Not your grandmother’s “bus tour”

There are lots of misconceptions out there about escorted tours — including the idea that they are too regimented, that they only appeal to the elderly, and that they are too broad (rushing through multiple countries in a week). Today’s guided tours defy all those stereotypes, with really unique (and flexible) itineraries that appeal to all ages and interests. Want some proof? Check out the trip report  below. My very smart client Karen realized that the best way to fulfill a life-long dream of exploring Scotland with her family (including ten year old twins) would be with an organized escorted tour. Her detailed feedback about the experience should help open some minds to the many benefits of this kind of travel:

Escape to Scotland – August 16 – 25, 2012

The cast: Two 60 year olds who have known each other for over 40 years (think of the main characters of the movie Grumpy Old Men), me a first time traveler to Europe at 48, and boy-girl twins who turned 10 years old on the first day of our tour.

Days 1 & 2 – Our trip began at Newark International Airport.  The United airlines plane was postponed over an hour getting off the ground due to the changing of a seat head rest.  I was hoping the kids would sleep as it was an overnight flight leaving about their bedtime.  The delay gave them the opportunity to enjoy the tv/movie screens in front of them.  Kyle slept for about 5 hours and Jennie slept for about 3.  The men were in the row ahead of us.  They said they didn’t sleep much and I know I only dozed for part of the flight.   Next time we only fly overnight if we can get into those first class beds!

We arrived in Edinburgh to be greeted with rain.  Our tour guide later told us to be prepared for rain everyday but to be pleasantly surprised if the sun comes out.  Travelling with five people makes for a few obstacles, the first one was that we couldn’t all fit into a regular cab.  We had to wait for a larger cab to arrive.  There was a bus that went into the city but being jet lagged and having a large piece of luggage each, I wasn’t ready to attempt that.  Next time we’ll use it because now I know the station is centrally located.

Our first hotel was the Holiday Inn Express City Centre.  We would have two rooms for the duration of the trip – the men in one and the kids and I in another.  They took our bags and we ventured around the corner for breakfast to a place they suggested.  It was our first experience with back bacon – something more like ham than the bacon we are used to in the US.  Kyle is a picky eater and he wouldn’t try the bigger pieces but they had waffles so he was happy.

The hotel rooms still weren’t ready so we went exploring.  The hotel was just across from a mall where Warren was able to exchange money in the post office.  I had already gotten currency from our bank at home.  Having cash on hand when we arrived was important so we were able to pay in cash for breakfast and the cab ride.  Our credit cards charge 3% for international charges so we used them only when necessary.  We walked up to North Bridge Street and back through the mall to the hotel.  It was a hot day for Scotland and the hotel did not have air conditioning but each room had a fan.  Everyone took naps and we woke in time to head out for dinner.  I know you aren’t supposed to sleep but it was a better option than dealing with two cranky kids and at least one cranky man.

Dinner was at an Italian restaurant right on North Bridge Street called Bella Italia.  It was a surreal experience eating Italian food served by waiters dressed as American Cowboys speaking with Scottish accents!  They were doing a promotion for a children’s charity which explained the costumes.  The food was very good and we had a great seat by the window for people watching.  The Fringe festival performers were out in force, dressed in costume, trying to get people to come to their shows.

Day 3 – Today was the kids’ birthday so we started with breakfast at Patisserie Valerie.  The pastries looked so good as we walked by the night before, we had to return and it was worth it.  We had to move to our tour hotel that day, so after some sightseeing we went back and took a cab across to the other end of Edinburgh to the Roxburghe hotel.  The driver asked if we were unhappy at the Holiday Inn because we were moving up to a nicer hotel.  The Roxburghe is a beautiful old hotel with much higher quality than a Holiday Inn.  We each had a bed in this hotel but the men were on a different floor rather than right next door.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival was set up in Charlotte Square Park just across the street so we wandered through it while waiting for our rooms to be ready.  This is one of the biggest book festivals in the world.  As a librarian I was in heaven!  It would have been fun to be able to see some of the authors but we had the opportunity to purchase some signed copies of books at the stores.

Our Welcome Reception for the Insight tour was that afternoon.  John McAllister, our tour director helped up to get to know each other by giving us name tags.  He also had everyone sing Happy Birthday to the kids and gave them each a card from Insight.  The light meal was a buffet in the main dining room.  He gave us some basic information about the tour and then sent us off to get ready to go to the Military Tattoo.  We met in front of the hotel and began the trek up the hill to Edinburgh Castle.  The walk up the hill was a challenge for some of the older tour members so they had the option to take a shuttle up.

The Military Tattoo was great!  Don’t miss it if you are there at the right time of year.  The stadium is set up just in front of Edinburgh Castle which makes for a great backdrop.  There were different military bands from around the world and the finale of all of the participants on the field at one time was “awesome” as my son said.  The walk to find the bus was difficult.  There were so many people leaving the tattoo as well as another group lining up for the second showing.  We lost the first part of the group and didn’t know where to go.  They don’t let the buses get too close to the castle and our bus wasn’t with the numerous buses we passed.  John finally returned to find at least half of the group standing on the sidewalk wondering where to go.

Day 4 – The next morning we had a tour of the castle.  This time the bus took us up the hill.   We had a special tour guide who oriented us within the castle grounds and then were turned lose to tour by ourselves.  It wasn’t what I expected as a castle.  There were different buildings and many different areas to explore, including Queen Margaret’s chapel and the room where King James was born.  It was interesting to look over the walls and see the well-tended pet cemetery right inside the castle walls.  We ate at Deacon Brodie’s pub just down the block from the Castle.  It was Sunday and they don’t serve alcohol before 12:30 so we didn’t have beers but the food was good.  They had seating that looks right out on the Royal Mile.

After lunch we returned up the hill a little ways to the Camera Obscura .  This was a great place for the kids to do some exploring and just be kids.  They loved all of the illusions and activities.  I would recommend it to everyone as I enjoyed it too.  We spent so much time inside, the men were worried we left by another door.  Our afternoon was spent in the hotel pool which was small but the kids had fun.  They have a steam room and a sauna as well as a fully equipped exercise room.  You have free membership as a hotel guest but there are also outside memberships.

There were two optional tours that day – the afternoon tour was to the Royal Yacht Britannia and the evening there was an option for a Scottish Dinner and Cabaret.  We skipped both but I hear the dinner was great from the other people on the tour.  The optional tours with Insight depend on the hotel locations and all of the tours listed in the brochure are not available.  One of the tours Joe wanted to do was unfortunately not offered this trip. Dinner was on our own and we ended up at the Station Restaurant which boasted American food.  The menu talked about some Lincoln highway in the US that we never heard of before which was strange because Joe has been studying the Civil War for years.

Day 5 – Breakfast was offered each morning on the tour.  It was usually a buffet style breakfast with fresh fruit, cereals, and breads/pastries.  In most cases there was a hot offering that you could order as well. We usually had an hour between when breakfast was begun and the time the bus departed.  Usually when we were moving hotels, the bags needed to be put outside the hotel rooms before or at the same time as breakfast was served.

We crossed the Forth of Firth into Fife while practicing rolling our r’s like John.  Then we went to St. Andrews for a coffee stop.  We were driven through the town to give us our bearings and dropped off right next to the golf course.  There is a small pitch & putt course were we played a half round of golf so we could say we played golf at St. Andrews.  We went into the golf shop and had plenty of time to wander down to the water if we chose.  Joe got some coffee which was definitely not American coffee and both he and Warren threw the coffee away.

The tour bus took us through Dundee where my great grandmother was born.  Then we stopped in Pitlochry for lunch.  We ate at the Old Mill Tavern which is off the main road and has a water wheel.  You can eat inside or outside here.  It was a beautiful day so we enjoyed window shopping and having some ice cream before returning to the bus.  The optional tour was of Blair Castle today.  We didn’t take the tour but got off the bus to walk through the grounds to get closer to the peacocks wandering around.  Jennie got some great pictures of them.  Those who didn’t go on the tour were taken to the House of Bruar, a mall type area where there were shops, an art gallery, and some beautiful small waterfalls.

The hotel for the night was the Laggan Gaskmore.  It was in the middle of green fields with sheep and cows all around.  We could see the Highlands from our front door and were able to enjoy the quiet (aside from the sheep) and the fresh air.  The tour took up the whole hotel.  The highlight dinner included the piping and toasting of the haggis with whisky.  The haggis was spicy but even dousing it with whisky didn’t make it something I would finish.  DH ate all his up and DD tasted it too.  DS left the room after the ceremony as he already had his dinner – peanut butter sandwiches and cereal bars.

Day 6 – We left our quiet hotel after breakfast (which included fried haggis for Joe) and traveled to the battlefield site of Culloden.  The tour of the battlefield using gps audio was very interesting.  It was hard not to compare it to Gettysburg – this was similar but on a much smaller scale.  Kyle was fascinated so we know what to do when we head to another battlefield or museum with audio tours.  John did a special thing for the kids – he got the guides to take out a shield so the kids could hold it.  He was enjoying having them along as he could do what he called a “flourish” for them.

Then it was off to Inverness and Loch Ness. We all got off the bus to get closer to Loch Ness and the kids even put their toes into the Loch.  There was a Nessie Hunter with his cat set up in his trailer, making little Nessie sculptures and Jennie bought one.  To our surprise John bought one for everyone on the tour – all 40 of us – as another flourish.  He picked out special ones for the kids so we ended up with a whole Nessie family!

The final stop for the day was an optional tour of the Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother’s castle.  We wandered through the gardens and then went on a guided tour through the castle residences.  Prince Charles still uses the castle as a retreat.  They have a small farm with a donkey, who liked peppermints, some chickens & ducks, sheep, and goats.  We enjoyed feeding the donkey and one of the goats but Jennie scared the sheep.  We just made it back to the bus before the heavy rain began.

Our hotel for two nights was the Station Hotel in Thurso.  We had three twin beds this time.  In general meals were three courses with a choice of three options.  The hotel was ready for us but the seating was close.  With 40 people on the tour and not all of us paired off, our table of five either had one empty seat or was filled by one person who was split from their own group.

Day 7 – The next morning we were off to the Orkney Islands.  We took a ferry across from John O’Groats and met another tour bus on the other shore.  The Islands were connected by “bridges” created by dumping large cement blocks and scuttling old ships between them so we were able to cross several bridges to get to all the different locations.  Our tour plans were changed by the Highland Park distillery that moved our whisky tour to the end of the day to accommodate one of the large cruise ships.  So we began our day at the Italian Chapel built by Italian Prisoners of War.  Then we went on to Kirkwall for a coffee stop.  The St. Magnus Cathedral here was beautiful and the organ music was playing.  We also went into the museum where there was information about the early inhabitants of the islands.  Our lunch stop was at the Standing Stones Restaurant.  They were waiting for us and had us seated and eating very quickly.

Our next stop was the Standing Stones of Stennis.  We stopped at these rather than the Stones of Brogdar because we were pressed for time.  There are only 12 stones at Stennis and many more at Brogdar but the Brogdar stones are a walk away from the road.  We did drive by Brogdar so we could see the difference.

Our next stop was at Skara Brae and Skaill House.  Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement and Skaill House is the home of the man who found it.  The visitor’s center has a reproduction of the houses where the kids crawled into one of the little cubby areas.  You also get to walk around the settlement which is still half covered by sand and grass.  We also wandered through Skaill house which reminded us a little of the Castle of Mey because of the furnishings.

The last stop was the distillery.  We learned all about making whisky – one of our tour participants took notes like he would be making it himself.  Then we had a taste and were off to the ferry back to the mainland.  This time we saw seals playing on one of the rocky areas.

Tonight we skipped dinner at the hotel.  It was going to be a late dinner and we had to pack an overnight bag for the next night so the kids and I opted for peanut butter sandwiches in our room.  It was a good thing we did because when we looked at the three options for dinner, nothing sounded appetizing to us.  Several people mentioned the next day that they wished they had joined us and that the food wasn’t very good.

Day 8 – We left the hotel after getting pictures of the kids in the driver’s seat of the bus. Our coffee stop was at the Falls of Shin.  Owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, the rest stop had a great children’s activity area and a nice coffee and gift shoppe.  The falls were pretty but the midges were biting so we didn’t stay for long down there.  There were at least five buses there so the shoppe was a little crowded.

Our lunch stop was in Ullapool where they had some great fish & chips.  It is right on the end of Loch Broom so again we had wonderful views of the water.  We were able to walk along the beach for a little and Jennie made friends with another cat.

A quick photo stop at Eileen Donan Castle allowed us to photograph the second most photographed castle of Scotland.  There is a house/inn across the road which looks like it would be a great place to stay.

The Island of Skye was my favorite part of the trip.  I’m not sure exactly why, it just felt like I belonged there.  When we arrived at the Tongadale House, we were sent to the top floor for our room.  We had to pack an overnight bag for this hotel because the big bags wouldn’t fit up the stairs.  Our room had two twin beds and one full bed right above the street.  We had a rest before dinner and then were off on an optional tour of Skye which was led by a wonderful storyteller.  We learned about the area, saw Flora MacDonald’s grave and thatch roof houses, and tried to see the mountains before the fog hid them.

Day 9 – We had a slow breakfast and explored Portree.  This was one of the few mornings I wanted to shop.  There are several little shops in the village and we walked through many of them.  We went to the grocery store to get sandwiches and then to a bakery for snacks.  They sold pancakes in the bakery but we never saw them for breakfast at the hotels.  I also went into Skye Batiks, a great little store with clothing, bags, and scarves all done in beautiful bright batiks.  I bought some batiks and some jewelry, including a pendant made of heather gems and another one made from Skye marble.

We left Portree to drive back down to the bottom of the island.  A ferry ride across the water brought us to Mallaig where we had a few free moments to wander around. Then we wandered over to the train station and boarded the Jacobite train or as some of us know it, the Hogwarts Express.  The kids were a little disappointed that they didn’t get to sit in the compartment rooms with the doors but we were able to walk through that part of the train.  It was fun to have people taking our picture as the train puffed along the Glenfinnan viaduct.  If you ever take the train, be sure to keep the windows closed as the smoke can fill the cars when you go through a tunnel.  John even told us to wear dark clothes in case we got smoked – which of course, we did.

We then drove to Glencoe where the MacDonalds were massacred by the Campbells.  We had both MacDonalds and Campbells on the tour, so it was a very quiet stop.

Our final stop of the day was at Loch Lomond.  It was a beautiful loch and Jennie almost got close enough to pet some swans that had been fed by another person.  We got some great family photos thanks to one of our fellow travelers.  We pulled up later to the Marriott in Glasgow and had a late dinner.  Kyle was very happy to be back in a big city with more than 8 channels on the TV so he could watch his shows before bed!

Day 10 – We toured Glasgow, looking at the universities and art gallery buildings to see the architecture of the city.  We got off the bus at Glasgow University and St. Mungo’s Cathedral.  We also had a tour of the Tenement House, a house still decorated as an early 20th century home.  The final bus tour ended at George Square where many of our group got off to have lunch or shop on their way back to the hotel.  We stayed on the bus and headed back to the hotel for lunch and an afternoon in the pool.  Our celebration dinner was in Arta, a Mediterranean restaurant.  The photos of our tour group were passed around and many people exchanged phone numbers and addresses.  Being with the same group of people on this type of tour and sitting near them on the bus for more than a week is a good opportunity to make friends from all over the world.

Day 11 – We had to get up at 5 am to catch our shuttle to the airport.  John was up to send us on our way.  It was a little early to get to the airport but we were able to have a nice sit down breakfast and try to spend some of our “left over” pounds.

I didn’t do much shopping on this trip but there were many opportunities if I didn’t have the kids with me.  The tour was a great way to get a complete look at the whole of Scotland.  We would never have gotten to see everything if we did it on our own!

In retrospect, we could have waited another year for Kyle to be more into the trip.  He spent most of his time on the bus playing with an iPod or iPad but he did listen to the stories and information too.  Jennie loved everything except the long bus rides.  Our tour companions were all my age or older.  They were a little worried about having kids on the trip but since ours were well behaved, it wasn’t an issue.  There were many grandparents who were happy to sit and talk to the kids for a little while.  Of course, our own grumpy old men were the comic relief for the rest of the passengers and both of them made friends with almost everyone on the bus.

I was happy to leave the driving to another person as I would have been the navigator if we went out on our own.  I also don’t know how well I would have done driving on the other side of the road, especially through the roundabouts! The bus driver, Al, was good at getting us everywhere even on those narrow, winding roads.  He did drive a little fast and sitting in the front seat for a day was enough for all of us.

I would definitely recommend Insight to anyone looking into a tour company.  The accommodations were better class (when better class was available) and the buses were comfortable.  The tour director, John, was great.  If all their tour directors are like John, you will have a personable, knowledgeable guide.

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)