Scotland Bound: 8 Essentials to Pack in Your Suitcase

Planning a trip to Scotland? That’s awesome! It’s an absolutely amazing country with so much to see and do that you’re bound to have an unforgettable experience. As you plan, you may be wondering what to pack. Pants? Shorts? A jacket? The list can seem overwhelming, especially when taking into consideration Scotland’s infamous quick weather changes. However, it doesn’t have to be. Strategically include a few critical items and you’ll be taking on the country like a pro no matter what conditions may come your way. 

8 Essentials to Pack in Your Suitcase

*note: this is a recommended list for the warmer season in Scotland. I haven’t been there in the winter but photos I’ve seen indicate snow and cold so you will need to pack a bit differently.

1. Layers

I swear it was sunny a minute ago!

Scotland can go from freezing cold and misty to blazing hot and sunny (yes, that does actually happen there!) all in the course of about 5 minutes. Haha! But really, the best way to be prepared for these changes is to layer. I usually include a scarf, light jacket (preferably waterproof), sweater, and hat. Some sort of convertible pants (think capris or zip off shorts) would be ideal, especially if you’ll be hiking and want to protect yourself from insects or flora & fauna. The first summer I was there, capris, a sweater, and a light jacket were my go-to’s. Last summer it was very hot and many times the family and I found ourselves sweating in shorts. The weather really can change quickly in both the temperature and conditions so planning clothing strategically is very important.

2. Waterproof shoes

Because Scotland can be quite wet, whether you’re exploring the cities or plan on hiking the great outdoors (trust me, you need to put this on your list of things to do), investing in some good quality waterproof shoes or boots is a good idea. When hiking, many trails are wet and can be quite slippery. Two of my sons and I went on an impromptu hiking expedition on the Isle of Mull and ended up muddy up to our knees as we trudged through bogs of deep ferns. It was really fun but I know one of my sons regretted the fact that his nice leather dress shoes were completely filled with mud (no exaggeration) by the time we were done. He had to wash them as best he could and hold them outside the car to dry as we drove the next day. To me, that part of the adventure was kind of funny. Maybe not so much to him.

It was all fun and games until we had to go back down and managed to find all the muddiest places.

3. A light raincoat

As I said before, it does rain a lot. However, it can also be warm in the summer. Be sure to pack a light raincoat that can breathe and with which you can possibly layer underneath.

Here’s a good one on Amazon

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Please note that all Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. If you order something I may receive a small compensation, however, this will not affect your price in any way.

4. BUG SPRAY!

Oh, the infamous midges. What are those you ask? In my mind, they may just be the spawn of Satan. I suppose you could categorize them as a cross between a mosquito and a gnat. They’re very small biting flies that thrive in moist, lush wooded locations. As you can imagine, that’s most of the topography of Scotland. These little guys swarm en masse and greedily bite any area of exposed skin they can find. After they bite, you itch to high heaven for days.

Smile, then RUN!

So don’t shy away from the bug spray. I say reserve your DEET usage for this trip, especially if you’ll be hiking through the Highlands. If you remain in the cities, however, consider yourself lucky because midges won’t pose a threat.

5. A daypack

Just me, my daypack, and 1,000,000 birds on the Isle of Lunga.

This is important especially if you’ll be out in nature, or plan to buy a lot of souvenirs in the cities ;). A daypack will help you be prepared to either put on more layers or take them off. It will also allow you to have water handy in case it gets hot. If you’re like me, you may become a bit hangry if you haven’t eaten in a while so bringing some snacks along is always a good idea too. Many locations outside the cities in Scotland are quite remote so planning essential supplies ahead of time is key.

6. Sun stuff

My first visit to Scotland was exactly what I imagined it would be: a few sunny days mixed into mostly overcast or misty weather. However, all that changed when I went back the second time. I laughed in disbelief when the locals told us they were going through a heatwave but much to my surprise, they weren’t joking. Although it was absolutely incredible to have sunny, blue skies for the majority of our trip, this heatwave was no joke. There’s got to be some scientific evidence out there to prove that Scotland is somehow closer to the surface of the sun than other location because sunny summer days are incredibly bright and can get crazy hot! A hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and water in these conditions are vital. Trust me. I’m not usually a hat person but bought one in a desperate attempt to block the intense sun from beating down on even the smallest part of my body because it really was quite unbearable.

This hat may look dumb but it was so hot I didn’t care!

7. A good camera

Get ready, you’re going to see scenery in Scotland that even as you stand there staring at it you have trouble believing is real. If you’ve seen any photos of beautiful ancient castles, rolling green hills, or beautiful crystal clear turquoise water in Scotland, they’re probably posted pretty darn close to their natural form. Scotland doesn’t need a filter. It’s just naturally stunning and gorgeous. Like, other-worldly gorgeous. I remember driving through the Quirang on the Isle of Skye thinking to myself that it looked like a real-life painting. There are no words worthy enough to describe it. If you’re like me, you will want to stop every five minutes to take a picture. I’ve taken these with my iPhone, but a good quality camera would have made them even more amazing.

8. A map

For the most part, cell service is pretty decent around the country. We’ve been consistently able to pull up interactive maps on our phones for directions.

However, there are some remote locations where cell service may be interrupted, making a good old-fashioned map quite necessary. We discovered this as we drove across the Isle of Mull and right in the middle of the island, our phone directions stopped working. Silly us, we didn’t have a “real” map on hand. I mean who does nowadays, right? Luckily, there was only one road taking us from point A to point B with no towns in between so we were ok. However, things could have become quite interesting if we had to do any more navigating along the way.

As you can see, you don’t need to pack a lot in order to enjoy all the treasures Scotland has to offer. If you plan ahead and make sure to include some important basics, neither rain nor sun, nor dreaded midges will hinder your trip, giving you the ability to enjoy it all like a pro and simply savor every moment.

Take Me Back to the Isles of Staffa & Lunga!

Have you ever done one of those meditation exercises where you’re told to close your eyes and picture a place that brings you calm and peace? A place with unrivaled beauty that makes you feel happy? Well my friend, the Isles of Staffa and Lunga in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland have become my “meditation vision”. That being said, I don’t really do much meditation, but if I did these places would be foremost in my peaceful mind. The words “stunning beauty” don’t even begin to describe them. At one point in our journey, I found myself standing practically alone atop Staffa feeling so incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to experience something so special.

The Isles of Staffa and Lunga are not exactly an easy jaunt from the main cities of Scotland. For us, our journey took us from Edinburgh, to Inveraray where we stayed for a couple of nights. Next, we journeyed to Oban, hopped on a ferry to the Isle of Mull, and the next day boarded a tour boat with Staffa Tours out of the picturesque town of Tobermory. Are there easier routes? Perhaps. But we took our time enjoying the beautiful sites Scotland had to offer along the way. 

Staffa Tours specializes in boat tours to Staffa and Lunga. They were very professional, kind, and offered nice, comfortable accommodations with seating both inside and outside. Not to mention they had bathrooms onboard. An important convenience if you are going on a full day tour. Although the boat was full (perhaps 50 people), there was plenty of seating for everyone and once we arrived on the island, everyone scattered about so it never felt over crowded.

Jack’s best “Blue Steel”

As we sailed across the Atlantic Ocean towards the Treshnish Isles, I found myself enchanted by the water. It’s difficult to explain, but I’ve found this in the Lochs of Scotland as well. The water seems extraordinarily thick and glassy. Although we were in the open ocean, the water still seemed to take on this thick, heavy demeanor. It’s fascinating to watch a boat cut through the water and create a slow, smooth wake that can span out for what seems like a mile. I find it eerily beautiful. Maybe I’m weird being fascinated by something like this, I don’t know. But it really is a very unique phenomenon.

Our first stop was the Isle of Staffa. All I can say is that if we went nowhere other than this island, I would have been content. Beautiful is not even a worthy word to describe the attributes of Staffa.

The island itself is made up of basalt volcanic rock that has come together in a uniform matrix. Almost like a 3-D puzzle. Fun fact, The Vikings gave Staffa its name because the basalt reminded them of their houses, which were built from vertically placed tree-logs (thanks Wikipedia!).

It’s absolutely incredible. A short walk along a cliff brings you to the famous Fingal’s Cave, a site visited by both Queen Victoria and Felix Mendelssohn who was so moved by the beauty of the cave that he wrote the Hebrides Overture as a tribute.

As we approached, a lone bagpiper stood at the mouth of the cave playing a hauntingly beautiful melody. When he finished he told the small crowd around him that it had been his life-long dream to play his bagpipes here. I felt privileged to be part of such a special occasion. 

After our bagpipe serenade at Fingal’s Cave, we hiked to the top of the island and sat on a grassy spot near the edge of a cliff. A soft sea breeze kissed our cheeks as we took in in the majestic view. Sea birds called overhead, and an expanse of sparkling aquamarine water undulated below. It was remote, peaceful, and absolutely beautiful.

I thought for a second about hiding out on Staffa and letting the boat leave me there, but realized my two boys might not appreciate the island as much once night fell and we were all alone in the dark, so I begrudgingly dragged myself back to the boat. However, we were excited because our next stop was the Isle Of Lunga to meet some Puffins!

The Isle of Lunga is similar in composition to the Isle of Staffa. A rocky base covered in grass and heather. Again, breathtakingly beautiful.

After hiking up a short trail, we came across our first puffins. To say these little guys are adorable is an understatement. I can see now why people travel far and wide to get a glimpse of these birds. Burrowing into their nests set deep in the heather, they pop out and look at you with as much curiosity as you them.

I could have sat and watched them all day. However, I was with my two boys and you know boys, they’re always onto the next thing. “Yeah, yeah, cute birds. I get it, now let’s move on”. 

A short cliff-side walk led us to Heart Rock.

Home to literally tens of thousands of birds, this rock is a sight to behold. The sounds of bird calls is almost deafening and it’s amazing to stand there and watch as birds manage to find a spot to land on the crowded rock. 

All those little dots are thousands of birds!

After Heart Rock, we were feeling adventurous and hiked to the top of Lunga.

When we reached our destination, we all sat alone on a rock overlooking a wide expanse of open ocean. Ok, you know by now that I’m in love with Scotland, and views like this are one of the many reasons why. There are very few places in the world where you can sit isolated from the world and take in such an array of sweeping, vast beauty.

Take me back to the Isles of Staffa and Lunga!

Again, the time came to leave the island and I begrudgingly peeled myself away, looking longingly back from the boat as the island became a small dot on the horizon. Our journey brought us back to Tobermory with new memories, new adventures, and a new love of puffins. 

I highly recommend making the journey out to the Scottish Isles of Staffa and Lunga. If you do, you too will always keep the memory of their magnificence with you and may also begin to see them in your “meditation visions” when you are searching for calm. They are a tranquil place of unrivaled beauty, adorable wildlife, and perfect peace.

As a side note, Absolute Escapes helped us book our perfect trip to Scotland. I highly recommend checking them out. They are awesome!

A Weekend in Chengdu​, China

Last week we took a quick trip over to Chengdu for some sightseeing and panda hugging. Yes, panda hugging. What a great trip! Well, how could it be bad if pandas are involved in any way, right? But really, we were delightfully surprised by Chengdu. It is a city that feels like what you would imagine China to be, encompassing history, culture, and many modern conveniences (like toilets in addition to squatty pottys-woohoo!) that make for a well-rounded trip to this wonderful area. If you are planning a trip to China, be sure to put Chengdu on your list. You won’t be disappointed! Read more

Stay Tuned!

It’s the busy season for us. Between Brett and I we will have been to 6 countries in 2 months. So, writing will have to take a little hiatus. But oh, do I have so much to share with you!

Stay tuned and in the meantime, please check out our comings and goings on Instagram, and Facebook.

Just to give you a sneak-peak of what’s to come, Here are some photos of our family vacation to Koh Lanta, Thailand last week.27912912_1748643281854087_6179773266196307462_o27983075_1748908375160911_6266011326482601818_o28070547_1751060478279034_629171965260620998_o28070706_1753119328073149_3479403851579456444_o28235481_1753859011332514_7333357971112447549_o28336633_1753108428074239_3051830571559503622_o

Finding the EXTRA in the Ordinary

Sometimes something happens that is extraordinary. You may have experienced it a hundred times before, but this time it is different.

Last week it snowed in Shanghai. Some people referred to it as a blizzard. Schools across the city had a snow day on Friday. In reality, snowfall totals were about one inch. Back home in Michigan, we would hardly bat an eye to such a small amount of snow. However, here in Shanghai, one inch of snow is enough to shut down an unequipped city.IMG_7629

Now back in Michigan we are used to a few snow days per year. Schools actually add a week to their calendar to allow for such days. But a snow day here? Unheard of. A bad air day, perhaps, but never a snow day.

You can imagine the palpable excitement amongst the children when they woke up on Friday to find that not only did they have the day off of school, but upon looking out their windows discovered there was actually snow blanketing the ground. The neighborhood was buzzing with excitement and snowmen were popping up everywhere. This excitement was not limited to the children. Gardeners walked around in awe admiring the snowmen and trying to figure out how to clear snow from the roads. Some of the children in our neighborhood had never seen snow. In fact, some of the workers had never seen snow either. People stopped in their cars to take pictures of trees, and snow-covered rooftops. Watching others enjoy something for the first time brought new excitement and joy to me as well. I found a sense of newness in something I had experienced many times before at home.

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Along these lines, I was reminded that since we are living abroad, away from our every day, things become new again. You are afforded a fresh perspective on life. It is such a blessing. Many times we fall into a routine knowing what to expect out of people, out of the weather, out of our errands, etc. It is such a huge opportunity to see things anew again and to get excited over the ordinary.IMG_7660

There is an old saying: “the devil’s in the details”. I beg to differ. I say God is in the details. When you look at life through fresh eyes, you experience new richness and detail you may have only walked past before. I took two long walks during our snowfall. Walks I had taken many times before. However, things look different when covered in a blanket of snow. A quiet hush falls upon the earth allowing you to walk and just be still. A bridge I have passed dozens of times before caused me to stop and take it its graceful lines and architectural detail. It looked beautiful dusted with snow. A small green bush with red berries dazzled in the sunlight because it was coated with a layer of ice. God is in the details. I am thankful for the snow. Because it was such an extraordinary occurrence here, I took the time to slow down and see His artistic hand upon the ordinary things I pass every day.

The snowstorm also reminded me to never give up hope. Sometimes we need the confidence of a child to remind us how to have hope, and that sometimes finding answers to your prayers may come when looking at the outcome from a different perspective. My 11-year-old, Jack said to me on Wednesday night, “tomorrow will be a snow day”. To which I responded, “it’s highly unlikely, don’t get your hopes up”. The next morning we woke up and school had not been canceled although it was snowing outside. While I thought Jack would be completely forlorn, he happily looked out the window and said, “see, I told you it would be a snow day”. Well, he was right! It was snowing, so it was technically a “snow day”. The next day school was actually canceled due to the snow. Jack simply said, “see, I told you we would have a snow day”. Wow! What an example of child-like faith, and always looking at things with a positive perspective. I know it sounds simple, but it was a powerful reminder to me to always have hope no matter how unlikely the outcome may be.IMG_7568

Every day things happen that are ordinary. My question to you is how do you take those things and make them EXTRAordinary? Take time. Slow down. See things from a fresh perspective. Find beauty in the details. Most importantly, never lose your child-like faith, and always hope for the best. One last thing, if you have snow where you are, put on your snow boots, get out there, and build the best darn snowman you have ever built before!

 

Shanghai Walks: a trip back in time

There is something in Shanghai that is very exciting and alive – the idea of a city with two different souls, one from today and another from a long time ago, is amazing.

-Alessandro Michele

The city of Shanghai paints a somewhat unusual picture. It is difficult to describe the discrepancies you find here on so many levels. The have’s and the have-not’s; old art-deco buildings amongst new futuristic skyscrapers; glitz and opulence a neighborhood away from street food, entire families sharing a two-bedroom apartment with no heat and laundry hanging from windows. All this and more is what makes the city such a fascinating area to explore.

Last weekend we pulled out our trusty Shanghai Walks book and did a walk entitled, “Suzhou Creek & the Real Shanghai.” For about 2 1/2 hours we wandered up and down the streets behind The Bund learning about the British and American Settlements in Shanghai in the 1920’s, as well as the Jewish migration from Europe and Japanese take over in the late 1930’s. To walk the streets of so much history is fascinating.

Our walk began on The Bund. For those of you who do not know the area, Shanghai is essentially divided into two parts by the Huangpu River. On one side sits the new section, or the Financial District, also known as Pudong. The other side is the old section, called Puxi. A river separating the future from the past. You don’t get any more literal than that. So, our walk began on the historical side of the city. We walked out to the river to look across at the towering skyscrapers that make up the iconic Shanghai skyline. The Oriental Pearl Tower looks like something you would find on the moon with it’s three bubbled levels and smooth silver detail.IMG_7411

From there, we turned around and headed into Puxi. Our first history lesson was that in the 1920’s the British and Americans established settlements in neighboring areas of this side of the river. Just looking at the buildings along The Bund convey the strong British influence during the time. It seems more like you are walking up and down the Thames than the Huangpu River. Gorgeous neoclassical marble buildings with ornate detail all convey an old-world European charm.

Money and culture flooded into Shanghai during this time. Theater, religion, and recreation all became popular pastimes amongst the ex-pats and wealthy locals living in the area. It is fascinating to walk along the Art Deco buildings in this section of town and feel so far removed from Asia. These buildings hold many stories, and opulence remains with stores like Cartier, Patek Philippe, and Gucci lining the streets.

It seems the British and Americans lived in harmony with the Shanghainese until Japan invaded in the late 1930’s. At this time, Japan bombed the city then proceeded to invade, taking over the once peaceful area. The lower-class Shanghainese were forced to move a bit farther away from The Bund, establishing their own neighborhoods. Our next walking point took us through these communities. What a contrast to the wealth we saw a mere two streets closer to the water. Dirty streets, laundry hanging out to dry from every window, local street food vendors offering some great (and not so great) looking dining options. No Ferraris or Rolls-Royces roll through this area. Here, they are replaced by scooters carrying entire families, chickens, and who-knows-what. But even in this section of town, the culture is rich. Perhaps not rich in monetary terms, but in their deep culture. I’m sure just as we observed in the streets closer to The Bund, these roads have changed very little. I can imagine walking down this area in the 1930’s and experiencing many of the same sites, smells, and customs that we do today.

Turning back towards The Bund is a large area under construction. Out with the old, in with the new. The remnants of thoughtfully designed Art Deco apartments stand in a crumbled heap. If those walls could talk, I’m sure they would tell tales of the glory days when the future looked bright and money and opportunity endless. I understand the push forward to make new and refresh cities, but it saddens me when there is not a middle ground. Back in the day buildings were not necessarily made to last here. They were put up quickly and lived in hard. Many of them could not be restored even if building crews wanted to, so they must be torn down and built anew. I suppose you could look at it as an opportunity. New walls to hold new stories. But I love the past and grieve a bit when it is not preserved.

 

Our walk concluded back where we started, standing in front of the Peninsula Hotel on The Bund. We put our pinkies up and went in for a much deserved afternoon cocktail. I thought as we sipped our delicacies what a contrast it was to an hour earlier when we paid 25RMB for our lunch made by street vendors on the local streets.

Shanghai is deep and layered in its history. It was fascinating to walk the streets and imagine life here in the 1920’s-’30’s. Shanghai is also a contrast of past and future, of the wealthy and the poor. But through it all, despite our history or backgrounds, we still manage to come together and make the city special.

Our walk opened my eyes to many things I have passed time and time again but never took time to really “see”. If you have the chance, step into history. Don’t just read about it in a book. Walk the streets. Stand where you are and take it all in. Imagine a time of days gone by when life was different, yet somehow much the same as today. I am thankful we did, and I know you will be too.

Special thanks to Barbara Green, Tess Johnston, Ruth Lear, and Carolyn Robertson for walking the Streets of Shanghai and writing The Streets of Changing Fortune: SIX SHANGHAI WALKS so we could too!IMG_7522