I am not what you would call an unprepared traveler. I scour guidebooks, investigate websites, talk to friends. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.
But Scotland still surprised me.
Because this trip included a stop in Edinburgh for a film festival and a visit to the Inverness/Nairn area of northern Scotland where my wife's ancestors lived, it was in the works for quite some time. And I had, if anything, done more than my usual planning. My stack of guidebooks was more than a foot tall (really), and I utilized the services of an excellent travel agent, Claire Schoeder of Century Travel (www.centurytvl.com), who specialized in the country. I even exchanged emails with VisitScotland (www.visitscotland.com/en-us/), the national tourism organization.
But once my wife and I arrived in Scotland earlier this summer, I found again and again that places and situations took my breath away in the most unexpected ways. So much so that I decided to write them all down for the assistance and delectation of those who may come after me, including those heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, ending Aug. 31.
The 12 experiences that delighted me most:
1. Taking the slow boat to Inchmahome Priory on the Lake of Menteith, near Stirling Castle in central Scotland. I'm a sucker for poetic 15th century ruins (who isn't?), and given how crowded Scotland can be in the summer, I had expected a packed ferry ride to the priory's island location.
Instead, we were the only passengers on a small but plucky motorboat and the only visitors on the island, alone with our thoughts as we wandered through half-collapsed structures and marveled at trees said to have been there when Mary, Queen of Scots visited in 1547.
To top it off, we saw an osprey pluck a trout out of the lake and had a freshly caught trout lunch ourselves at the fine Lake of Menteith restaurant. Scotland at its best. Info: www.lat.ms/1CHd3Ny
2. Taking a two-plus-hour guided tour of Findhorn, founded more than 50 years ago as a small spiritual community on the Moray Firth in northeast Scotland and now "an international center for holistic learning" that includes an eco village and individualistic housing. To spend time in this new-age institution once known for its legendary 40-pound cabbages (said to be grown with the aid of "nature spirits") is to visit another universe, similar to our own yet wonderfully different. Info: www.findhorn.org
3. The courtesy and patience of Scottish drivers and the slack they cut us as we drove their narrow roads. If driving on the left side is a challenge for Americans, then navigating the country's devilish roundabouts is even more so.
The elaborate system of signaling that locals use to make it around without hitting anyone was impressive, as was the overall civility. I was in a cafe in the seaside town of Nairn when a woman came in to apologize to a waiter for honking at him earlier in the day.
4. Shopping at House of Bruar. Neither my wife nor I are major-league shoppers, so we underestimated the charms of this huge, village-like shopping emporium. It's a natural stopping point halfway between Edinburgh and Inverness on the A9, much the way Harris Ranch is on the drive from L.A. to San Francisco.
It's home to a pleasant restaurant and several buildings selling first-class merchandise of every description, including clothing and housewares, but the diversity of cookies, cakes, crackers, biscuits, muffins, jams, marmalades, teas, coffees, nuts, fudge, chocolates and hard candies in the Food Hall is staggering. We had a welcome hot lunch in the restaurant and found that bottles of juice squeezed from specific types of apples (Braeburn was my favorite) were impossible to resist. Info: www.houseofbruar.com
5. Walking the beach at Nairn. Beaches may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Scotland, but the miles of wide-open, pristine, white-sand beaches surrounding this town northeast of Inverness were a balm to the soul. The day we visited was blustery and cool, so only intrepid teenagers braved the water. Other walkers were so infrequent that they didn't disturb the solitude. Info: www.lat.ms/1HzEW8S
6. Visiting the Royal Botanic Garden, familiarly known as the Botanics. This venerable institution, established in 1670 in the heart of Edinburgh, overflows with beauty and tranquillity. With 10 greenhouses (each devoted to a different climatic zone) and 70 acres filled with more plants than any place, except London's Kew, to explore, my only regret is that I didn't discover its wonderful meandering paths sooner. Info: www.rbge.org.uk
7. Visiting the stunning Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Edinburgh has no shortage of impressive buildings, but this one, opened to the public in 1889 and described by one guidebook as "a fantastical French Gothic medieval palace in red sandstone, modeled after the Doge's Palace in Venice," has a knockout interior complete with a frieze of Scottish heroes and murals of celebrated scenes from Scottish history ("St. Columba Addressing the Picts" is something you don't see depicted every day). Its cafeteria, a light-filled, airy space with a fine selection of salads and sandwiches, is a great spot for lunch. Info: www.nationalgalleries.org/portraitgallery
8. Marveling at all the castles. It was hard to drive any distance without encountering signs for castles such as Urquhart, Inverlochy, Linlithgow, Brodie, Cawdor, Blair, Stirling, St. Andrews, Kellie, Ravenscraig … you get the idea. There is also a castle trail itinerary you can follow.
Even a 17th century dovecote in the village of Auldearn had a castle-like appearance. And the beach at Nairn had more imposing sand castles than you see at Malibu. Info: www.lat.ms/1hbQ8jL
9. Staying at impressive 19th century homes that had been turned into small luxury hotels. The cost is considerable, but the historic feeling and level of service make them worth the cost. We sampled Boath House in Auldearn (www.boath-house.com, doubles from $406), a circa-1820 Georgian gem with a stunning walled garden, and tiptop Cromlix (www.cromlix.com, doubles from $312), owned by Scottish tennis star Andy Murray, who grew up in nearby Dunblane.
10. Listening to BBC Radio Scotland. The variety and quality of music played, first-class selections of jazz, rock, classical and folk, made this a pleasure to find on the radio dial in our hotel rooms. Info: www.bbc.com/scotland
11. Discovering that sticky toffee pudding is not pudding at all but a moist brown cake. I've always loved the name of this British dessert, but it had never crossed my path until this trip. I was happy to find that it reminded me of nothing so much as the tasty honey-flavored cakes of my Brooklyn youth.
12. Realizing that the Scotland of the movies still lives. As a childhood fan of 1955's "Wee Geordie," about a small boy who takes a bodybuilding course and becomes an Olympic hammer thrower, I was as delighted to hear that that diminutive is still in common usage today, as I was to attend a ceilidh dance celebration in Edinburgh just like the one in Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's "I Know Where I'm Going!," a romance set on a Scottish isle. And after a distressing number of wrong turns (don't ask), I found myself by complete accident directly in front of majestic Caig Falls, site of a memorable escape from hanging in 1995's "Rob Roy," starring Liam Neeson.
Overall, the best piece of advice I received about Scotland came from the excellent Lonely Planet guidebook:
"Quality, rather than quantity, should be your guide, so pick a handful of destinations and give yourself time to linger. The most memorable experiences in Scotland are often the ones where you do very little."
Words to live by.
THE BEST WAY TO EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND
From LAX, United, Air Canada, British, KLM, American, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes) to Edinburgh. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,369 to $2,026, round trip.