Scotland Rounds Off Memorable UK Vacation

As Gina and I occupied ourselves on our electronic devices at the airport in Dublin, I was anxiously waiting for the flight to Edinburgh.  I had the same feeling, waiting on the flight to Dublin from England.  The feeling of knowing a vacation is not over.  That you are leaving one international destination for another, instead of heading home to New Jersey.  Edinburgh, Scotland would be the final stop on our little less than two-week, whirlwind tour through the UK.

We sat not knowing what gate we would be leaving from.  One good thing about the airport was the free wi-fi.  It made the wait a little easier.  Once they announced our gate we headed right for another seat.  Our gate was the last one in the terminal.  The walk felt like it put us out on the runway.  Even on the outskirts there was still a little place open for coffee, sandwiches, etc.  I could not sit.  I kept my Lowepro on my back and stood waiting.  My eyes were fixated on the monitor, viewing our departure and arrival cities.

Import 1I was excited to move on to Scotland.  Looking forward to the flight over on Aer Lingus to see another coastline from the air.  I enjoyed the constant traveling we had been doing the past several weeks.  Two weeks before being in London we were in Orlando, Florida.  Looking ahead to another new locale made me grin, just a little.  As soon as they announced boarding, Gina and I were first in line.  We walked right down the tarmac and walked on over to the plane.  Nice little route laid out for us to view our little propeller beauty in all its glory.  Not the first time on a flight like this.  I like the smaller craft.

We boarded the plane from the rear and informed it was open seating.  In other words, you could sit wherever you wanted.  Gina and I still opted to sit in our assigned seats.  A few passengers could not handle the fact it was open seating.  SOme were confused, others who came in later found themselves scrounging for an open seat.  In the end, not much of a hassle.  Everyone was situated and went about business as usual.

It was a very smooth ride over to Scotland.  Another hour flight that was seamless.  When we landed in Scotland it was raining.  There is a shocker.  They had a shuttle bus waiting to drive everyone over to the proper arrival gate.  We had a nice tour of the airport as we were riding.  Once inside it was a small wait for our luggage.  All was running smoothly for us to get out as quick as possible.  By the time we had our luggage it was not long before we spotted our driver who would take us to our hotel.  A quick walk to the awaiting mini van and we were on our way.

Even in the rain we could see the varying shades of green that made up Scotland’s landscape.  While conversing with the driver, he pointed out the offices and campus of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).  Many of the homes and developments we passed we beautiful.  Given the hills and terrain of the areas they sure had some nice sections to live in.  The design of some that lined up on roads heading higher up must be outstanding.

Import 1As we drive into the heart of Edinburgh we notice Edinburgh Castle towering above Edinburgh, West Princes Street Gardens, and East Princes Street Gardens.  Astounding sight to see from a distance.  For us, it was very easy to spot.  Our hotel was situated in a perfect location to see it.  When Gina booked our room, she picked the one room that has a direct view of Edinburgh Castle from one of its windows.  This way, no matter when we wanted to look at the castle, we could.

We stayed at The Rutland, which made me laugh every time I said it or thought about it.  For those who do not get the reference from first glance, let me share the joke with you.  It reminded me of a phony band who became real, The Rutles.  The Rutles were created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes for 1970s television programming, became an actual group (while remaining a parody of The Beatles) and toured and recorded, releasing two UK chart hits.

Created as a short sketch in Idle’s UK television comedy series Rutland Weekend Television, the Rutles gained fame after being the focus of the 1978 mockumentary television film, All You Need Is Cash (The Rutles). Encouraged by the reaction to the sketch, featuring Beatles’ music pastiches by Neil Innes, the film was written by Idle, who co-directed it with Gary Weis. It had 20 songs written by Innes, which he performed with three musicians as “The Rutles”.  That mockumentary was introduced to me in 1996 by my good friend Paul Jones.  I have been a fan of Ron Nasty, Dirk McQuickly, Stig O’Hara, and Barry Wom, otherwise known as the Pre Fab Four, since then.

Any true Beatles fan should check out the film and their albums.  The film needs to be watched more than once to get the insane amount of Beatles references written into it.  With cameos from John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Michael Palin, George Harrison, Bianca Jagger, Ron Wood, and even Lorne Michaels.  Highly recommended from so many Beatles fans, it will keep you laughing.  Not to mention the music, so beautifully done.  George Harrison was involved in the making of the movie.

So as a Rutles fan, staying in the Rutland, made for a fun couple days.  I had Tweeted that I was a Rutles fan staying at The Rutland and the employee running The Rutland’s Twitter account retweeted it and responded back.  The following morning I met the employee behind their Twitter account.  Nice little conversation about the band and film.  Love to find fans from different areas that enjoy the same cult classics.

The Rutland is a quaint boutique style hotel located in the West End.  A small glass elevator and staircase take you to the two floors that have all the rooms.  Under fifteen rooms in this hotel.  Our room had a nice luxury king sized bed and like I said, great view of Edinburgh castle.  The bathroom had an oddly designed shower.  No sliding door, no curtain, no nothing really.  Just half a glass wall with the rest of the shower exposed to the rest of the bathroom.  Otherwise a nice, relaxing room.

Import 1Right next to the hotel in the same building was a steakhouse Kyloe and bar/restaurant called The Huxley.  From breakfast to last call, The Huxley serves it all.  Both The Huxley and Kyloe share their wi-fi with The Rutland.  During peak times and the evening, the bandwidth was quite slow.  One can understand how frustrating it can be surfing the web or uploading photos.  Gina and I did not let that take away from the trip.  If The Rutland really wants to keep their guests happy, they should have separate wi-fi for their hotel guests.

Knowing the weather would not get any better the entire time we were in Edinburgh, we head out into the elements.  The rain had let up so it was safe to walk.  We walked Princes Street and viewed the old city of Edinburgh on the other side, way past the gardens.  We passed some stores we became familiar with in Ireland and England.  Then you had your traditional shops for everything Scotland.  Reminded me of a Saturday Night Live sketch with Mike Myers portraying a Scottish gift shop owner.  The store was called “If It’s Not Scottish, It’s Crap”.  Now yell that in a heavy Scottish brogue.  Those who saw the sketch will laugh.

When we had enough along Princes Street we decided it was time for our first taste of Scotland, at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Any restaurant you can go and not just listen to the music, but watch the videos of hard rockers Foo Fighters and ACDC was worth the bad joke.  We were both craving a good burger and decided on the Hard Rock for that craving.  Always worth visiting a known spot like the Hard Rock in the different countries they operate.  I have been to their locations in New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Cancun, Hollywood, and missed the one’s in London & Dublin.  Shame on me.

We started off with one server, Amy, who brought us our drinks.  Having a Hard Rock Iced Tea was a great way to kick back and watch Foo Fighter’s “Walk” amongst some other great rock videos.  By the time we received our nachos platter as a starter, we had a new server, Mike.  He introduced himself by saying “Hello, I will be your new server, Mike.  But if you have any complaints, my name is Amy”.  Really funny server.  He had no tables, only us for the time being.  Every thirty seconds or so he came back with more schtick.  We were having fun, it was great.

Import 1We devoured the entire plate of nachos.  Piled high with sour cream, cheese, guacamole, retried beans, and more.  We knew we were hungry.  By this time I was working on my second Hard Rock Iced Tea.  I wasn’t driving so a second one sounded good.  While talking with our server, he mentions we can make recommendations on videos then asked who we liked.  I said we were big AC-DC fans.  Mile then asks “which one?”  I immediately said Bon Scott.

For those casual AC-DC fans, let me explain.  Bon Scott was the original lead singer before his death in 1980 and the band moved forward with Brian Johnson.  No disrespect to Brian Johnson, I just prefer Bon Scott.  Mike put on “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N Roll)”.  Mike was an Australian living in Scotland.

It was about time to finally have a burger.  The first one the entire trip including England and Ireland.  I had what they cal the S.O.B. Burger.  Basted with spicy Chipotle Pepper puree and topped with Monterey Jack cheese. Served on a buttered-toasted bun with Hard Rock Guacamole & grilled onions.  It had good heat, I am used to a lot hotter.  Gina had the Local Legendary.  The Legendary burger always has great flavor using local fare.  Every country the Hard Rock is in, they have a burger for that country.  This one happened to have haggis on it.  Honestly, the haggis was delicious.

I always love a great burger, no matter where it is.  Hamburgers are a universal food with so many unique ways to enjoy.  Too many combinations to think about.  Too staggering to go into now.  That leaves another story, for another time.  After the burgers that was it on food for the day.  The Hard Rock satisfied a craving and gave us some laughs.  Oh, kick ass hard rock too.

IMG_6273Always good to walk off a big meal afterwards.  Lucky for us, we were walking anyway.  But before we could turn the corner, Gina started laughing out of nowhere.  She told me to look across the street.  There on the phone was a gentleman of true Scottish style.  Decked out in a tuxedo coat and shirt accompanied by green plaid pants.  Not a great pair either, they resembled pajama pants.  As long as he thinks he looked good, that is all that mattered.  After that highlight we walked back to the hotel.

Many of the businesses closed early, around 6 PM.  By 8 PM, many of the shops were already closed for the night.  So unless one wanted to go pub hopping, there was not much to really do in the evening.  At least in the area we were in.  The nightlife is in their pubs and bars.  Considering we were heading to Edinburgh Castle in the morning, we decided to rest up for the long day.  In Scotland, the sun still provides some light around 10 PM.  I was glad we had dark, heavy curtains to keep the light out.  The bed was plush, it made for a nice comfortable sleep.

One item of note regarding toilet’s in the UK is their use of water.  They are created to conserve water.  So flushing turns into an event.  A weak push on the button means a weak flush.  I approached it like the game show “Press Your Luck”.  Hand over the button and then, no Whammies, no Whammies, No Whammies, STOP! Press it right the first time to create the best water flow. Otherwise it was like trying to start a 79 Ford in freezing weather.  Get it wrong the first time, and you will keep trying to turn it over.

The next day would be a busy day, filled with a lot of walking.  Our first stop was Edinburgh Castle.  There is so much to see in the Castle as well as the views of Scotland around it.  After the Castle we would be heading for the Scotch Whiskey Experience and tasting.  So we had a day of walking and drinking ahead of us, just like every other place we had been over the past week.  Why not have the best scotch whiskey experience possible in the land of Scotch whiskey?  Before we could get to any of that.  We still needed to have breakfast.

We headed downstairs to The Huxley for a bite before heading to Old Edinburgh.  Gina ordered an egg sandwich while I had a sausage sandwich.  We combined our ingredients so we could have a sausage and egg sandwich which was pretty delicious.  After the sandwiches and coffee we were on our way.  The day before we had stopped into a great outdoors store, Mountain Warehouse.  Great clothes, camping gear, and everything one could want for the ever changing weather of Scotland.  Gina picked up a comfortable pair of walking shoes there before we headed for the castle.  Best to have cushioned footwear before doing any long distance walking or running.

Scotland Vacation - Day 1It was quite a walk just to get to Edinburgh Castle.  It was an uphill walk the entire way.  Through winding streets & cobblestone roads it was quite the cardio workout.  Old town Edinburgh is visually stunning in regards to the architecture and history of the city.  As soon as we approached the Castle entrance there was an enormous construction project going on.  They were constructing huge bleacher sections for the Edinburgh Festival’s Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.  It looks large enough to be an NCAA Division I football stadium.

After waiting on-line to get our tickets, we headed right into the Castle walls.  There is so much to see and experience.  I am not going into every part of the Castle or even all the museum’s that reside inside.  That could be a write-up on its own.  I will just provide some highlights.  The castle sits high atop the volcanic Castle Rock.  A royal castle has been there since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. From the 15th century the castle’s residential role declined, and by the 17th century its principal role was as a military base with a large garrison.

Its importance as a historic monument was recognized from the 19th century, and various restoration programs have been carried out since.  As one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle was involved in many historical conflicts, from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, up to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and has been besieged, both successfully and unsuccessfully, on several occasions.

Scotland Vacation - Day 2Few of the present buildings pre-date the Lang Siege of the 16th century, when the medieval defences were largely destroyed by artillery bombardment.  The most notable exceptions are St Margaret’s Chapel, which dates from the early 12th century and is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, the Royal Palace, and the earl 16th century Great Hall.  The castle also houses the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the National War Museum of Scotland.

Edinburgh Castle is in the care of Historic Scotland, and is Scotland’s most-visited paid tourist attraction, with over 1.3 million visitors in 2011.  The British Army is responsible for some parts of the castle, although its presence is largely ceremonial and administrative, including a number of regimental museums.  As the backdrop to the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo it has become a recognisable symbol of Edinburgh and of Scotland.

During the Revolutionary War between England and the US Colonies, US POW’s we prisoned within the Castle walls.  They languished alongside other POW’s in hopes that the US Colonies would soon gain victory.  Walking through the simulated conditions they slept in, where they ate, and how they lived on a daily basis brought to light a side of the American Revolutionary War one can not see o r visit in the United States.

Import 1Knowing what they were fighting for and being taken prisoner over made me proud to be American.  Sacrifices were being made for liberty and freedom to make sure we had a future as a country.  Many still sacrifice today for the freedoms we enjoy and others for granted, and to them I remove my cap and say “Thank you”.

In the middle of all this history we needed a little energy boost.  With all the walking, stairs, and varying inclines some food was needed to press on.  Inside the Red Coat Cafe was a full working kitchen.  Not just some pre-made sandwiches and drinks, but a dining experience .  The kitchen prepared hot meals, sandwiches, salads, and more.  Some nice biscuits, scones, cakes, and other baked goods.  They did have a refrigerated case with drinks, salads, and some other pre-packaged items from the kitchen.  Gina and I split a smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber sandwich on wheat bread.

When it came to coffee, they had a full barista set up. No choices of coffee made in the back and brought upfront.  Two barista’s preparing fresh coffee, tea, latte’s, cappuccino’s and other notable favorites.  No paper plates here either.  Real plates, silverware, full tea sets, and everything else as if you brought it from your kitchen cabinet.  It was a great set up for a museum cafe.  We had a few coffee Americano’s.  After taking a seat with a great view of Edinburgh and some shoreline it was time to dig in.

I took this time to take out my portable charger and charge my iPhone.  I had been taking photos and video every five seconds.  Along with my camera equipment, I like to carry anything tech that can keep any devices powered.  On any trip, you need alternative power sources through out the day if you are not near electrical outlets.  In between the charging of devices, the sandwich was pretty good.  I never had cucumber on a sandwich before but it seemed to be the norm in the UK.  I love my smoked salmon and cream cheese.  I would prefer it on a bagel, just my preference.  The smoked salmon was not too salty, it made the sandwich a little more flavorful while not having to taste salt in every bite.

Import 1After our little break we still had so much more to see.  Between the museums, the towers, battery’s, memorials, and prisons we had information overload.  There was even an exhibit on The Honours of Scotland.  Also known as the Scottish regalia and the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Dating from the 15th & 16th centuries, are the oldest set of crown jewels in the British Isles. The existing set was used for the coronation of Scottish monarchs from 1543 (Mary I) to 1651 (Charles II). Since then, they have been used to represent Royal Assent to legislation in both the Parliament of Scotland and Scottish Parliament, and have also been used at State occasions, including the first visit to Scotland as sovereign by King George IV in 1822 and the first visit to Scotland as sovereign by Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

There are three primary elements of the Honours of Scotland: the Crown, the Sceptre, and the Sword of State. These three elements also appear upon the crest of the royal coat of arms of Scotland and on the Scottish version of the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, where the red lion of the King of Scots is depicted wearing the Crown and holding both the Sword and the Sceptre.

The Honours have had a rather turbulent history. They were first used together to crown the infant Mary Queen of Scots at Stirling Castle in 1543 and were then used at the coronations of James VI in 1567, Charles I in 1633 and, the last sovereign to receive the Honours, Charles II in 1651.

These priceless objects were hastily hidden in the mid 17th century to avoid being destroyed as their English crown jewels had been at the hands of Oliver Cromwell. First they were taken to Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire, from where they were smuggled out during a siege and then buried a few miles away in Kinneff parish church for nine years until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Import 1After the Treaty of Union in 1707 removed Scotland’s independent parliament, the Honours of Scotland were considered redundant and were duly locked away in a chest in Edinburgh Castle, where they were literally forgotten about for the next hundred or so years.  They did not come to light again until 1818 when, under pressure from Sir Walter Scott, a detailed search of the castle uncovered the box and they were discovered. They were hidden once again during the Second World War for fear of a Nazi invasion and have in total been buried three times.  Together with the Stone of Destiny, these symbols of Scottish nationhood are on permanent public display at Edinburgh Castle.

The castle has become a recognisable symbol of Edinburgh, and of Scotland.  Their rich history intertwined with those who set foot on their soil to only turn back and leave Scotland to its own people.  Although the British Crown still looms overhead, the residents of Scotland will have their day to reside in a country free of the British Crown.  One can sense the pride the Scottish have in the Castle and the history it contains.  Gina and I took in a wealth of that pride and knowledge the more we learned about it’s history and those who occupied the castle over the ages.

After spending several hours wandering through Edinburgh Castle, we decided to move on to our next stop, the Scotch Whiskey Experience.  It just happened to be right down the road from the Castle.  We did not have to walk far for the Willy Wonka tour of Scotch whiskey.  At the end of the tour is the whiskey tasting.  Their Silver package includes the tasting of one Scotch whiskey. The Gold package includes the sampling of five different Scotch whisky’s.  We opted for the Gold package.  After our experience at the Jameson Whiskey Distillery, we knew we wanted to sample more than just one scotch whiskey.

Import 2The start of the tour was an automated ride through the whiskey making and distilling process.  A swirling, bubbling barrel ride through a replica distillery as you become part of the whisky making process.  Along the way you’ll hear the stories behind this magical craft, with expert tour guides and whisky advisors with you every sip of the way.  We had learned the process at the Jameson Distillery in Ireland.  The only difference is Scotch whiskey is distilled twice instead of the three times by Jameson standards.  In addition, there are four regions in Scotland that produce signature Scotch whiskey.  They are Speyside, Islay, Lowland, and Highland.

After our ride through the learning experience, we were then seated with others to learn the differences between the four regions.  From the land they grow the ingredients in to the different casks used to give the Scotch whiskey its unique taste and aroma from each region.  One can equate the knowledge of fine whiskey  to the knowledge of fine wines.  It was here we each had to pick region we wanted to taste a sample from.  Gina and I both chose the Islay (pronounced eye-la) region for its smokey flavor and aroma.  From there we moved on to a room containing the world’s largest collection of Scotch whiskey.  Over 3,000 bottles lined countless shelves to showcase what one man in Brazil had collected, then donated to the Scotch Whiskey Experience.

Import 1While being surrounded by endless bottle of Scotch whiskey, we learned the correct method for tasting and sampling Scotch whiskey.  Once again, a process that could remind one of wine tasting.  It was fun to Learn these valuable techniques while being surrounded by Scotch whiskey.  It made the anticipation of tasting all those fine batches of Scotch whiskey worthwhile.  While everyone was learning the intricacies of sampling, I was already done with my Scotch whiskey sample.  I could not wait.  I wanted to taste that smooth, smokey flavor.  By the time we arrived at the bar, my mouth was watering for more.

We received a great selection of single malt Scotch whiskey’s to sample.  Five samples with tasting notes to let us know what we were truly tasting.  Gina and I were feeling pretty good by the time we finished the tour. A few more samples and I would be sampling the floor.  Just kidding.  I have said this before, with the end of any tour comes the gift shop.  Bottles of every size representing every region lined the store shelves.  We picked up some sample Bowmore bottles from the Islay region to bring home and try.  We now have a better appreciation for Scotch whiskey, more importantly, whiskey in general.

As the day was wearing on we started walking down the Royal Mile.  The Royal Mile is the name given to a succession of streets forming the main thoroughfare of the Old Town of the city of Edinburgh in Scotland. The name was first used in W M Gilbert’s Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century (1901), and was further popularised as the title of a guidebook, published in 1920.

Import 1The thoroughfare, as the name suggests, is approximately one Scots mile long and runs downhill between two significant locations in the history of Scotland, namely Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace.  The streets which make up the Royal Mile are (west to east) Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, the High Street, the Canongate and Abbey Strand.  The Royal Mile is the busiest tourist street in the Old Town, rivalled only by Princes Street in the New Town.  There was fewer shopping along the Royal Mile route.  That did not stop us from stopping in one store to get kilted.

Gina and I had been seeing deals on kilts and accessories.  WE decided one this one shop along the Royal Mile for their designs and service.    The young gentleman had explained the pieces and what came in the set.  After measuring and deciding, there was a good banter going back and forth.  He had spent time at University of Mississippi a few years back and enjoyed his time here in the US.  We then finished discussing our day thus far.  When Gina and I talked in detail about the whiskey experience, he shared the appreciation for a great Scotch whiskey.  We asked for some Scotch recommendations and he came up with Laphroaig, Dalwhinnie, Bowmore, and a few others.

As we said good-bye we asked where would be a good place to sample some good Scotch Whiskey and where to go for dinner.  We wanted to get some really good local recommendations  on where locals go to unwind.  Two spots he talked in detail about seemed to be the running favorites.  For dinner, we chose the Auld Hundred and after dinner we would head to the Black Cat for some Scotch Whiskey.  After we left,  we noticed we had purchased one of his Scotch recommendations at the Whiskey experience before.  We knew we were already on the right path.  The day provided for great conversation back to the hotel.

After dropping off our various daily plunder we made for Rose Street as that was a main walking thoroughfare for restaurants and pubs.  The Auld Hundred is a great old pub.  Downstairs is the main bar with some tables.  Up a narrow winding staircase is the main dining room.  More tables and booths along with the main kitchen was upstairs.  They pride themselves in providing traditional Scottish hospitality and serving fantastic traditional pub food.

Import 1We started off with a couple Guinness and matched crayfish cocktail starters.  Not too many restaurants in New Jersey or New York serve crayfish otherwise called crawfish or craw daddies.  I love the texture of crayfish after my great experience with them ion Alabama.  Great way to start the meal.  After that treat came the Auld Hundred Steak Pie.  Their special recipe steak topped with puff pastry served with vegetables and lightly grilled potatoes.  I love puff pastry with anything.  It reminded me of a beef stew pie.  Very tender and the sauce just made a great compliment to the beef.

After those dishes there was still room for dessert.  Their daily special for dessert was giving me the Jedi mind trick.  I knew I wanted it, it was calling to me.  Their special was a homemade rhubarb crumble served with custard.  The woman who served it had made the deserts and also seated us when we came in.  It was her crumble she had made.  I was savoring every bite of this delectable crumble.  I love desserts of this nature.  the crumble mixed with the fresh, hot custard blended together just right.  The tart of the rhubarb combined in it all made for a memorable meal.  Apparently, the couple opposite of us thought the same as the gentleman also ordered the rhubarb crumble.  He and I had ordered the final two servings.

The rhubarb crumble started a conversation between all of us.  That is what these pubs are for, casual conversation with those around you.  As we were talking, a quartet of ladies sat down next to us.  After their day of shopping they needed a break like the rest of us.  What caught my attention about them was one of the ladies ordered a Guinness with a straw.

Import 1Let me repeat that.

She ordered a Guinness, with a straw.

Take a second for that to seep in.  After being in Ireland, savoring my first Guinness and learning the correct pour of a finely crafted Guinness I considered this blasphemy.  For some odd reason, a small demographic of females do enjoy their brew with a straw.  When I was a server at Applebee’s, two ladies always had their Coors Light with straws.  Sad, but true.  To each their own.

While leaving the Auld Hundred, I could not stop taking about the rhubarb crumble.  It brought up my top desserts I have had in the past.  Anytime you mix a homemade crust with fresh berries you can never go wrong.  A few years back, Gina worked a few doors down from a trained French pastry chef.  Gina told her the items I love in crust and her friend said she had the perfect item and to come back later.  Gina brought home a perfectly sized fresh berry tart about two inches high and 12 inches wide.  Nothing but fresh pie crust and berries.  I was Homer Simpson at that point.

Import 1Back to Scotland and leaving the Auld Hundred.  A couple blocks down was the Black Cat.  An establishment where even James Dean would be comfortable.  I place to hang, talk, enough good rock music and one of the best selections of Scotch in Edinburgh according to reviews on Foursquare.  We ordered a couple Dalwhinnie glasses for each of us.  That signature Islay taste was there.  A great smooth flavor with smokey taste.  I nice sipping Scotch.  If we had more time, we could have set up at one of their outside tables for a couple of hours, sipping different Scotch whiskey’s.  It capped off the end to a truly memorable day in Scotland.

We were really beat from all the walking we did.  Easy decision to go back to the hotel after that.  The next day would be our last full day in Scotland.  We had no big plan.  We decided to spend it looking around Old Town Edinburgh.  We wanted to explore the other side of Princes Street as the older section intrigued us more.  I was counting on a good night sleep after all the walking we just did.  I was pushing myself each day there at the end.  Maximizing our time walking, seeing everything we could each day was taking its toll.  Gina was looking forward to going home soon for rest.

The following day we headed back downstairs to The Huxley for breakfast.  I decided to be daring and ordered a haggis and fried egg sandwich.  It was a little gooey from the egg, but it was a great sandwich.  The haggis was fresh and tasted world’s apart from what I had in the United States.  This was what haggis is supposed to taste like.  Another great breakfast down and off we went.  No slated destination.  Just a chance to walk around the Old Town and see what we come across.

Import 1Walk we did.  We went where our feet would take us.  A few times we turned around and changed direction.  When we finally chose the right path we found ourselves at the National Museum of Scotland.  Admission is free so it was an easy decision to explore the museum.  Five levels covering Scotland, World Cultures, Science and Technology, and Art & Design.  Exhibits from every part of the globe.  A great cross section of exhibits kept it interesting.  From Scotland’s history to the advancement of the world and world cultures, the museum showcased it all.

Their Grand Gallery is a magnificent, public space at the heart of the Victorian building with its elegant cast-iron and glass roof, that displays large-scale objects.  Art, statues, and even a helicopter or two can be seen lining the Grand Gallery.  It is hard to ignore the space and relics seen around this hall.  Hawthornden Court starts a journey of discovery through the Scottish collections, displayed over five floors of dramatic contemporary architecture. On the first floor in the Court is the F1 racing car belonging to Jackie Stewart OBE.

Some of the objects highlighted there are rare and precious, others are made significant by the people who once owned them or the journeys they have made. Some are old and mysterious, others were made recently, specially for their collection. But all have a story to tell. Everyone walks away from one that is their favorite.  I enjoyed the Tibetan Prayer wheels.  Many will remember the scene from the movie “The Golden Child” with Eddie Murphy when he raps while spinning one of them.  I said my own prayers as I spun the wheels.

Import 1We took our time walking through each level grasping parts of history that we do not study in our History classes in school.  Dolly, the first cloned mammal, was on display.  Everyone remembers the sheep who was cloned.  Many items from the Kingdom of the Scots was on display.  Dinosaurs, Egyptian coffins, cars, weaponry, rockets, and so much more that tell a story about world history is displayed for everyone to see and experience.  Many hands on exhibits so kids can learn while they interact with certain exhibits.  If I go into detail about everything we saw in the museum, you would stop reading.  Kidding.  Too much to go into.

It would take me too long to look at every exhibit and read it.  With my vision, the museum would close before I had a chance to read everything that I viewed.  I relied on Gina to read a lot of what we saw.  One of the disadvantages in having central vision loss is being able to keep pace with others in a museum, or around anything that needs to be read for that matter.  I would write more for you here if I was able to read more there.  Glad I still have a great memory to at least share with you all the highlights that I experienced.

After all the walking in the museum we needed a little break.  A little place to have a drink, relax, and recharge the batteries.  Both our batteries and the electronic devices.  As it turned out, we came across The Elephant House.  Opened in 1995, The Elephant House has established itself as one of the best tea and coffee houses in Edinburgh.  Made famous as the place of inspiration to writers such as J.K. Rowling, who sat writing much of her early novels in the back room overlooking Edinburgh Castle.  Ian Rankin, author of the bestselling Rebus novels, and Alexander McCall-Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and other series of novels, have also frequented The Elephant House, as well as many others throughout the years.

Import 1Seats are not easy to come by in The Elephant House.  We found one right in the back.  They serve a great cup of coffee and great pastries there.  A visit is in order if you need a break from daily action in Old Town Edinburgh.  Always better to have a barista make your coffee rather than pressing a button on a pot made thirty minutes ago.  After a brief rest we were deciding on which way to walk back to Princes Street.  We decided to walk along the other side of Edinburgh Castle that was the furthest from the streets and bridges that lead to Princes Street.

Not too much lined the route we were walking down.  A few buildings to the left and that was about it.  The path we walked was at the base of the castle.  Looking straight up gave us a perspective attacking foes saw as they decided which area of the structure was the best to attack.  From our vantage point, they would have needed ropes and lessons in rock climbing if they planned on scaling what seemed to be a mountain leading up to the castle walls.  Pictures do not do the castle justice.  The views we had of the castle compared to what we saw the day before really magnified the scope of how awesome the structure really is.

As we came around the path it led us to West Princes Street Gardens.  A wonderful open area with lush lawns, flowers, trees, and more foliage than even Central Park can muster on its best day.  Many lined the benches, relaxing along the lawn, while others strolled through the park.  It was very quiet.  Not much talking going on by anyone, just a lot of relaxing and quiet to take in the beauty the park possesses.  We walked a little slower just to be able to take it all in.

Import 1The park has served the city of Edinburgh since it’s creation in 1770s and later the 1829s following the long draining of the Nor Loch and the creation of the New Town. The Nor Loch was a large loch on the north side of the town, making expansion northwards difficult. It was heavily polluted from centuries of sewage draining downhill from the Old Town.  The gardens run along the south side of Princes Street and are divided by The Mound.  East Princes Street Gardens run from The Mound to Waverley Bridge, and cover 8.5 acres. The larger West Princes Street Gardens cover 29 acres.

We did a little shopping and stopped in at  Boots, a UK Pharmacy chain similar to Walgreens (They own 45% of the parent company).  They focus on health and beauty aids, make up, cold beverages of many varieties, hair care, skin care, baby care, and so much more.  Gina loved their selection of  Rimmel make up.  She found items in Scotland and London one can not find here in America.  We even found a body lotion by Nivea that you apply in the shower.  Just apply, rinse, towel dry off.  It is that simple men!  We hope Nivea releases the product here in the US as we brought home only one bottle.

Import 2We were starting to get a little sluggish.  It had been a while since we had food of substance.  We headed for Rose Street.  Many restaurants to choose from, but which one.  A consistent item on each menu here was another seafood chowder.  This one though was prepared with a white cream base compared to the red chowder in Ireland.  We stopped to view the menu at the Mussel Inn which has locations in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.  They had a lunch special that included their creamy seafood chowder, a side order of chips, and either a soda or beer for about 8 Euros each.  Not a bad deal to get some seafood chowder and a beer with the meal.

A few years back, I met author and contributor Anthony Artis.  At the time, he was an adjunct professor at Tisch NYU and I read his book on proper documentary filming and I needed advice.  We met for breakfast at a great place in Greenwich Village called Rock Around The Clock.  They served up a fantastic huevos rancheros along with a bottle of Heineken.  A meal always seems to look better when a beer is a part of the package, including breakfast.  Unfortunately, Rock Around The Clock is no longer around.

The chowder in Scotland has more fresh fish and less seafood than the one I had in Ireland.  I could barely talk the chowder was that good.  Along with the piece of crusty bread they give you it is a satisfying meal.  The chips just happened to be a welcome addition.  The chowder was not enough.  A few more bowls of it would have sufficed.  Many rave about the seafood chowder at the Mussel Inn and now I know why.  I would revisit and try more there in future visits.

By the time we left we both just wanted to go back to the hotel and relax.  The next day was our flight back to the United States.  We had to make sure everything was packed right.  All the items we bought, dirty clothes, bottles of Scotch, everything.  We had an early flight so we really needed to get some rest.  I was not too sure how much sleep I would get on the plane, I wanted to be sure I got some this night.  Between being on my iPad and watching TV reruns it was not easy falling asleep.  Gina was out like a light while I was awake.

Import 1By the time I was sleeping like a baby it was time to wake up.  Just enough time to grab a shower, get dressed, and bring everything downstairs to our awaiting ride to the airport.  There was a beautiful sunrise coming up over New Town Edinburgh.  Made me wish I had been awake to view more during our trip.  I am not a morning person, but I wish I had pushed myself to see more of what joy the sunrise has to offer.

Once at the airport there was only one item on my mind.  Coffee.  Our terminal had some pretty decent places to eat.  There was a Nero cafe where Gina and I sat down for coffee and breakfast sandwiches.  Love the baristas at Nero.  Also in the terminal was a Yo! Sushi.  It was too early for it to be open but a great place to have in the airport.  Then you had your typical duty free stores and newsstands for other items.  Once again, happy for free airport wi-fi.  Makes waiting for the plane a lot easier.

As time passed the terminal outside the gate was filling up.  The flight was packed.  Since we were seated in Economy Plus we boarded right after First Class.  Extra leg room in Economy Plus which made the flight home tolerable.  I took the window seat as I really wanted to get a little sleep on the way home.  We picked up five hours on the plane ride home.  I did not want an experience similar to the one I had flying out to England, getting no sleep and being sluggish for the day.

I was able to sleep more than half way through the trip.  Which left about three hours to sit and entertain myself.  Since the in flight movies were free, I decided to watch Argo.  Great film.  Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Ben Affleck had great chemistry together.  Very enjoyable to watch and a must see.  By the time the movie was over we had less than an hour until landing in Newark.  Not much to do at this point but to ride out the rest of the flight.  Gina and I wanted to make sure everything was packed back into our carry on luggage to get off the plane as quick as possible.

By the time Gina and I were off the plane in Newark we could not wait to grab our luggage and head for home.  Worn out from the plane ride and two weeks of constant motion can take a toll on a person.  To be honest, in every hotel we stayed in I did not get the best night;s sleep.  I was awake a lot, tossing and turning.  I was glad to be home, in my own bed, with my own pillows.  Hotels need firmer pillows, not down filled ones that provide no head or neck support.  That is a big key to a good night of sleep.

The time spent in England, Ireland, and Scotland was a memorable one for sure.  I can vividly remember each day of our trip.  It was one for the Levy history books.  I came home a different person.  Having a better sense of self and a new focus on life.  There is so much more I could write about, but not enough time to discuss everything in detail.  I needed to get some summaries done first so I can focus on those points of interest that deserve more scope.

I have always been a proponent for stepping outside one’s comfort zone.  The proverbial box so to speak.  For the further you travel outside that zone, the more you know about who you are.  Travel is meant to be fun and try new things, go new places.  Your life is your own television show.  Create fresh, new episodes with each new destination or it can be filled with repeats of the same place, over and over again.  Whichever one makes you happy, then have fun and enjoy.  For myself, the world is here to be sampled, one country at a time.

Next Saturday August 3rd,  I will be running in the Warrior Dash at Lewis Morris Memorial Park in Morristown, NJ.  Will have some info to come before and after the race.  If you made it this far, thank you for taking the ride with me through England, Ireland, and Scotland.  I hope you enjoyed the written ride and it has you craving more.  More rides to share in over the next few months.

When you think about deciding on where to travel next, remember one of my favorite quotes from Robert Frost.

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all of the difference.”


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England Experience Kicks Off Memorable Vacation

A few months ago my wife Gina had expressed interest in traveling overseas.  I looked at her with a little hesitation.  Why?  It was a trip I had thought about, but not recently.  It took me a few seconds to blurt out “OK”.  Not knowing what we were in for it was one o f the best decisions and vacations either of us had ever had.

After all the planning and decisions, we decided to visit three countries.  We would start off in London, England then make our way to Dublin, Ireland with our final stop being Edinburgh, Scotland.  The entire trip, from airfare to hotel accommodations was done through  A very seemless trip.  What a crazy 11-12 days it was.  But the fun and education never stopped.  It was very surreal.  One always wants to travel abroad and when that opportunity presents itself, it can still feel surreal.

IMG_5390We knew there would be so much to see.  Considering we spent about 3-4 days in each country, we limited ourselves to the main city we were in as there was so much to do without traveling outside city limits.  there could be a full immersion into being local without trying to look like a tourist, which one can pick out most easily.  Even though we had a map out and taking pictures, we carried ourselves in a manner than was unassuming.

We were not loud, being inconsiderate of others, or acting like we were the only ones in the area.  When you travel to another country, you are a representative of your country.  You want to be respectable of others and show that not all Americans are as bad as other countries think.  Why give people a reason to speak negatively about Americans unless you give them a reason to?  We were casual and civilized, blending into the local culture and enjoying each day as it comes.

To me, one of the best aspects of international travel is the food.  Being able to try certain foods in that cuisines origin, prepared by the locals who know how to prepare it right.  One has to leave their comfort zone to truly immerse the taste buds during  an international vacation to really enjoy it. It’s a great chance to take culinary chances with cuisine you would not normally try. If you find chain restaurants, you will never have a true experience. You can have great choices in a country where they prepare it the best with the proper ingredients

Once you indulge all your senses in a foreign country can one truly understand what an experience it is to be there.  Not sure from what you can see, hear, and touch.  But the smells and tastes of such great food that begs to be tried by foreigners.  It is OK to test the waters with a foot, but always best to dive right in and immerse yourself fully.  No regrets.

Keeping in mind that England and the rest of the UK is five hours ahead, we decided to leave at night and arrive early the next morning.  It gave us more time that first day rather than flying in later.  After being picked up at the airport and settling into our hotel, there was only one thing on our mind.


Technically, we had not eaten since the day before so a meal was something we needed.  After receiving directions from the  concierge we walked to The Strand across the Waterloo Bridge, several blocks of local businesses, pubs, and restaurants.  After walking up and down the street we settled on Garfunkel’s (, a chain that offers great breakfast, sandwiches, and other fare.

They have a great menu, lot of great choices.  I did not want anything too big so I ordered their chicken club sandwich.  I wanted more protein that carbs.  This sandwich was huge.  Packed with grilled chicken breast, bacon, egg, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise on white toast.  Served with cole slaw and chips as well.  The chips are done right in the UK.  Thick cut and friend to a nice crisp without overkill.  The way chips should be done.

The sandwich was filling, but not quite enough as Gina ordered sticky toffee Pudding.  Delicious toffee sponge, drenched in sweet sticky toffee sauce topped with vanilla ice cream.  What decadence.  We had to share this delight.  As much as we shared, we did not finish it off.  We could have finished a few of them.

UKEdit1From there we walked along South Bank, a walking section along the River Thames showcasing a younger, artsy side of London.  A lot of restaurants, art exhibits, skateboarders, and tourists out to see the views from the river.  London Eye and the Aquarium is right at the beginning and just across the bridge from these locations is Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and other local attractions.  We managed to set ourselves up in a great central location.

We scouted out some of the restaurants along South Bank.  Aside from some club style outdoor bars and a few cafe style eateries/bars there were some trendy restaurants.  Strada offered Tuscan style Italian cooking while Giraffe was a fusion of different world cuisines.  In between these was Yo! Sushi which I will get into later, and a few other trendy spots.  It really set itself apart from the traditional pub scene.

South Bank seemed to be a hot spot for an evening crowd.  It doesn’t matter the crowd you travel with, all are welcome the same.  Even tourists.  It is easy to relax and just be casual with so many strangers.  Maybe small chit-chat once in a while for a good laugh can happen.  No stress to be had.

The second day we knew we needed a good breakfast to start the day off right.  We headed back to South Bank and remembered a small cafe style restaurant under the Waterloo Bridge.  They had a short menu for breakfast.  Some sandwiches, pastries, and breads.  We headed to the left side where a kitchen and menus were.  We were then told that breakfast was ordered at the bar.  Yes, the bar.  It seemed the bar handled breakfast.  They did have the coffee over there so I guess it makes sense.

Gina headed over to the bar and ordered our breakfast.  She had scrambled eggs on toast and I have English sausage on toast.  It had a nice deep, spicy flavor.  Not the kind of sausage we have for breakfast over here.  The second half Gina and I traded a little to have an egg and sausage sandwich.  Plus, one needs to order Coffee Americano if they want an American style coffee/  Otherwise it is all lattes, cappuccino, espresso, etc. Americao White to order with milk.

From there we walked back around South Bank to cross the Westminster Bridge to get to our first stop, Westminster Abbey.  One has to pass Big Ben and Parliament in order to get there.  “Kids, look!  Big Ben, Parliament!”.  We were walking so there was no need for us to keep left.  Even walking by it I was still in awe of being there.  But once we entered Westminster Abbey, my facial expressions spoke the majority of my awe.

IMG_5478Only one day prior to us stepping foot in Westminster Abbey they were celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne.  To see all the royalty from Kings, Queens, Lords, Dukes, and so much more that were a part of the British Crown was amazing.  Not just their final resting place or memorial, but the Latin inscriptions and craftsmanship of it all.  Even American’s like Ben Franklin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt  had memorials there.  Yes, as time passed they paid tribute and have memorials set up for certain Americans.

I was soaking in all the history, reading the ages & stories of those immortalized there, grasping the scale of how much England covered throughout history.  Even if it was a church, it was still a spectacle for this American Jew.  When I got back and talked about seeing history that was older than our country, I mainly got “You should visit Israel”.  Sorry, but there are other countries and history I would prefer to see first.  I have others I’d prefer to get to first.  A visit to Israel will come eventually.

The highlight for me at Westminster Abbey was seeing memorials and resting places for some of history’s greatest writers and poets.  Names like Charles Dickens, T.S. Elliott, Lewis Carroll, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Lear, Jane Austin, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, and one of the greatest, Geoffrey Chaucer.  You could even see and touch Chaucer’s final resting place.  For an aspiring writer, it was a moment to remember for eternity.  I love Chaucer’s work.

England Vacation - Day 2Many critics, friends, and others gave a thumbs down to the movie “A Knight’s Tale” due to its use of current rock music, modern trendy sense, and countless other no-no’s.  I loved the film for Paul Bettany’s portrayal of Geoffrey Chaucer.  His part was written superbly.  His comedic timing and demeanour added to the great lines scripted for him.  Showing the pitfalls of a writer’s vices to his greatest moments giving introductions to the masses, Bettany gave the viewer a true perspective on how this writer may have lived.  Scenes of the movie were going through my head standing next to Chaucer’s tomb.

After taking in all the history Westminster Abbey had for us we ventured right over to Buckingham Castle.  There are maps on certain corners mapping out the nearest sights & tourists destinations.  We followed them for a bit and there stood before us the residence of the Queen.  One watches events on TV or sees it in film, but that is nothing compared to seeing it up close.  Well, at least from the gate like everyone.  Staring in, we gawkers are at least hoping to catch some glimpse of what goes on there.  Speculation says she Queens… and vacuums.

So I watched National Lampoons European Vacation a few hundred times.  Yes, I did think of the movie at certain spots in London.  Yes, I did bring a Walley World T-shirt with me over to London.  No, I could not find nor did we stay in the Royal Imperial Windsor Arms.  There is a little Clark Griswold in all of us.  Just have yet to see Christie Brinkley pull up next to me.  But I digress.

IMG_5545We hung out at the gates and statue across from the Castle for a bit, planning our next move.  We had great weather the entire time in London as New Jersey was being soaked on, imagine that.  Staying hydrated was a priority as in addition to heat, was all our walking.  So as we headed down The Mall with St. James Park to the right of us.  Was a nice brisk walk with some lush gardens and trees surrounding us.

By the end of the road we had gotten to Trafalgar Square and rested up at Pret A Manager.  A great little cafe serving fresh sandwiches, coffee, tea, and other pastries and cold beverages.  Plus, they have free wi-fi.  They are a chain with locations in the United States, definitely worth a visit.  Trust me, go in.  Hooking into these little chain’s wi-fi hotspots makes it a little easier to get around and still be “social media engaged”.

Right up a few roads was Piccadilly Circus.  A mecca for shopping in London.  Regent Street seemed to have everyone.  From Michael Koors and Burberry to Calvin Klein and Coach.  Tons of great shops lined the street and adjacent ones.  Even a Whole Foods is right off Regent Street.  Yes, one will find the typical tourist merchandise stores, but for those wanting a true piece of fashion in London might spend a little more.

IMG_5611All we did was window shop and walk into a few stores.  My wife’s sister asked her to go to Burberry for a small wallet, saying it should not be expensive.  Uh, we were not quite sure what she considered “inexpensive” as one of their most inexpensive ones was about $280 in American dollars.  Well, we just looked at each other, laughed, then walked out.  Very nice shop and some great merchandise, just not what we were looking to pay for anything at that point.

We even found London’s Chinatown.  A lot of great menus posted by many different Asian cushiness.  They were all represented in some fashion from one restaurant to the other.  It did not matter what you were in the mood for, someone was bound to have it.  Even the green tea cakes looks inviting.  As if to say “finish me now”.  We then looked at the time and thought we should head back and see where we wanted to have dinner.

We decided to head back to South Bank.  Some great places were less than half a mile from our hotel so they were in an optimal location.  We decided on Giraffe (  Having linking issues.  Giraffe is about exploring the wonderful foods from around the globe and opening our ears to music from around the world.  The atmosphere is casual & relaxed.  Some great fusion concepts amongst steaks, great pastas, sandwiches, and burgers.  A lot of great choices.

IMG_5595Giraffe is operated by the original founders Juliette and Russel Joffe and Andrew Jacobs who all have an active role in the day to day management of the business.  Giraffe was acquired in March 2013 by Tesco as part of its strategy to utilize some of the space in their larger stores, creating retail destinations that offer customers, in particular families, a compelling experience outside of their weekly shopping trip.
So to start, I had the Orange BBQ Duck Tostada.  A crisp corn tortilla topped with sticky orange pepper bbq duck, shredded salad & fresh red chili.  The duck was so tender and just kind of melted as you ate it.  A great starter that is light and gives you a taste of duck if you never had it before.  I love duck and so many other types of game.  While over the length of the trip, I only had red meat 2-3 times.

As my main meal I ordered the Chili Beef Enchiladas.  Two small oven baked corn tortillas stuffed with chilli beef & herby rice, topped with adobe sauce, melting cheese, tomato salsa & toasted seeds. served with a chopped seasonal salad.  More like a forest.  Ingredients so fresh and not an overpowering spice.  Just enough to make sure one tastes the cilantro, one of my top favorite ingredients in any cuisine.  I could have eaten more, but then there would be no room for desert.

IMG_5445Chocolate Mousse Crunch made the perfect ending to a great meal.  Rich milk chocolate mousse topped with crushed cookies & cream.  Just enough in a martini glass.  Velvety smooth and rich.  I would have loved to have had a few dozen more, but then I would be walking out the door like John Candy in The Great Outdoors.  We had enough.  Another great day with tomorrow to look forward to.

On our third day we decided on Tower Bridge and the Tower of London as our focal point for the day.  So one of the best decisions we have to make comes up.  What should we have for breakfast.  A great choice was made, back to Garfunkel’s.  They had some great breakfast options on a fixed price menu.

English breakfast can be very heavy in meats and puddings, but not the traditional American style pudding.  The day before at Garfunkel’s we noticed they had great options for breakfast.  If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.  Plus Garfunkel’s has free wi-fi, which comes in handy so one does not incur a ton of roaming charges just to be able to post to Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook.  In less than two days of roaming I incurred an extra $100 in data roaming alone.  I turned it off and acted on wi-fi hotspots.

I went with two friend eggs, thick cut bacon, and baked beans.  A couple nice thick slices of brown bread accompanied the meal.  I liked this option for the protein content in relation to carbs in the meal.  With the walking we knew we were going to do, energy was needed to fuel us for a good part of the day.  No need for a half plate of home fries, not running a marathon.  Give me the beans before home fries for any breakfast.

Their coffee was some of the best we had over there.  One has to order “coffee Americano” in order to get a traditional American style coffee.  Garfunkel’s delivered.  They present a traditional British style cuisine in a New York street side restaurant setting.  Great traditional fare served fresh and delicious, with some American twists.  From what I hear, their Tower Burger is the item of choice amongst many.  Maybe next time.

UKEdit2Back over the Waterloo Bridge and onto Tower Path.  A walkway along the River Thames marked to make ones journey easier.  It was a great morning for a long walk.  We came across some artists with easels capturing a building dome and surroundings as their item for art.  I snapped off a couple of shots and we went along our way.  Everything from apartments and Starbucks to businesses & restaurants.  We walked along so much on this path, even a prison.

Clink Prison.  A name given to all the prisons that have stood on a number of sites in that vicinity.  The first prison in 1127 was a cellar in the Palace of the Bishop of Winchester, and the last was in Deadman’s Place (Park Street).  The prison held Protestant and Catholic religious martyrs at various times.  It was closed in 1780, when it was burned by the anti-Catholic Gordon rioters.

After another small distance was the dock and port for the final vessel of Sir Francis Duke.  A 16th century explorer, privateer, and English national hero has inspired countless generations across the world.  He was the first English Captain to circumnavigate the globe and played a vital role in the defense of England against the Spanish Armada in 1588.  He helped to lead England in becoming a Naval superpower of the time.

We could not go far without finding something historic.  Then came The Anchor Bankside.  I great old Pub first established in 1822.  We kept this place in the back of our minds for later.  The closer we walked to Tower Bridge the more mesmerized we were.  It is one thing to see places in books and on film, but in person in finally clicks.  That moment when you say “Holy Shit, I’m here”.  Every traveler has this moment when they are in the presence of something grand they never thought would be as close as their breath.

IMG_5660Tower Bridge is a sight.  One can not walk a few feet without someone taking a picture.  I snapped off my share and blended right in.  The craftsman ship and detail makes it appealing to the eye.  To see the history carved into different parts of the structure.  Very long walk to get to this point, but it was worth the distance.  There was a boat from the London Eye that could have taken us down there.  But we prefer to walk and see the eights along the way rather than just passing them on a boat.  Great day for cardio anyway.

As soon as you get over the bridge is the Tower of London.  Also there are the White Tower and other museums to spotlight the surrounding uses and military.  The uses of the Tower and structure were used to house royalty in periods of war.  Like a typical castle, there is a moat, dungeon, and jewels.  The museums are designed to showcase different periods and its history.  Showcasing different armors, weapons, clothing, and their background stories told great detail of what it would have been like in those times.

Every museum over there has their relics, World War I and II pieces along with their respective country’s history.  They are educational to go through.  Even detailing prison life on POW’s and even royals.  So to never be heard from again.  If it was not for England, the United States of America would not have happened.  In a way, if not for them, we would not be here.  Debate all you want, this is my opinion and I am sticking to it.  Pilgrims and others came here, but if not for the Colonies, no USA.  It does not take away from walking inside those castles and along the castle walls.

UKEdit3The Crown Jewels and other royal pieces were a highlight.  How often does one get to see ornate jewels, crowns, scepter’s, diamond encrusted swords, and more bling that would make P Diddy look like a chump.  Their bling has bling.  Even the dinner plates, silverware, goblets, and serving dishes were made out of gold.  No way to top that Jay-Z.

There was the rightly named Bloody Tower, one could walk along the East Wall facing the Thames River and Tower Bridge.  Great view and breeze on a perfect day there.  The history of reigns and regimes as well as their military strategies, weapons, and defenses was fascinating to learn.

I am just here to give you the highlights, folks!  I am not going to go into full on details as to what was at every castle location.  I am not a history professor.  I did learn a lesson or two every day though.  The best education can come right from a source.  Museums are great places for history and education.

After several hours we decide to head on back, but we had to make a stop first.  We stopped off at The Anchor for some fish & chips.  Every bar in The Anchor was made of old, dark wood.  Great in stature and attention to detail, every room appears frozen in time.  Many famous Englishmen have walked through their doors for close to 200 years.  We had to make this a stop for now just the fish & chips, but some beer.

Gina ordered a Guinness and after looking at their menu I ordered a Kronenbourg 1664.  Smooth, full-bodied Kronenbourg went down nice.  I was drinking, taking pride in knowing the alcohol content is higher over seas.  So this brew was a delight.  American beer is like having sex in a canoe, it’s f#%#*ing close to water.  After two beers I was feeling quite happy.  A great feeling came over me and just relaxed.  Why go anywhere?  Sit back and enjoy.

Camera Roll-164We ordered The Codfather off their menu.  The Codfather was their largest fish & chips dish.  A huge deep friend piece of cod and perfectly prepared chip.  The fish was crisp & crunchy outside, and tender & succulent inside.  The fish melted in your mouth.  The chips were perfect.  Thick cut, crisp outside, and fluffy interior.  I love their chips.  I have an Achilles heel for french fries/chips.  A great lunch with a great view from their outside portion.  Worth a stop on the way to the sights.

Enjoying a nice stroll back to the hotel for some rest, we talked about where we should have dinner.  Gina’s first choice was Strada.  Strada is a group of contemporary styled restaurants dedicated to providing authentic Italian dishes that offer a true taste of Italy.Strada is all about great quality, freshly prepared pizzas, pastas and risotto served in stylish, contemporary surroundings.  Another great menu we viewed earlier.

After some much-needed rest at the hotel we ventured right over to Strada.  We walk by a small section that seems to cater to street performers.  A fire-breathing tube player, acrobats, mimes, and more in our way everyday.  They can be very entertaining.  It’s not like New York City where they are really in your face.  These performers just sit back, do their thing, and engage the crowd intelligently.  Some can be fun to watch.

We had to wait on a small line at Strada as it appears it is a well liked place.  Ever restaurant along South Bank has tables outside as well as inside, and outside was jam-packed.  So we headed inside, no big deal.  Very young, trendy crowd.  Majority of the younger workforce carry backpacks, they are everywhere.  That made it easier for me to take mine everywhere and fit in at every restaurant we went to.  I did not feel like a tourist in that fashion.  When everyone has one, the more you can just fit right in.

Had to get a long look at the menu to find something different to try.  From what I saw on the menu, there would be a lot I would enjoy.  I am not a fan of big pasta dishes or a smothering or red sauce over a good protein dish.  Considering this is authentic Italian and not American inspired Italian, I figured I was safe from all that.  Judging by the dishes that passed us, I was.

My starter of choice was the Zuppa Vongole.  Their signature Sardinian soup with fresh clams, fregola pasta, white wine, red chili and parsley.  A great spice that you felt in the mouth, not the tongue.  The clams, still in their shell, gave the soup a sweet taste of the sea.  A fitting way to showcase the seafood without taking away from the soup’s flavor.

Time for the main course, Risotto Frutti Di Mare.  A terrific seafood risotto.  A rich seafood risotto of mussels, clams, king prawns and squid with tomatoes, chili, white wine, parsley and garlic.  The mark of any great restaurant is their risotto.  Once again, Strada delivered on a fantastic seafood dish.  Succulent king prawns, mussels and clams with their shells on so one can really taste the white wine and garlic in the dish.  One of those dishes where the less you say, the better the dish is.

So far we had not been disappointed in any place we have chosen to eat.  Everything we had decided to do in London, weather it be sightseeing or food, had been excellent to that point.  Even the weather was perfect since we arrived.  Can not plan that right, even if you try.  The hotel room though, not so much.  The pillows made it hard to sleep as they were too soft.  The bathroom was in the middle of the room and took up much of the room.  The wi-fi could not be access anywhere in the room but the small living  area with sofa by the front door.  Other than that, great hotel that is centrally located to a lot of attractions and restaurants.

Before we left on our trip, I purchased the Lowepro Photo Hatchback 16L AW.  A great everyday pack for photography.  Enough room for a camera, two lenses, and accessories.  The camera and lenses compartment is against ones back so no one can enter that compartment while walking.  A top section is big enough for an extras one needs to carry.  Two side pockets for water, a Joby, or any tall item.  I highly recommend this backpack for any photographer traveling.

Our fourth and final day we decided to have breakfast at the hotel.  They offer a breakfast buffet with includes eggs, breakfast meats, pastries, breads, and what any basic buffet would have.  It was OK at best.  The bacon was dry, the coffee tasted like it was filtered through a sock, and the whole breakfast was disappointing.  Neither of us really wanted more.  I can not really go into detail about a buffet I am not crazy about.  There are better ones I can discuss later.  Next stop, Harrod’s Department Store.

Harrod’s was a bit father than we thought, so walking would take too long.  So we opted for the taxi.  Driving in the UK takes learning.  The streets are narrow, they drive on the other side of the street, one can make U-turns anywhere, you can park on either side of the street regardless which way you are facing, and other items one would need sharp reflexes for.  It was fun getting there in the taxi.  The only thing our driver did not do was run red lights.

Camera Roll-175Harrod’s is a store unlike many shoppers have stepped foot into.  One could easily spend an entire day there and possibly not see everything.  They have everything and i mean EVERYTHING.  Jewelry, Men’s fashions, women’s fashions, kids fashion’s, exercise equipment, a toy store, electronics, an art gallery, a pen section, a fresh market, cafe’s, watches, a book store, kitchen appliances, bedding, full coffee and tea section, computers, cameras, and so many other areas Fifth Avenue is jealous.  If you think going to Garden State Plaza or Mall of America might be a shoppers paradise, head to Harrod’s.

Where does one begin.  We started in the market and went anywhere we saw food.  Gina and I looked at each other wondering how much room we had in our carry on luggage.  But alas, we knew we needed to be selective on what to bring back.  The rest can be ordered on line.  We purchased their tea and coffee.  Their house blend is excellent.  So much to try and smell, but not enough time to try it all.  Even a couple small restaurants right off their market.  From there we started at the top and worked our way down.

They had a nice book area.  A Bond on Bond 007 book piqued my interest enough to purchase.  Off the book area was their art gallery.  Some very intriguing sculptures and still art.  My focus was on some of the Andy Warhol pieces that hung in the gallery.  The use of James Dean and Theodore Roosevelt with such vibrant color were captivating.  A piece not by Warhol of Courtney Love holding Kurt Cobain in her arms was a little disturbing.  A few of the sculptures did stand out to me and gave me questions to ponder over.  They left you questioning their intent or message.

England Vacation - Day 4From there the order of departments is kind of a blur.  You go from one concentrated section to the other and back again, you can wind up in the same section a few times.  One needs a Wonkavator to truly handle all the department’s at Harrod’s.  A great selection of cardio equipment, weights, and other various fitness machines were available to anyone looking to install a home gym.  Some pieces I wish NYSC had.  The toy store area had their Disney department, super heroes, Lego, Playmobil, Star wars, Spider Man, and everything else to occupy your child while you shop away everywhere else.  They had quite a selection.

The men’s and women’s fashion departments had all the top designers.  I am not about to ramble them off, visit Harrod’s website for that info.  The prices are what you expect, so we keep walking.  Not too much of a difference in some areas and higher in others.  The women’s accessories, handbags, and other female targeted sections had every single designer a fashion conscious woman could want.  Department areas that sold handbags had guards in them.  Not just the jewelry areas, handbags too.

Like a good husband I waited at the right times in those areas.  This way nothing could be said when I wanted to take a little more time in the electronics and camera set ions.  Needed to look at the items I want and can’t afford.  Window shopping, man style.  We walk about the electronics and entertainment section the same way an eight year old looks at ice cream.  My wife found a brand of stockings she loved so much, she went on-line to order more.  We were selective with purchases albeit could have been much worse.

So many items, so little baggage space.  We were very conservative in our shopping.  It was getting late enough to where we wanted lunch.  In one of the food halls was Galvin Demoiselle.  Galvin Demoiselle opened in March 2012, and is situated in Harrods striking fruit, vegetable and pantry food hall on the ground floor. This bijou bistro offers quality French cuisine combined with Galvin’s warm, friendly hospitality in a unique, elevated location, overlooking the bustle of the food hall.

Ideal for shoppers looking for light dishes and refreshments, Chris and Jeff Galvin have created a menu including Soupe du Jour, charcuterie, Cocottes, salads and light fish dishes, plus their popular signature dishes of apple tarte tatin and confit of duck, and vegetarian options. The menu also offers a selection of cakes and the Demoiselle afternoon tea.  They have two star Michelin rating chefs taking care of the food.

England Vacation - Day 4After a small wait we were seated in a tight seating area.  Matter of fact, the entire restaurant seating was just as packed.  The bistro was not designed for all day tea sipping.  Considering where our lunch was located we decided to see how far out of the box we can find something fantastic on this menu.  Gina decided on the Baked Lobster Fishake while I chose the Crisp Duck Leg Confit.  Neither of us made a bad decision.

My duck leg was cooked perfectly, trimmed delicately, and tasted heavenly.  Just the way duck should be.  The dish was a perfect example of how duck should be prepared.   Gina was loving the lobster.  I tried a piece and it was divine.

We had a little laugh enjoying it all.  Taking in the moment of realizing where we were.  Enjoying a meal in a restaurant, in a store, in a city I still find myself amazed to be in.  I was playing “Once in A Lifetime” by the Talking Heads over and over.  David Byrne singing “How did I get here”?  One of the best meals I had indulged in, in a very long time.  It capped off a perfect time at Harrod’s.  Well, not exactly perfect.  I would have preferred walking out like a Lotto winner.  Extra cars in tow.

Outside were a line of taxi’s, just waiting.  Very easy to get a cab.  The driver needed to do a U-turn, so right then and there, he did.  We were laughing to ourselves at a legal, brazen U-turn in the middle of a main street.  No accidents, no crashes, no fights, and no yelling.  He turned and off we went as did everyone else.  The roads are tight enough, last thing anyone wants is an accident.  Fast decisions and patience is needed to drive in England.  The driving attitude one has here can not be used in another country.  You have to see how it works first and decide if it is worth the hassle.

After drooping our plunder off at the hotel we decided to take a shorter route to Trafalgar Square.  A great open center for everyone to enjoy.  At the base of the main statue were four lions.  We decided to do as best as we can to get a picture with them.  I succeeded in the climb.  It was a good feeling being up there.  Besides to sit and look around, not much else was going on.  So we headed right back to Piccadilly Circus.  After a couple turns, we ended up at the M&M’s store, and more free wi-fi.

My PhotoWe have been to the M&M’s stores in Las Vegas and New York City.  They all have the same set up geared to the city they are in.  They had the M&M’s in a “Walk on Abbey Road” piece in the store.  plus each M&M character was depicted in a British style.  It was fun to see how they were positioned.  We still believe the Las Vegas location is the best as it also has a Coke store side.  Always the best part is the create your own blend of M&M’s.  Just put your mouth under and pull.

We just walked about to see more stores from there.  One was a huge tourist store in the heart of Piccadilly Circus, Cool Britannia .  To quote Queen “they have it all”.  From T-shirts, pens, and posters to luggage, beer glasses and iPhone cases.  A whirlwind of merchandise and chachkies surrounded us.  If you really needed Union Jack underwear, they had it.  Any “Keep Calm” item you could ever want.  Did someone say “Do they have any Beatles items”?  Why yes they do!  Not into a lot of it, but an item or two did find its way out of the store with us.

It was getting to be that time for dinner.  The first place I blurted out was Yo! Sushi.  What is Yo! Sushi you say?  Well then, let me explain.  Yo! Sushi brings the use of a conveyor belt into the equation to ge sushi to customers.  You have a seat either bar style or booth style by a part of the conveyor belt.  Your wasabi, chopsticks, soy sauce, and even water is right there.  Very convenient placement for these high use items.  The different dishes of sushi pass by on the conveyor belt.  Each item is color coded for price.  Just pick out the items you want and enjoy.  They total your plates up at the end.

My PhotoIt was a fun sushi experience.  Kick back and just watch the unending conveyor of sushi.  I loved it.  My plates were piling up too.  Some great tuna, shrimp, eel sushi amongst the usual sushi rolls, even lightly fried ones.  Even some fried beef was in the action.  Not a lot of meat at a sushi bar.  There were timestamps on each dish so you know when it was made.  They do remove ones past their time stamp.  It kept a fresh flow going.  In the end I had a pretty nice stack of plates.  Very easy to keep eating and pay more than you wanted.  Keep an eye on it.  There are a few locations here in the United States.  New Jersey and Washington D.C. to name a few.

The next day we were off to Dublin, Ireland for the second leg of our vacation.  We needed to relax and call it an early night.  Not sure what early is over there as it is still light out after 9 PM.  The pillows on the bed provided no support.  Hard to get a good nights sleep.  Driving your mate out of bed is also not a good feeling.  So you can imagine how the following day traveling night be.  That night felt long.  As if morning wanted a day off itself.  Even though little sleep be had, there was an excitement to head to Ireland.

I could not post every picture I took here.  To see more pictures, visit my Flickr album (;bprod) or my Facebook page.  Both links are on the home page of my website.  Having linking issues to put them here.

We did not want to leave London.  The time spent there was spent to the fullest.  A definite thought to go back and experience more in the future.  We packed so much into a short period of time, but still more awaits.  Abbey Road, Hyde Park, and so much more.  Ireland was an adventure waiting.  We looked back as we headed to the airport with a sense of “wow”.  Knowing there will be many more of those experiences in the coming week.

England Vacation - Day 2Out of Heathrow we flew Aer Lingus over to Dublin.  About an hour flight, easy ride.  Or at least we thought.  Nothing wrong with the plane right at all, that was great and smooth.  Just another passenger.  A loud American going on about previous vacations.  I think that is a story best left for when I go into Ireland.  More to come in detail later from different parts of our trip.  Until then, see you next time with Dublin, Ireland.

Better wait than never.

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