Cunard Queen Elizabeth
May 31st - June 10th, 2019
We'll be doing full posts about our trip in the coming weeks but we wanted to give you all a preview to the photos. Below are the shots from our fun in Ketchikan.
We'll be doing full posts about our trip in the coming weeks but we wanted to give you all a preview to the photos. Below are the shots from our fun in Ketchikan.
It's been 8 days since we left our last port of call in Spain, at Málaga. We were to have had two more stops in The Canaries. But, due to weather, and trying to out-run an enormous storm in the North Atlantic, we were not able to visit. We may have been able to get to the islands before the storm but would have been in the worst of it as we left. Rather than risking threatening seas, we headed further south before making our turn to the west. There was much disappointment among guest and staff. Many of the guests, like ourselves, were eager to visit Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Santa Cruz de la Palma. The crew relishes port days when everyone has gone ashore. What was planned to be one day at sea followed by two at port before the five-day crossing, now would be eight days at sea to do little but eat, drinking, and sunbathe - more about that in other posts.
On the 24th, we found ourselves within sight of Puerto Rico just as the sun rose through the clouds. This treated us to nice sunrise view of San Juan as we pulled into the harbor. We were looking forward to this port for a number of reasons. One being that we had booked a walking food tour of Old San Juan. The packages available through the ship were beyond our comfort zone in terms of price. But we did have internet so found something on our own. There were several to choose from, others already booked. The one we chose, and glad we did, was Spoon Food Tours.
The Fort - Castillo San Felipe del Morro
As soon as we were allowed off the ship, which took some time as this was our first arrival back to the US. The ship had to be cleared by customs before anyone could disembark. Those who had tours were allowed to disembark first. Then everyone else, all passengers and crew, had to get off the ship and go through immigration. We headed off as soon as we could and got an Uber to take us to the meeting place for our tour. It was a quick ride away up the hill, we probably could have walked but we weren't sure how long it would take - and it was uphill! We arrived in plenty of time to wander up to the fort for a few minutes and enjoy the morning sun. It was getting hot very quickly. A few tourists had already shown up at the fort but were thus far largely outnumbered by the young people using the perimeter of the fort grounds to get in their morning run.
The fort itself is a US National Park. We didn't have time to go in, but I'm sure it would have been interesting. Check out the website for more information: https://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm.
But now it was time to meet our guide at the nearby Plaza del Quinto Centenario, a plaza built in 1992 to commemorate the 500 years since Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico.
Soon our guide, Gabriela, arrived as well as one other couple. We waited a while for one other person but attempts to reach her were unsuccessful so we headed on our way. These tours are limited to 12 participants, we were fortunate to only be the four of us.
Our first stop was just adjacent to Plaza del Quinto Centenario in the Cuartel de Ballajá. This building was the former barracks for the fort. It's now home to the Museum of the Americas, and various other arts and culture organizations. On the ground floor you'll find Don Ruiz Coffee where you can enjoy some of Puerto Rico's finest home-grown coffee. Puerto Rico's coffee plantations are located on the south west side of the island and were 60-80% devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Production has been slow, as you can imagine, to recover. Due to this, Don Ruiz is only serving their coffee in the coffee shop as of our visit. None is available for retail sale. They're just trying to survive at this point. Gabriela further mentioned that most coffee you find in stores around the world that say "Puerto Rican" needs further inspections. In many cases it's a blend of Puerto Rican and others. Look for 100% Puerto Rican Coffee. This is much the same as you find with "Kona Coffee."
At Don Ruiz we enjoyed a cup of cappuccino accompanied by a ham and cheese sandwich on Puerto Rican mallorca bread, sprinkled with powdered sugar. It would be easy to get addicted to starting your days with this sandwich on the soft, sweet bread. If you're familiar with King's Hawaiian bread, it's close, but this was so much more fresh.
After our coffee and sandwich, we took a look at the coffee museum they have in the back of the cafe. Here you'll find miniatures models of coffee roasters and other equipment. Also on display are patron-decorated coffee cups. Read the chalk board walls to learn about the coffee roasting process including the chemical structure of caffeine for the chemists in the crowd.
Before leaving Ballajá we had a chance to walk about briefly. A couple local bands were having practice while a few tourists milled about.
Second Stop - Farmers' Market
After our coffee we headed toward our next stop, passing by the fort grounds and the cemetery below. This next stop was at a simple farmer's market. There wasn't a lot here but it was nice to see a few things we don't typically have in mainland US. Some of the vendors took time to explain to us what a few things were with the help of our guide. Aside from these and the usual fresh herbs and fruits was a couple making vegetarian empenadas. Further down, a man was using a machete to cut open coconuts for refreshing drinks. We ended up getting a couple of virgin mojitos made in front of us. Refreshing in the increasing heat of the day
Third Stop - Taberna Lúpulo
The beer joints of beer joints in San Juan. Taberna Lúpulo is quite the hot spot in the center of Old San Juan's nightlife. Live music and an astounding selection of (mostly) local brews. Also a popular spot for weekend brunch. Fortunate for us, even though this was a Saturday we had no problem getting in for our "brunch." On offer for our tour was what we’re calling a beer mimosa, and a french toast with papayas.
Walk About to Next Stop
One reason we chose this tour was because it was a walking tour. There were others to chose from that were by van. The van would certainly have been more comfortable in the heat. But we were certain that walking through the town would allow us much more flexibility to stop here and there at our leisure (to some extent) to take picture.
Please enjoy these few snaps of our journey through the town.
Mofungo at Hecho en Casa
Next up was Hecho en Casa for our first go at Mofungo. If you're not familiar, it is the "national dish" of Puerto Rico. Simply put, it's a mix of primarily plantains and meat. Everyone's mother or grandmother will have their own variation. But in all cases the plantains are fried then mashed in a mortar and pestle, or pilón. It's then mixed with meats and a sauce of broth, olive oil, garlic, and pork cracklings. What could be wrong with that?
Our guide couldn't have been more ecstatic about this stop! Mofungo is the ultimate comfort food here in Puerto Rico. As I said, everyone's mother, grandmother, or aunt had their own special recipe. But what always went into it was a passion and love for the family. This is not an easy dish to make. It's hard, physical, work to smash the plantains in the pilón, and can only be turned out in one or two servings at a time. A true labor of love to make this dish for the whole family.
I'm not a big fan of plantains, but this was delicious!
Last Stop - Princesa Gastrobar
I wish we could have stayed for dinner - the menu looks amazing!
We were lucky enough to get a mojito (a real one!) and a cup of chickpea soup. The broth was very flavorful with just-picked herbs. Not a lot else to say about it other than if you're in Old San Juan stop by here, it's on the harbor side of Old San Juan. Ask for this soup or enjoy one of the other interesting options from the menu. If you do, please let us know what you tried.
Saturday, November 10, 2018
La Boqueria (Mercat de la Boqueria)
This is one of the big things we were looking to do in Barcelona - aside from the Sagrada Família and the Modernist architecture, of course - was La Boqueria. Located off famous La Rambla, this massive food market had something for everyone. We had been to a similar market in 2014 in Lyon, France, the famed Les Halles de Lyon. In fact, the air and feel of these two places are very much the same: tightly packed stalls and stalls of everything imaginable in the food world - soup to nuts, as they say.
If you weren't looking for the place, it would be easy to pass right by. As you walk down La Rambla toward the water there are two entrances about 1/2 way down, off to the right. These entrances are set back from the street as if down alleyways or service roads. It may be calm out on the street, but once inside during the middle of the day, the market is buzzing. The most prominent purveyors are, of course, the charcuterie stands with all manner of cured meats, especially the jamón ibérico. Though there are produce stands throughout, this is no place for vegetarians and vegans!
Aside from the cured meats, you'll see butchers, fish mongers, veggie stands, confectioners, dairy, florists, cheese shops, poultry, pastries and breads, pepper and spice shops, and just about anything you can imagine from the sea. Emu eggs, anyone? I'm sure I've missed something. If you aren't here to shop for your week's groceries, there are plenty of places to eat serving up the bounty of the market - but be prepared to wait for a seat when it's busy!
We actually made two visits here. The first time, we didn't realize we were so close and had already stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant for paella. It was a nice lunch but was by no means adventurous. By the time we got here, things were already winding down for the day being late on a Saturday afternoon. We wandered about and took a few pictures, oohing and aahing at all the goodies. We have Pike Place Market here in Seattle, which really is quite amazing in its own way, but pales in comparison in terms of the variety on offer at La Boqueria. We vowed to come back for lunch one day before leaving Barcelona.
---Continued reading below these photos---
Lunch at La Boqueria
Monday, November 12, 2018
The last day in Barcelona and our last chance to come back to La Boqueria for lunch. We finished at Casa Vicens just after noon and headed back across town to La Rambla. It only took a short while to get there on the Metro subway. Once there, we wandered about to see where we may want to eat. We ended up at Kiosk Universal which we had seen two days before and had caught our eye.
This place is situated in the front corner of the market, nearest La Rambla. It's set up with counters and display all the way around with all the cooking going on the in center. Each server works a few feet of the counter providing a combination of serving and preparing. A few of the staff were handling more specialized tasks such as manning the grill or prepping dishes. There were also a few surrounding table being served by staff. We put our name in and waited about 15 minutes for spots at the counter where we could see all the action.
With a couple glasses of Cava in our hands, we started to order the food. Of course we started with Pulpo - grilled octopus. Then on to the steamed razor clams with langostine. Next up the seafood pasta with calamari, clams, mussels and shrimp. The winner was the sea scallops. Check out the video at the end of the this post to sea how our server "cooked" them in-shell with just a chef's torch - does a scallop really need to be cooked any more than that.
We couldn't eat everything on the menu, but we sure were tempted.
Find out more about La Boqueria at the official home page: http://www.boqueria.barcelona
I don't often get to travel for my day job. But when I do, my company sends me to some far-reaching places. The past March was one such opportunity. In December 2017, I found out I would be going to Africa, Tanzania, specifically. I assumed that someday I'd get the chance to go to Africa but had never really thought too much about it. Now was my chance.
Still, with finding out in December I had very little time to plan. I didn't know the exact dates until less than 30 days out. Fortunately I had some vacation time in the bank that wasn't already spoken for. This made for the possibility of adding on a few extra days after the official business to take an adventure. I'm so glad I did!
Most of my time in Tanzania was spent in Dar es Salaam. What to say about Dar? Well, not much really. From what little I saw of it, there's not much reason to go there. It's a large, sprawling, urban traffic jam. There may have been some sites to see in the main downtown area but I didn't have the time or means to explore that area much as the office where I was working was out in the 'burbs' well over an hour out of downtown.
If you do plan a trip to Tanzania, especially arriving at the Dar es Salaam airport, here's my main pointer for you: BUY YOUR VISA IN ADVANCE! You can get a tourist visa upon arrival, but it's a messy process at least at this time (perhaps will be better when the new terminal is completed - was to be completed in October 2018, a year behind schedule. I don't think it's done as of this writing.). I was lucky. My seat on the plane was very near the front - still economy, mind you. So just 1st class and a few from business class were already in the visa queue when I got there. You wait in line to have your immigration form checked. Then you wait in line for a clerk, have your picture taken, fingerprints scanned, hand over your passport with $100 cash (for Americans, that is - less for almost everyone else). Then you wait. As I say, I was lucky! I only had to wait about 30 minutes (nowhere to sit in this crowed, cramped, and hot space) before another officer brought out a stack of passports and started calling names. I was the last called in this batch of about 20 passports. A lady that was on my flight - a Tanzanian national living abroad - she goes through this every time she visits and says it can take 4 - 5 HOURS! So - get your visa in advance and save yourself this trouble.
Now, back to the pleasantries.
I picked a hotel at the north end of the city, near the office where I'll be working. There are a number of beach resorts out this way. Many looked fine from the pictures but really so hard to know what you're really going to step into. I played it safe and chose the Ramada Beach Resort. Good location, nice beach, decent price. It actually turned out to be a good choice. I may do a separate post about this later.
What to do with my bonus days? I could either go up north to go on safari or head out to Zanzibar. I can sit on a beach in many places in the world but it would be fun to see the spice markets and go scuba diving. The chance to go on an Africa safari was much more alluring.
A little research made it clear that a safari could get really expensive, really fast. To make matters more difficult, I'm not going as part of an organized week-long or more tour. The logistics of doing this on my own, having never been to Africa, was going to be tricky. All of the airlines that actually fly into the Serengeti are ridiculously expensive for these destinations. Then you add on the hundreds of dollars for the park entrance fee. The nearest major airports are in Arusha and Kilimanjaro - too far of a drive to get to the Serengeti with the time I have available. At this late date, many of the lodges were fully booked. I did speak with a well-known photo safari guide, Andy Biggs, who was good enough to offer some advise and warnings - specifically, that I should expect to pay about $1,000 per day for a quality experience - ouch! (Would have liked to have joined the safari he was leading a week later - maybe another day.) He also warned me of some guide companies to avoid. I finally zeroed in on a hotel that looked nice at a reasonable price and had offerings for various day-trips. Now booked, the hotel arranged for airport pickup/dropoff. I also had them arrange a tour in the nearby Arusha National Park. Great - all is sorted. I may actually be able to pull this off!
The day of departure arrived sooner than I was mentally ready. I hadn't packed a thing. Fortunately, I didn't need to be at the airport until 2:00 or even a little later. That gave me plenty of time to get packed with a last minute scurry to off-load a few pounds to make the weight limit.
Kevin got me to the airport in plenty of time. We said our goodbyes as I headed for check in.
As I got to the counter, I overheard one of the other ticket agents mention a special: deeply discounted upgrade to Business Class. I asked my agent and she confirmed that they were indeed oversold in Economy and offering the reduced upgrade price. I was tempted, oh, so tempted. But this being the beginning of my trip and wanting to conserve funds (just in case) I foolishly passed up the offer. I was not so foolish on the return! - more about that later. The bag passed the weight check, just barely. Alaska Mileage Plan number applied to my itinerary (which took some considerable amount of keystrokes, several agents, and a supervisor) and I was off to the Centurion Lounge to await boarding.
The rest of the journey was basic, mundane, air travel on a 14 1/2 hour flight. Watched a few movies, tried to sleep, chatted with the couple next to me a bit (they were hay farmers from Central Washington on their way to Dubai to sell horse hay to the Emirates where it's no longer permissible to grow hay - who knew?), eat three times, etc. I know I watched a couple movies, but can't tell you now what they were. Fortunately, I had an exit row seat at the wall - no window, just wall - so was able to come and go at my leisure. Before I knew it, we were in Dubai. Left Seattle at 5:00pm and arrive in Dubai at 7:30pm, great only 2 1/2 hours have passed! So what if it's the next day. Overnight here in a hotel near the airport and back in the morning for the next leg.
The next flight from Dubai to Dar es Salaam was equally uneventful. Exit row seat again, but on the aisle. This flight was only 5 1/2 hours with breakfast and lunch and more movies. Before I knew it we were south of the equator and coming in to land.
I'll spare you the details about the horrors of trying to get a sim card for my phone and data card for the laptop. But that finally done with the help of the driver that had been arranged, we were off for the hour + drive to the hotel. Traffic was hell!
Let's fast forward through the time in Dar es Salaam to getting setup for the safari.
The trip from Dar to Arusha was fairly uneventful. Other than the fact that I got to the airport quite early for the flight as originally scheduled. I didn't get notice until at the airport that the flight time had been pushed back an hour. Trust me, this is not an airport you want to find yourself having to sit for an extended period!
Upon arrival in Arusha, I was greeted outside the small airport by the driver from the hotel I'll be staying at. Of course, I arrived during rush hour so it took a fair while to get to the hotel. Nice tour of the city and my first glimpse at Kilimanjaro. The hotel, Arusha Serena Hotel, was some ways from downtown Arusha situated on a former coffee plantation. The grounds were lovely and the staff friendly. I was greeted by the hotel manager, Jane, on arrival who saw me to reception and then to my room, insisting she drag my huge suitcase herself.
This hotel is setup with a large main building, the former plantation house. All of the guests rooms were in semi-circle sets of bungalows fashioned in the style of Massi villages.
Since we were out of the central core of the city, there really wasn't much available to walk about to explore. In fact, the hotel staff warned not to leave the hotel grounds without escort. But while on the grounds, I felt quite safe.
The rooms aren't air conditioned. But that hardly seemed to matter. Arusha sits at a pretty high altitude at about 4,600ft (1,400 meters) above sea level so is much cooler than Dar es Salaam. It was warm and humid my first night here for which the ceiling fan was handy. There was a hole in one of the window screens, a bandage easily fixed that so mosquitoes didn't in. The bed was surrounded by mosquito netting which the staff carefully deployed at evening turn-down. Night time average low temperatures can get downwards of the mid 50sF to upper 60sF (13-12C). I didn't notice if the room had heating, surely it must have.
One of my colleagues is from Arusha. I told him about the arrangements I had already made. He wasn't impressed, saying that, sure, I'll see some wildlife but that there are much better places to go. Though the Serengeti would be impractical, he offered to arrange a trip to Tarangire National Park through a friend of his, Charles, who runs a wilderness safari company. It's a little further from Arusha than what I had booked but was offering for the same $300 I was planning on paying anyway. This was all-in: car and driver, park entrance fees, and lunch. And the best part, it turns out, was that I would be the only one going. This proved to be of great advantage as I wouldn't be competing for vantage points while in the park. No one to get in my way of shooting. (I kept getting looks of jealousy from other vehicles in the park that were packed with upwards of 12 people each, all vying for the best spots to get their photos).
The drive out to Tarangire took somewhere in the vicinity of 1 1/2 hours, maybe more. The scenery was stunning! The Great Rift Valley off in the distance and the mountains of the Ngorongoro Crater not far away. We passed many of the traditional Maasai villages with the round thatched mud huts in a circles surrounded by stick fencing (my driver offered to take me to own of these, but it just didn't feel right, so no.)
I don't recall exactly, but it think it took a few hours to get from my hotel in Arusha to Tarangire. Upon arrival Charles took care of park entry requirements. I wandered around the visitor center which had a few information displays about some of the plant and wildlife of the park, a treehouse-style lookout tower built into a baobab tree and, most interestingly, several elephant skulls. I wouldn't have thought a skull would be very fascinated, but then again, I never imagined what an elephant's look like. I had to get a few shots to show you. Plus, I have a friend who collects various small skulls and animal skeletons so I knew he'd be interested in seeing one.
We were barely into the park before we begin to spot the wildlife. First up were the impalas and warthogs. Then the giraffes and more impalas, various birds. More impalas. And on and on. One sighting after another. It wasn't long before we came across a pack of elephants. Amazing animals! And who can get too much of watching baby elephants play?
There's not much more to say other than to just let you (hopefully) enjoy the photos.
These next ones are not from Taragire Park. The left is Mt Meru which hangs above the city of Arusha, within Arusha National Park. On the right is Kilimanjaro. Both photos taken on the drive into Kilimanjaro airport (3°23'20.8"S 37°03'51.5"E).
November 9 - 13th, 2018
Hotel Casa Fuster recommended to us by Aurelio Giordano, of Ace World Travel, turned out to be the exact right fit for Steven and I. You can Google the Hotel Casa Fuster for a load of details, but what impressed us from the start was location and history. Aurelio asked us what was important to us when we traveled and built us a few options, Hotel Casa Fuster being top on his list for accommodations in Barcelona.
He understood that we loved modernist architecture, even though we didn’t really appreciate the differences between ‘modern’ and Catalan Modernist art and design. Hotel Casa Fuster is perhaps one of the rare accommodations that started as a private residence and morphed into the amazing hotel that it is today
The hotel is in the toney Eixmapler neighborhood. There is no end to modernist architecture in the area. Hotel Casa Fuster, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montanern was built in 1908 and completely renovated in 2004 – it is as many websites proclaim, ‘the symbol of the greatest period of splendor and prosperity Barcelona has experienced during the past hundred years.’
Our experience of Hotel Casa Fuster was nothing but amazing – except perhaps the first suite we were assigned that sat just above the bar, which turns into a jazz bar on the night we arrived. After a few hours of listening to marvelous jazz reverberating into our room, we went down to as ask for another room. The good team at Hotel Casa Fuster immediately reassigned us to the 3rd floor, same side. A slightly differently configured suite, but nonetheless, beautiful.
Please accept that the hotel itself is luxurious and well-maintained. It is the staff that sets it above many we’ve been to. In particular the door staff, especially David (pronounced Daveed), who always seemed to be exactly where and when we needed him. David, and the other staff, were always there to assist as we needed. They helped us with cabs and directions and suggestions for late night snacks. The main desk staff were equally as helpful when requesting dinner reservations at the last minute, or as in our case, cancelling a reservation at the last minute.
Just look at the interior photos blow show, the spaces have been artfully returned to the glory of the original design. Several nights, we sheltered on the duvets and plush couches with substantial pillows with ample cocktails in hand, well into the night.
To sum up, book the Hotel Casa Fuster if you want to be immersed into Catalan Modernist architecture in the heart of vibrant Barcelona.
Just saw a Heineken commercial with race car drive Nico Rosberg. This video, beginning at 0:19 is shot at Hotel Casa Fuster.
Here are a few more photos of the Oceania Riviera from our trip from Barcelona, Spain to Miami, Florida. November 13-28, 2018.
The Riviera has an amazing number of dining venues for a ship of its size. There's The Grand Dining Room, Terrace Café (the buffet), and the poolside Waves Gill. All are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No reservations needed. Additionally there are four specialty restaurants: Jacques (Pepin) Bistro, Red Ginger, Polo Grill, and Toscana - all open for dinner only by reservation but still without cover charge. On top of all that you will find Privée which seats 10 for private dining; $120 for the entire room, and La Reserve in collaboration with Wine Spectator. La Reserve offers wine pairing dinners for a nominal fee, by reservation as well as hosts wine tastings and other wine-centric events during the day.
If that is not enough, you'll find Baristas overlooking the pool deck for an espresso or other barista style beverages. At 4:00 you'll be able to attend Afternoon Tea in Horizons, the large lounge toward the bow. If you're booked in a Concierge Stateroom you will have access to the Concierge Lounge with coffee, tea, soft drinks and snacks. Guests in the various levels of Suites will be able to visit the Executive Lounge with similar amenities.
And of course you can dine in your room.
All these venues offer great food in beautiful surroundings. The staff usually attentive with senior staff being particularly helpful (Thank you Nino Lieassi and Maximilian!) even if their more junior staff at times could use a little more training.
All-in-all, we really enjoyed the food. Very few misses but many dishes hit out of the park! It's not revolutionary, for the most part, but excellently executed. The most adventurous we found was in La Reserve. We did not take advantage of Privée as we didn't have a large enough group, early enough in the cruise, to make it worthwhile.
We'll post more about the food in future posts - stay tuned.
As mentioned above, Horizons sits at the bow on Deck 15 (highest deck without being outside). During the day, this is a open and bright lounge to just sit to read, chat with new friends, or enjoy and afternoon cocktail/mocktail. It features a champagne-starring Afternoon Tea at 4:00. Later in the evening you'll find dancing to live music, whisky tastings, and friendly bar staff. In all a great gathering place!
Martinis sits at mid-ship on Deck 6 with comfortable sofas and piano music in the evenings. This place was always full whenever we passed through after dinner. Next door was the Casino Bar (with it's original Picasso etchings!). Opposite this was the Grand Bar which was a favorite spot before dinning in the Grand Dining Room. During the day you'll get your G&T, Bloody Mary, or a beer at Waves Bar next to the pool.
This ship is a floating museum! We didn't take many pictures of the art, but rest assured, this ship is well decorated. Most of it is modern art is from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the already mentioned Picasso etchings was well as pieces from Miró. In the spa you'll even find a couple of 12th to 13th century statues from Angkor Wat. The collection was curated and collected by the cruise line's founders and their wives. Read more about that HERE. One fun activity onboard was the art scavenger hunt. We were given a booklet with about 60 images. Each image was of a painting, photograph, sculpture, or sign, or just a minute snip-it thereof. It took several days of working at it off and on to find and identify (piece name, artist, and deck number). It was fun meeting other people about the ship wandering around with their sheets. Most people were happy to help others out with hints and pointers. The best part about it was just getting so many of us to actually look at the art. We noticed it, of course, but probably wouldn't have otherwise really lookedat it.
A book about Oceania's art throughout the line is available on Amazon:
One thing you can't miss is the main atrium. You can't help but notice stunning the Lalique starcase!
A House that Gaudí Built - Actually, his first
Gaudí’s First House: Casa Vicens,
Carrer de les Carolines, 20-26
Barcelona, Spain…er Catalonia.
Metro stop: L3 Fontana (Green line)
After taking the Modernist Walking Tour with Rainbow Tours, I got to looking up more about the works of Gaudí in our neighborhood, the Eixample. Our guide, Manu, mentioned we were in the most Gaudí-packed area of the city. It turns out he was right. There is a UNESCO World Heritage site just up a few blocks and a couple of streets over. So, on our last full day in Barcelona, we set out for a morning adventure to visit the newly opened Casa Vicens.
Oh, as for all the Gaudí buildings and most other attractions, go online and secure your tickets ahead of time. No need for a printed ticket, they are able to just check your e-ticket on your mobile.
From our hotel, Casa Fuster, Casa Vicens is one stop up the Green (L3) Line, the Fontana stop. It was a glorious day - blue skies with a few puffy clouds and the temperature was just right for us Seattleites, about 60 F. Emerging from the subway, we headed basically north. I say ‘basically’ because I could never find the North-South symbols on our maps, which were all oriented to place the main streets as running true north and south. I guess it doesn’t really matter in such a well-planned city as Barcelona.
Let me add before going on, that if you’re in Barcelona you CANNOT miss the Casa Vicens. It’s a must. It’s the only Gaudí home that has had such extensive restoration. After years of research, forensic analysis of the home’s interiors and exterior spaces, and painstaking recreation of missing elements, the result is pretty amazing
The Property & House
The casa is located in what remains a lovely quite neighbor in Gràcia since it being completed in 1885 as a summer residence. For context, that was a mere 20 years after the US Civil War ended.
You enter the property through a side courtyard where you’ll go through a quick security check. You have to put all bags in the lockers provided, but take a Euro coin, you’ll that it to use them. You get the coin back when you leave. From the bag area, you enter the garden area, which has been substantially reduced in size since Gaudí built the home for stockbroker, Manuel Vicens.
Gaudí was only 31 years old when he was commissioned by Vicens. It must have been quite the coup in the architectural community at the time, not to mention the house’s visionary design. As the guides (and excellent free guidebook) mention, the house set the bar for the new architectural movement we know today as Catalan Modernism. It combined Catalan, Japan, Islamic, and English styles, giving visitors – as well as the owner – a reference point for its many, juxtaposed elements.
The original garden must have been spectacular. It contained a round fountain and large gazebo all incorporating the palate of textures, colors, and shapes Gaudí preferred. You’ll find a small coffee shop on the opposite side from where you exit the bag room. Nothing special about it, but it’s pleasant to get your café or espresso or cappuccino and take a seat to enjoy the view of the house before or after your tour of the house.
As you wonder through what’s left of the garden area, still quite lovely, you get a look of the exterior of the home. While standing in the garden, itself containing a wide variety of plants and trees, note the fan palm cast-iron grilled fence. Like all of the home, it’s a piece of art to take in over time. Apparently, the original design was intended only for the front gate, but over time the fencing was extended to surround the entire property.
Moving on, you climb a few stairs and enter the main floor of the house proper. But don’t go too fast. At the top of the landing to the front door look around at all the detailing Gaudí has installed here. It’s almost too much to take in.
The Entrance Hall & Covered Porch
Look up in the covered porch. The porch and entrance hall have been restored to their original state. You’ll see spectacular trompe-l’oeil ceilings replicating sky and leaves of the palm, an echo from the cast-iron gates. There are too many details to mention here, but take advantage of the docent’s knowledge. They pointed out many smaller details which we simply would have missed like the restored tiles and flooring. The hall connects you to the other first floor rooms.
The Dining & Smoking Rooms
Be prepared for an abundance of decorative and ornamental elements in these two rooms. According the guide, these are the most decorated off all the restored rooms. I believe it. The dining room has a hearth and a highly decorated beamed ceiling along with original furniture and paintings. But, in my opinion it is the smoking room that rises to another level.
This room has undergone what seemed the most renovation, including remaking many of the papier-mache pieces covering the walls. To be honest, we wouldn’t have notice this unless it was pointed out to us. Amazing colors, light, and proportion. Oh, and look up. The ceiling is crazy.
First Floor -
Heading up the stairs takes you to the bathrooms, bedrooms, halls, and a domed room, which is just above the smoking room and has another trompe-l’oeil masterpiece mirroring the turret that is just above, connecting the outside gardens to the interiors.
From the far corner of the blue room at the center of the first floor (2nd floor to US folks), take a look into three interconnecting spaces. Gaudi made sure to keep each room distinct but tie them all together with specific decorative pieces, like leaf motifs, the passion flower and palm.
Leaving the blue room there is a temporary exhibition space. We were lucky enough to see the inaugural exhibit of model highlighting 14 homes designed by several architects working at the time as Gaudí. The models spanned European and American architects such as Americans Sullivan, Richardson, and Wright, along with Europeans Guimard, Makintosh, and Horta. Being an architecture enthusiast, I felt quite fortunate to see all these models in one place. These exhibits will change, so check ahead to see what is there when you visit.
When you ascend the staircase to the 2nd floor, you’ll undoubtedly notice that the style is more starkly modern. This is because Casa Vicens was occupied by successive families that altered some parts and expanded others. It was a well-loved home transforming from a summer residence to full-time occupancy.
Leaving the 1st floor, you enter the ‘modern’ Casa Vicens and exhibition space with access to the roof.
Prior to restoration, the 2nd floor attic was a jumble of walls and false ceilings – probably where servants were housed. The current space is used for a permanent exhibition of the history of Gaudí’s first house as well as examples of its constructive and decorative elements saved during the restoration.
It was fortunate we visited on such a wonderful day. Climbing outside onto the roof terraces gave us a close-up look at Gaudí’s hallmark chimneys. Each one a statement unto itself that combined craftsmanship and utility – even though highly decorated, they were working chimneys after all. Here are a few shots taken by Steven and me.
Do not miss Casa Vicens!
The train to Monserrat takes about an hour or so. But before you go, you need to decide which way you're going to get to the top of the mountain. There's a gondola-style cable car (Aeri) and a train option (Cremallera) called a funicular. The cable car, or Aeri, is the quickest way to get from the train stop at Aeri Montserrat to the top - not for those timid of heights! If you take the Cremallera funicular option, go one stop further than the Aeri stop, to Monistrol Montserrat. The Cremallera will add another 23 minutes to your trip. We chose the Cremallera. Both options begin at Plaça d'España on the R5 railway line heading toward Manresa. We found Espanya station to be a bit confusing frankly. There are multiple levels and many entrances. The signs leading you to the Manresa-Montserrat L5 line are there, but you have to look up to see them and some are blocked by lights and arches. Finding the ticketing machines was another test of skillful observation and patience. Be aware that not all ticketing machines took credit cards. Be prepared to spend some time looking for the right train and the right ticketing machines. These are combined round-trip tickets, so follow the instructions carefully.
Montserrat is actually a monastery serving Catholic pilgrims wanting to see the Black Madonna, as well as a place for avid hikers and rock climbers. As you can see from the photo, the weather was wonderful, not something you can count on during the late fall and early winter months. We had intended to hear the boys choir, but there were massive crowds in the church that day and decided against it. As it turned out we were there on an auspicious day; the mass was being preformed by not just one, but two, Cardinals, not an every-day-occurrence. We did squeeze our way into the church though and managed to catch a glimpse of the Black Madonna high above the main alter. There is another funicular (Funicular San Joan) at the end of the main plaza that takes you up to near the top of the mountain. Actually, there are several funiculars taking hikers to various peaks surrounding the monastery. It climbs up a very narrow crack between two sections of the mountain. Again, not for the faint of heart. We decided to take a stroll up to the Cross of St. Miquel. Breathtaking views, but a steep climb. Take your time, take is slow, stop off at one of the several overlooks, and you'll be rewarded with views of the entire region from Barcelona and the sea to the snow capped Pyrenees.
Or more fully - The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família
What a perfect way to end our first walking tour. We managed to dodge the roaming showers around that day, coming out of the blue line subway stop to be stopped at the first sight of this magnificent, if on-going construction site. A bit of triva; Gaudi wasn't la Sagrada's first chief architect, nor its last; Gaudi was so involved in all the day-to-day details of the construction that he set up an apartment on the upper floor of a nearby residence he designed (i.e. the Dragon House) so he could oversee the project; most of Gaudi's drawings and models were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War by Catalan anarchists; 10 spires are planned, with the largest one rising from the core of the basilica, the Christ tower, just being started. The whole thing is hoped to be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. The interior spaces are almost overwhelming in their complexity and visual impact. As we were getting ready to go, the clouds parted bathing the interior in incredible light streaming in from everywhere though its stained glass windows. This should be on your bucket list. There's nothing like it anywhere.
|Ahead of our trip we booked two walking tours through Rainbow Barcelona Tours (http://rainbowbarcelona.com/), a LGBT owned and operated company in Barcelona. Our personal guide, Manu, met us at our hotel, The Hotel Casa Fuster, located on Passeig de Gràcia, at the outer edge of the Eixample district. Manu gave a great orientation to the Catalan modernistic architecture movement, pointing out its three distinguishing characteristics; historically derived elements, reflection of nature, and preference for curving rather than straight lines. Our first stop was a well-known Gaudí-designed apartment building, Casa Milà or La Pedrera, followed by a short walk down Pg. de Gràcia to view a block of other Catalan modernist buildings, all originally designed as private homes on the first floor (to USA folks that would be our 2nd floor) with other apartments above. We finished the tour at the famous Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.
For more information about Catalan Modernisme Art and Architecture check out this website: https://www.barcelona-life.com/barcelona/modernisme
Places We’ve Stayed at in Ireland
21-24 Upper Merrion Street
16 Skipper Street
Rossnowlagh Beach, Co. Donegal
Lislaughrea, Co. Mayo
Castlemartyr, Co. Cork
The Lodge at Ashford Castle, Cong
The first thing you notice when approaching The Lodge are the vast parklands surrounding the property, which includes the lux Ashford Castle. Both are members of the Red Carnation and Leading hotel and resort groups. We came from the north skimming Lough Mask on our way south, which gave us great views on what was another sunny, pleasant day in Ireland.
Our GPS took us to Ashford Castle Drive and what looked like an original entrance to the property, but the signs kept point us around its edges until we finally came to a small gate and signage pointing us up a slight hill from Lough Corrib to The Lodge. We learned later, that there is normally a gatekeeper at the grand entrance who would let us pass through. I suggest you hang out until someone comes to let you through, the drive to the Lodge or Castle from that route is worth it and most likely how the landscaper intended you first see the fairytale castle once owned by the Guinness family.
As you can see from this Google Maps image, The Lodge is close to Ashford Castle but requires a short walk downhill through a small wood to reach it. At first, we were a bit nervous to take that route as property Range Rovers and guests’ cars regularly careened along the narrow roadway up and back from the Castle and town of Cong. We took our chances, figuring no one would run us down, though we looked over our shoulders often.
Before we get to talking about The Lodge, note a few other landmarks on the map. Of course there is Ashford Castle. The golf course, a summer restaurant – Cullen’s at the Cottage, and publicly accessible gardens surround it. You can reach any point by foot, or by car. Note that if you are not staying on property there is a fee to enter the park. Far left is the School of Falconry and just above this are more woods that hold an equestrian centre (center if you prefer US spelling), archery field and clay pigeon shooting range. In another post, we’ll talk about our archery and shooting lessons. You could walk to any of these, or grab one of the bikes for let. We chose to have the driver take us and pick us up – the weather had turned by then.
The Lodge is a courtyard design with a wide-open terrace facing the lough where cocktails and snacks are served. The centre courtyard has seating and pleasant fountain, which happened to be drained for repair most of our visit. Apparently, children drop the loose pebbles from the landscaping into the fountain clogging it up regularly. Hum. The building itself is noteworthy because of its former resident, one William Wilde, father of, you guessed it Oscar Wilde. Incidentally, the Wilde restaurant is named after Oscar and his family, holding some memorabilia of the family’s time there.
Check-in went smoothly. We were oriented to the Lodge and property amenities and rules, including mention that we couldn’t just walk over the turreted bridge to the Castle without showing our room key or being escorted. Off the main entrance hall, a modest space with a broad central staircase, to the right is the Quay Bar and Brasserie. This became our resting place and got to know some of the wait staff during our stay. Through the main hall, we entered a transom hall with grand piano and plenty of overstuffed chairs and couches, suitable for lounging, cocktailing, taking a tea and biscuit…you get the picture. Passing through to the courtyard, our room was located about in the middle of the north wing.
The Room We took a Duplex Suite for our stay. As you can guess, the first floor is for lounging and the second is where the king-sized bed and master bathroom are. We were on the ground floor and had double-doors leading to a small private patio with two lounge chairs waiting. We had free internet access, an LCD TV, pillow topped mattress, down duvet, a rainforest shower, wonderful robes, and breakfast included. The bathroom was certainly nicely appointed, but very long and very narrow with the large shower at the far end. The room, once again, was decorated in a mild art déco scheme. I’m not sure what the trend with all the art deco is about, but it was very common in the places we stayed. All in all, a very nice place to spend a few days relaxing and to which to return after a day of exploring.
The Food The Quay Bar and Brasserie had just undergone a face lift and menu renovation is where we spent our first evening sipping cocktails and having some snacks. The Quay’s new menu showed an experimental side of what you might otherwise expect of typical Irish pub food. The tone is definitely brasserie out on the terrace outside the bar. All the dishes were crafted to highlight some local or noted Irish product. The charcuterie for instance, came with selected cured Irish meats, one type hanging off a wire surrounded by small pots of pickeled onions with carrots another with stone ground mustard. We stifled a giggle at this presentation style, but thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We’d return many times over our stay to sample the new menu. It was all delicious.
Breakfasts were served in The Wilde’s at the Lodge restaurant. Breakfasts are hearty and include made-to-order hot items if you wished. The spread on the buffet held many common items, including bangers, fresh breads, sweets, carved meats, prepared fish that changed daily, porridge, juices, and of course tea and coffee. We typically ordered a hot meal from the menu, enough food to set you up properly for the day’s outings.
We decided to take one dinner at The Castle’s George V Dining Room, which will be written about separately, and one evening at The Wilde’s. At Wilde’s we were seated at a corner table, the one pictured on the restaurants website. Like many chef’s in Ireland today, Chef Jonathan Keane takes his lead from local livestock, game, fish, and produce – creating dishes with few ingredients, expertly presented, and with full flavors. As you would expect, the menus are seasonal and depend upon what can be sourced for that evenings meal. I chose the Menu of Discovery that highlighted the best of what the day had had to offer; scallop, foie gras, duck, lamb, turnip and peas. Oh, and not to forget the evening potato served in its own copper pot.
The whole meal, including a very accommodating dining room manager who packed up our remaining meal and promptly delivered it to our room when Steven’s cold got the best of him that evening, was quite memorable. They even brought a surprise desert later. I don’t recall which wines we sampled, but the food was clearly the highlight. You don’t have to be staying at The Lodge to enjoy this food. If you’re near, I highly recommend making a reservation. And at 60 Euros for the tasting menu, not bad pricing either.
Here are some of the dishes starting with freshed baked breads. We didn't keep a copy of the menu, so not sure exactly what each is. Sorry, we didn't get shots of everything.
Castlemartyr Resort, Castlemartyr
Once again, Steven located a great place to stay for a few days near the end of our trip. As I mentioned above, Steven wasn’t feeling all that well, so rather than push it to make it to the Dingle for our dinner reservations there, we cancelled and were luckily able to add a night onto our original booking. Once we got there, we realized just how lucky we were to get that extra night – the hotel was nearly fully booked with a wedding party. In fact, we walked into the main entrance hall to be engulfed in the formal champagne reception prior to the ceremony and feast. The happy couple, clearly what we refer to as the A-Gay crowd, had their own website, with friends posting pictures as the evening progressed. No, we don’t stalk our own. They were just hard to miss with the URL being posted on signs around the hall.
The hotel itself is an 17th century manor house reborn into a sprawling complex of rooms, golf course, equestrian centre, a beautifully modern spa and pool area with upstairs gym, formal gardens, and an 13th century Knights Templar castle ruin. The décor of the hotel is warm and comforting throughout, even into the more recently added sections where we were lodged. Exploring the ground floor after the wedding party cleared out, we found a bar, The Knights Bar, where we had a pretty good cocktail overlooking the formal gardens. The poor staff were clearly trying to recover from the wedding reception, so even though they were a bit slow, we’ll give them a pass. Further down the center hall we passed The Bell Tower, where we’d have breakfasts, and into the original house that held meeting rooms and some of the posher accommodations on the second floor. Heading in the opposite direction toward our room, we passed what looked like a very nice traditional living room, or lounge. Settings of couches and stuffed chairs provided plenty of space to have a more secluded meal with the kids or just to have tea.
The grounds are splendid. As you drive onto the property from its newly relocated entrance (the original manor house gate is now for pedestrian use only), you come upon out buildings, ruins, a glade with a slowly moving creek, fowl, and paths. After we settle into the room, we explored more of the property, taking walks and many pictures of the horses galloping in a wide-open pasture across from the main house. We almost managed to get ourselves lost on a longer walk circumnavigating the entire property. Luckily, we met an Irish couple on holiday who gave us directions out of the seemingly endless woodland paths, past a ruined abbey and nunnery I swear was still inhabited, if you get my meaning. We emerged, marked by cuts from mistakenly climbing a over fence and onto a fairway with golfers playing through, not on our own exactly, but by following the nice couple at a discrete distance.
I can see why this is a destination for the Irish and foreigners alike. If you don’t ride or play golf, there is plenty to do, or not, as you please.
The Room We booked a double deluxe room, Castlemartyr’s most basic room category. The long haul to the room might have first disappointed us, but entering the room we breathed a sigh of thankfulness and relief. Remember, Steven still wasn’t well, the simple but beautifully appointed room was a welcome sight for the both of us. Because of our last minute add-on of an early arrival, we had to take a double room for the first night. The next night we moved to a king room. The "king bed" was simply configured from two twins pushed together, and made up without there being a crevasse between the joined beds!
Our room overlooked the golf course and small clubhouse restaurant, The Pod. It had everything you’d need for a long stay. It was large, even by US traveler standards, held a desk, a lounging chair with ottoman, a spacious bathroom, and plenty of closet space to store your things. The room came with no tea/coffee maker, something I really would appreciate as the first one up every morning, but that wasn’t too much to suffer given the splendid room and resort.
The Food Since we stayed at Castlemartyr several days, we ate at all the dining options. As I mentioned, The Knight’s Bar is for a drink and perhaps a quick meal. Be aware that the menu cuts off at 6:30pm, but cocktails flow well into the night. The second night we ate at the Italian restaurant, Franchini’s. We were lead to believe you couldn’t get a reservation, but we had no problem. The service was very good. We found out that our server was actually the son of the owner, who had brought the family over from Italy a generation ago. The son certainly knew his menu. We felt confident we’d not go wrong with anything we’d order. And we were right. In any case, we ordered a…guess what, charcuterie plate and some soup. We both had a pasta course, Kevin had the Pork and Beef Meatballs with Spaghetti, Steven having the Porcini Ravioli, for our main that evening, not something we typically do. The pasta for the ravioli was certainly fresh but fairly certain the spaghetti were dried. Both were quite good, well-seasoned, not overly sauced, and a reasonable portion…by which I mean just over a good handful.
Our breakfasts were taken in The Bell Tower on the main floor. They also offered hot items ordered from a daily changing menu as well as a completely serviceable buffet with all the expected items. We tended to order from the menu AND get some selections (mostly charcuterie) from the buffet. Personally, I love fish, so I indulged in any offering of kippered, poached, or raw goodness from the sea. The setting is lovely, especially if you snag a table at the windows, which we did on our final morning. A good way to start the day in every way. One thing that should be mentioned. At check out, we discovered that our room rate did not include breakfast. Gulp. Check your room type. The breakfasts aren’t cheap.
Finally, after surviving (just kidding) our walk around the property we were quite hungry and decided on stopping at The Pod, just at the 18th hole. Steven had a very well-prepared burger and I the daily fish. Except for the pesky bees buzzing around, the food was more than serviceable and the beers cold. Plus, what’s not to like about a lazy afternoon people watching?
The Maldron Hotel, Dublin Airport
We were bound to hit a dud at some point on this trip, and this was it. Frankly, I doubt much could have matched the experiences we’d had thus far, so I’ll be kind. Maldron is a chain of modestly priced hotels, in this case catering to the business traveler rather than families as some of their other hotels do. The hotel website boasts having ‘an airport perfect location’, but it didn’t exactly. You’d definitely need a car or cab to get there. The hotel is basic, clean, and is a fine place to rest your head for a night. Given it’s not near anything of interest, it wouldn’t be a good choice for longer stays. The staff were pleasant enough too, offering us a shuttle which worked out just fine for us. We had already dropped off the rental car the night before and the rental agency shuttle dropped us off near the hotel.
The Room We chose a basic room with single full-sized bed. We had to be careful where we put our luggage so as not to trip over it during the night on the way to the bathroom. The room was fine, spartan, with a thin mattress and blanket. The bathroom, again serviceable. Not much to say about it. In all, worth one night, but not more if you care for your back health.
The Food There are several options for food; The Apron Restaurant, the Red Bean Roastery, and The Sky Bar. We looked at the Apron, decided against it as the menu looked too substantial and we just wanted something small. We settled on The Sky Bar, just behind the coffee/pastry bar in the main lobby. We were pretty tired from a long day traveling from Co. Cork to the Wicklow mountains, and around Dublin, so we ordered small plates. These were just enough, and hit the spot. The food wasn’t memorable, but we weren’t expecting it to be. Not insignificantly, it was the warm smile of our server that I remember most. In the morning we were off to our flight to London, so I ran down to the Bean and grabbed us some muffins, juice, and coffee. Sustenance only and perfectly fine. We’d eat more later.
No pictures of the Moldron because, quite frankly, it wasn't worth the effort.
Places We’ve Stayed at in Ireland
21-24 Upper Merrion Street
16 Skipper Street
Rossnowlagh Beach, Co. Donegal
Lislaughrea, Co. Mayo
Castlemartyr, Co. Cork
The Merrion, Dublin
Our first night in Ireland. After searching the web for countless hours, Kevin finally asked his friend, Mary, who lives in Ireland what she thought about The Merrion. She had nothing but good things to say. We booked it before the summer rates really kicked in; lucky for us because it’s not the least expensive place you could stay in Dublin.
Dublin in general, is NOT a bargain city, so don’t go there expecting huge deals, either in lodging, restaurants, or shopping. Of course every large metropolitan area has its ‘deals’. We wanted to stay central and within walking distance (that’s an American walking-distance mind you) of good places to eat and tour. The Merrion was just right for us.
The Merrion is billed as a 5-star luxury hotel located centrally in Dublin’s Georgian neighborhood, and we think it certainly deserves all its many accolades. The hotel was created from four Georgian townhouses and boasts 2 bars, 2 restaurants, a gym, a spa, a pool, a large art collection (they even have a guidebook and website of the art), and well, a lot of comfy furniture and quiet places to read, have a cocktail, or simply stare out at the gardens.
The Room Our room was spacious and well-appointed. The king bed was dreamy; the bathroom gracious in every way. We were located in the garden wing, one of the townhomes adjacent to an outdoor dining area, which doubled as a venue for special events and served High Tea daily. The view was not spectacular, but that’s what you get when you book a basic room, even at a 5 star! Please don’t think we’re complaining, it was a perfect room for us to rest after a long day of travel and seeing the sights in Dublin.
The Food We had our breakfasts adjacent to The Cellar Room. As the name implies, if you’re not dining in your room, you need to take a couple of different paths – including elevators - and down some stairs to get there. Breakfast was generous. A large assortment of goodies of every kind. We were eating less carbs, so we passed on most of the bread and sweet pastries, with the exception of the brown soda bread and Irish butter. Don’t skip these, you’re regret it. We could order an entree if we liked, or just cruise the buffet. The servers were very attentive, and by the 2nd day, they knew what beverages we wanted and seating preference.
We didn’t indulge in the other dining choices at the hotel, as we wanted to hit the Dublin food scene and find our own way exploring. If you’re interested, The Merrion has Dublin’s only Two Micheline Star restaurants, the Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. One note of caution even if you’re not hitting up this 2 star wonder; book your restaurant and High Tea well in advance. This is a popular place to stay and for locals to enjoy.
The Perks Did I mention there was a spa and pool? Do not miss the pool. You can go even if you don’t purchase a spa treatment. What can I say? It’s worth the price of admission as they say. All you do is present your room key and you gain access to the amazing pool, steam room, and gym. You might notice that we try to stay at hotels with pools. We both deeply enjoy unwinding in the water and taking a steam or cold plunge. Pure relaxation.
We’ll definitely return.
The Merchant Hotel, Belfast
We searched long and hard to find something we thought we’d enjoy for our one night in Belfast. The Merchant is another centrally located hotel, earning a 5 Red Star designation – but without a pool, though it does have a really nice rooftop hot tub and sauna with a view.It is, like many hotels in Europe, a collection of buildings that originally served other purposes. In the case of The Merchant, the stunning façade of one side of the hotel is a Grade A historic building that once was a fabulous bank. Looking at the carved ceilings of its main hall gives you some sense of its grandeur. This is where we had breakfast. Not bad, huh?
But, this grandeur is not the main entrance. You actually enter around the corner in an unfortunate ‘Art Deco inspired’ addition.
The Room Entering check-in on a side street was just fine. Though we did have to go around the block twice to find it. We were greeted and quickly on our way to our room, guided by a handsome Doorman/Concierge, Michael, with our luggage. The room was well, weird. Neither of us are huge fans of Art Deco to begin with, but this was just plain odd – a black and white palate with an overt emphasis on movie stars and women’s (bare-breasted) figures from the 1930’s I suppose. Still, the room and bath were big, and we had a very comfy bed with soft linens and plenty of blankets. It was cool in Belfast, so these came in handy. I learned later that they also have Victorian inspired rooms. You might want to check those out.
The Food Perhaps the most memorable moments of this stay were had, not in a hotel restaurant, but in the grand bar on the second level, next to the even grander hall where they served dinner and breakfasts, The Great Room Restaurant. Simply called The Cocktail Bar, the well-tailored, precise bartender served us a few yummy cocktails chilled by his very own ice cube creation – a hand carved, crystal clear block of ice. We chatted him up a bit and discovered he is known in the city for this talent. I wish I could remember his name to mention here, he deserves the shout out for this flawless cube. Plus, he is definitely a master craftsmen of cocktails. There are also an Art Deco jazz bar and Champagne Lounge, which we didn’t venture into.
Breakfast was in The Great Room. The full breakfast is called the Merchant Breakfast and is also available to non-residents. Of course, we had to enjoy this treat. A small basket of fresh rolls came quickly as did our choice of beverage. I had tea and Steven had coffee. The breakfast was good, filling, and nicely presented – in all honest, the presentation was more memorable than the actual meal. From our trip to Scotland in 2015, I learned to appreciate the local variations of haggis and blood pudding. At the Merchant, the eggs nestled against two slices of these uniquely UK morsels. Unfortunately, these came a bit dry if you can believe that. Isn’t the hallmark of a good haggis its fat content? Oh well, at least the service and setting were worth it.
Finally we come to The Cloth Ear. We booked this particular hotel because it claimed to server a traditional Sunday roast in its pub. Something told me to have the front desk check on our dinner reservation and our Sunday roast. It turned out that there was no indication of our reservation, but less any notation of wanting the Sunday roast with trimmings. We were disappointed to here that they may have run out of the roast, but could substitute another kind of roast if we’d liked. The waiter had a talk with the chef and eventually confirmed that there was definitely an order left. No one around us was eating anything remotely like dinner, only sandwiches and, well, lots of beers. We were noticed in our conspicuous attention to securing a damn Sunday roast. It was almost as if they didn’t want to serve it to us. We persisted, and ate. I can’t say it was particularly good, but we were starved and woofed it all down. We left quickly - we had enough of the old 1800's advertisement on the walls for women's undergarment.
The Sandhouse Hotel, Donegal
Steven took great pains to find us a place on the water to spend one night as we headed south to a several day stay at our next stop in Cong. We passed through Donegal city proper on our way, stopping to walk around the town square and find something to eat. It was after all, a very long day of travel, having left Belfast early and taking our time at the Giant’s Causeway and meandering down the coast.
The Sandhouse is out of town, about 10 miles south of Donegal. The website claims it is a 4-star, family-run hotel and marine spa. Not sure what the latter means exactly, but the hotel part is right. Not sure what 4-star rating system they use. If you’ve seen the British comedy, Fawlty Towers, you kind of get the picture of what we encountered. She looked to have been quite something in her day, with a large veranda and rocking chairs on which to while away the endless, quite hours on the bay. The hotel fronts a huge section of nearly flat, pure sand beaches shaped in a gentle arch bending nearly as far as the eye could see in either direction. The view was really sublime.
If you got the Fawlty Tower reference, then you can fill in the blanks and skip this part. For those of you not so into British telly, let me paint the picture. You enter the hotel through two sets of glass doors having seen better days, each up slightly from the next, and into a sloping rise toward the check-in desk, stuck under the main staircase. Walls and wallpaper everywhere in need of cleaning or replacement. We dared not look too closely. On our way to the elevator (a nicely generous one I might add) we passed a narrow bar just off the entrance hall, peopled by a few ladies and gentlemen nursing their beers. I imagine they were in those same seats with those same beers for hours. In all honestly, we were very tired, and probably a little too hungry to be fair at this point. We both made the effort to buck up and get to the room.
I have to mention all this detail, because it should have been noticed by us as a foreshadowing of what was to come. We might have been better prepared.
The Room Ah, now to our room. Off the elevator at the very top of the hotel, down a long, slopped, creaky hall with worn floral carpets, we found our room. No electronic keypad, just a key (on a ridiculously oversized key chain) away from getting us out of the pent-up, radiant heat trapped in that hall. No luck. The room was hotter as it faced the setting sun. Normally, a very good thing, but in this case, it was the heat that distracted from the spectacular view. We pried open the one small windows in the once-cheery yellow room to get some fresh in and discovered we had to prop open the door with a piece of luggage to get some circulation (which, as it turned out, also helped with the wifi connection). It didn’t matter. It was miserable. We were at seaside, so it shouldn’t have been surprising to also find sand in the room and those little, terrible flies coming in the open window. We left our clothes in our zippered luggage.
Hot and sweating, we decided to head to the beach just before sunset. It was worth it all. Just spectacular.
The Food On the way back from the beach we tried to get to a deck we noticed while on the shore. We scrambled up a little path only to find a service entrance to the kitchen and loading dock of some kind. Not to be deterred, we soldered on and pushed aside a wooden gate barely holding on by a couple of rusted screws and found the deck! A few folks were sitting at equally worn wooden picnic benches, looking up just briefly to notice the newcomers and return to their half-empty pints and overflowing cigarette ash trays. I couldn’t imagine staying here, so we ventured off to catch the sunset on another, small deck, this one at a half floor off the main staircase – sort of like finding platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross. We found it and settled into the small, cozy space with a few others enjoying a couple of cocktails and light snacks for dinner. Nothing too bad to report; we made the best of it.
Breakfast was in the dining room, The Glasshouse Restaurant. Since we skimped on dinner the night before, we were ravenous and thoroughly delighted with our meal. I had the fresh kippers along with more traditional breakfast fare. Steven had the full Irish breakfast. We really did enjoy ourselves at our seaside table reading over the days itinerary and planning our route down to Cong and The Lodge at Ashford Castle. In retrospect, we should have explored the hotel more. It turns out there was a seaside bar, which we tried to find but couldn’t, the Seashell Restaurant, and a spa.
A final note about The Glasshouse Restaurant. One reason we decided on skipping dinner here, aside from the price, was that it was quite the formal affair. Gentlemen were in ties and ladies in their finest dresses. The menu looked interesting but quite expensive. Apparently, this restaurant has won a number of accolades including awards from Lucinda O'Sullivan. These are quite prestigious honors within Ireland. By all appearances, The Glasshouse Restaurant is a destination in itself even if the hotel is a bit of a shambles.
My trip to Ireland, as mentioned in my posts about Virgin Atlantic, started out in London visiting friends Darren and Ian. The next leg was getting to Dublin to meet up with Kevin. I booked British Airways CityFlyer from London City airport to Dublin. Even though it was a short flight (less than 1 1/2 hours), I decided to book in Business Class as it wasn't a huge difference in price.
With this being such a short flight, I normally wouldn't worry about writing a full post about it. But the service on-board surprised me! I hope somehow this makes it's way to the inflight catering group at Alaska Airlines. This service on BA just blows the socks off of anything I've ever seen on Alaska and gives a run for the money on other US carriers.
Getting to London City Airport was too challenging. Darren and Ian saw me off from Clapham Junction. At their suggestion, I grabbed the Overground to Shadwell where I could catch the Docklands Light Rail. The journey took about an hour, which really isn't bad for getting all the way across London nearing rush hour on a Friday. The trains got increasingly more crowded as we neared the airport. Luckily, the train terminates right at the terminal. A quick walk from the train puts you right in the terminal.
The security lines keep moving and everyone is expected to know the routine. There is no time here for novice travelers; this place is streamlined and efficient. It was mostly business people making what looked liked their normal commutes. No families fumbling with strollers and trying to keep kids in line. Of course I got secondary screening for something, I don't recall what, but was soon on my way.
The terminal was a mad house. The passenger volume has long-since outgrown the capacity. I did manage to find a seat in the packed bar area and settled in with a tonic & gin while awaiting my flight.
It wasn't long before my gate was posted, which turned out to be only feet from where I was. After chatting with the gate agent and finding my passport, which I didn't think would be needed at this point, she almost forgot to scan in my boarding pass - this could have been trouble had I not caught that! The actual gate area was down a flight of stairs. A dark, worn out room where we all waited a few minutes before boarding. My carry on bag was too big for the overhead bins so had to leave it at the door to be loaded in the cargo bin. These are small planes, but they are jets, Embraer E-170.
Once in the air, the efficiency of the inflight service became apparent. As soon as we hit 10,000ft, the young flight attendant was on his feet. First drink orders taken; then served with 10 minutes. Last time I was on Alaska Air (in First Class), it took over an hour for the first drinks to be served - and that was with two attendants working the cabin! Dinner orders were soon taken - yes, Alaska, here that? - there was a choice of two entrees! The whole cabin - all 12 of us - we enjoying a nice dinner within 20-30 minutes from wheels-up. Plenty of time for a second round of drinks before relaxing through the second half of the flight.
We made good time and actually landed at little early. Quickly off the plane and through immigration. Kevin was waiting in the baggage claim area for me having arrived from Prague on an earlier Aer Lingus flight.
The return to London at the end of our Ireland tour was also no BA in Business Class (Club Europe). The service on the flight out seems to have not been an anomaly. The service was just as quick and efficient this second time as well.
To Alaska Airlines if you're listening - get yourselves over to the UK and learn a thing or two about on-board service and step up your game!
July 26, 2017
In my prior post about the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Experience, I talked about the trip to London from Seattle. I also want to give a little more details about our return, from London Heathrow to Seattle.
We booked into Upper Class for our return home at the end of a whirlwind trip around Ireland - which we'll write about in coming posts. But I thought now would be a good time to write this followup. There's only a few things to add so this should be brief.
We were looking forward to is the Drive-in Check-in and the famed Club House. You can find all about it on their website.
Here are some finer points to help you along if you have a chance to experience Upper Class travel through Heathrow.
If you pay for Upper Class rather than using miles, Virgin will provide town car transfers for you upon departure from or arrive to London and select destinations around the world. If you're on miles you can arrange your own transport and still use the drive-in check-in. You will need to make a reservation however and provide the registration (license plate) of the vehicle in which you will be arriving. Call at least an hour before your anticipated arrival. You can book your time slot in advance but then call back as soon as you know the registration. If you get a representative that will not allow this, as happened to us, just hang up and call back. Because we were originally misinformed, we found ourselves arguing with Virgin while on the way and telling our driver to slow down.
Virgin promotes the security screening as "private." It's more, "exclusive" than "private." You just happen to go through one of two dedicated queues off to the side of the general security screening area. There was certainly no waiting. When we came through there was just one other small family present. The general security lines looked to be a mad house.
The Upper Class website gives the impression that you would directly arrive into the Clubhouse Lounge straight from security. This is not the case, far from it. You're dumped right into the duty free shops with little guidance on where the lounge actually is located. Once past the bulk of duty free, we began seeing signs pointing the way - it wasn't much further.
The Clubhouse really is something to see! It's massive by comparison to other lounges we've seen. There are seating areas to suit anyone's tastes from quiet reading rooms to a giant "man cave" with overstuffed recliners and a wall full of large screen TVs. Stairs lead up to the billiards and rooftop viewing terrace. There were a number of different food areas, both buffet style as well as table service. After having our second breakfasts and a couple Bloody Mary's I got a haircut (yes! I still have enough to need them cut - thank-you-very-much) while Kevin enjoyed a face and scalp massage.
The rest of Terminal 3 is a dump! Once you leave the lounge and shopping areas the terminal is just a worn-out and dark excuse for a world-class airport. When we left the lounge, our gate hadn't even been announced on the departure monitors but the concierge in the lounge had informed us the gate. Somehow most of the rest of the passengers found out as well as there was already quite the line to get into the gate sitting area. No special line here though we did get priority boarding once boarding began.
Wouldn't ya' know...it's the same exact plane as I came over in. I'll be going back in exactly the same seat. What are the odds? (I suppose 1:14 since they only had 14 of these 787's at the time).
The flight back was just as nice as the flight out with friendly service and a comfortable seat. This time, however, the pajamas were not offered right up, but readily provided upon request. With this being a daytime flight, more people congregated at the bar and was quite lively. Some fellow passengers spent nearly the entirety of the flight there. Kevin & I, on the other hand, chose to get some sleep and catch a movie after a short visit to the bar after meal service.
Dinner started with a little antipasto.
I tried the pot roast to see if they did any better with it than British Airways managed (see our prior post about BA First Class). I was sorely disappointed again. Perhaps it's a British thing about the ideals of how beef should be cook (someone please correct me if I'm wrong) but it really was inedible to anyone who likes beef. I politely asked if there was any of the mushroom risotto left, to which our attendant obliged. This was much better.
Dessert was delicious!
Afternoon snack was apparently a burger. I don't remember this really, neither does Kevin, but there it was in our photos.
Overall, we could hardly have been more pleased with the experience. Virgin's Upper Class, as I stated in the first post, is meant as a business class level product. As such it compares very favorably to BA's Club World, but certainly more fun. It's not the level of service as BA's First Class, which really is a step up for those who can afford it or has the frequent flyer miles to burn.
We will absolutely look toward Virgin for future trips to Europe and beyond.
July 11, 2017
Another new airplane adventure! Virgin Atlantic, just this year, took over Delta's route between Seattle and London. After years of flying exclusively British Airways on this route, I thought now was a great time to try something new for a change. Besides, I could snag an Upper Class (they're version of Business Class and First Class rolled up into one) round-trip using American Express points. I also got Kevin's return flight with me. He went over on BA using points - I'll let Kevin do his own write-up on that if he's so inspired.
I've long-since wanted to try out Virgin Atlantic, looking all hip and cool as it does, but have never had the opportunity as they're an entirely newcomer to Seattle. I mostly knew what to expect in terms of services onboard and had seen plenty of video reviews online. I had nearly nine months of anticipation from booking to travel. Yes, we do book early!
The day of travel finally came. The day started off as any other, except for a huge sleep deficit from being up late finalizing the packing and getting the house setup for being gone and a clean return. Off to the office with camera bag and carry-on suitcase in tow so I could head straight to the airport from work. Departure at 5:50PM.
First stop at the airport was the Delta Sky Lounge. Delta is a 49% owner of Virgin Atlantic so they share a number of services. One of which is the Business/First class lounges. Virgin doesn't have their own here is Seattle, but Upper Class passengers, and I imagine higher status Virgin members as well, are offered use of the Delta Sky Lounge on day of departure. It's been years since I was in one of Delta's lounges so was looking forward to seeing this one. The lounge is located in the South Terminal. Take the elevator to the roof-top level between gates S9 and S10. [I later found out that there's a new Sky Club lounge in Course A of the Main Terminal that Kevin confirmed on another flight later in the summer, is really nice.]
The lounge is quite spacious but not overly populated. Perhaps it was a slow time of day. Most of Delta's oversees flights had left for the day expect for a later Amsterdam flight. There was a small contingent of people who left when the Hong Kong flight started boarding. This left very few of us in the lounge, many of whom I would later see on my flight.
There was a small offering of snacks: meats, cheese, veggies, fruits, soup, and a number of carb options. Nothing spectacular. I grabbed a few bites and a cup of soup. They also have a full bar. Beer, wine, and simple cocktails are free. There's a list specialty cocktails for a charge. I tried to get a Negroni, but no dice. The bartender didn't know how to make anything except what was on the menu. So Gin & Tonic it is, oh well - life can be so cruel some times 🙂
A couple G&T later and a quick wonder about to see the whole place, it was time to head to the gate. It was SOOO FAR AWAY: down the elevator and next door, to gate S10.
As you would suspect, Upper Class has priority boarding, after family with children, etc. I was fairly early in the queue.
Upon boarding, the cabin crew was busy getting things set up for the flight. Pajamas were being handed out as soon as each passenger was settled. When I arrived at my seat, I found a menu, headphones, and amenity kit on the foot rest. Large pillows were stuffed behind each seat back.
More about the seating later. Once my bags were stowed, a flight attendant came by offering Champagne or juice - "Champagne, please!" This was actual Champagne, specifically, Gardet Brut Premier Cru Champagne, not California sparkling wine or prosecco (not that there's anything wrong with those, per se). Why can't US carriers manage actual Champagne?
Once loaded we pushed back right on time, just to sit in the typically long line a planes waiting to take off. Soon after the 10,000 feet bell rang, the crew got back to work; refilling wine and champagne glasses or taking drink and dinner orders. I chose the Beaujolais to go with my Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup and Asian Braised Shortribs.
The flight attendant came back through shortly and popped out the rather large tray table from the side of compartment and set it with table cloth, silverware, bread plate, and Virgin's signature salt and pepper shakers. Soon the soup arrived with a choice of dinner rolls. It was really quite a large bowl of soup that could have made a meal in its own right. A little under seasoned for my taste, nothing a little salt didn't fix. Tasty!
Next came the shortribs. To my delight, this we actually quite good. The meat was tender and moist with a nice housin demi glace. Hoisin is usually too sweet for me, but this was fine. I don't know what the mashed potatoes have to do with the "Asian" theme of the dish but that didn't stop me from enjoying them. The Beaujolais paired nicely. I think I chose well for this main, but it was a difficult choice; the Chicken and Porcini looked really good as did the Mixed Mushroom Teriyaki (vegetarian option). Kevin may have opted for the Salmon Nicoise Salad (despite it having Kalmata olives) had he been with me.
Dessert offered another challenging decision, a warm Lemon Pudding or Flourless Chocolate Cake. Of course I had the chocolate!
By the time I was ready for the Cheese and Port, most of the cabin had already lied down for the night or were deeply engrossed in their movies. The flight attendants who handled dinner service disappeared to the crew rest quarters and the smaller staff left behind were now mostly "hiding away" in the galley. I'm not one to use the call button unless absolutely necessary so it took a little while to get someone's attention. He was quite surprised I asked for it. I don't think many others had. I don't usually eat much blue cheese, but the Buttermilk Blue served here was quite mild and easy to eat and the port wasn't too sweet. A nice finish to the meal.
By now, I was done with both the meal and the movie (I don't recall what I watch but I know I couldn't bring myself to watch and airplane-appropriate edited version of Rocky Horror!). So, off to the highly-exalted Upper Class bar. I like the idea of having a bar area onboard. But I don't think it's exceptionally well executed here, at least on this red-eye flight. For one thing, it has only three of four closely set bar stools along the one side so really only two can sit comfortable while any others have to stand either at the end or on the service side. Secondly, there's minimal separation from the bar and fellow passengers trying to sleep nearby. Quite frankly, I think VA practically discourages passengers from using the bar during the night. When I got there, a few others had already arrived with drinks or empty glasses in hand that were brought from their seats. No barware or drinks were out except a few open wine bottles. Clearly the bar was configured to be fully stocked with glasses and an abundance of drinks for self-service; no flight attendants to be seen anywhere. One attendant did breeze through and when asked for service, he just said he'd find someone to take care of us and left. No one returned for some time, so we took it upon ourselves to find glasses for the wine. Some time later a flight attendant brought more wine and set out liquor and showed use where to find the mixers. I was having fun chatting with a couple heading for holiday in Ireland. He was from Australia or New Zealand, she from Ireland. They were taking the kids for the first time. Despite the nice conversation, it was time to turn in for the night.
I changed into my pajamas in the over-sized Upper Class restroom. The restroom was about double the size of a normal airplane restroom with a separate bench to sit while changing - very handy! I had no idea how to get the bed into "sleeping mode" as it had no full recline button so off to the galley to find help which I did. I was surprised to find that the seat-back folds down forward so that you actually sleep on a completely flat surface. This is unlike other airlines where you just recline the seat back until fully "flat" but you're clearly laying on an unfolded chair, lumps and all. This was fully flat, no bumps, but padded with an additional mattress pad added under you and a warm duvet for a cover. The pillow was an actual full-size pillow like one would have at home. In the bag that had the headphones, there was a small vile of lavender aromatherapy pillow spray which was a nice touch. The water bottle holder was conveniently located. I have to say, Virgin has figured out the bed and bedding!
Not a great picture but here's what it looked like all made up.
I managed to get in a couple hours of sleep but woke up from time to time to peek out the window. Which reminds me to mention about the windows on the Boeing 787. You may have heard, or have been on one already to know, the windows on the 787 don't have a physical shade, the window electronically dims with the push of a button. In my own naïveté, I assumed that they went all the way to opaque. Not really! They do dim quite a bit and create a blue cast when light comes through, but by no means opaque. It's like have a really dark pair of blue sunglasses. I tried to get a picture of this but it really did strange things in the camera as you can see below, especially since the sun was straight out my window just above the horizon the whole "night." I dared not un-dim the my window for fear of lighting up the whole cabin full of sleeping passengers.
A note about seat selection on this aircraft. I was in seat 3A which seemed like a good place to be by the Seatguru.com advice. It's further from the noise of the bar and not near a bassinet. Virgin's Upper Class seats are set in a herringbone pattern. Everyone's feet are toward the aisle. Your are either by the window or in the middle of the aircraft, with two aisles. On the right side of the cabin, the middle and window seats each from the same aisle. On the left side, the widow seats don't have anything across the aisle but the back call of the middle seats. Everyone in this cabin has direct access to an aisle. For these reasons I chose an 'A' seat on the left. The three seats further back were occupied when I booked, and rows 7 has no window. Any further back puts one too near the bar from what I had read on various reviews. That left me with row 3. If I were to do this again, I would try to take a seat further back, even if on the other side. The reason: galley noise. For most of the night there was an endless stream of noise as the crew cleaned up from meal service and prepared for breakfast: clanking of plates and silverware, the beeping of timers, etc. This went on most of the night making it difficult to sleep despite the comfortable bed.
A few hours before landing, the cabin was buzzing the activity. People setting their beds back for seating, changing back out of pajamas, and breakfast was being served. After a few glimpses of both coast of Ireland and the west of England, we were soon on the ground at Heathrow.
Once down, we had a delay in getting a gate, then a delay as no one was there to move the Jetway into place. But soon enough we were off the plane, just to find locked doors getting into the terminal. Clearly they weren't expecting us! Expedited customs process (as in just a shorter line) was offered for Upper Class passengers. With no need to claim baggage, I was straight off to the Virgin Arrivals Lounge for a shower and second breakfast (actually, it would be elevenses by this point). The Arrivals Lounge was beyond baggage claim and up to the mezzanine just before exiting to the car park. It was a fairly small, brightly lit room. Furnished with cafe type furniture in the thematic white and red. Nice enough for a quite bit to eat, but clearly not intended as a place to linger.
First the shower.
With that, I say goodbye to Virgin Atlantic for now. I'll add notes later about our experience on the return flight. In all, they did a nice job of making a long journey as pleasant as can be. To expect much more, would be nit-picky. Was it as nice as British Airways First experience? I would say, not quite. But then again it's intended as a different product. It compares more closely to BA's Club World (their business class). Besides, one would pay MUCH more for BA First. Virgin provides a more casual experience but no less refined than BA and Virgin's seat/bed definitely have the advantage. On BA, you only get pajamas in First - and they don't have a bar, even in First. Overall, British Airways is meant to be more formal where Virgin Atlantic wants to be more entertaining and engaging.
As we mentioned in the intro to this section, we decided to take another cruise on Cunard's Queen Mary 2. We really looked forward to seeing all the changes in-store from her five weeks in dry dock. Cunard got us hooked on checking online to see the latest updates throughout the "Remaster."
We arrived in New York the day before the cruise and met up with our travel companions, Charmaine and Kevin. You may remember them from our transatlantic crossing last year. They've agreed to join us once again having arrived in New York from Texas a couple days earlier. With arriving late afternoon and having early dinner plans there wasn't really much time to sight see so we just grabbed a cocktail at the hotel's roof top bar before heading for dinner at Mario Batali's La Sirena. More about the Viceroy Hotel and La Sirena in later posts.
The next day was embarkation. The doorman at the hotel grabbed us a town car and we were off. We tried to get to the dock a little earlier than last year to avoid the lines. But even just getting to the dock was a challenge. Traffic in Manhattan was HORRIBLE this morning, perhaps every morning. But not only that, our driver didn't really know how to get us to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Sure, he new what Brooklyn was and vaguely where it is, but beyond that he had to rely on us and our phones for directions. In all fairness though, getting to the cruise terminal is nothing less than convoluted. It's in an industrial area just south of the Brooklyn Bridge and requires many twists and turns to find. Come on PNYNJ - you can do better! Some signage would even be helpful.
After much ado with getting on-board (the ship docked late this morning so we had to wait about an hour to board). Oddly, there weren't many staff around to assist, nonetheless we quickly found our cabin, Queens Grill suite 9006, on our own. Knowing the lay of the ship from before helped as we were able to avoid the elevator bank that everyone else was using. Since we had carry-on luggage and bypassed the porters earlier, there was no need to wait for bags to show up so after a few photos of the pristine stateroom we were able to unpack right away and start re-exploring the ship. As you can see, Cunard has done an amazing job creating a beautiful art deco inspired suite. The colors, nautical with a modern edge, the amenities now include your own Illy Espresso maker, and many other perfect touches.
Perhaps due to the ship having just been remastered, the crew might be new to the Grills suites. We saw no one else assisting passengers to their suites much less greeting us. This only odd because Cunard makes a very big deal about the high level of attention you are to receive as having booked an'exclusive' Queen's Grill Suite. Our traveling companions had a different experience: their cabin steward was there to greet them and make them feel at home. Oh well.
Not to sound too critical, but here are a few things that could be improved upon:
As I recall, we pulled out of port right on time, but by now the skies had let loose with a heavy downpour. The castoff party was moved to the Pavilion pool with its retractable roof (now closed!).
We, along with Charmaine and Kevin, hung around long enough to have a glass of champagne but the enclosed space with the band was just too noisy for us so we moved on - to our favorite bar on the ship, The Commodore Club - aahh quiet!
The changes on board the ship were by no means revolutionary, with some exception. Mostly more subtle, being updates to the "soft" furnishings like carpets, window coverings and upholstery in most areas of he ship. They did add a number of single-occupant cabins and 30 new Club Balcony staterooms on the top deck (not done yet, however). The biggest changes were in dining venues. The Kings Court Buffet was completely revamped for a better flow and layout (though still a little confusing). They also added a new American BBQ/Smokehouse which always smelled good but we never got a chance to try it. The other big change on this level was what was formerly the Winter Garden. This was an Edwardian-style lounge with fake lattice and trompe l'oeil garden scenes which felt very dated (think First Class Lounge on the Titanic) was now transformed into a lovely lounge with a nod to the art deco of the original Queen Mary. Now called the Carinthia Lounge, this was also the place to sample vintage Port. They have a bottle from each year since the founding of the Cunard line in 1840, costing upwards of multiple (tens of?) thousands of dollars! We had to pass on that extravagance, sadly.
The QM2 also has the only dog and cat kennels at see. This was displaced by the construction of the Club Balcony staterooms but apparently enlarged and expanded for more 4-legged guests. They still have their own lamppost and fire hydrant.
One other well-needed update was in the spa. Not much changed here other than the hydro-therapy room (aka gigantic whirlpool). The room previously had planters of fake palm trees and bamboo, all removed now making the room feel more fresh and open. The mis-matched ceiling tiles were fortunately replaced. Otherwise just general maintenance in here, maybe new tiling here and there.
Here's our dining table from our voyage last year as compared to after Remastering:
One other interesting looking addition to the ship is a Chef's Table with Sommelier Wine Tasting in the Sir Samuel's restaurant. Reservations for this would be a must as it's held in a small private room seating about 12 persons. Unfortunately, they weren't ready to get this program started on this cruise. They did, however, have some of the potential wines on display in the cases near this dining room, they looked great! We'll have to come back for that one.
Coming soon: Culinary adventures and political intrigue on the high seas.
Opened in 2013, the Observer (Kim Velsey, 10-10-2013) described the Viceroy as “Soho with a killer view of Central Park, new construction with a mid-century aesthetic, masonry with a soaring glass facade.” And that pretty much captures it. The chic vibe extends from the moment you approach the doorway where you are greeted with ‘Welcome Home’ (actually sounding genuine BTW), to the compact check-in area (our room wasn’t quite ready, so the GM comp’d us two cocktails at The Roof), to The Roof bar (more later), to our room. I have to say, the entire experience was congruent. I know that’s bit of an odd expression for describing one’s stay at a boutique hotel, but the term, like the experience, fit. See also this other write up on The Observer.
In the same Observer piece, Viceroy CEO Bill Walshe said of the crowd the hotel hoped to attract: The “Viceroy’s guests tend to be on the younger side: successful 25 to 50-year-olds in the entertainment and media worlds whose parents might have stayed at the Carlyle but who want something a little more modern for themselves.” Having stayed at both the Carlyle and the Viceroy, I’d say they hit their target audience on the money, so to speak. After all, the Viceroy isn’t the least expensive place you could stay in the area ($175-800/night), but by no means is it the most expensive either. And yes, the tenants seemed to be just as he predicted.
Located on the 29th floor, getting off the elevators you enter the lounge and bar area proper. Warm tones, leather and wood – elements carried throughout the entire hotel. This is the place you’d want to be on an inclement or blustery winter’s night in the city. Turn right and The Roof terrace opens up to an unbelievable panorama view looking north into Central Park. To the eye, it seems like the luckiest of coincidences that there just ‘happens’ to be a straight, uninterrupted shot looking north through a narrow passage between flanking, hulking skyscrapers to the East and West. The park is there almost to touch.
We had our two complimentary cocktails…oh, who’s kidding…we had a few…and a charcuterie plate before we had to get to the room a prepare to meet friends out for dinner. Keep in mind, we had arrived a bit early, probably 4pm, so the Manhattan crowd of 20-50 somethings had yet to be set free from their offices and crowd the terrace. For a while, we had The Roof almost to ourselves, sans a few squeamish guests afraid to go over to the edge and peer downward. What a great way to kick off our evening in the city before heading out on our voyage aboard the recently ‘remastered’ QM2. We returned to The Roof after dinner for with Kevin & Charmaine for a nightcap after dinner. By this time, though still early by NYC standards, was already getting crowded - many of the prime tables and seating having been reserved.
We had a terrace room on a lower floor, so the view wasn’t nearly as crazy good as at the bar, still, quite a nice surprise in Midtown, in the midst of Millionaire row. The room was updated 60/70’s, stylish, tasteful and comfortably sized. The linens, crisp, white with boarders stitched in gold played off other elements in the room and bath.
Nothing was left uncurated, but it didn’t quite seem as though Disney had come in and designed the place. The bath was unapologetically clad in marble and brass, a combination that is making a long-overdue come-back. Masculine and welcoming. We’re taking back the brass and marble décor scheme and making it our own! The ideas are percolating for our master bath 🙂
The Vicerory, Midtown or Central Park, where ever you want to place it, is definitely worth it. A wrap-around sense of being looked after, thoughtfully anticipating needs, in a smaller scale luxury setting. It’s clear that the owners of the Viceroy want to cater to the new, young wealth so obviously present in this part of town, but don’t be dissuaded if you’re like us, in our 50’s and appreciative of style while also being cost conscious. We booked far enough in advance to get a very good price. Their website notes certain discounts for advanced reservations. Take advantage of that. We will be back ‘home’ for sure some day soon.
In Kevin’s article about making our Thanksgiving Cranberry Compote he mentioned our vanilla extract. This gave me the idea to write a quick note about it as well.
As you may, or perhaps not, know that Kevin and I are fond of travelling to Hawaii when we can. Our favorite is the Big Island. It’s one of the more diverse and for us, the most interesting and relaxing. But having been there so many times, we are always on the lookout for new things to do and try. There’s always some we haven’t done. Our visit a few years back was no exception. What we found was that there is now a vanilla farm on the island. It’s the first, and at the time only, vanilla farm in the US. Simply called Hawaiian Vanilla Company. Check out their website for more info: http://www.hawaiianvanilla.com. It may not sound terribly exciting, but we’ve certainly never seen where vanilla comes from. Luckily, they offer tours with lunch. We booked for a few days after we got settled on the island as it’s on the Hilo (east) side of the island, a couple hours’ drive from where we’re staying.
We arrived in good time and after checking in we were escorted into the humble dining room along with a number of other groups. Lunch was simple and of course featured their own vanilla in a number of dishes. During the meal introductions were done by the proprietor, Jim Reddekopp. The operation is a family affair. He and his wife quit their hectic careers at the resorts on Waikiki to start this farm and brought their kids with them. All of whom have some hand in the operations and activities of the farm.
After lunch we were treated to a tour of the gardens, kitchens, and vanilla greenhouses led by Jim himself. Before this, we had no appreciation for the level of detail, care and patience that goes into growing some much as a single vanilla bean, let alone thousands. I seems to recall they mentioned having to pollinate the flowers by hand. If you've ever grown orchids at home, you'll know how long they it takes to get a new flower stalk. The vanilla plant, being an orchid itself, takes a while as well.
If you ever find yourself on the Big Island, this is worth the trip to the “cold” side for a day off the beach.
So back to the point of this article. One of the things we learned on the tour was how to make vanilla extract and the difference between pure vanilla and imitation or artificial vanilla. I won’t go into this distinction here, but you may want to stay away from anything that says ‘vanillin’ on the ingredients. The making of vanilla extract is really quite easy. It just takes time.
Slit the vanilla beans length-wise, you can leave the halves attached at the stem, or not. Do not scape out the seeds. Place each bean in the liquor of your choosing. We prefer vodka as it doesn’t impart its own flavor to the vanilla.
Now, place it in a cool, dark place just let it sit, for the most part. I lay the bottle on its side so the beans stay submerged completely. On occasion, when you think of it, give the bottle a little rotation to move things around a bit. You don’t need to do much, just enough to redistribute the beans and liquor. In time, a few weeks, perhaps a month, open the bottle and give it a sniff, if it still smells like liquor and alcohol, it’s not done. If it smells mainly like vanilla, by all means start using it.
Since we’re making it in such a large bottle, it’s not convenient to keep this in the spice cupboard. So what we’ve done is to transfer some into a smaller, brown glass bottle (UV protected) to keep in the kitchen. We keep another whole (slit open) bean in this jar as well.
As you use the extract from the large bottle, it can always be replenished. When about 1/3 down, add another bean or two and refill with more liquor. This will yield a never-ending supply of extract.
We even made up small bottles of extract one year to give as Christmas gifts for friends and family. We used the Amber Boston bottles from Specialty Bottle here in Seattle (phone/internet orders only): http://www.specialtybottle.com with the shrink bands to seal them shut. If I were to do it again I would get the ones with a dropper cap.
The Journey Home
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I had ham terrine and a perfectly medium rare filet of beef with grilled Portobello, onion rings and fries (yes, I know - “chips”).
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.
Soup (I just can’t remember what kind, even with the picture)
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!!
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.