Our Third day in Scotland and a trip to Stirling Castle

Today, we would finally be venturing out of the city, to Stirling castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in 1542.

This morning we enjoyed a scenic drive out to Stirling, first stopping at the Devil’s Pulpit which, if you watch Outlander, you might be familiar with.  To visit the Devil’s Pulpit, you have to park a little way up the road and walk along the side of said (fairly busy) road.  Once you arrive, you will notice that it is located in a steep ravine.  I did not realize at the time that there are stairs leading down, so we just viewed it from above. It is probably for the best anyway, I am clumsy and it had been raining so I am sure the stairs were very slippery.   I am hoping that next time we visit Scotland, we can go back on a dry day and look for the stairs.

After the Devil’s Pulpit, we decided to stop for breakfast/early lunch before heading into Sterling, we stopped at a favorite of our friends, The Woodhouse.  I was able to enjoy more delicious Scottish salmon, this time on my favorite food, eggs benedict.  My husband tried the black pudding on his sandwich… I was never brave enough to try it. I also had my first taste of Scottish tablet, a super delicious confection made with condensed milk.  I would highly recommend The Woodhouse if you are in the Sterling area, they also have a great little shop with gifts and food.

The next stop was Stirling castle…. well sort of…. only after much driving around looking for parking.  Be prepared, if visiting Stirling castle in the summer, to be parking elsewhere in town.  We ended up having to park in a garage by the mall and take a tourist train up to the castle, Stirling was packed!  The castle was worth the trouble, being perched up atop a hill, it offers impressive views, it has beautiful gardens, it is also well preserved and offers detailed insight into life in the castle in the sixteenth century.

After touring the castle we walked back to the car, enjoying the lovely town of Stirling and doing a little shopping.  We also happened upon Lawson’s pub that surely must have belonged to a long lost relative of mine (I was born a Lawson) but sadly it was out of business.

When we arrived back to the suburbs of the city at our friend’s home, we were chatting and I happened to mention tracing my ancestry, I showed them the parts of my tree with Scottish ancestors, some of who were born in New Kilpatrick.  New Kilpatrick church just happened to be very nearby to their home!  We stopped at the church, located in the suburb of Bearsden, on our way back into the city.  What an amazing thing it is, to be able to visit the very place your distant ancestors walked.  Another unexpected surprise, was a visit to some Roman ruins nearby (Bearsden Roman baths) that were neatly tucked into a residential neighborhood.

(I should note to those that may be following along on my journey and that might be confused, that my friends in Glasgow are a couple who live in a home in the suburbs of Glasgow and their daughter and son in law who live in a flat in the West End) 

After returning to the city and our hotel, we ended the day with a walk over to Argyle street and dinner at Finneston’s where I had my first order of fish and chips and my husband had some really delicious Scottish mussels.  All in all a very busy and enjoyable day!

Advertisements

Glasgow, a day in the city center and west end.

My travel style is typically go, go, go and to see as much as I can squeeze in, my husband on the other hand prefers a more relaxed trip.  I am the travel fanatic and trip planner in this relationship and for this trip, I tried to strike more of a balance when planning.

This trip to Scotland was planned at two weeks and that is nowhere near enough time to see everything, especially with adding in some slower paced days.  I decided to take the approach that this would be just the first of many trips to Scotland, where we have friends and also access to a nonstop flight from our home airport, which takes the pain and hassle of connections out of the equation.

The area I chose to take at the most relaxed pace was Glasgow,  it is where our friends live and where the above mentioned nonstop flight arrives into, so it is a city we will definitely be returning to.  We also had the most days there, because not only were our first three days there,  we would spend an additional two nights in between our visit to Edinburgh and striking out into the Highlands. Our final night’s stay before returning home was also Glasgow.

So, with that said, our second day in Glasgow got off to a leisurely start.  We slept in a bit and had complimentary breakfast in the club lounge, that was a perk with our really comfortable suite at the Crowne Plaza.  Our friends then picked us up for a morning of shopping in the city center with us girls browsing Fraser’s and other department stores as well as popping in to check out the gorgeous city chambers.  The guys headed off on their own to hit some gaming shops.  After that we all met up for lunch at a funky, American themed chicken joint called the Absurd Bird, which had surprisingly good buffalo chicken.  I enjoyed my morning in the city center and it proved to be very pedestrian friendly with traffic mostly orderly and calm and with very few bicyclists to look out for.

We let the guys go back and relax at our friends’ flat in the west end and us ladies went to the Kelvingrove museum.  What a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, while it isn’t a museum as overwhelmingly large as the Met, they do have a nice mix of art and history to browse and it is definitely worth a visit.

The highlight of this day was it’s ending, it was having my first proper Scottish meal, when us girls went for dinner at Bothy.  I tried the cullen skink (a Scottish seafood chowder,)  beef cheek and ale pie and sticky toffee pudding.  The food was all served up by waiters in kilts, it was stereotypical Scotland but not in a touristy way, it was very upmarket and the food was top notch, it ended up ranking in my top 3 meals of the trip.   The meal was amazing, beginning to end and the night was not quite over yet…. we decided to do a very Glaswegian thing and stop into a pub on our walk back to the flat.  We had a drink and made a new friend (gotta love the friendliness of the Scots,) it was great ending to a relaxing day in Glasgow.

 

 

Glasgow, the first day of an epic two week visit to Scotland.

We have just returned from an amazing two week adventure in Scotland, I am going to approach this with blog posts that cover day by day, starting with our arrival into Glasgow early on Monday July 8th.

 

With the jet lag and general exhaustion from a long day/night of traveling, the first day is typically a wash for us when traveling internationally.  We did do a little better this trip, mainly due to having friends in Glasgow that we had not seen in a while and that we were eager to visit with.  Landing early in the morning and lucking up with our hotel, the Crowne Plaza having a room ready for us on arrival, meant that we could get freshened up and changed and still make lunch with our friends.  I found a great rate on a suite at the Crowne Plaza and can highly recommend it, very spacious and comfortable and access the the club lounge was great for breakfast and afternoon snacks.

 

Our friends live in the West End of Glasgow which is home to the University of Glasgow, the Kelvingrove museum and botanic gardens which are really great places to visit for a slower paced, relaxing day.

We started off with a walk through Kelvingrove park and lunch at the Ubiquitous Chip, which had loads of atmosphere, including a glass roof  (I saw a lot of these on this trip and loved them, it’s a shame Florida is too hot for them) and and an airy two story dining room.  I had my first taste of Scottish salmon with an open face sandwich that was so tasty, I also had my first order of chips, mmmmmmmmm……..

 

After lunch we visited the Botanic gardens of which the highlight is a 19th century greenhouse filled with beautiful tree ferns.

 

Our day pretty much wrapped up after this, well we did have some super amazing doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts and takeaway pizza, so the evening wasn’t a complete loss.   I wish I would have had the energy to visit the University but I am confident there will be future trips back to Scotland.

 

 

Why Amsterdam is a perfect pre-cruise destination

Whether you are cruising the seas of Northern Europe or the rivers, Amsterdam is a great starting point.  In addition to it’s convenient access to the north sea as well as Europe’s increasingly popular cruising rivers, it is home to one of the world’s busiest airports.  You can easily have a hassle free start to your trip.

It is a quick transfer or train ride into the city and when it is time to board your ship the harbor is very close to the main tourist areas of the city, if your luggage is manageable, I would even suggest it is walkable.  Just look out for bikes!  Bikes are at the top of the pecking order in Amsterdam and they do not slow down for pedestrians.

The city itself has a lot to offer and I would recommend arriving a few days prior to your cruise in order to enjoy it’s charms or to perhaps get out of the city to see the beautiful Dutch countryside… if you have more time, day trips to Belgium are even possible.

I recently traveled with a group of thirteen to Amsterdam prior to embarkation on an AmaWaterways Rhine river cruise.  We arranged some great private tours through Tours by Locals and our guide Frank was so great, everyone loved him.  We felt like he really enjoyed showing off his country.    In addition to Frank showing us his charming city, we also visited smaller towns close by to see more iconic Dutch scenery and culture.  We also enjoyed some great meals and a private sunset canal cruise on a gorgeous classic boat with wine and appetizers.  It’s not all coffee shops and the Red Light district, there is literally something for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melk, a small town with big charm.

Melk is a small town in the Wachau Valley of Austria, located on the Danube river. It is a popular stop with river cruises due to the Benedictine Abbey located there.   The population isn’t much over 5,000 people but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character.  The first thing you will notice once you leave the lovely forested banks of the Danube is the imposing Melk Abbey, perched above the town and dominating the landscape.  Your river cruise will bus you up to the abbey to begin with and from there you can have a leisurely stroll down to the old town which is small, neat and full of charm.  When it is time to head back to the ship, it is a short walk from the old town and  over a bridge with beautiful views of the Abbey,  from there a short scenic stroll back to the dock.

We visited Melk for the second time on our last river cruise, we opted to just spend our time in town because we had already visited the Abbey on the previous trip.  We were told not to expect much to do because it was a Sunday and a holiday, but sometimes we are okay with strolling empty streets just taking in the architecture and small details.  This turned out to be one of the nicest days of our trip, a leisurely day in a beautiful Austrian town doing a little shopping, sipping on the most amazing hot apricot punch and meeting some friendly locals.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a few of the local shops open, including a pottery shop whose artisan was busy making pieces and a shop carrying some of the local apricot liqueur.  Somewhere along the way we were greeted by a very friendly local kitty who really wanted us to stay and socialize with her a bit, I am a total cat person so we obliged for a while.  Even though I am typically a go, go, go and see, see, see kind of traveler, one of the nice things about not having plans and just meandering is that you can take your time, relax and if you find something worth spending a few extra minutes on, you can.

We visited during the Christmas season and Melk has a small Christmas market in the historic town center, which we were afraid would not be open during our short stop.  After our stroll around the town we came back to the market to find the stalls opening.  I decided to get a cup of gluhwein but passed the Melk Tennis Club’s stall where I was asked if I would like to try apricot punch, I am glad that I agreed to,  I think it may be the best hot beverage available at any Christmas market.  I had already purchased two cups of punch and was telling all of our friends from the cruise about it, as they began to filter in from their abbey tour,  when I stumbled upon another friendly local, Horst.  He was a member of the tennis club and told me I was their best apricot punch saleswoman, he even offered to buy me another cup of punch and who am I to turn down an offer like that?  We enjoyed a nice chat over our punch, new friends were made and it was a nice and fitting ending to our short time in Melk.

 

 

Big Ship, HUGE Ship! Part 2: Celebrity Equinox

My second cruise opportunity in 2017 was in October on an 11 night birthday cruise onboard the Celebrity Equinox.  This was our third cruise onboard this ship and all have been enjoyable.  This ship is almost the complete opposite of Harmony, it is smaller and geared towards a more mature crowd.  There is no mini-golf, no water slides, no ice rink and well you get the idea…. Where we had 2,000+ kids on Harmony, I could count on one hand the number of kids I encountered on Equinox  (partly due to the time of year we were sailing) and they were all very well supervised.  On the other hand, we had to deal with some rude and obnoxious behavior from people that were more than old enough to know better, part of this could be blamed on alcohol, which I suppose is a downside to everyone having a free drink package.   We also made some amazing new friends this cruise and did not let the few obnoxious people ruin our trip, we find the overwhelming majority of cruisers on Celebrity to be great to sail with.

20171017_084847 copy

We booked early and were able to secure one of the “hump” balcony cabins, a Concierge 2 category with one of the largest  balconies on the ship.  Celebrity still provides toiletries and chocolates on the pillows but strangely no towel animals these days.  The concierge cabins come with lunch in the main dining room on embarkation day (which we almost missed because Port of Miami stinks,)  a bottle of sparkling wine, afternoon canapés and some other perks.  Many feel it isn’t worth the extra money but between the few inclusions and the extra points towards Captains Club status we still prefer to book this level.

Equinox has been moved to Miami to cruise the Caribbean year round with a variety of itineraries, many of them longer than a week and visiting more exotic ports than you would get on a typical 7 night cruise.  Our cruise was originally supposed to visit St. Thomas, St. Martin, Tortola, St. Lucia, Barbados and Antigua.  After hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean, we lost the first three ports and they were replaced with Nassau, St. Kitts and Martinique.

Now to my favorite subject, food!  Celebrity usually has great food, this time was no exception.  We did not eat at any of the specialty restaurants this trip, just the main dining room and the buffet.  Service was great across the board and the only thing we had an issue with was the reservation system (or lack thereof) for Celebrity Select dining.  You could not make reservations and it was difficult for those awesome new friends we made to get the same table every night so that we could eat together, even though for some reason our table was always available.  Also, the buffet could get very busy at peak times, which is common on any ship, but wasn’t quite the zoo Harmony’s was.

I’ve mentioned that we are not show people but we absolutely love the Corning Museum of Glass shows that they have onboard Solstice, Eclipse and Equinox.  This was the only show onboard that we watched and we even won a piece of glass that was made onboard! Some of the other things to do around the ship include hanging out on the (real) lawn, visiting either the main pool or the adults only solarium, catching one of the enrichment talks (on our cruise we had an expert in astronomy,) hit up the library or casino as well as some of the very nice lounges.  We had a premium drink package included with our fare so in the evening we were able to check out the lounges onboard, we mostly stuck to the ones in close proximity to the atrium and primarily the Martini bar, because the bartenders here put on such a fun show.  We also spent a lot of time at Cafe al Bacio enjoying their specialty coffee and tea.  As much as we love Equinox, we do find ourselves a bit bored at times and I do wish they could incorporate some of the entertainment options that you find on the Royal Caribbean ships.

All in all we still love cruising on Equinox and Solstice class ships, they are great for just relaxing in between stops at some amazing ports. The food and service are great, it just isn’t as lively or as entertainment packed as Harmony.

Where it outshines Harmony:  Better itineraries, more inclusions with your fare, better cabin amenities, less zoo like atmosphere in the buffet,  food is slightly better although Harmony had great food.

Where it falls short: No reservations allowed on select dining and just general aggravation trying to get same section every night, less entertainment, rude drunks (instead of hoards of kids.)

I wish Royal Caribbean would roll out some of the good things about each brand on the other, I think that could quite possibly, make the perfect ship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Ship, HUGE Ship! Part 1: Harmony of the Seas

It has been a few years since I have set foot on an (ocean) cruise ship but 2017 brought the opportunity to cruise twice, on two very different ships and experiences.  My first cruise was on the current holder of the largest cruise ship in the world title, Harmony of the Seas, it was a seven night Western Caribbean itinerary during the peak family cruise season in the Caribbean and there were over 2,000 kids onboard.  The second was an exotic Eastern Caribbean cruise on one of our favorite ships, the Celebrity Equinox, an upscale mass market ship.  The Celebrity cruise was nearly twice as long and it was also in the autumn when families with children do not tend to travel, so the demographics skewed much older.

20170622_083245

Harmony of the Seas and Celebrity Equinox docked in Cozumel

So, my first cruise after a 3 year drought,  was on a ship that was completely different from anything I had sailed on before, the Harmony of the Seas.  It was shiny and new and packed with entertainment options.  We booked an ocean view balcony, received only a modest $25 on board credit and did not purchase the very expensive drink package.  We received no other perks or inclusions, towards the end of the cruise, we did break down and purchase some wifi.

20170619_085533WT

The cabins were a new design for Harmony and they looked beautiful in the photos online as well as in person, it was supposed to feel roomier and I suppose it did but I did not like some aspects of the layout.  The way the bathroom was oriented, you lost that small hallway you typically have upon entering the cabin.  I know this sounds silly but this allowed for more noticeable noise and light to transmit from the hallways and I just did not like the bathroom door facing inward toward the cabin.  Royal Caribbean has also cut back on toiletries in the cabin and this just looks cheap, it is also inconvenient for those who do not want the hassle of having to drag their own.  All you are provided with is bar soap and a dispenser in the shower that I guess is body wash and shampoo in one.

The ship was so large that there was always something new to see and while we are not traditional theater show people, a few of the shows drew us in due to their uniqueness, with one being performed on the ship’s ice rink and the other at the aqua theater located on the stern of the ship.  We were glad we took the time to see the shows, they were spectacular.

Harmony also had an escape room, flow rider, rock climbing wall, mini golf, slides both wet and dry as well as zip lining.  The biggest issue that made most of these features less enjoyable than they could be is the sheer number of kids onboard, which made for terribly long lines.  Many kids were allowed to run around unsupervised so that some of these activities, like the mini golf, became exercises in frustration.  Loud music blaring from neighboring balconies, packs of teenagers running through hallways, etc. were also some things we encountered.  While it did not ruin our experience, we think we would prefer to try this ship again at a time when the demographics are a bit older, it has a lot to offer.

Not having an included drink package limited our desire to sit at the many lounges but I can see where if you had it or are willing to pony up for very expensive drinks, this ship would offer such great evening hangout possibilities.  There are bars and cafes tucked into beautiful garden settings for a more quiet and relaxed vibe or on the more bustling boardwalk and promenade which makes for great people watching and a lively atmosphere.  The food and service onboard was very good and we thought the champagne at dinner and mimosas at breakfast, that were often provided in the dining room, were a really nice touch.  The windjammer buffet was a complete zoo at peak times so we only had one lunch there and snacks one afternoon, what we did have was good though.

The major shortcoming with the Oasis class ships, including the Harmony, is the lack of diversity in the itineraries, 8 day or shorter Eastern and Western Caribbean runs  from the East coast of Florida.  For me the ship is the destination when choosing one of the Oasis class vessels and I wish Royal Caribbean would adopt the Celebrity pricing scheme with included amenities like drink packages and a fair amount of on board credit, at least in the winter season when a more mature crowd like to cruise.  I realize that these ships mainly cater to families with children but they offer a lot for cruisers like myself and could be so much more with more inclusions or a more varied itinerary.

Where it outshines the Celebrity Equinox:  Entertainment and variety of dining and bar venues.  It was actually easier to make reservations and request the same seating area with the My Time dining on Harmony than it was with Celebrity Select dining on Equinox .

Where it falls short of the Equinox:  Somewhat boring itineraries, less inclusive, too many children in the summer months with many unsupervised and behaving badly, skimping on the toiletries in the cabin, new cabin layout is not that desirable.  Buffet was complete chaos and there really is not enough seating for peak times.