Exploring Scotland, Something for Everyone!

At the northernmost tip of the British Isles lies Scotland. Home of golf, Scotch Whisky and Haggis, Scotland has a little something for everyone.  Whether you are looking to spend a night sleeping in a castle, go hiking across the lush, green countryside, or speed across the lowlands on a scenic train trip, Scotland will not disappoint.

Foodies tend to find that Scottish cuisine, which shares much of its background with typical English fare, is more varied and flavorful than the traditional foods of its southern cousin. With a wide array of seafood, dairy, game and breads, special delights such as Marmalade pudding, Dunlop cheese, Scotch pie and Rumbledethumps are always a treat. Accompanying beverages run the gamut from Scotch Whisky (no e in Whisky for them) to Ginger Wine along with Scotland’s other national drink, Irn-Bru, a non-alcoholic carbonated soda that stands up to competition with more ubiquitous global brands.

Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, is home to the country’s most famous fortress, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe which “opens the doors, streets and alleyways of an entire city to an explosion of creative energy from around the globe” every August. Started in 1947, the Fringe was created to celebrate and strengthen Europe’s rich cultural life post-WWII. Anglophiles will also find visits to Holyrood Palace, St. Giles’ Cathedral and the dormant volcano known as Arthur’s Seat quite fascinating.

For those seeking more high adventure, summers off Scotland’s Oban coast afford the opportunity to go snorkeling with the world’s second largest fish, the basking shark. Perthshire, Aviemore and Fort William’s narrow gorges and fast-flowing rivers are perfect for visitors who want to experience canyoning — sliding down naturally formed water flumes, cliff jumping, rappelling down rocky cliffs and climbing under thundering waterfalls. And for those seeking a little competition, there’s always land yachting, where you can race your friends across a beach in sail-powered three-wheeled scooters.

Fantasy and fiction lovers will find their heyday in both the lowlands and highlands as they explore Inverness’ Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle in search of Nessie, ride the Jacobite steam train across the Glenfinnan Viaduct featured in the Harry Potter movies, or storm the Castle of Guy de Lombard just as Arthur and his knights did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Bonnybridge, in Falkirk, has become the UFO capital of the world with more than 300 sightings every year. Not to be outshone by the mainland, the more than 790 Scottish Isles have their fair share of legendary locations as well. The Isle of Skye’s Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr make up the landscape of MacBeth. And the Isle of Lewis’s Calanais Standing Stones inspired a similar setting in Brave. Also, how can you truly go wrong in a country whose national animal is a unicorn?

Recommended Reading:

The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor

Inspired by true events, the New York Times bestselling novel The Girl Who Came Home is a touching story of a group of Irish emigrants who sailed aboard the RMS Titanic. Blending fact and fiction seamlessly, the book explores the impact and lasting repercussions of the Titanic tragedy on its survivors and their descendants.

Blog written by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach for Endless Travel.

Southern Sweden – Islands, Cuisine and Outdoor Adventures Await!

The Kingdom of Sweden is the fourth largest country in Europe in terms of land area. And while it ranks high in size, it also sits pretty far up the list in terms of adventure.

With 29 national parks and a myriad of smaller parks and gardens under the watchful eye of the Swedish Society of Public Parks & Gardens, outdoor excursions are always close at hand.  Featuring playgrounds, zoos, cafes, and other attractions, locations such as Fredriksdal Museum and Gardens, Drottningholm Palace Park, and Millesgården host thousands of visitors each year in search of choice photography locations, art, flowers, and history.

When the sun is out, so are the Swedes, patronizing any of a multitude of open air cafes, restaurants and bars. At summers high point, the sun can rise as early as 3:30 AM and set after 10:00 PM, which leaves a lot of daylight hours for socializing, sipping coffee, and eating.

While many people know much of the local cuisine such as Swedish Meatballs with mashed potatoes, potato pancakes and lingonberries from encounters with furniture giant, Ikea, not as many people realize that the smörgåsbord is a Swedish tradition. Culinary delights such as gravlax (cured salmon), Ärtsoppa (yellow pea soup), Flygande Jacob (chicken and banana casserole with peanuts and bacon), and Blåbärspalt (dumplings with blueberries) abound, and those seeking something more thrilling can sample Blodpudding (blood pudding) with lingonberry jam, Surströmming (fermented Baltic herring) and Smörgåstårta, a multi-layered sandwich often filled with shrimp, ham, mayonnaise and preserved fruit.

For those who want to explore the areas outside of the metropolitan centers, trains and ferries are both an economical and scenic way to travel, with many spectacular destinations just a short jaunt away from Stockholm. Day trips to locations such as Drottningholm Palace (The Queen’s Castle), Sigtuna (Sweden’s first town, founded in 980 CE), the Fortress of Vaxholm, and Lake Mälaren and Gripsholm Castle will immerse you in the historic and daily life of the Swedish people.

For the naturalists, ferries travel regularly to many of the 221,831 Swedish islands such as Donso in the North Sea. With around 1500 inhabitants, Donso is ripe with friendly people, local swimming holes, fresh seafood and beautiful walking trails.

And what visit to Sweden would be complete without a visit to Junibacken, an indoor amusement park built around Astrid Lindgren’s stories of Pippi Longstocking. With a visit to Pippi’s house, and a trip on the Storybook Train taking you on a journey through her adventures, adults and children alike can joyfully immerse themselves in the life of Sweden’s most famous literary creation.

Post written and photos provided by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach.

Exploring Norway, From Fantastic Food to Opera and Vikings

The Kingdom of Norway is the westernmost country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northwestern Europe. With a land area slightly less than that of California, it boasts a coastline that is over 15,000 miles long lined with thousands of islands. The majority of its five and a half million inhabitants live along the coast and in the southern portion of the country where its capital, Oslo, is located.

Founded in 1070, Oslo is both a city and a county, serves as the economic and governmental center of Norway, and has been ranked number one for the quality of life compared to other large European cities. A modern cultural nexus labeled one of the ten best cities in the world to visit, visitors find museums, galleries, music festivals, theaters, sports arenas, and the world-renowned Operahuset, or Oslo Opera House.

Clad primarily in white granite and white Italian marble, the main auditorium stage tower evokes old weaving patterns with its white aluminum sheath designed by Løvaas & Wagle. It is the Opera House’s roof, however, that earned the European Prize for Urban Public Space in 2010. Sloping gently to ground level, the roof creates an inviting plaza encouraging visitors to walk to the top to enjoy spectacular views of Oslo. Nothing beats a cocktail on the rooftop as you watch the sunset!

Foodies are always thrilled to explore the many Oslo food markets, especially Mathallen Food Hall at Vulkan which is home to more than 30 cafes, eateries and specialty shops. The areas around the center of the city all have a high concentration of cafes and restaurants, and for the discerning palettes, there are six Michelin Star restaurants located within the city. Traditional cuisines vary from classic Norwegian fare such as lamb and cabbage stew (fårikål), brown stew (lapskaus), Norwegian meatballs (kjøttkaker), and steamed salmon or fish soup to specialties such as moose, reindeer and lutefisk (cod cured in lye). But while you visit, be sure to try the traditional heart-shaped waffles and their assorted toppings such as current jam or sugar and butter.

Bus and rail transportation will get you from place to place in Oslo, and the daily bus ticket also covers the inter-island ferry allowing tourists to explore some of the nearby islands for hiking, swimming, or sea views of the city skyline. Ikea, the Swedish home goods store, also offer quite popular free buses around town to encourage people to visit for shopping and food. And for those who want a bit more flexibility, bike rental stands can be found throughout the city if you want to take one out for a few hours to see the changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace.

No visit to Norway would be complete, however, without a bit of Viking history. It is quite simple to take a train or rent a car to head south to Sandefjord, the richest city in Norway and home to Europe’s only whaling museum. Known as the Viking Capital of Norway, it is also known as the Whaling Capital and has also been dubbed Badebyen (Bathing City) due to the many beaches and spas. History buffs can also visit the Gokstad Mound (Gokstadhaugen), which is a large burial mound at Gokstad Farm. Gokstadhaugen is also known as the Kings Mound (Kongshaugen) and is the discovery location of the Gokstad Ship, which is now in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

And finally, for the well-read visitors, Norway is home to literary greats such as playwright Henrik Ibsen, and Nobel Laureates Sigrid Undset and Knut Hamsun. The Ibsen Museum in Oslo is always a treat, his restored apartment is open for visitation, and if time permits, you can even take a day trip to his childhood home in Skien. If you are traveling in late May or early June, be sure to check out the Norwegian Literature Festival in Lillehammer and don’t forget a trip to the Litteraturhuset, or House of Literature, the national arena for literature, culture and debate.

Southern Norway abounds with treats for all the senses. Find out what else is in store with a visit arranged by Endless Travel.

Post written and photos provided by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach.