Category Archives: QM2/Scotland

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777, Airplanes, British Airways, Planes

The Journey Home

Category:London,QM2/Scotland,Travel Tags : 

The Journey Home

 

By Steven

25 August 2015

 

This day has finally come. Sadly, it’s time to head home. We’ve certainly enjoyed our travels, seeing old friends and making new, but vacation can’t go on forever.

 

As with all other travel days, of this trip, we start early with packing. This morning it should be so hard, you would think, it all needs to go home and we packed for air travel just two days before. Today it seems like there’s much more organizing to do. Eventually everything finds its place, or is left behind.

After another home breakfast at the house, we headed for the airport. We wanted to get to the airport a little early to take advantage of the lounge amenities. We’re flying British Airways First Class today! We cashed in a ton of points to book this flight, so we might as well make the most of it. Having failed to make reservations for our free massages in the BA Spa, our best bet was to get there early and see if we could get on the schedule. – Note to self: book the massage as soon as you book the flight!

 

Neil and Darren drove us to the airport which not only worked quite well, but was also very nice of them to do. I’m always amazed at getting anywhere by car in London. I don’t know how people manage. I’m usually pretty good with direction and getting around, but London always baffles me. Getting from point A to point B seems, invariably, to take you through points M, R and Z along the way! Nonetheless, we get there in good time.

 

Arrival at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is uneventful. The first time I’ve ever actually arrived here by car, having only ever passed through here in transit. We easily found the First Class check in counter – couldn’t hardly miss it actually, off to the right with a tasteful but huge sign announcing it’s splendidness. In the old Terminal 4, this was quite hidden I had noticed in years passed as I would headed to the lengthy coach class check in lines. When we walked up today, we were the only ones there. A quick drop of the bags and we were off to security. The First Class, Business Class and elite status passengers have a dedicated security line, secluded from the others. Two X-ray machines but the line wasn’t moving very fast – hardly at all. Apparently, they had just run through a test bag to check the system and the screeners. This managed to shut down that scanner and now wasn’t coming back on line any too quickly. So much for speedy at this point. We’re still hours out from our flight, so no matter.

 

 

As you come out of security, you’re right in front of a very non-descript door, except for a small Concorde Room sign and a matron guarding the way in. A quick check of our boarding passes, a review of our reservation on her terminal, and we were in. The inner sanctum, as it were. Or so we thought. Another attendant inside asked for verification of our rights to admittance. That cleared, we proceed to the luggage check to have them hold our carry-ons. This was just beyond the lounge headed toward the Business Class lounge. So, of course, we had to check in with the nice gentleman on that side on our way back. We stating that we had already check in to the lounge (twice) his only response was “I haven’t seen you before.”

Next to check to see if we can get our free massages. No better luck than when we tried to call. No spots available except maybe in the other remote concourse. Not knowing yet where our flight was to depart, we didn’t want to risk getting to the wrong part of the airport and then having to walk back. If you try to come back from the B of C concourse on the train, you’re forced out of the airport and would have to go through security again. Not a gamble worth taking. We could have perhaps snagged a private cabana. Since we didn’t need a shower but did want to eat, we give these a pass. Judging from some pictures I’ve seen online, this is just as well.

 

We head over to the restaurant section of the lounge to find all the private booths taken so we just grab a couple seats at the open tables. Same food is served, but I have to say that the people in the private booths certainly seemed to be getting better service. Waiters were constantly bustling about in there while it took a good 10 minutes for anyone to stop by our table. Once we had a waiter, we quickly had bubbly in hand. Cheers! Kevin’s pretty sure it was our waiter’s first time serving, poor thing looked flustered all the time...again with the rushing about and not much seeming to be done in the process.

 

There was a good selection of fare available. We each started with the soup. As I recall it was good, but the menu is no help in remembering what it was, as it’s just listed as soup of the day. Your guess is as good as mine. Afterwards, I had the Duo of West Country Beef, pressed beef with oxtail ravioli accompanied by Romanesco puree. Kevin had the Summer Salmon Salad. For desert, we both had the Affogato – vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of espresso and a cookie – Yum! And of course more bubbly.

 

We still have some time before boarding – our gate hasn’t even been announced yet - so we just found a couple spots to relax out on the “terrace,” still inside, but overlooking the main terminal. What’s up with the horse lamps – those are just odd! Eventually our gate is announced – now we only have ½ hour to get to the plane in the next concourse – time to run! While we were told that no announcements of flights would be given in the First Class Lounges, we really would have appreciated some notice that boarding had started. Live and learn.

 

When we get to the gate, it appears that almost everyone has already boarded, virtually no line. How did everyone get here so quick and already board? There is a small queue for coach boarding but we slip right by. Upon arrival at the door to the airplane, the Purser (head flight attendant) greeted us. As soon as I showed my boarding pass, the flight attendant standing nearby offered to take me to my seat. When the Purser saw Kevin’s boarding pass, he called “service”, and another flight attendant, loaded with a tray of drinks she quickly put down, and came over to escort Kevin to his seat. You certainly don’t get this when you’re turning right as you board. Once settled, more bubbly was on offer. “Of course, I would love some.” Apparently, we were the last two First passengers to arrive – again I ask: how did they get here so fast?

 

Our seats, as you can imagine, were quite spacious with lots of storage for shoes and jackets. Oddly, however, there was no place for small items like a cell phone, power cords, or sunglasses. There was a place for a laptop but it wasn’t easy to spot. There was certainly enough room to have these things out, but no good place to stow for takeoff and landing.

Airplanes, British Airways, Planes Airplanes, British Airways, DPF, Planes

As we were getting ourselves comfortable, the flight attendant came by to offer pajamas and slippers. She also brought the “For Him” amenity bags with all the goodies, one expects: tooth brush/paste, socks, lotions & balms, razor, and the best eye mask I’ve ever had. The pajamas are a nice light flannel – whether we’re supposed to not, we both kept them, along with the comfy slippers...and eye masks.

Once we got in the air, the flight attendant came around to take drink and food orders, asking us when we would like to eat. Kevin chose ASAP so he could go to sleep. Since I generally don’t sleep well on planes, I opted for a little later, which turns out to not been such a good idea. Before I had worked my way through the entire meal, our attendant went on break, his replacement didn’t seem to catch on very quickly that I was still only half way through the courses. It seemed to take forever for her to clear empty plates and bring the next. Yes, I know, another first-world problem!

 

After dinner, I found my duvet in the overhead bin and started to make up my bed. The flight attendant came by and offered to take care of it while I ran off to the restroom to get into my jammies. The rest of the flight for me while Kevin slept was a series of movies and time spent typing blog entries. One thing that’s always a highlight for me on the daytime flights between Europe and Seattle is seeing Greenland. It always fascinates. It will certainly be a sad day when it no longer has its snow pack and glaciers. For now though, it’s still beautiful. The rest of the flight was uneventful and of course more food came about an hour before we landed in Seattle.

Uummannaq Island

The little island is Uummannaq Island. You can't really make it out in this photo but there's actually a town down there. Wikipedia can tell you more about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uummannaq_Island

A quick run-down of the food (not all pictured).

 

For starters I had taken the gamble on the Sesame Seared Tuna. I was hesitant about “fresh” fish coming from an airline kitchen. Happily, it was actually quite good. Not 100% fresh tasting, but not bad.

Kevin started with the Wild Mushroom and Truffle Mousse. While, it doesn’t look much like a mousse as we would know it in America, it did have a nice, creamy mousse texture and quite flavorful.

Next up, main courses. I took another gamble in hopes of BA redeeming themselves after a previous beef experience I had on my last flight (see rant below). Pleasantly, it was served sufficiently warm but not overcooked, a nice medium rare.

<rant class=”furious-disgusted”>

On our flight back from Geneva two years ago, we were in BA’s Premium Economy ("World Traveler +") which supposedly featured entrees from the Business Class ("Club World") menu. I ordered the steak rather than chicken (should have known better after the horrid pork puck I had on the outbound). This was the worst piece of beef I have ever had the displeasure of eating. It was fully cooked well-done and beyond. The sauce was even completely dried up and fused to the dish. It’s an absolute disgrace that a cow gave up its life to have become this!

</rant>

 

Kevin’s entrée choice was the North Atlantic Baked Cod. He doesn’t remember too much about it other than being thankful it wasn’t overcooked. We American’s do like our fish in a state others might call near raw, but they’d be wrong.

Kevin skipped on dessert while I enjoyed the Raspberry Délice. How could this be wrong – well, it wasn’t! It was a layered dessert with a cookie crust and a raspberry gelee top. This with a generous serving of Glenlivet 18 year-old was a perfect way to finish dinner as The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel finished playing.

 

Kevin finished his dinner with the Warm Blueberry and Nectarine Crumble.

After some time spent writing blog entries, taking pictures of Greenland and retrieving my sunglasses that had fallen into the bowels of my seat - don't ask!, it was time for a nap.

 

About an hour before landing in Seattle we were offered Afternoon Tea – very civilized! I had to pass on the sandwich selection as they all had something I don’t care for: either salmon, mayo, cucumbers, or some variation thereof. Kevin enjoyed his on the other hand. I did partake in the patisserie. This included a brownie, a key lime cake and a Battenberg cake. All served with our own personal pot of tea.

Upon arrival into Seattle, we of course were the first to immigration I think the last of passengers from another flight were just going through. We headed straight for the Global Entry kiosks with no lines, no waiting. Baggage claim went quickly as well – a near miracle at Seatac.

 

 

Our friend Maria was waiting for us when we got to the curb. A quick ride home and the journey was a fait accompli.

 

Such was our journey home. No dragon slaying or running from orcs and trolls, but there you have it. Back home to our own place and our own bed. Ah, to have clean clothes soon!

 

Just. Have. To. Stay. Awake. Until. Ten.

 


 

Epilogue

 

We hope you’ve enjoyed following us on this trip as much as we’ve enjoyed sharing it with you all. Look for more adventures in the years to come. We’ll keep posting about our trips as long as anyone cares to read about them. I know it’s taken a long time to get this written up so in some ways, I’m glad to have it done, in other ways I’ll miss spending so much time recollecting about the trip. Likewise happy to have all the experiences recorded for when things fade from memory.

 

Stay tuned for more travels.

 

Ps – There weren’t many guesses (actually none) for what these are from our QM2 post.

QM2 - Day Bow Installation 1 QM2 - Day Bow Installation 2

Perhaps you’ve guessed to yourself but didn’t share. For those still curious, these aren't just sculptures on the ship, they’re actually spare propeller blades. If you find yourself in the middle of the Atlantic with a blown propeller blade, you can’t just call the Automobile Association for help. I’m a little at a loss however as to how they would change one out while at sea.


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England, Europe, London, Mickey, UK

London – Our Last Day in the UK

Category:England,London,QM2/Scotland

24 August 2015

 

By Steven –

 

I was the last to get out of bed this morning. By the time I was downstairs, the day was well under way. I was delighted to be offered a home cooked breakfast of porridge and fresh fruit. A great way to start the day. Over breakfast we discussed the strategy for the day. Kevin and I wanted to hit at least one or two sights this morning. In the afternoon, Kevin has a talk to give at Open University on the north side of town. The day will be capped with a special dinner, our last of our trip.

 

Buck House (aka Buckingham Palace) was out – simply too complicated with the rains and not much in the way of shelter until you got in. It’s agreed that we’ll hit the Victoria and Albert Museum and, if there’s time, the Science Museum or Natural History Museum. All of these are right next to each other so should be quite do-able. Darren and Ian helped us map out our journey then dropped us off at Clampham Junction Station. We were on our way.

With an unexpected train change enroute, we made it to the V&A just fine. It hadn’t really started raining full-force yet, but it wouldn’t have mattered any way. The Tube stop is right at the museum with no need to go above ground to get from the train to the lower entrance. This will come in quite handy later. Entrance to the museum is free, with the exception of some special exhibits. Other than a quick bag check, there was no line to get in.

 

We made our way through a few sections before deciding it was feeding time again. So we headed for the lunch room that Darren had recommended toward the back of the complex. We weren’t sure what we were looking for. We had the impression that there would be a quiet sit-down lunch room which we couldn’t find. After a quick call to Darren, we found that we were exactly where we should be. This was an area that has several cafeteria-style sections: hot foods, sandwiches and salads, cakes and desserts, and, of course, tea. We each went our separate ways on finding food and managed to converge at the same time to try finding a table. It was high on lunch time so finding a place to sit took some doing. We managed to snag a table in one of the very ornate rooms off to the side. The setting was lovely, just a bit crowded and noisy for our liking. The food was good and hit the spot as we marveled at the wood and plaster work high on the walls and ceiling.

 

After lunch, we hit most of the rest of the museum. My back was tired, it had become stiflingly hot (I was trying to find any pocket of air conditioning breeze I could) and Kevin’s hip began to hurt. I know that all sounds awful, and we’re not as old as all that but it is a big museum – and we’ve been at this touristy stuff for several weeks now, so give us a break. While Kevin settled back in to the cafeteria for a tea, seated next to a group of nuns for safekeeping, I headed off across the courtyard, now that it wasn’t pouring rain, to get a gelato.

 

After a bit of a rest we tried to head for the Natural History Museum just further up the Tube tunnel from the V&A. As we walked along we saw more and more people flooding into the tunnel. Flooding being the operative word here. They were drenched! To get to the Natural History Museum, we'd eventually have to go outside which would have made Kevin look like a drowned rat headed to his talk later. So back to the V&A, surely there's something we haven't seen yet. After a spin through the gift shop and poking our heads back into some adjacent rooms we’d already been through, we came across some remains of the family treasure. My mother is from the Woolsey family making us cousins to the famous Cardinal Wolsey, you know, the one that wasn’t able to obtain a divorce for Henry VIII causing the England’s break from the Catholic Church, that one. A couple sculptures that he had commissioned were recently rediscovered and now on display here at the V&A as the Wolsey Angels. That was fun to see.

Now it was time to head out and meet Darren at the same tube stop at which we’d arrived earlier. We found him waiting at the exit from the museum to guide us to our next stop Open University where Kevin was scheduled to give a talk about his new book, Psychotherapy for the Other. Find it on Amazon. Just a couple of changes on the Tube and we were across town before we knew it. When we got to our destination, we parted ways. Kevin and Darren to his talk and me to explore the area for a couple hours on my own.

 

Darren did a great job of organizing (or is that organising?) and promoting the talk. Apparently it was quite the success. Kevin even ran into one of his former grad students in the audience – a very pleasant surprise for him!

 

While Kevin was on his book tour talk, I headed up to the famous Camden Locks area just a few blocks away. This area is known for its nightlife and arts. Darren tried to head me in the direction of Amy Winehouse’s favorite spot. I never could find it, but did come across herself, her memorial statue anyway. I don’t really know much about her other than what I’ve seen/heard on The Graham Norton Show. It’s clear that she had/has quite the following as evidenced by the number of people who stopped by to take photos with her or leave small offerings of homage.

 

Otherwise, it was interesting to wonder about the shops and stalls in the area. One could easily get lost in this part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. And a bar, complete with a hot tub, towels available. I'll pass!

 

One thing I found that would be worth going back for was the “food court.” This was an area with several dozen food stalls. You could find cuisine from all other the world. Even though many of the stalls were closing up for the day, the mix of aromas was like a Siren’s song. I tried to resist, as I knew a big dinner was coming, but the polish sausage was too hard to say “no” to.

Before long I headed back to meet Kevin and Darren who were still excited about the success of Kevin’s talk. They asked about what I had been up to. I had to confess to the sausage to their disdain – but they just don’t understand – they weren’t there!

The Shard

Next stop dinner. Back to the Tube we go. Soon we were back to central London at the base of The Shard Tower. Last time I was in London, this didn’t exist so it was interesting to see it up close and personal. But no time to linger, we still had a bit of a walk to go to get to the restaurant and it was getting close to reservation time. When we arrived at Pizarro, Ian and Neil were already there, drinks in hand.

 

This was an amazing dinner! Unfortunately, they were out of one of the star items on the menu, which several of us were eyeing. This seemed odd in that we were there fairly early into this evening’s dinnertime. There we plenty of other things to try. I think between the five of us, we pretty much ran the whole menu. Everything was really good! At some point in the evening, the owner/chef, Jose Pizarro, himself, came in for dinner. We weren’t able to get a picture of or with him without causing a seen. Kevin and I weren’t really familiar with him, but according to Darren, he’s one on London’s foremost up-and-coming restaurateurs.

Pizarro Menu

After dinner Kevin and I insisted on getting a cab back home, much to Darren’s protestations. We were tired and weren’t up for the walk back to the Tube nor the walk from the Tube to their house. Despite, the number of black cabs running around the city, it’s apparently an extravagance to actually use them when the Tube can get you there. But after that dinner, a little extra extravagance seemed a trifle. After all, this was the last night of our trip.


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Airplanes, Airports, British Airways, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Airport, Europe, Planes, Scotland, UK

Edinburgh to London – Travel Day

Category:England,London,QM2/Scotland,Scotland

23 August 2015

by Kevin

We’re nearing the end of our vacation and are a little exhausted, a little ready for the next and last leg, a little fearing getting all our bags down the steep hotel stairs and onto a tram for the airport. Last minute packing always brings its stresses. Though we’ve traveled enough together to know each other’s packing rhythms and eccentricities, on big travel days it always seems like we’ve never packed before. There are the showering and grooming rituals followed by dealing with an incoherent melee of dirty close, some wet from the drenching received last night, and don't forget the Scotch whiskys small and large, and assorted gifts needing to be crammed back into our luggage. I might be exaggerating just a little, but you get the picture. Controlled chaos? Barely.

Breakfast was the same; rushed servers, slightly irked patrons in the sunlit front room. All in all, this now seems comforting and I think I’ll miss this lovely, Scottish-infused confusion. Back at the room, my back is feeling better so I’m managing to wrangle some of our now grossly plumb bags out the room and downstairs. It took us a few trips, but we finally got ourselves sorted and out the door after I checked us out…an easy process. Thank you hotel staff for making our stay enjoyable and blog-worthy.

We walked out the door to see the exact tram we needed for our trip to the airport. We were advised that Sunday travel was light, so no need to call a cab. The tram gets you closer to the terminal anyway, while cabs or other hired cars have to stop a distance further from the entrance. Our ride was nice, even pleasant. The tram was clean, certainly not crowded, allowing us to have all the space we needed with our bags.

Getting from the tram to the airport turned out to be quite quick, giving us plenty of time before the flight. A light lunch near the gate was in order.

 

 

As we get ready to board, Steven reminds me of this sign we saw in Scotland on our trip to Oban. Indeed, we hope to come back again soon, we had a great time here.

 

Our flight was with British Airways to London City Airport. We were surprised to find the airplane seating configured as it was. This was an Embraer 190, for you airplane aficionados. It had coach seating throughout but with seemingly more leg room (though Seatguru.com doesn’t say so) and 2x2 seating, a bit wider than most coach seats as well. We thought it was going to be one of those little pea-shooter jets but this was more 737-sized. And, get this, free beer, wine, and cocktails! This is how economy class should be – at a minimum.

Nothing too much to report about the flight except that we took off in a window of clear skies and relatively calm winds…not at all the weather we’d experienced yesterday. The flight was quick, just over an hour and we landed without a problem at London City airport. Coming into the final approach we had wonderful views of London city and most of its iconic landmarks.

 

Meeting us at the airport were friends Darren and Ian after our bags were the last two to show up. Just a short walk from the airport to the car and we were on our way, gingerly making our way to their home in Clapham. I could feel the sense of our trip coming to close. Maybe it was being driven around and watching the city go by, or heading to the home of friends, or just having time to slow down and review the entire time away from our home – I don’t really know, but I was in a nostalgic mood by time we arrived.

Darren, Ian, and Neil’s home is a pre-war (WWII) Victorian that they have been remodeling steadily for a few years. The Clapham area has one of the largest parks in London, Clapham Commons, where dogs and humans ran freely about, all 220 acres of it!  More of that in a minute. After we met the dog and kitty, and settled in to our room, we ventured back downstairs to enjoy some adult refreshments: some wonderful Champagne Darren had selected, Neil offered up a perfect Bloody Mary. It was so good to not be moving any more, though I swear I could still feel the motion of the airplane. Sitting in their modern kitchen, surrounded by good company is never a bad way to wind down a trip and a day of travel.

After a suitable number of cocktails – just enough to vanish that weird sense of being in motion - it was time to gather up our lagging bodies and head to dinner. Since it was a Sunday, Darren had picked one of their favorite places that served a traditional English Sunday roast. I have to say, just writing about it, makes me wish for that roast again. The boys took us around the neighborhood, seeing occasional pockets of 1950-60’s housing, so different from the Victorian surrounding them. The blitz on London left parts of neighborhoods bombed out and housing needed to be put up quickly to accommodate the dislocated.  Hence, a very noticeable trait of the city are these pockets of rather plain housing amidst the curving lanes filled with Victorians.

Crossing back to the park, we angled toward our destination cutting across very large greens bisected by paved and gravel pathways. Still in Clapham Common, we arrived at The Rookery ready to eat. The Rookery. It's fashionable in America to call this type of establishment a gastro pub, but this one had none of those cloying attempts at creating an attitude with food. This was a neighborhood place first and foremost, which served hearty English fare turned up a notch.

We were sat at a round table near the kitchen and out of the main bar/seating area, allowing us to hear each other better. We had several rounds of small plates of deliciousness; a generous charcuterie of meats and other savory, salty, sweet treats…and of course wine. Lots of wine. Sunday Roast’s and pork were ordered, but we were told that the kitchen had run out of Yorkshire puddings. Darren thought that was simply not a thing that should be missing from our meal…plus we both knew that making the pudding isn't all that troubling and since we had no time rush, was completely possible. Darren ended up, politely, suggesting the kitchen could make it for us. To their credit (and Darren’s), the chef saw no problem, and we were all delighted to get our puddings as expected. It pays too, to have regulars with us who knew what was what and who was who. Thanks Darren!

 

Fully sated and a little tipsy, we made it back through the common in what seemed record time. Why is it that return journeys always seem faster? Something to do with the elasticity of time I suppose. Back home, Steven and I tucked into bed and were fast asleep.

The next morning saw a pretty mixed bag of weather. We talked about strategies for the day given that it would occasionally pour down buckets of rain with strong winds, then dissolve into sun breaks. Darren and Ian did a lot to help us figure out what was open on a Monday and what wasn’t. Buckingham Palace, “Buck House,” was out, so we settled on taking in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Mickey didn't want to be in any pictures this day - he was just a frightful mess after being up so late the night before. It think he caught a cold in the rain, poor fella. Have you ever heard a mouse sneeze and blow it's nose? I would be funny if it weren't so sad.


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Edinburgh, Europe, Royal Tattoo, Scotland, UK

Scotland – Day 2 in Edinburgh

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

22 August, 2015

by Steven -

After a busy day the day before and knowing that we will be having another long day, we decided to take our time getting going on this second, and last, day in Edinburgh. Last full day in Scotland, actually.

We did make it down for breakfast in the morning. Same routine as yesterday: a harried staff with too many guests to serve in the completely full breakfast room. We managed to get enough to hold us over for a few hours then headed back to the room to get ready for the day.

First order of business was to find out where to pick up our tickets for this night’s show (I’ll tell you more about this show in a bit). I pulled up the confirmation and you won’t believe what I found. It had been so long since I bought these tickets that I had forgotten a very important bit of information. Along with the show tickets I had bought 2-day passes for the hop-on-hop-off buses with admission to Britannia, Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle. The same package Kevin bought us for yesterday! What to do? Certain that they were non-refundable, we thought it worth the try to see if we could get a refund. So much for having a leisurely morning. Off to the ticket office.

We found the ticket office without too much fuss and explained the situation. Sympathetic as they may have been they didn’t think there was anything to do other than try to talk to the bus people. So back to the bus ticket window we go. But no luck there as we had already used the tickets we bought from the them and they couldn't do anything about the tickets I bought with the show. Back to the show ticket window. As I say, the people there were really sympathetic. To the point that the manager offered to take back the bus and sights tickets and sell them to anyone else who might want them. If that happened they would refund our money. Though it was late in their run, she was hopeful. Since we had no better option, we accepted her offer.

Lesson here: review your confirmations!

When we left the hotel this morning, we knew we wouldn’t be coming back until late in the evening and I wanted to wear my kilt to the show this evening. So it was going to be a full day of knocking around Edinburgh in a kilt. Fun for me, perhaps a little embarrassing for Kevin, c’est la vie! The annoying part of that though are the shoes. I bought a higher quality shoe than I perhaps need, but thought these should last a lifetime. The only problem is that they have a little brass bit on the heel. They are the clickiest things on concrete and stone! Click…click…click, every step I take. Perhaps a good thing if you’re in a military bagpipe band, not so much when you’re trying to be an inconspicuous tourist. But I digress.

First stop of the day is Edinburgh Castle. We still have the bus passes but the route would take us all around the city before getting to the castle. Quicker to just walk up the hill. We easily found the alley, “close,” as they call them, that we came down yesterday to take us back up. This put us right back into the middle of the fringe festival street fair with the myriad street performers and buskers. We took a moment to check out a few before heading on to the castle.

As luck would have it we got there just before they shot off the 1:00 gun. We weren’t certain what all the gathering was about at first, but when I saw the gun and a regimented man beginning a talk, it came back to me about this traditional ritual by which all of Edinburgh is to set their clocks and watches. I’m happy we caught this. Yes, a touristy thing to do – as in there really is no other reason for them to do this anymore. But fun, none-the-less. The gentleman in uniform who shot off the gun with such pomp and circumstance also gave a presentation beforehand, but I couldn't make out a word of it.

ARVE Error: Mode: lazyload not available (ARVE Pro not active?), switching to normal mode

We continued to explore the castle and learn a bit of its history. I won’t try to go into too much here, but more can be found on the official website: http://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk/

We didn’t go into every building that one could, but we did check out the Crown Jewels, though impressive, hardly hold a candle to those found in London Tower. Also impressive was the Scottish National War Memorial. This was a former barracks that was transformed into a memorial for those who lost their lives in both world wars. It’s quite moving for its remembrance of the wars but also its architecture. The outside is largely medieval with a few art deco embellishments. The inside is a combination of classic, gothic and art deco. I know that sounds like a lot, but it actually works.

The other thing that stuck me about the castle is just how evident it is that the whole thing is built on a big rock. As you walk around, you see where the rock of the mount still sticks through and the buildings are just placed right on top. Of course, all the courtyards and walkways are stone paved, but peak around the corner of any building and you’ll see the raw outcropping. This is a magma plug from an extinct volcano after all.

Having made the rounds to the parts of the castle that interested us, it was time for lunch. So we were off to search for something a little different (as in not Scottish). And found that we did. Just near the entrance to the castle, we found a Thai restaurant. Some curry and a Singha hit the spot. And we got some entertainment from listening to the German couple at the next table, who never have seemed to have eaten Thai food before, trying to navigate the menu and avoid the landmines of anything spicier than soy sauce. The waiter got quite the interrogation!

Edinburgh, Kevin

The day before, we came across a well-known tourist attraction that we really hadn’t planned on seeing. But on the recommendation of our friends Mark and Todd, we went ahead and bought tickets. After lunch we made our way back down the Royal Mile a few blocks to Mary King’s Close. This is a tour of the underneath world of old Edinburgh. As the city was built on Castle Hill, one building was placed upon another and then another on top of that and so on. This left warrens of rooms, stables, alley ways, and shops where the poorest of the poor of Edinburgh lived and worked. It was fascinating and tacky all at the same time. Not something I would do again but if you find yourself in Edinburgh, but with children (not too young though), this would be a fun diversion for them. Sorry - pictures not allowed.

When we arrived at Mary Kings Close it had been sprinkling a bit, now it was raining. Normally, we wouldn’t care so much and just head back to the hotel. But this wasn’t just any night. Tonight was the Royal Tattoo up at the castle for an evening of bagpipe bands and other performances from around the world followed by a fireworks show. Being the (former?) band geek that I am, this was to be a highlight of the trip for me. I wasn’t going to let a little rain chase me off. But as we got closer to the entrance – and then sent around the corner to get in the very, very, long line further from the entrance- it began to POUR. This was no longer a little bit of an annoyance but a full-on drenching, wind-blown rain! Kevin stuck it out for a while but as rivers of rain started coming down the street and his shoes thoroughly soaked, he had enough. Back to the hotel for him.

I decided to stick it out. Most everyone else, either in ponchos or under umbrellas, were just taking it all in stride. It made me think about how Americans will head for a stadium to see their favorite football team, come rain or shine. If they can all do it, well then, so can I. I trudged forward, nearly giving up at least once or twice, getting ever so closer to the point of no return and ever so much more soaked. I was even starting to get wet inside my “waterproof” hoody. I had come this far. I can always leave if I’m miserable so on I went. But in my mind I’m thinking “why haven’t they cancelled this yet?”

I knew my seat would be on the top row – that’s all that was available five months before when we bought the tickets. What a surprise - it’s right under the catwalk for the spot lights! I’m not going to get rained on – at least not directly – the wind was still howling, at first from behind, blocked by a wall. But as the night progressed, the wind increased and shifted to blow right in my face at times.

Rather than imagine the rain, see for yourself.

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The show was quite a spectacle of pageantry from around the world. Of course, much of it was British Isles-centric. There were also performances from China, India, Switzerland, China (yes, again), among others. There were a couple of performances on behalf of the US. The only US military showing was a small honor guard doing a rifle twirling exhibition. The other US participants were from The Citadel Military College, nicely done. The show-stopper was the Top Secret Drum Corp from Switzerland – A M A Z I N G !!

Here’s a professional vid of them performing (click here if the Youtube video doesn't show):

And then here’s mine:

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My apologies for the quality of my videos, I'm just getting the hang of filming.

Additional shots of some of the other performances.

They even managed to pull off the fireworks in the driving rain!

I stuck it out to the bitter(ly cold) end. By the time I got out of the stadium, wouldn’t you know, the rain let up. But still it was a long, wet, clickity-click walk back to the hotel to find Kevin warmly nestled in bed.

Oh! And by the way. Less than a week later, I got an email from the ticket manager who took my bus and sightseeing tickets on “consignment.” She had been able to sell them and a refund was on the way. This would have never happened in the US, I’m sure.


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Edinburgh, HMY Britannia

Scotland – Day 1 in Edinburgh

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

21 August 2015

by Kevin

Friday, we woke to partly cloudy and humid day. Roving showers tested our ability to plan our wardrobes for the day. In the end, we went with our Seattle experience and layered up. On our docket this day was visiting two sites and more if we could: The Royal Yacht Britannia and the Palace at Holyroodhouse. Edinburgh Castle would wait until the next day.

Breakfast at The Place was, well, another interesting adventure that started with high expectations. The breakfast is held in two areas, one at the front of the hotel with nice views of the street scene with all the early morning off-to-work crowd and the other at the back that functions also as a passageway to the part of the hotel in which we were housed. We found seats easily and settled in to take in the morning commute outside our window. The occasional ruggedly handsome, kilted businessman passed by but mostly there were saggy jeans on the young and very tightly tailored jeans of various pedigrees with tasteful jackets on those we could assume were heading to some office. Back to the breakfast.

Once again as had been our experience previously on this trip, the staff seemed nearly out of control with all their rushing about and panicked looks. They appeared to be only capable of doing one thing at a time. First the coffee, then, oh, right, forgot the teas. Overhearing a table of retirees on their way shopping that morning, I gathered they took the matter of not having enough tableware into their own hands and pilfered what then needed from where ever they could. I decided to order something hot, two eggs sunny side up and homemade lamb sausages, as I really don’t like ‘trough food’ that has been sitting out and been handled by the guests. Steven does well enough with the orange juice, toasts, hard-boiled eggs, and charcuterie available. Eventually, my order came after a complete change of diners in our room. The food was pretty good though and I devoured it straight away.

Our first task after food was to go down the hill to Princes Street Gardens and purchase our combined tourist bus and attractions tickets at the blue kiosk by all the buses awaiting their customers. It took a bit to locate the very small, almost hidden and closed looking blue kiosk, which had been described to us by the helpful folks in the tourist office as a blue building. We were looking for something well…more like a building. Our mistake. Having our tickets in hand and glancing at our watches to see when the next bus would take us to the Royal Britannia, we thought we had about 15 minutes wait so we just started to look around the area, take a few pictures and wait. I noticed, when we were about half way down the bridge crossing a long-since drained and filled swamp separating Old Edinburgh from the new, in the shadow of The Scott Monument, that our bus had pulled up…a full 10 minutes ahead of time. Catching Steven’s eye, we rush forward through the aimlessly wandering tourists, establishing our ‘we mean business’ formation and skirted by most of crowd, which somehow had managed to quadruple in size in mere moments.

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We were nearly the first on the bus, so we had a good choice of seats. Note to anyone traveling this way to the Britannia, taking the upper deck is worth the effort, if it’s not raining. Being it was threatening rain and very humid, we were quite pleased we’d kneed and elbowed our way on to the top deck….just kidding, no infirm or older adults, children, or pets were harmed during our egress.

The trip out to the mouth of the River Leith where the Britannia is moored at the Ocean Terminal is about 30 minutes by bus and wasn’t all that interesting. I passed the time looking at the guidebook and maps trying to keep up with all the hairpin turns we were making on our way there. I lost track. Steven donned a pair of headphones (provided) to listen to the recorded commentary as we whizzed by the sites; he readily admits that he doesn’t remember of word of it. We arrived slightly refreshed and eager to get on with it.

Cue music: Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule the waves….

DPF, Edinburgh, Europe, HMY Britannia, Scotland, UK

 

The Royal Yacht Britannia has a fascinating history for it’s relatively short time in service to HRH Queen Elizabeth and the Royal family. You can go here to read more if you like: http://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk. It is now permanently moored at a modern shopping mall and is a very popular tourist attraction as the crush of buses could attest. Finally on board we passed a very nice short history of the vessel and those who were lucky enough to travel upon her. You know the names: Lizbet and Phil of course, Diana and Charles, the boys, several US Presidents including Clinton #1…perhaps there will be a President Clinton #2????

The assorted pictures here tell something of the experience, but frankly, they can’t convey how stately she appeared even in her waning years. There are the main rooms open to the public, but two additional levels not open to tours and held for overnight guests. The Queen’s and Prince Philip’s bedrooms are across the center hall from each other amidships, the most stable place on any ship. Light colored fabrics in hers, a single bed (no trysts on board I guess), a small working desk. The main dining room ran the width of the vessel and was set as if a party were to soon begin. Just aft from here was a small reception room set up as a champagne bar (yummy) that lead into a large and very comfortable looking living room complete with fireplace. Ah, life aboard must have been sweet.

If you do go, look out for the hidden corgis. Small stuffed versions of the Queen’s favorite dogs are all over the place; some stuck up high on shelves next priceless gifts from on of the former territories or just sitting sprightly on a bed.

There was of course lunch to be had about now, so we climbed up to the Royal Deck Tea Room and were seated quickly. Tea was a must, how could one not? Soups and sandwiches did the trick along with a ginger beer. After a bit of people watching – hoping secretly to see a Titanicesque young child being shown how one folds ones napkins on the lap just so. Alas, we were only treated to see many texting or engaged in some social media postings.

After lunch, we headed to the lower decks. As sumptuous as were the upper quarters, these were just as Spartan and cramped; minimal room for personal belongings and a small cot for each seaman. The various ranks of officers, of course, had more space, if not even their own stateroom. Each level of officers also had their own lounge with bar. These were actually quite nice. After the tour, we disembarked, passing Her Majesty’s beautifully restored tender complete with gold plated lions and shiny brass cleats.

HRH Launch

Back down through the mall to find a bus, not a long wait. We decided to next visit The Palace of Holyroodhouse. The twisted journey took us past the Royal Botanic Gardens and back across town near Holyrood Park with its Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, the ancient volcano, hanging above the city. A hike up that way will have to wait for another visit. We arrived at Holyroodhouse once again rested.

Holyrood Park

The Palace is a royal residence to this day and known to be one of the final residences of Mary Queen of Scots. Like most well-used castles and great houses, Holyroodhouse Palace was built over successive centuries and it shows. There is little blending of architecture and interior style, with each addition still fairly distinct. You really got the sense of traveling through history while walking the vast, square building finally ending in the oldest part of the palace where Mary was kept.

Palace at Holyrood

 

Edinburgh, Palace at Holyrood House

After walking a bit around the gardens, it was getting late, my back was aching and my feet were humming, so we decided to catch another tour bus that would hopefully end us close to where we were staying. But not until we’ve sat down for a moment for an afternoon tea in the courtyard.

Mickey with a cuppa

What a surprise to quickly be engulfed in the massive crowds gathered in Edinburgh for The Fringe Festival. The regular bus route was altered to avert the Royal Mile, which was currently used as a giant venue with mini stages set up all along its length. I was particularly grateful to see it all, as colorful and wonderful as it looked, from a slight distance. We ended up crisscrossing several of the cities bridges, each affording us great views. The bus dropped us at the bottom of the old city, and a big hill climb up to the Mile.

Royal Mile

Finding our way up the hill to the crowds wasn’t hard…just follow the steady streams of humanity and you’re there. Once back on the Mile we just wandered about; listening to street performers, watching a Japanese troupe entirely clad in white with white faces tease tourists with their trailing white veils, and taking in a local cathedral requisitioned this week for the Fringe.

Old City Buildings Old City Streets
DPF, Edinburgh, Europe, Scotland, UK Fringe Festival
Fringe Festival

We popped into St Giles Cathedral for a quick look. We found a flyer for an organ concert on the next night which would have been interesting, but we had other plans.

St Giles Cathedral St Giles Cathedral

This kid, couldn't have been more than 12 or 13 years old, was really killin' it up on the Royal Mile.

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I was pooped and my back was getting progressively worse, but I knew Steven could go on and on and on. Gracious as he is, I held out probably too long, not wanting to end the day too fast. By time we headed down the long, steep close back to the other side of the city, to make another climb up to our hotel, I needed some down time. We had dinner at an unremarkable Italian place, Amarone. Inside was a great bustle of noise so we chose the more immediate outside seating as it was quite pleasant out still. After dinner we headed back for the evening through the seemingly on-going party in St Andrew Square. A quick stop in the hotel bar for some ice for our nightcap. I enjoyed the last of our gin & tonic while Steven sampled from our otherwise growing collection of mini-bottles of whisky.

Flag of Scotland - St Andrew's Cross


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Balmoral, DPF, Mickey, Scotland

Scotland – Elgin to Edinburgh

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

by Kevin (mostly, with some additions from Steven)

August 20, 2015

If you are still following us, you’re probably saying, ‘Hey, didn’t I just see these guys at a holiday party?’ And, you’d be right. Yes, we’re taking our time at this, yes we are.

We had a big day ahead of us; lots of miles to cover and a couple of places of interest to visit. We thought it might take us most of the day to get to our destinations, so we set off early…for us. Leaving Elgin after another, though much lighter, breakfast at our Fawlty Towers digs, we, rather I, really wanted to head toward Balmoral. It was a bit of a trick to find a relatively direct route that got us there on our way to our Land Rover Experience and finally into Edinburgh. As you already know, we’ve done little planning on routes or closures, and the like, so after a brief check of the well-creased map of Scotland, we just headed south on the A941, the most direct route we saw.

We’ve mentioned enough about how narrow the roads are and how fast the lorries go no matter how slight the space between oncoming traffic, so I won’t repeat the many small terrors of this trip, only to say I’m glad we made it over the Cairngorm Mountains without any accidents. We actually chose a lesser-traveled route for the more mountainous parts of the trip, so perhaps, that saved us some drama.

Heading out of Elgin at this time of day wasn’t a problem. We dropped down the A941 which took us past Glen Grant, and Macallan distilleries and the Speyside Cooperage, where we changed to the A939. We also passed near the Aberlour Distillery for which we couldn’t get tasting reservation this week but our friends Bruce and Nancy from the QM2 had been two days before – we just missed them. The roadways along this route were at first packed with commuters and lorries of all sizes, apparently getting an early start to work and making their deliveries, but by time we passed Grantown-on-Spey the traffic really thinned out and we collectively took a big sigh of relief. Maybe we could finally put the Mercedes through her paces and open her up on the open Scottish Highland roads?

DPF

 

This route, the A939, took us deep into Cairngorms National Park and through some of the most beautiful lands we’d seen to this point. From the pictures, you’ll see a lack of large trees and plenty of rolling, heather-covered hills carpeted in different hues and saturations of yellow, fading green, and grey-blue. Somehow this more than the other wonderful landscapes of Scotland hit a cord in us…so THIS is what Scotland looks like. Of course, our vision of this Scotland was shaped by American TV…not the least of which for me was American Werewolf in London ‘Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors.’ Creepy fun to be seeing the highland moors in the ever changing skies of northern Scotland. Just wonderful.

I can’t say we got much of a chance to open up the Mercedes, but we did push it a few times when we could clearly see enough of the roadway ahead to play safely. Admittedly, it was fun to feel the car hug the roads like it did, not flinching at the speed or curves. Several of the vistas pictured here are views from atop a small pass or overlook on the way into the park. These are old mountains; they look and feel enduring.

We stopped briefly to "stretch our legs" in the village of Tomintoul. Among other things, its claim to fame is being the highest village in the Scottish Highlands. It has a checkered past, including reputedly by loathed by Queen Victoria. As she described:  "a tumbledown, miserable, dirty-looking place." These days, it's actually a clean and quaint little village and quite the tourist centre along the Whiskey Trail among the Highlands.

Just outside Tomintoul we really climbed up in elevation. The land slipped away more steeply on the sides of the road and the gloominess set in; a perfect setting. The Lecht Ski Centre was at the very top of the pass, and while it didn’t look like it had the amenities or the size of the resorts of the American Rockies or Cascades for that matter, we could certainly see ourselves having a grand time coming down off the quad chair and into the valleys of the ski centre. However, as we learned from our guide later in the day, it’s hardly worth the trek to get up here in the winter when you could just as easily fly about anywhere in Europe for much better.

Down we went now, still on the A939 until we got to Gairnshiel Lodge, where we turned west onto the much smaller, more ‘country’ sized road, the 8976. This was a cut off to Balmoral; we thought, ‘hey, why not explore the country a little more?’ This short stretch took us past the tiny village of Bush Lawsie and into Crathie, where things definitely took on a more royal look and feel.

Reaching Balmoral we found the front gates closed…what, no greeting party? There were no tour buses in the bus park, so we figured Her Majesty or the kiddies were in residence. We were right. Just a coal delivery truck and several nicely uniformed guards were around. I think I saw some well-armed guards in the woods just beyond the iron fencing, but that could just have been my X-Files weakened brain working overtime.

 

DPF, Mickey

 

Even though there were clearly marked signs saying NOT to park in front of the gate area, we did anyway, mostly because I didn’t want to walk the distance from the car park to the gatehouse. Lazy I know…but, we’d been in the car sooo long by then, I just couldn’t wait to get out of it! The shopkeeper at a now converted gatehouse didn’t mention that we should move, probably because he was just as eager to see some humans as we were to get out of that car. We had a pleasant enough chat, with me nervously looking out the window to our car, checking on the guards to make sure they weren’t descending on it or taking it away. We ended up buying a few biscuits and a tea towel, the latter of which now hangs proudly off our oven door. Regrettably, I went for the bargain biscuits thinking that they were from Prince Charles’ own farms and recipe. Nope. I got the sale biscuits, the kind you can pick up just about anywhere in-country.

We had to move fast down the A93 if we were going to make our 12:30pm appointment at the Land Rover Experience just outside Butterstone on the A923. We made it in plenty of time, in fact, we were the first to arrive. You might be asking why in the world would you set up a Land Rover Experience in Scotland anyway? We’ll get to that in a minute.

Land Rover Experience, Mickey DPF, Land Rover Experience

Apparently, everyone but us knew that the staff lunched from Noon to 1:30pm, so we weren’t exactly greeted with fanfare when we arrived. But, after finding the main entrance...not so easy really as it was facing the lake, not the car park. Anyway, we did sign-in and were sat in the spacious eating hall (that’s the only name I can come up for it)…by ourselves. Soup and salad were on the menu, the lunch we had purchased ahead of time when we booked our experience. We were starved, and even Steven ate most of his soup, which I think was carrot/squash. After this repast we still weren’t sure what to do next. So we waited thinking someone would come get us to start our adventure. No one came so we went back to the lobby. We noticed that others had arrived and were being treated to coffee and tea in front of the fireplace. We hadn’t been asked if we even wanted coffee or tea. Okay, nothing to be bitter about, just a situation of not knowing the protocol of how these things worked. And we continued to wait for a guide.

Land Rover Experience

 

Okay, so we finally were introduced to our guide – Ruaraidh Carmichael – we called him Rudy. Rudy took us to our white Discovery Sport HSE. Incidentally, we only recently had taken delivery of our own. Here’s where the explanation of why we’d booked this experience comes in. We didn’t know, but when you buy a Land Rover you get a free 2-3 hour ‘experience’ driving your model around a course designed to take advantage of the rig’s capabilities. So, Steven being on that sort of thing, found out through considerable back and forth with Land Rover USA and Land Rover UK, that indeed we COULD transfer our free experience to the Scotland centre. Yeah for us. So, there you go, we booked our time at the Scotland centre with lunch just so we’d have another weird story to tell.

The experience itself was a bit underwhelming at first. Country roads and some sloppy unpaved narrow trails, not much else until we got to an open area with some serious looking hills and water covered paths. It turns out there are several tracks that are specifically designed for specific vehicles. Ours, being a littler, lighter and newest Land Rover model, wasn’t designed for the steepest nor the deepest water traps. Bummer. But we did get to go up and down parts of the route that I would never have done on my own. The first time Rudy showed us the capability we had of letting the car take over controlling the rate of ascent and descent with the Hill Decend feature. We had no idea that we could let off the gas pedal and the car would figure out the proper rate given the steepness of the hill. REALLY cool. We can also use this for launching and retrieving our boat – this will come in really handy! Here's a video of Steven putting it in action.

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We each got a chance at this - the uphill and downhill tracks – several times. What fun. Rudy said we needed to move along as others were now coming on the course and wanted to have a go at the climbs. So off we went on the country roads to another part of their course. This time we went higher up into sheep country, having to pass a few gates to get to our track. Steven recalls that Rudy grew up in the area on a sheep farm, and that Rudy said he hated sheep. Apparently, according to Rudy, sheep are the dumbest animals around. No offense to you sheep people, just reporting the facts of Rudy.

We also got great accolades from Rudy on our skill with driving on the “wrong side” of the car. He’s seen people from other left-driving regions that haven’t done as well as us on the course. We chalk it up to a week of practice in a car with much less visibility.

Land Rover Experience

After about 3 hours, or very close to it, we had to get going to Edinburgh to turn in the car by 6pm.

From Butterstone we hightailed it to Dunkeld and caught the main highway, the A9, south toward Perth and on the M90 to the A90, across the Forth Road Bridge and finally into Edinburgh. We did not stop at Deep Sea World in Inverkeithing, which is on the Firth of Forth, to dive with sharks (http://www.deepseaworld.com/shark-dives) – Darn!

Heading into Edinburgh wasn’t a big deal as it turns out. The trusty GPS on the Mercedes got us to our hotel, The Place at York Place. Funny thing, we didn’t see any parking anywhere near the hotel entrance, which was on a main tram and bus line. I was admittedly a little fried from all the driving that day and told Steven to just park the car on the sidewalk, making sure to get enough off the road so we wouldn’t get smashed by buses or cars. Well, we really wanted to make sure not to get the car scratched in the final minutes of rentalship, so he parked solidly on the sidewalk, causing more than a few raised eyebrows from the locals trying to make their way around this black Mercedes blocking their way.

A new bridge is being built across the Firth of Forth, it looks to be quite massive.

Phew. We got checked in fine, Steven went off the return the car (thankfully only ½ block away), leaving me to tend to the bags…which were considerable by then and very heavy. You might not know, but I had been slowly developing a very sore shoulder and back ache since we left Seattle, and by this time I was nearly in tears if I walked too much and lifted just about anything with my right arm. Luckily, the hotel had a strapping young buck of an Italian to assist me getting the bags up four flights of stairs.

Note to self: check on whether your hotel has an elevator if it’s above a couple of stories. The stair climbs were steep and the height of each level was considerably higher than one would think. Just a piece of advice to check out the elevator situation when traveling in the UK, especially if one of your party has been developing twitches and pains.

The room itself was plenty large and comfortable, even by European standards, a fact that the Italian buck commented on when he found out our room number. I didn’t ask further about that little bit of endorsement. I suppose it was a nod to the old and the artsy-new that we found this portrait guarding over our bed.

It was very humid and bordering on being a bit too warm that day, so we threw open the windows a while and just collapsed on the bed, still feeling the hours of motion in our feet. Eventually, we needed food and drink and off we went toward the centre of town. Quite amazingly, this happened to be the night of a city-wide festival. The park, St. Andrew’s Square, was full of food carts, a champagne bar, beer gardens and several music venues. It was really a pleasant surprise to walk into such a party and a great way to start off the final days of our time in Scotland.

We headed further into the center of town looking for a full dinner. We just happened to stumble across Jamie’s Italian by renowned TV chef Jamie Oliver. If you ever find yourself near this place, just keep walking. It’s basically the Cheesecake Factory or Italian food: huge portions, well enough prepared, but not above average, in a large and noisy dining room. Our friends William and Kate in York had been to a smaller Jamie Oliver restaurant elsewhere and said it was quite good, but at the moment we’re not recalling where that one was. The charcuterie platter, however, was quite ample, and could be a meal in itself.

Back to the hotel for the night. Lots of site seeing in the morning.


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Elgin, Mansion House

Scotland – Fawlty Towers

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland,Travel

Tuesday - Thursday, August 18-20

Kevin alluded in our last post about to the interesting time we had at out hotel in Elgin, Mansion House Hotel & Country Club. It was of such idiosyncrasy that it really does deserve a short post of its own. I'll think you'll agree with us as to why we've dubbed it "Scotland's own Fawlty Towers." I really did have expect to see a crazed man with a skillet in his hand chasing a diminutive Portuguese staff member onto the front lawn.

Once we found the place, as Kevin mentioned, by following the car's navigation system that send us down the narrowest of alley ways and cart paths, the approach up the drive was quite impressive. A big manor house on the edge of downtown Elgin with a vast front lawn. The house exterior actually reminds me of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s castle  in Rocky Horror. Fortunately we didn't arrive in the middle of a dark and rainy night. We park and go in.

The oddly tiny front door leads into the foyer and then into a massive entry hall. A grand staircase leading up on side and a small hallway leading further in on the other, this is where we found the check in desk. A young lady was there just finishing up with another guest. It takes her a while to get organized to help us. While doing so, we make the usual chit-chat including asking a bit about the mansion. "How old is the house?" We ask. "Oh at least two or three hundred years, but I'm not sure, I've only been here a few weeks." A little older than I would have expected but ok, wow! I leave Kevin to get us checked since this reservation is in his name as I go out to start bringing in the bags.

As I head back in, an insignia above the door catches my eye. It has the date the house was built: 1882. Two, or three hundred years, indeed! Has this girl never looked up when she comes to work? Perhaps the help has to come in the back so she's never seen this, perhaps.

 

We must have booked one of their finer rooms. It was quite large. And, oh my! The Victorian red velvet everywhere: the sofa, bedspread, bed canopy, chairs, curtains, and even the wall paper. Despite the abundance of ceiling lights, the room was as dark as if lit by gaslight. The bathroom was quite modern with a shower/tub combo at one end and shower stall at the other. All clad in white marble. Once the CFL bulbs warmed up, the room was sufficiently lit, except in the one area that had a burned out bulb. One out in the bathroom too. BTW, Kevin says he sensed we weren’t alone in the room when he entered. But that’s for another time.

download bath

 

You may have notice the words “county club” in the name of this fine establishment. We don’t know all the particulars, but this facet of the operation involved a pool, workout room, and spa. All located at the back of the ground floor, beyond the billiard room. We didn’t make use of these facilities during our stay as it all felt little unwelcoming. I poked my head into the pool area when Kevin was checking us in. As I did, the eyes of about half a dozen men, all well in excess of 70 years of age in and around the lap pool, turned to inspect the interloper. Otherwise, the place had a very clinical feel to it, not a resort or even what I’ve come to know in my limited experience in the US as a County Club. I’ll pass.

Opposite the reception desk is a wee bar, really, that’s it’s name, The Wee Bar. A tiny room with a full bar, floor to ceiling, and only room for one or two tables and a handful of seats at the bar. Fawlty Tower’s bar was much bigger.

Not knowing the area and other dining options, we chose to eat in the hotel. Kevin had made reservations while checking us in where he was lead to believe the place would be packed and we were lucky to get in at all. The instructions, and this is where it starts getting odd, were to report to the salon, opposite side of the entry hall from the dining room, at the appointed time. Not ones to argue, we dutifully complied. Upon arrival we were seated next to the fireplace in this elaborate and large salon. Several other groups of guests were here ahead of us, also awaiting their tables.

After some wait a waitress came by to take our drink orders. OK, fine, I'll have a scotch, but why are we doing this here and not going through to the dining room? Are they that busy, is it that few tables? After an inordinate length of time, or cocktails arrived along with nuts and an amuse bouche of sorts- actually very tasty. In the meanwhile all the other groups have been escorted to the dining room. And we waited…alone. Menus were presented. And we waited. And waited some more…alone. Nearly an hour later, well after finishing our appertifs, (no seconds offered on the snacks or cocktails) we were finally escorted across the foyer where the double sliding doors of the dining room were opened for our entry. And quickly closed behind us.

The dining room wasn't huge by any means, but there were more than a few empty tables. And lots of staff. Running everywhere. What a circus! We were visited by a number of servers and waiters, we never could figure out who was in charge of our table. But our drink orders are taken, Prosecco, I believe.

Let me now take a minute to rant about something we saw repeatedly in the UK. Please indulge me. In the US any enterprising restauranteur will want you to have the drink and wine menu as long as you will have it. After all, this provides the highest profit margins in the place. Here in the UK, once you place your initial drink order, say for a prosecco or martini while you peruse the menu before deciding on a wine, the drink menu is snatched away and the preset wine glasses cleared from the table. You practically have to wrestle the waiter to get the wine menu back. Could someone from England or Scotland reading this please explain why this is?

We eventually flag down one of the harried servers to place our order. This puts a loom of fear on her face in an instant and she runs off mumbling something about needing to get the order pad. No chance this time of asking for the wine menu back. She returns shortly with what appears to be the one and only order pads in the place. Orders taken and we surprise her another time by asking for the wine menu. We must be Philistines in this land! But she complies.

We quickly land on a choice while she waits. Apparently our English isn't very good, or our US English accent pronunciation of French throws her off, so pointing it will be to the Côtes Du Rhône – a safe bet we thought. She smiles graciously, and briskly off she goes to the other room.

A few minutes later, another server, whom we haven't seen before, approaches carrying the precious wine menu to confirm our order, pointing to the item again. Yes, that is what we would like. Off she goes.

Then, get this, our original server runs back into the room, out the double doors, carrying our bottle of wine. Where's she going? Does someone at the front desk need to approve the sale? A short while later, back it comes, right passed the table and back to the kitchen. Looking for the bottle opener perhaps? If nothing else, at least we're getting a floor show with dinner. By the way, no other guest seems to be as enthralled or taken aback by the high level of performance we are witnessing than us.

In a minute or two, the wine comes back in the hands of yet another server with proper glasses to pour. Finally!

Dinner arrives. And it couldn't have been more elaborately presented, just beautiful. Someone has spent a great deal of time and effort to garnish and plate these dishes, the likes of which we have seldom seen. When you see this much attention put into the visual, you have to wonder if it's just a distraction from food that isn't well prepared. This was not the case, far from it. All was delicious!

Kevin had the seared scallops with speck followed by lamb chops with lamb bacon and basil mint sauce. Lamb bacon, who would have ever thought?

Mansion House-008-20150818.jpg Mansion House-010-20150818.jpg

I had ham terrine and a perfectly medium rare filet of beef with grilled Portobello, onion rings and fries (yes, I know - “chips”).

Mansion House-009-20150818.jpg

Another successful dinner under our belts, we head back to the room.

We get settled in for our couple nights here. Furniture had to be moved to get to the few plugs in the room to recharge our various electronics, and we try to figure out the bath fixtures (you would think this an easy task, but for some reason the shower installer got really creative). Pulling back the covers on the bed was the most surprising. I know it can be cold and gloomy in Scotland but this was crazy. These were the heaviest covers, blanket, duvet, and bedspread. I mean really heavy, the likes I've never seen before, even at a ski resort. But minimalist pillows. All made for a restless night for me, though I think Kevin slept soundly as usual. At least the heavy drapes kept the room nice and dark.

From here I'll depart from our normal chronology and skip ahead to dinner the following night so as to continue with our Fawlty Towers experience.

Not wanting to go through the same dining ordeal as the night before, we opted for the more casual cafe. We were shown around past the reception desk, through the billiards room, around the see-through fireplace, to a small closet...err...dining room. This room had maybe eight tables in it, packed fairly tightly together, pub style. We were the only ones here at this point. Leaving the menus, the waitress left us to our decision making. A slightly less formal menu than last night, but as we found out later we could have ordered from the main dining room menu as well.

In the meanwhile another guest is escorted into the room. And seated at the table right next to us. I mean RIGHTNEXTOTUS. We were so close, we could have shared an entrée, off the same plate! Why would they seat him so close? So the waitress saves 2 or 3 steps getting from one side of the postage stamp sized room to the other?

The waitress returns momentarily. “Are you ready to order?” So Kevin begins “I’ll have the…” She interrupts with “oh wait, I have to go get the order book.” Sigh. After a surprisingly long time, she’s back and we try again.

In due course our meal arrives, the gentleman next to us having eaten his fish and chips is gone and we have the place to ourselves again to enjoy our dinner. No one here to criticize us for taking pictures of our food, no witnesses. Unfortunately, we only had our phones with us, so pardon the quality of the photos. Once again, lavishly presented, just beautiful, or dare I say, a bit over the top. Still delicious however.

Tonight’s choices:

Salmon Carpaccio

Soup (I just can’t remember what kind, even with the picture)

Steamed Mussels

Bangers and Mash

And something neither of us can fully remember nor make out in the picture, perhaps some kind of fishcake with whipped wasabi, sweet jelly sauce and the ubiquitous chips in a ornamental fryer basket (seen these in several places recently).

Honestly, I can hardly remember this meal, I’m sure I was quite tired after the long day we had. More on that in our next post.

 

Breakfast the next morning was as expected: part continental but with full menu available. The continental with all the cold starches and grains in abundance that one sees at such a breakfast was all set out in the main entry hall along with juices, milk, coffee, and tea. We chose to have a seat in the dining room, fully open and accessible this morning. The place was busy already even at this early hour (we’re starting the day early as we know we have another long drive ahead of us). The staff, also as per usual here, were scurrying about back and forth. Never seeming  to be carrying more than a single item at a time, even when clearing or resetting tables. An elderly gentleman in blacks and whites, very carefully attends to setting the silver on a table recently vacated, dashes away, only to return to set his attention to the plates…oh, wait, some young upstart server has already placed some tableware on his table. He momentarily looked quite confused and perhaps a little offended. We could almost hear the inner dialogue that must have been going on in his head: what does she mean to put those plates that way? And who does she think she is anyway? He soon disappears behind the swinging door to the kitchen. We never see him reappear.

Always rushing in and out of the room just as we had seen at dinner two nights before, though largely different staff. At a place this size, you usually see maybe two or three wait staff handling breakfast where many patrons are opting for the continental. Here, there had to have been a least six that we counted. Amidst the flurry, one finally approached to take our order, “Have we decided on what we would like?” “Yes, I’ll have….” “Oh wait, I need to go get the order book.”  ROTFLMAO!!

<<Roll Credits>>

Epilogue

I hope this post hasn’t come across as more critical than we really feel about the place. It was clean and, even though most were fairly new, the staff seemed to enjoy working here. They were (almost) always pleasant and helpful and everything was clean and reasonably well cared for, if not a little eccentric. It’s just that the way they went about their tasks continues to make us chuckle and wonder how things got to be this way here. If we were back in the area, we would consider staying here again though we may want to see what else is on offer elsewhere just to experience something different.

Steven

 


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Elgin, Europe, Scotland, Strathisla, UK

Scotland – Whisky Tour

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

By Steven

August 19, 2015

A wee dram of whisky by my keyboard is a perfect way to get in the mood to write this next installment. “Why?” you may ask. Well I’ll tell you –this is a day devoted to touring whisky distilleries in the Speyside region.

When putting together our itinerary, Kevin and I specifically targeted finding a couple of night’s accommodation in this area so we could take a mini-tour of the distilleries in the area. In fact, our selection of hotel played into this. The website for the Mansion House Hotel listed on its website, front-and-center, “The Whisky Trail” with listings of many of the distilleries in the area and a promise of “We can help to guide you through by providing information on the distilleries, their opening hours and directions as to how to find them.” After our encounters thus far with the staff here, we don’t hold out much hope for that. So instead we headed for the bank of brochures in the foyer – you know the place, the racks one finds in all the best establishments, often hidden out of view, where you can find brochures on all manner of tourist activities, from horseback riding to the local Dolphin Quest or ziplines. Amongst all these, I found a few distillery pamphlets to look over during breakfast.
OK – this is where you ask why we didn’t plan ahead and already do our research. The answer is simple, we just didn’t. We’re good at planning the big stuff, but the little details just have to happen as they do sometimes. This is one of those times.

We were able to whittle away the possibilities quite quickly. Many were by reservation only and others just too far afield to be practicable with a relatively late start on the day. We narrowed in on two: the first being Strathisla about ½ hour’s drive away in Keith. The other one was a bit closer, Glen Moray back in Elgin that we could hit on the way”home.”

The drive to Keith and finding Strathisla was rather uneventful. Our trusty nav system in the Benz did perfectly – and we actually paid attention to it not thinking we knew better. You have to know when you’re smarter than your car and when you’re not.

As we found out later in our tour, Strathisla is part of the Chivas Regal group, which in-turn is part of Pernod Ricard. Yes, this whisky is made by the same people who make such mainstays as Pernod Fils pastis, Royal Salute, Seagrams and Absolut. Not exactly the boutique distillers we’d hoped to find. The plus side however, is that the Duke of Argyll (you remember him, the Chief of the Campbell Clan) is the Brand Ambassador for Royal Salute, so there is a “family” connection. BTW, Royal Salute’s 45 year old Tribute to Honour blended whisky sells for a mere $195,000 for 70cl (https://www.thewhiskyexchange.com/P-16905.aspx) of which, the basic Strathisla single malt is the major component. If any of you happen to pick up a bottle on your next spin through a duty free – please share a sip.

Other things we learned on our tour:

1. Most of the barrels used for aging whisky come from America. They’re oak barrels that have been used to make bourbon. By US law, the barrels can only be used once for bourbon. So the Scots by them up for use in making whisky.

2. The height of the neck on the distilling vats makes a difference in the intensity of the flavor of the resulting whisky. See #4 Upper Part of a pot still here: https://www.whisky.com/information/knowledge/production/details/the-scottish-pot-stills.html

3. The water for whisky must always come from a well. However, the excess water from the process must be treated and returned to the nearby river (there’s always a river, that’s how they used to grind the barley). The excess must go into the river within 1 degree C of the temperature of the river to protect wildlife habitats

4. And most importantly – there are sections of the distillery where you can’t take pictures lest the whole place explodes. Consider yourselves warned!

The tour, as per usual, ended with a tasting. We were treated to a flight of whiskies that included two Strathisla single malts the two Chivas Regal blended whiskies.
We made the obligatory pass through the gift shop, resulting in a few purchases followed by a few exterior photos and then it’s off to find lunch.

Elgin, Europe, Scotland, Strathisla, UK
DPF, Elgin, Europe, Scotland, Strathisla, UK Elgin, Strathisla

With nowhere in particular in mind, we just ventured through town and pulled over at the most promising looking spot. Here we found a gem! The Brasserie at The Fife Arms Hotel. Kevin had the Slow Roasted BBQ Brisket with crispy potato skins, red slaw and grilled corn. He was in heaven! I’m not recalling what I had. By the picture, it looks like a pork chop though I don’t see that on the menu. It may have been the daily special. I do remember that it was tasty and hit the spot.
The restaurant is fairly new or at least newly remodeled. So much so that it doesn't even show on Google Maps and the place looks vacant on Street View. Simple, sort of modern-country decor. I loved all the food and drink-centric quotes on the walls. It’s really worth seeking out should you be in the area. It’s very, very good.

No time for dessert – time to hit the road.

On the way out, Kevin kept hoping for a chance to see the seashore, looking out towards the North Sea. So on the way back to Elgin, we did just that. Followed a few signs of the main highway toward the beach and found ourselves at the mouth of the River Spy. Quite. A few others had found the place as well despite the fact that it wasn't a particularly warm, sunny day. Busy, but not terribly crowded…until the bus arrived that is. Clearly too cold to be in the water as no one was venturing in, though I did get a foot soaked by an insistent wave.

We'd best get ourselves moving again if we want to hit one more distillery back in Elgin.

Finding it easily enough tough it seemed like the GPS was taking us on an odd route again. By now it was getting late so no mre tours today. Just as well. If it's anything like touring wineries, they all start to look alike, when it's really just the tasting room you're headed for any way. Fortunately, tasting were still on offer. We each got a flight of there offerings. Nice, but not exceptional. We also enjoyed just having the moment to sit in the quiet courtyard and relax for a few minutes. No purchases here except a gift or two perhaps. We didn't deem the whisky worthy of the effort to bring home.

As we drove through town earlier, we had seen off to a side road some ruins. I believe Kevin had read about them somewhere as well. Turns out to be the remains of a quite significant Cathedral. Maybe not hugely significant historically outside the region, but certainly significant in size. One of the largest of its type ever built.

Unfortunately, we arrive just a lite too late. The grounds were still open but too late for new admission. Some kindly locals tried to help plead our case with the matron, "they'll never be able to come back" and "once in a life time opportunity" said another. The matron while puffing her cigarette was having nothing to do with it. "The Cardinal would have my head. Last time I let someone in late saying they won't be long kept me here an hour after closing. Never again!" Imagine this in a thick Scottish brogue.
We did pop our heads into the gift shop and found out a bit of history. Snapped a few shops over the fence. You can see Mickey was trying to climb over to get in. We caught him just in time.

You can find out more about it here: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/elgin-cathedral/

Back to Mansion House for dinner and an early night. We have a long day tomorrow.

Steven


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DPF

Scotland – Inveraray to Elgin

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

Tuesday, August 18th

by Kevin

Last Breakfast at The Thistle House Guest House

Last Breakfast at The Thistle House Guest House

We were up early to get a start on a very busy day. Tucked in our breakfast, managed to haul all our bags, which had grown precipitously since leaving the QM2, down the steep stairways to the car without incident. Both of us were anxious to get going and leave some time to get to our first destination of the day, the Glencoe Visitor Centre.

Saying goodbye to our hosts, I drove us straightaway up the A815, connecting to the eastbound A83, the same road on which we drove into the Lock Fin and Inveraray area from Glasgow five days earlier. Backtracking just a bit, we turned north at Tarbet and proceeded on the A82. Did we mention how narrow all the roads are? Yes, we did. What a relief it was to once again be on a more generously proportioned roadway today. The sun was peaking through thick clouds and we felt ready for the next adventure.

At Tarbet you get to follow up the west side of Loch Lomond, which is just lovely. The loch comes into view now and again from behind trees and scrub. Every once and a while you get a clear view of the mountains of the Trossachs National Park system. Up we head, speeding along with the traffic, not as nervous about actually going the speed limit now on these wider roads. Still, one never knows exactly when a gargantuan semi tractor-trailer rig will appear from around a sharp corner. We made it unscathed of course, but nerves were on edge I could say that for sure.

After Loch Lomond, heading north, the road buries itself into a series of heavily wooded small river valleys, then bounding up over the occasional small pass, all the while gradually ascending. There isn’t really much to report on for this part of the trip. We just kept going on A82, taking in the Scottish views, thankful of the Mercedes’ road gripping handling.

You have to love the names of some of the towns we passed through: Inverarnan, Inverardran (rival cousin towns perhaps?), Tyndrum, Auch, Bridge of Orchy (a personal favorite – half expecting to see an orc come into view!), and the lovely Loch Tulla. It was just about here, maybe 2 hours into our ride north, that the road bends west and climbs into the mountains leaving behind the lush forests with their thick undergrowth.

This was the first time we’d been into something close to what we know as mountains. Being from Seattle, the Cascades are quite tall for a coastal range and offer many wonderful views. But we don’t have the wide-open high mountain areas that have little or no trees. The bare rock face of the mountains seem to sit on tufts of green, almost as if the green is holding the rocky cliffs aloft so humans can enjoy.

One of the ranges holds Glencoe Mountain, a ski resort of some size. No snow yet, so we just stopped to enjoy the vistas at a road stop and switch drivers. I was over driving on those roads for the time being at least.

Rainbow Mickey at Loch Tulla Viewpoint

Rainbow Mickey at Loch Tulla Viewpoint

You can see Rainbow Mickey really enjoyed the view of Loch Tulla behind us as we began the climb in earnest. It was hard to know which turnout would have the best views, so we just grabbed the one nearest the highest part of the journey. We weren’t alone. Somehow, this place immediately got crowded after we pulled in. Buses and large caravan’s piled with tourists (we know, tourists just like us). But does there have to be so many? We were starving, so we partook of a food truck parked there. I can’t recall what we had. It wasn’t good, but it was hot and washed back with a Coke, palatable, just.

Coming down into a valley we were on the look out for the Glencoe Visitor Centre. No problem finding it. It was well marked and up to the main parking lot we went. We were early, maybe by 30 minutes. The visitor complex looked pretty new. It consisted of a few low, mountain-modernish buildings, connected by raised walkways so not to disturb the natural flow of water in and around the area. A small stream presented itself as we exited the main building while waiting for our tour to begin. We went just a little ways up a trail and came back, mostly because my hip was hurting again, a mysterious pain that crept back now and again demanding I sit down and stretch a little.

We finally got to our tour and ended up being the only ones there. A few other people just didn’t show up, so we had our guide, who we secretly called Groundskeeper Johnny – a play on groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons, all to ourselves. Score! You’ll hear the similarity in the video.

Let me tell you, the Scotts are a talkative bunch and Johnny was no exception. His Scottish brogue was more than a little enchanting – can I say that? Well, it was. Hearing him retell the local history of Glencoe (emphasis on ‘coe) brought the famous tussle between Steven’s Clan Campbell and Clan McDonald, from whom our Johnny descends. It turns out, that about 30 McDonalds lost their lives trying to escape from the Campbell chief who was empowered by the King of England, James I to collect new taxes. Of course, come into power, much less become a King, and get some cash by taxing the people. Heard this a million times. We dared not mention Steven’s heritage.

ARVE Error: Mode: lazyload not available (ARVE Pro not active?), switching to normal mode

Anyway, it wasn’t a ‘massacre’, at least not in my Hollywood tainted mind. A skirmish? Yes. A fiercely independent people escaping into the mountain valleys to get away from a new ruler, only to be frozen or starved? Yes. Not really a massacre. But, in fairness, it was a deeply symbolic event, one that still fuels a few raised pints at the pub recalling the demise of kin.

Groundskeeper Johnny is a highly educated and trained naturalist. He pointed out all the local heathers – pronounced by him, ‘heether’ - (I really didn’t know there were this many varieties) and the invasive species of plants that took over where ever sheep were allowed to graze. There is a balancing act going on between sheep farmers, perfectly at their rights to let their animals graze on the land, and caretakers of the land like Johnny who want th
e high mountains to be as unperturbed as possible, to retain their beauty, and limit human intrusion. Humans brought the sheep after all. The wild goat, well they can stay. They have squatter’s rights apparently.

Mountain Sheep above Glencoe

Mountain Sheep above Glencoe

Way up in the distance we caught one on camera. Barely could make out the dark, very still shape, until some hikers got a bit too close causing the ram to move out of our sight. Besides the flora and fauna, Johnny let us in on a bit of natural history we would never have guessed unless being told. The area you see in the pictures is actually the remnants of a collapsed caldera. In fact, the whole of what looks like a wandering valley with high mountain cliffs is really the ring of a caldera. Johnny waxed on a bit too much when he compared it to Yellowstone, but he laughed too at himself for saying that. The joke was that Yellowstone is sitting atop a seething mass of magma, where Glencoe is quite extinct, though there are still earthquakes now and then. We thought that was all pretty nifty.

Old caretaker's house in Glencoe Glencoe
Glencoe Safari Guide, Johnny ("Groundskeeper Johnny") Bidean Nam Bian - Glencoe
Glencoe Glencoe
Glencoe Waterfalls Steven with Groundskeeper Johnny
Inveraray to Elgin-013-20150818.jpg Inveraray to Elgin-014-20150818.jpg

 

We stopped to take this picture of Johnny and me. Steven doesn’t know what exactly happened, but I’m disincorporating with only my head left, and Johnny isn’t far behind. Maybe the faeries were having fun?

Kevin and Groundskeeper Johnny

Kevin and Groundskeeper Johnny

We thought initially that the Glencoe Visitor Centre was part of a national park system. It turns that the centre and surrounding area is owned by the National Trust of Scotland. If you’re familiar with the Nature Conservancy in the US, it’s a very similar concept. It’s an non-profit that buys land and heritage sites for preservation and conservation. Pretty cool. Check out more: http://www.nts.org.uk/

The next big site was of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak. Steven was driving as we passed Fort William on the very northern end of Loch Linnhe where Ben Nevis comes into view. I tried to take a picture but couldn’t get it and there was no turnout here for us to pull over. Remember, narrow roads and crazy-speeding drivers. It wasn’t safe to just pull over unfortunately.

Speeding now farther north, still on the A82 believe it or not, we whiz by Loch Oich and onto the famous Loch Ness!!!

Inveraray to Elgin-056-20150818Fort Augustus is at the bottom, or south end, of Loch Ness and has pretty nice set of attractions all on its own. There are plenty of sightseeing tours available, a few snack shops and a set of locks that are pretty nice. Its called the Caledonian Canal and its five locks cascade down like a river into Loch Ness. Very much worth the short walk from the car park. Oh, and we saw our first Nessie kitsch too…the wire Nessie in the middle of the park. We only wish we’d seen it in full bloom. We walked around the village just a little, we both needed to get out of that car and get some snack of some kind. After much searching and internal debating, we both settled on Café Americano’s from a vending machine. My, my how far we have fallen from the silver trays and white-gloved service on the QM2.

Inveraray to Elgin-015-20150818.jpg

Mickey with baby Nessy

Mickey with baby Nessy

So off we were, up the A82 some more
sliding up the west side of Loch Ness, Steven still driving. Now, you’re going to call me crazy, but just as we made a bend, not too far from where the picture was taken of a castle across the Loch, I swear I saw a black hump in the water and then it was gone when I was able to see the same area again after rounding another bend. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Steven just smiled. “Yes, dear, of course you saw Nessie.”

I think he was secretly jealous.

Loch Ness

Loch Ness

Okay, the Loch is really beautiful. I wish we could have stayed over someplace for the night, but there really aren’t that many places to stay. You have to go to the bigger city past north of the Loch, Inverness.

Speaking of Inverness…avoid it. I know there is some quaint seaside atmosphere down by the water, but it’s nuts with clogged roads and an over abundance of lorry’s. Maybe you’ll have better luck with Inverness than we did, but we shot through town not looking back. Oh, we couldn’t look back otherwise we would have been sideswiped by a truck…err lorry.

The next stop, our accommodations for the evening in Elgin at the Mansion House Hotel. I insisted that we stay at one castle while in Scotland. Turns out, they are very expensive and the nicer ones are either booked up with August weddings or so far out of our price range that we couldn’t justify it.

Getting to the Mansion was a funny adventure on its own. Our typically trusty navigation system on the Benz, led us down what can only be described as a back alley. We think it was the best route as the crow flies, but it took us into lanes that would almost not accommodate our car, much less a car and a dog or cat. Finally, though, over a little footbridge-sized passage over a diminutive creek and we were there.

Ah, the Mansion House, what we will jointly refer to forever, as Scotland’s very own Faulty Towers. More on this later. You’re going to love it.

Mansion House-012-20150819.jpg


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DPF, Europe, Scotland, UK

Scotland – Last Day in Inveraray

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

Hello again! We hope these posts continue to hold your interest. It’s been well over a month since our trip ended but we still have more than a week’s worth of travels to write about. By reading comments or asking questions on these posts, for the most part, is the only way we know whether or not anyone is continuing to read these. We’re also still looking for feedback that we can incorporate into a full-fledged food and travel blog to go public with. So please let us know how we’re doing.
Thank you for your time….and now back to our regular scheduled programming.

Monday, August 17th

by Steven

We decided to take it a little easy today. Tomorrow will be a long day on the road so this is a good change to relax and not do much. We do have a couple things on the agenda, but nothing too difficult so a slow start to the day is in order.

Breakfast as usual and then most of the morning was spent in the salon at the Thistle. Catching up on email, working in a couple blog posts and editing photos. It’s amazing how much time that all takes! It wasn’t long before we had gone through a couple pots of coffee that Jennifer graciously brought for us and then it was nearly lunch time.

In the meanwhile, it turned from a rather grey morning into a beautifully sunny and calm day. As you can see from the photo, the Loch was perfectly still, offering mirror reflections of the village and castle of Inveraray across the water. As amazed as we were at the stillness of the water, Jennifer was just as unimpressed as if it happens every day. Nevertheless, out comes the camera for a few more dozen photos that need to be edited.

Inverary-51-20150817

So those things on our actual agenda, as it were, for today. First up, a stroll through Inveraray village to see the shops and grab some lunch. Next is for me alone. I haven’t had much chance to get exercise on this trip (don’t get me started about the rowing machine on the QM2!) so was planning a hike up the hill out from the castle up to the look-out that you can see in the photos above.
I’m not going to have too many more opportunities to wear it during this trip, so why not put on the kilt for hike in the highlands? Why not, indeed! So that just what I did, as Kevin’s eyes roll back in his head – and not just because he’s going hypoglycemic waiting for me to get ready to go for lunch. Then off we had back around the Loch after a quick take on eateries from our hostess at the Thistle. Her suggestion would have been Samphire Seafood Restaurant, but unfortunately, was closed today. We wish we had put this on our schedule earlier as it looks and sounds quite good. As it turns out, according to Jennifer, the reason it’s closed today is that the chef/owner is hosting a special event for a number of Michelin 4 & 5 star chefs from around Europe – top secret intell. Definitely on the to-do list if we ever return.

Back in the village, first order of business is finding food. Most things of interest, besides Samphire are closed. But off a little side street/alley we find a little café that appears to be more populated by locals than tourists and tour buses. Simply called the Cottage Restaurant, just off the main street, this little hole-in-the-wall offered up a menu of basic, comfort food. Kevin chose an au gratin dish with cod and langoustine. I just went for the baked potato roasted mushrooms. Nothing fancy but sure hit the spot, as they say.

Inverary-56-20150817Inverary-55-20150817The restaurant was tiny! It seemed to be in the cellar of
some larger building, but as you can see from the Street View shot, there really isn’t much to the place. You enter off the alley a few steps down into a long and narrow dining room. Cozy and warm, it would be a great place to just hang out with a pot of tea or coffee on a cold and stormy Scotland winter day. There’s also a small bar (hence the “license” on the side of the building) that could easily add something more interesting to that said coffee.
After lunch, it’s back to checking out the shops in town. The Christmas shop just around the corner was a bust but moving next door to the whisky shop proved more interesting. Shelf upon shelf of whisky from all over Scotland. So many bottles, so little time! The young many showing us around was quite informative and enthusiastic about the various whisky in stock. He explained a bit about the regional differences in distillation, drying of the malt, etc., bits of which we heard before but it's now all starting to sink in and make more sense. Perhaps we'll do a separate post dedicated to just what we've learned about whisky.

Inveraray-84-20150817 Google Street View

Inverary-58-20150817One new thing we were exposed to here at the Loch Fyne Whisky Shop and Tasting Room was the Living Cask. Perhaps this is just a contrivance for us tourists but nonetheless we found interesting. The living cask blended whisky that will never be the same from cask to cask or batch to batch. Each bottling will be unique. They stake a small oak cask, perhaps used to make a batch of American Bourbon (which, by law, can only be used once for American bourbon), and age some whisky in it. As the whisky is bottled, more is added. As the cask ages, the character of the whisky it produces changes. From Lock Fyne Whisky: "…the current batch contains five single malts from Islay. Stocks are topped up and then left to marry before the next batch – with its unique batch number - is released. These batches are always limited, always different…”

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So being the perhaps gullible tourists we are, we buy a 1/2 liter bottle thinking it will be fun to have something so unique. We've yet to open it tough we did have a taste in the shop. That was fairly early on in our whisky education so it will be interesting to see if we feel the same about it when we crack it open.

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There are a few other stores open along the way here and around the small village. We poked our head in a few but most were just more of the same basic schlokie souvenir shops. Set a little away from everything else just as you enter town we found a woolen mills "factory outlet" store. This had a little bit higher quality finds so we ended up with a few items to bring home.

What do you think the odd are that this old sailboat could make it back to Seattle? I bet the seller is more negotiable than the sign suggest. Inverary-63-20150817.jpg

By now it was starting to get late in the day and I still haven't made my trek up the mountain. So back to the car to change into some appropriate footwear and make the short drive back to the castle. A quick check with the lady at the parking lot ticket booth confirmed what I'd been told by others that it would take 1 1/2 to 2 hours to make the round trip. She, too, checked to make sure I had on hiking shoes and nothing fancy (she liked the kilt though). If a 70+ year old lady can make it in that time as she says she does with her husband, I've got a chance at it too. And if I take any longer, Kevin may not be able to get back to the parking lot to get me. So now the challenge is on to make that happen!

The ticket lady also confirmed where the trail head was. We had seen it when we were here a couple days ago but now certain. Off I go.

DPF, Europe, Scotland, UKThe trail starts off easy enough though the woods. Past some old ruins of stone buildings of uncertain age but clearly not used for quite some time, centuries perhaps? A little further along, the trail comes to a clearing for power lines where I find more sheep leisurely graving, hardly giving me a second thought. Once across the clearing and through another gate, the trail begins to steepen. Not by much, just enough to let you know you're climbing a hill. In and out of the woods with the occasional stream or spring. Not many other hikers out and about this late. I don't see anyone ahead or behind, just a few passing me on there way back down.

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Just as I hope, I made the summit in 45 minutes. This gave me a little time to be at the top to enjoy the view and take a few pics before heading down. As you can image, if not see by the photo, this spot offers a commanding view up and down the loch. Not a surprise they would put a lookout up here. I can't imagine how miserable it could have been for the sentry assign here during the winter months! It's a small, windy knoll with only the small stone lookout. It looks as though the north-facing portal was bricked/stoned in at some point, perhaps to shield from the north wind. Hard to imagine a winter attack across the mountains to the north, so I guess no harm in not seeing out that way.

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The walk back down by the same route only took 30 minutes as I had expected. Just as I arrived at our appointed rendezvous point, Kevin drives up. Perfect timing.
Back to the Thistle for a freshen-up, which, of course, includes a G&T, before heading for dinner. Many of the restaurants in the area are closed on Mondays so our options are limited. There is one, however, just down the road, that's open Jennifer had recommended it and it always looked busy when we drove to and from Out Of The Blue. Also at Jennifer's suggestion, a call for reservations was in order.

Some deer treated us to a visit while we chatted in the parlor before disappearing back into the woods.

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Apparently we were lucky to get in as the person on the phone didn't want to take any more reservations because they were too busy but reluctantly offered up a table as long as we agreed to be out by such-and-such time. Normally, we would have said "no thank you" to that but with so few other choices and the allotted time certainly being sufficient, we agreed. We're off to The Creggans Inn (http://www.creggans-inn.co.uk/).

This turned out to be a rather uneventful dinner, though the food was was quite good. Here's the menu. Kevin started with the Chicken Liver Parfait with port wine plum compote and toasted brioche, just the kind of thing he would like, and he did. I started with the Hand Dived Loch Fyne Scallops with Black Pudding. I always love a well-cooked scallop! And these were just that. I’ve “gotten used to” the black pudding, it can be good, but you sure don’t need much. I’m not really sure how to describe the taste other than to say it’s quite rich. For the sake of my vegetarian friends, I won’t go into what it’s made from, but feel free to ask me about it.

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Appetizers were followed by Roasted Salmon with Linguine for Kevin. The Pan Fried Rib-Eye for me. The salmon, as you can see, had a very unfortunate plating. What’s up with those brown schmears around the rim?? They certainly didn’t add to the visual appeal of the dish, but taste-wise, spot on. The rib-eye for me was an easy choice. It didn’t look like much for presentation either. It looked like something from any roadside diner in America. However, the steak was perfectly cooked and how can you go wrong with peppercorn sauce on a rare steak? I had been looking forward to trying some of the famed Scottish beef, this was certainly not a letdown.

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We don’t often go for the deserts but a couple options looked too good to pass up. For Kevin, the Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding. As I just now asked Kevin what he thought of it, I got a deep sigh of fondness. Enough said. I had the Dark Chocolate Marquise which was quite good in its own right, but once again, the presentation a little lacking.

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In all, we’d probably go back to Creggans Inn if we were back in the area, but it may not be our first choice.

Not much to do otherwise on Monday night on Loch Fyne, we headed back to the Thistle for a night cap before getting ourselves packed up. The next day will be long, so we need to get up early and get on the road.

Next up is our trip to Glencoe, Loch Ness, Inverness and Elgin. But for now, a good night.


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Food, Oban, Oysters, seafood

Scotland – Trip to Oban Part 2

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

Scotland - Trip to Oban

As promised, the continuation of our journey to Oban. We won't subject you all to the tedium of reading about the rest of the day as written by the two of us. From here on, it's all Steven's doing.

You can refresh your memory on the route we took by taking a quick look once again at the map on our last post by clicking here.

by Steven -

Another short piece up the road and it's "look there's a castle!" Just barely over a mile it's another Historic Scotland signs, this one for Cassanerie Castle, construction starting in 1565. We park and head up the hill to the castle, or so we thought. Trying to follow the signs did not work. We ended up in a field 100 yards from the castle with a fence and cattle between us and it. Back down the hill, we try a different (unmarked) fork and soon find a gate leading to a trail further up the hill and some other confused tourists. All together, we manage to find our way.

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It's claims to fame include being the location where a Bishop Carswell translated John Knox's Book of Common Order into Gaelic, becoming the first book printed in Gaelic. Otherwise, the castle is notable as being part of the Campbell legacy (what isn't around here?). In 1685, the castle was destroyed as retribution by Royalists for the 9th Earl of Argyll's (head of Campbell clan) rebellion against James VII of Scotland (aka James the II of England). It seems like a small place but apparently was set up for substantial accommodation. Today, the roofs, woodwork, and most of the floors, are all gone. Just some walls of the main section and two towers. I left Kevin down below as I climbed the smaller of the two towers. It was interesting to see the change in the steps as I went up the spiral staircase. The first run was all rough-hewn coming from the lower levers and cellar to what would have been the main floor. From there up two floors were finely cut stone, smooth and even. Beyond the "living" floors going up to probably more servant/guard rooms and a look out at the top was once again rough-hewed. Clearly the expense was put into what would be seen by the owner and guests, The servants can deal with the cheap stuff. Nice view of the surround countryside from the top and looking back down into the shell of the castle. A few other tourists looking out from the top of the other tower. I try to get Kevin's attention down below, but without yelling loudly, no luck. I head back down and find Kevin, both of us ready to move along.

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Back on the road again and the day starting to get long we don't make many more stops along the way to Oban except for a couple scenic photo ops.Inverary-032-20150816

We arrived in Oban around 3:00 with the GPS trying to get us to the Oban Distillery. It may have known the way just fine, but we didn't quite believe it or we just couldn't make sense of what she was saying vs what we were seeing. But after a few extra turns, we find it and then find parking. The distillery was a bust. Too late to catch any more tours. They had reached their quota of tours for the day and the tasting room was closed for lack of staff and the lateness of hour. Yes, 3:00 is late apparently! So what to do with nearly 4 hours until our dinner reservation? We decide to explore.

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Oban

The town of Oban is set on a picturesque little bay on one side with a steep hill on the other. The waterfront has a promenade of sorts along the harbor front with cafes, shops, and hotels facing the bay from the other side of the main street. Around to the side of the bay is a set of modern tourist shops, more restaurants, the train station and a very busy ferry port. This is the area with the restaurant, Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant, where we have our reservation. A recommendation from my rowing mate, Chris, who had just been here a few weeks before - thanks Chris! But more about this later, we still have over 3 hours until dinner time and we're hungry already. Remember we didn't have lunch by this time.
We checked to see if we could get in early but they didn't open until 5pm so we wandered around a bit more. Both of us getting a little cranky for lack of food but very few options available, too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Then we found a wondrous thing, the Oban Seafood Hut. Just a little shack next to the ferry terminal. You order at the counter and the guy out front starts steaming the muscles in one pot while boiling the shrimp in another. Someone back inside starts shucking oysters. Oysters on the half shell, steamed mussels and clam, boiled local shrimp. Just one long, very full, table out front to sit or stand and dig in. We saw others with beer and wine but couldn't figure out where they were getting them as this place wasn't fully licensed for such. The food was perfect, this hit the spot. After devouring a fair amount of these delicacies (you'd think we'd get tired of this - NOPE!) we felt better but still had plenty of time before eating again but now in need of a beer.

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Food, Oban, Oysters, seafood

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A short, lazy walk back around to the main street gave us plenty of pub options. Found one that looked good and leisurely sipped a couple pints.

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The Fishouse is now open so we head over for dinner rather than waiting another hour. There really was nothing else to do as most of the shops were closed or closing, nothing we really had any interest in anyway. The restaurant was quite accommodating and sat us early. Only a few tables seated when we got there but the place filled in quickly. Chris gave us the name of the manager to say "Hi" to but tonight was the first night he's taken off in weeks according to our server.

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So, what did we have here?

  • Salt and Chilli Squid (that's not a typo, they spell chili with two 'L's')
  • Crispy Fried Cajun Prawns
  • Stone Bass Fillet
  • Roasted Scrabster Landed Cod Fillet
Food, Oban, Oban Fish House Inverary-040-20150816
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Check out the menu for full descriptions.The restaurant itself was fairly casual, which is fine, and surrounded by big windows looking out at both the town and the harbor across the ferry terminal. Several ferries came and went as we dined. Despite the somewhat humble atmosphere of the restaurant the food was really quite good, on par with so many of the other places we've been so far on this trip. Fresh, local ingredients, well prepared. A little pricey but not outrageous or out of line with other restaurants with a menu of this quality. Staff was friendly, informed and helpful. By the time we get done with dinner there was still plenty of light in the sky but we know it will be gone soon. Being none too eager to drive back to the Thistle in the dark, we hit the road. As you can see by the map above we were taking a circle route so as not to double back on ourselves. The way back being the shorter of the two directions so we were able to make it back quite quickly. No stops along the way to see sights, unfortunately, but it's already been a long day and ready to get back "home." We get back to the Thistle just in time for a magnificent sunset over Loch Fyne.

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  • 1
Europe, Scotland, UK

Scotland – Trip to Oban Part 1

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

Both of us started writing up this next section of the trip not knowing that the other had already begun. Since a fair amount of it was double-written already, we thought we would include both to show how we each experienced the day a little differently even though we were together throughout. Feel free to read both, either or any combination thereof.

In the text below, Steven will be on the left and Kevin on the right.

Here's a map of where our travels are taking us on this day to give a little perspective.

We scheduled four nights at Thistle House, which, if you know how you typically travel, is an extended time for us to be in one place. We did this for two reasons: because we didn't want be constantly on the move but also because we felt this to be fairly well located for making day-trips around the area. As it turned out, we kept ourselves pretty busy staying close to "home" for the most part but today we're venturing further out. Off to Oban it is.

K: Up ‘early’ – for us that tended to be just before the breakfast service was over – and off to Oban after tucking in more of the hearty Scottish fare – black pudding and haggis fried, crunchy good, but really too much richness for that early in the day. We decided to take a tour of the countryside and headed back through Inveraray on A83 toward Lochgilphead and then up the coast to Oban on A816. We thought the ride would all be as beautiful as the Lock Fyne and Inveraray area was, but we quickly discovered the working part of the countryside included all the elements Disney would never want you to see. Of course we knew someplace in our heads that trees were being farmed, cement was created, and quarries existed, we just didn’t think of it until we passed through this area. We had decided against driving all the way down to Campbell town, in spite of the strong recommendation by a local. We’d heard that Campbell town was pretty run down and not worth the drive. Given how long our drive turned out to be just to get to Oban, I’m glad we didn’t venture south any more than we did.

S: According to Google Maps, this should be 80 miles taking only 2 hrs. Piece of cake, right? But we decided to get an early start of it just the same. So first things first, gotta get down to breakfast before it's too late. The usual fare; still delicious. We’re certainly not the first down this morning, but not the last either. We're struck once again by the variety of languages heard around the breakfast room but still not a lot of conversation between tables with everyone keeping to their selves.

Once we have ourselves together, it's time to head out. Back around Loch Fyne and past Inveraray Castle and on down the loch. Not many sites to stop and see along the way but do venture off the main road on occasion to see what can be seen.

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Stopped at one little road house/garden nursery for some tea for the road. Nice views of the loch and surprised to see a few scuba divers heading into the water. Would certainly be interesting to see what's down there but that will have to wait for a return trip and a firmer commitment to dry-suit diving!

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Onward we go with a detour here or there to a random side-street or two, much to Kevin's dismay. After all, you have to get off the beaten path to see the real county, right? No problem that we end up basically in people's driveways earning us the occasional quizzical stare from the locals. Another detour took us off looking for a castle ruin marked on the map but all we found was a construction company's truck yard, oh well! Back to the road.

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K: Lochgilphead promised to be lovely Victorian seaside village…unfortunately, it was virtually shut down being Sunday and all. To be honest, we didn’t really think of that as we planned the day. We missed seeing Kilmory Castle and Gardens and the Celtic Cross someplace in town. Nowhere to eat lunch, not much charm, and a seaside that looked a bit depressing. I know, how can a seaside look gloomy? This one did is all I can say. Off with us and up the coast to Oban, but on the way we decided to get off road a bit and try to find a lookout Jennifer had mentioned. The first place Steven turned off headed up a fire road, not looking too promising. I was getting a bit worried that we’d get stuck on a rut in the road, we had a low riding Mercedes C Class after all. Just as we were about to turn around…eureka, there was a park that turned out to be the trailhead for loads of trails into the hills. We weren’t outfitted for a long hike so we chose a smallish one (well, to be honest a very short one) into the woods, thinking that it might get us to some view of the valley. At least that was the hope. Nope. The trail just kept going but never up to any viewpoint. Steven ambled on a bit further than I, but no go, no view. We stopped now and again just to enjoy the air and all the really lovely wildflowers and stone walls. By time we got back to the parking area it was absolutely filled with old Land Rovers and Range Rovers, and I do mean old – say 1950’s and nothing newer than the 70’s. I walked over to one of the guys…they were all guys…and casually asked what was up. It turned out to be a monthly gathering of all the local fire fighters and rescue workers. They have a sort of jamboree of Land Rovers and hang out, then head up onto the off-roading areas. Steven was getting bitten by some midges we think, so we head on soon thereafter.

S: Further along we see ano
ther enticing diversion. This time it was a Historic Scotland sign pointing to something called Achnabreck. The drive up the road didn't look too promising, looked more like a logging road than anything else. But we found a parking lot that looked like what we would expect with interpretive signs and a few tables. Just one other car/couple when we arrived, they soon left. We take a look around at the interpretive signs and decide to follow one of the marked trails which started off nice enough but didn't hold our attention for long. The interpretive signs mentioned the ancient Achnabeck Cup and Ring Marks but it looked to be a bit of a hike from where we were. We head back to the car to find that the parking lot is now nearly full. We were only there for maybe 15 minutes. Turns out we stumbled into a gathering or off-road rally of the local search and rescue team/Land Rover club. Had a nice chat with one of them about the differences between US and UK versions of Land Rovers and "vintage" vs new. This gentleman had more than a few opinions on the matter. Lest we get a full lessons on Land Rover technology and construction we made our move to head on.

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Another historic marker catches our attention a little further up the road. This one is the Nether Largie standing stones. We find the small car park and follow the signs across the road, over a babbling brook, and into an open pasture. The information sign tells that these vertically standing stones were most likely a form of calendar, much like Stonehenge (though MUCH smaller) or some of the other standing stones in the Salisbury area of England. Arrange in a X pattern with a couple further away. It's estimated that these were placed as far back as 3,200 - 4,700 years ago. The inscription further read that the stones provide protection for those who camp nearby but bad fortune for anyone who touches them - better safe than sorry, so no touchy! Moving along to get a closer look at the stones, we're "greeted" by the local sheep herd. I wouldn't say they necessarily welcomed our presence but they minded their own business of eating the grass and scratching themselves on the ancient stones (I hope the curse doesn't pertain to them!) but mainly moving away whenever we get near - just as well, I say. The carvings in the stone were quite fascinating and it's always fun at places such as this to imagine what it would have been like to be here when it was known what they were intended to be, to "get into the mind" of those who placed them. At the same time, I have to wonder, were those really deliberate, meaningful markings, or was it just some bored kid practicing his/her carving skills, graffiti as it were. I suppose we'll never know.

Inverary-015-20150816K: In another spontaneous turn off the road, Steven found us a great ancient stone sight, the Nether Largie Standing Stones. Keep in mind the narrowness of the roads in general…this was just barely a path. We had to turn out into some brush to let cars and lorries go by; a little unnerving but no harm done. Having successfully parked, we found the short trail across the road/path, over a little stream, and on to an open field where the stones were. The stones were hidden for centuries but deforesting and farming brought them into site once again. The placard stated this unusual X formation might be one of the most important lunar calendar sites in Britain going back some 3,200 years or so. We were just about the only ones there…excepting for the gathering of very self-possessed sheep. These sheep knew we were the interlopers, make no mistake, but they didn’t really want us close to them. Fine by me. Steven got some good shots with his telephoto lens though. The stones were not only majestic but hauntingly beautiful set as they were in a flat plane, once the edge of the sea, surrounded by a v-shaped valley of low lying hills. Older trees dotted the landscape make this site was a real find. I paid attention to the posted information saying not to touch the stones as they were thought to be protected by a spell that would bring misfortune to the person silly enough to test it. Well, not long and a small group of tourists came up and promptly began feeling up the stones with abandon. I wonder how they fared.

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S: As we're about to head back to the car, another couple walks up and starts touching the stones and feeling the carvings (the tall one pictured above). I hope they're heading the other direction down the highway later. Their bad luck almost happened right there and then however - I was about to take a picture of that particular stone from a few feet away when they walked up between me, with my camera to my eye, and the stone - and then wouldn't leave....wouldn't leave...wouldn't leave...hand me a rock...finally they move just in time.

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K: We got back on the main road, passing through the village of Kilmartin where we stopped to visit the church…and of course its cemetery.

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S: Next stop was the town of Kilmartin. Perhaps, we're not sure, this was the plac
e which Jennifer (our proprietor at the guest house) was suggesting we visit as a historic place where the kings of ancient Scotland were traditionally crowned. This is a tidy little village up on a ridge about the valley of Kilmartin Glen. There's a ancient church here with its even older cemetery. We parked in a little neighborhood just off the maid road and walked over to the church and wandered about the cemetery. Some headstone were fairly recent (within the past 150 years) while others back to at least the 1600's. Inside the small church were some commemorative plaques for various notable Campbells. The date were nearly 100 years after my Campbell ancestors left the area, so probably not much need to spend time researching any possible connections.

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We give a miss to the museum and the cafe didn't look too interesting so after a spin through the gift shop and a few more photos of the village, it's back to the car to hit the road once more.

This is as far as we got when we realized we were duplicating efforts - how's that for communication?

Steven will write about the rest of the day in the next post.

Ciao for now!


  • 4
DPF, Europe, Inveraray, Inveraray Castle, Scotland, UK

Scotland – Inveraray Castle

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

Saturday morning, Aug. 15th

by Kevin (and some by Steven) -

We ambled down to breakfast at Thistle House. The room is bright and clean with Inverary-003-20150815 yellow walls, white trim, and white furnishings…and we were the only ones there. It was a little odd being the only ones there for a while, but soon enough another couple came in said hello in some heavy accent and sat down turning to talk to each other. This scenario repeated itself during our stay. It seemed that the couples or friends traveling together kept to themselves. So much for the adage of ‘stay at a B&B and meet new friends!’ Some of it was language no doubt as most of those staying at Thistle were Russian or French and spoke almost no English…at least to us or the staff. Some of this keeping to oneself could have to do with the arrangement of the tables, most of them being set up for two not a communal table where you’re forced to interact. Nonetheless, I do wonder if that time when connections and friendships were made at these small homes converted to B&B use hasn’t just simply passed.

The breakfast spread had a few offerings we would see just about everywhere we went in the next two weeks: Full Scottish, omelets, ala carte oatmeal (porridge), streaky bacon, and various smoked fishes – most commonly salmon and cod and a few times kippers - yum. In addition there were breads, yogurts (plain for me please), granola, and of course teas and coffees – white or black? We ended up varying our breakfasts, but did have the Full Scottish, smoked salmon (I had that since Steven would definitely turn up his nose at it) and fresh fruit with yogurt and granola a few times. Toward the end of our stay I was pretty over the big breakfasts and went with plain old porridge, which suited me just fine.

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So while we didn’t meet new friends at Thistle, it became our home for a few days. We ‘moved in’ easily to the main living room, at times setting up some of the space to use for writing this blog. Sometimes no writing was done, instead we shared a glass of a newly acquired whisky or two in the evenings. It was in the living room that more conversations with guests happened. As you can see, it’s really a very pleasant place with generous couches and comfortable seating. Our hosts Jennifer and Alistair provided glassware ro whisky and wine in case guests wanted to bring their own tasty beverages. We met a particularly happy group (two couples from England) who gave us some pointers on what to see and avoid, where to eat and not. They were well into their bottles of wine so possibly this provided the necessary lubrication for conversation. Unfortunately, they did leave a couple of rather humble wines for others to enjoy…I’m being generous by using ‘humble’…think of Bigfoot wines. What they didn't finish they left for others – these bottles remained untouched for the rest of our stay.

One place to eat just about everyone mentioned at Thistle and in our research before the trip was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar located at the very northern tip of the loch. We had to pass it on our way to Inveraray so it was pretty convenient for us. We made a reservation ahead of time for lunch on Saturday, Aug. 15th and I’m glad we did. But before getting into that food adventure, it’s worth mentioning our visit to the seat of the clan Campbell at Inveraray Castle.

This was Steven’s day to go full kilt, which involves gathering a lot of pieces and putting them on just so. The whole dressing in a kilt process takes about 45 minutes, just fyi, but it is worth it. Soon enough off we were, heading out just before 10am taking the A83 past the Oyster Bar and into Inveraray.

Inveraray Castle, Argyll Scotland

Inveraray and Inveraray Castle were top destinations for us. You might know that Steven and I spent several months researching, looking at websites, and deciding on our itinerary for this trip. The QM2 part and visiting friends were no-brainers, these were non-negotiable given our time frame of three weeks plus a couple of days. One of the driving or organizing principles for our trip was exploring some of Steven’s Scottish heritage. He’s been using Ancestry.com for quite some time and for those of you who know Ancestry, at some point or another you’re going to find a link way back to someone of note. I have to admit teasing Steven mercilessly about his spurious connections, especially when Charlemagne, Jesus, and Cleopatra came up.

It was inevitable then that we’d spend a good amount of time exploring Campbell territory in the area of Scotland known as Argyll. Steven’s grandmother on his father’s side was a Campbell as well as a Great Grandmother of different lineage, also on his father’s side. This connection to Scotland and the seat of the Campbell clan was Steven’s inspiration for having a kilt made – in Campbell tartan.

Coming up the highway (A83) leads you over the Aray Bridge with a picture perfect view of the castle. You drive a little past the bridge and take a right onto the castle approach. We got there pretty close to opening at 10am, but before most of tour buses. With pre-purchased tickets in hand we parked the Mercedes, thinking to make sure to have our umbrellas since the skies weren’t looking too happy at that moment. As a side note, we did make some reservations for meals and sites like this ahead of time as this was the height of tourist season and we didn’t want to just roll the dice and see what we got. Again, I’m glad we did.

Any of you Downton Abbey fans may recognize Inveraray Castle from the 2012 Christmas episode. This is the episode where the Grantham family visits their cousins, the Marquess and Marchioness of Flintshire, at "Duneagle Castle."

Here’s Steven striking a pose on the gravel courtyard in front of Inveraray Castle.Inverary-004-20150815
Quite handsome I think, but I’m biased. Heading into the castle we were met by a delightfully chatty docent or guide by the name of Stafford Day. He told us of the origin of the entry way we passed as being constructed for the visit of Queen Victoria, mother-in-law of John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll, the holder of Inverary Castle at the time. The original entrance was on the opposite side, actually more suitable to the grand approach in the original layout of the house and grounds. Victoria however, apparently really didn’t countenance getting wet from the Scottish weather, so the Duke had constructed for her visit an iron and glass entry – incidentally designed by the same man who designed the Crystal Palace in London, Sir Joseph Paxton - thus moving the entrance from its original position on the castle. I guess the queen gets what the queen wants. A bus load just arrived so we quickly moved on inside but not before noticing the French couple we met at breakfast.

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The inside of the castle is well documented online (http://www.inveraray-castle.com) and in many brochures so we won’t go into the particulars too much. Just to point out a few of the highlights we encountered. The great hall, loaded with swords and sabers, armor on the landings, and a haunted bedroom (pictured below). Personally, I think a sure sign of a haunting is the presence of a creepy doll.Inverary-006-20150815Steven and I noticed that much of the color of paint on the walls in the castle was very, very close to those in our own home. I guess that’s because we watch Downton Abbey and were inspired by the period colors that are throughout Inveraray Castle. The combination of soft blue, yellow, and corral is soothing we think – we are lacking the Pompeii-inspired painted panels however. Like most great homes in the UK it is chock full of collected works and personal items from the current owners. See if you can spot Rainbow Mickey.

 

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Of course, we would have been remiss if we didn't visit the kitchen. Thank goodness for modern appliances!!

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After dodging the tourists for a couple of hours, it was time for pre-lunch. In the lower level there is a gift shop, a place to buy some food and take your lunch as well as the original kitchen with its massive copper pots and molds. Hale lobster was on the menu, a specialty of the region, but we stuck to simpler fare; soup and teas. After, some shopping was in order in the gift store. We ventured out to the gardens eventually, but not after retrieving our umbrellas from the car…which of course did not make into our packs. Didn’t you check on that? The wait did us good though as I was getting cranky and needed a sit down…a nap would have done me better I’m sure. We headed out to the gardens, Steven snapping some shots as did I. I think the most impressive part of the gardens are the wood. It’s not a grand place in terms of acres, but it was peaceful and relaxing just to walk under the boughs of all the mature trees. I particularly liked the circle of old trees we found. Standing in the middle and looking up was like being in a sacred space, a cathedral of nature.

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We had some time to kill before our lunch at the Oyster House, so we ventured down a path adjacent to the car park toward the overlook. A wide roadway of gravel stretched out to what looked like another entrance to the castle, maybe a grander one than that in town. We never found out. Passing over picturesque river we noticed a dog and his human were enjoying the sun break on its banks deeper into the property.Inverary-030-20150815 Was that the Duke? Probably not. Steven decided to make an adventure of it one day and hike up to the lookout…on his own. I’m not a hiker, not that much anyway. Pictures of Steven's hike come later - as that hike didn't happen for a couple days.

PBS has a series, Great Estates  Scotland. Inveraray Castle was featured in one of the installments. You can watch the episode here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365335643/ Keep an eye out around the 36 minute mark for Stafford, the docent.

But now it was time for lunch.

Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Cairndow

Inverary-034-20150815First, I have to say that this place has probably the best location outside of Inveraray. It’s directly on A82, the main road that you must use to get from just about anywhere in the Lock Fyne area. There is a fresh case and some prepared foods as you walk in. Further down is the host stand. We were met almost immediately and taken to our table. This is where things start to go wrong I’m almost sorry to say. There are three distinct dining areas we could see from the stand and we were taken to the closest one right off the seafood case and where all the families with young children happened to be. We were sat between two such families with periodically wailing small children. Not a good atmosphere in which to enjoy what we hoped would be a great meal. I know that families need to eat too, but our issue was that there were plenty of other seats in the remaining two rooms. The server was trying her hardest not to draw too much attention to the disturbances going off around the room, other guests appeared on edge too. It was just too much and we did ask to be moved. And moved we were to an adjacent room, filled with sun, big windows.

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Inverary-035-20150815Even before the move, we had decided to take on the seafood tower with Hale lobster. Now, this isn’t what we’d usually do – order the most expensive thing on the menu that is clearly designed for the wow factor…and tourists like us. We took the bait (pun intended). In our defense, we really wanted to sample the hype, namely its claim to having the freshest seafood around. Now seated in a quieter place, we enjoyed a small salad of rocket (arugula) and parm, followed by a thick soup of smoked oyster and ham. Our tower-o-seafood arrived to the oohs and ahs of our neighboring diners. I have to admit, it was almost intimidating. Many layers of beautiful crustaceans and shellfish were waiting us. Our lobster lay unceremoniously splayed out on top; a rather ungracious thing to do to the poor guy. We dove in and entered hand to hand combat with this amassing of protein. After pulling apart heads from tails, scooping bivalves from the shells, and sucking on the ends of the smallest of lobster legs, we
were nearly defeated. I said nearly. We finished quite happy and shared knowing smiles with our new neighbors…Russians of course, who must have been awed by our efforts as we saw their own towers
arrive just as ours was defeated. All in all and in spite of the poor start to the lunch, the food – its
simple presentation and reliance upon the highest quality seafood – made this meal a good start to our culinary journey. And there were more adventures to come.

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Check out their website for more info: http://www.lochfyne.com

A quick ride home and on to a 2nd dinner at Out of the Blue Bistro! - see our next post

 


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Food, Out of the Blue, Pork

Out of the Blue – Partie Deux

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

A quick ride home and on to a 2nd dinner at Out of the Blue Bistro!

The countryside of Argyll is spectacular. After lunch we headed back to Thistle House for a rest and perhaps even a nap. We had arrangements to go back to Out of the Blue to meet the owner and talk with Noel, the chef, to get some background about him the bistro for this blog – and, of course, have another wonderful dinner. Our second meal started with us meeting up with the owner, Susan, and the shop-keep, as well as spending some time with Noel and his daughter, Kristie, our server and the all-around assistant, Lorna (sp?).

Chef Noel Dowse apparently has quite the culinary pedigree. Trained in Ireland’s Port Rush Catering College before apprenticing in Jersey at L’Hermitage Hotel (which no longer exists). He then moved “up-town” to the Savoy in London. His latest gig before heading to Scotland was in First Class lounges and corporate catering for British Airways at Heathrow Airport. Being friends with the owner’s husband, he had been asked in the early days of their owning the bistro to come be the chef but it took over a year of convincing him to get back into the kitchen. We were certainly pleased that he made the decision to do so.

His daughter, Kristie - delightful young woman as we've said - has not inherited her father’s skills in the kitchen. By her own admission, she is not a cook – far from it. In fact, she was asked not to return to Home Economics class in school after burning up the classroom kitchen with her failed Gummy Bear muffins. At least she’s able to laugh about it these days and accepts that Dad will always be the cook in the family.

OOTB 06 Soup de Jour 1

Dinner tonight started out with the day's soup, which neither of us can remember what it was. But judging by the picture, I think it was a pea soup with crème fraîche. I do remember that it was as delicious as it looks. The real treat were the entrees! We both had the same main since it sounded so good, which it was. Drambuie Chicken  - as described on the menu:

Oven roasted breast of free range chicken stuffed with haggis, wrapper in bacon, smothered in a creamy peppercorn, heather honey and whiskey liqueur sauce. Served on a bed of grainy mustard mash.

Food, Out of the Blue, Pork

What could go wrong with that!

A couple things that made this particularly nice, besides the freshness of it all, was that it was well seasoned, and the haggis wasn't fried in fat and therefore it did not over-power the dish. We've had haggis a couple other times on the trip, though tasty, it can have pretty strong flavor, be very heavy (due to being fried in fat...which it readily absorbs), but this did not. The chicken was surprisingly moist for being breast meat.

Click here full menu.

Once again, appetites satisfied, back to the inn for a night cap and sorting through the day’s photos before heading to bed.


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Out of the Blue

Scotland – Out of the Blue Bistro

Category:QM2/Scotland,Scotland

14 August

by Kevin -

Friday evening at Thistle House and the Out of the Blue Bistro

In our last post we said there would be more about Out of the Blue Bistro. So here it is.

At the B&B we stayed, Thistle House Guest House, there is a binder with recommended places to see and where to eat. Jennifer, the proprietor, said later that she had personally checked out every place mentioned and picked only those places (sights or restaurants) of high quality. The restaurants in the book all used local ingredients, sourced from nearby. After some back and forth – we were both a little too tired to decide quickly - we wandered south of Thistle House toward Strachur to Out of the Blue Bistro. Distances are always hard to gauge, but getting there the first time seemed a very long ride down a twisty, narrow country road. Luckily this time of day didn’t have the lorry traffic we’d encountered elsewhere so we were less white-knuckled on our way south. After turning down toward the loch a wide stretch of shore opened up and right at the end was Out of the Blue Bistro. We pulled up, not seeing a bonafide parking area, and just stopped the car on what could have been a sidewalk. This isn’t as odd as it might seem. We’d already noticed that there aren’t a whole lot of parking spaces anywhere, so folks just pull up half on a sidewalk and half in the road. We decided to follow suit and park like the locals. No one noticed.

OOTB 01 Sign
OOTB 02 Exterior OOTB 09 Store Shelves OOTB 08 Store Shelves

The bistro certainly is a humble looking place. The first time (we returned here two other times) we were a little confused as to how to get into the bistro. The main doorway is through the grocery store. We didn’t really know if we’d missed an entrance or what, but we slid in and waited a bit for the server to come. Short time later a very cheerful, pleasant young woman came and greeted us and sat us by a window. She reminded me of Adele, the singer; I was instantly at ease. There were only a couple of other tables occupied, which was just fine with us. The menu had just a few items and there was a fresh sheet posted on a blackboard hanging next to the doorway we’d passed through to enter the restaurant. I quickly settled on the seared Greshingham duck breast with a hand dived scallop on black pudding and Steven picked the langoustines in garlic butter as our starters. Our mains were the Thai shellfish pot of locally caught goodies and stroganoff with wild mushrooms and cream on basmati rice. We picked a Pinot Grigio to go with it all.

OOTB 05 Local Lanoustines in Garlic Butter OOTB 04 Seared Duck Breast with Dived Scallop OOTB 03 Wild Mushroom Stroganoff & Seafood Pot

The meal as surprisingly good on all counts. I’m not sure why we were surprised exactly, maybe the humble building, maybe the fact you enter through a small grocery store, who knows, but we were pleasantly surprised. There are so many ways duck breast can go wrong, but the chef seared it perfectly and didn’t (thankfully) put some sticky sweet candied goo with it, but a savory reduction of red wine. Wow. A couple of tastes of that and I woke right up, eager to see what else was in store for us. Steven’s langoustines were equally as well prepared,simply but with deceptive precision. All the flavors balanced and didn’t over power the main star of the plate. The fennel infused the light broth for instance was delicate and seasoned well. My shellfish pot arrived a bit early – seeing this, our server took it right back to the kitchen. It reappeared at just the right time. I was a bit worried that holding the shellfish would ruin it, but what I was served had no indication of being aged at all. Maybe the chef just prepared another one, I didn’t think to ask – I just reveled in the steamy goodness that hit my nostrils when the lid was taken away. Saffron, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper in wine…that’s pretty much all that was used. With such fresh seafood you really don’t need to mess with it perfection. Steven’s stroganoff hit the spot too apparently, as I barely got a chance to have a nibble before it was gone! We didn’t have room for dessert, but promised ourselves to come back to sample more of the menu.

Full, happy…and very tired, we returned the Thistle for a nightcap in the living room and to study the maps for the next day’s adventures. Whisky and the soft, generous couches was a match made in heaven.


  • 6

UK – Onward to Scotland

Category:England,QM2/Scotland,Scotland

By Steven –

Thursday, 13 August

What a lovely visit we had in York with Linda, Kate and Bill! But now it’s time to move along. Our next stop is Glasgow.
With our “goodbyes” to Bill and their lovely daughters, Kate took us to the train station with one more scenic stop along the way at Sledmere House (http://www.sledmerehouse.com). No time to go in or thoroughly explore the grounds. It all looks amazing but will have to be saved for another day. Now to the train station.

Onward 04 Sledmere
Onward 06 Sledmere Onward 07 Sledmere
Onward 08 Sledmere Veg Stand

Here are some scenes from the Yorkshire countryside as we made our way back into York to catch the train.

Train on-time, as were we – love when it works that way. I wish I could say the rest of the trip was uneventful, but that was not the case. We had an unfortunate incident along the way, the details of which I’ll not go into here other than to say police and coroner were summoned. After a delay of about 1 ½ hours we were on our way again. Ultimately, our train that was to continue on to Glasgow was terminated in Edinburgh so a change was in order – we grabbed another one in less than 30 minutes. Edinburgh station was quite the bustling place! The next/last leg to Glasgow passed quickly though the train was now quite crowded with everyone from our original train on board as well.

On both legs, soft drinks and snacks were offered, but nothing memorable, crisps (potato chips to those of us from west of the pond), I believe. I think I also had a wine. Otherwise just coffee and tea.
We arrived in Glasgow with an easy transfer to the hotel as it was in the same building. Tucked off to the corner of the station was the inside entrance to the lobby of The Grand Central Hotel (https://www.ihg.com/spnd/hotels/us/en/glasgow/glags/hoteldetail). The hotel had all the markings of being quite the grand place in its day. It wasn’t hard to visually the well-heeled of the early 20th century arriving with their porters and steamer trunks on their way to or from estate hunting parties in the Highlands – I think there could be a novel or movie in that somewhere, perhaps already is. The 5+ story tall chandelier circa 1980-something in the main stairway seemed a little out of place.

Onward 35 Glagow Station
Still well maintained, attentive and friendly staff. But in typical European fashion, the corridors narrow with lots of doors to get the luggage through from elevator in one wing to the room in another. Our room was a little odd. It was generous in the sense that it had a separate sitting area from the bedroom, but both areas on the small side, though the bathroom was enormous – situated off a hallway connecting the sitting room and bedroom. We only had an alcove that served as a closet. Our room looked out the back of the hotel over the top of the train station roof. Looking out this way we could see the other wing of the hotel. It was obvious that the hotel had grown over the years by absorbing a successive series of buildings, all slightly different.

Onward 37 Grand Central Hotel
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Onward 38 Grand Central Hotel
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Onward 36B Grand Central Hotel

 
A quick check with the concierge about dinner suggestions (I say quick, but that’s all relative as we’re beginning to find that the Scots are quite the talkers!) put us on to an Italian grill, Barolo Gill (http://www.barologrill.co.uk), just a short walk away. A quick call for a reservation and off we headed into the streets of central Glasgow.
 
We quickly found the summer, street café version of the restaurant which would have been nice to be outside. However the street performer nearby, though had a nice sound was so loud we could hardly hear each other let alone the hostess. Fortunately it didn’t take long to establish that our reservation was actually for the full restaurant around the corner. Much more peaceful!
 
Onward 41 Barolo Grill
The meal started off quite promising. I started with the Gamberoni Con Pancetta: prawns with smoked pancetta swimming in white wine and butter – what could go wrong with that? I wanted to just drink the juice after used up all the focaccia. Kevin enjoyed the Zuppa Del Giorno which turned out to be rustic pea and pancetta. Delicious if under seasoned.
 

Onward 42 Barolo Grill
Onward 43 Barolo Grill

 
Then it was on to the steaks. We both had the 12oz Rib-eye. Kevin, at the recommendation of the waiter, had the horseradish and oregano steak crust. This sounded good in theory but turned out to be really mild and didn’t actually add any flavor, all-in-all a bit of a disappointment. Mine, on the other hand couldn’t have been any better. Besides the steak being cooked perfectly (just over blue for me thank you), it was served with a truffle oil brown steak sauce. Having tasted the sauce, Kevin stated “I truly believe that truffle brown sauce could solve the world’s problems; share a cup!” Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but it was pretty darn good.
 

Onward 44 Barolo Grill
Onward 45 Barolo Grill

 
No desserts tonight, they just didn’t look that interesting to us. Pity.
This is what a happy diner looks like:
 
Onward 46 Barolo Grill
 
Our bellies full, we take a little stroll up and down the very fashionable Buchanan Street. The shops were all closed by this time of course so a quick run back in the morning will be required for a cell phone and a pair of shorts seen in a shop window. But for now, back to the hotel.
 

Onward 47 Glasgow at Night
Onward 48 Glasgow at Night

 
Couldn’t resist a peak in the highly touted Champagne Bar on the way up to the room. Quite the elaborate space, overlooking the main hall of the train station. Kevin was wiped out so nothing for him. I opted for a whiskey rather than champagne this late at night. Some of you who follow up on Facebook may have seen Kevin quoting me on my summation of the Lagavulin 16 year old Islay Whiskey – “it’s like sucking on a charcoal from the BBQ.” So, OK, my turn to exaggerate, a bit. But it was pretty smoky, not my favorite so far!
 

Onward 49 Grand Central Hotel Onward 50 Grand Central Hotel

 
Enough for one day – off to bed.
 

Friday, 14 August

 
Early start today, have to be to the Hertz office by 10:00. Which, by the way, was not in the train station as advertised. Why would you say your location is Grand Central Station when you are clearly not in the station but a 10 minute cab ride away? Really?
 
Continental and hot buffet as well as menu order options available for breakfast this morning as part of our B&B package. Quite a spread and quite a few people here. It’s a large room and hardly a table available. The buffet was a little depleted when we came through and as an American (you can tell by their accent, you know) stated “The Americans are here, they take so much so that there’s nothing left!” There was plenty left for these two Americans, but one of us (pleading the 5th here) thought the cute little bottles had milk in them – one sip proved it to be rather thick plain yogurt – oh well, live and learn.
 
After a dash back to Buchanan Street for a burner phone and a pop into the department store for the fun shorts in the window, we’re off to the aforementioned remote Hertz office.
No Hertz Gold Service here but the wait was well worth it. We ordered an Audi-ish something-or-other but drove away in a nice new Mercedes –well OK then, same price, of course we’ll take it!
 
Onward 55 Road to Inverary
 
Off we headed for the Highlands. One or two missed turns getting out of the city. But all-in-all not too bad for driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. A few screams of horror, some nail biting, close calls, etc. but soon out of the city onto an expressway that made it a little less challenging for a moment.
 
Now exhausted after an hour of driving we needed to stop at the south end of Loch Lomond for lunch. Couldn’t have picked a better place to just pull over, we found ourselves at a place called Cameron House (http://www.qhotels.co.uk/our-locations/cameron-house).
 

Onward 60 Cameron House Onward 59 Cameron House
Onward 58 Cameron House Onward 57 Cameron House

We made good time in getting to our destination but certainly enjoyed seeing the countryside, mountain, and lochs. Even with it being a grey, foggy, and misty day, it was still stunningly beautiful.
We were greeted upon arrival by our host and the guest house’s proprietor, Jennifer. More about Jennifer and her husband, Alistair later. For now, we lugged all the luggage up to our room, the Campbell Suite of course on the top floor, with Jennifer’s help. I had my reservations about how the accommodations would be here, thinking they may be a little more primitive than would seem by the website. I couldn’t have been more delightfully surprised. The room was spacious with a great view of the loch. The bathroom was large and quite modern. Most importantly, the bed was really comfortable! The parlor downstairs with its over-stuffed sofas was available for our use any time with whiskey and wine glasses at our disposal. We’ll do a more extensive post about the Guest House later.
 

Onward 69 Thistle House Onward 72 Thistle House
Onward 71 Thistle House Onward 70 Thistle House

 
After a short rest, we ventured out for dinner. In our room was a binder with local eats. We zeroed in one a few miles down the road called Out of the Blue Bistro in Strachur (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Out-of-the-Blue-Bistro/740658709328210?sk=info&tab=overview). What a find this was! So much so that it will need to have a post all on its own as well – stay tuned for that.
 
Back at the hotel, it’s time for a night-cap of the gin we brought from the ship and then off to bed.
 
See you in the morning - xxoo


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Castle Howard

UK – Back on Terra Firma

Category:England,QM2/Scotland

Southampton to York

by Kevin -

Landing day and disembarking from the QM2 went pretty smoothly, except for the 15 min or so delay due to an issue at the dock (we never found out what that was). My colleague and friend, Karen and her husband Digby met us at the ship and off we were to a very quick visit that involved the New Forest and our first tea on the island.
The New Forest isn’t actually new at all. For those of us who know very little about the history of Britain, this is a prime example of the disparity between a US sense of time and other places in the world. The ‘new’ in New Forest refers to William the Conqueror’s establishing of this area as a new place for hunting in the kingdom. Keep in mind this was over 1000 years ago, but ‘new’ has stuck. Here’ a small blurb from the official website: http://www.newforestnpa.gov.uk

 

The New Forest has a long and proud history that dates back almost 1,000 years. It takes its name from the latin nova foresta, which translates literally as ‘new hunting ground’, although hunting had been going on in the area long before this time.
Since its creation by King William the Conqueror in 1079 for the pursuit of the ‘beasts of the chase’ – red, roe and fallow deer and wild pig – many historical events and influences have shaped the landscape and cultural heritage of the New Forest.
Okay, enough of the history lesson. We stopped in Lyndhurst where Karen and Digby escorted us through hill and dale and around the landmines from horses that are actually descendants of William’s original herd…or so I seem to recall. Correction on this point might be needed. My, I slip back into ‘professor mode’ really quickly.

York 03 - New Forest Horses 2
York 02A - New Forest York 02 - New Forest Horses 1

Steven had a close encounter with one of the horses who seemed to shine to him…or was looking for a handout – pick your narrative, I’m going with the former story line. We were still getting our land legs so every now and then I’d feel a gentle rolling and pitching as we walked. We ended in a local tea shop, Tea Total, a favorite place of Karen and Digby’s and had a little nourishment before heading to the train station and York. That’s Karen and Digby there lifting a mug to our journey. I especially liked the carrot cake Karen had.

York 01 - Karen and Digby
Getting to York meant we needed to make a connection through London (Waterloo Station to King’s Cross…yes THAT King’s Cross of Harry Potter fame). The connection window was pretty generous so we decided to go by tube instead of cab. The London tube system has got to be one of the most complete and easy to use undergrounds I’ve ever encountered. Sure it’s the oldest in the world and has some of its rough edges with a few stops looking more like WWII bomb shelter left overs, but all in all it’s really very manageable. We got to King’s Cross, no problem. Oh, we did see that famous Track 9 ¾ but didn’t stop to queue up for a photo op, so no pictures of it I’m afraid.

 

York 04 - St Pancras Train Station
On the high speed train to York we had a quiet ride. On our way, we saw a change in the landscape nearing Yorkshire. More rolling hills, golden with crops ready for harvest, dots of brilliant green made more so by passing sunbreaks.

York 06 - England from the train
The English countryside is in some ways like many countryside/rural areas in the US, but it’s the scale of the small villages and lanes you see as you wiz by that lets you know there probably won’t be an ugly strip mall or an equally ugly Walmart coming up in view any time soon. I don’t know how the UK has managed it, but the absence of ugly is a relief. I’m sure it’s there someplace, but pleasantly, we didn’t see much of the signs of American-style progress.

York 07A - Welcome to York
York 07 - York Train Station

We arrived in York on time, about 5pm, caught a black cab to our hotel, The Grange Hotel just outside the old city walls. Our bed looks pretty luxurious doesn’t it? Our mascot, Rainbow Mickey, thought so too.

York 07 - Grange Hotel
York 08 - Grrange Hotel Staircase York 11 - Mickey at Grange Hotel
York 10 - Grange Hotel Bed York 09 - Grange Hotel Breakfast Room

We got our considerable amount of luggage into the room, then headed out for a quick walk down to the city centre, passing the stone turrets leading to Yorkminster, this amazing cathedral of York. While York is in a bit of a bowl, the minster as it’s called, stands out against the landscape from all directions. It’s like your own compass, helping you navigate the tiny, turning lanes of the old city.
 
We met up with another friend and colleague and her husband for diner at an Italian place recommended by the hotel staff, La Vecchia Scuola. It was so good to see Kate again, it’s been a few years. Catching up was great fun. Her husband Bill is always a delight, great company. I didn’t know this, but Bill is heavily in training for his second (I think) triathlon. The food itself wasn’t all that special, but okay, in spite of the rather ‘trendy’ plating. I’ve grown to think this kind of presentation is just too, too precious and wish the chefs and cooks responsible would turn the page in their ‘what’s new in food styling’ manuals already. I mean, how much unnecessary lines and schmear’s of god knows what do we need on a plate? One should never have to look at a brown schmear on one’s plate should they? I rest my case.

York 12 - Mussel Risotto

York 13 - Ravioli

Steven here - I have now resolved to never, ever, under any circumstances, order risotto if it's not guaranteed to have been made to order. That is all...

 York 14 - Minster Night
Off to a quick walk back to The Grange, then to bed.

Next day, Wednesday, we indulged in the included breakfast to start the day. As it was just the beginning of the second part of our journey, I was eager to ‘get into’ the local foods, so I had smoked kippers and a soft poached egg. Not much on the plate, but very tasty. Steven had the full English, that of course included black pudding, beans, and the ubiquitous roasted tomato. Brown or white toast? That still stumbles us…yes, ‘brown’ means whole wheat or some variation.

York 15 - Grange Hotel Full English Breakfast

Full English Breakfast

Today was a very full day of sightseeing with another gracious friend and colleague of mine, Linda. York is Linda’s old stomping grounds from when she was a faculty member at a local college. She knows the place, its history, and little secrets. She was the perfect guide to orient us to all that is York. We started by heading up onto the city wall and walked around as far as you could go. Good views of the gardens of the well-heeled (City Officials, Church leaders, etc.) and the minster. Being newbees we slowed down a lot to take the photo ops all around, Linda gave us some brief history too as we went along, moving aside into the small garrison lookout’s as families tried to squeeze past on the opposite foot traffic flow. Climbing down off the city wall we landed in the south east part of the old city, navigate some quaint streets, allowing the woman in an electric wheel chair to use the skinny sidewalks while we veered off into the streets to make our way.

York 19 - Ancient Rampart

Reminds me of scenes from Monty Pyton and the Holy Grail

York -17 - Kevin on Ancient Wall York 18 - Ancient Wall and Mote

I’m not sure how to capture all that is Yorkminster, or ‘the minster’ as the locals call it. It’s imposing, impressive, and altogether beautiful inside and out. Linda managed to get us around the big line (an example of one of her secrets) to go in straight away. Soaring heights and graceful arches punctuated with spellbinding stained glass windows. We explored the ground level including many of the side chapels. Near the rear of the minster we discovered a bake sale. Yes, an old fashioned bake sale presented by the ladies of the church. Tasty treats, lovely conversation…a few remarks about that new American woman who insists on bringing her spice cake to these affairs, though they can’t figure out why, since the spices in it (cardamom, ginger, cinnamon) are really meant for the Christmas holidays. American’s have no respect for the seasons I guess. Oh, but her cakes do sell…mostly to American’s.
 
When I came out of the bake sale, I found Linda and Steven chatting up a Chaplain Emeritas – a lively chap animated in telling some tale about the church I imagined…but, no, he was gossiping about the Chinese tourists (another, confidential post is necessary for that story). Apparently, his son-in-law found a translator app for his iPhone. It helped mostly, but some things just aren’t translatable…like when the sign says don’t take pictures here…it really means it…it’s not a suggestion. Not translatable. He also let us know about the underground exhibit that was new and not well marked.
But the best of all is the amazing (really, I’m trying not to use that word often), this place had the technology in spades. At far end of the nave, where they are painstakingly restoring crumbling stone and effigies, they have a crack interactive presentation on the huge stained glass window occupying the entire rear wall. You swipe to get to an overview of the window, which itself is quite detailed, then touch the screen on what you want to know more about. Each segment had several drill-downs possible. We thought it could take an entire day just to read/listen/watch all the materials on just this one window. It was the same in lower crypt level where most of the major archeological discoveries have been made.
 
I love this stuff…the merging of technology and good old fashioned research. The site of the current minster was Roman. Some of the original barracks remain, even a largely intact section of the officers hall with frescos, whose outer wall abutted the foundation wall for the ancient Roman basilica there. So much to see. Steven noticed these very large bolts every now and then recessed into a newer concrete bulkhead. Well, the interactive displays taught us that these were there to strengthen and support the main caissons that were holding up the entire ‘new’ minster. It was discovered in the mid 1950’s I think, that the minster was on the verge of collapse, so dangerous that engineers said a bad storm could bring whole central tower down and all the walls with it. They excavated, found the ruins of the Roman structures and foundations and shored them all up with new concrete footings with these iron bars inserted to tighten the original foundations, keeping them in place…and safe. Thank you engineers!
 
Steven’s note – The Minster is under perpetual maintenance. One side was being worked on as we were there. Generations of stone masons have tirelessly kept the building in very good repair. Apparently it’s an extensive apprenticeship to learn the craft. Blocks are removed, new ones are shaped and put back into place, block by block. The work tends to stay within families as the skills are pasted down. Each block is signed or marked by the mason who created it.

 

York 20 - Minster Day
York 21 - Minster Interior York 25 - Minster Interior
York 26 - Minster Detail York 24 - Minster Ceiling
York 23 - Minster with Bake Sale York 22 - Minster Interior

 
Off then to the rest of the city and lunch at Nicholson’s Firehouse Pub. Pimms was on tap so we had a pitcher…of course. Steven enjoy his first beef pie with brown sauce and I my first fish and chips with mashed peas of this leg of our trip. Linda hates brown sauce, but later on you’ll see us mention it again…this time as a revelation.
 

York 29 - Nicholson's Pub badge
York 28 - Nicholson's Pub Tap York 32 - Pimms for lunch
York 30 - Beef Pie York 31 Fish and Chips

 
On our walk after lunch we toured the alley responsible for J.K. Rowlings Diagon Alley, the Shambles is its real name complete with crooked, leaning buildings, and a bank on its corner that looked suspiciously like Gingotts Wizarding Bank. We were pretty much spent by then, and sauntered our way slowly back to the hotel around 3pm to see Bill ready to pick us and our luggage up to be transported back to their home for the evenings stay. Somewhere along the way Steven saw these adorable pink piggy confections. We didn’t have the heart to eat them but enjoyed their pinkness.
 

York 34 - Farmers market 1
York 35 - Farmers market 2 York 40 - Shambles 2
York 39 - Shambles 1 York 41 - Gringotts Wizarding Bank
York 41A - Marzapane Piggies

 
Castle Howard was on tap next. You might recognize some of the shots. This is where Brideshead Revisited filmed, as were subsequent versions. The Howard’s still are in residence, though a talkative docent confessed to us that there is change in the air at Castle Howard. It seems the older brother, who is legally entitled to the castle and who gave it up to his younger more capable brother some 35 years ago, wants it back now. No one seems to know for certain whether the aged younger brother is still living there or not. It pays to just chat up folks…you get all sorts of interesting tidbits. The castle and its grounds are of course excessive by today’s standards. Nonetheless, they are holder of history, particularly of the power of wealth and privilege. Personally, I’m glad these great houses are still around.

 

York 42 - Castle Howard York 67 - Castle Howard
York 66 - Castle Howard York 65 - Castle Howard
York 64 - Castle Howard York 63 - Castle Howard
York 62 - Castle Howard York 61 - Castle Howard
York 60 - Castle Howard York 59 - Castle Howard
York 58 - Castle Howard York 57 - Castle Howard
York 56 - Castle Howard York 52 - Castle Howard
York 54 - Castle Howard York 53 - Castle Howard
York 55 - Castle Howard York 51 - Castle Howard
York 50 - Castle Howard York 49 - Castle Howard
York 47 - Castle Howard York 46 - Castle Howard
York 43 - Castle Howard York 44 - Castle Howard
York 45 - Castle Howard

 

Dinner that evening was truly memorable but before it Linda took us to York’s oldest running pub The Black Swan (16th Century) where we befuddled the poor barkeep with our order of Martini – dry with olives and my Bombay Blue Sapphire gin and tonic. Well, it’s certain the fellow is not in the know about the UK’s recently rediscovered passion for all things gin. We forgave him of course.
 

York 71 - Black Swan York 75 - Black Swan
York 74 - Black Swan

 

Linda found and reserved us a table at a place she had known and loved years ago, Melton’s Restaurant. The chef uses locally sourced produce and meats (as I’ve said, we like to support these kinds of establishments). We had wine (a nice Cotes du Rhone), starters, mains, and this time we skipped the sweets. The meal started with an amuse bouche that included a pea shooter, handmade crackers with humus, and on the spoon goat cheese and crunchy roasted veg and oats. We shared starters: a superbly done crab with smoke haddock with fried pork lardon scattered about topped with house cured lamb bacon all sitting atop a Thai inspired reduction; Steven had the carpaccio of beef with whipped egg yolk puree with shallots, radish and capers. Our mains were Darn of Hake-braised little gem with peas, broad beans, potatoes and bacon; Steven had the Yorkshire lamb-shoulder, leg and ‘bacon’ with ratatouille, confit potato, basil hollandaise and caramelized baby onions. We can’t recall what the others had…we were so thoroughly engrossed in our own eating. The pictures just don’t tell the story. To get that, we weaseled our way into meeting the chef and his staff of three in the kitchen.
 

York 76 - Meltons York 83 - Meltons
York 82 - Meltons York 81 - Meltons
York 79 - Meltons
York 78 - Meltons York 77 - Meltons

 

Here are a few more shots from Yorkshire.
 

York 84 - Sledmere York 96 - Kate, Bill, Kevin
York 94 - Yorkshire
York 89 - Yorkshire York 88 - Yorkshire
York 87 - Sledmere York 86 - Sledmere
York 85 - Sledmere

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DPF, Night, QM2

QM2 – Ship Photos

Category:QM2/Scotland,Queen Mary 2

By Steven -

QM2 - 01 Cunard

Let's have a tour of the ship, shall we?

Here are a few shots from around the ship. Most are from embarkation day, but others throughout the voyage. I'll start with these from near the bow of the ship. Any guesses at to what these are? [David and Tony - no fair for you to guess, you should already know!]

QM2 - Day Bow Installation 2QM2 - Day Bow Installation 1

Here are some other random day-time shots-


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Kilt

QM2 – Life At Sea

Category:QM2/Scotland,Queen Mary 2

By Steven

So, we’ve already covered our departure from New York and the food aboard. But we haven’t talked much about the day-to-day life and activities on board the ship. I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can to cover the six days on the ocean in one post – partly as that’s all there is to say and partly because we want to move on to writing about our time in England and Scotland. I’m writing this on day 19th day of our trip, but the crossing ended on the 11th – yes, we’re a little behind in getting things posted.

We had expected that life on the QM2 would be a little more than relaxing and being fed – we were a bit off on that assumption. There was certainly plenty to do – too much even. We had three Formal Nights, the remainder being Informal, which weren’t exactly casual. We fairly quickly got the hang of the layout of the ship (mostly).

Each evening, as Kevin mentioned, we received the ship’s newsletter for the next day. It talked about the ship’s path, a brief weather forecast, and then the list of the day’s activities. This list was extensive; shows, guest lectures, seminars, shopping specials, afternoon teas, dance classes, drama classes, bridge tournaments, ping-pong tournaments, and on, and on. And something called “Friends of Bill” which we never could out what it was. Thanks to seasoned traveler friends David and Tony, we knew what Friends of Dorothy was – a gay/gay-friendly gathering in the forward Commodore Club each afternoon at 5:00. We tried to make it to this each evening but often time got away from us and we didn’t get there. On the nights that we did, we were really quite surprised at the number of gay men and women who were aboard. In fact, on the first evening that we went, there were so many of us that we had to create and “annex” to the area traditionally allotted in the bar. We met a number of people with whom we hope to keep in touch with. Now I’ve digressed from how a typical day progressed.
We had the option of having breakfast in our suite or at a number of restaurants. The first morning, we opted for breakfast in bed having hung our order on the door before going to bed. We over-ordered just a little. It didn’t seem like much on paper but it arrive with five domed plates, two pots (coffee and tea), orange juice, enough toast and bagels for an army, or so it seemed.

After that, we limited ourselves to maybe a bagel and the meat/cheese plate or even just juice and coffee early followed by a trip to the Princess Grill where we were entertained by our pastry lady – “You like lovely pastry this morning? We have beautiful pastry – you will like. Just one? You should have two, they’re delicious pastry – beautiful……..” (pic below) – we saw her again at lunches, but nowhere else on the ship or at any other meal service – steadfastly, she was there with her beautiful pastries and red glasses each morning.

QM2 - Last Too Much Breakfast

 

While having our room-service coffee, I would take a few pics of the morning’s weather from our balcony. As you can see, they mostly started out rather grey and overcast, but warmer than one would expect. Other than the first day (or was it the second?) the day’s turned out just gloriously sunny. It must have been the first full day at sea that was cloudy as that’s when we bought the 6-day Canyon Spa pass thinking that we would be in the spa the whole crossing. We may have over-bought as we only ended up there a few times. But it sure was nice to sit in the relaxation room in our warm robes and slippers with our hot tea watching bundled up folks walk around the Promenade Deck just outside the window – Oh, so sorry, this seat is taken!

Weather 05 Aug Weather 06 Aug Weather 07 Aug Weather 08 Aug Weather 09 Aug Weather 10 Aug

Back to the daily routine, such as it was. After breakfast, in whatever form, there was just a short time to either relax, in the room, on deck, or in the spa, before it was time to eat again. It didn’t help that we had a one-hour time change five of the seven days at sea, always at noon. At 12:00 it was suddenly 1:00 and an hour closer to missing lunch.

A couple of times when the sun was out in the morning, we would find ourselves on the Grills Deck on deck 9, aft. This quiet deck, set up with plenty of deck chairs and a hot tub was a couple decks above the main pool. It was quiet, but the main pool was visible a few decks below and further aft. While the main pool was always lively with families and others, the Grills Deck was peaceful. Snacks were served around noon and a server was always on-hand for a Bloody Mary or whatever your fancy. – nicer pool towel, too.

Bloody Mary on Grills Deck QM2 - Last - View from Grills Deck

 

Otherwise, there were haircuts to be had. Kevin made an appointment with the ship’s chiropractor about the shoulder he strained somewhere along the way. We tried a couple times to get tickets to the planetarium but apparently you need to be in-line well before 9:00AM to get tickets for that day’s showings. We missed out a couple of times until we found out that the Grills Concierge always had tickets for the Grills cabin guests. So we finally saw one of the planetarium shows near the end of the crossing – interesting, but not worth getting up early to stand in line for tickets. It was a movie about mapping the cosmos, narrated by Tom Hanks. The earlier ones were about the search for alien life and manned space exploration (I think).

Invariably, the morning was gone before we knew it and lunch in the Grill was over. So we were left with our only choice being the buffet in Kings Court. This was hit or miss. Some things quite sufficient and some, like the hot-and-sour soup, were the worst things we had on the ship (in fact that particular soup was about the worst I can remember, ever, anywhere). Then, it wasn’t long before it was time to get ready for Friends of Dorothy, if we remembered, or get ready for dinner.

One of the mainstays for the QM2 is afternoon tea. We only planned on going to the Champagne Tea that Kevin mentioned in the last post. Other basic tea offerings were available in The Queen’s Room which Kevin B and Charmaine report as being packed. On the last day, they also found that Queens Grill Lounge also had a lovely tea – who knew?

As I mentioned, three of our nights were formal. The first one also coincided with an invitation to the Captain’s Champagne Reception in the Queen’s Room. We got all dressed up and met up with Kevin B and Charmaine and headed down. We ended up in the line for meet-and-greet with the Vice Captain, which we did. But not to be thwarted, we went to the other entrance to get our photo with the Captain as well – but it didn’t turn out well so we didn’t buy that one. The reception was short, though with sufficient champagne and included a short talk by the captain and introduction of the heads of the major departments: purser, chef, hotel manager, etc and an accounting of how many passengers for what countries. All was translated into German and French. Then off to dinner. Then back to Queen’s Room for a few more cocktails and dancing at the 175 Ball, in commemoration of the 175 years since the founding of Cunard Lines.

[Kevin here, just as a quick side note; we danced together at the 175 on the big ballroom dance floor, drawing a bit of attention, though it seemed pretty positive. Picture a grizzled old fellow with medals on his dinner jacket (half sleeping) opening any eye to seeing us move about the dance floor, only to shut his eyes again the next moment. I guess we really are passe now. We caught the attention of one of the dance partners for hire that Cunard supplies who gave us a little nod of appreciation. Later at another event, he came over to us and thanked us for getting out on the floor and dancing together.]

Most evening weren’t this busy; typically Friends of Dorothy (if we remembered to go), dinner, and then most likely back to the Commodore Club with Charmaine, Kevin B and Bruce and Nancy. Or some variation thereof.

So, all said, there wasn’t much time for naps and massages.

I just happened to wake up early on the morning we were to arrive into Southampton. I was, well, you know…doing as one does in the mornings, when I felt a difference in the vibration of the ship, as if a reverse thrust was momentarily engaged. Looking off the balcony, I saw that we were going quite slow. Then a pilot’s launch rounded the stern and approached the starboard side out of view due to the life boats. Our harbor pilot was now on-board to get us into port. No going back to sleep now as I was wide awake. By the time we were maneuvering to dock, Kevin was up as well. [Actually,I (Kevin) was rudely woken up when Steven said it was already 7am and we needed to get ready to leave...turns out is wasn't even 6am yet.] It was quite something to see how this is done. We pulled up along and perpendicular to berth at mid-ships. Then quick as you please, the side thrusters at the bow and rotating propeller blades as the stern pivoted the entire ship and backed us into the birth. So gently and precisely done – as if they’ve done this once or twice.

Quick to breakfast and final packing. The main bags were packed the night before and placed in the hallway by midnight to be transferred off for us. If we had been in a hurry to disembark and could get our own luggage off the ship, we would have left as early as 7:00AM – though we heard that was delayed slightly due to problems on the dock. Out of the rooms by 8:00AM and to our assigned disembarkation waiting zones by 9:00. We were off the ship by 9:30. Luggage waiting and ready for us.

A far too quick farewell to Kevin B and Charmaine as they head for the train station and London, we were soon greeted by our friends who live in Christchurch near Southampton, Karen and Digby, to begin the rest of our adventure.

I fear I haven’t been as brief as I set out to be, but at least it’s the last post about the boat.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention one other thing. On our first night I awoke around 2:00 and saw flashes of light coming in around the curtains. On stepping out on the balcony, I was greeted by one of the most brilliant lightning storms I’ve seen in a long time. Kevin and I sat out watching it for quite some time until it got a little close for comfort. So we watched from inside for a while. I think the closest it got was maybe a mile or two away.

Final thoughts: don’t try to do too much. It was fine to learn about all the options on this first go just to get to know what can be had. But if we do this again, as I suspect we may, we’ll spend more time just relaxing and being pampered.

As unreal as it seemed to us to actually making this crossing and being on the QM2, it was just as unreal to believe that it was over - until next time.

QM2 - Last Formal Night

QM2 - Last - ST Cert QM2 - Last - KK Cert

 


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QM2, QM2-Day1, QM2-UK 2015

QM2 – Food & Drink

Category:QM2/Scotland,Queen Mary 2

by Kevin -

It’s easier to disdain than it is to be fair.

After several days at sea, it’s become far harder to step back and put in perspective the many meals, service, and general impressions of our culinary adventures on the QM2. One caveat: we’ve had little interaction with Britannia food options, other than the Kings Court on odd hours when we were starving with only very few options open.

On the main, the Cunard Service in the Princess Grill is quite good, even exceptional in some ways, which we’ll note below. There is an evenness to it all, not too routine but dependable and yet always a bit surprising.

The words that come to me in summing up Cunard service are gracious, accommodating, engaging and thoughtful.

Could you ask for much more? Okay, maybe gold plates? I really don’t think so, that’s not our style anyway. The grey/silver rimmed Wedgewood china will do just fine.

I think I should mention, that Steven and I tend to agree on most of our notes, but not always. He hates salad dressings of any kind for instance, claiming as he does often, of their smell. Me, well, I’m eager to taste the smelliest of cheeses and pickled or brined things offered.

The first few days at sea were a whirlwind of sights and sounds, most all having to do with orienting to the ship, the daily schedules (delivered to our stateroom in the early evenings), the passageways, and destination points…like ‘Where is the Princess Grill again?’ and ‘How do we get to the Commodore Club, was it on Deck 7 or 8 or…, oh, right stairway B or A, Deck 9 forward’. All this was pretty exciting for us if not a bit hectic. Then there was preparing a day ahead for the first formal night of the cruise. I rented a tux, which turned out to be a kind of disaster as they only had sizes bigger than mine and somewhere along that first formal evening I lost my cummerbund.

We’ve reconstructed our meals during the cruise..or at least those highlights and low points we can both recall and decided to organize our thoughts into commentary and photos on Starters, Mains, and Desserts. Breakfasts are in their own category. But first a bit of context.

Our first meal on the Queen was lunch before sailing. After finding the Princess Grill dining room…not quite as easy as you’d think since there are no clear markers for it, only a sign for the Kings Court that is on the same level with entrances across from each other.. I guess you just have to know where it is.

We were greeted by a head waiter, showed him our card left in our stateroom that had our dining room listed (this is Cunard’s subtle way of keeping track of who can enter or not). Since we were traveling with friends Charmaine and Kevin, we wanted to be seated at the same table. None of us had thought ahead to request seating together. After a very short time and with the help of the Maitre’d were we able to be seated together at table 35, located toward the back of the dining area or aft on the ship. This became our home base for the next seven days and where we met our new friends Nancy and Bruce from Charleston, South Carolina. We turned out to be a very well match group and enjoyed the time we had in the Princess Grill and often closing out the night in the Commodore Club.

Each meal you’re presented with a printed menu for the day. You can ask for anything you’d like and the chef will try to prepare it for you. I don’t know, but I doubt you get this kind of service on most cruises these days. In any case, we didn’t know about this option until the final days of the cruise, but frankly, I doubt I would have ordered off the menu like that given the range of choices we had every day. A Sommelier was assigned to our area too who got to know our leanings very quickly.

Starters:

Okay, finally to the starters. At first, we were giddy with all the tasty-sounding options and so we indulged…my, did we indulge. What’s wrong with having a couple of starters, soups, and salad every meal? Nothing we said to ourselves…unless these are followed by even more tasty looking mains and sweets. Needless to say, we chose differently further into our trip.

One of the great options is the lower calorie Canyon Ranch menu. I tried it several times and was not disappointed. Charmaine loved that they had many vegetarian options at each seating. Seared rare Ahi with micro greens and seafood reduction one day, Shrimp Cocktail of course served with Sauce American (roughly cocktail sauce), Pan Roasted Scallop, baby white asparagus, dressed with a light aioli, a Seafood Terrine – these are just a few we chose over the week. Too many to recount in full here. The soups became our table’s mainstay for starting our meals. Eventually you do get tired of such extravagance as you tummy reminds you you’re not accustomed to living the Edwardian life.

Ah the soups. Lovely pureed vegetable soups (often with no cream thank goodness), some more complicated looking than others. But our real love were the very simple clear broth or consomme served. Necessarily, they were variations on a beefy theme, but each day we loved the pure cleanness of the taste. I’m sure that under seasoning is the way chefs have to prepare foods these days…after all, we’re talking meal planning for a couple of thousand folks daily. We did find we needed to add some salt or finish the pureed soups with a little EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil).

ARVE Error: Mode: lazyload not available (ARVE Pro not active?), switching to normal mode

 

Desserts

By this time we sometimes just couldn’t bare thinking of more…but, we did push on to sample Cunard’s offerings. I particularly enjoy a cheese course at the end of meal. The choices were just okay…yes, they had the Stilton Blue but that was the tastiest by far. I wonder if they just catered to a palate that didn’t like stinky and strong cheeses? Can’t blame them, but I only had that option once…besides take a look at the pictures, there was much more to enjoy.

The Pyramid pictured is a raspberry parfait that Steven had….scrumptious. Molten White Chocolate Soufflé. Fredrik came over and opened the top, pouring in vanilla laced crème anglaise. It was a good as this sounds. Then there was the Baked Alaska Cunard style….on the last formal night, the same meal at which we consumed the lobster. That put us over the top and resulted in a general commitment by our table to rejoin our fitness routines that were most conveniently left on land!

Notes from Steven -

As I agree with what Kevin says above (except perhaps about my disdain for thing brined - I do like certain pickled things though I will stand firm on my opinions of salad dressing and mayo), I don't want to add much more to this already length post. But I do have a few things to add.

The service was nearly impeccable with white gloves and all. Platter service from the left and plated dishes served from the right, etc, as it should be 🙂 though a few times dishes were presented to the wrong person. The food itself was, for the most part, exquisitely (or even dramatically) prepared. Classic preparations, so nothing terribly groundbreaking or adventurous but delicious an elegant nonetheless. The only molecular gastronomy happening on this ship was with some of the martini concoctions in the Commodore Club.

Molecualar Margarita with foamed Grand Marinier

Molecular Margarita with foamed Grand Marinier

As for the kitchens, we had suspected when we booked into the Princess Grill that the food would come from the same kitchen as the large Britannia Room. We were wrong on that account. The Princess and Queens Grills have there own kitchen to server these 70 to 80 or so tables. I imagine that this is why they are able to provide personalized service and more nuanced presentation though with many similar base dishes. Todd English has its own kitchen as well.

We have a couple of the dinner menus which we can provide on request once we get back home.

Bon Appetit!


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Cunard, QM2, QM2-UK 2015

QM2 – Verrazzano Bridge

Category:QM2/Scotland,Queen Mary 2

by Steven - 

Here's a video I forgot to post earlier. This is as the ship passes under the Verrazzano Bridge as we leave New York. We clear by only a few feet. Fortunately the ship was specifically designed with this bridge in mind.

 

ARVE Error: Mode: Normal not available (ARVE Pro not active?), switching to normal mode


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QM2, QM2-UK 2015

Day 4 – QM2 Embarkation Day

Category:QM2/Scotland,Queen Mary 2

4 August 2014

New York and Brooklyn

by Kevin -

Embarkation - Caught cab a little after 11am going speedily across town to the FDR where we encountered traffic due to a stalled car and road work. Made it just after Noon to the docks. Seeing the Queen for the first time as we crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge was memorable. She is a massive ship, still-looking, tethered to the pier, fighting to break free being spurred along by a powerful current that day. The current would be responsible for us leaving an hour behind schedule. The Captain explained later at the Captain's Champagne Reception Wed. night, that he was concern over the strength of the tidal current and was waiting for a bit of slack to build. Still, he had some time of it apparently getting the Queen to push off from the dock…even with both pivoting pods turned toward the dock, a maneuver that would normally get the ship away easily. This time though, the Queen took her time to beat the current. Better late than run aground!

We moved off from the dock almost without notice, except that the party on the stern decks got really going about then. Of course the four of us travelers flowed out onto the Grilles deck with Champagne in hand and then down to join our other shipmates for some revelry. Brilliant day to be departing. The City sparkled as we passed off Battery Park and Liberty Island. I’ve seen this view only from Staten Island once, its was captivating.

By this time we had found our stateroom, 10-117, which is a 1 numerologically speaking. Ask your favorite numerologist what this means, but for my money it is obviously about setting out in a new direction with all that that brings and means. Apropos don’t you think? I was just taken by how beautiful this ship is. We peeked over the gangway railing just before entering the side of the ship at deck 3 looking down one very long expanse toward the stern and then toward the bow. You really can’t take it all in, it’s so massive in scale that when you’re that close, all you really can appreciate is the sturdiness of it all, the huge scale of the steel plates and windows at that level – we’d later find this to be on the the Queen’s passenger promenades with quiet seating up against the side of the ships hull, looking out the port side.

by Steven -

I can't believe this day is finally here! Nervous and excited at the same time - it's hard to keep myself from mentally spinning so I can keep it all together - "Be Calm and Set Sail" as they say.

As many time as I've seen it on TV and in movies, this was the first time I think I've been across the Brooklyn Bridge (may have when 2 or 3 years old - but certainly don't remember that!) But as much as I wanted to take that in, there was The Queen now in view. It won't be long now - I still can't believe this is happening!

The business of getting through security, checked in, and boarded went quite smoothly - almost as if they've managed this process one or two times. Through the main entry into the Grand Atrium. Everyone in queue for the first set of elevators. We've studied our maps of the ship, so head further aft to the next set - no waiting here! Off to our stateroom.

And a lovely stateroom it is. More room than I would have thought. Full tub and shower, walk-in closet and plenty of other storage. Kevin says I took most of the closets and most of the hangers - but he is mistaken [Steven's right....though only after my pointing out how little of the walkin I had]. Sofa with coffee table and a desk to the side. Bar, refrigerator and a cabinet full of glasses and stemware - just in case. We had a bottle of bubbly waiting for us on ice. It said for cabin consumption but it ended up on deck with use for shove-off - oops!

We were on board by 1:00ish. Kevin B and Charmaine beat us by a few minutes. But after a freshen we were off to lunch. The Maitre'd helped us all get reassigned for our table seating so that we could be at the same table. We should have linked our reservations but it all worked out just fine. We'll tell you about other fabulous table mates later. Photos of lunch are below.

Back to the cabin to unpack and rest for a minute before heading to the aft decks for the Bon Voyage Champagne party. Stunning views of Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Stayed up on deck as we passed under the Verrazzano Bridge. It's quite the close call to get under the bridge but fortunately the ship's height is specifically designed to just barely clear at high tide. I have a video of passing under but it needs to be edited - I'll post it later.

Gorgeous sunset as we head out of the harbor and towards open seas! And our first dinner on board.


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NYC, New York, New York City, North America, QM2-UK 2015, USA

Day 3 – New York City

Category:New York City,QM2/Scotland

3 August 2014

by Stacie -

As I've gotten older I've decided that life is about memories, it's up to you to make those memories whenever you can. I decided what better way to make some is to meet my dear uncles for their brief stay in NYC. I took a 6am train from Richmond to NYC on Sunday, met them at Penn station and the fun began!1 Getting to meet up with Jerry, Charmaine & Kevin B was icing on the cake and added to the fun! If there is one thing our family knows how to do right it's food, we love to enjoy new things and places and we surely did that with amazing meals. Taking in the sights we could from the Highline, The Women in Gold and the "old stuff" at The Met we made the most of every minute. Even when I left a 4:45am on Tuesday morning to head home I was sad, but also grateful to spend that amazing time with people I dearly love.

by Kevin -

Food carts, the soul of a city. Forget the big name restaurants (sorry Alex), nothing can compare to the simple street food in this city. Okay, so Seoul is pretty good too..but nothing is really like the NYC experience. We wandered though, if there might not be some sort of Falafel Syndicate that owns and operates most of these carts near the Met in the Upper East Side. Every picture of the food on the outside of the cart was exactly the same. Not a bad business model probably, but not too much creativity either. On an earlier visit, we explored Midtown and the Lower West side….not nearly as homogeneous.

The Day's Itinerary -

Neue Galerie

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Butter (Restaurant by Alex Guaranchelli)

Off-Broadway play - Ruthless

 


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DPF, NYC, New York, New York City, QM2-UK 2015

Day 2 – New York

Category:New York City,QM2/Scotland

2 August 2015

by Steven (edits by Kevin)

So, just so you know, we haven’t been entirely diligent about getting these posts written. We’re actually on Day 5 (9 August) of the QM2 crossing and I’m just now getting around to writing about our couple of days in New York. It took some time just to get the 100’s of photos collected from our various devices, sorted, selected and edited. And, of course, finalizing the blog setup. All this with limited (and very expensive!) internet service. We’ll try to post more often as we get back on land.

Just to give a preview, here’s my view as I write this.

After flying in-style overnight, we landed at JFK Airport just as the sun is coming up. Beautiful views of the sunrise over Long Island as we make our final approach. Bags out quick and a short ride into Manhattan as we arrive at our hotel for the next couple nights, The Carlyle on the Upper East Side at 76th St and Madison Ave. The room we had reserved wasn’t available – imagine, that at 7:00AM our room wasn’t available! The spa’s not open for a few more hours to take showers but they found us a similar room that was available – whew, we can shower and change!
After a freshen-up and nap, it’s off to Penn Station to get Kevin’s niece, Stacie. Back up to the hotel to drop off her bag and back downtown for lunch with Jerry at The Brindle Room. This is a tiny burger joint that Kevin saw recommended by Anthony Bourdain. Little did we know that is was also featured on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives (uh oh!). Thankfully, we had reservations! The place was full with seating for only about 2 dozen people, if that many.

Fresh donuts to start (as if I needed more donuts after my Krispy Kremes in Penn Station). Then probably the best burgers we’ve had in a long time! Fully chard on the outside but still moist and juicy on the inside – burgers don’t get much better than these! No fancy-pants buns, just good old soft hamburger buns. Kevin’s had blue cheese that melted into the burger...just the right mix of seasoning and the added punch of the blue.

With full bellies we headed across lower Manhattan, (just a couple blocks west Jerry insists) to the Highline. We had missed this last time we were in NYC so glad to get here this time. Lots of people around, but still felt like a nice, peaceful retreat in the middle of the city. Tourist and locals were out for a stroll or just sitting, enjoying the sun. What’s a walk in NY without a stop for an artisan gelato?

We bid farewell to Jerry for the day and head back to the hotel for a nap and get ready to eat again.

Dinner at Morini on Madison north of The Carlyle where Charmaine and Kevin join us after arriving from Dallas earlier in the afternoon. Sorry, no food porn here – which is a shame because I really don’t remember what I had but I recall that we enjoyed it. We ended our first day with a stroll back to our hotel, putting Kevin and Charmaine in a cab back to their’s.

 


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Day 1 – Seattle to New York

Category:New York City,QM2/Scotland

1 August 2015

Day 1 – Seattle to New York via San Francisco

by Steven

Wow! After over a year of planning and anticipation, this day has finally come – we leave on our biggest vacation yet. It’s hard to believe this is actually happening! To be honest, we’ve been talking about a transatlantic trip for many years but one thing or another intruded on our plans.

A little background: our dear friends from Texas, Charmaine Simpson and Kevin Barnard (I’ll call him Kevin B) had this brilliant idea of making a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 for Kevin B’s 40th birthday year celebration. He was in the Navy for eight years and crossed all the world’s oceans except the Atlantic. So why not do it in a celebration year. They asked if we would like to come along. This being my 50th birth year and me and Kevin’s 20th year together, we decided it’s a perfect time to check off a biggie on our bucket list.

So here we are, the four of us heading for New York to catch the QM2 for Southampton. Charmaine and Kevin B are coming up from Dallas tomorrow and Kevin K’s niece Stacie will join us in NYC for a couple days knocking around the city. Also looking forward to seeing Kevin’s cousin-but-not-really-a-cousin, Jerry, who lives in the city.

But before we head to the airport, we’ve got a few things to do. Finding time to pack has nearly been impossible this week! Kevin’s been in various phases of a conference (including being on the planning committee) at the University. And me with my rowing practices and, yes, a regatta this morning! Up at 4:00 f***ing AM to head to Green Lake for a 9:20 race. And, oh yes, I’m still not done packing!

Took 3rd place in our race – grabbed my medal and ran home! Three hours until leaving for the airport!

I needed a vacation just to get ready for my vacation.

Last things thrown in bags, not necessarily well organized, but in. Now off to the airport. First stop will be San Francisco. Why SF? Yet another new experience: JetBlue’s Mint service on the red-eye transcon flight. We’re treating ourselves to fully flat seats in individual compartments. Quit posh – this is the way air travel should be! Tomorrow we arrive in New York about 6:00 AM

A note about SFO – do not expect to find a broad selection of food choices in International Terminal A. Only one fresh-cooked food option – pizza. All else is in plastic clamshells, salads and sandwiches. Very limited seating. They really could do better  – the architecture isn’t even very interesting. I still had some work I needed to get done before setting sail. The airport had free wifi, which is nice, but access to VPN to connect to office was blocked – Really! But SeaTac was the same in that regard – sigh! Work will have to wait.

 

09 IED

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