Monday, August 1, 2011

What I did on my summer vacation

Norm & I took a much needed stress-buster vacation to Scotland... with a little bit of England thrown in there, too.
  1. Day to fly. First to Philadelphia with a lay-over that gave us enough time to have some pizza before boarding for Glasgow - we arrived the next day.
  2. Took a bus to a train station to a bus to a train to Edinburgh [we were so excited to travel by train...we fell asleep!]. Could have walked to our great hotel - Dunstane House Hotel but it was raining. Took a bus into "town," climbed up to the Royal Mile stairway near the train station - stopped for fish & chips, and hard cider at Canon's Gait - right up the street from Canon's Gate church where a royal wedding took place the next week...then walked up to Calton Hill - then down a hill to Cafe Royal [you must stop here for food & drink and the Royal Doulton tile paintings]- walked along Princes Street - and dashed into another pub [Dirty Dick's in Rose Street] [order at the bar] for another pint before walking "home." A nice big bed and a good night's sleep.
  3. After a good Scottish breakfast, headed back to the Royal Mile - after stopping in at the information center...and buying an umbrella. Climbed all the way up to the Castle - which was too crowded. Seemed like the Braveheart section of Disneyland... We decided to skip it, and walked down the Royal Mile, ducking into St. Giles and off to the Palace at Holyrood House. Looked at Arthur's Seat and decided we were too tired to hike up it...a bus was hanging around, so we used our all day pass to take it to Leith. Why? Because I wanted to hum "Sunshine on Leith" by the Proclaimers [it wasn't sunny]. We walked around and decided to have a late lunch at The Shore. I had wanted to go to Martin Wishart's very cool restaurant, but it wasn't open that back on a bus, and headed out toward Portobello beach, then switched to another bus that took through Prestonfield "behind" Edinburgh... and ended up getting a little lost and accidently found the Edinburgh Quay and canals...[who knew?] another walk took us to the Grass Market area that is so incredibly charming. Walked around the castle, back to Princes St. and finally decided to STOP WALKING and have dinner at The Conan Doyle. Walk back to find a bus, back to the hotel and a bath. 
  4. After another bowl of porridge, we took the bus to the train station to start our BritRail pass to London. Norm had the insight to buy first class tickets, so we were plied with tea, coffee, sandwiches, cakes, etc... by slightly crabby little old ladies all the way to London. We spent the day gazing out the window at the Firth of Forth, the east coast and hundreds of miles of meadows, pastures, forests, cattle, sheep, quaint villages and cities.  This is what Norm was waiting for relaxing while watching the pastoral views go by... then into the bright light, noise and madness of London in the summer. A very expensive cab ride got us to the hotel and a nice room. Small, but lovely, great location. It was late in the afternoon, so the concierge Kaspars [a Bradley Cooper look-alike from Russia] gave us a map and I decided we should walk to Harrod's. On the way, we could spend 45 minutes at the Victoria & Albert Museum before they closed. Mind you, this is a huge building. We rushed through to find the mosaics [duh!] just in time for that room to close. We were allowed 5 minutes and we made the best of it, then headed out. By this time, my feet were killing me. So, naturally, we walked to Harrod's. Mostly, I wanted Norm to see the Food Halls.  The streets were so crowded. We were both hungry - but by the time we got to the Food Halls, they were PACKED with people. Claustrophobia level crowded. I didn't see a brandy snap in the pastry case, so off we went. Now, we needed to find a place to eat. I hadn't been in London for several years...and I'll just say the Knightsbridge area has... changed.  Most of the restaurants were geared for a different clientele. We finally found an almost affordable sidewalk cafe, but when we wanted to enter we were told there was a £50 minimum [$75] per person. For lunch. I saw that there was a cafe in Harvey Nichols so we tried that. It was crowded, loud - but they had BEER and the food wasn't too expensive. Nice waitress from Lithuania. I could tell Norm was feeling edgy. We started the long walk back to our hotel [in the rain] and found a traditional pub. Order at the bar. Staff walked by several times and we thought we were being ignored...while there, we met a couple from Texas on honeymoon - they'd already been to Turkey, Paris and Portugal...and were still going. Feeling inadequate, we [no, I] started making up stories about the fellow hanging around the bar trying to flirt with the bar maids. He looked well dressed, but there was something slimey about him... I wanted to warn the girls to stay away from the potential serial killer with a serious addiction to nicotine. After this, we strayed off to find dessert in one form or another - We passed a very cool looking Portuguese restaurant that had Fado music later on... but I could't convince Norm. Dulce Pontes is one of my favorite singers, but I am the only person I know who knows who she is and adores her voice. Anyway, I found a Pavlova [sold to me by an Indonesian woman] and Norm found something elsewhere. It was pouring so we ran back to the hotel. Dessert in bed and an absolutely idiotic Arnold Schwartzenegger movie was on.
  5. London - right outside our door - we took the Big Bus tour. I don't usually go for this sort of thing, but it was Norm's first time in London, and the double decker affords you a view of everything you wouldn't see at street level. Within several hours, you see the sights - and if you're going on to London - it gives you a lay of the land, and the ability to hop off and explore and hop back on. All the sights were crowded [of course]. Late afternoon, we headed back to the train station and hopped the next train to Liverpool. Stay at the Marriott Liverpool and you can walk from the train station and then to a lot of the sights from there. We hit the gym, swam [indoor pool] and then set out to discover the Beatles. We walked to Matthew Street where we saw the Cavern Club - along with many other clubs - bands playing in each. I was hungry and it was getting late - we found the one place that was still serving food and had fun watching the kids having a snack before clubbing. Lot's of girls in skin tight mini dresses and high heels teetering down cobblestone streets shouting at the young men in hoodies. We almost got back to the hotel before the rain started.
  6. Liverpool- walked back to the Cavern Club to take pictures and walk down several flights of stairs. It was very moving - and surreal to think that those four boys were discovered and could become world famous in this small underground club. We went to the information center to book our next room [one great thing about traveling in the UK] unfortunately, the staff was a bit flustered and it took a lot of effort to book a room. We had to leave and come back. In the meantime, we walked to the docks to visit the new Museum of Liverpool which was really too crowded. Then, off to the Tate Modern to see the Magritte exhibition [inspiring!] and lunch. While at the Albert Docks, we visited the Beatles Story which is sort of how the Baseball Hall of Fame is to Cooperstown. There is so much to see and do in Liverpool. One day is not enough. We wanted to take the ferry 'cross the Mersey, but didn't have time... Before we walked back to the train station, we had a great lunch at La Tasca - tapas & sangria. Off again to Scotland. A late train to Glasgow, with reservation on hand. We arrived late and were told the hotel was a short walk from the train station. Yes. Uphill. All the way. Rough streets...bumpy. The weather was fine, and one good thing was walking past the Glasgow School of Art which I've visited before, as a rabid Charles Rennie Mackintosh fan [I was once brought to tears by his bedroom furniture] - but I digress. We were exhausted dragging our bags...and finally found our hotel. We made it up the loose slate stairs - and the desk clerk had no record of our reservation but had vacancy - and gave us the key to ROOM 26. It was late - probably after 10 or 11 at night. A lot of these lovely older homes have been turned into B&B's. There might be charming lace curtains at the front door, by don't let the exterior fool you. Inside are heavy fire doors that slam. Behind one of them was ROOM 26. Looked like the set of a horror movie. Smelled musty. Tiny room, low ceilings, swayback bed, teeny bathroom. Okay, we just wanted a place to sleep - but the bed had a bedspread and a bottom sheet. No top sheet, no blanket. Were we to assume they washed the bedspread every day? Hmmmm. I figured I'd need a benedryl to sleep in the room. The bathroom had a small FILTHY drinking glass. I opened the window for some fresh air and the giant bugs just waiting outside ALL flew in. Oh dear. While I was batting away at them with a pillow, Brave Norm went back to the front desk and got us a "better" room. Yes, it was bigger, but at the front of the house, and we slept in our clothes, on our coats - on top of the bed. And we found many of the shows on BBC ever so amusing. We might have gotten some sleep, but every late night drunk - in a car - got pulled over in front our hotel; and every late night drunk - on foot- got into a shouting match with another, or had a beef with someone on our block - screaming obscenities into the wee hours of the morning. Not a great night.
  7. Off to the train station [downhill] to Perth where we changed for Inverness. The trains are so much fun. Especially when they don't even check your tickets. No- actually, being able to sit next to Norm - looking out the window and relaxing. Our "steward" [?], Charlie asked us about Arizona. He met a girl online and came to visit. Did they go to the Grand Canyon? Tubing? Quick trips to Vegas or Disneyland? No. They went to Wal*Mart. It was her idea. Geez. Anyway, changed trains and headed uphill all the way to Inverness. Great views... mountains, villages, sheep. We got off the train and walked down a main street to the i and booked a room. It was a little difficult because the Highland Games were on. We crossed the bridge and walked along the river and behind the church to Eden House. Caroline welcomed us and suggested we check out the games...and some great restaurants... and said we should go early, since there were so many people in town for the games. We headed back to town and the games were just wrapping up - the band and pipers were just heading out in front of us. Back into town and all the restaurants were booked - so upstairs at the Riva Pizzeria. We were laughing at how great the view long as you didn't look at the ugly 60"s building with the big "to let" sign. Discovered delicious organic local beer Black Isle. After dinner, we walked around more and enjoyed the town...since it was light until almost 11 p.m. There's a fun show on BBC FOOL US with Penn & Teller and I caught up with Doc Martin.
  8. Nice breakfast [and no, we don't eat like this at home]. We had to take a cab to airport to rent a car. We had this ambitious goal to drive way up north. It was fascinating driving over the Moray Firth and waterways that have tides that rush in and out - whitecaps! We did get up the Brora coast - through Cromarty, Helmsdale, stopped at Dunrobin Castle. And, a delightful walk on the water and lunch at Poppy's in Golspie. We turned off the main road where I tried to pet some sheep [they would not have it]. It was a beautiful day - lovely scenery. Back to town, we managed a table at the Mustard Seed. This is a really nice restaurant with locally sourced food; they just didn't quite serve what we ordered. Back at Eden house, Donald had suggested we take the train to Skye - now, this is supposedly one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, so we decided to leave the car. It is an amazing trip. But, when we got to Kyle of Lochalsh, we didn't have a car - or a way to get to Skye. We waited for a bus, but if had taken it, we wouldn't have made it back for the returning train... and the ferry service...nope. So, we {I} decided to try to walk. That was a bridge too far... we walked about half way and turned around. It was sort of funny. Sort of. We ended up going to Tesco [Fresh & Easy, basically] and having a picnic... on the grassy knoll at the end of the parking lot. We walked to the post office to use the internet and got on the train heading back. We should have done something...?! We were so sleepy - the train was HOT. There were a bunch of older English tourists [older than US] that were making a lot of noise. We got back into town - walked to get the car and drove to Loch Ness. Now, just a few days before, there was a story in the newspaper that a photographer had seen NESSIE! So, we didn't want to miss our opportunity, so we drove down to and along the lake...stopping here and there. And, that's when Norm's phone died [my camera battery wasn't charged]. It's so easy to see why people think they see something in the water. For one thing, the lake is enormous. There are waves, and water is very dark. The wind blows the surface, so it's never smooth. We got down to Urquhart Castle but it was closed! We peeked over the fence. Oh well, timing. Back to the B&B - and another food suggestion -  Johnny Foxes. Food was good, beer was good -and the bathroom had a hilarious vending machine that offered a "sticky dick" - and other strange toys.
  9. Now, where to drive... We decided to take the car back to Aberdeen... and drove through the highlands, through the castle trail and whiskey trail. The most picturesque village was Charlestown of Abelour. We didn't really have time to explore, but it is the sort of place I'd like to spend time. Off to Aberdeen - the granite city [yes, it is grey!] and I thought the GPS was taking us to a car rental return near the train station [nope]...then the airport [nope], then another location near the airport [nope]. Talk about frustrating! We just went to the airport, and the last thing is the car rental return. Finally, Norm could stop driving. By cab to the train station where I got a few books for Ally by some of her favorite people - Stephen Fry and Jeremy Clarkson. And, now on to vacation fatigue. Train to Glasgow - beautiful again, scenery - but as much as I enjoyed seeing places like the sea and Dundee pass by, it was last day-itis. Another cab got us to the airport where our last night hotel, the Holiday Inn was literally next to the terminal. Our room was nice, but NOISY. Some loud humming [could it have been JETS?] was going where to eat but the downstairs resto...or pub. We found some goodies and took them upstairs. Best french fries [chips] on the whole trip. And, we probably consumed potatoes in one form or another every day - sometimes more than once. Back in the room we watched some of our new favorite shows including Take Me Out whch is funny and stupid. I don't want you to think we did nothing but watch TV, but really, you're in your room at some point...
  10. Off to the airport. Nice lady at the counter gave us passes to the VIP club. [nice!] and our boarding passes. Past a zillion souvenir stores and eateries, we didn't buy anything but a shirt for Ally. And then, the VIP lounge. Holy cow, it's good to be king! [thank you USAIR!] Caught up on email and alcohol. Off to the plane. I wanted to sleep, until we got on board. Free upgrade to first class. [thank you USAIR!] Now we talking! Great seats, blankets, pillows, champagne [don't want to sleep now], personal movie consoles, good food. The hours just flew by. Okay, so Norm has been racking up FF miles, but not enough, so heartfelt gratitude for a nice flight. To Phillie - customs and a long overlay - and then home. What, it's over 100? At night? Yeah - those 60 and 70 degree days were so lovely - and the rain - and the sheep. Fantastic trip - just what we needed. Over a week of wonderful togetherness. Stress busted.

Grass Market
Arthur's Seat

Cafe Royal
Cavern Club
Inverness Castle
Urquhart Castle