Scotland 2017: layover in London

What to do with a half day in London? How about enjoying art, beer, and a show?

We started at one of our favorite museums, the National Gallery. Leandra hadn’t seen Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene (a special exhibit) so I insisted we start there. After that we explored several of our favorite rooms for the Monet, Van Gogh, and many other masterpieces, then made our way to the Reubens and Rembrandt exhibition.

mural @ National Gallery

admiring art at National Gallery

As we left a brief rain cleared out the sidewalk in front of the museum.

rainy London afternoon

The Whiskey exchange is only a few blocks away, so we headed there to pick up a bottle of Kilchoman Sanaig which we hadn’t purchased in Scotland.

Since it was May Day, restaurant hours were a bit off – Gordon’s Wine Bar cellar was packed inside when we arrived, and our second choice, Terroirs, was closed. Instead, we walked up to Craft, where we managed to get a table from a departing group. I went with the Partizan lemongrass saison, a beer I’ve had in London before – a nice mild tartness, quite refreshing, good with food – and then a Calypso Siren. Leandra went for the Pig&Porter dance first stout – quite lite but serviceable. With a 7:30p show we also needed to eat early, so we ordered the oak smoked brisket and the applewood smoked pork. Both were really nice, a great snack!

Around 7p we got the theater to pick up our tickets and find our seats for a show we’ve wanted to see for a while, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As usual, we found a good deal on some last minute tickets just a few days earlier. We both enjoyed the staging and production, and we’re quite glad we experienced it before they closed their London run in June.

All in all, another great day in London.

Scotland 2017: Spirit of Speyside day 2

For our last day in Scotland we mixed several Spirit of Speyside events along with some drives and hikes through the beautiful countryside. I started off the morning with a photo session of the Craigellachie bridge.

Craigellachie Bridge  Craigellachie Bridge

Craigellachie Bridge

After a big breakfast at the hotel we drove south toward our first stop of the day, Glenlivet’s open house. But first we had one small detour to the old bridge of Livet, which looks like something from Lord of the Rings.

double packhorse bridge

Parking at Glenlivet was a bit confused, but after a few minutes someone left and we found a space. On our way to the party we stopped at their tiny still to try the raw spirit – lightly smoked and strong!

Glenlivet still

Inside there were several booths with cheese, spices, etc. Leandra really enjoyed the spice table with Ghilli Basan and came away with her own flavored nut mix. A food demo in the corner was quite interesting, with combinations of local foraged items paired with Glenlivet whisky. Of note: the gorse petal cocktail was really good, as was the cake and aloroso-barrel whisky pairing. In between their cooking demos the live music was also entertaining and surprisingly good. We each received a dram with our entrance, so we choose the Glenlivet 18 (very light, floral, not for me) and the Nadurra (oak and cedar, richer, but still lighter side. Fairly nice.).

making my own spice mix w/ Ghillie Basan @ Glenlivet  whisky and food pairings @ Glenlivet

Glenlivet

Our next stop was the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, our favorite whisky shop! We spent a happy 1.5 hours here chatting with Sam, the owner, and other patrons. Sam helped Leandra find a Glenrinnes while I tried a lovely 7 year red wine barrel Caol Illa – the tannin was noticeable so I switched to a Bruichladdich instead. The Gordon & MacPhail tasting rep also convinced us on the Benriach cask – lighter than ours, more vanilla and fruit. Definitely tastes better after sitting for 20 mins, and with water.

The Whisky Castle (our favorite shop in Scotland)

The drive from Tomintoul back north to Dufftown was beautiful and filled with farms with sheep and pheasants abound!

lambs at play

wild pheasant

Compared to the Whisky Castle, our stop at the Whisky Shop Dufftown was more crowded and less helpful. However, Leandra did find several more Benrinnes bottlings, so we did make a purchase before leaving.

Dufftown

We hadn’t yet seen Linn Falls in Aberlour, so we decided to try this pleasant stroll next.

Linn Falls

Done with driving, we parked at our hotel and went for happy hour cocktails at Quaich, then headed across the street to the Highlander Inn for dinner. Though bustling, they had a cozy corner table available without a reservation (yeah!). I ordered the beef pie while Leandra thoroughly enjoyed her smoked fish trio platter (which was a lot more filling than it looks).

dinner @ Highlander Inn

The Highlander also has a noted whisky list, so after dinner we tried a Bruichladdich cask no 3093 + 3095 – 23 year, and a Benrinnes Flora and Fauna – 15 year.

After a quick walk around town, we went back to Quaich bar for the end of the Lomond Campbell session, where we scored a free dram of the Craigallechie 23. Afterwards I also enjoyed an Octomore 6.1 (beautful smokiness) and we enjoyed conversing with several of the folks hanging around, not leaving till near midnight when a Swede started some card tricks… yet another lovely day in Scotland.

Quaich Bar  music @ Quaich Bar

Scotland 2017: Spirit of Speyside day 1

The Spirit of Speyside event registration opened right after our return from Malaysia. A few days before that we went through the events available for Saturday and Sunday and made a prioritized list; some events are quite exclusive and sell out within minutes, so we knew we needed a plan. When the registration opened at 7a EST were able to reserve each item we wanted (several were sold out within the hour!).

Given that background, we were quite excited to start the festival at Cardhu Distillery for the Stillman’s Tour with Willie ‘Buzz’ Hutcheson. This distillery, owned by Johnnie Walker, is quite an operation.

Cardhu Distillery

Buzz was a hoot, providing lots of interesting anecdotes along our tour. We were amazed at how automated the plant is – they can run the whole production with a single Stillman!

Cardhu Distillery

Cardhu Distillery  Eric posing with a 31 year old cask whisky
Beautiful stills!; enjoying a 31 year old whisky

Our tour took us into the storage room where we got to try samples of a very dark 31 year malt (1986) straight out of the barrel. The second dram from a reused barrel (1987) was much lighter, so the 31 was my fave.

Buzz showing off the old casks

We ended the tour with a small tasting in the Johnnie Walker house, which features a beautiful wood-covered sitting room. Even better, they had tubes so that Leandra could take her samples to try later!

Cardhu Distillery

This tour was definitely a worthwhile experience and a great way to start the festival.

Knockando Woolmill is just around the corner so we stopped in to explore. This old wool mill has been renovated to once again run on water power! It wasn’t in operation on this Saturday, but it was fascinating to see how they process raw wool into yarn.

weaving some yard @ Knockando Woolmill

Mind Yer Heid

Knockando Woolmill  Knockando Woolmill

shop @ Knockando Woolmill

Our next stop was Dowans Hotel on the outskirts of Aberlour for lunch. Unique in our experience, we sat in the lounge area to peruse the menu and order our drinks, then seated in the restaurant when our food was ready. The decor and our sandwiches were both memorably good.

Dowans Hotel

lunch @ Dowans Hotel

We made a quick stop in downtown Aberlour to check out a gallery, then the The Spey Larder for their whisky flavored foods event before driving on to Craigellachie. We had just enough time for a quick check-in before our second event, a blind whisky taste-off between the towns of Rothes and Dufftown. This event was amazing, filled with laughter as each town one-upped the other with stories and good-natured ribbing.

Rothes vs Dufftown blind tasting

speeches in between tasting flights  interested bystanders

Over the course of two hours we tasted 10 whiskies.

Round 1: Glenrothes Vintage Reserve vs. Glenfiddich Project XX
Round 2: Glendullan ‘The Singleton’ 12 year vs. Speyburn 10 year
Round 3: Glen Grant 18 year ‘Rare Edition’ vs. Mortlach 18 year
Round 4: Glen Spey 21 year vs. Balvenie Portwood 21 year
Round 5: Cadenhead’s Cask Ends Caperdonich 1992 vs. Wm Grant and Sons Kininvie 1990

In the end Dufftown prevailed 4-1 and we both choose the winners in 4/5 rounds!

Following the blind tasting, the Craigellachie distillery hosted a free tasting under the bridge in town. Each person was allowed one dram, so Leandra choose the 31 year old and I went for the 21. Unsurprisingly, quite a few people turned out for this event! The crowd was quite fun too, as we bumped into several people that we’d met at the earlier events.

having a dram under the Craigellachie Bridge

Craigellachie Distillery options

Leandra had made a 7pm reservation for dinner at the Copper Dog several weeks earlier, which was a really good idea given how busy they were on this festival evening. I went for the fish and chips which were perfectly done and tasty. Leandra couldn’t resist the oysters and, wow, were they intimidatingly large! For her main she went with the venison.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."  venison loin @ Copper Dog

And of course, we ended the evening in the Quaich bar. It was busy, but we snagged chairs in the far corner so were tucked away a bit. These were the whiskies we sampled:

  • Dalmore 15 – not as good as 12, brown sugar nose but more of a burn.
  • Benriach 20 – light coconut, tropical notes,  cocoa, sharp alcohol. Very nice.
  • Edradour 12 Caledonia – bit of a burn, brown sugar and citrus on nose, vanilla and honey. Good dram.
  • Ancnoc Rascan – nice smokiness, intense. Burnt marshmallows, very nice
  • Inchgower 14 – sea salt smell, pear and lime, bit of a burn, but Leandra’s fave of the night.
  • Kilchoman Sanaig – ashy! Dry, med finish with some iodine on finish. Really strong.

Another long day, but one that was quite memorable.

Scotland 2017: Exploring the Highlands

Our second day in Scotland involved lots of driving, several waterfalls, one particularly rainy hike, and a few drams of whisky (naturally).

We headed north out of Inverness along the A835 to Rogie Falls. It was a short hike to the powerful cascades with a child-friendly interpretive sign about the life cycle of salmon.

hike to Rogie Falls  Rogie Falls

Rogie Falls

While driving along, we saw a parking area near another falls that wasn’t on our list, but Blackwater Falls and the pretty roadside falls around the corner were a nice photo stop.

Black Water Falls  falls off A835

The Falls Of Mesach are located in Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. The large parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived (yeah!) and there was a food truck selling burgers and other snacks near the first entry gate. The gorge itself was surprisingly steep and the view from the limited-person bridge was breath-taking (or terrifying depending how you feel about heights or swaying bridges).

swinging bridge capacity

Corrieshalloch Gorge  Corrieshalloch Gorge

selfie w/ Falls Of Mesach

A little further up the road is this spectacular view of the Scottish highlands…

peekaboo view of Loch Broom

Our next stop was the Lael Forest and although we weren’t entirely sure we had the correct parking lot, we decided to go exploring. Thankfully the cows didn’t seem to mind.

hello cows!

After about a mile, we found a small waterfall next to a water-driven hydro station.

Lael Forest Falls

Feeling hungry, we stopped at the Arch Hotel in Ullapool for lunch. I had the blue cheese tart while Leandra opted for the (traditionally Scottish) Cullen Skink (cream-based soup with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions). Everything was tasty.

downtown Ullapool

On our way out of town, we took a quick detour to the Rhue Lighthouse and then continued on to Knockan Crag. The views from the top were spectacular but the drizzle that changed into rain halfway through the hike was not so great.

Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve

panoramic views

Given the weather we decided to begin our return back to Inverness along A837. In Invercassley we stopped at a small turnout for Achness Falls, which we had all to ourselves.

Achness Falls

Further down the road are the Falls of Shin, which appear to be recently developed with a parking lot and a new ramp and viewing platform. Unfortunately, the view is of top of falls, so it is not a great photo spot – hopefully they will complete a second viewing platform a little further downstream that will provide a much better vantage soon.

Falls of Shin

Given the time we decided to have dinner at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, which is known to have a nice whisky selection. Leandra had the mussels and I had the (very light and fluffy) goat cheese fritter salad (which was larger than expected, and quite tasty). Leandra had a few mistakes happen during dinner, including the wrong wine delivered to the table and leaving off the toasted bread on the mussels, but thankfully, everything was fixed quickly.

Dornoch Castle  mussels @ Dornoch Castle

After dinner we were lucky to snag a couch in the Whisky Bar while we perused the whisky list. Leandra tried a Clynelish 15 year cask in her long-standing challenge to identify a whisky like her beloved Benrinnes. Eric started with a local, Glenmorangie 12 year port finish, then went for a Laphroaig Scotch Malt Whisky Society‎ 29.175 16yr. This was lovely, with chocolate, burnt marshmallows, light fruit, nice smokiness.

scotch by candlelight @ Dornoch Castle

All in all, a long but satisfying day exploring Scotland.

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.

Italy 2017: Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum

One ticket gets you into the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the landmark Colosseum, so we spent the better part of a day exploring the ruins. We took a (rather jarring) bus ride that dropped us off directly across the street from the Palatine Hill entrance. After a quick security check we purchased our ticket and started exploring the grounds.

Palatine Hill is one of the famous “seven hills of Rome” and was home to a string of Roman Emperors including Augustus and Domitian. It is absolutely amazing that anything is left after two thousand years!

Palatine Hill
the hippodrome, i.e. horse facilities

Palatine Hill
former fountain space

Palatine Hill

From the former palaces we headed down Palatine Hill toward the Roman Forum, first with a great piazza view.

Roman Forum from palatine Hill

Roman Forum from palatine Hill

Then down into the valley itself.

Roman Forum wisteria

Vestal Virgin statue @ Roman Forum  Roman Forum

The amount of history is just staggering, with centuries upon centuries of human activity in this one site.

As we made our way toward the southern exit, I went to check out the Temple of Venus and Rome. Lo and behold, it had a perfect view of the Colosseum.

Colloseum

us in front of the Colloseum

parents taking photos

After a few photos, we walked over to the security check, then made our way to the top ring of the Colosseum.

Colloseum interior

By this point we were getting rather tired and hungry, so we didn’t read all the various signage on how the stadium worked; however, it certainly looked like you could read and learn a lot if you were so inclined. Exploring the whole site takes hours and the opportunity to better understand the history on this site is well worth the effort. Also worth noting, your ticket is good for two consecutive days, if we had more time we likely would have planned to visit the Colosseum the following day instead.

Italy 2017: exploring Rome

Sunday

The quick 1.5 hour train ride from Florence to Rome was fairly uneventful. It took us a few tries to find the subway entrance from Termini as it wasn’t well marked and a few entrances to the A line were closed for some reason. We wound up traversing the entire station and then cramming ourselves into a subway car for five stops. (This was the only time we attempted the subway in Rome.) After a quick walk to our hotel, we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Rome.

Ten minutes later we were looking at this…

Ahhhh. :)

Eric and I both expected to like Rome the least out of the three cities on this trip but within hours, I was completely charmed. Yes, it was crowded; I can’t imagine how/where people find parking; there are a lot of touristy sites and tourists in them; however, it was sunny and with a belly full of a panini sandwiches and delicious gelato, we enjoyed all of it.

Piazza Navona

There were quite a few musicians and buskers in the plaza along with many families enjoying the weather.

Fontana del Moro
Fontana del Moro

rome-12
Sant’Agnese in Agone

Fontana del Nettuno
Fontana del Nettuno

Pantheon

An ancient building surrounded by a modern city, and just as amazing as you think it would be — from the open dome at the top to the massive circular room of altars and mosaic floors that have seen nearly two millennia.

Pantheon  Pantheon dome

Pantheon

Trevi Fountain

Everyone who is not hanging out on the Spanish Steps is taking a selfie in front of the Trevi Fountain. Including us.

Trevi Fountain

mom & I @ Trevi Fountain  Eric and I @ Trevi Fountain

Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps)

We made it all the way to the top and managed not to trip over anyone sunning themselves on the stairs!

Piazza di Spagna (aka Spanish Steps)

Monday

Trastevere

After an already full day of sightseeing, Eric and I felt our feet didn’t hurt enough so we headed across the Tiber to this quiet (during the day at least) neighborhood of winding, cobblestone-lined streets.

Giulia

MiMi the Clown  dog paste-up

Trastevere  one way to display a potted plant

Trastevere

We found some good street art and paste-ups, then hit up a wine bar as soon as it opened for a nice bubbly before heading back along the Tiber.

Tiber River views

Vatican City

Before heading back to the room, we decided to get a few shots of St Peter’s Square and add a new country to our growing list – Vatican City!

St. Peter's Basilica @ sunset

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Square