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A Sea Adventure – The Inner Hebrides Archipelago in Scotland!

As the ferry broke away from the mainland and onto the cold Atlantic, I clapped on my fluffy ear-muffs and took a deep breath of the freezing pure air. I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside town of Oban, on the West Coast of Scotland, towards the Isle of Mull, one of the largest islands within the archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides.

The port of Oban

My camera clicked madly as the crossing took us through a large number of small islands, both habited and uninhibited, which form part of this archipelago. Random ruined castles, modern lighthouses, tiny hamlets, and small forests standing proudly amidst the roar of the surf, filled my vision.

The one-day trip to visit three of the most famous islands within the Inner Hebrides had not been a spur of the moment decision. We had in fact, booked and paid for it online weeks before actually setting foot on Scotland, in order to make sure that the date was solidly set beforehand. We were lucky in that we managed to visit during the last week of September, since passage for tourists to two out of the three islands we were visiting, is never possible during winter-time. Bookings were accepted up to the beginning of October, subject to weather conditions of course.

Oban – On the West coast of Scotland

Leaving our rented car parked snugly at Oban, we collected our combo-tickets from the ticket office, and set off towards the Ferry Terminal Railway Peer. There are a number of cruise companies which offer combo tickets at not much more than £45 per person. Such tickets usually include all the ferries to and from the specific islands one wishes to visit, as well as any possible coaches or busses, and the relevant guides. In our case, we opted to visit the Islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa.

The comfortable ferry, which sported a wine-bar and cafeteria, made port at Craignure on Mull, the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides after the Isle of Skye. We were greeted by our coach-driver and guide, who was herself a native of Mull, and who proceeded to drive us around the picturesque island for around an hour, recounting anecdotes about the various ruins, legends, and even personages who had lived there. I must admit that without her lilting cheerful voice narrating so many colourful stories, I might have started to feel a little cramped at this point. This was because we had no time to stop anywhere or to walk around and visit Mull properly, since we had to travel directly to Fionnphort on the other side of the island, in order to catch yet another ferry to the Isle of Iona. The day was cloudy, windy and quite cold, and the gentle Scottish rain pattered on the windows of the coach, making it impossible for us to take any photos along the way. We could still admire the isle itself though. A lush picturesque symphony of moorland, mountain scenery and coastal views, dotted with small cottages and many many sheep. Our guide informed us that on Mull there were in fact three sheep for every human being.

The Isle of Iona

The ferry we boarded at Fionnphort was markedly smaller than the first one. There was a middle space reserved for one or two small cars, and some railings for pedestrians to perch on at the sides. The presence of the wind was much more pronounced on such a small craft. A couple of dogs yapped steadily as we bobbed up and down towards the smaller, yet more well-known island of Iona. Renowned for its natural beauty, Iona is famous for its Abbey, which is the one of the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages. The Abbey is of particular historical and cultural interest in that it was here that Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, settled and built his first monastery. It is also the place of origin of the wondrous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript which is today kept at Trinity College in Dublin.

Iona Abbey

Personally, I am not much of a religious pilgrim, yet history, art and architecture fascinate me, which is why the Benedictine Abbey of Iona attracted me so much. The medieval arches, romantic columns, and amazingly crafted stained glass windows were the perfect complement for the natural landscape of the Hebrides. Shaggy highland cows with long horns and a peaceful expression looked at me quizzically while I breathed in the salty air and strolled along the rugged beach directly behind the Abbey. The chill actually got to me at this point and I was very happy to purchase a pair of white cotton ear-muffs from the Abbey’s souvenir shop itself. I must have been quite a sight. Perhaps that’s why the cows were staring at me.

After eating some lunch at one of the handful of small pubs on Iona, we prepared for the highlight of the day – the trip to the mythological tiny island of Staffa, and the visit to the legendary Fingal’s Cave. Being part of a Nature Reserve, and managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Fingal’s Cave is a unique natural monument formed entirely of hexagonally jointed basalt columns, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which I had visited a couple of years back.

We boarded an even SMALLER boat (our third one), with a capacity of not more than 25 people. The wind had really picked up at this point, and I started to get a tiny bit worried. What’s more, before starting the craft, the captain said that he had to inform us that the crossing would not be an easy one, and that in fact some people from an earlier cruise had been pretty sick. Going to the Isle of Staffa and back was going to take us approximately an hour and a half of sailing. He asked us if there was anyone who preferred to remain on land and be reimbursed the trip, since he would not be taking responsibility for any accidents. Five people got off the boat. I was scared to death. My boyfriend was looking at me breathlessly, excited by the prospect of such an adventure. I gritted my teeth and sat down. How bad could it get? Right?

All went well at first. The wind was behind us, so the boat crested the waves blithely and I got used to the rock and roll motion of the deck. It was fun actually. The waves sprayed all over us as we tried to keep steady enough to use our cameras. There was so much to take in! The Inner Hebrides are comprised of 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited ones, and Staffa is one of the latter. As we drank in the blueness of the sea and sky around us, caught between them like flies in amber, our captain told us of the facts and legends surrounding Fingal’s Cave. The 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep cave itself was known to to the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people as Uamh-Binn, meaning ‘the Cave of Melody’, due to the eerie sounds which emanate from its arching cathedral-like features when the wind and the echo of the waves sound just-so. Legend has it that the Irish warrior and leader Fionn mac Cumhaill, who was as big as a giant, built a bridge here between the Isle of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, in order for him to reach his nemesis and rival Benandonner. The legend which connects the two structures is geologically correct in fact, as both of them were created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have, at one time, formed a ‘bridge’. We are talking of around 60 million years ago here, so there were no human beings around to see it at the time.

Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa
The fractured columns on the Isle of Staffa

As we got closer and closer to the islet and to the cave itself, anything seemed possible. The cave has a large arched entrance and is filled by the ocean. When I had booked our cruise, we had been promised that we could actually land on the island and walk the short distance to the cave, where a row of fractured columns form a walkway just above water level, permitting exploration on foot. Unfortunately, the captain at this point informed us that the sea was becoming too rough, and that landing was dangerous. So, we had to be content with looking closely at the island from the sea. We didn’t even enter the mouth of the cave. I admit that I was, and still am, bitterly disappointed about this. Scottish weather is fickle and changeable however, especially at sea, so there was nothing to be done. It was after all, the end of September. I would strongly recommend anyone who would like to visit the Hebrides to go during high summer, when the weather is calmer.

Seeing Fingal’s Cave, even from afar, was a great experience. No wonder the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to create ‘The Hebrides Overture’, also known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, after visiting in 1829! Famous landscape painter J.M.W Turner painted it, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria all expressed amazement after visiting it, and Pink Floyd even named one of their earliest unreleased songs after the cave.

Coming back, all the feelings of awe and amazement totally fled. The sea had gotten even rougher, and this time, the boat was going against the wind. I don’t usually suffer from sea-sickness, but that trip was truly a nightmare. I sat down in a corner, held on for dear life, and ended up hugging a fire hydrant in an effort not to fall or roll off, as the now huge waves crashed against the tiny boat and all the other passengers gasped in terror, trying not to cry out. I admit, those were the longest 45 minutes of my life. Cutting a long story short, after our arrival at the Isle of Mull, we still had to suffer through an hour-long trip in the coach, and another 45 minutes on the ferry from Fionnphort back to Oban where we had left the car.

It wasn’t an easy journey to say the least, but the enchantment of Fingal’s Cave, the charm of the Inner Hebrides, and the depth of emotion I felt there, will be truly remembered forever. As will, unfortunately, the hellish boat-ride amidst the stormy Atlantic Ocean!

A slightly different version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

The Importance of Preparation

When your target is to see and experience as much as you can within a particular period of time, you generally try to save time by planning as much as you can beforehand, in order to be able to sight-see as much as possible, in the few days (or if you are lucky, weeks) you have abroad. Sometimes, it may even feel as though you are running against the clock. The trick is to get all the planning and research done before you are actually on your holiday, and not after you have arrived at your destination per se.

Here are some tips which could help you prepare for your much-awaited adventure:

1. Set your dates and buy your flight: Make sure that you are free of work / school / any other appointments and as soon as you are sure, book those flights IMMEDIATELY! Flight prices tend to go up closer to the date, so the first thing to do is to get that out of the way, especially if you are on a budget!

2. Budget: See how much you can really spend, taking into account accommodation, travelling expenses, food, museum / castle / events tickets, not to mention shopping!

3. Decide which part of the country you are going to use as your base: If you are staying at the city center, then obviously your accommodation should be situated there. If, on the other hand, you are exploring a remote part of the country, or going on a road-trip, you might even decide to stay at two or three different locations, in order to be able to continue with your journey as you go along, instead of having to always return to the same bed.

4. Decide on a mode of transportation: How will you get from the airport to your accommodation? Are you renting a car? Will you be using public transport throughout your stay? Are you visiting a friend who will drive you around wherever you wish to go? All this must first be taken into account before actually starting to work on the ‘meaty’ part of the holiday.

5. Once all that is settled and decided, what I usually do is draft a small table or list, starting with the day and time I will be arriving at my destination, and the time I will be leaving. All the space in between is a blank canvas, to be filled in depending on one’s personal agenda and where you wish to go. Take out your map (or better still, go on Google Maps) and start tracing an imaginary line around it and have fun filling in that gap!

Image source: Museivaticani

6. If you know you are visiting a certain place on a certain day for sure, and you find that you can buy the ticket to the place / event online, do so! In most cases, the price will be cheaper if you buy it online, not to mention the most important fact that you will be saving time in which you could be doing something else instead of waiting around in queues!

7. If you have a GPS or a map, mark down the locations where you are certain you would like to go. This will help you find the place more easily when you are actually there. Getting lost is a big NO-NO when it comes to saving time.

8. Try and calculate how much time you will need to travel between one destination and another. For example, if you need to take the train from London to Kent, where you have to attend a specific event or visit a particular place before closing time, check how much time you require for travelling.

9. Check whether the places you wish to visit have opening hours and what they are. It would be pointless to go somewhere and then realize that they have just closed or that they do not open on certain specific days and you end up being there on one of them! I bless the internet on these occasions as almost all the information required can be found online.

10. Pack up your maps, your tickets, your receipts, lists, tables and what-have-you in a sturdy file or folder. This may seem trivial but believe me, you don’t want to lose anything or end up with rain or mud splattered on your tickets, and not be able to enter your chosen location because the person at reception just does not believe you have already paid.

Too much trouble you think? Well personally, I think it’s more than worth it, as once you are at your destination, you end up just enjoying yourself and living in the moment, instead of having to worry about all this stuff.

Bon Voyage!!

Using Land Transport

Whenever I’m conversing with someone about travel and holidays, it’s surprising how many people seem to find land transport to be one of the most difficult issues to navigate through (pun intended).

Travel, in my opinion, is all about adventure and exploration. I’m not one to spend hundreds of euros to travel to a beach to relax somewhere, which I can very well do in Malta or Gozo (my home-country) anyways. Instead, I prefer to see as much of the country I’m visiting as much as I possibly can.

So, when people ask me how I managed to see so many different attractions and places in such a short space of time, it’s mainly because most of them seem to have difficulty with sightseeing when the locations they want to reach are not conveniently placed in a capital city, or in a major urban area. Well, guess what? Aside from taxis (which are too expensive and inconvenient most of the time), there are actually many other easy and economical ways of travelling on land when you are in a foreign country. All it takes to be aware of them is some online research – and for this, I’m eternally grateful to the founders of google.com, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin.

Here are some ideas to help you out with regards to land travel when abroad:

The Tube/Underground/Metro

Granted, this mode of transport is not to be found everywhere, however the network is much vaster than one might believe. Although the London Underground is the most well-known and the oldest system of its kind, there’s actually a vast list of countries which make use of it. These include Algeria, Austria, China, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Japan, Italy, USA, Switzerland, Spain, and many others. The underground is usually my preferred mode of transport to and from the airport, since it’s not only economical, but also very convenient as most airports sport an underground station directly next to, if not beneath them.

Image source: BusinessInsider

Train Stations

The first recorded train station started to be active in 1803. Nowadays, efficiency and easy access to tickets have soared, in that not only can you purchase tickets from automated machines within stations themselves, but also online, which can be done days, if not weeks in advance, foregoing long queues. Railway tracks pass through mountains and valleys, operating cross-border through different countries and states. Most airports are found within at least one or two railway routes, as are a large number of remote countryside towns and even villages, aiding one in travelling across the length and breadth of most countries around the world in a relatively easy manner.

Image source: Londontoolkit

Private Coach

This is a service provided by a number of companies worldwide. Coaches are usually available from a number of focal points, such as airports or key points within the city centre, or even in front of specific hotels. All the traveler has to do is book their passage online at the time and place desired, and they’ll be automatically pooled in with a number of other passengers. Coach routes can vary, ranging from one-hour to twelve-hour journeys or more, and they’re usually furnished with bathrooms, luggage compartments, nightlights, and even beverage-machines. Most coach services are advertised in airport websites themselves, so that’s a good place to start choosing one.

ZPY_300_Zarb_Coaches_IVECO_Eurorider_C33_-_Hispano_Divo._Malta
Image source: Wikimedia

Public Buses

Although these operate mostly in and around cities, towns and suburbs, it’s still worth checking out the relevant timetables before making plans for sightseeing routes, in order to already have the times and distance between different attractions already in mind when you start out. Also make a note on night bus routes, which may be different from the day ones. Bus tickets can usually be purchased as block tickets; instead of buying a ticket each time, you can buy a 3-day ticket or a weekly ticket, depending on how many times you think you’ll be making use of the service. This could save time as well as money.

tal-linja2
Image source: Tvm

Car Rental

If you’re travelling in a group, or even as a couple or on your own, and if, of course, there’s at least one driver in your group who doesn’t mind driving abroad, this is perfectly ideal. Nowadays, there are a large number of reliable Sat-Navs (GPS) on the market, which are much more efficient than the old map-and-directions routine. Of course, it’s always advisable to look up the locations you’re visiting beforehand, and get the lay of the land. I would also recommend using Google Earth and zoom in on street view, in order to virtually acquaint yourself with the surroundings you’re about to travel through. Be especially careful if you’re going to visit a country where people drive on the other side of the road, as this may take some getting used to.

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Image source: Gozoandmalta