In a whirlwind backpacking Eastern Europe trip, I made sure to include Berlin on my MUST SEE places to visit. With missing my train in Prague, because it was my first time using the train in Europe. Then the next train I boarded on caught on fire, making me miss my original tour. Berlin Historical Walks came in for the save! Sean Stewart (my tour guide) taught me how to tour Berlin in 12 Hours or less.
I gave Sean the task of convincing me that Berlin was more complex than what the History Channel teaches. I remember sitting with my Grandma and Grandpa on weekends watching movies about the history of Berlin, and WWII movies.
I also gave him the task of convincing me that the German people weren’t rude, and aloof like I had been told they were before visiting. So come with me, as I go on a walking tour of Berlin with Sean, and learn just how much this country has been through.
Map of the Walking Tour
The purple and orange are where I would suggest you visit. If you plan to visit a museum, you must weigh and measure the amount of time you would like to spend there. Also, factor in a time to grab some street food along the way because all the walking is going to make you hungry. The Yellow is where you can find a bathroom. The Black are other important sites I would suggest you visit if you have the time to travel that distance. Otherwise, all of this can be reached on foot.
Luggage Storage and the Train Station
Arriving at the Train station is going to be very confusing, especially for Americans who are used to driving their cars or taking the subway. This is a whole other animal in public transportation. This train station is complex and easy to get lost in. The ticket counters are on the main level, I suggest you buy your ticket prior to leaving on any tour so you don’t get stuck there overnight – even with a EURail Pass you must have a seat reservation or you can get fined.
The luggage locker is about 2-6 Euros depending on how much time you want to store your luggage. Smaller the luggage the better, because then you can empty out your squishable bags into the smaller lockers that are usually leftover. If you arrive early in the morning, you might get a larger luggage locker – but don’t count on it.
There are four different levels to this train station and is one of the main hubs of connection for much of Europe. Do not expect people to speak English, I can’t recall if they have Wifi or not – but I would get Google translate access on your phone just in case. You don’t want to end up on the wrong train to your next destination. Google translate will be your best friend when getting onto the right train, the right car, and in a good seat.
If you book with Sean (no I’m not sponsored to say this- but I should have been, lol) – he will meet you at the train station to help you figure it out and help you to store your luggage. He will also help you get onto the right train/bus to get back to the station or the airport.
Sites To See During 12 Hours in Berlin
We started our 12-hour tour of Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate then wound our way on foot throughout the town. If you go in the off-season (early spring/late fall), it is not going to be crowded and you can really take it all in without fighting hoards of tourists.
Built around 1790 by Prussian King Frederick William II as the main entry point to the city of Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate. If you look at the top of the gate, there is a large statue, the Quadriga. It is said to represent the statue of the goddess of victory, as she appears to be barreling into the city on her chariot pulled by four horses. I’m a little bit vertically challenged and it was starting to rain, so this picture is as good as you will get of that statue.
This gate has survived and been witness to Napoleon’s seizure of the city, Hitler’s propaganda parade to the presidential palace, World War II. This was on the side of East Berlin and stood firm against all the tragedies of the Cold War. It has morphed, been repaired, altered, and throughout it all still stands as a monument to the resilience of Germany and its people to come back from dark places of history.
Photography tip: The Brandenburg Gate is best shot from Pariser Platz, facing west. I would suggest photographing it at sunset (not pictured) as you get the sun shining through the columns, or during the blue hour with the sky is a brilliant blue and the lights on the gate light up. If you don’t want people in your shot, be sure to take multiple long exposure shots and stack them together in Photoshop.
Memorial of the Berlin Wall
The Memorial of the Berlin Wall is located along the historic Bernauer Strasse, extending 0.86 miles (1.4km) with the preserved grounds behind the last remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
This memorial reviews the function of this border, how it separated families and destroyed lives. Keeping people from East Berlin, separate from West Berlin. Photographs, oral quotes from speeches, histories written and passed down. The photographs show people trying to escape from East Berlin by jumping from windows, rooftops. East German Police attempting to jump the barbed wire fencing.
The reconciliation church was also blown up after being stuck in the death strip when the wall was built. The Reconciliation chapel is now rebuilt in the same location where the prior chapel was built.
There is also the window of remembrance commemorates the deaths that occurred at the Berlin Wall. While there has been much debate about how many deaths actually occurred. A study done in 2017 estimates that nearly 327 people died at or because of trying to escape past the Berlin Wall. Many of those who died were young men between 18-25 and 10% of them women, one report stated that there was a baby that suffocated inside of a boot in the back of a car.
There were many ways the East Germans tried to escape like on air mattresses, paddleboards (the antique kind, not the new kind), a home built hot-air balloon (where is the movie of that!) and my favorite – a man who shot an arrow across the death zone and zip lined his way across to West Germany.
I highly suggest visiting this memorial and reading the chilling and heroic stories that surround the history of this important place.
Topography of Terror
Located on the former site of the headquarters of the Gestapo and Secret State Police. The original building was badly damaged during WWII, and the remains were demolished after the war ended. When the Cold War began, this area became a fortified area. The building remained rubble until the final structure was formed in 2010 and opened to the public.
The museum is free and well worth the effort to walk through and see some of the darkest days of Germany.
While the location of Hitler’s Bunker, where he took his own life, was highly debated for some time. The final place of the bunker was determined (in 2006) and in one of the oddest places for such a historical site, you will ever see. While it isn’t technically much to see, it is interesting to see how East Germany built the ‘saving face’ apartments right near the Berlin Wall that stood just feet away from West Berlin. Even though the rest of East Germany was starving, they made the appearance that everything was fine and refined in the decadant apartments. Only the most elite and elected were allowed to stay in these apartments, as it was so close to the wall, they didn’t want more people escaping.
There is a sign here to explain how the bunker system was laid out and which bunker was assigned specifically to Hitler. The oddest thing about the former bunker? It is now a parking spot for one of the former East German ranking society members descendants who became million-dollar apartment holders overnight when the wall was torn down. If that isn’t the oddest historical story you have heard, I don’t know what is.
No matter what time of year you visit, this is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin. The concert hall (the center building) is a perfect balance between the French and German churches. During the summer there are open-air concerts, and during the winter you will find the square transformed into a Christmas Market.
The square was built during the 17th century and the French Protestant community was given one church in the square. The Luthern congregation the other church on the opposite end. Interestingly, the two congregations funded each others church. Sean explained how this would be akin to a Christian building a Mosque. The churches at the time where so at odds with each other, that it shows just how tolerant and inclusive Germans were at that time.
In between the two churches once resided a stable for the regimental horses. This was torn down by Fredrich II and the concert hall was built. If you look at the base of the concert hall steps on the right, you will see a white statue of Fredrich Schiller, a passionate French poet. After the Second World War, the square was in ruins. In the 1970s, the East Berlin government had it rebuilt to how it looks today.
The Holocaust Memorial- Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe
When I first saw a photo of this memorial, I did not realize these weren’t Jewish graves. These are slabs of concrete arranged in a way to create an interactive art piece, that is meant to cause reflection on what it was like to be a Jew during the Holocaust.
The designer of this Memorial did not give his meaning or interpretation of this piece so that each person visiting could draw their own conclusions. I like to think of it as the outer slabs that are very close to the ground are meant to represent racial slurs, and jokes. As the racial slurs became more severe, they then became accusations that rose too high for any one person to control.
As you walk between the stone slabs they rise higher and higher overhead, until you are standing in the center of the piece and can barely hear the sounds of the city. There is a feeling of apprehension as you are walking through this maze, not knowing who is going to come around the next corner- and really have no place to hide. The only way to stay hidden is to keep moving and hope you don’t run into someone around the next corner.
It was odd walking through this maze as I’m typically very self-aware, and can feel people near me without even opening my eyes. Yet walking among these slabs, I was shocked that someone could round the corner at any intersection and I could barely hear them until we were nearly on top of each other.
After walking through this area, I had an eery sense of dread and felt very disconcerted. The message of the artist certainly affected me and still does to this day.
This beautiful cathedral is located on Museum Island, a central location I highly suggest at least passing by on your way to the other sites. This cathedral was originally built in 1895 but was so heavily damaged during World War II that it was just reopened to the public in 1993.
The first church built on this site was in the 14th century and was used by the Hohenzollern family, whose palace was just across the street. The mausoleum of this family that was housed in this church for centuries has now been moved due to reconstruction. There are still 94 sarcophagi’ of Royal Family members that are housed here today. The main piece to see in this cathedral is the 7,000 pipe organ that hosts over 100 concerts every year.
The Dome of the cathedral is open every day from 9 am to 8 pm (except State Holidays). The admission is 7 Euros, and there are also guided tours you can take as well. If you are only there for a short time I would just pay for a one time pass. If you have more time in Berlin, I would suggest getting the Berlin Pass, because you get access to 200 different sites and public transport.
If you want a realistic view of what life was like in the 1940s under the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR – this is the place to visit. It takes you into the lives of the people of Germany. From 35 different stations, you can see what it felt like to be ‘bugged’ or ‘wiretapped’, watch TV in a recreated homeroom of the 1940s. I personally didn’t have time to pop in and see this, because I had arrived so much later than planned – but it came highly recommended and is great for families as well.
There are also areas to teach about Media, literature, music, culture, family, private niche, health, equality, diet, childhood, youth, partnership, fashion, border, Berlin, education, and work during that time. You experience first hand what daily life was like from the household citizen to a ranking member of the DDR.
The Library Memorial: Bebelplatz
This is not a traditional memorial, in that it is actually underground. If you are strolling across Bebelplatz, you might miss it because you can walk right over it. If you see people looking at the ground, this is what they are looking at here. It is a memorial to the books that were burned in this spot by the Nazi Germans as a nationwide act against the ‘un-German spirit’.
As you look down through the glass plate, there are white shelves, empty of anything. What should be on these shelves are the 20,000 books they burnt that day on May 10, 1933. The books they burnt were those of independent authors, journalists, philosophers and academics that did not coincide with the regime message.
The bronze plaques you see near this memorial read:
That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well. Heinrich Heine 1820
If you walk across the square, you might see a pop-up stand of a few people selling books. These are copies of the books that were burned that day, available for purchase at a discounted price.
Soviet War Memorial
The Red Army or Soviet Soldiers are honored in this park. I didn’t realize personally, how much Russia played a part in liberating Germany. There were 80,000 Soviet Soldiers who died fighting to liberate Germany; with 7,000 of them being buried at Treptow park. Treptow park is where the Soviet War Memorial is now housed. It has a triumphal gate entrance and peaceful park that wreaths and flowers are laid on the steps every year.
Just to give you an idea of how many people died in World War II per country (to name a few):
Soviet Union 24,000,000
United Kingdom 450,700
United States 418,500
Unter den Linden
This has been the ‘main drag’ of Berlin since 1791 when the Brandenburg gate was completed. It morphed and changed over the years, until the 1920s when it was a bustling, anything goes type boulevard. The 250-year-old trees adorned this beautiful street, and time period shops glittered at night over the passing crowds. When Hitler took power, he ripped out all the trees and put up Nazi flags, much to the discontent of the public. Hitler later replanted the trees, and after Berlin was liberated the crowds washed through the Brandenburg gate like leaves blowing in the wind.
If you follow this road from Brandenburg gate, you will come across museum island, the memorial to the Jews of the Holocaust, and even a ghost subway, a statue of Frederick the Great, and the tomb of the unknown soldiers and unknown Holocaust victim.
You eventually end up at the Lustgarten park, which was once a military parade route, now turned (and to remain) a beautiful park for the public to enjoy a sunny afternoon.
Named after Elector Friedrich III, who ruled here from 1688 to 1713. This area, once full of Royal Apartments and surrounding fields, is now a lively amusement part of Berlin. This is where many of the tourists flock to shop, visit theatres, and to see the famous Checkpoint Charlie, romanticized by spy book novels.
This area may have been my least favorite area, because of how many tourists were here. They all come in droves to see the gimmicky Checkpoint Charlie, that if you actually look at it – doesn’t resemble a true checkpoint at all. There are pictures of an American Solider and a Soviet Soldier, both who have the wrong time period uniforms on. The American Soldier pictured, actually has a military ribbon on his uniform from Desert Storm….which hadn’t even happened yet.
Sean, my guide, jokingly said that Germany models are paid to stand there with an American Flag and expect a tip to do it. If despite knowing this, you would still like to visit then feel free. Yet, I preferred to take a seat at the cafe across the street and watch the hoards of tourists take their photographic momentos. I refused to take a picture of this, as I don’t really want to encourage people to visit this site and instead visit key points to the winning the war like this bridge that played a huge role in the battles of liberating Berlin.
Sammlung Boros Bunker
It was a little chilling for me to stand on the street corner and see this, now converted, bunker. Sean said that he had a visitor who came, and he started to explain what it was and what it is now used for. A woman in the group chimed in with a shocking revelation. She explained how it felt to be in the bunker with her Mother and sisters hunkered down and feeling the vibrations of the bombs landing.
It gave me chills to think of how scary it must have been for them, yet torn over the crimes their leaders committed against the Jewish people. Yet, as with most of Berlin – they are moving away from their past and repurposing the dark into light.
This bunker now houses a contemporary art collection from international artists’ from the 1990s onward. While I didn’t have time to go in, it is definitely on a ‘must-see’ list for me when I return.
Wrapping Up My Tour of Berlin in 12 Hours – Moving on to Backpacking Eastern Europe
While there was so much more I was able to explore and discuss with Sean (see the video above) this will give you some ideas on how to best explore Berlin in one day. Despite hearing how boring, and rude Germans were/are – I found it to be quite the opposite. The city holds a special place in my heart because of the things I learned.
The people there are private, and passionate and want to move forward from their past – which is what most tourists come there to see. So if you have limited time to see Berlin, I would highly recommend choosing from the map above, book with Berlin Historical Walks (not sponsored to say this ), and I guarantee Sean will be able to change your mind about this city and its people.
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Traveler Tip: Make sure you reserve your seat on the train prior to leaving the train station when you arrive. This will either give you more time, or save you from camping overnight at one of the busiest and most complicated train stations in Europe.
How to Get Around Berlin
The train system in Europe and walking is my preferred method, as it is cheaper than flying to each individual country when backpacking eastern Europe and attempting to get around Berlin.
They also have the Berlin Welcome Card, that for around 20 Euros you can get unlimited public transport and entrance to 200 sites.
No one likes to stand out or feel awkward in sports, especially me. If there were awards for awkwardness, I’m sure I would have a few by now. Maybe it is the elementary physical education classes where I farted while trying to do a sit up in front of the entire 6th grade that still haunts me, I dunno – it just isn’t fun to feel awkward. So when I took up the new, posh, sport of Scuba Diving I dreaded getting in the water and looking like a fool. So after a few dive trips under my belt, here are my Tips for First Time Scuba Divers, and how to avoid aquatic awkwardness.
My Number One Tip for First Time Divers: Go To The Bathroom!
Going to the bathroom beforehand is the most important part of this entire tip. Do NOT get creative in your eating right before your first scuba trip. Yes some of the boats have the confined toilets, but if your bowels decide to become water instead….well, the whole boat will get to smell your innards the whole trip. The other part is, when you are under pressure, at depth and have a….shall we say intestinal civil war – you are going to be in a wetsuit and there is no escape from the dreaded explosion.
There is a natural physiological phenomenon that happens when a warm body is placed in cool water. It will make you want to urinate, so just let it go – most divers end up doing this. You are swimming in a marine life toilet anyway, so just consider it contributing to the minerals in the ocean.
Ladies, very important, do not plan on going diving with sharks if it is your time of the month unless you are in a cage – then it is fine.
Keep it Clean
Make sure to keep your stuff neat and tidy. While there are different ways for everyone to organize, just make sure you are conscious of the common space on the boat. There are limited areas for you to put your belongings. There is a dry area (typically under the front of the boat on a ledge) where you can keep a small bag. Anything wet, that can get wet should be tucked under the assigned spot where your tanks are.
Keep your fins out of the walking area, as this is a tripping hazard and can land someone in the water with a ‘man overboard’. Which you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that when the individual gets back in the boat.
There are a lot of things I remembered to bring on my first dive trip, and a few I didn’t. No matter where you are in the world, a boat does not have an ATM card to give tips, nor do they have a cash register. So if you plan on giving a tip then be sure to bring that with you.
My Scuba Instructor Rachelle, from Scuba Utah, gave some good advice on this as she has been diving for the last 35 years, “It is pretty typical when on a dive trip to tip them 10-15% for the day (total, not per individual). Make sure to tip them on a daily basis, as the crew will or can change daily”.
Bring a Photo Stick
I’m not talking about a selfie stick, I’m talking about a blunt 12″ rod that you can clip to your BCD. When you are first starting out, and going from fresh water to salt water; or if you have lost a lot of weight or gained weight it can be hard to find your buoyancy. This small blunt instrument will allow you to gently push off surrounding rock and not crash into the delicate coral reefs.
I recently lost 25 lbs and wasn’t quite sure on my weight I should have in salt water. Utah has all fresh water diving, and when you dive in Salt Water, your weight requirements are going to increase. So keep that in mind, and get the photo stick so that you are protecting the environment until your able to get a little more experience.
Get Reef Safe Defogger and Sunscreen
While on the subject of protecting the coral systems and reefs of the world I would highly suggest getting reef safe defogger and sunscreen. Here are a few I recommend: SurfDurt not only is it organic, it is also in a non-plastic container, so win win!
There are a couple of different options for the ladies (or guys) with long hair and to keep it from becoming a rats nest when you get out of the ocean. One way is to use a swim cap. You want to make sure that it does not go underneath your mask, as this can let the water seep in. It keeps everything tame, and also adds a little extra layer to your head to keep in the heat without having to wear a hood.
Another option, which I learned recently, is to put leave in conditioner in your hair the night before (I’m talking quite a bit). I prefer the spray in kind, like Sun Bum Revitalizing 3 in 1 Leave-In Conditioner Spray (which is vegan and environmentally friendly). When you wake up, put your hair in two braids as tightly as you can get them. This works well for those with long hair especially. It looks great in underwater photos too! When I got back to my hotel, I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to unravel my hair.
Watch That Air
I was guilty of this the last dive trip I went on. Again, being from Utah, pretty coral reefs, sea turtles, and sharks are in short supply here for divers. So when you see these animals in person, it is easy to get enamored with them and taking video of it that you lose track of your air. Luckily I had a dive buddy who I had warned her about this prior to diving and she caught me at 800 on my tank pressure. We started to head for our safety stop, and the more shallow we became the harder it was to stay down despite the extra weight that I added. I have never swam so hard to stay at 15 feet in my life as BCD and tank were trying to skyrocket me to the surface. I burned through 300 PSI in 1:30 min and surfaced before my 3 minutes were up with 400 PSI.
This could have gotten me in big trouble, and her in big trouble. So now I’m fully aware that each time I see marine life that is interesting to me, I need to check my air. Luckily I wasn’t diving deep enough on that dive to put me into decompression sickness, but I don’t ever want to take that chance again.
For the Asthmatics or Those With COPD
When you have Asthma, or COPD you can still go Scuba diving, but have to be aware of a few things. You have a form of air obstruction, which means air gets trapped in your lungs more easily than the average joe (or jane). This can significantly affect your bouyancy when you get fatigued.
When a person with Asthma or COPD is fatigued, air can get trapped. This will require you to add more weight to counter this. Think of trying to get an inflated balloon to descend on a dive. It is nearly impossible, unless you have a tow rope to pull you down with the balloon. This is the same idea when you go diving. So if you are out of shape or fatigued, I would suggest adding an additional 2-4 lbs of weight to your BCD so that you can stay down during the safety stop as you start to surface. (A lesson I have had to learn the hard way).
Rachelle taught me in my Scuba Class, that noise underwater will be amplified. Being very sensitive to sound above land, I was a shocked at how much sound carries underwater.
Once I realized what was going on, it was easier to isolate and tune out the buzzing of the engines above me. It is quite distracting though when your descending for the firs time, so stay close to your diving buddy and the instructor.
Motion sickness can happen in many different places, and is different for everyone. For example, I do not get sick on boats big or small, but get me in the back of a tour bus and I will be green as a tree within the first ten minutes. There are many options for Motion Sickness so be sure to read my recent article on different ways of treating this and avoiding it in the first place.
Allow 18-24 hours Before Flying
Even some of the most experienced divers, forget about this rule. It can affect the incidence of Decompression sickness due to the altitude, and Nitrogen needing to fully ‘off-gas’ or dissolve before flying.
I typically give myself 24 hours, just to make sure I won’t get sick. While this is more important for live aboard diving where you are doing multiple dives per day over several days. It is good to get into the habit, so you don’t forget in the long term like many divers end up doing.
Know How To Self Calm
The Scuba Magazine reported that 20% of diving accidents are caused by people panicking. So knowing how to calm yourself while underwater is key to beginner divers.
On my last dive, I was so nervous before getting into the water for some reason. I quietly asked my friend Jen, from Coleman Concierge, ‘Do you get nervous before dives still?’ She said, ‘After all the dives I have been on, all the years I have done this. This year has been the first year where I haven’t felt nervous before a dive’.
I have PTSD, and anxiety at baseline – I also almost drowned as a child after getting stuck under a bridge during a river tubing trip. So I had to learn very quickly underwater, that simply maintaining bouyancy, making a specific handsignal where both hands are up in a stop gesture – signals to my diving buddy that I just need a second to calm my nerves.
After getting an ok from my dive buddy that they understand and come closer. I hang onto their BCD, close my eyes, and concentrate on breathing slowly until the wave of anxiety passes.
If the wave of panic or anxiety is bad enough, or you can’t self soothe. Just gesture to your diving buddy that you need to end the dive. Be kind to yourself, and like Rachelle always says – ‘It is normal and ok to be nervous. Never be afraid to end a dive if you feel uncomfortable’.
Tips for First Time Scuba Divers From A Professional
I asked my instructor, Rachelle, for some of her input on things that she would strongly recommend to new students. Having 35 years of experience and teaching hundreds of students, and Veterans with PTSD, Here is what she suggested:
Dive within your limits – don’t try to appear cool, or think you are the weak link by voicing something you are uncomfortable with.
Do not try to dive outside your training or your equipment requirements. You will put yourself at risk, which you have that right to do if you wish – but more importantly, you are putting your dive buddy, and dive master at risk which is absolutely NOT ok to do.
Respect the boat and the crew no matter how much you think you know. They know the area better than anyone, and they know what works best for the conditions in that moment. So even if it seems ridiculous, offensive or childish – just do what they ask with a smile and complain when your done with the dive.
Be aware of your surroundings. Our brains aren’t trained to protect us underwater, so just keep in mind to keep an eye above, and below you. You could stuck between a person who can’t keep their buoyancy and a Moray Eel. You might be confidant in your abilities, but there are other people you can affect by not being aware.
Leave only bubbles, take only picture. While it might be tempting to pick up that starfish, or take that giant seashell home as a souvenir. Just leave it alone, and let the next diver appreciate it as you did.
Don’t touch, tease or harass aquatic animals. There are so many marine animals that may look harmless enough, but can be quite deadly.
Keep your mask OFF your forehead! This is a universal sign of distress that Master Divers are trained to recognize. So when you do this, it can cause all sorts of chaos that is not needed. Keep the mask on your face until you are back in the boat and even then don’t make it a habit.
Create Your Bucket List!
The Diving community is a tight knit community, that generally is quite supportive. Reach out to those in your community, take a dive class, and then create your bucket list of Diving. I asked my fellow divers for their Top Dives From Around The World, and now have my own Diving Bucket list I’m working through.
If you have any Tips for First Time Scuba Divers, be sure to drop them below and connect with the Culture Trekking Community on Facebook or Instagram; arrange a few dive trips with other members of the community.
Exploring Doune Castle, a popular filming location in Scotland was a little surreal when your standing right in front of it. If you have ever seen Monty Python, or Outlander – then you might recognize Doune Castle.
The History of Doune Castle
A 13th century castle beautifully restored in the 14th century, with open rooms to explore and let your imagination run wild.
This was my second time visiting Doune Castle. The first time I took a day trip from Edinburgh to this beautiful location- I hadn’t given myself quite enough time to really learn the history. What I hadn’t realized was that this castle is mostly all the original stonework from the 14th century with minor repairs. The Wood flooring and roof, however, is mainly from the 1800’s.
Not only is Doune Castle a popular filming location, it was also favored by Royal Monarchs as a hunting retreat, including Mary Queen of Scots at one point.
It was also occupied by Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite rising of 1745. When he was attempting to take English throne on the basis that he felt he was the rightful heir.
It is now maintained by the Historic environment of Scotland who have kept it in beautiful shape!
Castle Leoch from Outlander
Outlander Tours often come to this location, as it was used as the set for Castle Leoch. This series depicts what it was like during the Scottish Rebellion that led up to the Battle at Culloden.
The series used cranes to hoist the set into the main courtyard of the castle. Then piles of mud, hay and other items to truly recreate a scene akin to that of 18th century Scottish Clan life.
The series follows a woman, Claire Randall back in time, during the Scottish Rebellion – where she meets heart throb James Frasier. Their harrowing adventures, her constant efforts to get back to her own time period – sets an incredibly accurate depiction of life in the Highlands. So if you get a chance to watch Outlander, I highly suggest it – especially if you have Scottish ancestors like me.
The first, and a personal favorite, was when King Arthur rode up to the castle with his imaginary horse and coconut clapper. The French poked their head over the top and an exchange of ridiculous insults ensued – at the end of which there was a cow launched over the walls.
The second scene, was when the knights of the round table met and broke into boisterous song. Using the different outlets in the Great Hall as platforms for song and dance after the wedding.
While there are several other scenes filmed here during this movie, these are the most famous.
Game of Thrones Winterfell Castle
Here is a bit of film history some may not know, that Game of Thrones used this castle as a basis for Winterfell. Winterfell is the home of many of the main characters and heroes of this international hit TV series.
Taking the Tour
I would highly recommend getting the audio tour when you explore Doune Castle. There is a small shop right inside the courtyard area where you can pick up your headset.
The headset plays songs sung here during Monty Python, has Jamie Frasier (Sam Heughan) giving you a large part of the tour through the castle. Let me tell you ladies and gents, his voice is like chocolate to the ears. He is also Scottish, and I find it very fitting that his voice is used to give you a large part of the tour.
If you get to the castle early (or early-ish), then it isn’t too crowded, and you can wander about and let the headset help you recreate the fond memories of the movies in your mind. It is hard to not have a smile on your face when you wander through this incredibly well preserved castle.
It isn’t all about the filming locations though, they also give you a good bit of history about the castle – and guide to to very specific locations within the castle.
The Kitchen is always a favorite place for me, especially at home . To see how they produced food in this place – made me grateful for my modern conveniences.
What surprised me the most was the MASSIVE fireplace that is 18 feet (5.5m) long. There would be several fires all going at once in this area. A kitchen boy would have to sit in this area – with only a window cracked to help air to the fire, make sure they didn’t die, and turn the spits when ordered to. In the winters I can imagine how this might be a coveted spot, but to think about how much smoke he would have to inhale…..induced some coughing.
The Great Tower
This is the main building that you see when you first round the corner from the parking lot. A massive 59 feet x 49 foot (17m x 15m) tall tower is quite impressive height for a 13-14th century building of that time.
The rooms of the Clan leader, or high ranking guest rooms were kept over the kitchen. A clever way for the most important people to stay warm during the cold winter months.
The tower is accessed by a stairwell in the main courtyard. The rooms are empty, but you will notice, this particular tower was quite lavish – as it has a double fireplace.
Exploring Doune Castle – A Scotland Favorite
Exploring Doune Castle is something I could do again and again, and still enjoy the time there because of how well preserved it is. It is also incredibly easy to imagine men in kilts, ladies dresses swishing around the great hall and Christmas feasts in the well heated rooms of the great tower. I spent two and a half hours in this place, and could have stayed for a long picnic if I would have had the time.
While Dunrobin Castle, and Cawdor Castle are some of the more modern versions of these ancient castles. There is something quite special about seeing an empty well preserved castle like this. It makes me think of how I would decorate it, or where I would put the horses and refrigerator. So that being said, Doune Castle is one of my favorite ancient castles in Scotland for the history, the film locations, and gorgeous surrounding countryside.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I need a vacation from my vacation”. I hear this more and more from people who ask me how I have so much energy after traveling so much. There really isn’t a secret to it, I just know how to pace myself while traveling, listen to what my body needs, and follow a certain set of rules for when I get back no matter how tired I feel – or how heavy the post-vacation blues feels.
Leave the House Clean
There is nothing worse than coming home to a pile of laundry that you know you are just going to make worse by all your travel clothes. While it seems stressful to try and add another thing to your ‘to-do’ list before you leave – at the bare minimum do your laundry before you leave. For those of us who love watching Marie Kondo, or Mrs Hinch; I suggest making the bed, chopping those pillows, doing the dishes, and vaccuming and mopping the floors.
You will find just how refreshing it is to come home to a clean house. Trying to readjust to normal life after a vacation is almost like trying to screw your head back on straight. It is easier for me to do get my life in order and back into a routine inside a clean house.
Arrange For A Ride Before Leaving
If you don’t need a car to take you, at least make sure you know if you will need to take a Taxi, train, or bus on the way home. Think about the luggage you will have, the time of night, if the transportation methods run that late; or if you should just take that Uber home and save yourself some headache.
There are always ways to get home, just be sure to keep in mind what time you arrive back home so you don’t have to stress about it when your jet lagged and shuffling your way out to your chosen transport method in a post vacation hangover.
Good Night’s Rest
The blessed bed! There is no bed, in the whole world, that is as comfortable as my own bed, my own incredibly soft Crown Goose Bedding, my 1000 count sheets, and Zoey snuggling up next to me. This is bliss to me!
Do not under-estimate investing in your bed, it is the thing that will help you the most with the inevitable Jet-Lag. It will help you recover your scrambled brain to help you function at work, so you can save for your next trip.
I am a very light sleeper, so I have made every effort to make sure that every part, portion and piece of my bed feels like heaven. I got my tufted headboard off of Amazon, and my favorite color being blue – for it’s soft and relaxing shade contributes to a relaxed environment.
The bedding, from Crown Goose, with some of the softest material I have felt in a long time. This bedding holds up in the wash really well, so no worries when you have your puppy snuggles. I also really like how elegant it looks, almost as if I have my own hotel room at home. The fabric holds up really well when I go and chop my pillows like Mrs Hinch in the morning, with crisp clean lines, and a white that reflects the sunlight from my window. They have several colors, all which are in the comforting and relaxing shades – so be sure to check them out – I promise you won’t regret it.
The 500 thread count sheets are a must for me. I know it sounds like a bit of a Princess and the Pea at this point, but I rub my feet on the sheets to help me sleep. I also toss and turn so much I needed some sheets that would hold up. I like that they come in all shades, and really can make or break my whole bed.
The last things I would add to this section is make sure you have a darkened room at appropriate times of the day. I personally use black-out curtains, and have to have the bedroom a little cooler. Fun fact, studies show that humans sleep better when the temperature is cooler at night because our body temperature drops slightly.
I must try and ride the wave coming off the plane on auto mode, and promptly unpack. I typically will unpack immediately and at least throw all the clothes either in the wash or the hamper. That way at least it is in its proper place ready for the madness of dealing with the laundry on your day off.
I also tend to pick out an outfit for work the next day. I typically go with some dark colors, to help my inevitable dark circles look a little brighter. I will either wear a flowy dress or skirt as well, so I don’t have to suck in the gut I tend to get from eating so much while on vacation.
Exercise vs Resting
Each body is different, and so I would say – listen to what your body needs. I typical traveler can walk anywhere from six to ten miles per day. When you add that up over the course of your trip, you pretty much walk two marathons over a week long trip!
For those coming from a desk job, to suddenly walking more than you do in a month combined – give your body the rest it needs. Give yourself plenty of water, and when your ready, keep walking at least three miles a day to keep up the stamina for your next trip. Even 20 minutes per day at least four days a week is great.
For those who run five or six miles a day, well… you just pat yourself on the back and get straight back to that gym! No pain, no gain – work off those carbs you indulged in while on vacation.
Nutrition vs easy Fast Food
I know how easy it is to drive home jet lagged and just stop by the nearest fast-food joint to do ‘one less thing’. RESIST THE URGE TO DO IT! This is part of the reason I try to meal prep something the week before I leave. Then freeze part of it so I have something healthy and nutritious to come home to.
If nothing else, grab your InstaPot throw in BBQ and some Frozen chicken and you can have a hot meal in 20 minutes. Get creative! There are plenty of recipes on Pinterest that are still good after being frozen.
Now this is the step that is an absolute must! It is hard for me to remember to take care of myself after going on a trip, feeling jet lagged, and needing my precious self care time. A time where I can soak the sore muscles from the flight in the tub, take a hot shower with a bath bomb thrown onto the floor for an infusion of wonderful smells. I also need cuddle time with my dog and to let the silence reset me while I rock in my recliner.
I feel like a part of me gets extremely fatigued by all the camera work, video work, and general mass amounts of ‘new input’ it receives while on vacation. Don’t get me wrong, I really love to travel the way I do, but after doing it every other week for two months – this step became increasingly important to me and the health of my friendships at home.
Take an Extra Day Off Work
The older I get the more I’m allowing myself to be ok with at least an extra day off of work. My paid time off of work is EXTREMELY precious to me, but I try and schedule my flights to give me at least one full day (or nearly full day) at home on my regularly scheduled day off, or I come home early on a Saturday instead of midnight on a Sunday. The extra cost is worth it to me, to come home earlier in the day.
Arrange for Grocery Pickup/Delivery
With Walmart, Amazon, Costco, Smiths and many other large grocery chains now offering ordering your groceries online – take advantage of this! For one thing, it helps you stay on budget which will help you save for your next trip. The second part, is that you can jump in the car, drive 5-10 minutes and just pick up the few things you will need to complete the work week and still get the rest you need.
I started doing this on my last trip, and was amazed at just how incredibly put together I felt the next morning – knowing all I had to do was go to work and come home to rest.
Purge All Your Thoughts
Writing down all the impact memories that either agitated you, or inspired you along your trip will do two things. One- It will help you release some of the emotions you may have collected along the way, and also ease the worry of not remembering your incredible journey. Two- Allows your mind to take a rest of trying to input so much information, learning, and experiences.
I also keep a small journal with me, or notepad where I take notes of buildings I visit, places to remember – costs of tickets etc…. See the things I do for my Culture Trekkers? 😉
Print Out The Photos
We live in a Digital world, and sometimes having the photos on the wall when you get that post-vacation blues can be a way to remind you of the amazing journeys you have been on.
You can make an arrangement of photos in frames, use string/cord to clip them to your wall with fairy lights. Take it a step further and make a travel book for your coffee table, or fireplace mantel that you can show friends when they come over. I think that creating something like this, along with inserting feelings/phrases like before would be
Diving has become a huge passion of mine, and I am slowly working my way to becoming a Master Diver (keyword slowly). After knowing it is an activity that I will be doing for the rest of my life, I decided to get a little input from fellow divers and travel experts around the world who have contributed to this article on what we all feel are the Top Diving Locations Around the World. Within each section, you will find information on the Dive site, visibility, certifications required, how to get there, where to stay and other helpful tidbits to craft your own Diving Bucketlist.
Don’t forget your travel insurance, I don’t travel without it now. I typically use World Nomads as you can specifically craft the insurance coverage for your extreme sports activities and your budget. If you have a dive site you would love to add, be sure to add it in the comments below.
Mexico: Cabo (Lands End)
Cabo San Lucas conjures up images of partying, sloppy drunk teens escaping from their parents….or at least it did for me in the beginning. When taking my cruise there this last December I couldn’t have been more wrong about what kind of adventures Cabo San Lucas Holds. There are plenty of areas to dive here, and with the mass amount of tourism, the companies cater to you and have really nice equipment.
The dive itself is some of the most unique along the Mexico/South American Coastline. There are underwater sand falls, shipwrecks, seals, eels, Mobula Rays, Hammer Head Sharks and a healthy array of colorful fish and puffer fish. If you decide to dive in December, the whales will be migrating and are truly worth every minute observing their breaching and feeding frenzy.
Visibility here depends on the season, during the summer you can have 30-90 feet of visibility and the winter can drop to 20-40 feet. While water temperatures can range from 64-86 degrees Fahrenheit. Depths near Cabo Arch can be anywhere from 10-90 feet, while diving sites at Lands End are 1000+.
This was my first real ocean dive, as diving in Utah (the middle of the desert) is a little difficult to get that ocean experience in. I would recommend that you have good control of your buoyancy, and take a guided tour so that you can see the best parts without getting hit by tour boats going to Cabo Arch. I recommend using Cabo Adventures as there are plenty of staff on hand to cater to the most advanced divers and the newest divers. We had a mix of open water, and master divers on our boat; so they took us all out and split us up into appropriate groups where each of us had a wonderful time. They also do snorkeling adventures, dolphin encounters and a whole lot more. Plus they are really good looking…sorry not sorry…lol.
To get here take a flight to the Los Cabos International Airport, from there it is a 34-minute drive to Cabo San Lucas. I would suggest taking the bus though it is $5.50 for two people and takes around 1 1/2 hours to get to the Center (Puerto Paraiso Mall) of Cabo. If you opt for a cab or shuttle, you are going to pay a lot more. I think you can get a group shuttle for around $15 pp or take a taxi for $50 -$100 so the bus is a big savings if you are watching your budget.
Contributed by Janiel from Culture Trekking
USA: Florida – Devils Den
While cave diving wasn’t really on my list of ‘best places to dive’, this particular dive was so unique I just had to include it. Devil’s Den is so appropriately named as you descend down into a cavern from the humid Florida air into a prehistoric cave of wonder.
While it appears warm in the video below, the water itself is 72 degrees F/22.2 degrees year round. I didn’t think I needed a full wet suit, as it was still winter in Utah and temps there were around 32 degrees so I just took my shorty wetsuit. While I was a little chilled when entering the waters, by the end of the dive, I really wish I had my full wetsuit (some people were in dry suits). Visibility is excellent, but there is silt on the bottom as the cave is fed by natural springs so try to not disturb the bottom. If you are there on a weekend, or holiday expect to have loads of divers training here.
The cave is an excellent place for practicing night dives, cave diving, and fantastic for beginners. There are areas that are more dangerous than others but the private owners have blocked those areas off, and the caves are easy to maneuver around in. They have also put different items around the caves, so it makes it really creepy and fun to explore. Be aware of the creepy fish and giant catfish lurking in the corners.
You can either stay in Williston, Gainsville or swing over to St Petersburg Florida where there are the perfect west coast white sand beaches, plenty of street art, the Dali museum and yummy places to eat.
Contributed by Janiel from Culture Trekking
Richelieu Rock – Similan Islands
Richelieu Rock is the most popular dive location in the
Similan Islands. The name of the dive site is based on the fact that the dive
site is a rock formation in the middle of the ocean. It is stated that the site
was discovered when during a low tide Jacques-Yves Cousteau and a local
fisherman boat bumped into the top of the rock formation.
The dive site itself is famous due to the traffic that
occurs at Richelieu Rock. The rock is covered in anemone and has over four
variety of anemone fish. There are numerous other reef fish at the location.
The large attraction however is the whale sharks and manta rays that frequently
cruise around the location. A dive tour at the site will typically encompass a
trip around the rock formation, and then if you are lucky, you will see a manta
ray or whale shark cruising by on the outside area.
An added bonus is that the whale sharks are juvenile, so
while smaller than normal, the whale sharks are far more curious and will check
out the divers and the bubbles from respirators thinking that the bubbles may
be plankton. Ultimately making Richelieu Rock a great location to dive with
The dive is easy to complete, with only an open water certification required. The depths can go upward of 30m, but companies typically stay at the top of the rock formation and no further than 15m. Visibility is clear at site, however there can sometimes be strong currents. There are two main ways to get to Richelieu Rock, and the Similan Islands, and that is through liveaboard out of Phuket, or through a dive company that does day trips out to the island. I recommend using Sunrise Divers, they are located in the Karon Beach, Phuket, Thailand area and can help arrange a liveaboard or a day trip out.
While I haven’t personally been diving here, in planning my trip to China in the next year – I found this hidden gem! It is the 1,400 old ruined city submerged underwater for over 50 years! Talk about the Asia version of the Atlantic City. Qiandao Lake, also known as Thousand Island Lake, is a sprawling body of fresh water, covering 573 sq. km. It was flooded to create a reservoir where hydroelectricity could be used but displaced nearly 290,000 people in doing so.
After reading about all the specs on the dive I discovered, I personally need a little more experience before attempting it. The visibility is very poor in the lake and gets quite dark very quickly. Some of the diving accounts I read, said that you need to have excellent bouyancy control, excellent navigation epxerience (because it is that easy to lose your dive partner), night dive certification, and advanced open water certification.
There is a lot of silt in the area as it is in a lake, so that is why buoyancy is so important here. Diving itself is apparently a newer sport for those in China so there are limited companies willing or able to do this dive. The company I found that does do tours of this site is Big Blue Scuba that schedules tours here our of Shanghai. I personally plan on staying in Shanghai and then letting the tour drive the 6 hours of winding rural roads to get to the site so I don’t get lost.
I don’t know how long the ruins will last, but despite the visibility and needing excellent diving skills – just watch the video and you will understand why this one needs to be on your bucket list. For more information on this dive, be sure to visit Underwater Photography Guide.
Contributed by Janiel from Culture Trekking
Hanga Roa, Easter Island
One of the most unique dives anybody can do is located in Hanga Roa Harbor. Hanga Roa is the capital of Easter Island, and this amazing and easy dive is called the Moai Dive. And as the name implies, this is the only place on earth where you can meet an Easter Island stone head statue underwater!
This moai is submerged in roughly 28 feet of water, and it is only a few minutes ride from Hanga Roa harbor to reach the dive site. An open water certification is required to do this dive or to visit any of the Easter Island dive sites.
Easter Island is one of the most remote places on earth, and its far distance to the nearest island and the lack of natural stream on the island contributes to the extremely clear surrounding waters. The coral reefs here are relatively young, and some of the 150 species of relatively small fish and other creatures are endemic to Easter Island.
On a typical day, the visibility can range to over 200 feet, with no obstructions in sight. Even better – during the whale migration season, you can sometimes hear some of the whales singing in the distance!
I highly recommend Mike Rapu Diving Center. It is one of the few trusted PADI establishments on the island.
There are only two ways to get to Easter Island: a four hour-flight from Tahiti or a nearly six-hour flight from Santiago de Chile. Either way, it demonstrates how remote this island is.
Contributed by Halef from the RTW Guys
Negril in Jamaica, an iconic destination for scuba divers who want to explore the wonders of the Caribbean underwater universe. This spot features vivid marine world, thriving coral reefs, a range of unique undersea sights, colorful fish, sharks, sea turtles and much more. You will enjoy in a warm crystal clear water with an average depth of 30 ft and maximal depth of 70 ft.
For your diving experience, Sandals Luxury Resorts offers several dive courses. With a 3-hour PADI diving program, you will be able to dive in the same day as the program. There’s also PADI’s e-learning system (8-hour course) which helps you to complete it at your own pace. Furthermore, the program does not require any prior certification or dive experience. I recommend staying at Sandals Negril offers from two-story suites to the Millionaire Suites, some with private pool, balcony, patio or swim-up pool, etc. Which to choose depends on your preferences and budget.
To get here there is a daily flight from Miami to Montego Bay. Once in Montego Bay take an included transfer to Sandals Negril. It’s a 60 minutes ride.
contributed by Leo from Safari Nomad
Gordon Rocks the Galapagos Island
The Galapagos is world famous for its incredible wildlife and the underwater world is no exception. One of the best tours in the Galapagos is to visit Gordon Rocks, a dive site near the island of Santa Cruz.
Gordon Rocks is one of the best places in the world to find Hammerhead sharks and the Oceanic Sunfish. You can also see Galapagos sharks, white tip reef sharks, giant sea turtles, stingrays, moray eels, Galapagos eels, Barracudas and various colorful reef fish.
The average depth of the dive is between 60-80 feet. Gordon Rocks is considered an intermediate to advanced dive site as the current can be strong at times. In order to dive, you will need to have your open water certification and a minimum of 25 logged dives.
I recommend diving in Santa Cruz with Scuba Iguana. They are one of the oldest diving companies on the island and have an excellent reputation for being safe and environmentally responsible.
Scuba Iguana is located in Santa Cruz’ main town, Puerto Ayora. A good hotel to stay in is Hotel Ikala, located just a few minutes from the dive shop. This new hotel was built with a focus on sustainability and is surrounded by beautiful trees and gardens, giving it a natural and fresh ambiance.
Contributed by Lora from Explore with Lora
Green Island, Lvdao Township, Taiwan
They say Green Island is the best diving spot in all Taiwan due to its incredible visibility of 40 meters or even more. When we got into the water, I knew people were right. The visibility was fantastic, the more than 200 types of corals are colorful and flourishing. You have a wide range of beautiful fishes in all shapes and sizes. I have never seen that many clown fishes on that little space.
Max depth is around 20meters. Visibility is incredible, around 40 meters. You need at least an Open Water. However, the dive centers also offer explorer dives with 5 meters depth and taking photos. Absolutely interesting for beginners, since the corals and fishes are colorful, and you can even see turtles.
The company we went with was “BLUE SAFARI DIVING CENTER 藍莎潛水中心”. I asked specifically for a dive instructor that speaks English, to take away any language barrier. They organized one for me. It was a 1 on 1 dive, so only me and the instructor. The briefing was on the point, we went through all signs again, to make sure we can both understand each other under water. He then asked what i want to do. I could do a drift dive, see specific fishes. I told him I am interested i seeing Turtles. We succeeded and saw two precious, beautiful turtles.
We stayed at “Hostel Green520 綠島民宿‧綠野仙蹤鄉村童話-海島民宿” (< that is the full name apparently). The host is a young guy from the island, and it feels like you are staying wth a friend. He knows everything on the small island. He also picks you up on the harbor, and you exchange your WhatsApp with him. During our stay, he sent as a few messages, for instance when it was raining he’d send us a message to stay safe because it’s slippery. And then if we want to go for a drink tonight. Seriously, it was like staying with a friend!
You can only take a ferry from Taitung harbor. The ferry takes around 1 hour, and it can be bumpy. There are also airplanes, but they are always sold out, taking the ferry is much easier.
The Gili Islands is a great place to go diving. There’s a small shipwreck, some underwater statues, and turtles the size of dinner tables! It’s a trip you can take around all 3 Gili Islands. The water is beautiful and crystal clear so you can see tons all around you. You don’t have to be certified as they have introductory dives that will take you up to 12 meters on your first dive. You can check out Shark Point to see reef sharks, eels and rays, or head to Turtle Heaven where you can swim with several large turtles.
Gili Air Divers on the island of Gili Air is a PADI certified company that we recommend. They are very professional and emphasize safety. You can easily find them after your boat docks, on the strip of vendors.
We always recommend staying on the island of Gili Air, as it is more of a relaxing vibe as opposed to the more party islands. It has a great tropical island vibe with lots of live music and great food on the beach every night. We had a great experience staying at “Villa Karang Hotel and Spa”, with pools, a spa, great air-conditioned rooms, and right across from the beach.
Gili Air is a boat ride away from Bali, Indonesia, and it is very easy to find a boat to take you there. You can check online to purchase your tickets in advance as well.
Monad Shoal is the only dive site in the world where you are likely to spot Thresher Sharks daily. Normally the Thresher Sharks live and hunt at 50+ meters of depth. The sunken island works as a cleaning station as the sharks swim up there early in the morning to get their skin washed by tiny fish called Cleaning Wrasse. That´s when divers can observe them.
The dive goes down to the underwater sandbank of Monad Shoal. From there, you dive down along the wall to about 30 meters of depth. Once you spot the Thresher Sharks you will sit down by the wall and observe them calmly. Visibility is normally 10-15 meters.
As the dive is 30 meters deep you need minimum Advanced Open Water to do the dive, though some companies will take experienced Open Water divers. You need to stay at Malapascua island to do the dive. I did it with Jayky, a great instructor and divemaster at Dive Society. Unlikely most of the dive centers, this is not on the main beach, hence you get a better price and the experience was nevertheless unforgettable.
We traveled budget, so we stayed at a basic, budget bungalow with no name in the inland dirt tracks of the island. We found it by talking to some locals when we arrived.
To get to Malapascua you need to get a bangka (traditional Philippine pirogue) from Maya Port on Cebu island. You can take a bus from Cebu city to Maya. It is also possible to go from Leyte island by private bangka, but that will be much more expensive.
Contributed by Linn from Brainy Backpackers
SMS Cöln – Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands
The SMS Cöln is one of the wrecks within Scapa Flow. She is the most intact cruiser in the Flow and sits on her starboard side at 36 metres. The shallowest point is at 22metres. The stern and armoured control tower are still intact. The visibility averages about 10metres. This is a cold water dive in deeper water so PADI advanced open water with wreck and dry suit experience are needed to make it a pleasant experience.
There are a number of companies who operate out of the nearest town of Stromness. I would recommend Andy Cuthbertson who runs Jean Elaine through Scapa Flow Charters. If you want support or training then Scapa Scuba have courses, training and equipment available and can take you out the wrecks in the flow. This is especially useful if you are a single diver or buddy pair. All the charter boats usually take larger groups and book up months in advance.
All of the companies include accommodation in their packages. They use small self catering cottages or the Stromness Hotel.
Diving in Scapa Flow is from the small town of Stromness. This can be reached from mainland Scotland using Northlink Ferries which run from Thurso near John O’Groats (three hours drive north of Inverness). The ferry takes just under 2 hours. You can also fly to Kirkwall and then drive the 40minutes to Stromness in a hire car.
Out of all the places I’ve dived and snorkeled around the world, there’s honestly nothing that has come to close what I experienced at the Batu Balong dive site in Indonesia! I had just finished an incredible four-day sailing trip from Lombok to Labuan Bajo, and visited the Komodo National Park (which I’d highly recommend doing as well)!
I was traveling with a few friends, and we all decided to book a one-day diving trip with Uber Scuba in Labuan Bajo. We visited a few different dive sites, but this one spot called Batu Balong was easily the best! From the minute you jump in the water, you are quite literally surrounded by thousands of fish in every direction, and the colorful coral is the most vibrant I’ve ever seen! The max depth is around 25 meters, with visibility being good to excellent year round. Honestly a perfect place for any open water certified diver.
We saw turtles and sharks on the dive, and it was just such an amazing experience! Labuan Bajo is on the island of Flores in Indonesia, which you can find cheap fllights to on a few different airlines. I’d recommend staying at the Ayana Komodo Resort too, because it’s easily the best property on the island!!
Malaysia: Perhentian Kecil, part of the Perhentian Islands
One of the places that surprised me the most in Malaysia was Perhentian Kecil, part of the Perhentian Islands. I have visited out of season, when the island was almost deserted, with probably only around 10 tourists in total. There was not much to do except for diving, snorkelling, and enjoying coconut smoothies on the beach.
Diving in the Perhentian Islands is a magical experience because of the amazing underwater eco system that developed around old sunken ships and buoys. There are several spots where you can dive in Perhentian Islands, which you can pick in a day tour from one of the diving centres on the island.
One of the most popular dives is at the “Sugar Wreck”, a 90 meters long cargo ship which sank in 2000. There are over 20 different diving spots around, where you can observe the marine life, such as tuna, sword fish, pufferfish, black tip reef sharks, sting rays and turtles. The corals are so beautiful as well, but remember, don’t touch them.
To reach the Perhentian Islands you need to catch a speed boat from Kuala Besut, the closest town on the mainland. I chose to stay at Maya’s Chalet, in a hut right on the Coral Bay beach.
Contributed by Joanna from The World In My Pocket
Mary’s Place, Roatán, Honduras
Just off the coast of mainland Honduras lie the Bay Islands, Roatán being the largest of the group. These Caribbean islands are set atop a 1,000-kilometer Mesoamerican barrier reef, and most of the dive sites are just a few minutes boats ride from shore.
There are hundreds of spectacular sites to choose from and Mary’s Place is one of the best. Known for its sheer vertical cracks caused by ancient volcanic activity, this site is best suited for experienced divers. With a maximum depth of 36 meters (120 feet), divers must have an advanced certification and a good handle on buoyancy. Like many dive sites in the Bay Islands, Mary’s Place is known for excellent visibility and healthy corals.
Roatán Divers is one of the most reputable dive shops on the island. They’re very professional and well located. Plus, they have a focus on environmental responsibility, which is why we chose to dive with them. I recommend staying at Ibagari Boutique Hotel which has beautifully-designed rooms that you’ll love to relax in after a day of diving,
To get there from the city of La Ceiba, ferries depart for the Bay Islands twice daily – once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Thailand: Koh Tao
If you enjoy diving, you will love diving in Koh Tao, Thailand. This is probably the number one destination in Thailand for divers. Koh Tao is a paradise island that is home to some of the most awesome dive sights. One of the best dive sites being Sail rock. Here you get the opportunity to dive with large schools of Barracuda, other amazing fish and stunning coral.
This amazing dive actually takes you down through a
rock, crazy. The dive can take you to a maximum of 18-metres deep, from the
bottom you can exit the rock and ascend back to the surface. However, these
depths are for advanced divers. A good depth for beginners is 5-metres.
You will be required to have your PADI certificate if
you want to dive to the deeper depths of Sail
Rock. If you are new to diving, you can enjoy a fun dive to a few metres
How to get to Sail Rock?Your Koh Tao dive school will take you on a 1 and half hour journey via boat to the dive site.
Which dive school to choose?I would highly recommend crystal dive school which are a team of dive experts that ensure you will have an amazing dive if you choose them. Also, if you choose to a PADI certification, you should choose CrystalDive. They are known for delivering high quality and safe courses. This amazing dive company also offers accommodation within their dive school. This is a very popular option for travellers.
The best place to stay when planning to dive here is at the P.D Beach resort, which I would highly recommend.
Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef is renowned for being one of the best dive locations in the world. At 2,300 km long, comprising thousands of reefs and hundreds of islands, it’s home to countless species of fish and coral, plus sharks, turtles and dolphins.
You can dive the Great Barrier Reef all along Australia’s east coast, but one of the most popular places to go is the small resort town of Port Douglas, just north of Cairns. Port Douglas is pretty much a dedicated beach and dive town, offering easy access to the Agincourt Reef System, part of the Ribbon Reef and one of the most popular and accessible dive areas. Agincourt Reef offers 45 different dive sites, mostly drift and wall diving, with coral gardens and shallow dive sites that are great for novice and intermediate divers. You can even do introductory dives, so everyone from complete beginners to experts is catered for.
As well as a fantastic range of coral fish, you’re likely to spot lionfish, barracudas, dogtooth tuna, reef sharks and blue spotted stingray. Depth at the various Agincourt sites ranges from 12-40 metres, and on a good day visibility can be up to 30 metres; the average is usually about 20 metres.
The dive company I recommed is ABC Scuba Diving or Blue Dive, I truly had a great time with them and felt cared for every step of the way.
There are loads of places to stay in Port Douglas, ranging from backpackers’ hostels to serviced apartments to expensive beach resorts with pools. We stayed in Coral Beach Lodge which was centrally located and quite affordable.
The Silfra fissure sits along the mid-Atlantic ridge, a location where the earth’s plates diverge, here Iceland is being slowly ripped in two but the resulting freshwater dive in the middle of the country is bound to blow your booties off. Silfra is unique in the world, the only place in the world where you can (feasibly) dive between the earth’s tectonic plates! Running from a shallow 1m down to 40+ meters Silfra is a somewhat technical dive that you’ll need your drysuit diver certification for but with 100+m visibility its well worth the trouble.
Staying in Reykjavik is the best option for people wanting to dive the fissure, we loved the FossHotel Reykjavik. The city is vibrant, interesting & worth exploring best of all when it comes time to go diving every tour operator out there offers hotel pickup! Arctic Adventures offers daily snorkels and dives at the fissure complete with a tour of Thingvellir national park & hot cocoa & cookies when you get out of the perpetually cool (2*c or 35F) water.
Palancar Gardens off the coast of Isla Cozumel in Mexico is one of the best wall dive sites in the world. As Palancar is part of the National Park it is well protected and has huge healthy coral formations, multiple (optional) swim-throughs, and a wall that drops down to 130 ft. This dive site really will blow your mind. Expect to see turtles, green moray eels, eagle rays (only during the season), and nurse sharks (all year round).
The depth of this dive is between 30- 80 feet and it is a great reef to dive for all experience levels. Beginners can stay to the side and above the reef and more experienced divers can go deeper and do the swim-throughs. The average visibility diving in Cozumel is 100ft all year round. You will need an open water certificate to dive here. Although it is possible to do this dive on a discover scuba dive as it is often used as a first dive site.
The dive company I recommend in Cozumel is Scuba Tony. I did my advanced certificate with them and I would never dive with anyone else over there. The dive masters are awesome and their equipment and boats are in top condition.
If you are going to Cozumel to dive you are better to stay further south so you are closer to the better dive sites. Most hotels have a dock where the boats can pick you up from. If you stay further north most dive companies will not pick you up. I recommend staying at the Fiesta as it is in an ideal location and has great facilities.
Getting to Cozumel is easy as the Island has its own airport with many international direct flights. Alternatively, you can fly into Cancun and then take a connecting flight to the Island, or take a taxi or ADO bus to Playa del Carmen. From Playa you will need to take the 40-minute ferry over to Cozumel.
Contributed by Claire from Claire’s Itchy Feet
Jeju Island – South Korea
The exotic Jeju Island is a stunning and extremely popular holiday destination among Korean and foreign tourists. The island is often referred to as the Hawaii of Korea. Not only is it stunning, but it also has so much to offer, from great hikes to amazing beaches, yummy food, and great water activities like kayaking, snorkeling, diving and many more.
All around the island, there are many different diving spots and schools. But the creme de la creme diving spot is around the Seongsan Ilchulbong (sunrise peak). This natural phenomenon is a volcanic crater created more than a hundred thousand years back as a result of volcanic eruptions. This site is now a protected UNESCO heritage site.
The warm water around the peak attracted a wide array of tropical marine life and soft corals, which are absolutely stunning. Diving in Jeju Island and the rest of South Korea is mostly a summer activity as the rest of the year the water will be too cold for divers and instructors. On top of that during autumn and winter, the currents around the island are rather strong and dangerous for inexperienced divers.
The recommended school to dive with is Seongsan Diving Resort as offers diving packages to both unlicensed and licensed divers, making this the best location for beginner and advanced divers. I recommend you rent a car and drive in Jeju, but the school is also accessible using public transportation. When visiting Jeju Island, stay in Jeju City and use this as a base to explore the island.
Contributed by Marie from Be Marie Korea
Philippines: Apo Reef
33 Km off the coast of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro Province, Philippines, you’ll find the Apo Reef. This is the largest coral reef in the Philippines, while in the world is only second to the Australian Great Barrier Reef.
The reef develops on two connecting sections divided by a channel with a white sandy bottom of 30 mt maximum depth. The variety of the flora and fauna in the protected area of the Apo Reef Natural Park is surprising and overwhelming. As you start going down inside the channel, you are instantly surrounded by clouds of snappers and will get to see jacks, barracudas trevallies, squirrel and parrotfishes, triggerfishes, gobies, groupies, reef sharks and the list of the 385 species found in the area goes on.
It is easy to spot turtles (even the rare green turtle) and dolphins, and overall you will meet large schools of fishes. Within one dive-trip from Sablayan, you will normally arrange three dives, and you need the Advanced Open Water Certificate to dive Apo Reef. The visibility in Apo Reef is just incredible and makes for a breath-taking experience. The most visited site of the reef is South Corner.
The Mariposa diving centre on the Tiny Pandan Island is run by a mix of Philipino and European experts and has been organizing day-trips and overnights at Apo Reef for more than 20 years. The centre provides training up to dive-master and is part of the Pandan Island Resort, which offers hut-like accommodation for every budget on a semi-private island and delicious, rich buffet meals. This is your best option to stay at while you visit Apo Reef, as they can take you to the reef with a 90 minutes boat trip.
To get to Pandan Island from Manila by plane to San Jose and by public bus/jeepney to Sablayan where a tricycle can take you exactly to ‘Punta in front of Ludi ‘s place’. From there a Bangka will cross the 300 mt of sea waters to Pandan Island.-from Manila by land and ferry: take a bus to Batangas and the Montenegro Lines ferry to Abra. From Abra, get on a bus to Sablayan, then follows the directions as per the previous point.
The Belize Barrier Reef makes up one-third of the MesoAmerican Reef (the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef), stretching 190 miles along the Central American country’s coastline. Protected since 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reef is the #1 tourist attraction in Belize, with Scuba diving attracting nearly 50% of the country’s annual visitors.
Thankfully removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2018, the reef’s diverse array of walls, pinnacles, holes, and reef flats are home to an exceptional array of aquatic life (including 70 hard coral species, 35 soft coral species, 500 species of fish, and hundreds of invertebrates). During our two dives (at depths ranging from 15 to 60+ feet), we had exceptional visibility and saw a Nurse Shark, Moray Eel, several Spotted Rays, a Sea Turtle, Pufferfish, Lobsters, and thousands of colorful fish.
Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort caters to Scuba divers and offers a variety of daily snorkeling and diving tours. Located less than a mile from the Garifuna culture of Hopkins Village, this excellent eco-resort also boasts beautiful lodge-style rooms with hot tubs on the private patio as well as a restaurant serving up fresh seafood daily.
Domestic flights from Belize International Airport to Dangriga are available on Maya Air or Tropic Air. The staff at Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort can arrange this flight for you, as well as an airport transfer to the resort.
Contributed by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett of Green Global Travel
Tiputa Pass, French Polynesian Islands
The Tiputa Pass is considered one of the worlds best dive sites, in particular to see pelagics. Diving in Rangiroa you’re likely to see manta rays, leopard rays, grey reef sharks, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, lemon sharks and even great hammerhead sharks. If you’re an advanced diver, you can head depths of 30m or more and see tiger sharks. There are many options, but it is common to do a drift dive through the pass, either on the incoming or outgoing tide.
The pass is popular with experienced divers due to the strong current, however open water level divers are allowed to dive it. I recommend diving with Top Dive, who are very safety conscious, which is particularly important considering the remote location. The visibility is generally very good.
Va’a i Te Moana is a lovely family run pension a short walk from the Tiputa Pass. Double rooms start from £141.50 (19000 CFP) including breakfast. I highly recommend staying here not only because of a convenient location but also it is also very beautiful.
Kia Oras, is another option, it is a luxury resort with over water bungalows and beach villas. Top Dive have a dive shop on the property, so it’s great if you’re planning on doing lots of dives. A beach bungalow with hot tub starts from £331 (44 460 CFP).
To get to Tiputa, I would suggest flying to Pape’ete, Tahiti, and then take a flight to Rangiroa. The airport is in the center of the small island, with most of the hotels and accommodations being on the southern end of the island; I would suggest staying on the Northern end of the island as this is where Tiputa Pass is.
How Do You Choose?
With all of these great dives, it is going to be hard to choose just ONE to commit to for your next trip. I would suggest taking a cruise and hitting several, or find friends to stay with and do them all throughout your lifetime. Go with the dive that speaks to your heart, that you have the certifications for and let fate take you on an underwater journey that not many are brave enough to take.
To all my fellow divers, I salute you – happy bubble blowing!
This is a popular weekend getaway for many who live in Scotland as hill walking and outdoor activities within Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park are quite abundant. This is a quick day trip from Edinburgh or Glasgow that I definitely would not miss. Being from Utah with 5 National Parks, and frequently visiting Oregon, the beauty of this place is riveting at worst, and soul-crushingly beautiful at best.
There are activities for everyone at every level, from horse back riding, rock climbing, camping, hill walking, steam boat rides, jet ski rentals, kayak rentals, canoes, forestry preserves, memorials, castles and so much more!
I have a personal tie to this area in that of my ancestors, the MacFarlenes. My Great Grandmother was a MacFarlene, and my Scottish ancestry dates all the way back to the 16th century with the Mackenzies.
Loch Lomond has special place in my heart, not just because of how beautiful it is, but because my ancestors history, and the former family seat being located in this area. The MacFarlenes weren’t a very popular lot with those in Scotland, as they were known as cattle thieves. They were so good at stealing cattle in fact, that the moon is now called the MacFarlene Lantern.
Anyone I told about my ancestry as a MacFarlene got a mischievous grin on their face, and said, “Ohhhh, your one of those”. I wasn’t so proud of being a part of that type of reaction, but insanely proud of the area my family comes from. While the male line of chiefs in the MacFarlene failed in 1886, there is still remnants of their rich history here.
In the middle of Loch Lomond on the North end of the Loch is a tiny island, Vow. This is where they would take the stolen cattle and keep them safely nestled within the natural defense of the Loch. Being only 328 feet (100meters) wide, and covered in trees it was a fantastic hiding place.
The MacFarlanes had to make their home in Loch Lomond, due to their loyalty to the Bonnie Prince Charlie and their former Clan Seat in Inveruglaus being destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s Army.
The new family seat remained at Arrochar on Loch Long and the Island I Vow castle was inhabited up until 1724.
Loch Lomond Attractions
Castles in Loch Lomond Area
Dumbarton, Buchanan and Balloch these are the three castles within the area that tought a big historical impact on Scotlands History.
Near the Clyde Estuary between to mountain peaks, one which is called Wallace’s Seat. This is the castle has been used as a Roman outpost, Stuart kings ruling castle, and from where Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France at the age of five.
This impressive fortress dates back to the 1200’s, when the threat from Norway was coming to an end due to the Treaty of Perth (1266). This threat was quickly replaced by the threat from England.
What remains of this historical place, is a small four story stone castle, with stone entryways and a beautiful view over Loch Lomond.
This a unique castle near Loch Lomond as it is partially ruined, it is free to visit, looks like something Rapunzel would be found in, and there are no hovering tourists to fight for a photo.
Owned by the Buchanan family from 1231 to 1682, until James Graham bought the land. The house remained intact until a fire destroyed it in 1850 (makes me think of a Wuthering Heights ordeal). It was eventually rebuilt, and then abandoned in 1925, reused as a hospital during World War II, housed the deputy of Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess who tried to negotiate with the UK but was immediately captured.
The Castle, although left in a derelict condition, is still worthwhile to visit. I wouldn’t recommend venturing inside as the flooring can be unsteady and dangerous with trees growing inside the building.
This castle also dates from the 1200’s and is the historic home of the Earls of Lennox. The building was eventually abandoned as they did not feel it was in a secure enough location.
In 1652 the castle and its grounds were sold to Sir John Colquhoun of Luss. A new Balloch Castle was built, utilizing the old stones from the previous castle, and the moat and mound from the old castle is all that remains. It is a gorgeous home. It eventually ended up being purchased by Glasgow Corporation in 1914, hoping that it would encourage people to use the tramcars to this area.
Trossachs National Park
Trossachs just refers to a Bonnie place, that really encompasses what the whole of the Highlands are into one tiny place. This area is so beautiful, that Sir Walter Scott wrote his poem – The Lady of the Lake (1810) about this place.
There are hiking trails and mountains you can summit all over this park (see below), but if you want a more relaxed exploring pace – take a cruise. There are over thirty different islands within Loch Lomond, if you get your binoculars you may see some Wallabies! They are very similar to squirrels, so don’t get confused when you see one.
You can also take a jet ski tour, kayak, or canoe to explore the lake on a sunny day in May. There are races that occur year round throughout the park, as well as Triathalons and swim meets.
Try a Distillary in Loch Lomond:
In 1840 brothers John and James Grant applied for a distillery license. These brothers created one of the first distilleries in Scotland.
By the 1900s A legendary inventor, socializer, and traveler, “The Major”, was fascinated by new ideas and wasn’t afraid to explore them. Glen Grant was the first distillery to have electric light, and he introduced the tall slender sills and purifiers which created the fresh malty flavor and the clear color that defines the whiskey industry to this day. Glen Grant is still one of the biggest selling Single Malts in the world.
Be sure to stop by and see how this revered and carefully crafted drink has made such a historical impact on Scotland even to this day.
Where single malt whiskey is king! This Distillery has been in producing Whiskey since 1867, while the recipe has been handed down over the centuries – this is one place that you don’t want to skip over.
**The Scottish roads in this area have sharp turns, and are often narrow. Please do not drink and drive, respect the country and drink responsibly. There are plenty of places to stay the night so you can enjoy yourself.**
Mountains and Hill Walking in Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park
In the USA we call it hiking, in Scotland they call it Hill Walking. It is always best to check out the hiking conditions, and the land itself. Scotland is unique in that it doesn’t have a lot of trees per se; but it does have a lot of moss that cover holes you could easily step in and break your leg. So the best site I found to utilize when planning your trip there is the Walk Highlands website. They will have guiding available, offer gear rental, gps rental and give specific pointers on safety in each area or mountain you try and summit.
What I really love about Scotland is that they also have a group who is specifically dedicated to protecting those who enjoy being outdoors. So for the more long in the tooth folks (or the elderly) check out Ramblers for some fantastic hiking suggestions.
Mountains or Munros
With over 21 mountains or munros in the park that are above 3,000 feet, the highest being Ben More – there are plenty of mountains to summit here.
Ben more, or as the locals call is, A’ Bheinn Mhòr, meaning “the great mountain” is the highest peak in Trossachs National Park. What is unique about the mountains in Scotland is their rugged, and unforgiving slopes. Ben More is no exception, rising 3,281 feet in 2.5 miles, which makes for a classic physical challenge for those looking to summit the 21 mountains in the Loch Lomond area.
The best way to approach this is by the Benmore Farm on A85, be sure to follow the path, until you get to the Northwest ridge. Follow that up unitl you reach the summit. The Northeast ridge could provide an alternative path to the summit, as it is said to be craggier and less steep.
Ben A’an is one of the most popular miniature mountains amongst Scotland’s bigger giants. It lies at the heart of the Trossachs, and once you ascend you are in a strategic location to see much of the surrounding Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond.
They have recently improved the path leading to the summit, which is approximately 2.5 miles, and well worth the effort to go just for the view.
Enjoy iconic views of sparkling lochs, wooded hills, and rugged mountains in some of these fantastic forest parks located within Trossachs National Park and close to Loch Lomond. There are hiking trails, horseback riding, and steamboats available to ride on the loch.
First and foremost, wherever you may camp in the world- be sure to check if there are rules for wild, BLM, or off grid camping as each country will want to ensure the beauty of the location to last for generations. Scottish take a lot of pride in their land, and are especially protective of the heritage for their children. If you go camping in Loch Lomond, be sure you respectfully pitch your tent or park van at each location.
Visiting Scotland for the second time in less than two years allowed me to delve a little more into the adventures available. One of the more interesting road trips that locals are taking more often is along the NC500 Coastline. I wasn’t able to complete the entire road trip of the Upper Scottish Highlands, but definitely would love to return to complete this trip in its entirety. Here is what to see on the NC500 Coastline in Scotland should you venture to do as locals do, and take this road trip in the most beautiful country I have seen.
Inverness for Easy of Arrival and a Starting Point with History
While Inverness isn’t technically part of the NC500 coastline road trip, it is a good starting point. This characteristically charming town has an airport, rental cars, Airbnb’s and all the amenities that you may need to start your journey.
The Scottish Highlands are known for their over abundance of Bed & Breakfasts, as a supplemental income for the aging population. Should you find yourself staying in one, you are sure to have the classic Scottish breakfast of ham, eggs, black pudding, beans, and rice.
When starting in Inverness, be sure to stop by Culloden – an integral part of the Scottish History and basis of which the popular show Outlander has driven hoards of Kilt loving fans to this off the beaten path place. A short drive away you will find Clava Cairns, where you learn of the Standing stones and Scottish folklore traditions. The last stop of this day should be Inverness Castle before making the one hour thirty minute drive out to Dunrobin.
Dunrobin a Unique French Chateau
There is a small stretch of houses surrounding the French Chateau inspired Dunrobin Castle. Be transported to France in this Disney like Scottish Castle, where you will learn of its colorful history and warm hospitality.
It started as a single great tower in the 14th century then expanded in the late 18th century to how it looks today. Undergoing transformations with each Lord that occupied it, including becoming a boy’s school and a Naval hospital.
If you are more into animals, gardens and nature, then take a stroll out back where a falconry display will thrill you with delight. Here you will see some of the most magnificent birds of prey in the whole of Scotland including a Great Owl, Golden Eagle, and a variety of Falcons.
Whaligoe Steps the History of the Locals
When driving the NC500 north, there is a unique place called the Whaligoe steps. For those who love history of the locals, this is commonly where fishing boats would dock. Fish were cured here, and hauled up the steps.
The main sources of food for the locals in this part of Scotland in the 17th century was from barley, oats, beans, and peas. Some other foods such as kale and porridge were also eaten during this time period. When the Vikings came in the 8th century fishing became a major source of protein for locals. They needed their cows and sheep for milk, and wool – both essential to survival in the bitter winds of winter.
Ale, cheese, butter were considered to be niceties for gatherings and festivals. Meat, wines, and quality beers were saved for the occasional luxury or to impress clans, or visitors.
Sinclair Girnigoe Castle for the unique location of these ruins
Perched on the edge of a cliff. these castle ruins are far more unique than any other ruins I have visited. Sinclair Girnigoe Castle that was built with an internal dry moat for added protection, a private entrance from the sea if they were surrounded. This castle withstood several sieges until finally succumbing to British forces after the Battle for Culloden.
If you do visit, be sure to climb down to the secret shore that helps protect the castle even more. This area is filled with black rocks, a white sandy beach, and the bluest, cleanest waters I have seen.
John O’Groats (aka At World’s End)
Visiting John O’Groats stirred the Viking DNA within me, and made me want to jump in a boat and explore the vast ocean in the midst of the storm before me.
You can also visit several other islands from this location. There is a luxury hotel here called Natural Retreats, that is so Instagrammable I cannot believe it hasn’t been visited more often. There is a sign that you have to stand in front of, turn around twice and lay a kiss on it. It is good luck for your future travels, just like throwing a quarter over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain in Italy. This is to guarantee your return to Scotland, wishing for things at Land’s End. The Edge of the world.
The oncoming storm was absolutely stunning to witness here, with the roiling ocean beyond. I did not envy those who were boarding ships to visit the other Islands.
Be sure to read about the odd statue/art installment that represents how strong the ocean currents are in this area. Where the current is said to move boulders up to 500 lbs through this area.
Dunscasby Head Stacks for the hike
This hike can take up to 45 minutes to complete. It is not a difficult hike, and provides a quiet calming landscape next to beautiful ocean views. The Dunscansby Head Stacks are a few rock formations just off the coast of Northern Scottish Highlands that are a right of passage to hike to for all those that travel the NC500 coastline.
Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey for history
This was the property of Queen Mother Queen Elizabeth from 1952 to 1996 until she gifted it over to a Trust to take care of. Originally built by George, the 4th Earl of Caithness for his son William Sinclair. William was visiting his older brother John at Castle Girnigoe, where he had been imprisioned for quite some time and revealed to William he was planning an escape. William forbade it and planned to tell his father, so John ended up killing him.
The castle went to his third sone George Sinclair of Mey. The Castle became the seat of the Earls of Caithness for the next 100 years. The fifteenth earl died at age 30 without family or children of his own. Eventually the castle was sold to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1952.
RSPB Dunnet Head Coastline Views & Sea Birds
Here you will find a nature reserve, a lighthouse, puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes (birds that live in this protected area).
It is a grassland on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. In the spring you might see the sea birds courting, summer the chicks are born and the parents are frantically gathering food, and the fall the birds have migrated leaving a cool yet peaceful calm to those wishing to take in the remote and beautiful beauty of the Scottish Coastline.
Thurso for the Rural Scottish Feeling
This is the Northern most town of the United Kingdom. It was one of the most important Norse fishing ports, and still retains its charming rural Scottish feeling. Including Old St Peters Church that dates back to 1125.
With the powerful ocean swells coming into Thurso, it is known for it’s excellent surfing and ocean kayaking adventures. There are international surfing championship events regularly. There is also an annual raft race hosted by the North Coast Branch of Coastguard Association.
Durness for Smoo Cave
After doing some surfing in Thurso, head to Durness for a round of golf that could be challenging for you given the ocean winds. The Beaches here could rival those in the carribean because of the pristine blue (although cold) waters.
If you don’t like to have cold feet, then head to Cnocbreac where there are the remains of two parallel turf dykes of Neolithic origin. It amazes me when modern technology fails constantly, yet the engineering feats of those thousands of years before still stand today.
If you want a truly unique experience, head to Smoo Cave. This is by far the main attraction of the area. It is an ocean cave, used by the Norse, Viking and clear back to the Mesolithic era as a place of hiding. The site is protected and can only be entered (due to safety reasons) if guided. The cave is quite large, with a fresh water waterfall dropping into the cave at nearly 66 feet high (20 metres).
Plan to stay a few days at the SYHA Hostel, or the campgrounds situated above the beach. The Hostel is converted army barracks that are perfect for protection from wind and help keep in the warmth.
If you plan your trip carefully, you could also visit the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival, a celebration of music, poetry, theatre and other cultural activities. John Lennon and Yoko Ono would take their summer vacations here with their children.
Scourie for the Fish
Fishing here is quite popular due to all the fresh water lochs in this area. While the official population is only 132 people, there are several Bed and Breakfasts open throughout the year here. There are camping spots available here, but only during the spring/summer and fall.
If you stay in Scourie, be sure to pop on over to the Handa nature reserve for all my fellow bird watching enthusiasts. You will see more puffins, skuas, guillemots and razorbills that you could count.
Ullapool for the Unique Festivals
This is where the Northern Atlantic Drift passes, and creates warmer temperatures throughout the year. You also see palm trees, well techically they are New Zealand cabbage trees, but are often mistaken as palm trees.
It is oddly paired as a major herring port as well. So be sure to grab some pickled herring while you are there.
If you plan it right, you can also take part in the book festival. It is a unique cultural event, as there are writers throughout the world that come to this festival to share their writings in both English and Gaelic.
If reading isn’t your thing, then try October, when the Ullapool Guitar Festival takes place. There is also the Loopallu Festival that is a major regional annual event.
Dingwall for Dingwall Castle
This town holds a very old clan castle, dating back to the 12th century. It belonged to the Clan Mackay. It was once the largest castle north of Stirling Castle, but only the Dovecote remains.
While it is a quaint town, with little to see in the way of ancient history. It is your last stop before heading back to Inverness or down to the Isle of Skye. So be sure to grab something warm to drink, fill up the car with gas (or petrol) and go home with memories to last a lifetime.
As Always….Happy Travels….Happy Tales… See YOU on the Flip Side.
Be sure to find a rental car that you are familiar with as the roads winding and long. If you are used to driving a manual transmission, there are very few manual transmissions in the U.K. to rent, so rent your car early. Automatic transmissions are plentiful to rent, so you can wait for a good deal or sale to rent one.
It is also a good idea to ask for a GPS for the car for back up should you not have cellphone service. For the truly remote areas, use the GPS to get close, then Google Maps with GPS coordinates to find the exact location.
Taking a road trip in Scotland is still one of my favorite things I have done while traveling. One of the highlights on this road trip was racing from Portree on the Isle of Skye to Neist Point Lighthouse.
Driving to Neist Point from Portree takes around one hour to drive. The roads to Neist Point Lighthouse felt like I was on a rural race car track, or a Scottish Mario cart. Winding frantically through the Isle of Skye countryside, racing the sunset, honking for the tiny lambs frolicking to a fro across the road with green hills as far as you could see. There were no cautionary signs like the states, and you don’t dare try to blaze your own trail because large pockets of moss hide the pitfalls and potholes. I was so determined to see this place though, no one died, and I stayed within the respective speed limits (insert cough).
Choose Your Path
We reached the small parking lot, and there was a dilapidated looking shack with a wooden beam blocking any drivers from attempting to drive to the Neist Point Outlook.
From here you can either veer left to take the steep concrete path towards the lighthouse. Proceed with caution in a rainstorm as the stairs can get quite slick. Also remember the rule of hiking, where you hike down to, you must be able to hike up from.
Veering to the right after you pass the former toll booth is the path we decided to take, as it leads you to an outcropping with a perfect view of the sweeping cliffs near the lighthouse with all of the birds that nest on its stony pillars.
The Hike to the cliffs is easy, I completed it in flip flop sandals. I would, however, recommend that you wear something that covers your whole foot with a warm windbreaker. The cold ocean winds can penetrate into you, so it takes hours for you to warm up after waiting for the sun to set and the lighthouse to turn on.
More Than Just A Photo
Waiting for the sun to set, it was fascinating to watch the other people on the edge of these cliffs. There was a sense of community, kindness, professional photographers perfecting their evening shots. After running around all over the Scottish Highlands seeing the sights, it was nice to arrive here at nine o’clock at night. The sun slowly changes the landscape and cliffs from the Golden Hour to the brilliant reds, oranges, pinks. The birds on the cliff face, slow their flight and settle into their nests.
A hush falls over the crowd, and the lighthouse comes to life. The light beams out over the vast ocean, guiding the ships to harbor as it has traditionally done since the early 1900’s.
Unique Wildlife Near Neist Point
While I’m not a bird watching type, I am fascinated by birds in flight and there were plenty here to become entranced by. The cliffs near the lighthouse were teeming with sea-birds frolicking in the ocean winds blasting the coast. The most common sea birds in this area are gannets, black guillemots, razor bills and shags.
It isn’t just birds who find the frigid waters near this coastline pleasant. Whales , dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks are commonly seen migrating around this area, and are frequented by brave scuba divers.
Fishing around the Isle of Skye is how most of the people in this area supplement their income during the off season. Just in this area, there are fourteen different species of fish that can be caught in Moonen Bay.
Claim to Fame and Future Plans for Neist Point
Neist Point was used for a number of scenes in the movie Breaking The Waves in 1996, starring Emily Watson.
It was also featured in 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, filmed on the headland at Neist in October 2012.
In 2013 there was talk of opening a small souvenir shop near Neist point, it was approved, but because of the relaxed nature of the Scottish Highlands – the building process has not happened yet.
Situated on the cliffs of Caithness stood the main castles of the powerful Sinclair family for over 300 yrs. This 14th-century building was built upon by the Sinclair family for nearly 200 years. Then the wicked 5th Earl George Sinclair was constantly bickering with his neighbors the Clan Gun. This eventually led to an attack that lasted as a 12-day siege attempt until they finally withdrew. The Earl was forced to flee Sinclair Grinigoe Castle because of the mounting debts he had accumulated.
British Invasion of Sinclair Girnigoe Castle
In 1651 Oliver Cromwell (an English Lord) moved in with his men resulting in massive damage to the castle from all the skirmishes and squabbles between the English regiment and the local clans.
The English troops were run out of the castle, and the 6th Earl sold the castle to Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy. George Sinclair claimed the castle should have been passed to him, so he went in with a band of loyalist and removed all furniture, flooring, doors and the roof.
The Last Battle
The last battle over the castle right was at Altimarlach where the Campbells emerged triumphant. In 1681 the Sinclairs regained the Earldom after which the castle fell into disrepair. The battering of the waves and ocean wind took the castle down stone by stone. Parts of the castle have since fallen into the sea.
A Sinclair family charity has taken over on rebuilding the castle to it’s former glory which is ongoing and arduous. Located on the narrow peninsula of Sinclair Bay and the North Sea is the only castle in Scotland listed on the World Monuments Fund list as one of the 100 most endangered heritage sites in the world.
Sinclair Girnigoe Castle Structure Navigation
There is a stony passage that you walk into the main courtyard of the buildings. There was was a drawbridge over a once internal dry moat of the tower house. This tower house rises three stories from the bottom, you can find the remains of the tower house on the east side of the courtyard.
If you follow the remnants of the buildings to the edge of the cliff face, you will find a windows with a view of the sea beyond. There is also a stony staircase that descends to a secure area that was used to enter the castle, but yet protected from direct enemy fire (also called a sally point).
The stories of this castle say that the Sinclair portion of the castle, was built for the beautification, and the Girnigoe portion was built for the fortification and strength of the castle. The Girnigoe portion is considered the Tower House, the West gate and the chimney stack are considered the Sinclair portion. While some historians dispute that there was ever two different castles built, it has been called Castle Sinclair Girnigoe for the last 300 years despite a parliamentary declaration it should just be called Castle Sinclair.
The main buildings that you see today are under preservation and reconstruction, but the original tower was built around the 15th-century. Be sure to take a photo of the plaque that deems this so, and what historians base the dating of the castle off of.
The rocks themselves are built from red sand stone rock and Cathiness slate, giving it a beautiful complimentary coloring to the green grasses surrounding it.
The most unique part of this castle is that it is the only castle in Scotland that is listed on the World Monuments Fund. This deems this castle as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World.
The Rocky Cove
The Sea inlet Goe, is a Norse word meaning a rocky inlet. When you approach the castle, it is not immediately visible, but creates a natural barricade to entering the castle.
Walking near the inlet is not safe, so please don’t attempt it as it is a far drop onto the rocky ground below. Looking down into the inlet, you see that it is covered in perfectly rounded black rocks with a beautifully contrasting white beach at the bottom. I imagined it was the perfect area for docking rowboats from the storms that frequent this area of Scotland.
Where is Sinclair Girnigoe Castle Located?
The castle is separated from the mainland by an arm of the sea known as goe, a norse word meaning cave. There is a dry moat on one side which allows for a drawbridge, and added protection for the castle from mainland attacks.
Sinclair Girnigoe Castle GPS coordinates, 58°28’33.0″N 3°03’29.0″W, were extremely helpful when making our way there. If you have AT&T you won’t get great service in this corner of the world, but those with T-mobile do get better service so using google maps is an option. Another option is to download the google map onto your phone for this area, to be able to use it offline.
This is surely not a castle to be missed while traveling the NC500. I know that visiting every castle in the UK can be not only daunting, but by the end tiresome. This is one that is quite unique due to being on the edge of the northern most point of the UK and it is easy to imagine how life would have been in the castle. So when you visit Scotland be sure to slip this castle into your itinerary.
How to Get to Sinclair Girnigoe Castle
Take the road north of Wick headed towards Noss Head. Park at the large parking area before the Noss Head Lighthouse and follow the sign post to the castle along the path.
It is about a 15-20 minute walk along a gated road to the castle itself. The castle ruins seem safe and stable as long as you do not cross the safety ropes, lines, or gates.
There are some signs at the castle itself with historical information. There no signs that point to the castle. So utilizing the GPS coordinates above is a great way to navigate there.