining. And the singing was fantastic. I deeply wish they had sold CDs of the show instead of t-shirts because Andy and I both agreed: We couldn’t have resisted. If you have a special place in your heart for showtunes (I admit, I do) then google the “Serve and Protect” song—it only plays in certain regions of the world, but it makes me smile now just as it did then. :-)
I feel like I could just gush about the majority of the shows that I saw, but another notable performance was Baba Brinkman in the Rap Guide to Evolution. Brinkman is a self-proclaimed rap troubadour and I was blown away that he managed to make an hour of listening to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution interesting . . . and not just interesting, compelling and riveting. He drew parallels between the rap world and evolution comparing a rap artist’s “bling” to the extravagant fan of a peacock’s plumage.
Call me a nerd, but I thought it rad that he covered such a high-brow topic in an entirely palatable and thoroughly enjoyable performance! Brinkman touring in the UK and the US; it’s worth checking out an event if he’s touring near you. :-)
The dance and musicals shows were just so much fun, but another notable one included Ernest and the Pale Moon, a dark show infusing Hitchcock and Poe. I tagged along with Andy for this one and we both thoroughly enjoyed the amazingly simplistic and functional set-design accompanying the eerie live accordion music and engrossingly macabre story.
I’ll leave you with that! Those were my favorites—the best that I saw at Fringe 2009. There is a very real chance that I will come back to Fringe again in the next year or two because I was so thoroughly in my element; Edinburgh beats with the pulse of thousands of performers and artists for an entire month, that’s a temptation I may have to indulge in again!
Exiting the bus station in Edinburgh, Scotland, the distant sounds of street music and cheering crowds lured me down Princes Street. Traffic bustled past me on the street, whizzing cars causing a passing breeze, and pedestrians vied for space on the sidewalk, eying me with caution since I had to backpacks strapped to my person. I had two hours to kill before my host for the next week would get off work, so that meant wandering the streets of Edinburgh in search of entertainment and grub.
Stepping foot in Edinburgh was a culminating moment for me—in high school, I dreamed of attending university in the city. I eventually abandoned that plan in favor of a full-ride to a state school (and a summer study abroad in Italy, so don’t feel too bad for me!). And years later, when August saw temperatures soaring in Los Angeles, when my acting friends and I baked in the city’s dry, desert heat—that’s when I dreamed big. We would all take a group trip Scotland with the sole purpose of binging on the myriad Fringe Festival shows that annually take over Edinburgh for the month of August.
What is Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
When I made the choice to take this RTW trip, I plotted my world trip itinerary with meticulous care. I etched Scotland onto the calendar in August as a non-negotiable. The Fringe has been an annual event in Scotland for more than 60 years and it’s the largest arts festival in the world. One of the biggest lures is the fact that it’s unjuried—that means anyone can take their show to the Fringe and no selection committee stifles the creativity of experimental theatre.
The city swells in size during August and Fringe madness takes over in more than 265 venues spread across the city. I wikipedia’d the Fringe and was amazed that this year there were roughly 1,300 performances taking place each of the 25 days of Fringe—holy crap!
I lucked out majorly with free accommodation for the week with David, a Scottish guy who I met way back in Australia so many months ago. As a backpacker, spending any real time in Edinburgh is cost-prohibitive. Without the free stay, I would not have been able to stay for the full week. That being said, couchsurfing is huge during August and residents are accustomed to taking in poor souls desperate for Fringe fun—I had several offers of floor space around the city if David fell through.
Another stroke of luck? Connecting with Andy Hayes via twitter prior to arriving in Edinburgh. Andy had a press pass to the shows as a reviewer and my selection criteria for the shows was simple: I asked Andy which shows he would see again, if he could.
I took that mottled list of comedies, musicals, more musicals, theatrical drama, and a touch of risqué experimental dance and outlined my week of Fringe shows. Thanks to the generosity an acting friend from L.A. who donated to my RTW trip, I had an extra infusion of cash, and I plan to spin every extra dollar on show tickets. :)
Stay tuned this week for more pictures and fun stories from Fringe, the city, and an awesome Edinburgh Twitter coffee meet-up.
After a week of uncommon hospitality given to me in Scotland, I surly owe a debt of kindness to other travelers—one to be repaid at some point in the future.
On an icy-cold evening in Northern India, I met two sisters, fellow backpackers, who were nestled into a tiny restaurant in McLeod Ganj. We shared a table—there was not a seat to spare in the warm and cozy one-room restaurant—and backpacking stories during our hot meal. When we parted ways several hours later, they casually mentioned that if I headed to Scotland that I should stay at their mom’s house for a few days.
Now, although the offer was genuine, all parties admitted that they didn’t think I would actually take them up it. Four months later, I did. I wasn’t even sure why, except that the chance for a local perspective, and a warm, quiet place to crash, sounded great. So, I spent a lovely four days touring the Scottish highlands and glens with Jeannie, mom of two other RTW backpackers on year-long journeys. Jeannie graciously opened her home to me and made it her task to show me Eastern Scotland’s highlights.
We toured the highlands and glens around Dundee, Scotland, and these are my favorite photos and stories from my explorations!
We hiked to the top of the gently rounded mountains afforded views of the River Tay, the North Sea and all of the low-lying farmland.
Exploring Crail Harbour
The small fishing village of Crail is quiet and quaint and dates back to 800 AD, when it was first settled. This place was utterly charming. Small pottery shops hide in the small side-streets and the perfect cuppa tea awaited us overlooking the sea at Crail Harbour Gallery.
Big cities have a lot of interesting museums and a fast pace of life, but its villages that hold the heartbeat of culture and history, these hold the traditions of an older way of life. And even better, it’s just 10 miles from Crail Harbour to St. Andrews, which makes it very accessible as a quick stop. We parked in the village and then walked down to the Habour, had our tea, enjoyed the sunshine and perfect weather, before making the easy way back to where we had parked.
When we left Crail, which truly is the prettiest of these East Neuk of Fife, we took a quick drive by Glamis Castle, which is where the Queen Mother spent her childhood.
The Fortingall Yew
We enjoyed a warm fire and hot chocolate in Kenmore at a bright and roomy restaurant overlooking Loch Tay before heading to Fortingall to see an ancient Fortingall Yew Tree.
The tree is thought to be as much as 5,000 years old, which would make it the oldest living organism in Britain. Modern estimates put it closer to 3,000 years old, but really there is no telling. The base of the tree was once 56 feet wide—until souvenir hunters hacked at it! Natural erosion also took away other parts of the tree. Most of the space inside the wall of the tree was once tree trunk.
Discovering St. Andrews, Briefly
We hiked some in between the towns on our day trip to Crail and St. Andrews, and the Scottish hillside was abloom in gorgeous heather. I am a fan of folk music, and I couldn’t stop singing The Wild Mountain Thyme in my head while we hiked to vistas and viewpoints of the Scottish highlands and glens.
St. Andrews is beautiful and worth a visit. I would have loved to spend a day or two poking around. The small city is best known for golf and for Prince William attending college there, but it’s so much more than either of those two claims to fame. I have a fondness for small cities (like my days poking around Stirling, Scotland). St. Andrews is charming and I thoroughly enjoyed this pretty little town.
Driving through eastern Scotland, through the country’s famous Scottish glens and highlands, has been an absolute highlight from my round the world trip. I can only extend an enormous thank you to Jeannie, because of her gracious hospitality I was able to explore the nooks and crannies of this area of Scotland.
I owe one to the Universe now, and will repay it when I finally find a place to settle down. I have loved this insider’s take on the best hikes and towns, the stories of how Jeannie and her children enjoyed living this region as locals.
Ice cream dripped down my hand as I made my way to the small Fort Augustus bus stop—I was staring down the barrel of another long and drawn out travel day. I had strapped on both my backpacks, and with 20 minutes to kill before the bus arrived, I made my way to the grassy hill where Spud the Piper piped away to dazzled tourists.
Spud spotted me immediately, finished a tune, and then came over to chat. Since it was instantly obvious I was leaving town, he asked where I was headed next.
I sputtered out a vaguely incomprehensible answer, “Um, a really small town . . . Grey-something. With an “s” in there too . . .”
At his increasingly inquisitive look, I floundered even more for an answer, for the name of this tiny Scottish town where I would head next. I had randomly chose this next town because there was a cheap and well-reviewed hostel, and because it sat at the entrance to the Cairngorms National Park. But it was firmly off-the-beaten-path and I feared he would think me nuts not only for heading there, but for not even remembering where I was going next!
“Near Aviemore!” I exclaimed, the name of a nearby town coming to me as I fumbled to take out my small notebook.
“Grantown-on-Spey?” he proposes.
“Yes, precisely!” And then in the way of weird coincidences, Spud tells me that not only does he live in Aviemore, an hour-and-a-half away, but he’s from Grantown-on-Spey and plays the pipes there nightly.
Without pausing he asks, “Do you want a lift there?”
Oh the quandary I now faced. If I was willing to wait two hours then he would drive me to Grantown-on-Spey and actually drop me off at my hostel. Otherwise it was a looong day and multiple buses to reach the small town.
The only obstacle: I don’t believe in hitchhiking. Not even a little.
As a solo female traveler, I think hitching is unnecessarily dangerous and not worth the money saved. I actively tell other women hitting the road that they should be willing to pay more for their safety.
Buuuuut, circumstance also plays a role in any situation. Here were the thoughts racing through my head:
Hitchhiking is fairly common in Scotland.
I’ve known Spud for several days now, so it’s not exactly hitching.
He’s wearing a wedding ring . . . that marginally counts for something.
I really do not want to take a bus to a bus to a bus to get to Grantown-on-Spey in five hours when it could take just two.
I have the time and the money to take the bus and I am a smart woman and should just politely decline, walk over to the bus stop, and take myself safely to the next town.
Conclusion reached, I answer.
“Um . . . sure, that sounds great actually.”
Did I just say that? Crap. We arranged to meet up in a couple of hours by the grocery store-cum-café-cum-restaurant. As I walked away, I tossed my empty ice cream stick into the trash, meandered past the bus stop, and pondered my options.
I had time to take the bus, and I was beginning to convince myself that this change in the plan was a terrible idea—warnings my dad had issued to me for twenty years echoed in my head.
Well, crap. When it came down to it, I was going with my gut instinct.
Two hours later, I dropped my main backpack into the trunk and kept my laptop bag with my passport at my feet . . . I mean, I still had to be cautious, after all.
Spud peeled out of the parking lot and as we cruised past the “Welcome to Fort Augustus” sign, Spud’s announcement caused my heart to thud in panic.
The town had receded into the distance, when glanced over at me with a mischievous look, “Now, I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to get scared.”
Everything inside of me dropped to the floor. The sound of my heartbeat pounded in my ears I as thought, “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!”
Although we rode at full speed, the doors were still unlocked so I casually crept my head toward the door handle.
Then Spud finished his thought. “This road is small, curvy, and I like to speed.”
Oh my god! I laugh-sighed my relief, and then told him to never say those opening words to a solo, trapped female ever again.
As for the car ride? Oh boy did he speed. We whipped around curves as he candidly told me about his life, and informed me that he was a bit famous in the area (and internationally) because he played the bagpipes for Madonna at her Highland wedding several years earlier (which the internet verifies as true!).
We chatted the time, comparing notes and thoughts on America—because everyone has an opinion on my country. By the time I left his company, I’d had one of my most positive experiences and personal interactions in Scotland. Although there is great natural beauty in this country (the Isle of Skye comes to mind), and so much history (William Wallace in Stirling), it’s getting to know a local’s perspective that made me feel most connected during my Scotland travels.
Spud is a genuinely nice guy and I’m so glad that I went with my gut instinct and accepted his ride. Although I’m still dead-set against hitchhiking solo, I also reinforced my conviction that all rules can be broken at some point, under the right circumstances.
If experiencing new countries is about meeting the locals and having one-on-one personal encounters (which I think they are!) then I couldn’t have made a better choice. So, thank you Spud if you read this, for the ride, for taking me out of my comfort zone and helping me trust my instincts, and for being a really neat guy. :)
Vibrant green, lush underbrush climbed the trees and crept across the forest floor as soon as a left the main town of Fort Augustus in search of the best hikes near Loch Ness. Surrounded by national park, Fort Augustus offers easy access to hikes and it took mere minutes to leave my hostel and enter the darkly lit canopy.
Fort Augustus has six major walks accessible from town and without a car—each takes between two to six hours. The abundance of options was one reason I decided to spend a week in Fort Augustus. I generally like small towns better than large ones, and I’ve spent my time busing around Scotland in search of not only the touristy (Isle of Skye), but the classic (Edinburgh) and the historic (Stirling), too. I structured most of my days in Scotland around great walks each day, quiet explorations of the smalls towns in the afternoon, and finding great local pubs with music and entertainment in the evenings.
Walking Near Fort Augustus, Scotland
All roads lead back to town, essentially, so the woman at my hostel, Morag’s Lodge, told me to pick a direction and walk. In no time, you invariably find paths jutting from the road and into the surrounding forest. Many paths climb to great vistas high above Loch Ness, where you can glimpse views of the shimmering blue through the trees. Others lead down to the swift-flowing River Oich. This river feeds Loch Ness and serene paths through the woods are empty of fellow hikers—these were peaceful walks.
I love feeling lost and alone when I hike—empty paths are the perfect invitation to sing out loud (and off-key, I admit). Also, like any good hiker, I pack lunch and as I sing I search for perfect picnic spots, ones with great views, a dry shady spot, and no one else around.
River Oich Walk This is an easy walk and one families would enjoy, as well as anyone else who enjoys hiking near the sound of burbling water. You can walk to the starting point from Fort Augustus (have someone point you in the right direction out of town, then follow signs for Auchterawe and then River Walk). There’s a steep-ish bit at the start, but for most of the walk you are on well tread forest paths, and ones alongside the river. When I did this one, I added in lunch by the river and it took about 2.5 hours, but it’s under two hours if you’re just hiking round-trip from town. Here’s a step-by-step guide to the walk.
Allt na Criche and Jenkins Park Walks Part of the Great Glen Way, Allt na Criche is short and should be combined another nearby trail if you’re after a day out and a good workout, too—the Jenkins Park Walk is a good option. For Allt na Criche, there’s some steep at first, and you have a total ascent of 150m (492ft), but it’s short, so most anyone can make it. This trail starts two kilometers outside of town, so it’s accessible on foot, or there is a carpark for those with a car. For Jenkins Park, you’ll have some great glimpses of the lake and it’s quite pretty! Here’s a step-by-step guide to the Allt na Criche walk and a step-by-step guide to Jenkins Park, which easily links with the former.
Great Glen Way: Fort Augustus to Invermoriston There are a lot of different ways you can hike the Great Glen Way, and you can always double back if some of these routes are too long. This walk is a good one if you want to combine a hike with some exploring of another town and then perhaps bus back to Fort Augustus (or walk back!). It’s 12km (7.5 miles), so give yourself about 3.5 hours to get to Invermoriston, where you can grab lunch at the one cafe. (To leave Invermoriston village, find Glenmoriston Millennium Hall, next to the main car park, where you can find toilets and the bus stop). Here’s a step-by-step guide to the walk.
If you have a car, or time enough to bus to nearby hikes, there are some great ones. Consider the Loch Affric Circuit for a moderate-to-easy four hour walk, the Carn Eige and Mam Sodhail Hike which is challenging and at ten hours is for the fit and knowledgeable.
Where to Enjoy a Picnic Lunch Near Fort Augustus
My favorite lunch spot was just a 15 minute walk out of town along the road, then a short walk across a cow pasture. I would like to say that it’s a secret spot, but a group of campers rowing the length of the lake actually found this gorgeous beach first. The spot, Borlum, is at the very tip of Loch Ness; the entire 23 miles of the lake unfolds into the far distance in a shimmery expanse of clam blue waters.
Huge shady trees dot the bank of the eight-foot wide pebbly beach and it’s hard to convey just how gorgeous it was to watch the sun begin to set and cast its warm orangey-yellow light over the water.
There are many tranquil walks in the region and I found Fort Augustus a pleasant and undeniably charming town, truly. It’s small but sweet and the town manages to nestle itself nicely between the forests, lake, and rivers. The gorgeous natural setting over-powers the chatter and bump of tourists that crowd the sidewalks (and there are charms to the tourists too, like meeting the famous Scottish piper who plays near the locks!).
The faint lilt of a bagpipe rode the gentle breeze as I wandered to the main street of Fort Augustus. The town is small—tiny actually—and most of the action takes place along the Caledonian Canal, which feeds into Loch Ness. This is a busy passageway through the area since the canal connects several of the main Lochs (lakes), and uses an intricate locks system to safely move boat from into the calm waters of Loch Ness.
Although the legend and myth of Nessie is one key reason people visit this area, it’s also to see the locks and take in the sights and things to in Fort Augustus. Foot bridges span over the canal’s locks and tourists jostle for spots, especially when a boat moves through!
Tilt the camera just right and aim for an arty shot.
Fail. I have yet to discover a way to make the locks actually look interesting—I encountered this in Panama’s Canal Zone as well—but they are undeniably as popular as Loch Ness itself here in Fort Augustus.
Meeting Spud, Fort Augustus’ Bagpiper
The bagpipes grew louder the nearer I made it to the central tourist area until I rounded a corner. There before me was a piper in full Scottish regalia piping out his heart to the small crowd of tourists.
And while the intellectual part of me understands that the piper was piping specifically because of the tourists—because what normal person would wake up thinking, “Gee, perhaps I’ll put on this outfit and jam by the single most touristy spot in town”—it didn’t detract from the cool factor. Bagpipes are one of those instruments that most people (outside of Scotland for sure) rarely hear live. And that’s a shame because it’s beautiful.
I settled into a cozy spot on the grass near the bagpiper, content to much on an apple and listen to him play. Tourists ebbed and flowed past the piper, many snapping photos and tossing him a few coins before heading to the locks and shops and pubs lining the canal.
During one of his breaks, the bagpiper introduced himself to me as Spud—I would come to learn that he is a well-known bagpiper! We got to chatting and Spud felt the way many feel upon learning I am a born and raised Floridian: bewildered that I lived in such densely layered heat and humidity. I continued listening and relaxing—at least until Spud slipped in a couple of American nursery songs into his next set! That had my head whipping up, laughter bubbling out. Hearing “Skip to my Lou,” “Clementine,” and other such songs from his bagpipes seemed both anachronistic and highly amusing!
Spud plays bagpipes regularly in Fort Augustus, most every day during the high season, so throughout the week I often aimed a friendly wave in his direction as I made my way to the tiny multi-purpose grocery store/café/ restaurant to pick up dinner fixings. And on my last day, I spent several hours listening and relaxing while waiting for my bus out of town, which is how I ended up in the hitchhiking debacle!
Debacle aside, the interactions with Spud, the grocery store owner, and others is an aspect I simply love about small towns all over the world. Fort Augustus is one; I loved Český Krumlov most recently, and long before that I stayed an extra week in Luang Prabang just to soak in the good vibes. Staying a bit longer than the “must-see” things require lends new dimensions to what can seem touristy and one-dimensional.