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.

 

 

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.

 

 

AmaWaterways’ AmaSonata & AmaPrima

I have had the good fortune to (so far) sail onboard two of AmaWaterways’ newer twin balcony ships with another, the AmaStella slated for 2018.  Initially, I decided to try Ama because of the twin balcony cabins but I have since learned, that there are many other reasons to give them a try.  They are top rated by travel and cruise experts such as Berlitz, Cruise Critic, Travel Weekly and many others.  In our experience they have a consistently outstanding crew, with everyone from the Captain and Cruise Director to the dining staff and cabin stewards, always providing professional and friendly service. Another area where they shine is onboard dining.  Ama is a member of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious culinary society that is by invitation only,  it shows in the quality of the onboard dining.  I am still missing their eggs benedict for breakfast!  One other great thing I should mention, is that the Ama ships have a shallow draft and sleek profile. This may not seem so great, but it allows them to continue sailing much longer than some of the other river cruise lines, when there are issues with river water levels.  That can be a very big deal if you want to lessen the chance of your dream river cruise becoming a bus trip.

The overall feel of the ships is clean and elegant, both I have sailed have been very well kept, they sparkled like new inside and out.

When you step aboard, you enter on deck three, otherwise known as the Violin deck.  Upon entering you will be in the airy and bright reception lobby, that in addition to the reception desk, boasts an elevator to  take you down to the two decks below.  The elevator is flanked by a spiral staircase for you to use if you would prefer to burn some of your overindulgences off.

Continuing our tour we will walk towards the front of the ship and to the starboard side of the reception desk.  We pass between the gift shop and the beverage center, which includes a few cafe tables to sit and enjoy your coffee or tea.

From here we see the bar on our left and the main lounge ahead of us, this is where you will spend a lot of your time onboard.  The lounge has a buffet area in the center of the room, where snacks and beverages are provided throughout the day, it is also the staging area for continental breakfast items for the early risers as well as more substantial offerings around lunch and dinner.  Comfortable groups of sofas and chairs are positioned around the perimeter of the lounge as well as along the front.  There are floor to ceiling windows along both sides and looking out over an outdoor dining area and the bow of the ship.

We now head back along the port side of the ship toward the stern which brings us by the bar and the library before returning us to the reception lobby.  From there we take the stairs to the Violin deck cabins (they are offset from the public areas of the deck.)

AmaSonata_library

*Library photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

Once we make our way up to the Violin deck cabin area we find ourselves at the Cruise Director and Hotel Manager’s desks.  On our two cruises the Cruise Director was the awesome Rachel!

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From here we continue heading towards the rear of the ship passing through the hallway of the deck three cabin area.  There are five cabin types on this deck, including our AA twin balcony cabin 305.  You will first pass the one AA+ twin balcony and three suites, followed by the AA twin balconies and then the BA twin balconies, with the Category C French balconies at the end of the hallway.

AA Cabin 305

For information and photos on the other AmaSonata cabins (AmaPrima would be the same save colors)

From here we proceed to the aft of the ship on deck three, where the Chef’s Table restaurant is located.  You may have dinner here one night of the cruise and it is complimentary.  I do recommend on itineraries including Budapest, to choose your night there, the views are spectacular!

Leaving the Chef’s Table, just forward of it’s entrance,  you will see the entrances to the Gym on one side and the massage room/hair salon on the other.

*Salon Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

From here we will take the aft staircase down to deck two, the Cello deck.  The section of deck two aft of the elevator and main staircase is only made up of cabins, starting with Category C French balconies farthest aft, followed by BB twin balconies, category AB twin balconies and finally finishing with a few more BB’s at the farthest position forward.  I am including a photo of our BB cabin from the AmaPrima, you can see the link above for photos of the other cabin types.

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So we find ourselves now back at the elevator and main staircase,on the deck two cabin area landing.  From here we take the stairs down to the deck two forward area, where the main restaurant is located, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here daily, have I mentioned their eggs benedict??

If we leave and return to the elevator and stairs we can either go down to level one, the Piano deck, here we will only find a cabin corridor, this corridor is first occupied by Category D fixed window cabins, with Category E fixed window cabins farther aft.  Instead, we will go up to deck three reception lobby, from here we can step outside through large sliding glass doors on either side of the ship.  Here we will find stairs leading to the Sun deck, which is the large outdoor deck on the top of the ship.  The sun deck is home to a decently sized, heated outdoor pool with swim up bar.  There are also comfortable seating areas, a walking track, large outdoor chess game and the wheelhouse.  I imagine this will be a great place to hang out in the warmer months, like my July 2018 cruise!  So far I have only sailed the Christmas market itineraries, which are just magical but brrrrrrrrrrr……….

*Pool photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

Cruising on  one of the AmaWaterways’ twin balcony ships is a great way to see Europe.   I cannot wait for my next cruise, right now it seems so far away!  Oh, and did I mention how much I love their eggs benedict?  Stay tuned and I will do a writeup on AmaWaterways’ dining.

 

 

If Vienna during the Christmas holidays is not on your bucket list, it should be.

It is HOT, HOT, HOT here in Florida so I’m thinking, how about some Christmas in July?  Let’s make it one of my favorite cities at Christmastime, Vienna!  I just can’t even describe how incredibly beautiful the Christmas lights in Vienna are, how awe inspiring it is to walk along the Graben towards Stephansplatz under the giant, sparkling chandeliers while gazing around to all the varying light displays adorning the other streets we pass.  It is the most beautiful and festive display I believe I have ever witnessed.  A great way to visit Vienna and other cities along the Danube with festive markets, is on a river cruise, we visited with AmaWaterways, our favorite river cruise line.

 

 

In addition to the gorgeous Christmas lights on display there are multiple unique Christmas markets to visit.  I have not visited them all but I have visited several, each having it’s own distinctive feel, unique crafts and charm.

I’ll start with the largest, the Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt, located in front of Vienna town hall, it is a large and at night a very crowded market with row upon row of booths selling everything from gluhwein and authentic handicrafts to Chinese made, mass market trinkets  (although they have cut down on the amount of stands hocking these wares.)  This market has quite a presence with the town hall lit in the background and the large Christmas light displays adorning the entrance.

 

 

A new market for me visiting this past Christmas and perhaps my favorite so far in Vienna, was the Karlsplatz Art Advent Christmas market.  It is a smaller and less crowded market with the beautiful Karlskirche as a backdrop. They had a stage set up for live music and many vendors selling delicious treats including raclette, which is a personal favorite of mine.  The quality of the items for sale here is very good overall, a lot of really nice and unique handicrafts.

 

 

The last two markets that I have visited are the market at Schonbrunn palace and the market at Maria Theresien-Platz, these are both smaller markets again with beautiful landmarks as the backdrop.  The Maria Theresien-Platz market also had a cool projection light show to add to the festive feel.

 

                            Schonbrunn Market

 

                            Maria Theresien-Platz

 

These are only the ones I have been fortunate enough to visit, there are others in this great city that I am sure are very worth the visit if you have time.

There are so many other wonderful things about Vienna, it is such a charming city.  I cannot imagine any better place to spend some time during the Christmas holiday season.