StAnza must be a contender for Scotland's most chilled out festival. The main hub and gathering place is The Byre Theatre where performers, organisers and audience members can be found mingling casually over coffee or a glass of wine.
As someone attending the festival alone and for the first time I didn't feel in the least bit intimidated, in fact I immediately felt welcome and at home. Between performances and over dinner I got chatting to people from an interesting variety of backgrounds and they all somehow felt like long lost friends. Having returned from the festival a few days ago, the feeling of homeliness and friendliness is still my overriding impression of StAnza and my weekend in St Andrews.
It is easy to have pre-conceived ideas about what a poetry festival might consist of or dismiss it as too arty or boring, certainly when I told people what I was going to be doing over the weekend not one of them said 'Wow, that sounds awesome!' (maybe I need to get more cultured friends). As it turns out a poetry festival is a mixture of music, comedy and storytelling all rolled into one and much more accessible to the masses than you might first think.
My philosophy in life is to approach things with an open mind as the best experiences often come from the most unexpected places and it turns out StAnza is one of those places, as I loved the experience from start to finish and will certainly return for a future visit.
Aside from the genuine friendly, laid-back atmosphere, it was the poets and their performances that really made this event for me. I went to 5 very different shows and enjoyed every one of them for different reasons.
My introduction to the festival saw me casually chilling out with a pie and a pint at one of the excellent Poetry Cafe events, which are ideal for poetry festival newbies like me. Erin Fornoff, a spoken word poet, had me quickly captivated with her emotional performance and stories of her life growing up in the Appalachian Mountains before a transition across the Atlantic to Dublin and an unfortunate casting couch experience.
By coincidence I ended up sharing my dinner table and conversation with Erin later that evening and it was this kind of informal, accessible atmosphere where everyone ate, drank and chatted together that made StAnza so memorable and unique for me.
I'm a big fan of walking tours, there is nothing better than a local guide pointing out the hidden gems and nooks and crannies of a place that are all too easy to miss if you don't know where to look. Good walking tours bring local history to life and leave you with some great stories to take home and share.
Having never been to Linlithgow as a 'tourist', I jumped at the opportunity to join a guided historic walking tour of this royal burgh with Mary's Meanders, who not only specialise in telling intriguing local tales about Linlithgow itself but are also experts on Outlander filming locations in the area.
Emma, the owner of Mary's Meanders, had invited a group of tourism specialists and travel bloggers to sample her walking tour and to showcase some of the great things that Linlithgow has to offer. It was fantastic to spend a day out with so many people passionate about Scottish tourism and of course some fab fellow bloggers!
Our knowledgeable guide for the hour was Anne who has lived in the town for 20 years. Her passion and enthusiasm for Linlithgow were obvious and her warm, down to earth personality made her the perfect group host.
As we navigated our way past characterful buildings, weathered plaques and significant statues we learned the stories behind them and some well known facts about the town such as it being the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, however I also learned plenty of new trivia, like why you are called a 'Black Bitch' if you are born in Linlithgow and which well known politician would be proud if you called them one!
Not surprisingly the tour ended up at Linlithgow Palace, which despite being a ruin, still commands impressively over the town. Anne provided an informative narrative history of this former royal retreat and as an Outlander fan I was delighted when she took us into the dark depths of the building to show us where scenes from the TV series were filmed when it was used as the interior of Wentworth Prison.
If you are an Outlander fan then you will be excited to know that Mary's Meanders will also be running Outlander tours and Taste of Outlander dinner shows this year.
This year I spent a rather romantic Valentine's night checking out Glasgow's latest winter festival, The Electric Gardens. From 23rd January to the 15th February the Botanic Gardens and the iconic Victorian Kibble Palace were transformed by a display of colourful lights and accompanying soundtrack.
It was a nice way to spend an alternative evening out in the trendy west-end of the city and I also think that the concept of the festival fits in perfectly with the gradual colourful night time transformation of Glasgow city centre over the past few years.
This was the first year of the event and I did think there was scope for improvement, however with the recent announcement that it will return next year I am already looking forward to bigger and better things.
One question I am asked over and over again is about the best way to see a lot of Scotland in a short space of time. I always recommend small group tours as they are economical, take you to the most popular tourist sites and the guides keep you informed and entertained as you sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Most people coming to Scotland want to visit the Highlands, even if they are on a city break. If you only have a day to spare then you are pretty restricted in where you can visit as transport in the Highlands is limited and being such a vast area means that unless you have a car seeing much of it in a day is impossible. This is where group tours come into their own as you can explore large parts of the country in hours rather than days.
Rabbie's is one of the most popular small group tour operators in Scotland and I really enjoyed taking a day tour with them last year to visit Stirling, Loch Lomond and Glengoyne whisky distillery. Deciding it was time to check out a different route, I opted for their longest day tour which takes you all the way from Glasgow to Loch Ness and back in 12 hours. This is the ultimate day tour if you want to go Nessie hunting or admire many of the mountain peaks and lochs of Scotland.
An early start in Glasgow and I was joined by a full bus of fellow tourists from countries as diverse as Brazil, China, India and the Netherlands. There were also a few tourists from closer to home including a couple of fellow Glaswegians. As we left the city behind and headed along the open road past Loch Lomond, I enjoyed watching the faces of my fellow passengers light up as they got their first glimpse of the mountain and loch scenery that Scotland is famous for. With the fitting soundtrack of Runrig and Loch Lomond being played as we rolled along, our driver/guide Tony regaled us with tales of Jacobites, Sir Walter Scott and some trivia about the many islands that are dotted around the loch itself.
Several suitably picturesque photo stops later and we were entering into the impressive landscape of Glencoe. This is the reason many people choose to take this particular trip and phones, cameras and tablets were being well utilised to capture the famous panorama. There was also much excitement among the group when we were able to get out of the bus and up close to a herd of red deer thanks to our knowledgeable driver.
With the weather haunting and gloomy we learned the history behind the notorious Glencoe massacre which had taken place that very same day in 1692 making our visit there all the more poignant.
I am not a poet, I don't read huge amounts of poetry and I'm not up to date with the latest poets in vogue. Neither do I dislike poetry, there is plenty of poetry that I enjoy and I don't even mind admitting that I admire Eminem as a lyrical genius.
So what does a poetry festival have to offer the likes of me and the plenty of you out there that fall into my camp? Does a poetry festival have something to offer everyone? Well in a fortnight's time I will be finding out as I head to StAnza as their blogger in residence.
StAnza is Scotland's International Poetry Festival, which this year will be celebrating it's 18th anniversary in St Andrews. In my experience the great thing about any festival is there is always something for everyone and as their blogger in residence I will be attending a wide variety of events and reporting back with my
recommendations to help you plan your own visit depending on your interests.
I will be also be exploring other things to do in St Andrews for those wanting to combine a stay in the area with some festival shows.
StAnza runs from 4th to the 8th of March 2015 and you can find out about the many events and shows by looking up their online program. You can also follow social media updates (including my own) by searching on #StAnza15.
Have you been to StAnza or are you planning to go? As always I would love to hear your tips and advice and of course the best places to visit in St Andrews,
This year I am delighted to be teaming up with the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA) and joining in on their campaign to encourage people to go on a #SYHAdventure. In 2015 they are inspiring people to try something new or to visit places in Scotland they have never been before, each month they will also have a theme to give people ideas for activities, places to see and key events based around a stay at one of their hostels.
The theme for March is walking and I chose to head to their Glen Nevis hostel which provides a multitude of walking options for all abilities and is conveniently situated at the foot of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, for those wanting a more challenging experience.
I opted to follow two very contrasting walks, the first taking me through the start of The Great Glen Way and the urban environment of Fort William and the second journeying into the heart of the imposing natural surroundings of Glen Nevis itself.
DAY 1 - The Great Glen Way, Fort William to Banavie (4.5 miles each way, easy walking)
When you visit an outdoor haven like Fort William, flanked by mountains and a loch, it would be all to easy to head for a hike in the wilderness and ignore the urban pathways that weave through the housing estates. In fact had it not been for The Great Glen Way signpost and thistle markers encouraging me along I would have been guilty of this myself.
The Great Glen Way was officially opened in 2002 and spans 79 miles between Fort William and Inverness, the stretch I did was ideal for an easy stroll and exploring the area around the town.
Instead of dismissing the route I decide to follow the first part of this long distance walk from it's humble beginnings at the remains of the fort the town was named after to the famous Neptune's staircase in Banavie, approx 4.5 miles or 9 miles return, although you can walk as far as you feel comfortable and will still be rewarded.
After approx 1.5 miles I reached Old Inverlochy Castle, with just a slight detour off the route I arrived at the ruined remains of this former 13th Century stronghold. Abandoned in 1654 this was previously one of the most important castles in Scottish history and makes an interesting stopping off point. Retracing my steps and crossing the wooden Soldier's Bridge, the path soon leads you onward alongside the shore of Loch Linnhe with a picturesque Highland landscape opening up all around.
I was fascinated by the looming, hulk of a decaying old fishing boat standing upright in the rocky beach ahead. Making my way down for a closer look at this sad vessel I felt dismayed that it appeared so unloved and I'm sure the rusty old parts strewn across the shingle were not doing the environment much good either.
As I was busy taking photos of the towering craft, the sunbeams appeared from behind the clouds and lit up the rusty red timbers, giving the old lady a momentarily new lease of life.
Continuing the short walk to Corpach and the Caledonian Canal, the route follows the canal towpath towards Neptune's Staircase, with it's 8 locks rising up like well engineered stepping stones. Several years ago I sailed down the length of the canal and as I passed the places I had moored for the night and the tricky locks I had negotiated I smiled at the memories of what I still consider my best ever Scottish holiday.
I decided that this was a good point to head back to Fort William and with Ben Nevis continually towering in the distance my bed for the night at the foot of the mountain was calling.
With historical sights, picturesque backdrop and the opportunity to admire the engineering triumph of the canal, I found this route provided both variety and an interesting introduction to the area.
I recently visited Dundee to find out what Scotland's fourth largest city has to offer. I was invited to stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton which sits in six acres of beautiful landscaped gardens a few miles outside the centre of Dundee.
The hotel is comprised of a mansion house built in 1870 with a large modern extension which provides a contrast of old and new. As you would expect from an established, quality brand like the Hilton, the decor is warm and comfortable and every little extra has been thought of, even a welcoming warm choc chip cookie on arrival, yum!
There is a lounge bar, restaurant, business facilities and a fitness area with a small pool, sauna and steam room. The restaurant has been awarded an AA Rosette and there is also a choice of food available in the lounge bar if you are looking for a more casual dining option.
I didn't eat dinner at the hotel as I was out and about, however the quality of food and hot and cold choices at breakfast was excellent, only surpassed by the efficient and friendly service.
There is free WiFi throughout the hotel which thankfully worked well and plenty of free parking available.
I stayed in a deluxe room which had added extras including a refrigerator, air conditioning, sofa bed, super king bed, separate bathtub and shower and of course a fluffy bathrobe and slippers for extra pampering! I also enjoyed a nice open view from my window as you can see below.
If you are planning a Scottish city break, you are no doubt weighing up the history of Edinburgh against the culture of Glasgow. I'm sure that most of you haven't even figured Scotland's fourth largest city into the equation...yet!
'One City, Many Discoveries' is the current marketing slogan for Dundee and there are certainly many great discoveries to be found, they are just less in your face than other places. Thanks to huge investment in redevelopment and tourism, Dundee is very soon going to be discovered by the masses and that is just one of many reasons why you should visit now, in case you need any persuasion here are a few more!
1. Visit before the tourists arrive
There is nothing that makes me feel more satisfied than visiting a destination before it becomes the next big thing. Before the shiny buildings, boutique hotels and tourist prices, when there is still some decay and the layers of heritage can be viewed on the streets without the need to visit a museum. If you want to get away from the tourists and be among the first to 'discover' Dundee then now is the time to visit.
The UK's first UNESCO City of Design and the home of jute, jam, journalism and Grand Theft Auto is currently in a state of transformation, the rubble of demolished buildings along the waterfront is the first sign that big changes are on the way. The £1 Billion redevelopment will include the V&A Museum Of Design as it's jewel in the crown and will put the city firmly on the Scottish tourist map.
2. Enjoy uninterrupted views of the city
Head up 572 ft to the peak of The Law, an extinct volcano formed around 400 million years ago and take in the uninterrupted 360 degree vista of the city and beyond. You can walk, run or cycle to the top if you're feeling active or just cheat and drive up to the viewpoint car park!
Whatever way you get there the effort (or non effort) is worth it for the views. I found it a great starting point to get my bearings across the surrounding landscape.
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