Scotland was on the bucket list from the beginning. It’s natural beauty and similarities to New Zealand made it a no-brainer. Not only that, but it had been on my list since I was about eight years old – which was ever since I had a penpal from Scotland.
We managed to get pretty cheap tickets on Ryan Air – booked at Christmas time for seven months into the future. Edinburgh Airport is the main airport for the area, unlike most Ryan Air airports, so the tickets are often a little more expensive. The flight didn’t leave until 9pm at night so we were able to get in a full day at work without having to take leave before the long weekend.
After an uneventful flight from Frankfurt Hahn we arrived at Edinburgh at about 10pm. The UK is one hour behind Germany so we gained an hour. It was still light when we arrived, but the tram from the airport had already stopped for the day. We ended up having to take the Airport Link bus. It was around 7.50 pound each way, and a little cheaper for a return ticket. We opted for the return ticket as we would be going back to the airport to pick up the rental car a couple of days later.
The bus’s final stop was on Waverley Bridge in downtown Edinburgh. As it turned out, I couldn’t have picked a hotel in a better location! We walked out the bus, turned left and our hotel was only a minute walk away. Motel One Edinburgh Royal was right in the middle of the city and couldn’t have been more convenient for us. We had stayed at a Motel One in Vienna and been really impressed with the chain. This Motel One didn’t disappoint us at all – the room was large, airy, had great air conditioning and was extremely quiet. It almost felt like no one else was staying in the motel! We had some of the best sleep we have ever had on vacation.
We woke to a beautiful day in Edinburgh. The sun was shining and we were happy to be able to wear short sleeves. We had escaped a heat wave in Germany, but we had looked up the weather forecast for Scotland and the weather hadn’t looked to be too great for our time there.
I had bought tickets in advance to Edinburgh Castle, so we decided to head straight there via the Royal Mile – but not without a breakfast stop first at Starbucks. It was there that I had my first taste of British marmite in a marmite and cheese bap. It was difficult to tell how different it was to NZ marmite, but it definitely filled the gap for the rest of the morning.
Edinburgh Castle was about a 10 minute walk from our hotel via a throng of tourist shops which we popped in and out of along the way. There were lots of buskers playing music – the vibe reminded me a lot of Christchurch in the summertime.
After picking up our prepaid tickets (and thus avoiding the long queue at the ticket centre) we headed through into the castle. Everyone was extremely nice – something that ended up being the case everywhere we went to in Scotland. There was a free tour that left every 15 minutes from the front gate, so we opted for that. I’m glad we did it, as we decided not to go with the audio guide as there was an extra charge. I felt like the free tour gave us just as much information – if not more – and allowed us to find out the trade secrets of the castle.
The free tour lasted about 45 minutes and then we were free to wander the castle alone. Our tour guide told us that there was a separate entry to the crown jewels via a different doorway, which meant we were able to avoid a long line. We also visited the small room where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to the future King of England and Scotland, James. It was a little claustrophobic but I’m sure it was luxurious compared to most women gave birth in the 1500’s!
After we had visited exhibits for the prison and cavalry, we left the castle and had a light lunch at the Hard Rock café in Edinburgh. Instead of a large lunch, we decided to go with appetizers in the hopes that we would save enough room for the dessert we have always wanted to try. The nachos and onion rings were so filling that we still weren’t able to find them in. Next time!
We headed for our next experience that I had booked online in advance. The Scotch Whisky Experience was right outside of the castle, making it a convenient stop for anyone visiting Edinburgh Castle. For us, it meant we had to head back to where we had just come from earlier. Fortunately, everything is close downtown. The following review of our tour also appears on http://www.germanyja.com – please check the website out for great reviews and advice on moving to, living in and travelling to Germany.
On arrival we were swiftly checked in and escorted straight to the ‘ride’ which was a little unexpected. We were both seated in a two-person barrel for a ‘ride’ through the whisky distillery process, which was narrated by a ghost-like figure. I won’t add too much detail here, but it was just an informative ride rather than a theme-park ride.
At the end of the ride we were ushered into an area to wait for the rest of the group to arrive. It is then that the tasting begun. We were introduced to the four main Scotch whisky regions and their distinctive characteristics. As part of the ‘silver’ tour, one dram of whisky of the participant’s choice was included. It is worth noting that children are allowed on the tour and were given a taste of ‘Irn Bru’ (the Scottish soft drink) at this point. The whisky tasting glass was also included in the tour price.
We had opted for the gold tour, so our tour continued past this point in the bar. Four drams were produced to us both on our own whisky tasting tray. There was one from each of the regions described in the tour and we had an unlimited amount of time to taste them all. A sheet was also provided with the tasting ‘notes’ – such as the smell and flavors that we should experience from each whisky.
The barmen were all locals and stayed close by during the tastings to have some friendly discussion and answer any questions we had about the whiskies offered. When I struggled with one of them, chocolate or mixers were offered up as suggestions, which were both helpful and appreciated.
It is worth noting that we did actually find a delicious drink from this tour. The option given to us on the gold tour was the Glen Moray Port cask finish. It was delicious on its own. We tried for the rest of our time in Scotland to find it, but when we asked at whisky stores about it they said that Glen Moray only sold to supermarkets! We liked the sound of that – it meant that it was a cheap option for a delicious drink – but we were still unable to find the limited edition. Not to worry – we have since been able to find it (for cheaper) on amazon.de!
That evening we ate at a restaurant that I had found reviews for on Tripadvisor. It was called Chaophraya and was Thai/Asian fusion cuisine. Bookings can be made online in advance and are recommended. As we were walking there, it seemed to be that we were headed into more of a residential area that wasn’t really populated with foot traffic. I thought we must have been on the wrong street, but eventually we found a sign that had the name of the restaurant on it.
We walked into a corporate building and headed to the top floor. It was a pretty awesome setup – it felt like we were part of a local secret. The top floor had views out over Edinburgh towards the castle. It looked stunning, particularly as it was a beautiful night. We, of course, only had indoor seats so we missed the view. Still, it felt like to be part of the local crowd. It seemed like a mixture of hipsters, uni students and businessmen and women. It was a Friday night so the restaurant was pumping.
Our first course was a delicious corn patty that seemed to be flavoured with red curry. We both ended up opting for the same main – the chicken pad thai. It was good, but not the best thai we have ever had. I think that most people probably go there just for the environment. It was a great place for a romantic date – I’d recommend it to get a feel for the locals.
We awoke to torrential rain. It felt like it was the middle of winter rather than the middle of summer. It usually wouldn’t matter to us, except for the fact that we had booked a day-long tour. To the Highland Games. Not only that, but we hadn’t actually come prepared for mud and rain (our fault!).
Thankfully we had come prepared with rain jackets, long pants and umbrellas, which is a lot more than some of those on our tours had. Some of the girls were wearing flip-flops! Probably smart in the end, as long as you don’t mind mud squelching between your toes.
Our tour was booked through Highland Explorer tours. Our tour guide, Greg, and about 25 others headed to Luss for their annual Highland games. Luss is next to the lake called Loch Lomond, which is a short way from Glasgow. It took us about two hours to get to Luss, with a short detour to the Wallace Monument. We were given 20 minutes for a toilet stop at the Monument, but Nick and I decided to jog up to see the monument. On a better day, I’m sure it would have had striking panoramic views. William Wallace was a freedom fighter for Scottish Independence in the late 1200s – he died in 1305.
We arrived at the Luss games at about 1200. It was still raining. It was kind of like a misty rain – pretty much always there but at different degrees of wetness. In the end, we decided just to embrace it. There was no escaping it, so I decided just to ignore the fact that my bright white keds (the only enclosed pair of shoes I brought with me) would never be the same again and enjoy the day. Wet feet and all.
I’m not sure what we were expecting, but the Luss games definitely wasn’t what we thought it would be. Perhaps a lot of the exhibits didn’t arrive due to the bad weather, or perhaps we picked the dud of the games calendar. We walked around once and we were like, oh no, what are we going to do until 1600?! After eating fish n chips and a haggis burger (rather, Nick ate the haggis burger, and I had a wee bite just to say that I did it) we were at a loss on what to do.
The funny thing is, Nick was like ‘I think we fit in here’. No, we really didn’t. We fit in with all of the other tourists. The locals, on the other hand, were embracing the kilt and the tweed. There was no way we were fitting in, I think we were just the only stupid people to come out in that kind of weather without a decent pair of wellies.
One of the sporting highlights was watching the local men in kilts trying to toss a stack of hay over a high bar with a pitchfork. The cool part was that the commentator obviously knew the men personally and was saying things like, “Little Jimmy is trying this for the first time, Big Bob is trying to show him the ropes but he’ll just have to try his luck again next year.” We watched as men rode road bikes around the grassy, boggy track. There was weight lifting. Nick wanted to join the competition but he didn’t have a Rice clan kilt handy – bummer.
The highlight for me was watching the Scottish dancing competitions. I, like many other New Zealand girls, learned Scottish dancing as a young girl. It was fun watching actual Scottish girls in their clan kilts competing in dances that I actually knew how to do.
Eventually we’d had enough and decided to walk down to see Loch Lomond. It was a beautiful big lake with hundreds of thousands of midges that all wanted to have a taste of Nick. It was nice that for once they left me alone and decided that Nick was the tastier choice.
After sitting around and enjoying an Irn Bru, it was time to head back to Edinburgh. I fell asleep in the van – for the first time ever. I’m not sure what is in the Scottish soft drink Irn Bru. It actually outranks Coca Cola in the soft drink sales charts in Scotland, a feat only managed in two other countries in the world. Every time I had an Irn Bru it knocked me out! Either way, the two hours sailed by.
That night we had an Indian meal on the way back to the hotel. It was pretty delicious, but I think that the owners of the place may have been some kind of mafia. I’ve never seen so many men working in the tiniest place, and the owner was constantly on his blue tooth phone in his ear. Therefore, I’m not going to recommend it, just incase we were helping to fund terrorism or people smuggling.
We headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before our big road trip adventure the next morning. While the rain did kind of suck, for want of a better term, Scotland wouldn’t be quite so beautiful without all of that rain. There are few places that can say they are that green in July.
Part II of our Scottish adventure will follow!