Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Super Heroes and Villains at the Waterfront

On June 25th, I had a date with a bunch of super heroes and villains down by the Old Town Alexandria waterfront; it was DC Cosplay Photo Shoots meet up.  The theme was super heroes and villains and there was a nice assortment of heroes from the Marvel and DC universes as well as some Sailor Moon characters, and a Power Ranger. 

This shoot started at 7:00 AM to beat the heat of the day and have an area mostly devoid of people, since this was outside in a public location.  You could tell as it got later in the morning, especially when the meet up ended around 10:00AM, there were significantly more people, mostly heading out to go to brunch or walk the old town area.  For this shoot, I used my Canon 70D, my trusty 18 -200mm lens, a 430 EX –IIIRT speed light, radio trigger,  and a light stand.   I did have an umbrella with me, but because of the intensity of the sun, I shot without the umbrella so I would not have to push my flash as hard. Plus, with this being a super hero and villain shoot, the harder light worked.   I took a little over 300 photos and posted 180 fully edited shots.  For all the shots, I was at an ISO of 200 using an aperture of either F6.3 or F8 with 80 percent of the photos taken at focal length of 18mm.  The shutter speeds varied widely from 1/125s to 1/1600s with the about 56 percent of the photos taken at 1/250s or 1/500s depending on the lighting conditions.  I did my basic edits to the photos, but did extra editing mostly to bring out the blueness of the sky.  I forgot my circular polarizer, which would have helped significantly in several cases.  Overall, I am happy with the pictures from the shoot.  You can see all the edited photos from the shoot by following this link: Heroes and Villains.  Below, I will discuss four of my favorite photos from the shoot.

Focal length 18mm, Aperture F8, Shutter 1/400s
This first image is of Lena Volkova as Loki.  I liked her casual relaxed pose and edited the photo to give it an old street photo vibe.  To do that I started with my basic edits to adjust exposure, contrast, and luminosity to smooth out the image.  I then added a preset called faded slide film, which fades out the image and adds some split toning using yellow and purple tones; it also adds a very thick vignette and heavy grain. After applying the preset, I removed the thick vignetting, reduced the amount of added grain, and re-adjusted the sharpness and luminosity of the photo to get the desired results. 

Focal length 18mm, Aperture F8, Shutter 1/250s

This second image is of Sean Price as Crossbones from the Marvel Universe. I took this picture using two flashes. The first was in front and to the right of the model, while the second flash was on the ground pointing about 80 degrees up hidden behind the model’s right foot.  This is how I created the light behind the model. After I did basic edits to the photo, I applied a preset called Dirty Action Sunny, which seems appropriate for a villain.  This preset pulls out the blue in the sky and increases clarity.  I then tweaked the setting so it would not appear over processed by adjusting the exposure as well as the blacks and whites slightly.  I then applied a strong vignette to the image to draw the eye more to model and give the image an overall darker feel.

focal length 18mm, Aperture F6.3, Shutter 1/500
This image is of Patrick Benson as Gambit from the X-Men. He is actually one of the best Gambits with which I have had the pleasure of working. I took this picture in the gazebo to use it arches to frame the model. To get movement in the coat I had him pivot, as if he was swinging his staff in a fight.  I used only one flash that was placed to his left to remove shadows from the sun coming from his right. After I did basic edits to the photo, I adjusted the luminance of the blues to bring out the sky. I also increased the clarity to make him more defined. I then added a slight vignette to the photo to achieve the desired results.  

Focal length 20mm, Aperture F6.3, Shutter 1/200s

This last photo is of Life of Cosplay as Rogue from X-Men.  I love working with Life of Cosplay, because she is fun and I can get some great action shots with her. However, I took a slightly different route for this photo, since I could actually get height by using the stairs.  I like this photo because it is a relax but semi-sexy pose I could easily see in a magazine.  I did basic edit to the photo, removed a bunch of distracting cigarette butts, and then applied a preset called dark pop to give the photo a darker feel to align with the back ally location it was shot in.   I then adjusted the contrast slightly from the preset as well as the clipping for the blacks and whites.  Finally, I added some vignetting to darken the corners. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hamilton in the Park

I recently had the pleasure of working with J-Doll Cosplay and Nightengale Cosplay on a Hamilton inspired photo shoot.  They had period specific outfits so we needed a period specific location; however, there are very few if any revolutionary war forts still standing in northern Virginia.  My next best option was Fort Ward, which is a Civil War era fort, located in Alexandria, VA.  The fort still has the earthen work structures and replica cannons thus worked well for this shoot.
For this shoot I used my standard set up of Canon 70D, 18-200mm lens, two 430EX-IIIRT speed lights (one acted as a trigger), and one light stand. I did not use an umbrella since I had to compete with the sun, even though it was a cloudy overcast day.  I also had my trusty assistant, i.e. my husband, who helped with getting the light into position and spraying the instant atmosphere for the smoke effect in some of the photos.  

To get this shot, I had the cosplayers stand in front of the cannon emplacements, with my assistant holding the light slightly to side and above them, while I was on walkway below shooting up at them.  The photo was shot at ISO 200, a focal length of 187mm, a shutter speed of 1/200s, and an aperture of F5.6.  I edited the photo by cropping to get rid of some excess sky ad grass, and then adjusted the basics elements such as contrast, exposure, sharpness, and luminosity.  After I had those elements adjusted, I converted the photo to black and white with a sepia duo tone, and then added a bit of grain to the photo to give it an aged look.

 This next photo I was up at the cannon emplacements, shooting down at the cosplayers as they charged the bridge.  To add more light to the scene my assistant took the light down to the bridge and placed it in front of them slightly off camera, to give them a bit of pop and separate them from the background. I really appreciate radio triggers.  The photo was shot at ISO 200, a focal length of 70mm, a shutter speed of 1/100s, and an aperture of F5.  I edited the photo by cropping utilizing the rule of thirds, and then adjusted the basics elements such as contrast, exposure, sharpness, and luminosity.  I also added a bit of vignetting to bring the focus towards the cosplayers.

 This final photo is one of my favorites and used the instant atmosphere to create the smoke so I did not have to add it in post-production. To get this shot, I had the cosplayers stand in front of the cannon emplacements, with the light slightly to side and in front of them, while I was on walkway below shooting up at them. My assistant was actually below the cannon hidden by the grass wall spraying the instant atmosphere up around the cannon opening. This is what give it the cannon the just fired look.  The photo was shot at ISO 200, a focal length of 200mm, a shutter speed of 1/160s, and an aperture of F5.6.  I edited the photo by cropping to get rid of some excess sky ad grass, and then adjusted the basics elements such as contrast, exposure, sharpness, and luminosity. I also added a bit of vignetting to bring the focus towards the cosplayers.

While these are only a few of my favorite shots from this shoot, several of the photos came out very well and captured the theme.  You can see the complete set here.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Scotland Wrap-Up

Photo Stop Map
I have been back from Scotland for two weeks now and have finally finished editing all my photos from the trip.  (You can see all the photos here.) Overall, I took 1,748 photos spread across our two week trip, which included 35 photo stops spread amongst the seven towns we stayed in. (see map). Of those 1,748 photos, I edited 736 photos, which is approximately 42 percent.  Now that number could be slightly higher if I did not take/delete duplicates and if I did not take photos to stich into a panorama photo.  Of the 736 photos, I edited my ISO ranged between 100 – 800 ISO with 40 percent taken at 200 ISO.  My aperture varied between F3.5 and F20 with 36 percent of the photos taken at F9.  My shutter speed varied between 1/6 seconds and 1/2000 at the extremes with 12 percent of the photos taken at 1/320 seconds.  However, my shutter speed stayed mostly between 1/100 seconds to 1/800 seconds. Finally, my focal length varied between 18mm and 200mm with 51 percent of the photos taken at 18mm.

Overall, the trip was good, but there were a few things I would change, if I were to do it again.  I would not do Edinburgh again, I feel as though I have covered it.  I think I would just fly into Glasgow and focus on the west coast and the islands of Scotland.  Personally, I wanted to get rocky coast photos with crashing waves.  I would also spend possibly another day in Orkney so I could go over to some of the other islands.  While Skye is nice, it is definitely reach peak tourist capacity, so I would rather head out to the Hebrides, which are a bit wilder and have significantly fewer tourists.  Finally, the major thing I would change is the time of year; I either need to go in early April or late September or October.  The change in date is because in May sunrise is at 4:30 AM and sunset is at 10:30 PM, which do not fit my normal sleep patterns.  While the long days are great to get things done, midday sun does not usually lend itself to interesting skies for landscape photos. 

Below are a few of my favorite photos:
Old Man of Storre on Skye

Standing Stones of Stennis on Orkney

Castle in a loch on way to Skye

I edited a few shots in black in white to get that moody feel. 

Castle ruins in a lock on way to Skye

Old Man of Storre on Skye

Friday, June 2, 2017

Last Day Full Day

We left the B&B around 9:00 AM to make the hour and half drive to Edinburgh to check into our last hotel before our flight home tomorrow.  Since the drive was only an hour and half, we were able to stop at Stirling Castle and the Kelpie sculpture.  

The Kelpies (cell phone)
Stirling Castle was nice. It was fairly large castle and definitely less crowded than Edinburgh castle. I liked the wood carvings they had and the grounds were nice.  We did not stay for the noon gun firing (large artillery), which was kicking off a D-Day memorial.  From there we headed to one of the things I really wanted to see, the Kelpie sculpture.  The sculpture is of two horse heads coming out of the water.   The horse heads are several stories tall and made of formed silvered metal around an interior scaffolding.  It was easily visible from the M9.  I thought it was an impressive sculpture.  

From there it was on the hotel to drop off our bags, then over to the rental car place to drop off the car. This is the first time I’m glad I paid for the extra insurance on the car, since we did slightly nick the paint backing into a fence on the second day of driving it.  Once, we got back from the rental place we walked over to the TKMaxx (equivalent to TJMaxx) to pick up an extra piece of luggage.  I packed one extra bag with me but we ended up by a few bulky items like a wool blanket from the wool mill co-op and needed an extra carry on size bag to check.  Thankfully British Airways lets you check two bags per person for free.

While the trip was nice, I’m ready to go home tomorrow. I’m ready to sleep in my own bed and see my doggy.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Another Rainy Drive with Edited Photos

Sheep at Standing Stones of Stennis
Today started out rainy and continued to be rainy the rest of the day.  We got a late start out of the last B&B because breakfast wasn’t served till 8:30 AM.  It was the same basic breakfast we have had at all but two B&Bs, I’m getting really tired of the options of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, toast, and porridge.  I would like some variety, like waffles or pancakes, even though I’m not a big fan of pancakes.  But the trip is almost over, so when I get home I’m having toaster strudel for breakfast.  

Originally the tour company wanted us to drive directly from Skye to Edinburgh which is about a six hour drive, we decided against this because the next day we would be spending eight hours on a plane.  So the drive was split up by adding a stop in Trossachs at a B&B along Loch Earn, which was only a 4 hour drive from where we were staying on Skye.  Since it was raining the whole drive there were no major photo stops along the route or in Glencoe because all you  would get is misty fog photos where you end up playing the game is that a hill, rock, or sheep.  However, we did make a few minor photo stops along the route at the Castle Maol overlook, the Loch Garry overlook, and the Well of Seven Heads. We also stopped at a restaurant and had pizza for lunch.  We made it to the hotel around 3:45 PM.

After checking into the hotel Jim, Bill, and Cristina went for a hike behind the hotel. I opted out of the hike because it was still raining. Instead, I used the time to review my photos from the trip and edited a few that caught my eye.   

Cliff Face on Orkney
Fairy Pools on Skye

Standing Stones of Stennis

Ardvreck Castle

Old Man of Storr

View from Old Man of Storr Trail

Tomorrow we will continue our drive to Edinburgh where we will pick up an extra piece of luggage, and drop off the car.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Up Early to End Early

Today we got a packed breakfast to go from the B&B so we could be out the door by 7:00 AM headed towards the “Fairy Pools.” The B&B does breakfast at 8:30 AM to 9:30 AM which would have been too late for us to get to the Fairy Pools and manage to get a parking spot.  Thus we asked the hotel to pack a to-go breakfast, I was surprised it didn’t come with a thermos of hot tea, instead we got juice boxes. The breakfast also included for each person a ham sandwich, a smoked salmon sandwich, yogurt, a piece of fruit, and candy.  It was a decent to-go breakfast.

Near End of  Fairy Pool Path (cell phone)

On to the fairy pools; we got to the fairy pools around 7:30 AM and hiked to and from the pools before eating our packed breakfast.  The hike is a out and back trail along a mountain highland stream that has several small waterfalls and pools. Once you hit the end of the trail there is a sign that says this is the end of the fairy pool trail, beyond this point is dangerous back-country. I would say we took about two hours to walk the path to the end and back which includes stopping and taking photos along the way.  Honestly I was expecting something a little more spectacular based on everyone saying you have to see it, but is really just a long babbling brook coming down from the mountain.  Now it might have been better if the sky did not have heavy dark cloud cover causing the sunlight to be dispersed causing the day to appear dreary.  It was a good thing we arrived early, because by the time we got back from the hike the parking lot was full and people were waiting for parking spots.  We decided to pull out of the parking lot and go down the road to another parking pull off to eat our breakfast before continuing on to our next destination.

Near beginning of pool path (cell phone)
Along pool path (cell phone)
Entrance to Dunvegan Castle
Our next major stop was Dunvegan Castle, with a quick stop at the Talisker Distillery visitor  along the way. Dunvegan Castle was nice, however you could not take pictures inside.  They also provided seal tours because they have 300+ seals living in the loch that castle sits on. Sadly we did not go on a seal tour because they were all booked up.  From there we had lunch at an art gallery/cafe. The cafe had a lovely view of the loch and decent food.  From there it was up to Uig to see the “Fairy Glen.”

The Fair Glen is lush green hilly pasture land, whose mounds look like broughs that the fey used to live in.  The glen is also covered with grazing sheep.  That was basically the last planned thing, so we headed back to the B&B.  

Panoramic view of Fairy Glen from one of the mounds. (cell phone)

After spending a little bit at the B&B we walked down to Portree so I could get the traditional post card picture you see of the town. The whole town does not look like the postcard, it is just one row of buildings along the bay.  Sadly my picture did not turn out how I wanted since the light was coming from the wrong direction and not illuminating the buildings.  That basically ended the day.  We are eating at the hotel today because, we determined if you want to eat in town you need a reservation and we still cannot find the Chinese place.

Post card view of Portree (cell phone)
Tomorrow head to Trossachs National Forest.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Rainy Drive to Skye

Today we left Ullapool after a late breakfast, usually we have breakfast earlier than 8:00AM but that was when they started serving breakfast.  That meant I got to sleep in till 7:00AM.  After breakfast we loaded up the car for the three hour drive down to Portree in Skye making a couple photo stops along the way.

View of Castle Strome (Cell Phone)
We took the more direct route down to Skye, rather than the scenic route so the drive only took about 2 hours. Our first photo stop was along A890 at an overlook that had a view of Castle Strome over Loch Carron.  Our second photo stop was at Eilean Donan castle, where it was raining.  I was glad I had a raincoat and water resistant pants. That castle required tickets to go into but had a visitor center and gift shop that did not require tickets.  We took some photos from the outside and got some items at the gift shop.  I got a large bead charm made from heather (the flower).  From there we crossed over the bridge to Skye.  There are some lovely views from the ends of the bridge, but we did not stop due to the rain, just continued on our way to the hotel. After checking in, we got lunch.  In hindsight we should have gotten lunch before entering Portree because there are very few locations to park, the road through the center of town in horribly congested due to people parking wherever they want,  and the food selection is limited.  There are times I just wish there was a McDonald's around to grab something quick.

Eilean Donan castle (Cell Phone)
Kilt Rock and water fall (cell phone)
After managing to grab a late lunch we drove up east side of Skye to Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls.  Kilt Rock was not what I was expecting, I thought it would be a rock in the center of the water, it is only a cliff face.  The waterfall is hard to see from the viewing area because it is on the side of the cliff face and you almost need to hang over the protective railing to get a good view of the falls.  From there we traveled back down the road to Leat Falls.  When you pull off you don’t see the waterfall at first, what you see is a path out to the cliff edge.  If you walk the path it takes you to a viewing area where you can look at cliffs and a beach.  On the way back you see the falls because it nestled into bend in the cliff face you don’t see walking out.  It was a nice waterfall.  From there we traveled a bit further down the road to see the Old Man of Storr rock formation.  

The Old Man of Storr is a pointy rock separated from the cliff face.  There is an uphill path with several switchbacks that gets you fairly close to it, and if you want to get closer there is very steep muddy path, that you might need to be a mountain goat to use,  that leads you further up a large hill for closer views.  I stopped at the bottom of the muddy path; my husband, who I believe is part mountain goat, went up the steep muddy path.  The photography video we watched before the trip, stated it took about 30 minutes to go up the path to see the Old Man of Storr, I think he lied.  It took us 30 - 45 minutes just to get to the muddy path.  I do believe I got some good pictures of the Old Man of Storr even if the light was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds after the rain finished pushing through.  That basically ended our day.   

Tomorrow we should be heading out the fairy pools and some standing stones.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Scenic Route

View at stop along route (cell phone)
Today we left Thurso after a standard breakfast of eggs, bacon (more like ham), baked beans, toast, and tea to head down to Ullapool for the night.  The route takes three hours to drive without stops, we only made a three major stops and a did a few quick pull off for pictures.  The drive was very scenic, however much of it was on a one lane major road with passing pull offs,  not the type of place you want to stop.  

Our first major stop was Caisteal Bharraich (Castle Varrich) in the town of Tongue.  The hike up to the castle and back takes a little over an hour.  The trail crosses over a stream and then climbs up a large hill to the remains of the castle tower.  Once you reach the castle tower you can climb the metal spiral staircase erected in the tower center to get a 360 view of the valley below and surrounding mountains and the Kyle of Tongue.  

Caisteal Bharraich (cell phone)

The scenery was beautiful even if the sky was cloudy and thinking about threatening rain.  From there we traveled on to Durness where Smoo Cave and our lunch stop were located.  We might have stopped at the Smoo Cave but the visitor center and overflow parking was full.  Also, we weren’t sure how long that would take, since some estimates said it was going to be a couple hour hike while some said it was shorter. Plus you can only enter the cave at low tide.  Thus, the decision was made to skip Smoo Cave.  We also contemplated taking the long way to Ullapool using a “B” road to see the Old Man of Stoer rock formation, however that was also one lane with several 14% or more grades.  But just decided to skip that with four passengers and luggage in the car.  Thus, we just continued on the main “A” road that eventually turned into a two lane road.

As we continued down the scenic mountain route to Ullapool we stopped at Ardvreck Castle which had three parking areas.  One gave you a nice view of the castle sitting in the loch, one at nearby Ardvreck House, and the other was parking so you could walk across the road and up the castle ruins.  There was a bonus with parking in the second parking area, a two-level waterfall.   The waterfall was not very high but had a strong flow of water over the levels.  The castle was across the road from the waterfall and parking. It was quick 5 minute walk to the castle ruins, which consisted of the remains of the tower and some lower level possibly dungeon.   There were sheep droppings everywhere but no sheep. I think a few sheep bouncing around would have made an interesting picture.  From there we continued down to Ullapool.

Ardvreck Castle (cell phone)

Today was the first day we checked into a hotel before 6:00PM, we got to the hotel a little after 3:00 PM.  This allowed us time to go over to the grocery store to pick up some water, walk around a little bit before the rain, and just relax before dinner.  Tomorrow, we will be getting a late start down to Portree in Skye, since breakfast doesn’t start till 8:00AM. So I get to sleep in a little bit.  I am looking forward to Skye.

Killing Time

Jim on hill near a loch, he is the orange dot. (cell phone)

Today started with the same unexciting buffet breakfast, then packing up to leave Orkney.  The weather this morning decided it was going to be traditional Scottish weather (cloudy, dreary, windy and rainy) this morning so I needed my raincoat and glove liners. Our original goal was to go see the Mayshow chambered cairn, but it by tour only and the only tours available were the 12:00, 15:00 and 16:00 which would not work out with the ferry schedule.  So we drove around Orkney to the Orphir Circle Church ruin, which was smaller than I expected.  It was quarter of a domed structure.  From there we headed to the Tomb of the Eagles which is has a bronze age and mesolithic site at the southern tip of the main Orkney Island.  Once you arrive at the parking area for the site you walk along a mile loop trail along the cliff edge.  The bronze age site was first, it was small compared to the other we have seen. They speculated that the site was used for making hot water.  The second site was the mesolithic tomb where they found several artifacts and eagle talons.  To get into the tomb you had to pull your self in using a creeper and rope system. So you would lay down on the creeper and pull yourself in with the rope then stand up in the tomb pushing the creeper out to the next person to use.  You reversed the process exit the tomb.  After that it was off to lunch.

We had lunch at a cafe located about a quarter mile up the road from the tomb site.  The cafe was situated on the cliff edge overlooking the Pentland Firth.  It was also the location of the Tomb of the Otters, which we did not see.  From there we traveled back into Kirkwall so Bill and Jim could stop at the Scapa distillery.  Apparently, Scapa Scotch cannot be found in the US.  From there it was over the St. Margaret's Hope ferry terminal to wait for our ferry to take us back to mainland Scotland.

The ferry crossing was unexciting. We did not see any sea life, except birds. Our B&B is nice, with very large rooms.  Tomorrow we head along the coast to Ullapool.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Standing Stones

Stones of Stenness with sheep (cell phone)
Today started with a subpar breakfast buffet at the hotel. We tried finish breakfast quickly, because there was a tour bus group at the hotel, that we were pretty sure intended to go to all the same places to which we wanted to go.  Our first stop was the Stones of Stenness, which are three large standing stones with two pointer stones that align with the sun during the solstice.  There were four sheep hanging out by the stones, that really didn’t care if people were wandering around, and because of that you had to be aware of sheep poop. From there we walked at short distance up the path the remains of a neolithic settlement and over to the Watch Stone. From there we got back into the car and drove up the road a short way to the Ring of Brodgar, which is a large circle of standing stones.  Part of the circle was blocked off for archaeological excavation which ruined the ambiance of some of the pictures.  I originally had an idea to go out and photograph both sets of stones at sunset/sunrise, however that plan got the kibosh since the sun comes up round 3:00 AM in Orkney, and doesn’t go down till 10:30 PM.  Our days are so long as it is, and I get so little sleep on these trips getting up at 2:00AM or staying up till midnight just was not going to happen. So there will not be any sunrise/sunset pictures.

The Ring of Brodgar (cell phone)

From the standing stones we went to Skara Brae and Skaill House.  Skara Brae is a prehistoric village which has been partially excavated.  The homes were extremely small and very interconnected.  Skaill House is manor home of a Scottish Lord.  I was very surprised they allowed you to take pictures inside, since all the previous manors/castles did not allow photography inside.  From there we went to Yesnaby to see a rock with a hole in it.  

Castle Rock at Yesnaby (cell phone)
Yesnaby is a lookout point at the edge of the island with a 4 mile walking path that leads to Castle Rock.  The rock is interesting because it is large free standing column with a hole at its base.  Do I think it is worth the walk, possibly but not something I necessarily have to do again.  However, I do believe I got some nice pictures of the cliff faces that we were walking along. We had lunch at Yesnaby in the car overlooking the North Sea, then traveled all the way to the other side of the island to go to the Italian Chapel and the Orkney Wine Company.

The Italian Chapel was built during World War II by Italian prisoners of war located on the island.  The chapel is all hand done and the painting inside is beautiful.  If  you walk in you would think it was lined with carved stone but upon closer inspection you can see it is just painted that way. Everything, was done by the prisoners, so they could have a place to worship.  

The Orkney Wine Company makes wine and liqueur from local fruits, berries, and flowers that grow on island. They had a wide selection of three actual wines and ten liqueurs. I tried a few of their liqueurs and ended up getting the berry port and the flower mead.  The port is nice with a full body, while the mead is strong but sweet.  After the winery it was back across the island to Brough of Birsay with a stop at Broch of Gurness.

Broach of Gurness (cell phone)

Broch of Gurness is an iron age settlement with a large circular meeting hall.  It was also one of the largest settlement iron age settlements in Scotland.  From there we went over to Brough of Birsay to take advantage of the low tide and walk to over to the island where the Brough of Birsay is located.  It was interesting to walk to an island.  Was it worth it, not really sure, but at least I can say I walked to island.  The Brough of Birsay was a Viking settlement, that includes one of the first churches built on Orkney.  From there it was time to head back to the hotel. Tomorrow we finish up on Orkney with a few more historic stops then catch the ferry back to mainland Scotland to continue the rest of our vacation.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Stones, Signs, Castle, and Ferry

Hill o'Many Stanes (cell phone)
Jim at John o'Groats (cell phone)
Today we left Archiestown to head up to the Orkney Islands located in the North Sea. The only limiter on this was we had to make it to the pier at Gill’s Bay by 6:00 to catch the ferry to cross to Orkney.   Since Jim did not have a good feel for time, even though GPS said it would take three hours, we made very few stops along the way.  I was able to convince him to stop at the Hill o’Many Stanes near Overton along the way to Gill’s Bay.  The Hill o’Many Stanes had 27 stones arranged in a fan pattern on a hill.  While probably not the most exciting thing to see, it was a bit interesting if you are into neolithic history.  From there we continued up to John o’Groats which is a town at the north east corner of mainland UK.  There is a pole with signs pointing to various cities such as New York, London and Edinburgh.  We ate lunch at little cafe in John o’Groats.

Since we still had plenty of time before the ferry, we traveled further down the road to the Castle Mey.  The Castle Mey was the residence of the Queen Mother while she was alive, it was the only house she owned. After she passed, it was willed to the people and opened up as a tourist and educational castle.  The castle was nice and had several family heirlooms and her personal belongings out on display. They also have a small animal center on site which has a variety of sheep, chickens, and geese. They also had a donkey and a bunny.  However,  what surprised me was they also were raising chipmunks. I don’t know why they were raising chipmunks, and the sign did not say.  From the castle we traveled down the road a bit and stopped at the beach.  

Castle Mey (cell phone)

It has been in the upper 70s the past couple days  thus perfect beach weather. We really were expecting upper 50’s not upper 70’s in Scotland.  Since it was so warm we went down and walked on the beach to the edge of the water, which happens to be the North Sea. We did not go wading in the North Sea. But there were other people sunbathing and wading in the water.  From the beach we headed towards the ferry dock so we could board the ferry and cross over to Orkney.  

The ferry crossing was smooth, we were the second car to be loaded thus were the second ones off when we arrived at St. Margret’s bay on Orkney.  The crossing took about an hour and passed a couple of the smaller islands including the island that had Churchill’s defenses for World War II on it. It was also windy on deck and a bit chilly, so I had some hot chocolate.  We ended up getting to the hotel around 8:15 PM.   Thus, it was kind of a long day. Tomorrow I’m looking forward to visiting several neolithic ruins, stone circles, and one winery.

PS. If you are wondering why these are all cell phone pictures, it is because I shoot RAW. Thus I would need to edit the photo from my camera before posting. Since we get back so late it is hard for me to do that. Thus cell phone pictures are easier.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Castles and Distilleries

Today we stayed within a 10 -15 mile range of our hotel in Archiestown visiting distilleries, castles, and a woolen mill.  We started the day by stopping at the Craigellachie bridge which has round turrets and was built in the late 1800s. From the bridge we continued on to the Macallan distillery. We got there just when it opened at 9:30 AM, but could not get a tour because they were booked.  So Bill decided to just do a tasting, however they couldn’t do tastings till 10 AM, so we spent time just hanging around the visitor center and gift shop.  After the tasting, we continued on to Ballindall castle.

Ballindall castle is more of a large country estate than a castle.  The lord of the estate still lives in the estate and is apparently friends with the Queen since there were several signed pictures from her and pictures of her visiting.  It is a well appointed home with two nice gardens and a very soft lawn.  Sadly,  you could not take pictures inside the home,  but you could take pictures outside. The interesting thing about the castle is they recently found a letter from George Washington to the one of the previous lords in the attic/tower. From there we went to the wool mill for lunch.

Ballindall Castle (cell phone photo)

The wool mill is a working mill and co-op. The shop at the mill sell hanks of wool yarn and finished wool products made by volunteers. They also have guided and self guide tours of the mill itself, which we did not go on.  We mostly stopped there so Cristina could get yarn and we could have lunch.  They run a very nice yet simple cafe.  The sandwiches were tasty, and the cola I got seemed spiced.  I think it is what a chai cola might taste like.  From there it was off to another distillery which was basically across the road.

Hairy Coo named Fluffy (Cell Phone Picture)
We stopped at Cardhu distillery, which is owned by Diageo, which also owns Johnnie Walker.  Cardhu is used in the blending of Johnnie Walker  As a side note Cardhu is single malt scotch.  Since, we arrived there about 20 minutes before the next tour we did their distillery tour.  I would say I have been on better distillery tours, but I did like the initial nosing the different scents found in the scotch bouquet.  The tour did include a tasting of seven of their scotches.  Neither Jim,  Cristina, nor I were impressed with any of the scotches. The only highlight was that distillery was near a farm and the hairy coo (cows) were out, so we could get pictures. We also found out they like digestive biscuits.

From there we went to go see the Inveravon Pictish Stones.  The stones weren’t what I was expecting. I thought they were going to be in a circle.  Instead, they were carved stones in a church entryway.  From there we headed to Balvenie Castle. Balvenie Castle is a castle ruin, that does self explore tours. I would say it is a small sized castle. We only took about 45 minutes to cover the whole thing.  From there we went to Glenfarclas Distillery.

Balvenie Castle (Cell Phone Picture)

Jim at Glenfarclas Distillery (Cell Phone Picture)
Glenfarclas distillery was the last distillery and place we stopped at today.  We did not do a tour of the distillery, but Jim and Bill did do a tasting. Jim and Bill tasted a 15 year, 21 year and 25 year scotches. While Cristina and I just wandered around the visitor center looking at 7,000+ pound sterling scotch. That ended our day out.  Tomorrow we head up to Thurso to catch the ferry to Orkney.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Last night we had a late dinner at the hotel.  The dinner was a two course meal, and we added a desert for each couple.  I had the prosciutto and melon plate to and Jim had the skenk soup to start. I had the sea bass and Jim had the venison steak for the main course, and we split a toffee topped cheesecake.  It was a very good dinner, and good way to end the day.  

Urquhart Castle (Cell Phone Picture)

Today started with a hearty breakfast at 8:00AM.  I had scrambled eggs with sausage and Jim had fried toast, a fried egg, sausage, and baked beans, and both breakfast were combined with toast and breakfast tea.  After Breakfast we headed out to find a grocery store to get bottled water, then headed out to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.  

On the way out to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle we stopped at Tomatin Distillery to pick up expressions we cannot get in the US.  Sadly, Jim could not taste anything because he was driving but he still picked up a few bottles.  Bill, did taste a few of the scotches, and ended up filling his own bottle directly from the casks in the tasting room and got to fill out a hand label for it.  After that we continued on to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.

Urquahart Castle is located along the shore in about the middle of Loch Ness.  It has been around since the 13th century.  The castle is now in ruins but still very explorable.  I was able to climb up several of the towers and look out over the loch.  After thoroughly exploring the castle we headed to the Loch Ness gift shop. Yes it is a tourist trap but I was looking for Nessie Christmas ornaments which they did not have.  From there we headed back towards the hotel and to get dinner.  Sadly there few places to eat in this area.  We stopped in Charlestown of Aberlour to eat, which has a total of three restaurants of which one is a take-out place.  So not a lot of options.  We ate at place just called restaurant, all the sign said, and was full of people on a bus tour.  The food was decent. That basically ended our day.

For tomorrow it looks like we will be going to several distilleries and a local castle which also has a distillery.

Super Heroes and Villains at the Waterfront

On June 25 th, I had a date with a bunch of super heroes and villains down by the Old Town Alexandria waterfront; it was DC Cosplay Photo ...