Scotland Heritage + Knitting // October 2018

Travel Dates:  October 17 to 29, 2018

Self-drive 8 nights/9 days/Pitlochry, Inverness, Portree (Isle of Skye), Fort William, Oban & Edinburgh.
Hotel Site Inspections:   These inspections were more done on a more informal basis, in many cases hotels were full so no room viewings but still had a chance to wander the properties, talk with staff and check out facilities, décor, quality and standards.  While portions of the trip were FAM- others were vacation time.  Still, I present my full experience for report purposes.

Hotel list- where I stayed:

Pitlochry:   Knockendaroch Hotel (about half way between Edinburgh and Inverness)

Inverness: Best Western Plus Lochardil House

Isle of Skye: Self Catering Cottage through Skye Serviced Apartments:  Lochsie Cottage of Peinmore House

Fort William:  Factors Inn Cottage – a B&B located on the site of Inverlochy Castle (breakfast was included at the castle)

Oban:  Aspen Lodge (B&B) outside of town- in the countryside (5-7 minute drive to Oban)

Edinburgh: Balmoral Hotel

Other hotels viewed:

Inverness:  Mercure Inverness, Rocpool Hotel

Portree, Isle of Skye:  Rosedale Hotel

Oban: Manor House Hotel

Edinburgh: Apex Waterloo, Principal Edinburgh George Street and Mercure Edinburgh City Hotel

Scotland has been on my bucket list for most of my life.  My father’s heritage is (I am told) 100% Scottish and my “people” hail from the area of Fife/Edinburgh.  While I have not done a deep research into where my kin hail from within Scotland and  I do not have a specific location, I do know that in general- they are from somewhere around Fife/Edinburgh City/East Lothian.  For this trip, I wanted to primarily immerse myself in the scenery, the small villages and Highlands to allow for an introduction and become familiar for the purpose of better serving clients heading to this country.   Perhaps down the road, I will return and attempt a connection with distant living relations.

 Key Takeaways for Self-Drive Itineraries in Scotland:

  • The A9: considered one of the most treacherous roads in Scotland- many brutal accidents on this road.    I did not know this at the start (but informed as much later by locals) … and found myself on the A9 from day of flight arrival leaving Edinburgh Airport to head up to Pitlochry on my way to Inverness.  In hindsight… I might recommend that clients train to Inverness or other points outside of major cities … where they pick up the rental car (rather than pick up at EDI airport and drive the A9).    A rework of my own itinerary might have had me start with Edinburgh City- then train to Inverness… then after a stay in Inverness, pick up rental car to enjoy Isle of Skye, Fort William and Oban- then drive to Stirling for my castle visit and drop car at Stirling Rail Station – train back into Edinburgh for 1 final overnight before flight home … OR:   end with drop off car at Oban Rail Station and train to Glasgow (3 hr direct train ride) for final overnights (1 or 2 in Glasgow) before flight home.  Just ideas in hindsight of my own trip.
  • Self-Drives and Restrooms: Always have several 50 pence coins readily available in your pocket for the toilets around Scotland. When driving long distances and coming upon a facility- it is common for there to be a charge (generally, 50 pence).   It was not uncommon for me to end up at facilities that had yellow tape cross on the door and indicated “closed”.  When driving around Scotland, I found that these public facilities were not common and it could be miles and miles and miles before the next one- if you see one, use it because you might not have one for another long distance. Museums- like the Castles, had complimentary restrooms however, often those are beyond the ticket booth (for paying customers).  You cannot go into restaurants or cafes to use the restrooms without being a paying customer.   In bigger cities- you could walk into larger hotels and find their public restrooms often found on or “off” the hotel lobbies. 
  • Parking is generally never free.  In many towns (as with many European Cities/Towns), the lots have parking machines/kiosks which I found often permits placing coins for 1 hour period only.  You then must return to feed the machine and get a new ticket for the dash board.  While some machines allow longer than 1 hour.. Also, in some towns (like Oban) the major grocery stores have a parking lot which is posted to allow 3 hours of free parking…Good tip is to check those grocery store lots in villages before paying for parking.   I learned about this through my local host at my Lodge (handy tip).
  • GPS is highly recommended (I used Garmin): Know that some addresses plugged into a GPS unit will not bring you to the exact spot… you might find it brings you within 400-500 meters of your intended destination.  In major towns, I had no problem finding my destination address- however, in the country side… the property I might be seeking could further around one or two more bends- behind that hill, or in some cases, backing up on the address I am parked in front of… but requiring me to back track and drive around things before I found the exact address.  While this was frustrating at times- after the first episode (Portree)… and last episode in Oban at my B&B Lodge that I eventually found by continuing to drive around several more country road bends… knowing this meant that I just had to be persistent and that eventually, I found my intended address.  I have had this feedback from clients on self-drives through Ireland as well- and my recommendation with clients is to let them know this in advance and encourage them to be patient and roll with it (pun intended).  For the most part- the Garmin Unit was a blessing and tremendous help throughout my self-drive journey.
  • Pick-Up & Drop Off for rental cars in Scotland: Recommend avoiding large cities & airports.  In the future, I would consider suggesting a train to the first town and then rental pick-up (less crowded, less stressful- since in major cities like Edinburgh – and near the Edinburgh Airport- the traffic and volume of cars can make the transition to left side of road and right side of car- daunting.  While attempting to read signs and navigate massive volumes of cars… I would have preferred (in hindsight) to train to a smaller town (like for instance Pitlochry or Inverness) and pick up rental there… near rail station or city center.  A better way to travel independently is to combine car with trains wherever possible and avoid driving in/near larger cities/near major airports. 

October 18, 2018- arrival

My trip was scheduled around the Loch Ness Knit Fest (October 19-21); an annual event.   This is a long weekend event that brings people together who have a love for high quality 100% natural fiber yarns primarily from sheep.  It is a time set aside to enjoy interactions with local retailers, fiber mills and teachers (many workshops to learn various techniques) … meet people from all over the world with a common passion for all things knitting.  I enjoyed two Fair Isle Workshops and a workshop on Magic Loop knitting technique- I met some fun people, heard some Robert Burns Poetry, watched dancers and sword fighters…and made new connections.  My plan was to enjoy the festival and then head up to the Isle of Skye, then down to Fort William and Oban before ending with a few nights in Edinburgh City.    The majority of my time was spent on a self-drive basis.  I bring back many impactful personal and professional memories and experiences.

This report offers a run down on those experiences from start to finish- providing an array of my best recommendations and tips (and take-away impressions).

My flight was on Delta via JFK– a truly great way to get to Edinburgh, Scotland.   The flight from MSP to JFK is relatively short and my arrival at Terminal 4- then departure from the same terminal… made the connection convenient.     I had scheduled my trip with a car rental pick up on flight arrival at EDI (air and car booked through DLV).    The Car Rental Center at Edinburgh Airport is a relatively long walk from luggage claim – around the perimeter of the airport – following signs, walking under some partial shelter sections which could be useful in inclement weather- but you should know that the walk is not short.  Warn clients that the walk is at least 15-20 minutes and generally all outside … if they have not packed light or don’t have wheels on their luggage, they should get a cart.     Once at the Car Rental Center, you find a small building which has the various rental counters inside.    After checking in to pick up the car and doing the paperwork- one is directed back outside and then depending on which rental company you have booked- there is a further walk to the mini-vestibule office in order to collect the vehicle.    After finalizing with the rental car attendant, I walked the aisle to collect my car and head out.      The driving is (as most know) on the right side of the car and left side of the road… and on this morning midweek- I found that there was pretty heavy traffic with many roads converging.  I was grateful and highly recommend the GPS (mine was a Garmin Unit- not part of the vehicle because my vehicle’s “CHIP” was not installed, the interior GPS that comes factory installed was malfunctioning- so the Enterprise Agent provided me with a GARMIN which was the cigarette lighter plug-in variety).   I was so grateful for that GPS unit throughout the trip.   Initially, I had thought that I would simply use my T-Mobile “Hot Spot” Unit which I have used all over the world to connect to WiFi.  However, as I attempted to get the WiFi working, I found it was very spotty throughout the trip and thus, using it with my phone for GPS would have been difficult.  The Garmin was reliable 99% of the time (more on that later).  The Garmin was great at providing instructions well ahead of when I required them – so for the most part, invaluable and worth every penny.   Immediately – instructions to depart from the Enterprise Lot up to Pitlochry, I found myself easily on the A9 and once there- my drive primarily involved this major highway for a distance of about 155 km- which made the initial driving journey fairly easy.     My goal was to be in Inverness by 9:00am on October 19th as I had scheduled a Fair Isle Knitting Workshop for that timeframe.   Pitlochry is about a half way point and one of the most charming villages one could visit in Scotland.  My first overnight was at the Knockendaroch Hotel – a lovely manor home converted into a hotel sitting perched high up above the town with extraordinary views of the village below and the beautiful valley of fall foliage colors.  The architecture here is primarily of the quaint dark grey stone variety- most buildings built in or around the Victorian Era.  When I reached out in advance to check on details with the hotel staff, I was invited to prebook their 3 course dinner at half the normal price- ended up being a delicious first night in County of Perthshire (Starter:   amazing Scallops with root vegetable puree; Main Course: Scottish Beef Roast in heavenly red wine sauce served with Fennel and mashed potatoes; Desert: Pecan Crumble with Rhubarb and Pistachios topped with vanilla cream.  The hotel gardens were lush framing valleys and hills of rich gold and red- marked Fall Foliage Season in full swing.  The property features a back staircase one accesses off the gravel parking lot (a small lot) – which leads to a small gate below opening up to a side street – which places you within a five minute walk of the village.  A perfect- somewhat out of the way but still central- peaceful location.  The room itself was quite airy, very nicely appointed, and had many USB ports throughout the room making a converter/adapter unnecessary for my electronics (iPad/iPhone).  I would highly recommend this hotel and would have liked to have had 2 nights rather than 1 night.  This was a logistical stop to get me up to Inverness for the Knit Fest… had I had more time, a full day in Pitlochry would have been divine.

October 19-21, 2018/2 nights- Loch Ness Knit Fest/Inverness

My home base for these nights was the Best Western Plus Lochardil House– another manor home converted to a hotel.  The old house has 8 rooms and there is also an annex built with a more modern feel- 11 rooms in total there.   My room was in the Annex and quite spacious, had many modern amenities and conveniences- a nicely stocked tea/coffee amenity and lovely porch looking out at the garden.  There are two Best Western Plus hotels in Inverness- this is the one that is situated about a 5-7 minute drive from city center, so would recommend it only for folks that have a car rental.   The other Best Western is the Best Western Palace- situated in the heart of the city on the River Ness.  During my time in Inverness, I had a chance to see the Mercure Hotel Inverness as one of our evening events for the festival (A Highland Feast) was scheduled at this hotel.  The access to it is difficult with a car- so I took a taxi from my hotel to the Mercure.  I would suggest this hotel with confidence for clients that are arriving by train or bus- it was clean, modern and in a good location.    The public areas were well maintained, bar was cozy and breakfast room was open plan blending with part of the back of the lobby- modern and simple.  While in Inverness, I drove up to check out the Rocpool Hotel– featured through many higher end suppliers like Celebrated Experiences- I have also booked this property for clients through Brendan Vacations – used for their Inverness accommodation on the current (2019) Hosted Rail Tour through Scotland (Edinburgh/Inverness and Glasgow trip).    Rocpool Hotel is an elegant boutique style hotel located a bit out of the center… so clients without a car will need to take taxis into town (about a 8-10 minute taxi ride to center of Inverness from Rocpool Hotel).   However, Rocpool is definitely a special place- where clients will feel pampered, enjoy excellent culinary options by Chef Roux- modern décor in a renovated Georgian building.

October 21-23, 2018- drive from Inverness to Isle of Skye/and 2 nights near Portree

As the Loch Ness Knit Fest wrapped up, I checked out of my Inverness Hotel and began my drive up to the Isle of Skye.    The two lane road (what they call “Dual Carriage” in Scotland) was busy with traffic on this Sunday.  The weather was rainy but mostly a light drizzle.    I planned to drive the 185 KM (around 115 miles) with two stops:    Urquhart Castle which is just south of Inverness on Loch Ness and then a second stop at the Eilean Donan Castle – a distance of around 85km from the first castle (55 miles).    The first castle:  Urquhart Castle, was primarily a museum and ruins- a lovely park like atmosphere.   The visit begins with about a 10 minute video screening that offers the overview and history of the castle (quite helpful)- they also have some dioramas inside the museum that provide a view into what medieval life might have been like in the castle- with many fascinating artifacts in the collection.   The Urquhart Castle’s cafeteria is excellent- a great lunch stop with beautiful views over the grounds and castle ruins- and Loch Ness just beyond.     My stop at Eilean Donan Castle was also very worthwhile; this castle is more intact, the rooms preserved and in some cases recreated- to properly show what life would have been like during the 13th century.  This castle is shown on many coffee table books and is one of the iconic images used for Scottish Tourism- it was spectacular framed by the fall colors.   The castle had been left in ruins by the Jacobite Rebellion- and left in that state for 200 years… when in the early 1900s, Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island where the castle lies- and began restoration of the castle to its former glory.  The castle re-opened in 1932 as a museum.  The MacRae family has been the Constables of Eilean Donan Castle through present today.

After my second castle visit, I had about 43 miles to go to get to Portree for my 2 nights on the Isle of Skye.    Just before arriving into Portree, I stopped at the Co-op Grocery which was a marvelous reasonably priced general store attached to a gas station.  My overnights in Portree are at a self-catering cottage that I rented through Skye Serviced Accommodations, my contact there was marvelous!   The cottage was wonderful- squeaky clean, marvelous facilities and fabulously appointed- with all the standards one might expect for a “condo/home” rental but also complete with spices, tea, plastic and foil wrap, dishwasher soap (they offered a dish washer), and laundry soap (I was able to get a load done).. beautiful quaint living room with very comfortable couches, TV, back garden, full kitchen, large bathroom with separate shower, in floor heating and lovely bedroom with comfortable bed.  The cottage was part of a home that had 2 cottages plus the main house.  There was an interior garden with flowers still blooming- and a five minute drive into the center of Portree.   This was Lochsie Cottage part of Peinmore House in Portree.  One important note for travelers to the Isle of Skye- I was unable to get a good cell connection in order to call home for my nightly check-in with family… I connected but then it cut out.    Cell service is very limited/sketchy.   I was able to use the WiFi offered by the Lochsie Cottage – and thus, text messaging worked.

On Monday, October 22nd– I spent a full day visiting the village of Portree.    I enjoyed walking the quaint streets, popping into bookstores, gift shops, lunch at the Caledonian Café… where I thoroughly enjoyed a warm salmon salad – marvelous fresh and crisp greens, corn and beats with a delicious vinaigrette and a bottle of Thistle Cross Cider – produced on the East Coast of Scotland (handcrafted by a farmer & an artist – as noted on the label).  After lunch, I headed down to the lower level of the town (built up on a rock with staircases and alleyways down to the waterfront.   I stopped into the Rosedale Hotel which is situated directly on the harbor front.   Laura at the front desk was willing to chat and offered that this property was purchased by the owners three years prior, and they had invested heavily in renovations- a nice 3+ star option on the waterfront, I would guess.  All rooms full- but the general idea is a clean crisp white and grey toned lobby, no elevators at all- but they do offer porterage of luggage for all guests.  The hotel is a combination of several buildings- so there are many hallways and staircases that form a bit of a labyrinth set-up.  The hotel does have dedicated parking in the summer season- but it is first come first served for a spot… and spots can be limited.  The town of Portree is the only major town on the Isle of Skye, the only town where one finds a school… however, Laura offered that she wished all tour operators would warn travelers to Skye:  1) Locals buy their clothing and shoes and other major provisions in the next closest major city which is Inverness… or from the internet; she stated “we do not have a shoe shop in town” and 2) that WiFi while available is not reliable and cell service is not reliable- “we are an Island and with weather patterns- etc… it can be unreliable; if a traveler is looking to stay connected 24/7- they may not want to come to the Isle of Skye”  and 3) no major medical services in Skye… Laura stated “we go to Inverness for all of our medical needs.   Good to know!

By the end of the day- the weather had whipped up quite a wind storm with rain and was beating against the cottage all night.   By morning- it was still quite chill and rainy and very windy.  It’s the Isle of Skye- and it’s October.

October 23 to 24:  Fort William

After breakfast, I headed to Fort William.  My original plan was to drive down to the southern point of the Isle of Skye- to a place called Armadale from where regular ferry services Mallaig – just across Loch Horn.  However, the night before – with the wind storms, checking my APP for the ferry tickets, I noted that all services were cancelled.    Taking the ferry would have shaved about 1.5 hours off of my drive… but this was not to be.  Instead, I back tracked almost all the way to Inverness in order to drive down to Fort William- my scheduled overnight (1 night) on my way to Oban.   The total drive was about 175 km (115 miles).  Driving in Scotland- you find that because primarily I was on these dual carriage country roads going through small towns, with varying speeds (primarily 97 KM limit /60 MPH limit was the fastest possibility but often driving closer to 40 MPH because of traffic and road conditions)- it took several hours to get to Fort William

Once in Fort William, I parked for about an hour to check out the town- which has a fairly good sized pedestrian street filled with gift shops, tartan shops and pubs along with the West Highland Museum (which I would visit the next day).  The rain was persistent on this day, so I popped in for a late afternoon (early dinner) at a pub- which was wonderful… before heading to my next lodging.

My overnight was at Factors Inn Cottage- which is a cottage run by the Inverlochy Castle.     To check-in, one goes to the castle.     The driveway to the Castle was a charming greenery framed winding road which ended with a drive through the Portico of the Castle.    On parking, the castle doorman came straight away to inquire about my purpose there … seemed more of a safety check than a welcome.   I advised I had a reservation for the Factors Inn Cottage.   This was my way of not paying a 500 GBP room rate- and instead paying 110 GBP but having the benefit of staying near the castle.  Plus, my breakfast the next morning was at the castle.   In hindsight, while the room at Factors Inn Cottage was absolutely charming and cozy- the servicing of the cottage was not as positive.   My key for the front door of the did not work… I tried multiple times to no avail.   So, in order to deal with this, I had to drive back up a country road to the Castle- still raining.    On arrival at the castle- the doorman is perplexed- states the key worked yesterday.  Truly, I say- it is not moving at all in the keyhole.     So, he disappears for a while (back office) and comes back with a new set of keys.    Not really apologetic about this.   I had scheduled a 3 course dinner at the castle- but by now, I am tired- wet and just feel like chilling out and saving myself the 65 GBP cost of the dinner (around $85 USD – which when booking the dinner sounded fun, but now- more of a hassle).    No problem, they cancel my dinner.   I will enjoy the Castle dining room tomorrow morning anyway- with my included breakfast and I am not hungry).  I head back to the cottage- key works.  I am in for the night.  The Factors Inn Cottage room was lovely- very large king bed with billowing down comforter, a TV, a pretty desk with a full tea and coffee service, a nice sized shower/toilet room.  The windows of my second floor room look out on the countryside framing the castle… wonderful place to lay one’s head.

October 24 to 26:  Fort William – Oban

On Wednesday morning- I head back up to the castle for my breakfast.  The dining room was regal and faced the back gardens and hills beyond.  It felt as if I had been dropped into the film set of Monarch of the Glen- very special.  The service was very good, included menu offered a nice variety of hot items including Scottish Oatmeal, Smoked Salmon with Scrambled Eggs (my choice) – some toast and jam, orange juice and delicious coffee.      After breakfast, I headed back into Fort William- the day was much clearer and allowed me to fully take in the town of Fort William.    I spent a couple of hours in the West Highland Museum which is with free entry (donations welcome).   The museum- founded in 1922, is rich in content- offering historic timeline for the region.   The rooms take you through highland life from around the 1300s through the Jacobite Rebellion.   Primarily the museum is self-guided, they provide a small map of the museum showing the focus of each room.   There is an option to request a guide to cover the key moments featured in the Outlander Series.

By midday, I headed out of Fort William south to Oban, my planned home base for 2 nights.  The distance between the two places is minimal- my shortest drive of the journey (just over an hour’s drive).   As a midway point, I decided to stop at Port Appin, I had read this was a scenic place- small town on the water with some local artisan shops.  What I didn’t know was that the drive leaving the main road (A828) to access Port Appin would be so spectacular- I wound my way through a one lane country road- along a coastline and through woods (again, incredible fall colors) over small bridges, past ruins- into the teeny tiny town of Port Appin.   There is one tiny little grocery store (general store) and one craft shop.. before you arrive the pier – passing one hotel:  Airds Hotel and Restaurant with a frontal water facing restaurant- and some chairs situated across the road on the waterside for those that wish to lounge and enjoy those amazing views.  I have not had clients stay at Airds Hotel- rather, not too far way from Port Appin, one finds the Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort where I have had very happy clients stay and provide high praise on their return (have booked it in the past through Celebrated Experiences –as well as Kensington Tours).  The Isle of Eriska is a quiet hideaway resort with 34 rooms situated on a 300 acre island with views of Loch Linnhie.  They offer a lovely Afternoon Tea, a full service restaurant and The Deck- a more casual outdoor venue with an indoor option that feels Al Fresco because of the vast windows.

After the stops at Appin- I headed towards Oban and stopped in at the Sealife Sanctuary… which I found was in a sorry state.    While I paid the entrance fee to check it out (would be popular with families)- I learned rather quickly that the site was closing end of October- permanently.  This was showing in the museum, where I found most sea life tanks were a bit cloudy and the rescue area empty.    So- be aware that while guidebooks tout this place as a great family attraction… it’s no longer open.

I arrived Oban early afternoon- too early for hotel check-in which was scheduled at 4pm (I had a B&B Lodge on tap here- and had communicated with my host; she would be at the B&B for check-in at 4pm).    So, I parked my car for an hour and wandered around Oban- goal to find a pub for some Fish & Chips (Oban is known as the Seafood Capital of Scotland– my entrée did not disappoint- flaky delicious cod in a crisp beer batter) and a Pint of Cider (The Oban Inn- in business since 1790).  Oban is one of the larger port towns on the West of Scotland- consider the Gateway to the Isles as you can easily gain access Argyll & the Isles by frequent ferry (often with roundtrips in 1 day) – 23 inhabited islands in all… key and popular islands include: The Isle of Mull (also known as Eagle Island- one can spot golden eagles and white tailed eagles on this island), Isle of Colonsay (great white sand beaches there), or Isle of Jura- where one finds wild red deer.

After dinner, I headed out of the city of Oban up the hill to my Garmin led address B&B: Aspen Lodge.  The B&B was truly a haven perched high up on one hill overlooking many distant hills and vales, incredible nature, quiet and serene.   The B&B: Aspen Lodge Oban can be booked directly with owner: Audrey (contact me if you want details).    This is a B&B that offers three individual bedroom units with a lovely breakfast (including cooked to order hot item selection by the owner); each room is very well appointment with a comfortable couch, TV, full tea/coffee service… while the hair dryer was expected, the owner had also included a flat iron for guests- nice touch), very clean- cozy and comfortable, modern yet warm in color… very welcoming.   Toilet/Shower room is modern with slate tiles and rain shower… the entire room had underfloor heating.  Each room has its own terrace; two of the rooms have very good views- the 3rd room (Kilchurn Room) is smaller and faces the driveway.  I would ask for the room called: Stalker Room (my room) or the Duart Room.  After I had checked in, Audrey asked if I would like a ride into town for dinner later in the evening- as she would be glad to come back and offer me that service (free) and then I would have to come back to the Aspen Lodge on my own by taxi.   Nice gesture- and evidently, pretty standard offering for Audrey.  I declined- but grateful for the offer- perhaps tomorrow.     Before she left, she asked me to do my homework- provided me with a sheet that showed all of the breakfast offerings … she needed to know what I would like for breakfast and what time.  I completed my selections and time request and she was off.  I had the place completely to myself- she said no one else was booked in.  Complete quiet- no neighbors.   It was a lovely evening of rest and relaxation.

October 25: Oban

I spent the full day today in Oban; I used the 3 hour allotted parking time at the Tesco Grocery Store in town.  When I arrived at the parking lot using Audrey’s instructions… I found the posted signs that offered free parking to anyone but warned that after 3 hours, I could not return to the lot within 2 hours.    I took advantage- parked at Tesco Lot which had a small walkway leading to the town (quick walk from Tesco Lot to the main streets of Oban).     I had been told by Audrey that the Oban Distillery was very popular and if I wanted to check it out- not to be surprised that they were full.   I headed there first to see what timing I could book for a tour.    This would be my only Whisky Distillery Tour- and having read up, I learned it opened in the 18th century and was very small compared to others- still, offering some excellent single malts.  Pleased to learn they did have an opening in a half hour (11am) and I booked it.   The one hour tour was informative, even for a non-whisky fan.  The whole extensive process of producing whisky is actually fascinating… still, at the end, I had to choke down my sample swallow of the booze… sharp, intense and burning.   Not really my thing but a fun tour nonetheless.

I spent the afternoon visiting gift shops, tartan shops, book shop and enjoyed a quick bite at a café.  For dinner, I stopped by M&S – a discounted grocer for Marks & Spencer’s.    I picked up a ‘take away’ salad of mixed greens, shrimp, pasta bits, corn and beets- along with an apple and some Scottish shortbreads for later.    A great option to retire back at Aspen Lodge and “eat in”.

October 26-29, 2018:  Oban to Edinburgh via Stirling Castle/3 nights Edinburgh

My plan today was to drive from Oban to Edinburgh with a visit stop to Stirling Castle (which is situated closer to Edinburgh, so driving there first would cover the majority of my drive).   What I had not expected was that my first 25 km (about 15 miles) was going to be driving on a bumpy one lane country road through farms … I drove over grates that divided these farms and ended up sharing the road with sheep and highland cows… driving past many small lochs and winding my way to the main road.    By the time I got to the main road- while only a 15 mile drive or so- I had been driving for almost 2 hours!!    Of course this was including a few photo stop moments- but by the time I was on a main road… my poor planning meant that I had to find a restroom FAST… which fortunately I did at the local petrol station (and fortunately it was free- because I was just out of the normal requisite 50 pence coin).

Fueled up and refreshed, I headed towards Stirling Castle- home of Scotland’s Renaissance Kings and Queens.  .   This day was one of my longer driving days with a total of 185 km as a drove around the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park before arriving Stirling just on the other side of the park.

Stirling Castle offers general entry, optional audio guide and guided tours.   The castle consists of many rooms one can explore: interior and exterior king & queen meeting rooms, the king and queen bed chambers with many amazing tapestries (many featuring unicorns –a mythical creature that is considered Scotland’s national animal- Scotland is deeply connected to its history of myths and legends), art, incredible decorated ceilings – The Royal Palace (James V- dating back to 1500s) … The Great Hall, the Great Kitchens- Courtyards- Canons and the Queen Anne Garden, the Cemetery… a worthwhile stop  and also connect to local artisans who are preserving the history through current art (Stirling Heads Gallery- with meter wide Oak Medallions recreating images of Kings as once displayed back  in the late 1700s).  Just outside the Castle walls- one finds a statue of King Robert the Bruce, in honor of his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314- where he defeated the English after a series of battles that lasted 4 years (great movie on Netflix about this battle:  Outlaw King).     While there was a café onsite at Stirling Castle- I opted out, as there was a large school groups at the time of my visit- and the café was a bit small and crowded (not many places to sit).

After Stirling Castle, my final drive was under an hour to the Edinburgh Airport where I planned to drop the car.  This car rental return was a bit of a stress factor on the trip.   I was to fill the tank full before returning the vehicle- but the challenge was that after I filled it, I found myself surrounded by very heavy traffic, many various roads coming from all around Scotland converging at the airport- and it was difficult to find my way to my exits and keeping in mind where I should be in the “circles” in order to peel off while also trying to pay attention to signs.  There was no airport rental car return signage at all- and at one point, I ended up making a wrong exit onto the M9 heading north to Perth… taking me 6 KM out of my way which I had to back track… and, learning up towards that turn around- that there was road construction which made navigating my way back down towards the airport a bit of an anxiety riddled drive.    I ended up back at the airport but not finding my “Enterprise Rental Return” so I exited at a different more local/luxury car rental company to ask for directions.  By the time I had found Enterprise – I still couldn’t see the signs for “rental return” so I looped around a further 2 times before finding the signage I was seeking.  All of this looping resulted in losing fuel so my tank was no longer “full”.  The rental car agent was kind about it and ‘forgave’ my lack of full topped off tank.  Still, mental note:   perhaps recommend a rental car drop in a smaller town (rail station) and have clients train into Edinburgh.

From the Edinburgh Airport into Edinburgh City– there are several options for transport including taxi (including tip- about a 26-30 GBP one way ride- you must walk to the parking ramp /ground level is where taxi pick up is located), or TRAM (about 4.5 GBP to Waverly Station- they have several kiosks where you buy your tickets – super easy and convenient) and Bus- not sure of rate.  My hotel destination is The Balmoral, located right next to Waverly Station- and also very close to other key hotels (within 5-8 minute walk) of places like: The Scotsman, Hilton, Radisson BLU, Principal Edinburgh George Street, and even closer (across the street and just about 2-3 minutes from Waverly Station: APEX Waterloo Hotel).

After hotel check-in at The Balmoral, I headed across North Bridge towards Old Town to explore and find a place for dinner (perhaps a nice pub).    North Bridge basically crosses above Waverly Station towards High Street (also called Royal Mile) … here is where you find a rich network of streets filled with historic buildings- pubs, shops, churches- starting from lowest point at Holyrood Castle (current home of British Royalty when in town) up the hill ending at Edinburgh Castle (a historic fortress for which many hotels along Princess Street boast views- now a museum).  Entrance fee includes complimentary guides or audio guide tours).  Whether you are seeking to enjoy the Regimental Museum (military focus), Half Moon Battery, One O’Clock Gun, Prisons of war,. The Scottish National War Memorial, The Crown Jewels, The Great Hall, The Royal Palace (birthplace of James VI) or St. Margaret’s Chapel… one thing is for sure- it takes hours to get through it all.  My recommendation is to identify a couple of key aspects to focus on for the visit which is of interest.

My afternoon was primarily focused on light shopping and dinner at a pub:   The Ensign Ewart.  The menu had very light bits (cheese plate, olives etc) and only 1 entrée on offer:  Scottish Venison Casserole- which I ordered and found to be delicious with my Edinburgh Gin Rhubarb & Ginger Ale… refreshing!

A few notes on my hotel: The Balmoral.  This is a Rocco Forte Property- 5 star elegant hotel.  I was fortunate to have received a complimentary upgrade to an Executive Room with Old Town View- my view directly overlooked Waverly Station five floors below and faced the Royal Scotsman and North Bridge- truly amazing views, room was quite spacious and elegantly appointed. As is typical with most Rocco Forte Hotels- The Balmoral: while majestic from the exterior- the property offers a smaller scale boutique feel even with its 188 rooms. The outside- is quite complete with its iconic clock tower visible from many points of Edinburgh.   The property feels from outside as if you have entered a massive castle but inside… while not tiny by any means, The Balmoral does not feel massive- rather,  a front desk manned by 2 or 3 attendants… a concierge desk with 2 or 3 attendants… a lovely center piece round table framed by an elegant chandelier and just beyond, The Palms Garden which is where Afternoon Tea is served daily.   The hotel also offers a cigar lounge for those so inclined along with its beautiful spa with indoor pool.  Each guest room is spacious and expertly appointed (soothing colors and high quality materials).   The door is manned by a gentleman in a kilt- and after I had settled (checked in) and headed out (Friday night), the entryway offered entertainment by way of a full dress kilt bagpiper.    A cherished welcome.

October 27 & 28: Edinburgh

I had two full days to explore the city!    On my first day, I walked about 5 miles before 2pm… up and down George Street, Charlotte Square and Queen Street- in the area called New Town.   I popped into shops and headed over to a “local yarn shop” that I had identified prior to leaving the USA_ which had very high praise reviews from wool social media sites:  Kathy’s Knits on Broughton Street… this was a gem of a find!    The street itself (Broughton) is one I might not have ventured down had it not been for my quest to connect with a genuine British Wool yarn shop… the street was lined with many little shops and restaurants- just off a street that had a wide range of high end shopping including Harvey Nichols and Louis Vuitton- not far from the Edinburgh Bus Station.     I met a Celtic Cable Knitwear Designer: Lucy Hague – who was working in the shop.   Her own cable knit cowl was gorgeous so I engaged her in conversation and the end result was a new book (her book) on Celtic Cable Knitting and two new skeins of British Wool fit for one of her projects within the pages.. a wonderful connection!

After my adventure in wool, I headed back to The Balmoral for a quick bite.   Just across the street from The Balmoral, one finds a place called: Rabbie’s Café at 6 Waterloo Place.  This is small café that serves sandwiches, soups, salads and bakery items along with specialty coffee- and has a cold take-away case filled with baguette sandwiches and salads- along with cider, beer, soft drinks and water.  I grabbed a salad and a cider- headed back to my room to refresh and eat.    The Rabbie’s Café is run by Rabbie’s Tour Office- they have a brochure at the café register filled with tours in Edinburgh and also full day tours out to the Highlands and to Stirling Castle – and other points of interest.  Rabbie’s is a reputable outfit- so for those clients who did not pre-purchase a day tour (those wanting to do this on their own once in destination; tour groups are generally 16 people or less in smaller coaches) – at least you could recommend an excellent company for which we know they guarantee a good experience or money returned.   They could come here to sign up for a tour or go on-line to prebook on their own … tours in Edinburgh depart from the Café at 6 Waterloo Station.. generally in the morning.  Of course, they can check with their own hotel concierge for assistance- but Rabbie’s offers another option. The website for tours:

The afternoon was dedicated to the Britannia Museum- which is the Royal Yacht that was retired from service in 1997 by the Royal Family.   It is docked at Ocean Terminal in Leith which is about a 15 minute cab ride from city center (cost me 20 GBP including tip- to get there from The Balmoral).    The museum is often featured as a Shore Excursion for cruises that are docked at Leith… which makes good sense.   The visit was very interesting- professional done, time well spent.   One goes through every part of the ship – from the bridge to the private rooms and dining halls of royalty and crew- and there is a lovely working tea room onboard where you can enjoy refreshments.    The museum tour ends with a walk through the gift shop- and the museum is attached to the Ocean Terminal Mall- filled with shops and several restaurants as well.  My entrance was slightly reduced as I arrived after 2pm (10% off) – I paid 14 GBP for my entry.  I ended Saturday with dinner at The Princes Brasserie- the restaurant inside of The Balmoral.

My final full day was Sunday, October 28th.  After my breakfast – my first and final Full Scottish Breakfast- complete with blood pudding and haggis (did not care for blood pudding but found haggis to be quite tasty- a peppery ground meat with spices- a sausage essentially… delicious) … I headed up to Calton Hill which I had been told was worth the climb.  Calton Hill is located up Waterloo – within about a 10 minute walk of Balmoral… the climb was indeed worth every step.  The panoramic views from atop the hill over the cities on both sides (Old Town and New Town) were spectacular.    Everything from the buildings on High Street, the Edinburgh Castle, the Balmoral Clock Tower and towards New Town- the modern buildings (many cranes visible as construction is ongoing for new buildings)… and the water beyond at the Port of Leith- a 360 degree panoramic walk from the very top brings everything into focus.. truly a special experience.   I stopped at Calton Cemetery as well- between Balmoral and Calton Hill- and found interesting headstones and memorials- including one dedicated to The Scottish American Soldiers – a memorial from Abraham Lincoln- complete with his status on top.   Quite remarkable.

After Calton Hill, I attended church at The Giles Cathedral (Presbyterian Kirk).  It happened to be reformation Sunday- and this meant that the church had scheduled a combined choral performance from three choirs… an incredible sound.  The church was built in 1124- and become Protestant in the 1560s.  The interior was quite amazing- spires, stained glass and all.   The sermon was impactful.  A blessed experience overall.

Afternoon, I spent most of it wandering the shops on High Street- picking up last minute souvenirs and gifts for loved ones.   There are dozens and dozens of shops on High Street- all peddling many of the same wares- tartans, short bread biscuits and Celtic jewelry… among other things.   I had lunch at the Scottish Storytelling Center which is the original home of John Knox combined with a bookstore, café and storytelling center where one can buy tickets to listen to various performances.  It’s a community center of sorts embracing the written word, expression and performance…   a very good ends to my time in Edinburgh.

Some hotels I popped into to check out (mostly public areas because again- all rooms full!):

Apex Waterloo: excellent location, very clean and bright public rooms- this one would come in more moderately priced and would be an excellent spot for clients on a more modest budget).

Mercure Edinburgh City: On Princes Street- this one is in a very good location- just a few short blocks from Georges Street- and also Rose Street (pedestrian-friendly street in between Princes and George which has many small shops and cafes as well as back entrances to some larger shops that also had entrances on Princes Street).  The hotel entrance is on ground level- and you immediately walk up the staircase to 1st floor for check-in, very modern quirky décor- one wall had a series of 1950s telephones in many bold colors.  Just off the front desk/check in area- you have doors that lead you into a large vast room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Princes Street… this is the breakfast room/restaurant area.   Modern décor and furnishings but looked clean and bright.  The breakfast bar buffet looked a little simple but overall, likely a good option for clients again in the more midrange budget.    Princes Street is very busy with buses and traffic… not sure whether the windows facing Princes Street for guestrooms will be noisy… but the views are phenomenal towards Old Town and Edinburgh Castle.  Also- very convenient to many major shopping stores on ground level and close to Georges Street which offers quaint shops and cafes.

Radisson BLU:  On the Old Town Side (across North Bridge and on High Street) – there is a Radisson BLU.   One might initially hesitate- because the thought is that Radisson BLU is likely a massive building but in this case, it is not.  A few years ago, Radisson BLU built from the ground up- a building that blends in with the Medieval Architecture of Old Town- so this is a recreated medieval style building complete with a turret …once inside, it’s ultra-modern- colors include splashes of reds and purples and greens among the stark white floors and walls- with modern art cityscapes of Edinburgh adorning the walls in the public areas.   The original building design was not mobility friendly- but they redid it so that guests can very easily access the ground level check in from the street.  They just had a major soft refurb of the rooms and according to the “kilt clad concierge” who was very friendly and willing to talk… they are quite lovely but still, modern and Radisson BLU styled.   Radisson also had the Radisson Collection Hotel, Royal Mile Edinburgh that is situated a few blocks from the Radisson BLU and while I did not have time to visit that property, the concierge shared that this is their Boutique Luxury version of Radisson and quite lovely- ultra modern interiors … appeals to high end clients that want more services and a higher level of elegance in the décor- culinary interests.   This hotel is a 2 minute walk/next to the St Giles Cathedral- with views of the cathedral and Royal Mile architecture from each room (excellent location on Royal Mile- across from Writer’s Museum, National Library, The Scotch Whisky Experience and the like).

Principal Edinburgh George Street:

I have used this hotel a few times with great success.  It is in an excellent location on George Street with not too long a walk to the North Bridge and High Street (Royal Mile) – so a good option for those that might prefer the New Town with trendy shops, many coffee shops and restaurants (rather than souvenir shops and pubs – which is about all you get on Royal Mile)… Principal Edinburgh George Street offers wonderful staff- deluxe styling and décor.    A solid 4 star option in central Edinburgh.  The hotel location is closer to the St Andrew Square section of George Street… across the street and slightly down from Starbucks (if of interest- although the hotel has its own lovely coffee shop: Burr & Co- which also has an excellent menu of sandwiches and soups).  The hotel also offers a literary themed full service restaurant: The Printing Press Bar & Kitchen- contemporary classic dishes showcasing the best of Scotland.  The building is a combination of 5 Georgian Townhomes which date back to 1775- serving guests since 1881.  It won Scottish Hotel of the Year award in 2017.   The ground level lobby and check-in is elegant with columns and tasteful décor… quite a comfortable space.  Rooms are modern with clean lines combined with rustic touches (leather straps on the headboards in some cases, or leather with brass studs in others… wooden writing desks, crisp white linens, marble in bathrooms- very nice atmosphere overall.  Superior rooms are spacious- they also offer very nicely appointed junior suites and suites.