Isle of Skye will fire up your heart

Visit the Scottish Highlands from Inverness…

If you’ve been having recurring dreams about prowling around in the deep dark mist hanging over glassy mysterious lochs and losing yourself to the wilderness of the majestic Highlands of Scotland, you’ve been fantasising about the Isle of Skye. If there is a heaven on earth for incorrigible nomadic souls and obsessive nature hikers, this is it. But 1,656 square kilometres of the largest island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago, sprawled over the western edge of the British Isle also makes an idyllic destination for hopeless romantics. Every millisecond spent traversing this melodramatic landscape, (which has a name derived from a Norse word meaning ‘cloud island’’), will leave you yearning for more. Or content like never before. Either way, a journey through the Isle of Skye, will burn into your memory like a never-to-be-forgotten, life-altering event. Leaving every cell alive with pure ecstasy and every nerve tingling with awe. Ready up. Here it comes!

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Seek peace

Googling may steal the tiniest credit for getting you here, but the train ride from Edinburgh is the real teaser campaign. Reality bites…in the best way imaginable. Eyeballs stay hooked to the storybook scene painted with golden-brown moors, rushing rivers, thick forests and panoramic mountains, till you disembark at Inverness, the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. ‘Slice of solitude’ is the phrase that best describes the compact-sized quaint old town with cobbled streets and Victorian-era marketplaces. Tree-lined walkways along a glittering blue river are the perfect backdrop for a lovely 18th-century Church and a stately fortress perched on a hill.

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Soak in luxury

You can hear the hush of exclusivity in the crunching of the gravelled grounds as you enter the gated complex of Ness Walk. The first glimpse of the elegant mansion, nestled lovingly within the generous shade of tall trees, is more than tempting. Soft glass doors slide apart welcoming you into an intimately impressive space. It is quite an effort pulling yourself away from the inviting fireplace and cosy armchairs of the lavish living area. Quiet corridors sporting sophisticated dark walls and large picture windows overlooking vast gardens add to the classy appeal. Every corner of the room drips with careful attention to detail, especially the room service door hangs. Ness Walk is the boutique hotel you always wanted to escape to, to experience a perfect blend of privacy, luxury and homeliness. As you would expect, the fine dining at Torrish, is immaculate. Gorge over the fluffy, crisp omelette served with hashbrown topping at breakfast. Satiation guaranteed.

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Embrace legends

Drink in the warm glow of the rising sun as you drive along the perimeter of Loch Ness, watching the iconic mist rise from the glassy surface of that humongous freshwater body, which holds more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Believe in Nessie or not, this is the moment for conversations of lurking monsters (or giant eels). This is also the ideal spot for ruin lovers to gloat over almost-hidden views of the historic Urquhart Castle, imagine bloody battles and trace out gunpowder-scarred walls. And if fairytale castles are your preferred poison, also stop to admire the stony beauty of Eilean Donan Castle (featured as the Scottish headquarters of MI6 in the Bond movie, ’The World is Not Enough’). Mirrored in the ripple-free, brilliant blue weedy waters, at the meeting point of Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long, the legacy of the reconstructed medieval castle speaks to you wordlessly. From saints, Viking intruders and Spanish invaders to millions of visitors, its allure stays unblemished till today.

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Surrender to loftiness

The actual melodrama begins as you cross the Skye Bridge. Is it the sheer scale of the heather-clad velvety moors stretching till infinity that demands stunned silence or have you just been reduced to non-existence? Vast, barren, remote, in all shades of brown, from caramel to hazel to copper and sepia, the majestic Munros tower everywhere…on the right, on the left, ahead and behind you, surrounding you, enveloping you with their grace and might. Named after Sir Hugh T Munro, who surveyed and catalogued 282 of them in 1891, 12 of the toughest ones to climb have a home here in the Isle of Skye. Conquer their heights and surrender to their scale, it works both ways. So who’s up for some serious Munro-bagging?

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Drift away

A sudden flash of blue in the expansiveness of the brown landscape takes your breath away. Cobalt blue streams find their way over the grasslands, riddled with rocks that add character. They run unbridled along the road with infectious energy, adding life to the endless stillness. Sapphire blue lochs glinting in the sunlight, almost luminous against the mellowness of the Munros, they hold your gaze till they disappear from the line of sight. Indigo, lapis lazuli, cerulean…get those blues, any day!

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Get lost

Sample a taste of life in Portree, the capital of the Isle of Skye. Laze over a lunch of fish soup, gossip with locals at the curio shops, loiter in the small square, taste homemade ice-cream in town streets, and just wander around without an agenda. Then head to a vantage point for photogenic views of a compact-sized bay speckled with sailboats and a row of multi-coloured houses facing the sea. It just wouldn’t be the same scene without the one clad in candy pink paint. 

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Sculpt fantasies

There’s an obligatory trail from Portree around the Trotternish peninsula leading to a jagged cliff labelled the Old Man of Storr. Like a giant stalagmite, or a pointy, sharp knife planted firmly into the ground, it rises towards the skies, proclaiming its aloofness in the remote wilderness that is spread around for miles. And this is the most iconic silhouette in the Isle of Skye that graces all the glossy travel brochures. Just one of the famous presentations of nature in the “Theatre of Geology” called Trotternish.

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Recover from sea-stroke

There’s a surprise in store across a fenced uphill walk. A hidden gorge with roaring water. And a vertical cliff edge to give you serious sea-stroke! Walking paths for over-indulgent coast gaping. Wind-blown hair, neck-craning and jaw-dropping blend into one highly awestruck expression. You’re taking deep breaths of fresh breeze and gorging on wide-angle visions of limitlessness. Till the watch reminds you that its time to move on. From the journey back to Inverness, to when your head hits the pillow that night, the images of the untamed coastline, wind-whipped peninsulas, insurmountable Cuillin hills and the seal-rich lochs, stay in your mind’s eye, reminding you of an eternal enigma that is the Isle of Skye.

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Our luxury accommodation in Inverness was generously hosted by Ness Walk, a 19th- century mansion reborn as a boutique luxury retreat. All opinions are my own.

 

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Visit the Scottish Highlands from Inverness #Isleofskye #scottishhighlands #oldmanofstorr #munros #scotland #britishisles

Why Connemara will make you sing with joy

Best day trip from Galway…

Every guidebook waxes eloquent about the raw appeal of ‘Wild Connemara’. Luring you with vivid landscape photography that makes you go weak in the knees. Enticing you with fantasies that seductively whisper ‘pick me, pick me’ for your ears only. Leaping out of your screen tantalisingly as a ‘dare-you-to-not-ignore’ mandate for your semi-frozen Ireland itinerary. Cakewalk, declares the visual pasted on your desktop. Because you’re sold, too soon. Dreamy-eyed every second till you reach the destination that’s been haunting you non-stop. And head-over-heels, even after.

Dragging yourself away from the captivating charms of Ireland’s second city, Galway proves to be a challenge, especially if you haven’t set aside a couple of days to soak in its culture-rich, bohemian vibe. But the European Capital of Culture for 2020 is set right in the heart of the spectacular 2,600 km Wild Atlantic Way and Connemara is calling. So, jumpy-happy with anticipation, shielding against the windy drizzle, you’re all set for an early start. The grey pallor of the skies retreats into powerlessness as you embark into the ride of a lifetime.

Soon the city is left behind and you’re surrounded by a patchwork of fields knitted by rough-cut stone fencing. How history merges magically with contemporary here! You can feel the unmistakable aura of an ancient land awash with ancient tales. The legacy of the Conmacne Mara tribe, which gave the land its name, seems to own the entire space, even the floating mist outside. You’re secretly wishing for an aerial view of the coastal region that you’re traversing…that spectacle of coastal peninsulas, inlets, moors and grasslands. Instead, it is a delicious, languorous journey through the vastness, where revelations are waiting to happen, one at a time. Eyes glued to the remote landscape and euphoria levels on the highest octave, you’re thinking how futile the camera-clicking exercise is. Because you want to capture every inch, 360 degrees. No matter how many shots you take, its never enough. Don’t even bother thinking of which Connemara characteristic entices you the most…because there’s no first among equals.

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Uplifting mountains

Driving past kilometres and kilometres of gigantic mounds on both sides of an infinite, deserted road, you have an inimitable sense of being dwarfed, which is curiously rewarding. Mellow sunshine and grey clouds alternate to create ever-changing light effects and with every curve in the road, the eternal mountains reveal new facets of their persona. You are visualising 2,957 hectares of the Connemara National Park sprawling over North West Connemara, picturing the entire range of its lofty mountains including the famous quartzite Twelve Bens, the Maumturks and Killary Fjord, Ireland’s only fjord standing as a natural border between Galway and Mayo counties. Intermittent rain is playing spoilsport, dark skies are affecting the clarity of the view and the vast emptiness is all-pervading. Yet you’re in the highest of high spirits.

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Bewitching bogland

Golden brown was never as appealing. Miles and miles of peaty bogland stretch out as far as the eye can see, broken only by a never-ending strip of road. Suddenly, the edges have hazed out and the pixels have thickened. In slow motion, the scene has morphed into a masterpiece, and you’re a speck inside a gigantic oil painting set in a large gilded frame. Melting into the ruggedness of the landscape, feeling the softness of the blooming heather, touching the roughness of the unkempt grass, and caressing the vibrant yellow flower bushes that splatter the land. You could be here forever, lost to the world, in these surreal surrounds. The stark beauty of this wet ecosystem is giving you goosebumps, yet you can’t stop smiling.

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Four-legged eye-candy

Innumerable dots of white specking the velvety green carpet laid out below were a visual delight, even from the tiny window of your aircraft as it hovered over the Emerald Isle. But out here, in Connemara, they multiply the magic of the moors manifold. You can never tire of those fluffy sheep and fat baby lambs filling the lush fields, crossing the road, munching away ceaselessly, getting soaked in the rain. All scenes to soothe the soul! But also keep your eyes peeled for the Connemara Pony… a native breed, originally of Scandinavian descent, brought to Ireland by the Vikings and inter-bred with Andalusian horses from the Spanish Armada. Short, stout, muscular and so apt for this untamed terrain. These little fellows, though a rare sight, are found grazing on the grasslands in solitude, taking children on hesitant, maiden treks or gracing local equestrian shows. Happiness has a permanent home in Connemara.

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Blues to die for

Dark skies have been heightening the drama and you have been in a ‘please-don’t-wake-me-ever’ trance. Then it gets even better. The clouds disperse and when the sun makes a dramatic breakthrough, washing the landscape with its brightness. It feels like someone just replaced the movie set before you could blink. Or applied a clever light filter to adjust the colour balance. And the rainbows! So many rainbows! Unbridled grey streams racing past the roadside and lavishly proportioned lochs in vast valleys now acquire a new life, dazzling you their sharp, almost unreal blues. The rippling waves glint and glisten like a million sapphires. You stare and stare, following every microscopic move of the waters till you can crane your neck no more. Is this for real? Or did you just die and go to heaven?

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Unspoilt local scenes

No monumental structures to gloat over, no queues for tickets, no brochures, no audio guides and certainly no thronging squares. In these untouched quarters, it is the mundane that steals the show. A quaint stone bridge over a gentle stream against the backdrop of the Irish countryside, begging to be photographed. An abandoned farmhouse with a wheelbarrow parked outside a broken window. A solitary bench against a wooden fence that borders expansively luxurious grassy plains. A traditional thatched roof home with a red door. And the ever-so-gorgeous Atlantic Sea flaunting a rocky coastline and secluded beaches. Are you thinking of giving up that boring job and moving into paradise? Whoever defined the word ‘ecstasy’ must have driven up here. Unquestionably.

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Stuff of storybooks

You take a deep breath as you spot it from a vantage point far away. Elegantly draped in all-white, lovingly encased in the cradle of rich green forestry and mighty mountains, it stands extravagantly on the shores of a lake, silently proclaiming a romantic story. The 19th-century Kylemore Abbey, gifted by Mitchell Henry to his wife, Margaret, is now owned and run by Benedictine nuns, lives up to its reputation as one of the prettiest castles in all of Ireland. The small Gothic Church and Victorian walled gardens in the complex make lovely pitstops. But it is the stroll through the thickly wooded complex with its ivy-draped gnarled trees that will burn into your memory for posterity. Poet, painter or musician…you’ve already converted into one. Because your heart is singing the sweetest of songs.

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We went on this incredibly scenic and inspiring trip from ‘Galway to Connemara & Kylemore Abbey’ with Lally Tours. The tour was flawless in every way and our guide made the tour extra special. All opinions are my own.

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Best day trip from Galway #connemara #daytrip #moors #Ireland #bogland #kylemoreabbey

What makes a trip to the Giant’s Causeway so epic?

Day trip to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland…

Ireland, Dublin and the Giant’s Causeway…the path is inevitable, almost prescribed. Two possible reactions. Curious and keenly inclined towards Northern Ireland’s solo World Heritage tagged (and most visited) site, that saw over a million footfalls in 2018. Or blasé to the point of brushing it off as yet another over-crowded tedium. Either way, we’re all adequately Google-rehearsed and Instagram-prepped, so nothing should stir up a surprise, right? Wrong. Freshly juiced from a trip to the Emerald Isle, I say this with the deepest of conviction. No amount of preparation matches up to the real deal. In this case…seeing truly is believing. And that is no exaggeration.

‘Giant’ is the theme of the trip from the word ‘go’. Driving through the legendary Boyne Valley with Wild Rover Tours, contemplate on ‘larger-than-life’ timelines of its mega landmarks like the 5000-year-old Hill of Tara and Newgrange Stone Age tombs. Hearing narratives of the side-effects of the ‘Troubles’, trace the depth of the scars left on countless affected locals and their families. And as you cross the border into the north of Ireland seamlessly into Belfast, you find yourself hard-pressed to negotiate the biggest dilemma of the day. So, will it be a vintage taxi ride reliving the war-torn past or an emotionally-tinged, state-of-the-art Titanic Visitor Experience? Both options equally enlightening, equally tragic, equally epic in proportion, so pick any. First feelings of fulfilment are guaranteed in each case. And that is just a modest introduction to a day packed with plus-sized revelations.

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An abundance of drama build-up

Eye-widening and spine-stretching are endless all along the North Coast and the Antrim Coastal Drive. Tall stony cliffs stand eternally against crescent-shaped secluded sandy beaches and rock-smashing frothy waves. Fluffy sheep and oreo cows graze on velvety green carpets. The allure of wooded glens and shadowy mountains continues without a break all the way to the famous whiskey village of Bushmills. Here, balanced precariously on the cliff edge, 100 feet above the brilliant blue of the ocean, the forlorn Dunluce Castle makes a haunting picture. Fairytale romance to distressing siege to wretched ruin, it seems to spell out its eventful account in stony silence. Even from that distance, you can hear it all. Oh, and you’re almost there.

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Infinity of walking trails

Finally, disembark. Car park to Causeway will be a walk. And what a fitting curtain-raiser to a stage designed to enthral even the most jaded of jaded. A downhill walking trail of about a kilometre leads to the causeway. Aptly labelled the Blue Trail, this divine 10-15 minutes walk gives you the blues, literally. Bending and curving seductively along the lava-rock studded coast on one side and lofty mountains on the other, the Blue Trail is a picture of pure Ireland.…raw, rugged, majestic, mesmerising. Red Trail offers an advanced version…a longer stroll along the upper cliffs, with views of the entire coastline…about 3 kilometres each way. And for the active hiker, there’s the Yellow Trail, following the entire Causeway coastline from Runkerry House to Hamilton’s Seat and takes several hours. Not far away is the vertigo-inducing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, suspended 100-feet over an ocean chasm. Plenty of mountain trails there too…with opportunities to ogle at fabulous bays, silky beaches and wild grass-strewn landscapes. If only time would stop, while you soaked in all this glory. Still, enough to spoil you silly for a day.

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The magnitude of natural wonders

Meanwhile, back onto the Causeway, the wonderment continues unabated. Ogle at the amphitheatre-shaped cliffs. Decode the mysteries of nature. Be drawn to the intriguing symmetry of the columns. It is a voyage back in time…60 million years ago when a series of volcanic eruptions launched the beginning of a spectacle. Time suddenly has a new meaning. Now get your head around the fascinating facts. 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. 15 to 20 inches in diameter and up to 82 feet in height at places. Spanning almost 29 kilometres of coastline. Pentagonal or hexagonal, so tightly packed that they look like man-made pavement tiles. Locate the most spectacular example…the “Organ” with long regular-shaped columns resembling the pipes of a giant organ. And then, let the heart rule. Feel the wind in your hair as you navigate the softy curved surface of the hardened lava under your feet. Watch the foaming waves swim through the scatter of rocks. Notice the sunlight and clouds create varying shades of gold to brown over the upright columns. Perch on the fabled ‘Wishing Chair’ in faux adoption of the ‘faith’. Let your thoughts flow unbridled. Just surrender to the magic.           

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Towering heights of legends

Drop that science hat and slip smoothly into the mythical world. For a change, embrace belief in old Irish legends and imagine Finn McCool, that mythological Irish warrior, who is associated with the creation of the Causeway. Could the 54-feet tall giant actually have used the Causeway as a collection of stepping stones to travel to the far Scottish Coast? Pre-Celt Irish locals swore he did…they actually referred to the place as ‘Clochan na bhFomharaigh’  or “Stepping Stones of the Fomorians, much before it was discovered in 1692. Then scout for unusual rock formations and indulge your inner child by interpreting their shapes. Giant’s Loom, Giant’s Coffin, Giant’s Cannons, Giant’s Boot and Giant’s Eyes are just some of the well-known ones. Particularly arresting is the Giant’s Harp, with massive curved columns sweeping down to the shoreline.

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The sounds of the crashing waves continue to echo in your ears till you’re miles away. And the winding trails that lead to the evenly-carved stone columns sprouting from the earth continue to fill your mind’s eye, even till your head touches the pillow that night. No blueprint, no technology, no rules. There will be no architect to beat nature. Period.

Our ‘Giant’s Causeway, Belfast City & Carrick A Rede Rope Bridge Day Tour from Dublin’ was generously sponsored by Wild Rover Tours. Insightful commentary and well-organised itinerary made it the perfect choice. All opinions are my own.

 

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Day trip to Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland #ireland #giantscauseway #unescoworldheritage #titanic #belfast #Carrick-a-Rede

Three exquisite handicrafts from Odisha that will inspire you

Traditional crafts of Odisha…

Odisha’s magnificent temples and silky beaches have been working overtime to pull in the throngs forever. But there’s so much more under the shroud of modesty surrounding this nearly-neglected eastern state of India. Like its untouched forests, secret gorges, abundant wildlife and a rich treasury of traditional arts and crafts. From elaborate stone carving and mask-making to fine silver filigree and handloom, a handicraft tour of Odisha can prove to be an adventure as well as a challenge. Smart traveller alternative? Kala Bhoomi, the Crafts Museum in the capital city of Bhubaneshwar.

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How I made the most of my 3rd year of travel blogging

From travel blogger to legit travel writer…

129 blog posts. 1,30,000 words. 1000 days of blogging. Whoosh! I must have blinked. Pinch me…has it been three years already since a nervous newbie first bared her soul online in the coveted cosmos of travel ‘influencers’? It’s been a joyride, this 3rd year of my third career, riding on wings of un-jaded exuberance and unscathed passion. Would it be too presumptuous to pat my own back just yet? Considering that one of my several vices happens to be an irreversible and intense intolerance for routine.

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Do you know of the five best neighbourhoods in Lisbon?

 

Exploring Lisbon’s best areas…

An unmistakable Mediterranean-ism and a wild Atlantic coast! Europe’s westernmost country literally has the best of both worlds. Voyage-driven history, staggering landscapes, Moorish roots, and a unique culture that changed the face of its colonies for posterity. Certainly a destination to redefine your vision of the continent. So give in to the pull of Portugal. Submit to the lure of Lisbon. With my rundown of the top five most atmospheric neighbourhoods in the capital.

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Soak in the splendour of the Royal Palace of Madrid

Inside Madrid’s Royal Palace…

You turn a final corner and there it is in front of you…the grand 18th-century Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid). Protecting the largest royal palace in Western Europe is an elegant, gilded decorative iron fencing in bold black and gold, offsetting the purist white of the magnificent structure beyond.

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