Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What to Expect on a Road Trip Around Scotland

When my husband and I planned our Scotland trip in 2012, we knew we wanted to get out of the cities and explore the country's many castles and cathedrals. However, we did not want to be trapped in a tour bus, seeing the beauty of the Scottish countryside out of a window. So we decided to rent a vehicle, and read up on driving in Scotland. It was a fantastic way to see some of Scotland's sights, but a huge learning experience for us regarding European driving. Some things research just can't prepare you for!

The misty highlands of Scotland are beautiful to drive through.

Of all the things we encountered on the road, here are the five most important "lessons" I'd like to share with you, so you know what to expect on a road trip around Scotland.

Driving on the "Other" Side of the Road is Disconcerting

I live in North America, so naturally I am used to driving on the right hand side of the road. In Scotland, however, it is the opposite. It sounds like a simple thing - just drive on the left side of the road. But it is a strange experience, and a challenge for your brain to become accustomed to. Not only is the vehicle on the opposite side, but all of the levers and handles INSIDE the car as well. Joey, my husband, had to use different hands to shift, different feet to brake, and constantly mixed up the windshield wiper switch with the turning signal.

Joey poses with our trusty rental vehicle - oh, the fun we had together!

Even for the passenger it is a strange matter. I kept freaking out on Joey because it always looked like we were veering off the side of the road. It was only because I was sitting in the seat where usually the driver perches. To me, it felt like we should have been driving significantly more towards the centre line, but that was only because of my perception that my seat was supposed to be centre to the road. It was slightly disconcerting, and more than a few times Joey snapped at me to let him drive, because my paranoia was making him nervous.

Scotland has the best scenery of any road trip!

Eventually we both got used to driving on the left hand side of the road, but it took a few days. The thing that helped the most was driving down smaller country roads versus the highway or busy city streets. It felt more natural driving in the country, and after that driving in the city on the 'opposite' side of the street became more normal.

Rural Roads are Narrow and Passing Places Few

On the road to Loch Ness, we took a route that veered off one of the main highways because we wanted to skirt the lake and see the beautiful views. This meant driving on the country roads, which can be insanely narrow. These are called 'single track roads' and are basically created for one car to drive down - one way only.

One of the narrow single track roads we encountered.

The road we were on wove through several forested areas, cutting through hills and valleys, often with sharp drops on one or both sides of the road. Joey and I fretted about what would happen if we encountered another car coming in the opposite direction. Would we have to back up until we found a flat spot to pull over? Would the other car? How would we know? How do people drive like this?

There are sporadic flattened areas along the side of the road called "Passing Places". This is where slower vehicles can pull over to allow cars and trucks behind them to pass and continue on their way, or where two vehicles heading opposite directions can get past one another without scraping doors. Sometimes drivers honestly need to back up until they reach a passing place to allow oncoming traffic to move through. (Sounds nuts I know, but it is what it is.)

A good ol' 'Passing Place' sign. I'm not sure I'm a fan of this system.

And for the love of Scotland, don't PARK in a passing place. That is one of the most ignorant, not to mention dangerous, things you can do on a single track road.

Other things to remember when driving these narrow single track roads are to slow down near corners or bends to avoid colliding with an oncoming vehicle just past the turn, never speeding, watching for pedestrians or animals on the shoulder (since the shoulder takes up at least half the road!), and not dawdling when there are other drivers behind you, since it could be a long time before they get the opportunity to pass you.

There are Lots and Lots of Roundabouts

In Alberta, we don't have many traffic circles. Of course, we do have them and I know how to use one, but I don't often have the opportunity.

In Scotland, they are everywhere. Traffic signal lights are actually the more rare phenomenon.

A lovely example of a roundabout. Image via.

Five minutes into our first drive using our rental car, we hit a traffic circle that wasn't on our GPS - it was a brand new one at the airport. We, naturally, got lost instantly and ended up parking in a hotel parking lot to regain our bearings. After that initial kerfuffle, using the roundabouts was easy peasy. Just remember to take a wee refresher course on how to properly drive in a traffic circle before you head to Scotland to avoid crashing your vehicle or making the locals angry!

Use That GPS!

Before we even boarded our plane to Scotland, I'd already mapped out driving routes and saved images of driving directions and distances on my phone. I wanted to make sure we didn't get lost and find ourselves out of gas in the middle of nowhere with no rescue in sight. What I didn't account for, however, are the unusual roads and lanes in rural Scotland.

When we were driving through the Lothians on our castle tour, one castle was just off the highway, according to the Google Maps driving directions. It seemed rather simple and straightforward. We could have just puttered along using the map I had downloaded, but Joey, always the practical one, decided to enter the location into the GPS just to be safe.

It isn't all stress and narrow lanes - driving in Scotland can be extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful.

Boy, was I glad he did! The castle was decidedly NOT just 'off the highway', but down meandering country single track lanes, and even a rutted dirt road or two. I felt like we should have been navigating our way using a horse and carriage for most of that excursion, it took us down such a rustic path. Thank goodness we used the GPS, or we would have turned back early into the drive due to fear of getting lost.

Despite the winding route, I really enjoyed that drive. Setting aside the stress that our GPS had lost its mind and was just spitting out random directions for fun, it was lovely seeing the Scottish countryside, dotted with grazing sheep amid the vibrant green hills. Getting lost, or at least thinking you are getting lost, can be fun if you are surrounded by beauty!

So even if your destination seems straightforward, it is always sensible to use the GPS anyway. Because you never know. And you don't want to miss that castle.

Have Fun Discovering Unusual Road Signs

While cruising through the lush and beautiful wilds of Loch Ness, my husband and I continually encountered some very odd road signs posted for drivers. After passing a few different ones, I finally begged Joey to stop the car, and I dashed (through a light mist of rain) back to the sign to take a photograph...

The Scottish truly value their Red Squirrels!

They are very protective of their squirrels over in northern Scotland!  The ironic (and yes, very sad) thing about this is that while we were chuckling over the silly road sign as we continued towards our destination, we saw a flattened red squirrel on the pavement ahead of us. So I guess the signs are necessary after all.

Other strange road signs found in Scotland, but unfortunately un-photographed: "Caution: Cat Crossing"  and "Slow Children at Play". I realize the latter sign was meant to say "Slow - Children at Play" but that lack of hyphen must have done some damage to the self-esteem of those poor kids who live nearby!

Once you have these rules of the road under your belt, driving in Scotland is just the same as driving at home (at home for me being North America). Wear your seat belt, keep your gas tank full, follow the laws of the land, enjoy the scenery, and have an amazing road trip!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Foodie Bucket List: Learn to Make Sushi

"A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there." ~ Anonymous

This is one of my favourite quotes, and I apply it to my travel philosophy all the time. Try new things. Experience new places. Meet new people. Get out there and make the most of your life instead of wrapping yourself in the comforts and safety of your own home. At least, when you have the time and money!

However, I realized a while ago that I don't usually apply this to my every day life. Of course, having children was a major step outside of my comfort zone, but now life with my kidlets is the new normal. And once again, I seem to have settled into a daily routine that sometimes threatens to become a rut. 

My sushi supplies all ready to go, minus the seafood.

So... I decided I was going to try something new, and I signed up for a cooking class at our local Lifelong Learning Association. I am a great cook when it comes to the staple meals I love to make: sweet dijon chicken with scalloped potatoes (from a box) and Parmesan asparagus, honey garlic salmon with Asian green beans, and chicken and leek lasagna are a few of my signature dishes. Yes, they have a little flair, but for the most part are simple, easy, and quick to whip up.

But sushi was something that has always been on my bucket list to learn how to create. Today I can confidently say that I now know how to make sushi, at least a basic roll. 

Pressing the rice onto the seaweed paper - so fun!

My class was a small one consisting of eleven 'students' and one teacher, which was nice because she was able to answer our questions and bring us supplies pretty much instantly. She had the rice pre-made for us, so that is something that I will still have to learn to do. (Don't scoff - I'm surprisingly bad at making rice.) Our teacher demonstrated how to make two different types of California rolls, then handed us our supplies and set us loose.

Adding my tasty fillings - cucumber, avocado, and carrot so far...

I was amazed at how easy it is to make sushi. I always thought that it would be a long, drawn-out process, but I was wrong. The most time-consuming aspect is the preparation - making the rice, cutting the vegetables, blanching some vegetables (such as carrots or asparagus), and shopping for supplies. But once you are prepared, you can whip out rolls like you are a one-woman factory! Our teacher even gave us some tips to make prep even easier, such as cut your veggies the evening before, and cook the rice in the morning, then put it into a roaster and have it stay warm until you are ready to roll (literally). 

My favourite part was the actual rolling process, where you roll, pull the mat out, squish, roll, pull the  mat out, squish, and on and on until the sushi roll is nicely compacted and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. I also had fun mashing the sticky rice onto the seaweed paper with wet fingers (you MUST use wet fingers or you will have rice attached to them for the rest of your days). 

Making sure my hands are nice and wet so the rice doesn't get glued to my skin.

Because of the small size of the class, I was able to make three full rolls - one traditional California roll with the crab sticks, one roll with shrimp, and one roll with shrimp, crab AND smoked salmon. Yum! Dinner for tonight is done!

I am glad that I stepped out of my culinary comfort zone and tried learning a new cooking skill. Now that I know how simple sushi is to make, I know I can add it to the usual rotation of yummy dinners that I like to feed my family. And if I ever travel to Japan - which might be in the works! Stay tuned! - I can take a class there and build on my knowledge base. 

My finished products, before slicing them into pieces. They look pretty!

If you have a sushi-making class in your area, I encourage you to try it! It is tons of fun, very informative, and the best part, extremely tasty!