Dublin and Scotland Adventures :: Reflections

Talk about an exciting past 10 days. As always, it’s hard to say goodbye and come to the realization that vacation is over. The husband and I took a flight from Edinburgh to Newark and then to San Francisco before we made it to Seattle. I was amazed how quick the flight from Edinburgh to Newark was. With the tail wind it actually took less time to fly over the Atlantic ocean than it did to go from the east coast to the west coast. Unfortunately for us, our smooth ride home from the UK came to an abrupt halt when we were cozied up in our upgraded seats and the United representative told us our flight was cancelled due to the lack of a pilot and we needed to deplane. We were rebooked for the first morning flight out of San Francisco but after a three hour delay I started to think San Francisco didn’t want us to leave.

When we finally made it home to Seattle, the sun was shining and I was reminded how my I love this city and how nice it feels to come home after a vacation, yet I still missed my Scottish family. When ever you come home from a long holiday everyone you chat with wants to know what your favorite part of the trip was. It’s always difficult for me to answer. For this trip I’m going to break it into two adventures.

Dublin

If you ever find yourself in Dublin, I highly recommend stopping by The Winding Stair for lunch or dinner. Situated north of the Liffey, you can take a break from absorbing your Irish literary fix with a nice glass of wine, bookshop, and a fabulous meal. Another highlight for the trip, for me, was doing the literary pub crawl. If literature is not an interest of yours then I recommend looking into one the music pub crawls for an amazing evening filled with Irish culture and laughter. Also, if you are interested in Jameson and Guinness, I would recommend skipping the Jameson Distillery and for sure playing in the Guinness Storehouse. The husband and I were very disappointed in the Jameson Distillery tour and think you would get your moneys worth elsewhere. To end on a high note, I also loved the Chester Beatty Library; it’s free, has fascinating artifacts, beautiful grounds and is located across the street from Dublin Castle.

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Scotland

For me, all of Scotland is a highlight but if I have to choose specifics then St. Andrews tops my list. If you couldn’t tell by now, I absolutely love that town. There is so much history and character in this town, from the university to The Old Course to the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral there is plenty to see and do! On top of all the sites to see, you can have a splendid meal or visit one of the local craft breweries in the area. Whatever you do, promise me you will stop by Balgove Larder and M. Mitchell for lunch during your visit. Another highlight from our time in Scotland was our day trip to Stirling. Another great town with beautiful buildings, landscape, and history to visit. Not far from Edinburgh or Glasgow, I highly recommend taking the train out to see Stirling Castle. You can spend a good chunk of the day wandering around this castle and learn about its important historical events. Also, if you buy a ticket to visit Stirling Castle, for a little bit more, you can visit Edinburgh Castle (I believe within 24 hours of your visit). These two castle carry so much historical importance for Scotland and its people. The country is truly breathtaking, even the view from the train or car, getting from place to place is one of a kind; I look forward to coming back in the future and exploring the Highlands more next time.

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Scotland Adventures :: St. Andrews and Perth

For our last full day in Scotland we went back to our favorite town, St. Andrews. We ate lunch at a wonderful spot called M. Mitchell a local deli that sells locally sourced foods (deli meats, cheeses, and more), seasonal produce, and wine. Part of the deli is a sit down restaurant with a wonderful breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. Each day they have a special event and live music Saturday evenings. I always enjoy a restaurant that sells some of the goods they have on the menu. I also adored the decor, which was designed with recycled products – old wine bottles as chandlers and tweed jackets sewn together to make bench cushions. The husband opted for the delicious Scottish breakfast, while I went for a scrumptious fruit scone and a latte. I have to admit the traditional Irish breakfast and the traditional Scottish breakfast appear to be one in the same for me, but after a week of eating eggs, black pudding, and sausage for breakfast this one topped the bill.

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After breakfast, we strolled around the shops and stopped at St. Andrews Brewing Company for a pint (or three) of their locally crafted beer. The craft beer seen, like Dublin, is also taking off in Scotland. In St. Andrew there are already two well known craft brewing companies – Eden Brewery and St. Andrews Brewings Co. Post our flight of beer we headed to the botanical gardens, truly a hidden gem within the town. Being that it was a school day, there were a lot of school children exploring the gardens. We were limited in our time but it is well worth a stop if you ever venture to St. Andrews.

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For lunch we headed back to Balgove Larder, where I sometimes find myself dreaming of their scones and craving their steak barn lunch specials. When we went on Monday, the barn was closed but they were open on Friday. We met our friend at the farm shop and headed into the barn for a glorious rump steak, freshly grilled vegetables, and a glass of wine. Once our bellies were sufficiently filled we wandered back over the Johnston of Elgin to rummage through their cashmere sale bin and grab and espresso and conversation at Zest.

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Our evening adventures took us to Perth for dinner. Perth is only a thirty minute drive from Dundee but was a first for the husband and I. Once the Capitol of medieval Scotland, Perth had a very rich history (gosh I love this country and their amazing history). By the time we made it to Perth, most of the shops and attractions were closed for the day (remember that 5 PM close I told you about?) but that didn’t stop us from wandering around. Our friends told us that they have a wonderful farmers market on the last Saturday if each month. It was in Perth (1100s according to my travel books) that John Knox delivered a fiery sermon, which led to the destruction of many local monasteries. For being a small town, there are quite a few attractions to visit (and I hope to see the next time we are in Scotland), they include the Museum and Art Gallery, the Balhousie Castle (because what would a Scottish town be without a castle), Scones Palace, and the Church of St. John. We finished our day adventures with dinner at Cafe Breizh, for fabulous wood oven pizzas and great company. The last day in Scotland is always sad for me; I always enjoy the company of my friends that l have in Dundee and visiting the amazing little towns scattered around. Our next days adventures would not be as exciting because they were unfortunately our flight home.

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Scotland Adventures :: Stirling

Today’s adventures once again took us by train, but this time to Stirling. The town of Stirling is situated between the Ochil Hills and the Campsie Fells in central Scotland, not far from Glasgow. A town, filled with ancient history, was actually developed around its mighty fortress Stirling Castle – historically speaking – one of Scotland’s most important fortresses. I absolutely find it amazing the rich history Scotland has and the great lengths they took for years to gain their independence. Like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle sits high on a rocky cliff, and from books I’ve read, has dominated the Scottish history for centuries. The present building dates from the 15th and 16th centuries and was last defended against the Jacobites in the mid 1700s. The path to the crown was also an interesting one when its king (Alexander III) died in 1286. His heir to the throne (his 3-year-old grand daughter) also died and the throne stayed vacant from 10 years. It was the following 20 years, in which the castle self-guides walk you through its epic history. It’s absolutely amazing to think for almost twenty years Stirling Castle was in a constant battle of rulership between England’s Kind Edward I and William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. In the Castle you get the opportunity to visit the king and queen’s inner and outer quarters, their bedrooms, the palace gardens, the chapel Royal and the great hall. From 1881 to 1964 the castle was used as a military depot for recruits into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Within the castle walls they also have a great Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum that shares the history and artifacts of this great military.

Even though the day was rather gloomy and windy, the rich history of Stirling Castle couldn’t slow us down. Looking out the main entrance of the Castle you can see the Wallace Monument in the distance. Unfortunately, the distance was too far for our feet to carry us so we admired the view before heading back down to Old Town for lunch. There we stopped for a bite at Herman’s before heading over to the Smith Art Museum.

The Smith Art Museum is another great free gallery that one can visit just down the hill from the Stirling Highland Hotel (which is a converted old high school). At the Smith are three exhibit hall rooms. The most recent exhibit is on Norman McLaren, an award-winning animated filmmaker, who was born and raised in Stirling. The second exhibit hall reflects on 700 years after the Bannockburn Battle where Robert the Bruce beat England for the independence of Scotland.

As we were walking through the exhibit hall we ran across in information board sharing other towns and neighborhoods around the world that were named after Bannockburn. One of those towns was Bannockburn, Illinois, on the boarder of West Deerfield and Vernon township (not far from where I grew up). The most interesting part of this blurb was that the village is home to the Allen Friedman House – the last house architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed that was built during his lifetime. The last exhibit hall shares the history of Stirling, which was once a main center for tartan weaving. On display we saw the oldest football in the world, which was actually found in the ceiling rafters of the Queen’s Chambers in Stirling Castle. According to the guides at Stirling Castle, the ceiling was enclosed in 1540, so that means the ball had to have been kicked into the rafters some time before that. For what ever reason I found that so interesting!

Stirling is a great little town to wander around with interesting shops and good food. Because we had a little time to waste before we caught our train back to Dundee we stopped in the Curly Coo Bar for a wee dram of whisky. The only whisky bar in Stirling, you are bound to find a whisky you like seeing as the collection has over 120 different malt whiskys on hand. The owner was very friendly and very enjoyable to chat with. She had only recently moved into her current location (back in December 2013) and since we were the only ones in the bar so early she shared some stories with us and her knowledge of whisky. The husband tried a wee dram of 30-year-old Glen Ord Highlands, which made him giddy to think he was trying a swig of whisky that was older than he.

After the dram was finished we hopped a train back to Dundee to meet up with our friends and enjoy a wine tasting event at the local wine shop in Dundee called Aitkens. The shop owner is Scottish and does a great job of selecting wines from around the world. All of the wines he carries in his shop he has visited the wineries, which was fascinating to learn because his selection was quite large. For €10 we were able to taste 14 different French wines. Needless to say we walked home from the event.

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Scotland Adventures :: Dundee

After a week on the go we decided to take it easy and explore Dundee, the town where our friends live and where we are straying.

We started the day with lunch in city center at the old bank pub. We then headed over to the McManus Galleries, which is housed in an old gothic style building. The gallery provides a glimpse of Dundee’s history. On the first floor, you can learn about Dundee’s industrial history and the 3 J’s: jam, jute, and journalism. Reading about Dundee’s history was quite interesting. In some ways in reminded me of Detroit with their industrial boom, being a center in the 1800’s for ship building, and jute factories. Jute is a rough fibre made from the stems of a tropical Old World plant, used for making twine and rope or woven into sacking or matting (thank you Wikipedia).

Dundee also has a jute museum open to the public called Verdant Works, an old jute factory that takes you through the history of jute making and the role it played in Dundee. I was amazed to read about the many inventions and firsts that came out of Dundee. Dundee for the longest time (even today) was one of the leading game design areas (such as DMA Design Inc. who created the game Lemmings in 1991). I also learned that Dundee was the first town in Scotland to instate mandatory education for women. The 2 universities in town are also leaders in the field of biomedicine.

On the second floor of the gallery was a great exhibit of artifacts from around the world from Dundonians who travels near and far. Within the exhibit was a great story of two ladies who travelled the world (both journalist from the local newspaper) to write about women in other countries. In 1894, Marie Imandt and Bessie Maxwell, set off on their excursion. I was amazed to learn that in the late 1800s people were able of of plan for trips around the world in just a mere 212 days. The audio stories they shared of the ladies was quite interesting, especially knowing that it was more dangerous for women to travel abroad alone in those days.

The top floor of the gallery included an extensive photography exhibit where we learned about a local photographer in Dundee who pushed for photography to be considered an art form in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, for us, by the time we were finished with the gallery we were too late to enjoy the Verdant Works Museum, because as we learned last year shops and businesses close for the day promptly at 5:00 PM. Instead, we made a quick pit stop from a loaf of bread, wine and chocolate truffles to bring home for dinner. The next days excursions would take us to Stirling.

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Scotland Adventures :: Edinburgh

With our scones in hand we headed out to Edinburgh for an afternoon adventure. Today we opted for the train to get us to where we wanted to go. Taking the train is a great option to get around the country but I will say its not inexpensive (about £30 a person round trip – I recommend buying them online in advance rather than the train station… There you will find a better deal). From Dundee, the train takes about an hour and twenty minutes and coasts along the water for a splendid view of water and rolling hills. Today was one of the Seattle-like days where the skies were overcast but the sun still caused a squint in the eye.

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We arrived in Edinburgh at 10:00 AM where we were dropped off at city center (Waverly to be exact). From there you need to make the decision, do I go the route of old town or new town? To the south lies Old Town where the ancient city lies. The ancient city sprawls down the Royal Mile and to the north of Princes Street. It amuses me that what is considered “new” is late 18th century to present here. So much history to account for in this town!

Edinburgh is a beautiful city to wander around. So many hidden court yards and closes to explore. With our limited time on this day trip the husband and I decided to stick with the Old Town. As we exited the train station we came upon a grand monument for author Sir Walter Scott – The Scott Monument. Sir Walter Scott is considered one of the most important writers of Scottish literature (1771 – 1832). The monument was constructed after his death as a tribute to his life and work. With its imposing gothic tower the monument is quite impressive to look at.

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We headed over to the National Museum of Scotland located in Old town. The building is quite interesting because it is comprised of two radically different buildings. The older of the two buildings and where the main entrance is located is Victorian in design, where as the building next door is very contemporary (opened in 1998). The National Museum of Scotland is free to the public. In the older of the two buildings one can find exhibits about art and science, natural history and cultural history around the world. In the newer of the buildings (designed by architect Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth) are 7 floors that tell visitors of Scotland’s history. Starting on the ground floor one can learn about the beginnings of Scotland and the country’s geological history). As you work your way up through the floors you can view some stunning artifacts of Scotland’s early people, the country’s history of Kingdom, up through the industrial boom and twentieth century. On the 6 floor one can view a video of how tweed is made and I must say it was quite fascinating. On the top floor is a beautiful outdoor roof terrace with wonderful views of the city. I even found a map on the second floor of the exhibit hall illustrating the diverse origins of people and their surnames in Scotland! The surname “Scott” originated in the southern region of the country. I realized I could have spent a few more hours in that museum without hesitation but we had more to see so we head out for a bite of lunch down Advocates Close at a places called The Devil’s Advocate.

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This steep and narrow close is believed to date from 1544 (or at least that is what I over heard a tour Giuseppe saying as we headed down the close). Thanks to google magic I learned that the close takes its name from Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees, the last Advocate of Scotland in office during the time of the Restoration, Revolution and Union. At Devil’s Advocate we tried some friend haggis bonbons with a horseradish mustard pure, parsnip and apple soup, asparagus, and a pork belly and angus burger with black pudding, beet slices, blue cheese and lettuce (aka pure heaven).

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After lunch we attempted to see Mary Kings Close but the tour times did not work with our schedule so instead we headed over to the Scotch Whiskey Experience. Located in the tourist filled section of the town (by Edinburgh Castle on the Royal Mile). We decided on the silver level tour where you begin the tour with yet another Disney-like guide of the whisky making process. You enter your very own cask that whisked you through an Epcot-inspired tour of the process. I’m not going to lie, I kind of enjoyed the cheesiness of it all. After exiting our peaty cask we were shuffled into a room with more information about cask making (people who make casks are called “coopers”) and were shown examples of what whisky looks like in sherry verse American oak barrels (ranging from under one year to 15 years). From there we were brought to another room where our guide explained the 4 (leaving out Campletown) different regions where whisky is made, plus an explanation of how blended whisky is made (which included scratch-and-sniff card – totally Willy Wonka). After we were educated about the different regions and the types of whisky those regions produce we were asked to select our favorite for a single tasting.

Usually, these types of tastings include the familiar varietals of spirit, but this was an exception. All the malts were well-selected. Between the husband and I we selected the lowland malt (Auchentoshan) and the highland malt (GlenDronach). We passed on Glengrant from Speyside and the Smokehead from Islay though those would have also been nice choices. After the typical, swirl, smell, and taste we added a spot of water and enjoyed our drams, tasting the differences in character between the two.

The tasting was held in a phenomenal room which was surrounded by the largest privately owned whisky collection in the world. The oldest bottles were from 1897 and 1904. None of the over 3,384 bottles had ever been opened, which is a shame. The tour guide joked that the collection must have been much bigger if you included the bottles that had been poured between the collector and his friends. The collector was a Brazilian whisky enthusiast, Claive Vidiz, who built his record breaking collection over 35 years and for the next year will be on display at the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile (I’m not sure where it is headed next, if anywhere).

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Once leaving the spectral of wall to ceiling scotch bottles we entered the final room which included another wall of rare scotches and, of course, the bar. The bar had over 100 bottles and the drams ranged in price from 2 to 10 pounds. 10 pounds being for a dram of 28 year malt, which by standards for drams in the States (according to the husband) is a steal.

At this point we unfortunately had to leave yet another adult candyland and head back to the train for our ride to Dundee. Edinburgh truly is a spectacular city to visit but next time the husband and I will need to plan for at least 5 days to see much more.

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Scotland Adventures :: St. Andrews

The husband and I left at a decent hour in the morning for a day trip to St. Andrews via bus. Last year we learned that the bus was. Pretty efficient way to get around Scotland. Via car it would probably only take 15 minutes to get there but on the bus it was about 30 minutes. We lucked out with a bit of sunshine and some decent Scottish weather.

It was nice to take a more leisurely pace after 4 days on the go. St. Andrews isn’t a big town so we were able to walk from one end to the other with out any problems. We took the “tourist” trail down past St. Andrews golf course to Balgove Larder Farm shop and Cafe situated on the Strathtyrum Estate. The farm shop and cafe are relatively new, having opened its doors in 2009 with hopes of building an interest in locally grown, sourced, and seasonal produce. One can shop not only for fresh and local produced but also locally sourced wool products, jams, etc. our initial thought was to have lunch outside at their Steak barn but when we arrived we learned it was only open Thursday – Sunday. A little bummed, we took two seats at the cafe bar and ordered a delicious lunch. Currently, it’s asparagus and strawberry season so we decided to pick up some fresh asparagus for the night’s dinner. Also the scones at Balgove Larder are some of the best scones I’ve had so we picked a few up for the next morning’s breakfast.

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After lunch we wandered back down the trail and through the town to do some shopping. Last year when we visited we did most of our shopping in St. Andrews and today wasn’t any different. Last year we bought a wool blanket and some end of season scarfs from Johnston of Elgin that we loved, so we made sure to make another stop to do the same. After we were sufficiently done with our wool purchases we headed back over to the water front and walked around St. Andrews University. I don’t know what it is about this town that I love such much but on a sunny day it doesn’t get much better than this. Because we weren’t sure how long the sun would last the husband and I took a break at 1 Golf Place for a glass of wine and their roof top view. After a bit of relaxation we headed over to St Andrews Castle and Cathedral. If you’d like more of a history post on the castle and cathedral, you can read my post from last year’s visit. This year wasn’t much different other than a sunny day and an SLR camera.

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When we were done wandering around the ruins and the beaches we headed over to IJ Mellis to pick up some Scottish cheese for the evening and Luvians for some whisky and wine. I’m always amazed by how inexpensive the cheese are in Scotland. The pound of cheese and quince we purchased was under 10.00 USD, you really can’t beat that. By this point we had past 5:00 PM and if you know Scotland then you know all the retail shops close up for the day. The husband and I decided to walk back to the bus station and catch a ride back to Dundee. While the day was still young we looked forward to catching back up with our friends in Dundee and spending the evening in; the next day we’d be off to Edinburgh.

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Return of the Scotland Adventures

It’s official! The husband and I are going back to Scotland in May. It’s not often that I revisit an overseas adventure two times in a row but this one I couldn’t resist. When we first decided to visit Scotland I knew it was a place I had to be. The rich history that I read in books was something that I had to see… the herds of sheep, the historic picturesque castles, and lush rolling  green hills… driving through the Highlands and passing by the remnants of brick walls, you know you you were passing by centuries of history. The people in Scotland were some of the friendliest I’d met, always willing to help with directions, share a wee dram of whisky, or tell an interesting story about their family history in Scotland.

This trip we will be spending 5 days in Scotland  and 3 days in Dublin. Dublin will be a first for us and we are excited to explore new sites. If anyone has any recommendations for Scotland or Dublin please share!

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