Scotland 2016

We just got back from the semi-annual “group adventure” with Shared Adventures’ clients, family and friends. This year’s trip was to Scotland, with ten people total, and we had a blast. The trip report and photos are below, along with some general thoughts about the destination.  Please let me know if you have ideas/requests for the next group trip!

Our Iceland Air flight from Boston to Reykjavik was short and easy. Iceland Air no longer offers a (free) meal service, which actually turned out to be a good thing,since we had a nice dinner at Logan Airport and then I got on the plane, turned off the light, and slept a little bit. Without the noisy dinner service, I was able to sleep better than I normally do on an overnight flight.

Our layover in Reykjavik the next morning was 1.5 hours, which was perfect. Just enough time to have a cup of coffee and a snack before the next leg (2 hours) to Glasgow. We landed at 10:30 a.m. local time, were met by a private car/driver, and were dropped at our hotel before noon.

The Carlton George has a super location — one block off Buchanan Street, next to the Queen Street train station. The rooms were cute, and the bathroom was spacious. It was too early to get right into our room, so we walked a block or two to a pub for lunch and then strolled through George Square. I believe strongly in “no naps” on your arrival day (to better adjust to the time difference), so we explored the city that afternoon.  We window-shopped down Buchanan St to the river, strolled along the embankment, and then made our way up to Glasgow Cathedral (which was beautiful, but I was bummed that were too late to see the Necropolis next door).  We stopped for a drink at Waxy O’Connor’s (the pub attached to our hotel) and then walked through a sudden hail shower to a fabulous early dinner at the Mussel Inn (easily the best meal of the trip).

inside of the Glasgow Cathedral

I got a solid 10-11 hours of sleep that night, and woke up refreshed at 7 a.m. on Sunday. We had a lovely breakfast at Windows restaurant on the 7th floor of our hotel (great views over the rooftops) and then checked out, stored the bags, and walked to Glasgow Green to visit the People’s Palace. It rained on and off all morning, and we had to keep busting out the umbrellas, but it was toasty and dry inside the museum, admission was free, and we met a super friendly staffer in the gift shop who gave us the low down on Scottish accents (Glasgow’s accent is totally unintelligible!), the difference between the two “official” flags of Scotland, and why the statue outside Glasgow’s art museum has a traffic cone on his head (you can ask me about that one!)

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Outside of the Glasgow Art Museum - statue with traffic cone on his head

Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at Dimaggio’s (unexpectedly delicious thin crust pizza!), returned to the hotel, grabbed our bags and strolled into Queen St station at just the right time to catch the 2:22 p.m. train to Edinburgh. The scenic ride was a little over an hour. When we arrived, Waverly Station was a bit confusing, but we eventually found the taxi queue and made it to the hotel to check in. The Novotel City Center is clean and modern, but the rooms are kind of stark. They have split bathrooms, with the shower/sink in one room and the toilet in a separate (dark, closet-like) room.  Kind of a strange layout, but the hotel’s location is good, and it has a nice lobby bar and restaurant.

We took a quick walk before dinner, and enjoyed views of Edinburgh Castle (which looms dramatically over the city). When we got back, we met up with the rest of our group (ten people in total) and our fabulous guide Kirsten for a cocktail at the hotel and then we all walked to the Castle Arms for dinner.

Edinburgh castle from far away

The restaurant is right near the castle, and feels very old and authentic. Dinner was good, and everyone tried Scottish specialties like haggis, sticky toffee pudding, and cranachan (not to mention a few pints). Suitably stuffed, we strolled back to the hotel after dinner and crashed.

Dinner

Monday was our first day of group touring.  We had breakfast at the hotel, met our driver (Alan) and then set out at about 9 am to tour Edinburgh. Kirsten gave us an overview of the old and new towns, the castle, and the city’s history, showing us Georgian squares, tenements, and a steep Medieval “close” (alleyway). We took a scenic drive up the hill below Arthur’s Seat, for views over the city, and then we toured Holyrood Palace, and wandered through Holyrood Abbey and the gardens.  Afterwards, in stark contrast to the ornate palace, we crossed the street to the modern new parliament building, while she filled us in on Scottish government and current (modern) issues facing the country. We ended with a lunch break along the Royal Mile, and then headed out to Leith to visit the Royal Yacht Brittania.

gardens and ruins of a medieval church in Edinburgh Scotland

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Annie ringing the bell on the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh

Dinner that evening was on our own, and a group of us headed down to the Grassmarket area, at the foot of the castle, to what is supposedly the oldest pub in Edinburgh (the White Hart) for dinner and a pint, or two. My husband discovered a new love for Dalwhinnie 15 whisky, which would be a continuing theme throughout the trip, and the rest of us tried some local beers.

Tuesday morning we checked out and piled back in the bus for the ride to St Andrews, on the coast. We visited the Old Course, and were surprised to learn it’s a public course, and we could walk right on to take photos!!  Afterwards we strolled through the cute little town, while Kirsten filled us in on the Cathedral, the Palace, and the turbulent history of John Knox and the Reformation. I could easily have spent all afternoon there, but we had a whisky tasting waiting for us 🙂

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Our next stop was Pitlochry and we had a lovely lunch at Café Biba, and some time to check out the shops. Afterwards, we did a whisky tasting at Blair Athol distillery….which was very, very informative! I’m not a whisky drinker, but I learned a lot about how to taste/drink it, and I got past that horrible “first-sip shudder” for the first time!

The front of the Blair Athol Distillery in Pitlochry ScotlandMegan

We continued on into the Highlands, and made it to Inverness in the late afternoon. There we checked in to the Glenmoriston Town House., which is a very cute little hotel right on the river, within walking distance of everything in town. The rooms were charming, but small, with old-fashioned brass keys, very comfy beds, and very friendly (but not very quick) service. We found that service at the bar, in particular, left a lot to be desired, but that may just be our American “hurry up” mentality 🙂

The bank of the river in Inverness with yellow flowers, very green grass and the river in Scotland

We all enjoyed a nice group dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Sometimes, when you have to order from a set menu on a tour like this, the food can be a bit boring, but this was actually quite good. Soups, fish, pasta, haggis, etc. After dinner a few of us went for a romantic stroll around the river, and had a nightcap in the bar.

We were up and out early on Wednesday morning, after a traditional Scottish breakfast of eggs, sausage, tomatoes, and a “potato scone” (nothing at all like a scone…but more like a thick potato pancake). We started the day at Culloden Battlefield, where we learned all about the Jacobite uprisings. After a quick stop at the nearby prehistoric Clava Cairns, we toured Brodie Castle. Less a “castle” than a nobleman’s house (from the 16th through the 18th centuries) it was less interesting (to me) than some of the other sightseeing we had done, but others were fascinated to see how a real family had lived over the centuries. We were back in Inverness by about 2pm and had the afternoon free to explore on our own.  We had a light lunch at a cafe before a nice long walk to the Ness Islands. Our group dinner was at the hotel again that evening, and most of us turned in early after our busy day.

Culloden memorial plaque in Scotland

Thursday morning we checked out and hopped in the bus for another scenic drive through the Highlands. Our first stop was Fort Augustus, where we enjoyed a fun cruise on Loch Ness, and kept our eyes peeled for “Nessie”.  From there, we continued on past rivers and lochs, through gorgeous mountain scenery, and were fortunate enough to catch clear views of Ben Nevis (the highest peak in the UK). Kirsten filled us in on the turbulent history of the area – the clans, the battles, and the Highland Clearances that changed it all. We saw “Highland Coos” (cows), goats and stags on the hillsides, and plenty of pheasants and hawks. When we stopped for lunch at Glencoe, we saw lots of hikers/campers setting out to explore the countryside, and I would have loved to wander for a bit (just another reason to go back, I guess!) That afternoon, we visited Stirling Castle, with views of the Wallace Monument, and learned more about the kings, queens, battles and sieges.

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lake with snow-capped mountains in the distance of Loch Ness in Scotland

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We ended the day in Glasgow, at the Novotel Glasgow Centre, which was very much like the Novotel in Edinburgh (bright, modern, somewhat stark, but perfectly fine for a one-night stay).  The group enjoyed a final farewell dinner that night at the quirky little The Butterfly and the Pig restaurant.

On Friday morning it was time to say our good-byes, as some of the group headed home, and the rest of us continued on for further adventures in Iceland, Paris, and Amsterdam.

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If you’ve read this far, here are my overall impressions of the trip:

  • Scotland is a fascinating country — far more interesting than I had even known – and I don’t know why it has such a low profile among American travelers. The people are very warm and welcoming, and I would go back there in a minute!
  • I liked Edinburgh much more than Glasgow. It felt smaller, more approachable, and more historic. The architecture, and the dramatic castle in the center of the city, really drew me in. I think a London/Edinburgh trip is in my future.
  • The Highlands were much more beautiful than I imagined. For some reason, I did not realize Scotland had such dramatic, craggy mountains, and the scenery took my breath away. We only scratched the surface, and I would love to get further north, and to the islands.
  • The beer in Scotland is very good. The whisky (if you’re a whisky drinker) is even better. But I would not go there for the food. With the exception of one truly great dinner the first night in Glasgow, most meals were just “fine”.  In fairness, that may be somewhat due to traveling with a group and eating in some hotel restaurants, so I’m willing to re-consider that statement after my next visit J
  • Traveling with a small group is a great way to maximize your time, see a lot, and learn a lot. The guide can make or break the trip, and our guide Kirsten was top-notch. When I compare my Scotland experience to the much larger daytrip I did in Iceland a few days later (50+ people on a huge motorcoach with a grumpy guide), it just makes me sad. I don’t think I’ll be taking any of the big mass-market bus tours any time soon.

Bagpiper

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You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)