The Best Honeymoon Destinations (by Month)

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The majority of couples still take their honeymoons shortly after the wedding. Which means that honeymooners have to consider seasonality and find a destination that works well for their specific travel dates. But how do you know which places are the best at different times of year? Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered, with our handy guide to the best honeymoon destinations by month!


The Weather

Before we get to the months, there are a few criteria to keep in mind. First is, of course, the weather.

Sunset beach Costa Rica Honeymoons

Beachy and tropical islands often have just two seasons: Dry and Rainy. These seasons tend to be the opposite on different sides of the world. So no matter what month you travel in, you can find a beautiful beachy location somewhere.

[Photo Credit: Katey & Oliver via Shared Adventures – read about their Costa Rica Honeymoon here!]

The Crowds

a piazza in Rome full of tourists, ideal for Honeymoons

The other important factor to consider is crowds. Certain months see high crowds for a reason. Everyone is excited to experience the best weather the destination has to offer! Think about whether it’s more important to you to have the best weather possible (despite the crowds). Or would you prefer to risk some less-than-ideal days in exchange for having a sense of seclusion?

[Photo credit: Ann via Shared Adventures]

With these answers in mind, have a look at our monthly guide! We’ve split the destinations into two categories: “High-season” is the best weather with potentially the biggest crowds. “Best balance” has decent weather balanced with smaller crowds.

January

St. Lucia– high-season
Costa Rica- high-season
Aruba – high-season

Norway high-season
Swiss Alps- best balance

Beachy Honeymoons: For the best weather, look to the equator. Destinations in the Central America region ( including the Caribbean) will be beautiful. They will also be in peak season. January offers clear blue skies, warm seas, and a perfectly idyllic beach vacation. It’s just a bonus that you can escape from the cold!

Snowy Honeymoons: Consider just how cold you truly want it to be. The further north you go, the darker and colder it gets, which gives you the brilliant opportunity to see the Northern Lights. January also tends to be less busy than February in top ski destinations due to the shorter days.

February

Mexico– high-season
New Zealand- high-season
Hawai’i – best balance

Swiss Alps- high-season
Norway- best balance
California- best balance

Beachy Honeymoons: February is a peak month for tropical travel. The Caribbean, and Mexico are popular with everyone trying to escape the winter cold, including families on school vacation breaks. Hawaii can be a good option, because the weather is temperate year round and spreads the crowds out. And French Polynesia might work, as long as you’re okay with some passing rain showers.

Snowy Honeymoons: How important is skiing? How cold is too cold? If you want to hit the slopes every day of your honeymoon, then February is prime ski season in many winter destinations! If you’re looking for other winter activities, you’ll find the extra cold temps mean a lot of opportunities to snuggle up, fewer crowds, and more daylight hours for adventuring!

March

The Maldives– best balance
New Zealand- best balance

Iceland- best balance (for snow)
Japan- high-season (mid-March)

Beachy Honeymoons: March is a great honeymoon month to avoid crowds if you don’t mind a little unpredictability. It’s the last month of the dry season in many places. So look more closely at the weather reports and consider spots where a few small showers and cooler nights will enhance your trip.

Snowy Honeymoons: This is the last opportunity of the year to enjoy a snowy destination! Consider what winter activities you’re most excited to experience. Because you start to get longer hours of daylight in March, find a destination that has a lot of outdoor adventures. 

a view of the siene, the eiffle tower and the paris skyline in Paris for Honeymoons
[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures – read about her April in Paris trip here!]

April

The Caribbean– best balance
Seychelles- best balance
South Africa- best for combining different regions

Australia- best balance
France- high-season
Napa, California- best balance

Beachy Honeymoons: April is the bridge between the dry and wet seasons. For the best weather, look into heading a bit further towards the southern hemisphere. If you’d rather stay closer to home, the Caribbean will have some unpredictability, but overall beautiful days and lower crowds. 

City Breaks: April is the beginning of perfectly romantic city breaks. Consider locations that you dream of strolling around, admiring the architecture and the flowers in bloom. Look to Europe and Japan for the most beautiful displays of spring blooms. 

May

Portugal– best balance
Malta- best balance
Costa Rica- best balance
Hawai’i- best balance

Fiji- best balance
Scotland- best balance
Ireland- best balance

Beachy Honeymoons: A perfect shoulder month. If you’re looking to stay closer to home, the Caribbean and Central America will have lower crowds without (yet) the summer rains. Otherwise, you can beat the summer crowds but enjoy the rising temperature on the other side of the globe. Southern Europe and the South Pacific are entering their dry season. Warm weather, low humidity, and the islands practically to yourselves — It makes the long plane trip worth it! 

Sightseeing and Exploring: If you’re not a sunseeker, look into northern Europe. A perfect combination of warm days, cool nights, green countryside, lower crowds, and maybe still a little snow on the utmost mountain peaks. 

lush green mountains of Hawaii an a blue bay on the road to hana. perfect for hawaii honeymoons
[Photo credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]

June

Hawai’i– high-season
Antigua- best balance
St. Lucia- best balance

Fiji- high-season
Greece- best balance
Alaska- best balance

Beachy Honeymoons: June is the beginning of hurricane season in the Caribbean, but it’s still too early for major risk. This is a good month for sun-seekers. Look for spots where you can sneak in before the storm risk increases in late summer.

City Breaks: June is an excellent month for city breaks. Everything is open and waiting, but the true heat of summer hasn’t settled into the cobblestones yet. Look for cities that allow you to get out into nature a bit for a cool breeze.

July

French Polynesia– high-season
Malta- high-season
Italy- high-season

Ireland- high-season
Canada- high-season
Iceland-high-season

Beachy Honeymoons: French Polynesia and southern Europe swell to their peak popularity. Honeymooners in July will almost certainly have to share the beaches with plenty of other travelers.

Outdoorsy Honeymoons: July is the peak month for many cooler-weather destinations that are just coming into their own at this time of year. Look to the north to find green fields, hiking trails, cool mountain lakes, fresh breezes, and unending hours of daylight.

August

Kenya & Tanzania– high-season
Mozambique- high-season
Bali- high-season
Vietnam- high-season

Croatia- high-season
France-high-season

The sweltering temps are reaching their peak and everyone is looking for a beach. August is difficult to avoid crowds, especially in Europe where many countries have their summer vacations. Look to the islands in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa for the peak of the dry season. Beautiful beaches and beautiful clear skies await you there.

driving nin maine
[Photo credit: Liz via Shared Adventures Travel – read about a New England Roatrip here!]

September

Hawai’i – best balance
French Polynesia- best balance
Bali- best balance
Greece- best balance

Croatia- best balance
Italy- best balance
Japan-best balance
The UKbest balance

Beachy Honeymoons: This is the perfect moment to swoop in and enjoy the last warm days without all the crowds. Look to the most popular summer beach destinations. You’ll find amazing weather, still-warm seas, and fewer people.

City Breaks: Like April, September is a perfect month for city breaks. The sweltering heat dissipates and the nights start to cool. Everything is still open and buzzing from summer, but the temperatures and crowd levels are much more pleasant. This is the time to visit Italy, Greece and Croatia!

October

Mauritius-high-season
Vietnam- best balance
Dubai- best balance
Zambia- high-season

France- best balance
Amsterdam- best balance
Canada-best balance
New England- high-season

Beachy Honeymoons: This is the best time to visit those destinations that are almost unbearably hot in summer. While October brings unpredictability, it also brings good opportunities to explore beyond the beach. 

Cool Honeymoons: Stunning fall foliage is the main focus of an October honeymoon in North America and Europe. While you may have a mixture of sun and rain, October’s quiet crispness in the cities will only add to the romantic atmosphere.

November

Thailand-best balance
The Maldives- high-season
Jamaica- best balance

Australia- high-season
Argentina- best balance
Chile- best balance

November is all about the Southern Hemisphere. While the north experiences rain and cloudy skies, the south is right at the beginning of summer. The weather isn’t too hot yet and the crowds aren’t too big, so overall you want to consider the bottom half of the world. It’s also a good time for the Caribbean, as the hurricane risk is nearly past, and crowds ten to be lower.

December

The Caribbean-high-season
Mexico– high-season
Thailand– high-season
Bali- high-season

Copenhagen- best holiday markets
Austria- best holiday markets
Prague- best holiday markets

Beachy Honeymoons: The holiday season sees everyone in the north escaping the cold for beautiful beaches. Consider places near to the equator on both sides of the world- South East Asia, The Caribbean, and Mexico are all in their stride. 

Snowy Honeymoons: The beginning of snow, cold temperatures, and beautiful holiday markets! While snow is a little unpredictable, consider those cold-weather cities with booming holiday markets as the perfect cozy romantic destinations. 

Three Unique Places to See the Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis ( or the Northern Lights ) is at the top of many bucket lists. And rightfully so! This amazing natural phenomenon has sparked legends of sky warriors, spirits, and far distant dawns. It has kept people looking up at the long winter night sky for centuries.

silhouette against the Aurora Northern Lights Alaska
[Photo Credit: Steve Halama via Unsplash]
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When you consider making this bucket list dream a reality, the first country that might spring to mind is Iceland. Iceland is a great place to see them! But, it’s not the only place to see these incredible lights. If you’re looking for something a little different, read on for 3 unique places to see the Northern Lights. Starting right in our own backyard!

First, a little background to prepare you to go aurora hunting:

What is the Aurora Borealis?

The short version: The particles emitted from the sun’s atmosphere break free and strike our atmosphere causing a reaction resulting in light.

The longer version: It’s so hot on the outermost surface of the sun (the Corona) that the hydrogen atoms split into protons and electrons. The gas of the charged particles is electrically conductive. The gas breaks free of the sun and blows away from the surface- sometimes called solar wind. These particles then strike our own atmosphere causing a chemical reaction that results in a release of energy in the form of light.

The Aurora from Space
Aurora from Space [Photo Credit: NASA via Unsplash]

When are they visible?

For the northern lights to be visible, you need darkness, high geomagnetic activity (storms on the surface of the sun), and clear skies (little to no cloud cover).

To increase your chances, you want to be far north, in the winter months (long, dark nights) and away from light pollution.

But the biggest factor in seeing the Northern Lights is the simple weather report. You won’t see much without clear skies, so keep a very close eye on the weather and cloud cover.

Remember: The lights are an unpredictable force of nature. So make sure the vacation you choose has other things that interest you! That way you’re guaranteed a good vacation, even if the cloud cover isn’t in your favor.

Ok, now that you’re ready to start your aurora hunt, let’s look at some unique locations!

Bright Aurora Northern lights against snow trees
[Photo Credit: Tim Motivv on Unsplash]

Fairbanks, Alaska

There’s a great Aurora spot right in our own backyard- no passport needed! If you’re looking for something a little more familiar and closer to home, then look no further than Northern Alaska.

You have a great chance of seeing the lights near Alaska’s second-largest city. With plenty of hotels, B&B’s, and its own airport, Fairbanks is easy to reach. To really see the Aurora clearly, you’ll have to travel outside the bright city lights. You can rent a car to visit Cleary Summit, Creamer’s Field, or Murphy’s Dome on nightly trips.

Aurora over Alaska
The view from Cleary Summit in Fairbanks [Photo Credit: Tommy Tang on Unsplash]

Fairbanks knows they have something special with these fantastic spirits, so many of the hotels offer aurora wake-up calls allowing you to sleep peacefully without the worry of missing anything. They also offer several Aurora tours if you’d rather not rent a car.

Best Time to Visit: The shoulder months of Late-September and Early March give you the clearest skies, but November-February will provide the longest night hours.

Places to Stay: Fairbanks has a huge selection of hotels, but you can also try staying a little outside the city at the Chena Hotsprings Resort or the Borealis Basecamp which offers geodesic igloos with 16ft windows/skylights to really improve your chances.

Other Things to Do: There are numerous outdoor activities from dogsledding to wildlife hikes, reindeer ranches, museums, and cultural sites.

northern lights behind Scottish monument
Northern Lights in Scottish Highlands [Photo courtesy of VisitScotland]

Orkney & Shetland Archipelago, Scotland

Scotland brings to mind Castles, lochs, monsters, whisky, and haggis but the Northern Lights? Picture yourself sitting in a cozy cabin nestled in the windswept northern isles, sipping local whiskey and watching the skies for these Merrie Dancers (as they’re known locally).

 If you’d like to plan a trip to Scotland or the UK then this is definitely something to include!

The northernmost Scottish Isles offer incredibly low light pollution with some of the largest expanses of Dark Sky in Europe. Combined with their low lying landscapes, this more than makes up for their “low” latitude compared to other aurora-viewing hotspots.

galaxy and northern lights behind a castle wall
In addition to the Aurora, there are fantastic night sky views in Northern Scotland [Photo courtesy of VisitScotland]

Reachable by ferry, Orkney & Shetland are the perfect places to make-your-own-adventure when hunting for the Aurora. The “Aurora tourism” boom hasn’t quite reached these isles yet, so there are few tours offered. Which gives you the opportunity to enjoy the lights in an intimate setting, and consider renting a camper van to be able to “chase” them across the isles.

Best Time to Visit: The winter months with the longest nights will be your friend in Scotland- aim for December- February. Visit in January- February to include one of Shetland’s famous Viking Fire Festivals on your trip!

Best Places to Stay: Any of the Islands are a good choice but try to stay away from the light pollution of Lerwick, Shetland. There are plenty of B&Bs and self-catering cabins, but the islands do have a few full-service hotels as well.

Other Things to Do: Archaeological and UNESCO sites ( Orkney has four monuments spanning five thousand years), wildlife walks & hiking, Shetland Ponies, Fire festivals and Folk Music Festivals.

Bow of a ship in icy Norwegian waters
[Photo Credit: Pascal Debrunner via Unsplash]

Cruising the Norwegian Coast

If you’re looking for something a bit more structured and with a practical guarantee of seeing the northern lights look no further than Hurtigruten Cruises!

Based in Norway, they have several options for Aurora Hunters. All the cruises head up the coast of Norway to the north-easternmost point of Kirkenes, a town that shares its border with Russia.

These cruises offer onboard guides, lectures, and presentations all about the lights and the stunning landscape. You also have to option of mini shore-excursions during the day in each of the ports! Although there is the risk that you’ll have more clouds on the coast, Hurtigruten offers a “Northern Lights Promise” which is their guarantee you’ll see the aurora or you get another cruise free! Making this option your highest chance of seeing the Aurora.

Aurora Northern Lights over water in Norway
A ribbon of light near the coast of Tromsø, Norway [Photo Credit: Sebastian Kowalski via Unsplash]

Their classic cruise starts from Bergen and heads around the coast to Kirken with options for 6-12 days and stopping at 22- 34 ports along the way! You also can choose from their Short Coastal Cruises ( 2-4 days) or Expedition Cruises (12-15 days)

Best Time to Visit: To maximize your nightly hours visit in January or February. Although the “Northern Lights Promise” is valid from October 1- March 31st.

Other Things to Do: The fact that Hurtigruten fits so many ports into their itinerary is pretty amazing. So without too much extra hassle, you can go on mountain hikes, city tours, kayaking, dogsledding and other cultural activities.

Final Tips & Tricks

Some final tips before you begin planning your incredible Aurora Vacation:

Aurora Northern Lights over Lofoton Norway
Aurora in Lofoten, Norway
[Photo Credit: Stein Egil Leiland via Pexels]
  • Avoid full moons – five days before the new moon is best
  • If you’re taking a tour, aim for the start of your trip so you have another chance
  • Use red-light flashlights and keep your eyes off screens for the best night vision
  • Bring extra camera batteries
  • Be patient
  • It’s literally FREEZING outside! Dress in layers.

If this list has sparked your imagination, send us an email and we can make it even easier to plan your Amazing Aurora Adventure!

If only I had the right shoes…

Admittedly, I am biased, but I have to say that my clients are the BEST!  Poor Lori was exhausted and sick after she came back from her European honeymoon, but she took the time to send me an amazingly detailed trip report, with all sorts of tips and information for other couples who might be visiting Scotland and Ireland in the future. I love her selflessness (and her honesty!) and I am excited to share her insights with you:

Hi Ann,

Again, the trip was wonderful!  I included some notes below – let me know if you have any questions/anything I missed!  Thank you again for EVERYTHING! You’re the best and we’re so grateful.

Lori

Notes:

Overall, I LOVED Edinburgh and it was by far our favorite part of the trip.  I think next time if we go back we would want to spend more time traveling around Scotland.  It was just beautiful and we loved all of the historical stuff.  The Balmoral was a beautiful hotel (as you said it would be 🙂 )  and the included breakfast in the morning was really fantastic.  The first day we slept in a little bit and they even brought it to our room for us with no extra charge.  When we first got in, it was too early to check-in, so we had coffee on the balcony there to wake up and it was maybe the best cup of coffee and shortbread I’ve ever had.  The only things I would maybe say was the room was a bit small (but fine) and I was a little disappointed I found the concierge our first day rude to me after I watched them spend like 25 minutes help a family plan what to do, give them maps, restaurant names, etc.  He just gave me a map and told me to try the bus tour — I’ll give him I looked a bit ragged since we were just off the plane so who knows.  They were very nice in holding our baggage, etc.

Our first day we went to Edinburgh Castle, which I thought was great.  I would give people the tip to book tickets and print them in advance, because I did that and thought it saved us a lot of time in standing on a long line.  We walked up and down the Royal Mile and around all the parks, etc. which was great.  Unfortunately, the Queen was in residence so we weren’t able to go into the palace but oh well!  The other thing I would prep people for maybe is to make sure to have the right shoes if they want to do the Arthur’s Seat thing – we walked through that park and probably about half way up, but I wasn’t in the right shoes once I got to a part that looked like steeps stairs straight up 🙂 I asked someone how long it would take and they said “no more than an hour” —  but maybe I’m just too out of shape, even though I go to the gym, but that didn’t look like a leisurely walk the way they made it sound!  haha. I would have needed sneakers/looser clothing and it was getting late so we didn’t go all the way up (we went far enough to see lovely scenery though, so it was great).  I just found it funny they made it sound like a leisurely stroll when it definitely was a little bit more than that.  Another place we stumbled upon, that I didn’t see listed in books I had, was Calton Hill – which also had some nice views and was a nice place to walk around for a bit.

In terms of the tours, the second one we did (to Stirling Castle, etc.) was the best of the whole trip – the tour guide was awesome (funny, engaging, etc.) and it was a small group because half of the group cancelled last minute.  We really liked all the stops and I would definitely recommend it.  The first tour in Scotland was nice too (Highland Lochs, Glens and Whiskey), although our group had some rude people in it that took away from it a bit (you can’t plan for those things though!)  It was a little slower-paced but nice sites to see and we enjoyed the whiskey tour a lot.  The only thing I would say is they again should have given a shoe warning!  She said we were stopping for a leisurely forest walk (she added an extra stop not on the description) and although I did it fine, we were climbing up jagged rock steps for a solid 10 minutes and I felt like I was going to fall.  Some of the older women on the tour looked like they struggled with it a bit, so I was a little surprised she would just add a stop and not give a heads up, “hey this one may be a little more of a strenuous hike than the last walk if you don’t feel dressed appropriately”, etc.  Maybe just me though – no one else complained or seemed overly concerned so maybe I just need to get into the gym more haha.

To get out of the rain, we also popped into the National Gallery which had some great paintings and was free, so I would recommend that to others.  We did the Edinburgh city bus tour the first day only because we were exhausted and it was raining so figured it was a place to sit and get a lay of the land while we were still waiting for our room and we stumbled into the Scottish Whiskey Experience, which was incredibly touristy and cheesy but I actually liked it 🙂 A friend had told me not to waste my money but i enjoyed the whiskey tasting!

If people want some recommendations for restaurants, etc., here are some I had a good meal/would go back to:

http://www.whiskibar.co.uk/

http://www.royalmiletavern.com/

http://drakeandmorgan.co.uk/the-refinery-st-andrew-square/

Most nights we stopped for one last drink at the Whiskey Bar in the hotel and I enjoyed it there :)—

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g186525-d4590441-Reviews-Scotch_Whisky_Bar_at_The_Balmoral-Edinburgh_Scotland.html

Another bar recommended: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g186525-d796842-Reviews-The_Last_Drop-Edinburgh_Scotland.html

In terms of travel, the train was great – I thought it worked out way better than flying because it was right next door, we didn’t have to worry about checking our bags and it was a nice ride, comfortable seats, they brought food, etc.  Definitely would recommend that route!  All of our transfers and things worked out great, with the exception of a little bit of a hiccup when we first got in that was mostly my fault because i didn’t realize we somehow landed really early and I got anxious when I didn’t see the driver —  after waiting a while we walked around to the other arrivals waiting area to see if he was there.  We then tried calling and then went back and he was finally there but seemed a little annoyed we kept him waiting — again, completely my fault for not just staying put.  He was super nice though and even gave me a hug goodbye, lol – they were so nice in Scotland!

In Ireland, we enjoyed it but found we didn’t really like the very large group tours as much.  I found our drivers to be very unfriendly. We got there in plenty of time in the mornings, but they were incredibly disorganized and pretty much just loaded people on buses randomly and made people wait off to the side – to the point a few people got on the wrong tour our first day and the driver was not nice to them about it at all.  In any case, I really enjoyed Kylemore Abbey and Gardens, and the views were incredible!  Seeing those roads, regardless of whether we liked the big buses or not, I definitely don’t think we could have navigated it or driven ourselves, so it was definitely the way to go.  It may have just been a little too much organized full-day tours but I think we knew that and had decided it was the best way to do it going in, so no regrets there; might just want to spread them out a little more next time.

Kylemore abbey Ireland

Our Galway hotel (Radisson Blu Hotel and Spa) was nice and they even brought us a tray of chocolates to congratulate us!  I would say though it was one of those hotels that looks a little nicer than I think it actually is – the elevators had a lot of problems, as did the sink and toilet in our bathroom.  Overall it was good though.  We were a bit tired by that point, so we ended up eating twice in the hotel and it was good.

Some other places some friends had recommended that I would too:

Shopping – the Treasure Chest

Food that we went to-  McSwiggans Pub:  http://www.mcswiggans.com/

Other recommendations we were given,  but didn’t get to, in case it’s helpful:

Park House Hotel (next to our hotel)  http://www.parkhousehotel.ie/restaurant.html

McDonagh’s Fish and Chips  http://www.mcdonaghs.net/

McCambridge’s  https://mccambridges.com/

Bars: The Quays, The King’s Head Tavern

We were happy to head to Dromoland Castle at the end – where we did almost nothing all day and it was lovely.  They greeted us with a congratulations and upgraded our room and everyone we walked past congratulated us.  It was so lovely.  It was raining but we walked around the grounds a little bit, sat on couches and drank wine, went to the spa (WHICH WAS AWESOME – THE best facial I’ve ever had and I thought i had some good ones), had a fancy dinner (which I would recommend because it was delicious but probably a little fancier than we’re typically used to/our style) and then just drank more wine on couches and went to bed relatively early 🙂   Beautiful place to stay and awesome recommendation.  I’m glad we splurged and had that day there – it was a nice way to rest up and relax after so many tours!

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!)

View

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

2016-04-25 20.26.42

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

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)