England & Scotland Travelog from July 19 to August 7, 2016

in United Kingdom

Tuesday, 7/19 – Heathrow to Oxford

We flew into Heathrow, took the bus to Oxford, then walk 10 minutes to our MacDonald Randolph Hotel, opposite the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archeology. Our main purpose in the Oxford area was to witness the “blessing ceremony” of a young woman whom we’ve known since her birth, and her delightful new husband who grew up in Oxford. Due to technical difficulties in flying a few times to/from San Francisco/Oxford to get married in the U.K., they had an official ceremony in San Francisco, but would now celebrate with the groom’s family in their village. More later.

We quickly unpacked, and wanting to get “into” this time zone, rather than nap, we decided to go to the Ashmolean where there was an “If You Only Have an Hour” self-guided tour. This took us to what the curator believes are the iconic objects of the museum, which were definitely eclectic and some, quite odd. Though there are some galleries that are themed, e.g., Egyptian, many are collections from the many donors over a couple of hundred (or more) years. After the museum closed, we went back to our hotel, had a nice dinner then went to bed.  NOTE TO SELF: seek out these special 1-hour tours for most if not all remaining museums.

Wednesday, 7/20 Oxford & Chedworth

We rented our car, i.e., giving Rick his first delightful day of driving on the other side of the road, to drive to our friends’ house about 1 hour outside of Oxford. Once we were “in the countryside” many of the roads were 1.5 lanes at best, often with stone walls on both sides to barely accommodate oncoming traffic generally flying towards us at 50 – 60 miles per hour. Needless to say, Rick was often white-knuckled that first day. We had taken our old portable GPS with a new SIM for Europe, so we set it to find our target in the tiny village of Chedworth. Our friend had given us the Postal Code since there are no real street addresses. What a miracle! We arrived at the spot where the Postal Code took us, called and was told to back up 20 feet and turn right up their driveway. We spent the day, including eating a 2 local former-pubs-now-gone-upscale and walked around the village with the husband while the wife was recovering from a 24-hour tummy issue. On our “tramping” around the village, I was able see the picturesque sheep and black-and-white cattle that I remembered from my previous visits (up to 20 years ago). We stopped at their local church where their younger daughter (our daughter’s childhood friend) was married.  On the way out, we saw pinned to the bulletin board a brochure featuring a photo from their younger daughter’s wedding which included our daughter and their other childhood friend. We had a delightful and delicious time, finally hanging out for an hour with the mostly-recovered wife.  Rick drove us back to Oxford, thank heavens while still light (it got dark after 9:30).

Thursday, 7/21 Oxford University Walking Tour & Punting on Thames

Oxford is called “The City of Dreaming Spires,” which is famous throughout the world for its University and place in history. For over 800 years, it has been a home to royalty, scholars and writers, and since the 9th century an established town, although people are known to have lived in the area for thousands of years. Nowadays, the city is a bustling cosmopolitan town.

Oxford has 38 Colleges, which are often mostly eating and sleeping units where their students meet with their assigned tutors. There may be some classrooms in that college that are for their students or for certain subjects, like engineering or science only. But most of the core subjects maybe in various college lecture halls.

We took at 2-hour Oxford walking tour with a local who was very knowledgeable about lots of local history. The Bodleian Library was originally part of the Divinity School which we visited. Since it’s got new sites and many themed collections, one would need days to explore. Unfortunately, we did not book the specific library tour (sells out quickly in peak tourist season) to see specific areas. E.g., we missed the Lord Humphrey Room, which was where Harry Potter’s Library scenes were filmed.

We lunched at the Surf Tavern (supposedly where John Thaw aka Inspector Morse) used to hang out. Their sign in front says “Education in Intoxication.”  Then we met our friend’s older daughter with her 5-yr old twin girls who quite enjoyed chocolate cake and chocolate milkshake. We walked with them over to the Pitt Rivers Museum to just visit the main floor filled with dinosaurs, then fare welled them.  We walked to find, with difficulty, where the groom was obtaining the punt*. He then skillfully poled/pushed his mother-in-law (our long-time friend), and her brother and sister-in-law, Rick and me to the Victoria Arms to meet the rest of the immediate family for dinner.

Given how many punting groups arrive regularly, one would think that they could accommodate 11 of us with advance notice, which we had done. It took an hour with much prodding to get our drinks and order dinner. It took another hour for the meal to arrive, again with much prodding and periodically being told that they were out of certain items we had ordered. The eventual food was fine. But do not go if you will arrive with more than one punts’ worth of people.

After dinner, we checked in at The Talkhouse Inn in Stanton St. John where we’d stay until Sunday morning.

*A punt is a flat-bottomed boat for river “cruising” that is poled/pushed like a gondola. Punting is famous around Oxford and I think Cambridge.

Friday, 7/22 More Walking Around Oxford

We walked around Oxford more. We climbed the University Church Tower which had a wonderful view of the city. We walked back to the Bodleian but couldn’t get a tour so we couldn’t see the library room where Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron researched their magic. Since the line to tour Christ Church College was very long, and filled with Potter fans who wanted to see the model for Hogwarts’ dining room, we walked along the huge meadow behind that college, then up the river to see lots of boat houses and many houseboats—often seen in “Inspector Morse,” “Inspector Lewis,” and “Endeavor.”

Back in Stanton St. John we had delicious “rehearsal” dinner at Talkhouse Inn after the main wedding party did a run-through at the church with the vicar.

Saturday, 7/23 Stanton St. John & Wedding

After a delightful breakfast with those of us staying in 3 rooms (out of 4) in the Talkhouse Inn, we got dressed for the noon Blessing Ceremony.  About 11:30, we all, including the bride who’d been “dressed and made-up” by her sister at the Inn, walked around the corner and down the hill to the village church.  This lovely 800-year old church and surrounds were so picturesque for this special ceremony! Afterwards (and after photo-taking) about 30 of us, mostly local family, walked back to the Talkhouse for a wonderful “wedding” luncheon.

Many of us later drove to one of the groom’s favorite pubs in Oxford where he had reserved a room for relaxing, drinking beer, chatting, and viewing the river from the outdoor terrace. Seeing how happy the bride and groom are plus this wonderful day made the whole trip worthwhile, though there was much still to come.

Sunday, 7/24 Oxford to Edinburgh by Train

We parted from our friends after another delightful Talkhouse Inn breakfast, returned our rental car, and barely made it on to the train to Edinburgh.  This was our first long train trip in Europe so we had booked first class (I had experienced 3rd-class in college with not fond memories). The car was clean and well-lighted, with attendants to serve drinks and a small lunch.  Very civilized. A relaxed, 5.5 hours later, we arrived in Edinburgh. We walked about 10-minutes with our luggage to our hotel, The Glasshouse.

The front wall of the hotel is an old church, but the rest is modern, with a lovely rooftop garden. The rooms were quote nice as were the breakfasts we had. The odd feature was there being no guest “lift” aka elevator that stopped at all 3 upper floors. We were staying on the 1st floor (0 or Ground is the lobby). We had to take the lift to the 3rd floor and walk down two flights!  Despite that, our 4 nights there were fine and very convenient to everyplace we wanted to visit in Edinburgh.

Monday, 7/25 through Thursday, 7/28 (morning) Touring and Dining in Edinburgh

We walked everywhere across Edinburgh–all the Royal Mile, Old Town, New Town with many stops. We also toured a couple of lovely “Georgian” period homes, mostly build in New Town built in the late 1700s, since Old Town was disease-ridden, over-crowded and falling down.

Edinburgh specifically and Scotland in general are very proud of their many world renown literary figures.  To name but a few:  Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns (Bobbie died at age 37). J. M. Barrie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Modern authors include Alexander McCall Smith and J. K. Rowling (who supposedly wrote her 1st Potter book at the Elephant Pub on the Royal Mile).

Some Edinburgh Touring Highlights

The Royal Mile—wonderful history lessened by souvenir shops & summer crowds

There are so many historical stops along “The Royal Mile” that are worth spending time, including Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, St. Giles Cathedral, Scotland’s Court of Justice, Real Mary King’s Close, etc. If at all possible, absolutely visit–from Sept.to May, not July when we did. And city planners should have restricted the many, many souvenir shops lining both sides. The many pubs and historical stops are definitely worth visiting.

Old Town—again would be pretty without the mobs & souvenir shops

It’s hard to see these lovely old buildings and appreciate the history when constantly dodging the 1000s of people in the summer. Of course, it’s a must-see for any tour of Edinburgh, but plan a visit in Sept. – May rather than summer. OR expect the mobs and visit in August for the Fringe Festival, which we missed. City planners needed to have limited the wall-to-wall shops selling tartans, mugs, wool/cashmere, & all sorts of toys. It’s almost impossible to see the nice for the junky shops.

Scottish National Museum

This museum is jam-packed with lots of different aspects of Scottish accomplishments, including its impact & people of science, industry/transportation (invention of steam engine & turbine), beautiful silver & china from middle & upper class folks, etc., etc. There are lots of interactive exhibits for kids to learn while playing as well as steam engines, electric cars, airplanes & more to gawk at. Several places to eat & gift shops. A great place on a rainy or lovely day.

Palace of Holyroodhouse—insightful history & lovely estate

Spending at least 1 hour with the audio guide is well worth it. The grounds are lovely as well as the interior of the palace with its gorgeous tapestries, furniture, etc. Queen Victoria left her mark as she made the Palace more “homey” for her family, guests of state & less formal visitors. The Abbey, the oldest part of the estate, dates back to 1028 & has a few remaining walls, ruins, etc. One can picture old monks roaming before the Reformation. Definitely stop here to gain a sense of Scotland’s past.

Real Mary King’s Close—medieval Edinbough’s story of real people’s lives

Cosmopolitan Edinburgh was not the fun, thriving artsy center it is today, back 500 years ago when 30,000 people were jammed into 1/4 square mile. At “The Real Mary King’s Close” exhibit, that’s the story told by well-trained tour guides during the 1-hour, very entertaining presentation about real people who lived sometimes 12 or more to a room, with no sanitation, and facing “The Plague” multiple times. Both poor and high class alike were challenged. Worth a stop along The Royal Mile.

Edinburgh Castle

Up on the bluff above 1 end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is the impressive, stony, somewhat gloomy presence of the Edinburgh Castle with lots of amazing history dating back 100s of years. Unfortunately, even on a summer’s weekday, there are 1000s of tourists all trying to get “the photo” and staking a claim to the best spot to get it. It’s well worth the visit to gain historical insight into the Scottish psyche–but plan your trip between Sept. and May, not July when we were here.

Edinburgh High Court

We briefly visited, hoping to see a courtroom (like in the English TV series “Silks”), in the High Court of Justiciary and Court of Session, collectively known as the Supreme Courts of Scotland, are situated in a central location in the Old Town of Edinburgh. The Court of Session is the Royal Court of Scotland, hearing civil cases in the name of Her Majesty, the Queen, and was created in 1532. The High Court of Justiciary was created in its current form in 1672. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Courts extends to the whole of Scotland. Closely linked to the work of the Supreme Courts and the building itself are the Faculty of Advocates and the libraries of the Writers to the Signet (see below for Colonnades High Tea) and the Society of Solicitors in the Supreme Courts.

The New Parliament House

Parliament House is a complex of several buildings housing the Supreme Courts which, in 2012, will come to the end of a 13-year program of refurbishment that started when England allowed Scotland to be somewhat self-governing. Recent reforms to civil and criminal procedures have encouraged judges to take a pro-active role in the disposal of business. My hope to see the Parliament in session was dashed because of the summer recess, but we did see the main room—it was just missing the loud talking and “here, here” one sees on Masterpieces theater series.

Fine Dining in Edinburgh–yes, really

Hadrian’s Brasserie at the Balmoral Hotel

Ironically, our 1st dinner out in Edinburgh was with a couple from our Gourmet cooking group who happened to be briefly touring Scotland. Along one side of the gorgeous Balmoral Hotel, just downhill from The Royal Mile, is Hadrian’s Brasserie. The food is innovative combinations of local and continental cuisine. It’s excellent and a bit pricey, though not compared to upscale restaurants in London or other European capitals.

The Witchery by the Castle

In the shadow of Edinburgh Castle is the Witchery restaurant (and Inn) established over 40 years ago. Lots of wood paneling and antiques provide the flavor of an old but cozy family home. The food is creative, well-prepared, and served by fun/competent staff. Needs reservations even on a weekday at least a couple of days or more in advance. But it’s worth the wait and expense for the “whole package.”

Tower Restaurant at the Scottish National Museum

At the top of the new-ish Tower building of the Scottish National Museum is the lovely restaurant owned by the same family as the Witchery. The food is delicious, high quality Scottish cuisine. We had lunch–including a tasty starter of haggis, fresh pea soup, scallops & lobster Thermidor plus yummy desserts of peanut butter parfait & chocolate tart that look nothing like their names indicate. Lots of folks were having High Tea there and looked to be quite happy. It’s not cheap, but for the quality, it’s much more reasonable than London.

Colonnades at the Signet Library

Referred here by someone at a hotel known for its high tea but which was booked, we were totally delighted with the Colonnades’ setting, food, and service. The Signet, one of the law libraries at the historical building housing Scotland’s Supreme Court, was converted within the last couple of years into a tea room and luncheon restaurant. The impressive environment is matched by the wonderful foods: after an “amuse bouche,” there is a savory course then sweet course with a sorbet to “cleanse the palate.” Reservations at least a day ahead are advisable. Absolutely a great addition to a visit to this city!

Thursday, 7/28 Edinburgh to Stirling to Loch Lomond

After picking up our rental car, we headed out of Edinburgh toward our 1st stop in Stirling in the “Trossachs” aka “the heart of Scotland” where “the Highlands meet the Lowlands.” Stirling is the ancient capital of Scotland, dominated by Stirling Castle, and which lies at the heart of the nation’s history. Highly significant battles were fought here that shaped the future of Scotland’s independence as a sovereign state. Despite the odds of much larger English forces, the Scots led by William Wallace, aka Braveheart, won the Battle of Stirling near the Castle in 1297.  Then again near the castle in 1314, Robert the Bruce vanquished the English with much larger force in the battle of Bannockburn.

We toured the castle’s extensive grounds and buildings, established in the 1400s and 1500s, with a few elements dating to the 1300s. Until the late 1800s, it strategically guarded the most southern crossing of the Forth River.  Afterwards we visited the National Wallace Monument outside Stirling, with lovely views East & West along the Forth Valley. From Stirling, we headed through the small villages on the A811, drove along the banks of Loch Lomond–the UK’s largest fresh water lake–then arrived at our hotel for the night, Cameron House, right on the Loch. Ironically, our view from there was similar to the aqua-tint print (from 1795) that we bought in Oxford of Loch Lomond!

Friday, 7/29 Loch Lomond through Inverary to Oban

After we left Cameron House, we stopped to walk through the picturesque village of Luss to visit the old church, graveyard and Pilgrim Centre, then carried on to Inverary and its landmarks. Though not as dramatic as say Stirling Castle, the Inveraray Castle is well worth a stop if your journey takes you to the area, especially if you are a Downton Abbey fan. It was the location of the family’s visit to “Duneagle.” The building is quite lovely, built by an early Duke of Argyll, so there is a consistent look and its interior has good period furniture, tapestries, etc. The gardens are pretty also.

The Inverary Jail is in the city itself. The self-guided tour (need up to 1.5 hours) of the prisons–old built in the 1600s & new in the 1700s–displays well-researched and documented history. It provides insight into the sites, the conditions, the Warden and Matron’s jobs, and definitely about the inmates’ experiences. In turn, it gives us an idea of what life in those times must have been for the common and poor people and the effects of the endemic poverty of their lives.

Our 1st Whisky Tasting

Next we stopped in the town of Oban, which ringed the harbor, where we enjoyed our first whisky (Scottish have no “e”} distillery tour and tasting. There we picked up a Whisky trail passport that got us free tours and tastings at several other famous distilleries as well as provided a whisky “flavor” matrix. The vertical spectrum is Smoky (top) to Delicate (bottom) and the horizontal is Light (left) to Rich (right).  During the tour, we learned that in order to be called “Scotch” whisky, it must be aged at least 3 years.  Distilleries produce whisky 5 days a week and each daily batch goes into Bourbon casks imported from America generally for 10 to 12 years in typical “high end” single malt whiskys.  Importing started in 1933 at the end of Prohibition when U.S. Federal law allowed bourbon distilleries to use their aging casks only once.  Smart Scotsman or just frugal? It’s the cask-aging that colors and flavors the spirit.  If whisky is aged beyond 10 to 12 years, it may go into used sherry, port or other wine casks for a richer and distinctive flavor. The Oban Whisky tour imparted all that AND we got to taste a nice spirit.

Our final goal for that day was The Manor House in Oban where we’d spend 2 nights, with a lovely view of the harbor.

Saturday, 7/30 Oban to Kerrera Island and Back

We walked down the hill from The Manor House after breakfast for our day-long ferry and bus tours of Mull, Iona and Staffa Islands. However, at the main ferry terminal as we were lining up for the 10 a.m. boat, we were told that the ferry for Mull had broken down and even when it was repaired, there wouldn’t be time to take the tour to all 3 islands.  We trudged sadly back to our hotel then asked the manager if he had an alternative suggestion for the day. He recommended the there was a small ferry about 2 or 3 miles in the opposite direction from the main terminal that ran back and forth between Oban and Kerrera Island.  He printed out a map and island description and ordered a taxi to take us there. We waited less than 30 minutes, took the 5-minute ferry ride and embarked on a round trip of 5+ miles along the shore and inland in the forest, up and down some hills, including a detour to the Gylen castle ruins.  At the perfect time, about halfway, we had lunch at the Kerrera Tea Garden.  I was exhausted at the end, but it was a very enjoyable day. A drink at The Manor House bar overlooking Oban harbor was a perfect end of day.

Sunday, 7/31 Oban onto the “Road to the Isles” Then by Ferry to the Isle of Skye

We left Oban to drive on the “Road to the Isles,” the A830. Along the way we stopped at the Glenfinnan Monument where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed to start the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 which ended in tragedy the following year at Culloden close to Inverness. During our Scotland visit we learned about Scotland’s contentious history with English rulers. While the Scottish had won against them at Stirling Bridge and the Battle of Bannockburn, the next confrontation was not so positive.

Apparently, the English removed King James II (of England and V of Scotland), the last Catholic monarch of England, which led to uprisings over decades. In 1745, James’ son Charles aka Bonnie Prince Charlie led the latter years’ Jacobite (Jacobus is Latin for James) rebellion, landing at Glenfinnan to recruit his army that would rightfully return his father to the throne. His efforts culminated at the Battle of Culloden (described later).

We also stopped to take pictures of Glenfinnan’s railway viaduct that has famously featured in many of the Harry Potter movies of recent years as the magic train rounds the curve toward Hogwarts. I couldn’t help myself…

On reaching Mallaig, we took the car ferry to Armadale on the Isle of Skye. This 20-minute crossing from mainland Scotland offered fantastic views of the Sound of Sleet and the surrounding mountains on the Isle.  We explored the southern part of the Isle a bit then drove to our hotel.

Gorgeous Kinloch Lodge of Lord MacDonald, High Chief of Clan Donald

Kinloch Lodge hotel is owned by Lord MacDonald, the 34th Clan High Chief of Clan Donald, with his wife, Lady MacDonald where they raised their 4 children. Built in the 1600s as a hunting lodge for Armadale Castle at the southern end of Skye, it is now run by their daughter Isabella with their Michelin-chef, Marcello Tully.  Kinloch is dramatically nestled against a mountain on the edge of the Sound of Sleat and presented a gorgeous view as we saw it across the Sound.  It has been cited by Conde Naste Traveler Magazine as 1 of the world’s top 25 small hotels and 1 of the 63 best hotels in the world by the Sunday Times newspaper. And over the next 2 nights, it truly proved its worth. The 1st night was had a view of the lawn leading to the Sound, the 2nd night we had a suite with the same view.

The food prepared/overseen Chef Marcello Tully was amazing. Our tasting menu for dinner that 1st night was out of this world—in the same class as French Laundry.

Monday, 8/1 Driving All Over the Isle of Skye

With suggestions from 1 of the concierges, we—meaning Rick—drove all over the Isle of Skye. We drove through Sligachan (still don’t know how to pronounce) by the Cullin Mountains down to Glenbrittle which looked like the Calif. Coast and the Fairy Pools, which looked like a series of water pools similar to lakes in the Sierra so we chose not to climb up.  Briefly we stopped at Talisker Whisky Distillery to stamp our Whisky Trail passports. But we chose not to taste because Rick said that Talisker is VERY smoky and peaty, tasting like vodka mixed with fireplace ashes to him. Our daughter described it as chewing up a cigar which she has only imagined. We drove up the eastern coast of Skye to photograph the “Old Man of Storr” formation on the mountain ridge.  Then we crossed to the island’s northwestern coast to visit Dunvegan Castle, which was closing.  By now, we were approaching castle burn-out so I was fine with missing that one.  So we headed to our dinner reservation (made by our travel agent which said it is 1 of Scotland’s best restaurants) at The Three Chimneys. Even with local help, it took us a while, with Rick driving over 1-lane, 2-way roads, to find the place, but it was worth it. Since we arrived early, we were placed in a small lobby bar in their inn next door, along with another couple who had been trying to get a reservation for months (if not years). We had lovely cocktails, then walked back to the restaurant. Dinner was quite impressive. I was still full from the previous evening’s tasting menu at Kinloch then a wonderful breakfast there, but I ordered 2 wonderful appetizers for my dinner, hoping that I would have room for their signature dessert: Marmalade Pudding.

I enjoyed my food but just couldn’t manage dessert so asked if I could take it with me, to which our waiter said, “of course.” Moments later the manager said that it was impossible because the quality would be degraded, which chef would not permit. I insisted that I would treat the dessert’s re-heating with great care, and somehow chef managed to provide the cake and sauce with very clear instructions.  We then drove the hour back to Kinloch Lodge into our suite (tough life, I know).

Tuesday, 8/2 Isle of Skye to Loch Ness then Invergordon, North of Inverness

With 1 more delicious Kinloch Lodge breakfast in our tummies, we departed the Isle of Skye via the Skye Bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh, with spectacular views of the Sound of Sleat – the sea passage between the Isle of Skye and mainland Scotland. Once on the mainland we followed the road to Dornie along the banks of Loch Duich where Eilean Donan Castle is located. This is one of Scotland’s most picturesque castles and famous for the film “Highlander” in which Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery were the leading actors. We did enjoy the tour of this lovely castle, and now were on a mission to arrive by 2pm at Loch Ness to take our boat ride to find Nessie.

Our travel agent recommended a lovely route from Dornie through 2 beautiful valleys or glens: Glen Shiel and Glen Morrison below mountains known as the “Five Sisters of Kintail”. At the head of Glen Morrison we joined Loch Ness on its west bank close to Drumnadrochit. If we weren’t so panicked that we were going to miss the 2pm boat, we might have appreciated the scenery more.  I called the Jacobite Boat Tour folks and they booked us on a 3pm ride, whew! We did arrive at the Loch Ness boat launch in time to have a snack and line up. It was appropriately quite grey and a bit misty for the Nessie search but we didn’t need most of our extra layers we had so well-planned.  Rick thinks he may have sighted Nessie’s back, but who knows.  We got off the boat to enjoy a visit of Urquhart Castle located on the banks of Loch Ness. We toured the ruins and watched a movie about the history at the excellent visitor center. Urquhart is our son-in-law’s favorite Scottish castle because of the siege battle weapons still on site—a full Trebuchet with a couple of its “bombs” at its base.  We were quite impressed as well but couldn’t linger because we had to get the last boat back to our car.

We then continued further north along the west bank of Loch Ness and into Inverness. The capital of the Highlands, Inverness is its commercial and cultural center. Inverness is situated at the head of Loch Ness with the River Ness flowing through the heart of the city and opening into the Moray Firth.

We kept heading north over the Kessock Bridge past Inverness towards Invergordon where we spent the next two nights at Kincraig Castle Hotel. Since we’d spent the day driving (panicking we’d miss the boat, literally) then on/near Loch Ness, we just wanted to check in and relax. Kincraig Castle is a secluded, 4-star hotel overlooking the Cromarty Firth (river), just a short drive to Inverness, the “Capital of the Highlands,” as well as to Tain and Dornoch. With lovely gardens and river view, we could see why many generations of Clan MacKenzie lived here before it became a hotel. Dinner in their intimate dining room (has a “1 AA rosette”) was very good.

Wednesday, 8/3 Driving Around Inverness Including Dunrobin Castle, My Favorite, & Finally Seeing Fluffy Highland Cattle

During our stay at Kincraig Castle—which to my mind was more like a manor house—we did visit Dunrobin Castle, which turned out to be our favorite castle in Scotland. It was huge and gorgeous—on the scale of Highclere, the setting of Downton Abbey. As we approached, there was mist in the air so we went inside to tour. There was a lecture going on in a large nearby room which looked like an armory there were so many guns, spears, etc. in beautiful displays on the walls. The kilt-dressed gentleman was giving a quick history of the home so we listened before self-guiding ourselves through the rest of the castle. We learned that since the 1300s, this magnificent castle—the most northerly of Scotland’s “great houses”–has been home to many generations of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland. The huge main building is atop a hill, surrounded by and above huge, formal gardens that one could envision in a movie set. The interior is very impressively preserved from those many generations—furniture, objects, dishes, glasses, etc.  There are several small armories like the room we initially viewed, along with uniforms worn by the many family members over history.  After the house tour, we headed down to the gardens.  As we looked up at the castle, it was so shrouded in mist that we could barely see it. So we attended an amazing falconry “show” in one open section of the garden, led by a local man who has rescued many birds of prey—owls, hawks, falcons. He trains them to fly to him, cruising over the heads of the audience (I could feel the wings flapping!). It was thrilling! I then got to sit next to the owl star of the show to get my picture taken with him.  Rick was finally able to take photos of this glorious castle in the sun.  Absolutely memorable!

As we left the castle gift shop (yes I bought a few items), I asked one of the clerks if she knew where there were the famous Highland cattle—with the curly hair and long horns—that I had yet to see in the herds that I expected.  She told us to drive to Embo where she thought there were some to be viewed from the road. Once again, Rick was driving on the 1-lane, 2-way road with 60 MPH speed limit. Indeed, we reached Embo village and saw my target: a small herd of Highland cattle. We stopped he took lots of photos and satisfied, we traveled on to Dornoch, another picturesque town. We briefly visited the Dornoch Courthouse and Jail built in the 1800s. We hadn’t eaten since our large breakfast so were ready for an early dinner, so we asked the jail attendant (aka desk manager, not in the prison) to recommend a place, which was the Dornoch Castle Hotel’s pub/restaurant. We booked a table for a bit later when it opened then walked around the town.  Her suggestion of the pub/restaurant at the Dornoch Castle Hotel proved to be great!  Not only was the local beer quite good, but the meal was excellent, reflecting the local, fresh food but not just copying other restaurants we’d enjoyed. So if you are in the Inverness/Invergordon area and wish to visit the cute historical town of Dornoch, you can also find really good food here. We returned to Kincraig Castle Hotel to get a good night’s sleep for a long drive down to St. Andrews the next day.

Thursday, 8/4 Invergorden to St. Andrews via Part of the Whisky Trail

After a lovely breakfast at Kincraig Castle Hotel, we started driving towards St. Andrews, planning several stops along the way.

Culloden Battlefield–the End of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746

Our first stop was Culloden Battlefield, east of Inverness, which is the site of the last battle on UK soil which in 1746 was where the Jacobite Rebellion was finally defeated. The Uprising had been launched in 1745 at Glenfinnan by “Bonne” Prince Charlie, son of the last Catholic king of England, James !! (aka James V of Scotland).  Despite being warned against it by his advisors due to being severely outnumbered, Prince Charlie led his forces onto the flat Culloden plain without the advantage of hill, forest or surprise. So no surprise about his defeat.  The best element of this visit was the Visitors’ Center, opened in 2007 which not only gave the best explanation about the decades-long fight of Scots vs. English but also of the Jacobite Rebellion.  In one section of the Visitors’ Center, we walked down a long row with one side interactive with multi-media displays of the Scottish perspective of the Culloden battle and the other, the simultaneous English side.  The Center had live weapon demonstrations and other brief performances as well as a film. This is the best Visitors’ Center we experienced in Scotland.

Glenmorangie Single-Malt Distillery

We were now going to visit a couple of high-end distilleries along the “Whisky Trail.”  Our 1st stop was Glenmorangie (pronounced glen-morang like orange-ee). We took our 2nd tour which was a bit different from Oban in that this was a weekday so production was underway. We actually saw AND smelled the processing of the barley with the local, famous spring-water into the correct percentage of alcohol. The “smoking” or cooking of the barley took place in a special warehouse a few miles away.  At the tour’s end we tasted the whisky, which is on the lighter, delicate side of the flavor map so we both liked it.

Blair Athol Single Malt Distillery

Our final Single-Malt distillery visit was Blair Athol.  Though not exported to the U.S., it was the favorite of our son-in-law and our daughter, who had stopped there on their visit several years before.  I’m sure the tour would have been lovely but we figured after 2 other tours, we generally understand the process. We tasted the 10-year Blair Athol whisky, which is on the more delicate side though a bit rich on the whisky flavor map. We bought a couple of bottles to take home to the U.S. since we can’t buy it there. We did learn that Blair Athol is owned by Bell’s Distillery which exports blended whisky to the U.S. and integrates some Blair Athol into 1 of the blends.  Worth a stop to try Blair Athol because it’s not available in the States.

Destination St. Andrews & The Old Course Hotel

The hotel overlooks the “Duke’s” Course, one of the famous St. Andrews Golf Links. Though supposedly invented in the 1300s by some Dutchmen, golf has become fully associated with Scotland since the 1500s. We learned that the link-style course was based on the open coastal land on which they are typically found, with sand trops originally part of the local dunes. Also the golf holes are apparently linked together more than the more modern standard course.  What I observed looking out from the hotel was that golfers in Scotland must be dedicated since they were playing until sundown at almost 10pm despite the heavy mist. I guess if one is going to pay that much money to fly and play here,,,

Built in the 1960s, The Old Course Hotel is a large hotel with the look and feel of the late 1800s or early 1900s and luxurious and modern amenities, e.g., a spa. At 5-star prices it gives its world-wide golf guests a grand setting to spoil themselves before and after their challenging 18-hole days. Our ocean view room was lovely as was the dining room where the food is excellent, though not particularly innovative. We tucked in early to prepare from another long day into Edinburgh then onto London.

Friday, 8/5 Quick Tour of St. Andrews Then to Edinburgh & Train to London

We walked from the edge of its “Duke’s” golf links (opened in 1995 with HRH Duke of York, Prince Andrew, hitting the first tee shot) leads into St. Andrews. It is a cute but historic college town where the current Prince William met Princess Date at a local coffee shop (sign is posted!) while both attended University of St. Andrews. The University was founded in 1413 so is Scotland’s oldest and is the 3rd oldest in the U.K. after Oxford and Cambridge.  It has buildings that look similar to Oxford (I haven’t visited Cambridge) which are integrated into the surrounding town.  One of its old dormitories at the end of the Duke’s golf course is being converted into luxury condos…

We walked across the town to see the ruins of both St. Andrews Castle and St. Andrews Cathedral along the rugged shoreline. The castle sits on a rocky promontory overlooking a small beach called Castle Sands and the adjoining North Sea. There has been a castle standing at the site since the times of Bishop Roger (1189-1202), son of the Earl of Leicester. It housed the burgh’s wealthy and powerful bishops while St Andrews served as the ecclesiastical center of Scotland during the years before the Protestant Reformation.

St. Andrews Cathedral was built in 1158 and became the center of the Medieval Catholic Church in Scotland as the seat of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and the Bishops and Archbishops of St Andrews. It fell into disuse and ruin after Catholic mass was outlawed during the 16th-century Scottish Reformation. The ruins indicate that the building was approximately 390 feet long, and is the largest church to have been built in Scotland.

We walked back to The Old Course Hotel, then took our (Rick’s) last drive in the UK back to Edinburgh to drop off the car. We caught a train to London and arrived at the Westbury Mayfair Hotel. We had good dinner in their Alyn Williams restaurant then collapsed after our non-stop tour of Scotland.

Saturday, 8/6 London Walking, Walking, Walking

Our plan was to walk from our hotel in the West End toward the Thames to stroll along the promenade and then visit the East End of London, with stops near Hyde Park, St. James, etc.  By the time we reached the Thames east-side promenade, it was jam-packed with what looked like 100,000 tourists.  So we walked further into the East End, stopping at various places. I wanted to visit the oldest Synagogue in the U.K., which we eventually found in a small street in the East End—almost an alleyway. It’s named Bevis Marks for the street it’s on. Since it was the Jewish Sabbath, I wasn’t surprised it was closed so we noted that there were tours the next morning and walked toward the so-called Gherkin building (pickle or rocket-shaped). We lined up to got to the bar at the top but were told that our shoes (walking/hiking shoes) were not permissible.  By then we had walked close to 5 miles so we caught a cab back to the hotel.  Of course the cabby was quite chatty and asked if we knew about a really good restaurant he’d heard about near our hotel, called Sketch.  When we went to our hotel’s concierge eh told us that yes, it was good so made an early reservation for the next night before we headed to our Heathrow hotel.

Meanwhile, we went into the Polo Bar, just off the hotel lobby, which the front desk had told us it had just won an award for best hotel bar in London (by not sure what source). I ordered a signature cocktail which was almost $20.  And my husband’s half-bottle of Prosecco was much higher-priced.  We had to ask for snacks and the server was not happy when asked for more. We were casually dressed but not in jeans though we did have are walking shoes on. I feel as though there was some disdain toward us.  So if you are prepared to pay a high price for good drinks in a trendy setting, go well-dressed!  We went to our hotel room to get ready for tonight’s dinner at NOPI.

Because I was familiar with the cookbook Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tami, I made a reservation at authors’ restaurant NOPI (= North of Picadilly), several months ahead of our trip to London. We walked from our hotel, were seated promptly, and received a daily-revised menu. Our very friendly and knowledgeable waiter helped us throughout the meal, starting with choosing the right number of dishes—we went with small plates though there were some very interesting entrees too. I recognized a few dishes from the cookbook, of which we tried a couple. The waiter guided us with our beverages, letting me taste a bit of beer before I ordered it. As we were ordering, I told him that I was familiar with the Jerusalem cookbook and that we were part of a cooking club so requested a copy of the menu.  He told us to order the peanut butter and caramel ice cream with chocolate sauce as at least 1 of our desserts.  It was to die for. At the end he handed me both the main and dessert menu. Highly recommended!

We walked back to the Westbury and fell asleep.

Sunday, 8/7 London–More Walking, Walking, Walking then to Heathrow

After leaving our luggage with the concierge, we caught a cab for the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Since we arrived a bit early, we spoke to the tour guide whom I told I had visited nearly 50 years ago with my college friend and her family. He said that he had been associated with this Synagogue for nearly 50 years also.  We waited for a large tour (from NJ) to arrive along with a few other drop-ins like us.  The guide told us that the Synagogue had been built in 1701—the congregation had been together since the 1660s at a nearby home—in the Spanish-style but modeled on a synagogue in Amsterdam. Actually it reminded me of the oldest synagogue in the U.S. in Newport, Rhode Island. We learned about the many Jews who were integral to the growth and success of London and the U.K. as well as the history of the venue. I pictured myself as a 19-year when I 1st visited and appreciated that I could return and enjoy almost a half-century (OMG) later.

We then started walking back across London. Our next stop was the V & A aka Victoria & Albert Museum where my husband had wanted to see their Georgian furniture collection.  We walked around it a bit more then continued walking. We stopped at the British National Gallery for a snack then decided to take their “if you only had an hour” self-guided tour, which was also delightful. We continued back toward Mayfair, also visiting St. Paul’s (covering our bases) and tried to see “The Temple” which our concierge told us was lovely, but it was locked. So we wandered along Regent then Oxford Streets, with my goal to see Selfridge’s since I had watched the Masterpiece series.  Of course it didn’t resemble the interior but the exterior still had the same “Lady Liberty” statue outside.

After a quick stop at our hotel to change, we walked to dinner at Sketch, which was a fun, eclectic restaurant AND menu. There were black-and-white, child-like but adult-humor sketches along all the walls, clearly the basis for the restaurant’s name. There were colored lights and semi-industrial ceiling. As we were getting ready to leave, our waiter asked if we had used the toilets. He told us we MUST use them. We took turns, with me going first, up the stairs to see a series of white rocket-shaped enclosures. When inside them, you hear music and talking as if the rocket were going to launch.  What a kick! Good food and crazy atmosphere!

We walked back to our hotel, picked up our luggage, took the Heathrow Express train to the airport then bus to our hotel. The next morning we flew back to California with wonderful memories of Oxford, the wedding, Scotland and London.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment