Scotland Day 4, Edinburgh, a day that didn’t go as planned.

This was the first day of our trip that didn’t quite live up to expectations, all because we booked the wrong tour.   This is the first time in my travels that reviews for a guide/tour have been misleading….. I guess it happens, not everything can go perfectly every time.  The good news is, it won’t be my last visit and I’ll do things differently next time.

We started the day off in Glasgow and our friends in London, we were ambitious in our planning for the day with our friends catching an early flight and then picking up the rental car we would be using the remainder of the trip and us dropping one of our bags at the second hotel we would be staying at in Glasgow (to save space in the rental car) before catching an early train.  We had plans to meet at the hotel, the Indigo Princess street,  just in time to be picked up by our guide.  After taking a cab to the Hotel Indigo Glasgow and dropping our bags, we walked to the Queen street train station, had a quick breakfast there while waiting for our train.  We booked first class and found it to be not crowded and a very pleasant experience.   Everything mostly went to plan with only a small hiccup with road construction and unclear GPS guidance for the hotel garage, thanks to the helpful front desk staff at the hotel getting on the phone and talking my friends in to the garage, it was only a short delay.  It was okay, this was one of the points with our guide, lets call him McBS, that was satisfactory, he was patient and stayed in contact  by phone to pick us up at the proper time.

 

So only a few minutes behind we started our half day tour by car, where we were supposed to do some stopping and looking around along the way, which didn’t happen as much as we were lead to believe it would.  We did stop at Bakehouse close to see the famous scene from Outlander, where Claire returns after 20 years, to Jamie.  The only other stops we made were to Rosslyn Chapel (a filming location for The DaVinci Code,) some stop in the road on the way to Arthur’s seat (we didn’t actually get to go to Arthur’s seat) and a campground to see some Highland coos that the guide told us he “used to ride as a kid.”  We felt like he was, lets say embellishing, a lot of what he told us on the tour so we spent quite a bit of time fact checking during the remainder of our vacation and our suspicions were confirmed.  He did provide quite a bit of entertainment for us during the rest of our holiday, any time the fellas stepped out of line, they were called McBS in his honor.  He did recommend the Sheeps Heid Inn, the oldest pub in Scotland and a place visited by Mary Queen of Scots. He also informed us about Queen Elizabeth II having ate there, he booked her table for us, the problem was he didn’t tell us he would be leaving us there and that it was a substantial distance from our hotel, shame on you McBS!  I suppose it was worth it to experience this bit of history.

 

As for getting out on foot, my friend and I did get out for a some shopping on the royal mile after finding our way back to the hotel, with thanks to Uber.  This is a really lovely area to stroll but can get pretty crowded.

 

Our other misstep in planning, was doing our pub crawl this night, we were all so exhausted we only made a few of the stops we had planned ( I suppose we will just have to give it another try next time.)  We did get to The White Hart, the oldest pub in the city of Edinburgh (yes, that’s how far the Sheeps Heid Inn was from our hotel, it isn’t even considered to be in Edinburgh!)  and to Panda and Sons, which you must visit if ever in Edinburgh, such a funky and fun atmosphere!

 

The next day we had plans to visit some Outlander filming locations outside of the city followed by a dinner of dry aged Scottish beef and a ghost tour!  Day 5 was amazing so stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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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!

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.

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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.