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UK 2015: London – Day 2

Friday morning we awoke to a beautiful morning of blue skies, so we decided to explore Notting Hill. We started along the famous Portobello Road, and quickly found several interesting shops and road stalls, bringing home several origami butterflies from one store, and a sketch of St. Pauls Directly from an artist with a stall on the street. Part way up the road we took a detour to explore some of the beautiful homes nearby (!) then met up with our crew by the Tube station.

Notting Hill  Notting Hill

St John's Church  flowery stairs in Notting Hill

Everyone was hungry so we decided to go to First Floor Restaurant for lunch. I ordered the chicken caesar salad (Leandra had my anchovies – she said yum) and a half-pint of cider, while Leandra had the mussels (yet again) and a glass of rose. The food was tasty, but service was a little slow and we may have been better off with street food or one of the other cafes.

Down the street there were some great dessert stalls, so we got a florentine (almonds, cherries and chocolate cookie) and a chocolate pecan tart. Leandra searched for the blue door of the eponymous ‘Notting Hill’ movie and eventually found it.

Notting Hill Market  the blue door in Notting Hill
Notting Hill market on a Friday; the blue door from the movie ‘Notting Hill’

From here we decided to give our friends a taste of east London, so we took the tube to Shoreditch and walked over to the Old Spitalfields market. It was a little after 4p when we arrived, so parts of the market were packing up, but we managed to find some fun t-shirts and a good deal on four decorative dessert plates. As we learned on our last trip, this area has some great street art, so we spent about an hour exploring the side streets off Brick Lane; finding some old faves and quite a few new ones too.

Otto Schade  rude kids

street art  hug

birds

pumpkin face  secret society

After a quick change of clothes at the we headed back out for dinner. We were a little early for our reservation so we stopped off for a quick cider (me) and Cottage Brewing street porter (Leandra) at the Fitzrovia pub.

Dinner was at Da Paolo with our group and Leandra’s Aunt Kim and Jules, then drinks afterwards in the bustling and expensive Charlotte Street Hotel’s Oscar Bar. The big hit of the night was discovering a new (to us) drink called “Scottish Lover” that we need to recreate at home!

dinnerphoto
photo courtesy of our waiter via Jules’ phone

posing @ the Charlotte Hotel
We didn’t leave till they were shutting the bar down at 1am!

By the time we left the tube was closed, so we had ~1 mile walk back to hotel – as usual, we had a memorably fun evening in London!

UK 2015: London – Day 1

Thursday

We arrived in London’s Kings Cross station, adjacent to the beautiful old brick St. Pancras station. Due to our unfortunate visit to the lost & found office, we also saw the famous track 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter books.

King's Cross  didn't see Harry Potter, unfortunately!
not pictured – a line of tourists waiting to have their photo taken with the trolley, complete with scarves!

Though we’ve been to London many times, Leandra has always visited in the fall or winter. Given the nice weather we decided to head to Kensington Gardens to fully enjoy the spring day, a good choice given the flowers in bloom around the palace.

Kensington Gardens

Kensington Gardens

Italian Gardens

On our way back to the tube Leandra made some new feathered friends, courtesy of an older gentleman who gave her a handful of seeds to share.

making friends with a rose-ringed parakeet
rose-ringed parakeet

A week before our trip we had booked theater tickets with a 7:30p showing, so we decided on an early dinner at Ember Yard. Their small plates menu was perfect for a pre-show dinner. Here is what we tried:

  • Course #1: Padron peppers / grilled flat bread
  • Course #2: Smoked burger / smoked bream carpaccio
  • Course #3: Cheese plate

Wait staff were quite helpful, definitely earned the 12.5% service charge that was added to our check.  Especially nice was their help with tastings of wines that were offered by the glass, where they brought bottles of interest to the table and explained the Spanish or Italian varietals. We definitely enjoyed our meal here.

Ember Yard  smoked fish tapa

The show we choose was A Mad World, My Masters, playing at the Barbican Theater. While it would have been easier to get to and from the Barbican tube stop, we were on a different line and had to walk up from St. Paul’s so it was a little more confusing. The Barbican is a big complex of art venues, and the theater had nice seats with good leg room and seat width, quite unlike some of the older venues in London! The show itself was a retelling of a Jacobean play, set in a 50’s theme… quite bawdy, over-the-top, and lots of fun!

It's Mad World My Masters

After the show we visited our favorite bar in London, Craft. I found a sour saison from Anspach and Hobday, while Leandra ordered the Charlie Brown (peanut butter porter) from Thornbridge. We managed to find an open table in the basement and discussed plans for our next full day in London as we enjoyed our lovely beers.

UK 2015: First Class train to London

There was enough drama with our connecting flight from London to Edinburgh (AA and BA changing the flight time – multiple times) that we were happy we chose the train for the return leg. Because we purchased the tickets so far in advance (November), we got a great price on the first class cabin that included drinks, food, and more comfortable seats.

First class also meant we could use the lounge before the train departed. This was a mixed bag as the lounge entrance is not obvious at all, plus you have to go up a flight of stairs or cram into a tiny elevator to get to the seating area. There were some chairs and tables but overall it was pretty run down and none of the monitors showing the train times were operational. The snacks and coffee machines were nice though.

selfie-trainstation
our last Scotland group selfie of the trip!

Eric had chosen our seats when he bought the tickets but when we got on the train only two of us were actually seated next to each other. Not exactly sure what happened there! Most of the luggage compartments were completely full by the time we boarded, so I would also recommend getting on the train as soon as it arrives.

fields of rape seed (canola oil)
many, many fields of rape seed (used to make canola oil)

The four-hour journey was pleasant enough — the food was pretty good but the wine was fairly terrible. I also managed to forget the plastic bag with our snacks and one of my scarves under the seat next to me when we disembarked. The lost and found guy was friendly and I filled out a report but no luck getting our things back.

We each had several bottles of whisky, so for the price and convenience of not having to check bags and wait for them at the airport, the train was a perfect solution for us. Plus, we had never stayed near Kings Cross before, so it was a new section of the city to explore.

Winter Weekend in London: Overview and Thursday

In November we found an outstanding deal for the direct flight from RDU to London, so we booked a long weekend trip for February. London is a favorite city to visit (2016201520142013, 2012…) so we knew it wouldn’t be hard to fill our time! For this trip we based ourselves near the Earl’s Court tube stop and focused on culture (museums and theater) and exploring a few new-to-us neighborhoods (Little Venice and Angel/Islington).

Where We Stayed

This was our third stay at the Hotel Indigo and it was fraught with issues. Our room was ready at 8:30am which was a huge bonus. However, we were located in the basement through a series of fire doors and uneven steps; our location also meant that the window was below ground and next to the sidewalk, so we had the curtains drawn the whole time. The air vent in the room rattled on and off consistently for our entire four-night stay (even after complaining to the front deck twice), and the internet was spotty at best (with multiple trips to the front desk for fixes – they said they were getting a new provider soon).  On the upside, the bed was comfortable, and as usual, the location works well for us.

our bedroom @ Hotel Indigo London - Kensington  our personalized message
our room; even the TV’s personalized room message was broken

Thursday

Our flight across the pond was uneventful and after checking in we headed out into the brisk morning to Borough Market for cheese, bread and snacks. But first! The iconic views of London — Big Ben and the London Eye.

Big Ben and Westminsterthe Eye (sponsored by Coca Cola) 

We also wanted to check out the Leake Street graffiti tunnel. There were a few choice murals and paste-ups but mostly basic tagging.

gas mask  El Trumpo

make my day  he's mine at least 

A few stops later on the Jubilee line and we arrived at Borough Market just as things were opening to pick up a second breakfast. We found fresh raspberries, British cheese and a baguette, plus a Venison meat stick for Leandra, which she snacked on for the remainder of the trip.

tasty cheese @ Borough Market cheese @ Borough Market

We stopped in briefly to the Southwark Cathedral to see if we could eat our lunch in the courtyard but no food was allowed. Instead we admired the architecture and the sleepy resident cat curled up on a comfy chair near the altar.

Wooden Effigy of a Knight @ Southwark Cathedral

Another few stops on the Jubilee line took us to Canary Wharf and the Museum of London Docklands. Free, as most museums are in London, this museum explained the interesting history of London along the Thames – development, labor strikes, WWII, etc, with lots of displays and artifacts across the centuries. We enjoyed our visit to this quirky museum, and would definitely recommend it for history buffs.

It was terribly windy in London on Thursday but nowhere more so than the docklands around the museum. Crossing the North Dock footbridge to the museum and waiting for the West India Quay Overground train left us completely wind-blown.

Dragging after the long overnight flight, we headed back to the room for a quick nap, then beers at our old favorite, Cask Pub & Kitchen. We arrived just in time to grab a table and the place filled up quickly as people got off from work. Leandra choose small pours of the Atom Neutron Star, an imperial stout, and the Tiny Rebel Dirty Stop Out, a smoked oat stout. I was very happy that one of my favorite beers was on tap, Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus, so that was a definite first for me. For my second, I tried the Wyper & True Mimosa, a Berliner Weisse that was a bit too light after my delicious lambic.

dressed up for beers @ Cask Pub & Kitchen  red, blonde and dark beers
Leandra in a dress (!) drinking beer; a red, a blonde and a brunette

Finally, we met Kim and Jules for late dinner at Boisdale of Belgravia, a boisterous restaurant with live jazz and a Scottish menu. Pricey but classy and tasty.

jazz @ Boisdale of Belgravia

After a long day we slept very well that evening!

Scotland, April 2015

The Quaich Bar @ the Craigellachie Hotel

Flickr photo set

Blog posts

UK 2015: overview

In late April we traveled to the UK with a group of friends. Altogether we spent eight days traveling around Scotland, where Leandra drove over 900 miles (!) in six days; then onto London for two nights. Our adventure took us past many castles, quite a few hills and lochs, a sun-filled snow storm, and elevated our Scotch whisky experience to a new level.

Scotland-Driving-Map
click to enlarge map

Where we stayed

Park Inn by Radisson, Glasgow

We knew parking in Glasgow would be challenging given the downtown location of this hotel, so we emailed a week before and were given the address of a parking garage that would charge us 7 pounds for 24 hours.

On arrival we pulled up to the hotel to find no available loading zone plus a giant trash bin blocking the front of the hotel. With nowhere convenient to unload the car we just drove to the recommended parking garage about 6 blocks south walked our luggage back to the hotel. On check-in we asked if we needed to do anything special to validate our parking, and found out we had to leave the car in the garage for 24 hours and couldn’t take it out… so basically there was only a special rate if we parked for a whole day, something that was definitely not clear in their communication. Because we parked the car for less time (16 hours), we had to pay the standard garage rate of 14 pounds. We later discovered that street parking was free overnight on the weekends.

Our room was on the 2nd floor and along the main road, so it was a little noisy at night. As usual we had our earplugs so it wasn’t an issue. The room size was fine, with a good size closet and enough space to open our bags. The desk had easy-to-access outlets too.

glasgow-bath  glasgow-bed

The hotel itself has a great location, with the train station quite convenient and quite a few great bars and restaurants very close. (Though the front desk staff didn’t have any specific suggestions on that front either.)

Ben A’an House, Callander

Our group of 5 had all three rooms in this B&B. Our room had an ensuite bathroom, and a low bed and large wardrobe in a room with high ceilings and detailed crown moldings. Not too fancy and certainly comfortable enough. Our room faced the street, but Callander is pretty quiet at night so noise was not a problem.

calender-bed

Breakfast was fine with the usual selection of eggs how you like, bacon, blood sausage, haggis, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast.

The other two rooms shared a bathroom across the hall. Showers in both were a little tricky as you needed to start the hot water with a pull chain. Street parking was easy as we found a spot within a block each time we needed one.

Strathallan Guesthouse, Grantown on Spey

The Strathallan Guesthouse was a wonderful experience. On arrival the exterior was wonderfully decorated, and even had a bit of snow!  We received a warm reception from the owner who gave us a quick tour.

scot-101

Our room was large with plenty of space to spread out. There was a small table in the window with two chairs, and very comfortable four-poster bed. Our hosts had included several nice touches like a glass of whisky and chocolates on the dresser.

gos-bed

The bathroom had a marvelous soaking tub and a lot of space.

Breakfast was also quite filling and tasty. Each evening we made selections for the next morning, with plenty of options available. Leandra thought this was the best haggis she’s tried in Scotland. Definitely a good choice for the area, we would easily consider a return on a future trip.

Clamshell Land Apartment Royals Mile, Edinburgh

You definitely can’t beat the location of this apartment – in the middle of the Royal Mile, a few minutes walk from the train station. The apartment itself was fairly modern with high ceilings and lots of technical touches. We had a small bedroom with en-suite bathroom, while the other two bedrooms shared a huge bathroom.

royalmileviews
our view of the Royal Mile just outside our front door!

Both bathrooms were a little weird. For example, the light switch activated the locks for the doors – if you hit the lights before you closed both doors the lock wouldn’t engage, and you had to hit the lights to properly unlock the door. Both were a little difficult for people to remember. Our bathroom was quite narrow with the shower head right in the middle. While it looked cool, it meant that the entire room got wet each time the shower was used and you had to wade across a wet floor to use the toilet. Given the large sauna that was attached, it would be a lot nicer to have a bath/shower room with a door instead.

The living room was nicely sized and comfortable. Given the technology theme, it was equipped with a Sonos player, and the TV had netflix and amazon streaming. The kitchen was well stocked with supplies too.

One item to note: it was a bit difficult to get a hold of the owner/manager via email or text, so we resorted to phone calls. Also, they were quite late to show us around the apartment; however, he was quite apologetic, and gave us a bottle of sauvignon blanc wine as an apology.

Premier Inn London St.Pancras

With a great location one block from the tube and train station, the Premier Inn was a convenient spot for us on this trip. The hotel had check-in via kiosk, which was relatively easy, and our room was ready at 2pm. The room itself was rather small, consistent with London rooms in general, and had a very small window to an interior courtyard. There was no closet, just a small rack with a few hangers available for clothes. The bathroom was fine, a bit more spacious than the rest of the room with an all-in-one body and hair wash dispenser in lieu of bottled amenities. Overall it was clean, in a good location, and reasonably priced.

Scotland 2017: waterfalls and whisky!

Back in late November, whilst enjoying the end of a warm day in New Zealand, we discovered some great deals to the UK. After some discussion we booked two trips, one to London in February, and a second that had us flying into Inverness, Scotland in late April.

With tickets in hand we knew we’d want to spend one or two days at the Craigellachie Hotel so we emailed a reservation request (yes, they don’t have an online system…). A day after an initial confirmation we received a notice that the hotel prices were higher for our weekend of interest due to a whisky festival, the Spirit of Speyside. This was the same festival we had just missed on our April 2015 trip, so in a stroke of serendipity, we had now had a chance to try it.

Of course, we also wanted to see some new parts of Scotland, so we planned two daytrips from Inverness, followed by two days of whisky events from Craigellachie. Altogether, this latest trip to Scotland lead to some beautiful views and amazing experiences.

 
where we were in Scotland; a detailed driving map (click image for larger version)

Plus a few new items for our collection…

our haul from Scotland!

Where we stayed

Eskdale Guest House – Inverness

A small B&B on the corner of A82 and a few blocks from the river and the downtown restaurants. Our room was comfortable and a good size, though a little loud given its location on the corner of the main road (earplugs helped there). The owner was very friendly and provided a tasty and quite filling breakfast – especially the banana bread, which was amazingly good.

eggs and salmon @ Eskdale Guest House 

Also, off-street parking was a great perk. We would return on our next trip to the area.

The Craigellachie Hotel

As mentioned above, this hotel is a little quirky with regard to reservations, as we had to email. That may be in part due to their location in a tiny village along the river Spey. The hotel lobby had a lovely little fire going while we checked in, and we were given a heavy salmon key fob with directions to a room above the lobby. The rationale for that became clear when we headed up the stairs to find no numbers on the doors!

Our room was smallish and sparsely decorated but had enough space with a closet and desk on one side, and the firm but comfortable bed on the other. Of note, both places we stayed provided Walkers shortbread biscuits, a nice treat. The bathroom was nicely appointed but the shower was a little too small, and it was hard not to bump into the sides.

'snug room' @ Craigellachie Hotel  our bathroom @ Craigellachie Hotel

Breakfast was served in a bright room off the lobby, and included pastries and other cold items on a small buffet along with menu items made to order. Very tasty and filling!

Of course, we had chose The Craigellachie Hotel for its location in the heart of Speyside and for the Quaich bar, and it’s hard to beat either! We certainly hope to return in the future.

scotland-112

Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport – London

A good spot for our overnight given its location one tube stop from the airport along the main Piccadilly line. We’ve stayed here several times previously, and they’ve renovated since our previous visit. This time we were assigned a king room on the 7th floor. As usual, the windows are great at keeping sound out, and the room is great for an overnight. Since our Heathrow lounge access has changed, this time we tried the breakfast buffet, and it was quite good with a range of hot and cold items. Overall a nice stay.