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Wrong Way to the Highlands

This is the second trip in which we have driven on the wrong side of the road, sitting in the wrong side of the car. We wanted to visit the Scottish Highlands at a time of the year when all tour companies are closed for Christmas. Good job to the family for picking these dates! So, we decided to rent a car and drive to the Highlands.

We picked up our rental car from the Edinburgh Waverley Station with a huge smile because they upgraded us to an SUV for the same charge as a dinky car. As we bid the agent goodbye, Tarun and I paused and paid extra for the highest level of collision damage insurance because, you know, we were about to drive on the wrong side to the Highlands, through scenes straight from the Harry Potter series.

We drove out of the parking bay, made a left, and...whoops. Big car, big turning circle, wall in front. I saw the "R" on the stick but couldn't for the life of me figure out how to get the car to go backwards. Pushed down, pulled up, pushed harder on the stick. Neil tried, Tarun tried. No joy. We called the agent and he showed us that we had to pull up the ring at the bottom of the stick before moving it into reverse. What?! We would have never, ever figured that out. Armed with this bit of extraordinary knowledge and with extra collision insurance, we felt incredibly empowered.

Our confidence was very short-lived.

I turned to go through the exit gates and BAM! The side mirror on the left hit a metal structure. The impact folded the mirror instantly. The exit lane was precisely the width of the SUV with no room for protrusions! Highest level of collision damage insurance was the first thing on my mind. Neil jumped out of the car after I backed up and reassured us that there was no visible damage. Then each member of my family volunteered at least five contradictory instructions on how I should get out of the tight spot we were in, except for Humera who knew the best way to help me was to maintain radio silence. I eventually managed to extricate us out of this tight spot, seriously reconsidering the benefits of upgrading to a bigger car.

Anyhow, like ostriches we buried our heads in the sand, pretended that nothing had happened and boldly zoomed into the road going the wrong way. Left near me, right far away...that was my mantra when I turned. Left me, right away. LM, RA - I used all kinds of hints to stay on the wrong, er, right side of the road. The first 15 minutes were a whirlwind of shifting, blinking, following directions, going around a roundabout every tenth of a mile, avoiding pedestrians, watching the light turn, and not veering into the curb on the left. Great cardiac workout!

Once we got on the highway, motorway as they call it, the tension-level in the car eased. We zoomed our way to Stirling, straight up north from Edinburgh. This is the site of Stirling Castle, a gorgeous fortress on the top of a very steep hill. Built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the castle is a large complex of buildings and was home to several famous kings and queens, including Mary, Queen of Scots.

The castle sits on a massive cliff, giving us breathtaking and 360 degree views of the valley below us.

We bounced from one side of the castle to the other, taking panoramic pictures of the countryside.

In the cemetery on the castle grounds, Tarun showed me a monument to the 18-year old girl who was drowned for refusing to forego her Protestant faith. After the castle, we drove down very steep and circuitous roads to No. 2 Baker Street. The pub was brightly decorated in Christmas finery and had Chicken Tikka Masala on the menu. Between the local ale, called Caesar Augustus, and the castle, we felt royal for the moment.

Our next stop was due west to Loch Lomond via the long route through Kilin. Loch is Scottish for lake. And Lomond is a beauty! It's the largest inland body of water in Britain. On the way we saw sheer cliffs, like the ones in Game of Thrones. The Highlands were high indeed! The road to Loch Lomond was treacherous, winding and narrow. If we avoided the oncoming cars we were too close to the lake. If we avoided the lake, we were across the dividing line. But excitedly, we took turns to take us around the lake, driving through the cutest villages and past homes that I have imagined while reading the literary classics. By the time we got to the lake, dusk had settled in and a deep sense of eeriness enveloped us. Josh noted it looked like a setting of a horror movie. We managed to get some pictures in the mist, praying not to awaken Nessie's sibling who was resting in the depths of the lake. We had no doubts.

On the way back, Tarun and I fell asleep in the car and woke up to the first of several roundabout fiascos. Add a few wrong turns and we were in the throes of chaos in Edinburgh city. The road names are not easily visible and the roads are not in a grid so the person navigating had to be as precise as the driver making the turns. The Sens are not as coordinated as we think we are and we ended up seeing more of Edinburgh than we had planned to do. In hindsight, we loved every minute of our family time when everyone ended up yelling at everyone else, at least once!

Today, as we depart Scotland and go past towns like Berwick-Upon-Tweed, we know we are going to miss the Scottish hospitality and beautiful vistas. Someday we will be back. Until then, "See ye efter!"

Travel Notes:

  • From London, we took the London North Eastern Railway train to Edinburgh. We bought our tickets on the LNER website - Trains to Edinburgh leave frequently from London's Kings Cross station. The trip is about 4.5 hours at 35-70 pounds per person each way. Driving to Edinburgh would have taken much longer.

  • Edinburgh is a compact city with many hotels. We went in off-season so the Balmoral hotel was affordable. It is a beautiful property in the heart of town, in the same block as the Edinburgh Waverley train station.

  • We rented a car from the train station ( Car rentals in Europe are more expensive than in the US, gas is definitely more pricey, and the navigation system and extra collusion damage add up. In the end, for the five of us, renting was more cost-effective than taking a day tour.

  • For our day trip, we drove to Stirling Castle and then by Kilin to Loch Lomond, around Glasgow, and back to Edinburgh. There are many tour companies that do day trips from the center of town. We saw some of these vans and they look comfortable and professionally run.

  • There are a ton of ethnic restaurants, including Dishoom - the must-do Indian place - around the corner from the Balmoral. If you can't get a reservation at Dishoom for dinner, try to walk in at lunch. The Balmoral has a wonderful bar called "Prince" and a terrific gym with a pool.

  • Daylight in winter in Scotland is a meager six hours from 9 to about 3pm, so sight-seeing time was restricted.

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