A Travellerspoint blog

Scots and Scotch

Loch Lomond, Inverness and Edinburgh

semi-overcast 16 °C
View British Iles & environs on Mireille C's travel map.

You lucky folks get a second entry today since it's the last day of the cruise I have to use up all my Internet minutes. Okay, I'm also procrastinating going upstairs to pack...it went by too fast!

We spent five days sailing around Scotland from Glasgow (Greenock) through the Outer Herbrides to Inverness (Invergordon) and above the Orkney Islands to Edinburgh (South Queensferry). The cities in the parentheses are where the ship was either moored or docked. We couldn't go directly to the main cities either because their waters weren't deep enough or the ship was too high to go under the bridges.

I decided to skip Glasgow altogether since nothing in the city really interested me. It's a city known for its architechture and museums, but I wanted to something more so I decided on a cycle and canoe trip at Loch Lomond. It was a beautiful day - not much sun, but when we arrived the mist was still on the water, the clouds were low on the peak of Ben Lomond and the breeze was cool and gentle. The tour company was Can You? Experience Loch Lomond and our guides took us on a gentle canoe paddle accross the shallow part of the lake. Our canoe guide Graeme told us that up until last Friday Scotland had been cold and wet; it sounds like we're bringing good weather with us everywhere - the Belfast and Edinburgh guides said the same thing! The canoeing was fun, and I can now proudly hold my head up as a Canadian...to my shame I hadn't canoed before! The biking trip was more challenging, but since we were always stopping to take pictures of the breathtaking scenery we didn't really work up a sweat.
Following the tour, I had a lunch of McLaughlin beer with Haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) in a whisky cream sauce....it was good! I don't know what all the fuss is about, but I guess people are put off by the was it was traditionally cooked (in a sheep's stomach). Nowadays it's cooked in synthetic casings, and I heard you have to go into rural Scotland to get the real deal. My culinary adventure over, I had twenty minutes to power shop in the outlet mall; two purses later I boarded the bus to go back to the ship!

After a day at sea, we sailed into Invergordon and I decided to take some time off from organized shore excursions and went into Inverness on my own. The bus took us in at 9 am and I had almost 6 hours to explore the capital of the Highlands. It's a nice city to visit, and had I more time, I probably would have walked to the Ness Islands, taken a cruise of Loch Ness or gone on a dolphin sightseeing tour. Alas, in the 6 hours I had I walked the River Ness and toured the castle's grounds (the interior is off limits to visitors since it is now used as a courthouse) and did a little (a lot) of shopping. I bought a tartan rug (blanket) at the Highland House of Fraser with the Glasgow clan colours; my great-great-grandmother was Scottish, but since we don't know anything about her or which clan she was from, I just went with the colours I liked the most. The Glasgow tartan has bright green, blue and fushia on a background of dark green. That purchase done, I bought some scotch at The Whisky Shop, some woolens and sweets in Judith Glue (a store that specializes in Orkney Island products) before going to the Mustard Seed restaurant for lunch. It's a good restaurant, comes highly recommended both online and by the locals. You won't find it to be Scottish, like have tartan decorations or haggis on the menu, but it does serve delicious food made of fresh local ingredients and a good lunch special for under 6£. I had a glass of the house white, but I think it also serves Scot beers. I ended the day in the Victorian Market, a unique covered shopping area with a wide variety of shops, and then to Leaky's bookshop, a used bookstore that has two floors of wooden shelves and books overflowing everywhere. There's a café on the second level, a beautiful spiral staircase and a wonderful musty smell that book lovers can recognize anywhere! I loved Inverness...I hope I get to see more of the Highlands someday! (Tip: the public bathrooms near the castle were voted best "loo" three of the last four years!).

I wish I could say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Edinburgh, but we were there in the middle of the EIF, the international festival that runs through August that also encompasses the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival and street performers galore. The population of the city was doubled and the streets were choked. It was just nuts - like Canada Day on the Hill, only the streets are twice as narrow! Normally I would have enjoyed the festival, but I was there to see the city and I couldn't do all I wanted. I couldn't go into Royal Mile Whiskys, the Scotch Whisky Distillery Center, and the view from the Castle was obscured by the bleachers for the Tattoo. Not to complain too much, I did have a nice tour of the castle, saw the Grassmarket area and took a time out at Greyfriars Kirk to see Greyfriar Bobby's statue. The Fringe Fest takes over half of the Royal Mile, but about halfway down the crowds thin out and I could start relaxing a little. I had a lovely lunch in a close café (café in a walled courtyard), had some whisky fudge and walked down to Arthur's Seat. On the way back up the hill I decided to detour around the craziness of the festival and headed to New Town for some shopping; the look of this section of the city is more Georgian and the street layout is neater. A dress and a coat later, I went to meet the coach to take us back to the ship.

My tip to travelers is that if you want to see the city, you're better off going in June or July, because the festivals take over the city in August. However, if you want to see the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, it only performs for three weeks in August, so you may not have a choice. It is quite a show to see, with piper and drum bands from around the world. This year the guest military bands are The Citadel from South Carolina, New Zeland, the Australian Irish pipers and highland dancers, Nepal's Black Guard and Jordan. I know I'm forgetting one or two countries, but Google or YouTube the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and you'll see what it's about. The music, the coordination, the athleticism, not to mention fit army men!

I think I've used up all my minutes. I probably won't make another entry until I get back to Canada, unless I find an Internet café in London tomorrow. Till next time, aurevoir de la France!

Posted by Mireille C 05:54 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

A pound a day

sunny 21 °C
View British Iles & environs on Mireille C's travel map.

I heard from one of the cruise directors yesterday that on average a passenger puts on a pound a day on a cruise ship. Our cruise being 12 days, I did the math and panicked a little before remembering the amount of walking I've been doing, not to mention that I've only taken the elevator 4 times since embarkation. I've also done a cycle tour of Sark and a cycle and canoe tour of Loch Lomond, taken a spinning class, two yoga classes and swam yesterday, so hopefully everything will balance out (as I'm sipping my second cappuccino of the day!).

It's logical to see how people can gain weight - anyone who takes Anytime Dining on the cruise can eat as much as he wants as often as he wants. They also provide bigger plates - at the buffet on the 15th, the plates are as big as a serving platter! Mum, dad and I have been careful at breakfast and lunch, but it's hard to pass up the bacon and eggs every morning. If you count in the number of specialty coffees and beer and drinks and glasses of wine....I'm dreading getting on the scale back home, but my jeans still fit so it can't be too bad.

The plus side is the quality of the food; we've been having four or five course meals each evening at the dining room. It's fun to get dressed up each night and be waited on...no supper to cook or dishes to clean for two weeks is absolute paradise! We also get to expirement with new foods: Asian duck, quail, duck confit, caviar, beef wellington, goat's cheese souffle, lamb, veal and countless apetizers. Did I mention the deserts? I haven't had a single one with lunch despite the tempting display at the buffet, but the deserts at supper are to die for. Souffles, cakes, petit fours, french pastries, oreo cookie crust peanut butter chocolate pie, cheesecake....oh my! If that wasn't enough, we've been buying and eating whisky fudge, Guinness chocolate, shortbread cookies and other local specalties. Just this morning I was in Honfleur and bought macarons, two bags of locally-made candies and some hand-made chocolates. I'll try to pack as much as I can, but what doesn't fit will have to be eaten!

Ladies and gentlemen, I have eaten haggis. More specifically, haggis with neeps and tatties in a whisky cream sauce. The Scottish delicacy of sheep's meat, onions, spices, suet and oats stuffed and cooked in a sheep's stomach tastes good. It's a meaty dish that tastes like a cross between a sausage and meatloaf, and the whisky sauce the restaurant served on it had a nice flavour. That being said, I'm not sure if it's the haggis or the sauce, but a few hours later I decided that I wouldn't eat it again, because while I may enjoy the taste, my stomach disagreed heartily!

I'll leave you here for now...we're having a late supper again tonight, so I'll head towards one of the cafés for an afternoon snack....or maybe some more macarons!

Posted by Mireille C 05:24 Archived in France Tagged food Comments (0)

Cathedrals and Causeway

Liverpool, the Antrim Coast and the Giant's Causeway

semi-overcast 17 °C

Well folks, I'm all dressed up for the formal night, and after a lovely dinner and a show, mum and dad are going to bed. That leaves me with in a silk dress with my hair up and nails done...typing at the computer.

Now, I believe I left off in Dublin, after the Blarney Stone and the Guinness Storehouse. We crossed the English Channel (or the Irish Sea?) to go to Liverpool, home of the Fab Four; many of the shore excursions were geared towards Beatles fans, so I decided to go off on my own. Mum and dad decided to tag along, which explains why we ended up in the Maritime Museum looking at an exhibit on the Lusitania, the Titanic and the Empress of Ireland. Normally I wouldn't have minded, but I had little time in Liverpool and wanted to explore and shop. I did enjoy walking along the historic Albert Dock, which has a fabulous resto-bar The Pumphouse; I finally got Dad to drink something other than Guinness - a local cask ale (don't remember the name) that he pronounced to be watery. I discovered Tetley's Extra Cold Bitter Beer - it is quite smooth and refreshing. The rest of the day was spent on the Hop On-Hop Off tour bus with mom; no shopping. : (

I did get to see the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King with its circular stained class tower window depicting the Trinity. The organ inside is massive and the organist was playing it when I went inside; the music matched the dramatic design and decor. It is quite striking on the landscape with its modern architecture, particularly compared to the Liverpool Cathedral, the Anglican behemoth...it was built to be the biggest cathedral in Liverpool, and I must say they accomplished it. I wanted to go in, but the dark clouds were gathering so we headed back to the ship. Liverpool was nice to see - another port where we just got a little teaser. I probably won't be back, since cathedrals and the Cavers club aren't enough to draw me back.

At 5pm the captain swung the ship around and we were on our way to the last Irish port, Belfast. One of the bonuses of this trip is seeing the sea and lovely towns from our balcony when we wake up, but in Belfast I woke up to see container ships and cranes! Dublin was the same, but at least I was able to see a bit of the city. For Belfast, all I saw of the city was the cranes, crates, and a few housing development on our way to the Antrim coast. Alas, I'll have to add it to my next trip's intinerary! Now, enough complaining, because we actually had a beautiful day - our tour guide told us that they had had five weeks of rain, which stopped two days before we arrived. Because the Giant’s Causeway didn’t open to tour busses before 10am, our guide took us on a scenic drive of the Antrim coast and a photo stop at Dunluce castle ruins. Not much to say about those…picturesque ruins overlooking lovely views of the sea. I don't know if I'd pay to go visit the inside of the ruins.

Like the Cliffs of Moher, we couldn't have asked for better weather to visit the Giant's Causeway. For those who don't know anything about the Causeway, there are two explanation for the hexagonal interlocking basalt coloums and stepping stones: a volcano eruption 50 or 60 million years ago, or that it was built by the Irish warrior Finn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool). Legend says that the giant Finn lived on the Antrim coast with his giantess wife Oonagh and he had a falling out with the Scottish giant Bennandonner. He built the Causeway to go confront the Scot, but when he saw him he lost his nerve. His wife, being intelligent, swaddled Finn and pretended he was the baby. When the Scot giant saw the huge baby, he figured the father must be gigantic and would be unbeatable, so he ran back to Scotland and destroyed the linking causeway.

Whatever you believe, it is an amazing sight to see. Yes it's cliffs, rocks and surf, but it is beautiful. I walked down to the sea, and it is incredible to see these coloumns that were created in the exact same shape, just at different heights. The causeway is formed in a W shape, with two "amphitheater" formations. The stepping stones vary at different heights and lead down to the sea. The pathway to the lookout point is not one to take lightly - one stumble sends you tumbling down to the rocks. The staircase up the cliff has a railing, but the rest is at your own risk. It's a good hike, if you choose the go the whole way and then take the staircase up, but the view you get at the top is worth it. I also highly recommend the gift shop...good selection of locally-made crafts and food, and I got my second merino wool sweater (I couldn't resist!).

Anyhow, the tour took most of the day and all of my energy, so we said goodbye to Ireland by waving to the dockhands. I'll be back...as the Irish say, Slán go fóill! (Goodbye for now)!

Posted by Mireille C 13:47 Tagged cruises Comments (0)

Sark, Stone and Stout

Isle of Sark, Blarney Stone, Cobh and Guinness Storehouse

semi-overcast 15 °C

We're now well underway on Day 5 of the cruise and I've come to a conclusion: I am not taking a cruise again until I'm old and gray. Cruising can be fun, the food great and the organised tours allow you to bypass the long lines. However, since the majority of cruisers are older, they walk slower, take long to get off busses and have a tendency to delay busses. I think I spent more time getting to and back from the excusions than the actual time spent at the attraction. Also, frequent bathroom stops, less energy and medication side effects kind of take some fun out of the trip.

Now that my venting is done, I have been enjoying my time on this trip. I don't get to do as much as I wanted, but I'm still seeing some amazing sights. For example, on the 11th we woke up and opened our balcony curtains to see bright sunshine - we were moored in the middle of the Channel Islands; Guernsey on one side and Herm, Jethou and Sark on the other. It was a goregous sight! We later spent the morning on the ferry ride from Guernsey to Sark, where we biked for an hour and a half. We couldn't have asked for better weather - sunny with fluffy white clouds and a light breeze off the sea to cool us off. Mum, dad and I set off on our own and went directly to La Coupée, the isthmus linking Little Sark to Big Sark. We could have biked the whole island in the hour and a half that we had, but once we were on Little Sark we took a break at the Port Gorey ruins bay to walk down to the rocky shore. The site of the old silver mines are now inhabited by sheep, and after you walk down to the rock outcropping (while stepping around sheep droppings), the amazing view and a cool breeze await you.

The main village of Sark is quaint, with small businesses, courtyard restaurants and small B&Bs. Were didn't have time for more than takeaway sandwiches from a young man who complemented my dual accent (we were switching from French and English), from which he deduced that we were Canadian and not American. Fun fact: Did you know Sark is one of the last feudal states in Europe, operating under a Seigneur? It is a crown dependency (technically owned by the Queen), but the main language is Guernsey French, a mix of French and English.

Alas, our day was over and we had to ferry back to Guernsey for our tender transfer to the ship. Quick tip to anyone who is thinking of cruising: when the ship is moored instead of docked, a lot of time will be spent in line to get on the tenders, so it takes a chunk out of the shore excursion time. If they say the excursion is from 8 to 12, at least two hours are for transfers and transportation.

Well folks, I've done it - I've kissed the Blarney Stone (or as my cousin says, I now have Blarney cooties). We docked in Cobh (pronouced "Cove") and promptly left for Blarney Castle. Once on site I abandoned my parents at the washrooms and went directly to the Castle to queue for my chance to possibly contract a cootie or coldsore (all clear so far!). 25 minutes later I was rushed to lay down, grasp the handles, lean backwards and do the deed - no time to enjoy the moment, you're then yanked back up and it's all over. Of course, on the way up and down you get to see the different rooms in the 15th century castle, from the murder hole to the kitchen and the walk-in closet (mine's bigger!). The grounds also offers other attractions, like the castle gardens, the rock close, a woodland walk and the Blarney manor house. All in all, it's a lot to pay to kiss a rock, and I'm not sure I got the gift of gab, but it was a beautiful day and an interesting experience. I have a certificate that I kissed the stone, but don't think you'll get the gift of gab if you kiss me!

Speaking of certificates, I have been certified as a Guiness pourer - I poured the perfect pint! Yesterday we went to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, and I may have enjoyed it more if I had gotten any sleep the night before, because I was so tired that I kind of walked through the exhibit without really capting any information. Still, it's interesting to learn how the stout is made, and we got to drink the pint we poured. I like my Guiness, but I won't say it's my favourite. In Cobh we tasted the locally made Murphy's (also where Beamish Stout is made), which is a sweeter version of Guiness...if only we could get some in Canada!

Alright, we that summarizes the last three days. Next entry will probably cover Liverpool, Belfast and Loch Lomond (near Glasgow).

Posted by Mireille C 08:07 Archived in Ireland Comments (1)

Cliffs, cows and cruise

sunny 18 °C

Now that I've said my piece, our second day in Ireland started early with a cross-country bus tour to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. There were other attractions along the way, such as photo stops at a castle and the Corcomroe Abbey ruins, but my main interest was to see the sublimity of the Cliffs. Because the bus was running late due to a malfunctionnning door, we stopped at some baby cliffs right before Doolin where we were allowed to sit on the edge or lay down to take straight shots down the cliffs. It was pretty cool - I did the latter, with dad holding on to my feet. The view was amazing - white clouds on a blue sky backdrop with strong winds against the craggy cliffs. Lovely, but it was only a teaser! We stopped at Doolin for lunch, a pretty fishing village just beyond Galway Bay that is known for its trad music...apparetnly the place in Ireland to hear a céilidh (traditional Irish gathering) or trad music in a pub. Unfortunetly, we were out of the region by 3, so I'll have to put it on the do to list for my next trip.

Our bus driver advised us to take the time to go to O'Brien's Tower on the top of the cliffs for the best view, then go to the cliffs before seing the eco sustainable tourist center. We decided to trust the local and paid 2€ each for access to the tower (a tourist trap built in the late 1800's) - a waste of money. The view of the sea is great, but the shots of the cliffs are obscured by the top of the turret. If you ever visit the cliffs, save your money to buy postcards at the shops.

The Cliffs were simply sublime. Yes, it's just rocks and turf, but the cliffs are 650 ft. high and the view is absolutely spectacular. We had the perfect day - the sun was shining, the wind wasn't too strong and the colors were brilliant. Dad and I stepped over the "security barrier" where the cliffs were deemed "unsafe" to walk further up and see the best view where you can see the Aran Islands as well as most of Galway bay. I suppose the section is deemed unsafe because the ground is clay, earth and turf rather than a rocky cliff. Oh well, what’s life without a little adventure, and we didn’t do any unintentional cliff diving. The view truly is spectacular with the swooping birds and the crashing surf, and the steep drop of the cliffs just adds to the drama. The wind teases at the possibility of taking you over, but it’s safe enough to cross the barrier. Besides, if it were unsafe, I think they would put more effort into keeping people out. In my studies the word “sublime” was often mentioned in poetry and literature, but I think that this day was my first encounter with the sublimity of nature. A visit to the Cliffs is highly recommended, whether you choose to do it on land or by sea. We were told later by a taxi driver that the best view is from the water - a tour boat from one of the nearby villages. I'll probably come and see them again some day because I definitely want to see more of Western Ireland.

The day after the Cliffs we left for Southampton via ferry to Holyhead and then a train through the Welsh countryside. My suggestion: if you can afford to fly, do it...after the first two hours on the train, you'll see enough fields, sheep and cows to last a lifetime.

We boarded the cruise yesterday, and so far things are going well, if not pricey. As first time cruisers, we didn't realise that the initial cost doesn't cover everything. Drinks are extra, as are Internet, bottled water for your shore excusions, any specialty coffee or tea, laundry...you name it, it's extra. The initial cost covers the cabin, the food (exept for two restaurants that require an additionnal cover change) and the steward services. Still, I'm not complaining too much. Cleaning and turndown service every day (chocolate on your pillow!), yummy food and good company. Just tonight I couldn't find mum and dad in the dining room, so I had supper with two couples from the states and a family from Toronto. Ooohhh...and they have this chocolate mousse dessert they call the Love Boat. Pure bliss!

That's it for now. Tomorrow we're off to Blarney Castle and after I'm exploring Cobh.

Posted by Mireille C 13:23 Archived in Ireland Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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