Friday, September 5, 2014

British Isles - Day 12 - Edinburgh, Scotland

In Brief

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoFriday the ship anchored in the Firth of Forth, just down the river from Edinburgh.  We had to tender ashore to the town of South Queensferry and then it was 30 min into Edinburgh via car, bus, or train.  We ventured off on our own and had a great time exploring the castle, doing a whisky tasting, touring the royal yacht Britannia, and shopped til we dropped, all despite a misty rain.  Saturday is an at sea day, then we are on to our final stop in Normandy, France on Sunday and the ship docks in Southampton on Monday.

Edinburgh Details

We got up early to catch the tenders before all the tour groups left en masse and swamped the boats.  We met a nice couple in their 50s on the boat ride who were also planning to either cab or train into town towards the castle.  We opted to share a cab and had a very nice conversation with them about world travels and Rick Steves.  I reminded them a lot of their daughter in law who also has dark curly hair and loves to plan travels.  They insisted on paying for the cab ride since they would have done it anyways on their own and wanted to treat "the youngest couple on the ship".  As we were all exiting the cab, Tom noticed that the man left his phone behind and grabbed it for him.  He was so thankful he offered to pay for our cab ride back too!  We of course did not accept but told him that the good deed of paying for our cab had already paid off!

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

We had read about the crowds at the castle so we bought our tickets online ahead of time and printed them out and were in the first 10 people lined up to enter.  It was quite a crush with all the tour groups and a bit chaotic, but we got right in and headed straight up the 7 gates of the keep to the highest tower to view the crown jewels.  We had the whole exhibit to ourselves and really enjoyed hearing the history of the sword, sceptor, crown, and the rock or scone (pronounced skoon) upon which the Scottish king sits to be crowned.  Since we got through the exhibit in record time, we took another hour to view the others rooms of the castle and the military museum.  We stopped in the cafe and I tried a plain scone with strawberry jam - very good but not the best I have had on the trip.

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoA day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoWe exited by 11:00 and headed over to the building next door for the Scottish Whisky Experience tour.  Rick Steves poo-poos this attraction as a tourist trap but considering we didn't know much about whisky and really just wanted to learn and taste, it was perfect for us.  You sit in whisky barrels and are taken on a ride through a series of rooms that explains how single malt whisky is made.  You then meet up with the group and sit through a guided "scratch and sniff" explanation of the 4 major whisky producing regions in Scotland and the flavors and aromas that are distinctive to each region.  After this, you choose one region that you want to have a tasting of based on the qualities of the region.  I picked the Highlands which are known for floral and honey notes due to the heather that grows there.  Tom picked Islay which is known for smokey flavors because of the high amounts of peat they use in the burning and toasting.   Tom quite liked his sample and said mine was good as well.  Despite my best efforts, it still just tasted like burning alcohol even after adding a drop of water and warming it.  Whisky is just not my drink I suppose!

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To GoAfter the tasting, we wandered the Royal Mile which leads downhill from Edinburgh Castle through the old town and is lined with shops and pubs and museums.  We picked up some souvenirs and I looked at wool blankets and sweaters but nothing caught my fancy.  Tom picked out a scarf in the Clan McLaren plaid.

We stopped for lunch in a pub and enjoyed fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, and split a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream for dessert.  Tom said he has found his favorite beer so far on his quest - The Flying Scotsman.  Its an English beer that is served slightly warmer than usual and is less carbonated.  Its pulled by hand from the tap and he absolutely loved it!

After lunch we wanted to head over to the area where the Queen's yacht, the Britannia, is moored.  We had trouble finding a cab in the rain, so we hopped a bus bound for the right place and sat on the enclosed upper deck for a nice view of parts of Edinburgh that you normally would not see as a tourist where every day living happens.  Arrived after about 20 minutes and then headed to the ship exhibit.  The yacht was used from the 1950s until the late 1990s when it was decommissioned and turned into a museum.  It was filled with artifacts from its time in use and wonderful pictures of the royal family and the yachtsmen at work and play.  We both really loved it and would highly recommend it.

A day of castles, whisky, and yachts in Edinburgh from 72 Hours To Go

After we finished, we looked for a cab back to the ship but the taxi stand was empty.  We were about to call for a cab when we saw a tour bus parked which carried a group from our ship.  We wandered over and asked the driver if there was any way we could hitch a ride back to the ship with them and he said no problem as they had plenty of empty seats!  We had thirty minutes until they left and so we went inside the shopping mall next door and I found wonderful clothes at H&M.  Not sure if it was British stock, or we just had not gotten the fall clothes in the states when I last went to the store, but I loved everything they had here and walked away with a sweater and a coat and could have shopped more if we had time.  Caught the ride back with the bus, and were quite pleased at our thrifty transport skills today.  Instead of a £25 cab fare each way, we only paid £8 all day for transport for the bus to the yacht and a tip for the driver who let us on!

Back on board we met up with our usual trivia group at 7 pm and then after dinner we participated in a gameshow on board and our team won! You had 4 minutes for 1 person on your team to describe words given and try to get your team to guess the word without using the word - basically like taboo.  I was the describer and we got 36 in 4 minutes!  Lots of fun!

Sea day is next, and then we are in Normandy, France on Sunday.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

British Isles - Day 11 - Inverness, Scotland

In Brief

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To GoAfter a much appreciated Sea day on Wednesday, Thursday we docked in the small port of Invergordon which is about 45 minutes away from Inverness.  We took a guided coach tour to see Urquart Castle, a cruise along Loch Ness, drive through Inverness, and then finish with a tour of the Culloden battlefield.  We particularly enjoyed the haunting ruins of Urquart Castle which is situated on the edge of Loch Ness, and it's rumored that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, sleeps in a cave under the castle.  No sightings for us this time though.  We head to Edinburgh next, which is our final stop in Scotland.

Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness, and Culloden Details

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To GoUrquhart castle had been spoken of highly but we were not sure what to expect since it's in ruins, unlike all the mostly restore castles we had visited so far.  The visitor center had some good artificats on display and an excellent exhibit on castle life and the people and the roles they played in the castle.  There was an 8 minute video that explained the history of the castle and showed some estimated reconstruction drawings of what it would have been like in its hey day.  During the Jacobite Rebellion, the Stuart supporters who held the castle at the time decided to explode all the powder magazine stores and destroy the castle when they left, rather than leave it for the Jacobite supporters to be used as a stronghold.

My quest for the best scone in Britain continues and we grabbed a fruited scone from the cafe and covered it with strawberry jam for me and raspberry jam for Tom and munched it as we walked down the hill to the edge of Loch Ness where the castle sits.  We then wandered through what used to be rooms and towers.  The nice things about having all the walls missing is that you get beautiful views of the loch!  We had a beautiful sunny morning with just a hint of list clinging to the cool waters of the loch.  You can definitely see how people could misinterpret the dwindling boat wakes as stirrings of a monster in the deep.

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To GoWe boarded the Jacobite Queen and took a 20 minute cruise along the loch.  I tried the Thistly hard cider and we just had to try the haggis flavored crisps/chips.  They actually tasted quite good, almost a barbecue like flavor. We had lunch at a hotel at the end of the loch, featuring melon starter, haddock with carrots and potatoes, and berry cheesecake to finish.  Tom had whatever stout they were offering and I tried the pilsner.

After boarding the coach we drove about 45 minutes to the Culloden battlefield where the 1745 Jacobite supporters who revolted against the Stuarts were brutally slaughtered by English troops.  This battle ended the Jacobite cause to restore King James II to the throne and was the start of the end for the Scottish clans since after this battle weapons, bagpipes, and the tartan were out banned.  It was particularly exciting for me to visit since I recently read the series of books called Outlander, which is historical fiction that takes place in Scotland during this time period.  The main character of the book is from Clan Fraser and several people had main flowers on the Fraser clan gravestone on the field.  They just turned the books into a TV series on Starz so it's gained a lot of popularity.

A day trip to Loch Ness and Culloden from 72 Hours To Go
On the drive back we heard from our guide about the Scottish maritime industry which has dwindled in the past 30 years, but the port of Invergordon where we docked has become a leading destination for oil rig repairs and they are expanding their capacity since business is booming.  Whiskey is the #1 export, with the US being the biggest market, followed by Asia and Africa is starting to have a large business as well.

Scotland is coming up on a referendum which I think I mentioned in my post about Glasgow.  They vote in 2 weeks to decide if they should separate from the United Kingdom.  In the lowlands near Glasgow, we saw more "No" supporters, but in the Highlands we saw more "Yes" signs in shops and yards.  Our guide said there has been good debate and discussions and a record number of voter registrations, which is all good, but it seems that the vote is going to be very close which is unfortunate.  It would be preferable if the vote was strongly for or against rather than nearly equal.

Off to Edinburgh next!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

British Isles - Day 10 - Dublin, Ireland

In Brief

We docked in Dublin early on Tuesday morning.  The city sits along the river Liffey which we followed up after crossing the Irish Sea last night.  The name comes from the Gaelic 'dubh linn' which means 'black river'.  We opted for a tour to Powerscourt Estate and gardens in the morning and then were dropped off in Dublin to explore on our own for the afternoon before returning by bus to the ship.

Dublin and Powerscourt Estate Details

This is a combination of information from today and what I remember from our tour in Cork since that entry got deleted when my email spazzed out.

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To GoWe had another wonderful tour guide today who provided lots of information about the land and the economy of Ireland.The unemployment rate last year was 14% but they are coming out of the recession strong.  Prices of housing bubbled during the Celtic Tiger boom at the end of the 20th century then plummeted during the recession. 30% of the population in Dublin is under age 25. So many 5 year olds this year that they had to build new schools to accommodate them!  80% of the land in Ireland is farmland which is incredibly high.  Last year they exported €8 billion in goods, a majority of that from beef and butter.  They only import €4 billion annually, mostly flour and fuel since those are not resources available on the island.

We drove about 45 minutes up into the Wicklow Mountains.  Johnny Cash once visited Ireland and wrote a song called '40 Shades of Green'.  You can really see how true it is in the Republic of Ireland.  Completely different from what we saw in the Lake District, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland.

The Wicklow Mountains are known as the Garden of Ireland because they hold some of the most beautiful gardens on the whole island.  Powerscourt Estate where we visited was recently voted the third most beautiful gardens in the world after Versailles and Kew, respectively.  The estate was fully operational in the late 19th century but fell into disrepair and disuse.  In the 1960s the family started a refurbishment effort that took nearly 10 years.  The weekend before it was to reopen for visitors, there was a devastating fire that left the estate as a roofless shell.  Ever since then, the estate has never been fully restored but the 47 acres of gardens are lovingly maintained by 6 full time gardeners.  We had two hours to visit so we wandered the garden path for about an hour.  I most enjoyed the hydrangeas in various shades of pale to deep pinks.  Tom liked the Japanese garden which has a stream that ran downhill and lots of moss covered rock and water features.  We looked for some ideas for plants and ground cover to eventually redo our backyard.

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

After touring the grounds, we went inside to check out the cafe and shops.  We each picked a mission at the beginning of the trip - Tom chose beer and I chose scones so we have been trying those everywhere we go to see what the local variety is and find our favorite.  The scones here were huge and could easily be shared, but they offered really interesting flavors which I had not seen elsewhere.  Most scones are either plain or with currents/raisins mixed in.  This tea shop had blueberry scones with cinnamon as well as the standard fruit scone (which means raisins).  They were lighter compared to some of the dense plain scones we had in the Lake District and southern Ireland.  So far my favorite has been the ones from Fortnum and Mason in London - slightly sweet with currants and sized about the palm of your hand.

After tea we wandered the shops.  I found some wool sweaters I quite liked but they were too lumpy on my frame when I tried them on.  Will have to keep looking.  I took note of the names and websites for some manufacturers in case anyone is interested in looking them up.  They were all of quality material and made in Ireland:
  • Avoca Ireland brand makes sweaters and other clothing, didn't see a website but you can google it
  • Arancrafts Ireland,
  • Fisherman Out of Ireland which comes from County Donnegal,
  • Carraigdonn which comes from County Mayo and the Aran Islands,
After leaving the estate, we drove back to Dublin and were dropped off for 3 hours of touring in the city center.  We started at Trinity College where we had a student led tour of the grounds.  On the tour, we heard about the only campus ghost.  Apparently a dean used to cane the boys when they were out of line.  One night some boys had too much to drink and starting throwing stones at the dean's window.  The dean woke up and ended up shooting at them to get them to leave.  The boys turned out to be the head of the school riflery team so they fetched their guns and started to return fire and ended up killing the dean, who now haunts the campus.  None of the boys ended up being charged because it was deemed "a prank that for out of hand".  Quite the prank indeed!

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to Dublin and Powerscourt Estate from 72 Hours To GoThe campus tour ended at the library where we saw the book of Kells, which is an elaborately decorated copy of the Gospel done by monks in Ireland and Scotland.  The exhibit was informative and there was thankfully no line for entry.  We then left campus and walked along Grafton Street to St. Stephen's Green (akin to Central Park).  We stopped at the national archeology museum which had good reviews from Rick Steves, but we found the displays and audio guide too dry for our taste.  We then headed back to the meeting point, stopping for some browsing in the shops and a pint of Guinness along the way.  Made it back to the ship in time to get a nap before headed on deck to watch the Irish dancers on the dock during the sail away.

We have been playing trivia every night with two older couples from England.  They are in their 60s and cruise many times a year and plan their whole days around what time trivia will be offered.  We have a good team of six with a mix of generations and interests so we usually do well but have not won anything yet.

Wednesday is our first at sea day so we look forward to sleeping in, lounging on the deck, and enjoying the activities offered on board.

Monday, September 1, 2014

British Isles - Day 9 - Stirling, Scotland

In Brief

Monday we docked in Greenock, Scotland which is about 45 minutes from Glasgow.  We took an excursion to the small town of Stirling and toured Stirling Castle and viewed the area of Bannockburn, which you might remember from the movie Braveheart.  After Stirling we drove to the Falkirk Wheel which is a boat lift that was made in the past decade to replace some of the canal locks and to provide recreational use.  We got to see the lift in action and rode a boat up and down the lift!  Tuesday we return to the Republic of Ireland to visit Dublin

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

Stirling, Bannockburn, and Falkirk Details

Our guide for the bus tour to Stirling was fine, but she didn't offer nearly the same level of interesting information about the region as we have heard on our other tours, so unfortunately I don't have much info to share about Scottish life.  Hopefully we will hear more at the next port in Scotland.

We did another bus tour excursion arranged by Princess Cruise Lines.  Our tour headed to Stirling first - we had about 1.5 hour bus ride to reach it and passed lots of interesting metal sculptures that were done recently by a Scottish artist.  I can't remember the name right now but I will find it later.  Saw some regeneration in the greater Greenock and Glasgow areas where they had converted former shipping buildings into single apartments by gutting the inside and restoring the beautiful brick and stone exteriors.

One of the most interesting things about Scotland right now is that in just a few weeks they are going to have a referendum to decide if Scotland should become independent from the United Kingdom.  This June was the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which was a major battle in the first fight for Scottish independence.  Driving through Scotland, you can see lots of posters and ads to vote yes or no in the referendum.  I have also seen TV ads where celebrities have weighed in on how people should vote.  Will be very interesting to see how things turn out.

In Stirling, we got dropped off at the castle at the top of the town and had about 2 hours to tour the castle or explore the town before meeting the bus.  We opted to tour the castle and started out following a guided tour which they offer for free, but peeled off halfway through to explore on our own using the audio guides we had rented since we were short on time.  They are working hard to restore the castle and have added interesting exhibitions, models, and reconstructed furniture and finishings so that you can really get an idea of what it would have looked like.  Some visitors in the reviews we read ahead of time accused the castle of "Disney-fying" the time period but I thought the additions were very helpful rather than looking at a bunch of empty stone rooms.  We stepped into the Argyll and Sutherland museum which featured exhibits on the history of the Scottish military from the 17th century to present.  We also really enjoyed the tapestry room where they are making a copy of the tapestry known as "The Hunt of the Unicorn" which is currently on display at the Met in NYC.  If any of you have ever read the historical fiction called "Girl with the Unicorn" its the same tapestry featured in that story.  It takes a master tapestry worker a full day to do one square inch of work, so it will take nearly 5 years or more to complete the tapestry.  We saw them working on it and it looks lovely.

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To Go

An excursion to Stirling and Falkirk from 72 Hours To GoAfter racing back through the town and having some difficulty finding our bus due to poor directions from the guide, we finally found the group and headed for the Falkirk Wheel.  This was made in the early 21st century as part of the Millennium Link project which is seeking to restore Scottish canals across the country and bring them back into use for recreation and amusement.  The wheel is based on Archimedes' principle of balance and displacement so they are two chambers that can hold water and boats and they let in more or less water on each side so that they are always counter balanced.  We got to go into a boat and ride the lift which has replaced a series of 8 locks.  Overall I would say it is worth a stop if you are in the area, but don't bother to ride it up.  Its actually more interesting to stay on the ground and watch it go up and down.

After the wheel we headed back to the ship and drove through the outskirts of Glasgow.  We have made friends with 2 older couples from England and we always team up with them at the trivia games on the ship.  Ate dinner in the specialty Italian restaurant again then turned in around 10:30 PM since we have an early start for Dublin on Tuesday.