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Isle of Skye, Scotland

Travels in the country's storybook-perfect wild north.

Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye. Breakfast on the stillest water on earth. A sneeze would cause a tsunami.
Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye. Breakfast on the stillest water on earth. A sneeze would cause a tsunami.

I had been here before. A deep breath of ocean air, a taste of mist, and I was in some beautiful place from my dreams – on the edge of water so still, I forbade myself to blink should an eyelash fall and disturb the sheet of glass before me.

One of the many eerily still lochs of the West Highlands. Glasgow to Mallaig, one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.

After an unintended ten hours or so of travel by train and ferry, and a refusal to sleep due to the adrenaline cooked up by eternal childishness and lack of plans, I'd arrived in Neverland.

Hiking to the Old Man of Storr – a terrifying ancient rock with the wisdom and calm of, well, an old man. A really, really old man.

Meanwhile, I look like a hobbit in boots.

I just had to get through Hogwarts first.

For all of you adults out there, let me put this in different terms. My ten hours of travel led me to one of Britain’s great secret treasures: the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Before you cringe over the length of this journey: the train ride is only about four to five hours from Glasgow. I happened to have been based out of Dublin and took, perhaps, not the most logical path, resulting in a ten-hour “scenic route” through the Lake District.

Then again, how logical is a journey with no plans in the first place?

I could go on and on about the glorious madness of getting out of Dublin and the wonders of going through Wales and the Lake District, but I’ll just pick up from my landing in Glasgow.

I arrived at Glasgow Central Station with no accommodation and no plans. I eventually found the Charing Cross Guest House. I had to walk about a mile to it, but I had my own room, my own bathroom, WiFi, a television, and a full Scottish breakfast in the morning ¬ all for only £25.

The luxurious living would end there.

I walked down to Glasgow’s Queen Street Station (a block away from Glasgow Central) past the Royal Conservatoire and kilted windows in pea-soup fog.

I hopped the early (and deserted train) bound for Mallaig, the town at the northernmost point of the Western Highlands, for a meager £30 return. It only took about a half hour on the train for the terrain to begin to look unlike anything I’d ever imagined: great valleys and ancient, chilling, looming mountains swallowed by fog. It’s a slow, winding train ride, and the stillness of everything from the trees to the lochs (lakes) is certainly some sort of contrived, thought-provoking painting. Not reality.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct crossing. "I think we found the train" ~ Ron Weasley

And suddenly, I was on my way to Hogwarts. My acceptance letter simply came a decade late, I suppose. The latter end of the route from Fort Williams to Mallaig is the Hogwarts Express’ track in all the Harry Potter movies. The actual train is still in use, in fact. Had I gone when the weather was warmer, I would have taken it.

Regardless, this little train was doing its job beautifully. It passed over the Glenfinnan Viaduct where, among other scenes, Harry and Ron chase the train with their flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It also passes by the beautiful Loch Eilt, or Hogwarts Lake. This, of course, is where Hagrid skips stones that go on forever. My eyes may be bad with distance, but I’m sure there was also some beautiful creature flying with its wings brushing the loch’s still waters. A hippogriff, no doubt.

And then I saw it. Neverland.

Neverland: Portree, Isle of Skye. The pirates must have brought their ships in for the night.

The train came to a halt at the edge of the earth. Across the water was a different world. In February, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Armadale, the town on the southern tip of the Isle of Skye, only goes twice a day. I took the last one of the day across water so still it could have been a glass mirror. I managed to get to Portree, the capital on the north side of Skye. I stayed in the colorful and deserted Portree Independent Hostel and woke up to otherworldly beauty. From every window was a glimpse into an indescribable landscape. If a unicorn had run by me, I would not have been surprised.

I can imagine the Isle of Skye is an outdoorsman’s paradise, but I saw no activity necessary except to sit and observe. To go to MacKenzie’s Bakery in the square, get a bit of “Flies Cemetery” (a pastry with cinnamon, apples and sultanas), and to simply be.

I spent a couple of days there. I met some wonderful people, and then, unfortunately, I was to go back. I hitchhiked on a schoolbus back to Armadale to catch the ferry back to Mallaig. The children on the bus erupted in song: Adele’s “Skyfall.” Convenient.

Armadale. The rowboat that almost became my five-star hotel for a night.
After missing the ferry back, this French couple adopted me. We found an old couch cushion in a nearby rubbish bin and set up Chateau Skye under the stars.

I managed to miss the second and last ferry of the day. It was getting dark, and I went searching for lodging. Armadale was desolate and, as it was February, there was no accommodation available. I found a tethered rowboat with fishing nets that had been beached by the low tide. I figured I’d sleep in that.

That is, until a camping French couple found me and let me stay with them in their tent nearby. We made a fire on the beach of the still water, and as my French couple gazed into each other’s eyes, I gazed around me at the stars reflected in the sea. Where the Skye stopped and the sky began, I couldn’t tell.

I don’t think I ever left the Isle of Skye. There I remain until this day. Time stood still, and I’d like to think I’m there always.

This all does not sound very real, does it? That’s Neverland for you. Bring your kids (and some sweets), take the journey, and watch their storybook imaginations soar with the dramatic horizons outside the train window.

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Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye. Breakfast on the stillest water on earth. A sneeze would cause a tsunami.
Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye. Breakfast on the stillest water on earth. A sneeze would cause a tsunami.

I had been here before. A deep breath of ocean air, a taste of mist, and I was in some beautiful place from my dreams – on the edge of water so still, I forbade myself to blink should an eyelash fall and disturb the sheet of glass before me.

One of the many eerily still lochs of the West Highlands. Glasgow to Mallaig, one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.

After an unintended ten hours or so of travel by train and ferry, and a refusal to sleep due to the adrenaline cooked up by eternal childishness and lack of plans, I'd arrived in Neverland.

Hiking to the Old Man of Storr – a terrifying ancient rock with the wisdom and calm of, well, an old man. A really, really old man.

Meanwhile, I look like a hobbit in boots.

I just had to get through Hogwarts first.

For all of you adults out there, let me put this in different terms. My ten hours of travel led me to one of Britain’s great secret treasures: the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Before you cringe over the length of this journey: the train ride is only about four to five hours from Glasgow. I happened to have been based out of Dublin and took, perhaps, not the most logical path, resulting in a ten-hour “scenic route” through the Lake District.

Then again, how logical is a journey with no plans in the first place?

I could go on and on about the glorious madness of getting out of Dublin and the wonders of going through Wales and the Lake District, but I’ll just pick up from my landing in Glasgow.

I arrived at Glasgow Central Station with no accommodation and no plans. I eventually found the Charing Cross Guest House. I had to walk about a mile to it, but I had my own room, my own bathroom, WiFi, a television, and a full Scottish breakfast in the morning ¬ all for only £25.

The luxurious living would end there.

I walked down to Glasgow’s Queen Street Station (a block away from Glasgow Central) past the Royal Conservatoire and kilted windows in pea-soup fog.

I hopped the early (and deserted train) bound for Mallaig, the town at the northernmost point of the Western Highlands, for a meager £30 return. It only took about a half hour on the train for the terrain to begin to look unlike anything I’d ever imagined: great valleys and ancient, chilling, looming mountains swallowed by fog. It’s a slow, winding train ride, and the stillness of everything from the trees to the lochs (lakes) is certainly some sort of contrived, thought-provoking painting. Not reality.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct crossing. "I think we found the train" ~ Ron Weasley

And suddenly, I was on my way to Hogwarts. My acceptance letter simply came a decade late, I suppose. The latter end of the route from Fort Williams to Mallaig is the Hogwarts Express’ track in all the Harry Potter movies. The actual train is still in use, in fact. Had I gone when the weather was warmer, I would have taken it.

Regardless, this little train was doing its job beautifully. It passed over the Glenfinnan Viaduct where, among other scenes, Harry and Ron chase the train with their flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It also passes by the beautiful Loch Eilt, or Hogwarts Lake. This, of course, is where Hagrid skips stones that go on forever. My eyes may be bad with distance, but I’m sure there was also some beautiful creature flying with its wings brushing the loch’s still waters. A hippogriff, no doubt.

And then I saw it. Neverland.

Neverland: Portree, Isle of Skye. The pirates must have brought their ships in for the night.

The train came to a halt at the edge of the earth. Across the water was a different world. In February, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Armadale, the town on the southern tip of the Isle of Skye, only goes twice a day. I took the last one of the day across water so still it could have been a glass mirror. I managed to get to Portree, the capital on the north side of Skye. I stayed in the colorful and deserted Portree Independent Hostel and woke up to otherworldly beauty. From every window was a glimpse into an indescribable landscape. If a unicorn had run by me, I would not have been surprised.

I can imagine the Isle of Skye is an outdoorsman’s paradise, but I saw no activity necessary except to sit and observe. To go to MacKenzie’s Bakery in the square, get a bit of “Flies Cemetery” (a pastry with cinnamon, apples and sultanas), and to simply be.

I spent a couple of days there. I met some wonderful people, and then, unfortunately, I was to go back. I hitchhiked on a schoolbus back to Armadale to catch the ferry back to Mallaig. The children on the bus erupted in song: Adele’s “Skyfall.” Convenient.

Armadale. The rowboat that almost became my five-star hotel for a night.
After missing the ferry back, this French couple adopted me. We found an old couch cushion in a nearby rubbish bin and set up Chateau Skye under the stars.

I managed to miss the second and last ferry of the day. It was getting dark, and I went searching for lodging. Armadale was desolate and, as it was February, there was no accommodation available. I found a tethered rowboat with fishing nets that had been beached by the low tide. I figured I’d sleep in that.

That is, until a camping French couple found me and let me stay with them in their tent nearby. We made a fire on the beach of the still water, and as my French couple gazed into each other’s eyes, I gazed around me at the stars reflected in the sea. Where the Skye stopped and the sky began, I couldn’t tell.

I don’t think I ever left the Isle of Skye. There I remain until this day. Time stood still, and I’d like to think I’m there always.

This all does not sound very real, does it? That’s Neverland for you. Bring your kids (and some sweets), take the journey, and watch their storybook imaginations soar with the dramatic horizons outside the train window.

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