London Diary – A perfect birthday on Isle of Skye!

(A fore note: Although shamefully delayed, so glad I did not give it up. Writing this travelogue was to some degree reliving the joy and excitement of the journey itself.)

Jun, 2017

I had been asked many times, “have you been to Scotland yet?” Now, I can finally answer, “yes, yes, yes.” We made it to Scotland this Jun. So glad we did too, Scotland is beautiful and its highland is simply breathtaking. Endless mountains, valleys, lochs, and castles in-ruin or intact, there is a picture everywhere you turn. Scottish highland is the most scenery concentrated place I’ve ever been.

Edinburgh

We opted to try the train. The ride from London Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh Waverly Station was an interesting four hours’ journey. Apart from the countryside, Durham, New Castle and Royal Border Bridge are some of the lovely sights on the path. The track is right by the sea near the border, visibility was however extremely poor at the time due to the dense fog. As soon as the train veered away from the sea, the fog lifted and sky cleared.

Tre train ride was a nice little warm up for the journey ahead. Once in Edinburgh, we were ready to pick up a rental car. To our dismay however, there was a huge kerfuffle with the reservation. We tried multiple rental company before we finally got a car. Not a pleasant start. Luckily, it was back to smooth running in Edinburgh after that.

Picturesque surrounding hills, grand monuments, awe inspiring castles, clean and neat neighborhoods, Edinburgh is lovely, and vibrant with an interesting mix of people and variety of dining options. Most iconic would probably be formidable Edinburg Castle located on Castle Hill. Overlooking the city it is truly amazing and enjoys stunning views far beyond. Outside of main entrance to the castle is where the famous Royal Mile begins. Right at this western end of the Royal Mile there are a couple of fun things to do. Whisky Experience offers tour with tasting and a visit to its stunning Whisky collection, where you find the oldest bottle in the collection from 1897 and a 50 year old Balvenie valued at £27,500. It is interesting even if you are not a Whisky drinker. Across the street is Camera Obscure, which is fantastic fun for young and old alike. The rest of the Royal Mile is lined with more landmarks, shops and restaurants.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Views from Calton Hill is far reaching and rewarding, including a perfect view of the hills known as Arthur’s seat and that of Edinburgh’s dry skiing slope. Nelson Monument is open and visitors can climb up to the top for panoramic views of the city and beyond. While up at the hill, I spotted a colossal shaft of cloud hung in the distance over the bay north of the hill, my first spotting of an isolated shower in its entirety, cool phenomenon. National Monument is a popular spot on the hill. It is not easy to get up to its terrace, probably not allowed, but it deterred not the group of high school or college aged youth who gathered on the terrace, later changed into black robes and started singing. Alas they were shortly afterwards stopped by pouring rain. Luckily we had finished our visit to Calton Hill by then.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

P.S. Don’t be afraid to try Hagis. The Cellar Door serves a delicious Hagis starter dish.

Rosslyn Chapel

I learnt of the 15th century Chapel from a BBC documentary. Everything about it is fascinating, and its story of being featured in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which in turn put it on the global tourist track and helped bring in the fund to restore it, piqued my curiosity further.

In about 30 minutes we reached Rosslyn Chapel south of Edinburgh. Though small the chapel is truly magnificent. Almost every inch of its surface inside is covered with beautiful carvings, ranging from simple to intricate but all riveting. An introduction is given regularly inside the chapel. Sit in one of those, it is informative, well delivered and makes the visit so much more interesting. Take one of the brochure and take your time to find all the featured carvings. Photos are not allowed inside.

Before you leave, don’t forget to visit the partly ruined Rosslyn Castle close by. Situated in a secluded spot on a cliff and reached only by a draw bridge, the ruined castle is evocatively beautiful.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Loch Lomond

Weather that had been mostly sunny while in Edinburgh turned unfavorably the morning we were heading towards Isle of Skye, it was grey and rainy. I expected not much for the 6 hour drive ahead of us. I was however pleasantly surprised.

On route, we drove through Glasgow downtown before going further north to Lock Lomond. Driving along the lakeside, there is no mistaken about the long reach of the lake as the largest in Scotland. There is a convenient rest stop and nice view point at Inveruglas where lake cruise is also available. Although we did not take up the cruise, a few visitors did. Our next stop is Falls of Falloch, an impressive, roaring water fall; where we also found hordes of midges and spotted a notice about a dog that had fallen into the water.

Not long after we came upon The Green Welly Shop, café and shop in one with ample parking space, it couldn’t have been timelier. It serves homely but tasty food; I had an onion soup with bread and butter, it was delicious.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Isle of Skye

Ten or fifteen minutes back on the road, the surrounding began to change, more and more intense it became, mountains loomed from all sides, lakes appeared one after another, and ribbons of waterfalls meandered down the mountain sides. We realized we were going through Glencoe Valley. Grey, low hanging clouds there maybe, pouring rain there maybe, it could not shroud or dampen the beauty of the surrounding. If anything, it added a somber and mysterious quality and accentuated the greenery around.

From there on, it was a feast of beautiful scenery all the way. Eventually the view opened up and the bridge connecting the highland with Isle of Skye loomed ahead.

Planning and arranging for this trip only a couple of weeks in advance, accommodations in Isle of Skye had already been almost all taken up. We were lucky to find availability at Mackinnon Country House Hotel, a charming house with lovely garden and mountain-view. It was not without hiccup before we got settled in though. Upon arriving and eager to check in, we were told the reservation made via Expedia.co.uk had been received, and it was fully booked. After a couple of hours of working with Expedia and the house to try to sort things out and find alternative accommodation, there was nothing available. Just as anxiety was turning into despair, the house informed us they did have something available after all; a cancellation, which, again due to some mix up by Expedia, had not been discovered by the house until that moment, and it was exactly what would accommodate us three. A stroke of luck? Whatever that was, we were only too happy to leave all that behind and settle in. The rest of our stay was fine, breakfast room was elegant, breakfast was excellent and service at breakfast was superb.

Waking up the next morning, weather showed sign of improvement, and by the time we left the house for our self-guided tour of the island, the sun was beaming down at us happily. Indeed it remained glorious for the rest of day and the sun did not set until 10:30PM. What could have made it better? It was my birthday! A wonderful day exploring stunning Isle of Skye with my “boys” by my side, it was the best birthday ever!

Here is to hope that my words and pictures do justice to the joy and excitement I experienced that day on Isle of Skye, thus preserving the happy memory. Highlights of Isle of Skye are Portree, Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock, Duntulum Castle, Dunvegan Castle, Idrigill, Cuillians, Fairy Pool, and Carbost.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Eilean Donan Castle

This picturesque castle has been praised as the most romantic castle by many. It is still privately owned and family members come to stay occasionally but the castle is open all year long.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fort Augustus Village

It is a small village on Loch Ness with parking, a number of dining options, shops and cruises. At noon, its lock was quite busy with boats going out to the lake, attracting a number of onlookers.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Urquhart Castle

Whilst in ruin, this castle, advantageously situated on the bank of Loch Ness, is atmospherically beautiful.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Inverness

Capital of the highland and a lovely city!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Glencoe Valley, Ben Nevis, Spean Bridge, Fort Williams and others

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Advertisements

London Diary – Pink Floyd at V&A

Jul 28, 2017

Thanks to dear Lauren who is a fan, we went to the Pink Floyd exhibit at V&A. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Going into it knowing little about the band, I learnt lots and became fascinated by the music and the band’s journey. I can imagine the joy it brings to the fans, introduction, memorabilia, videos, and a very cool audio guide that plays automatically the relevant content and music as you come into range.

Alas, sad as it maybe, it seems that all parties must end, and the band did not stick together all the way. Nonetheless there is no denying the musical brilliance of the band.

The grand finale, a segment of a live reunion concert from 2005 projected on all four sides of the performance hall, is evocative both in sound and image, Pink Floyd through and through! I walked away with that in my memory.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

London Diary – To Canal Museum and Granary Square With the Bronte Group

Jul 27, 2017

Courtesy of the Bronte group in London, I discovered the Canal Museum. It is located at Battle Basin of Regent Canal and a short walk from British Library, Kings Cross and St Pancras International.

Albeit small, the museum is informative and interesting, telling the story of building and using of the canals and people who built and lived by the canals. Among others, I was surprised to learn that most canal barges were drawn by horses until WWII.

The building that houses the museum is itself a piece of interesting history about the trade of ice importing and ice cream making in the 19th century.

After museum visit, we walked to Granary Square along the canal. As we sat down by Regent Canal to eat our sandwiches, weather turned favorably, sun was shining on us and warming it up nicely. I couldn’t have asked for better timing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

London Diary – Jane Austen Day at Painshill

Jul 16, 2017

A lovely day out in Surrey! We went to Painshill for Jane Austen day and discovered what a gem that Painshill is. A classic English 18th century landscaped garden, it couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for a JA day.

London Diary – San Francisco and Bay Area for My Niece’s graduation!

May 11- 18. I absolutely loved the time in San Francisco and bay area with my sister and family.

Here are some highlights in random order.
California blue is stunning. But while the sun is shining, it can still be chilly in San Francisco. In the meantime, it is 10 degrees warmer in Napa and Sonoma. One day I was shivering in the chilly wind of San Francisco, the next day I was getting sunburn in Berkeley.
Attending my niece Tina’s graduation from UC Berkeley, both university and department commencement, couldn’t be more proud and happy for her and her parents.
Finding stunning views of SF from Marina Headland in Marion County and of Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End.
Being treated to lots yummies, giant crabs at Crab House at Pier 39, French at Gaspar Brasserie and Morocan at Michelin starred Mourad in SF downtown, Chinese in Richmond and Spanish at La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkerley.
Having a lovely day in Napa and Sonoma Valley, delightful lunch at Bouchon Bakery in Yontville, tour and wine tasting at beautifully dreamy Castello di Amorosa.
The holiday would have been lacking without that trip to the awesome SF premium outlet in Livermore .

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

London Diary – Tulips, Van Gogh, Canals, Windmills and more!

A few back to back trips on top of what has been a busy period of time, I am finding it difficult to keep up and thereby this quick entry.

Apr 27th – May 1st, Holland Highlights

Unknownst to us, we arrived at Amsterdam on King’s day, a mandatory holiday, and found the city literally high, many were out selling and buying at jumbo sale stalls that filled multiple wide boulevards near our hotel Hilton on Apollolaan, parties everywhere on the streets and canals in the historic downtown, and apparently, orange was the color for king’s day.

Heineken Experience at Heineken Brewery. Contrary to most reviews online, we were lucky to find no line and walked straight in. In line with the spirit for King’s day, visitors were given orange colored plastic crowns to wear. The roof top area has nice view. Only food option is a small stand on top level selling burgers and hot dogs. Cool experience overall.

About tulips. Keukenhof Garden is a must see but nothing beats the tulip fields in the villages outside the garden. We rented a tandem bike not far from the main entrance to the garden, went through multiple routes according to the map given by the bike place. It was tremendous fun. On some of the fields, tractors started to cut down the tulips. It turned out, only small portion of the tulips are sold, most are grown for the bulbs. It takes a few years for the bulbs to mature so each year at end of Apr, the flowers are cut down, until the bulbs are ready. Booking on discoverholland.com for combo ticket to the garden is a good deal, garden, bus and train all included.

Van Gogh Museum. I was over the moon at the museum. I love Van Gogh’s works, especially those from the last years, vibrant colors and unique brush work, realism and surreal quality all in one. Poor Van Gogh, have to give it to him, struggled and suffered what he did, still able to draw inspiration from and finding beauty in ordinary people and nature. My favorite paintings from the museum,

Cypresses and two women
Sunflowers
The little yellow house
Seasacpe near Les Sanity Marie de la Mer
Almond Blossom
Irises
Wheat field and reaper
Wheat field under thundercloud
Landscape at twightligh
Farm house
Views of Auvers
Garden With courting couples Square Saint Pierre

The line at Van Gogh Museum was long with hours’ wait time. We booked tickets from the museum’s website and went straight in without second’s delay. Make sure you get the No Waiting tickets.

We stumbled across L’Entrecote et les Dames, a French restaurant not far from Van Gogh Museum and enjoyed a superb dinner. They offer a set 2 course dinner, salad, Dover or steak for entrée, no more. But obviously they don’t need a bigger menu. The sauce for the steak is the best I’ve had. And they offer a second serving for the fish and a smaller second serving for the steak.

Edam is a lovely village north of Amsterdam. It is pretty easy by bus. We had a nice lunch at canal side restaurant at Hotel Fortuna, also picked up some famous local cheese. Don’t forget to check out its 17th century windmill a few minutes off town center.

On way back to Amsterdam, we stopped at seaside town Volendam. Food Corner on the water front is an interesting seafood café kind of place. You buy seafood by weight. Servers picked up the items by hands and handled cash in between. Mortified, I could not resist the temptation, fried fish, prawns, muscles, etc, all looked so good. And they did tasted great too.

A few fun observations. Holland is pretty flat where we’ve been. There are many crook buildings in Amsterdam, also in Edam. Amsterdam is an interesting mix, stark contrast between the historic downtown and ultramodern area like its World Trade Center. You most likely will pick up whiffs of that special aroma of Marijuana quite often. Easy to come across shops that sell different drugs in historic center. We came across Marijuana brownies and muffins at a flea market as we walked by.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

London Diary – Easter Weekend in Dorset!

Apr 22, 2017

Easter weekend is one of two longer public holidays in UK, lasting from Good Friday to Easter Monday, it is an extra-long weekend. We were some of the many taking road trip this past Easter weekend, and Dorset was the destination.

Stunning coast that is part of Jurassic Coast, lovely interior of rolling hills and valleys, charming towns and villages, Dorset has plenty to wow visitors. Its literary link to Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy had been the reason for my choosing Dorcester and vicinity this time.

Fine weather was definitely icing on the cake. Spring floral abounds and you can’t miss the large patches of Rap seed and Gorse field here and there.

We stayed at Little Court in Charminster, a small village on northwest outskirt of Dorcester. It is a charming house with lovely garden and peaceful surrounding. Little Court served good breakfast. I belive I had the best scrambled eggs there, rich, creamy and moist to perfection. Nearest restaurant is Sun Inn, a nice pub several minutes away on foot. For more options, Dorcester is minutes away. We tried on the first night Duchess of Cornwall, hotel plus pub in a beautiful building located in Docester’s new neighborhood of Poundbury. Both the neighborhood and pub are pleasant.

IMG_2958rs

Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door

Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door never fail to impress. First time we were there was summer of 2014 but we did not walk the coastal path in between. Back this time, we again had beautiful weather, took up the walk and fully enjoyed the scenery and people watching along the way.

Being Easter weekend with fine weather it was busy, but not more so than summer of 2014. Quite a number of families there with young children. While it is relatively easier to get to the beach at Lulworth Cove, it takes effort to safely down the narrow steps to reach the beach at Durdle Door. Some children played at the beach, with sand bucket, shovel or other beach day paraphernalia, others flew kites on the fields. It was lovely to see children and adults alike having fun.

The two attractions are 1 mile apart from each other and there is parking lot at each end. You pay for parking per car but no other admission charge. There is however more service options at Lulworth Cove, where there is the pretty Lulworth village, a visitor center, cafes and shops. We parked at Lulworth Cove, picked up some Cornish beef pasty and sausage roll from the Coffee Shop next to the visitor center and had a nice picnic at Durdle Door before heading back.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is a picturesque seaside town on the hill. Its water front area, featuring promenade, garden, and beach, was lively with visitors and holiday makers alike. Towards the western end is its harbor. Famously known as the Cobb, it owes its fame to being featured in novels like Persuasion and French Lieutenant’s Woman. From the Cobb, you enjoy lovely views of the town, sea, and Golden Cap, the highest point of south England.

Jane Austen holidayed in Lyme Regis herself. We did a Jane Austen tour with Literary Lyme. It was a 1 hour walk starting from the black metal anchor on the water by Rock Point Inn. The tour stayed mostly close to the seaside and ended at the Cobb. The material was interesting enough but the delivery and commentary by our guide was a bit of a lack luster.

The Spittles is a National Trust owned natural area located on the hill top northeast of town where you can look down to a nice picture of Lyme Regis. It is free to the public.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stonebarrow Hill and Golden Cap on Lagon Hill

East of Charmouth, a town east of Lyme Regis, there is Stonebarrow Hill, also National Trust owned natural area on the clifftop. There is ample parking at this site. Follow the path to the cliff, you’ll be rewarded by beautiful views, including that of Charmouth and Lyme Regis further west. Parking is free here and there is no charge to do the walk.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Further eastward is Logan Hill. Another National Trust owned natural area on the clifftop, parking here is a minimal of 50p and there is no charge for taking the walk. A short walk will take you to Golden Cap where another set of stunning views await.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hardy Country

Dorset, where Thomas Hardy was born and lived most of his life, is Hardy’s inspiration and in turn most of his novels are set in towns and villages of Dorset. Hardy Trail is a circular route that features all of them. Thanks to my neighbor and friend Carole, I was armed with a detailed guide to the trail. Although we did not get to visit all featured destinations, I thoroughly enjoyed those I visited.

Higher Bockhampton/Stinsford/Lower Bockhampton

Thomas Hardy was born in Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet 10 minutes north east of Dorcester. The cottage built by his grandfather and father is now a National Trust property open to the public. In addition to the cottage itself, surrounding area has been preserved as natural area for a peaceful walk. Higher Bockhampton is featured in Hardy’s novel as Higher Mellstock.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stinsford is a cute little hamlet few minutes south.  While Thomas Hardy is interred at Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, his heart was and some of his family were buried at St Michael’s Church in the village. Stinsford is Mellstock in Hardy’s novels.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lower Bockhampton is another small hamlet a few minutes southeast of Stinsford. Thomas Hardy was believed to be one of the first pupils at the Old School.

IMG_3007rs

Nestle between Stinsford and Lower Bockhampton is the grand house of Kingston Maurward House, featured in Hardy Novel as Knapwater House, and is now property of Kingston Maurward College.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All 3 hamlets are atmospherically quiet, no sign of hustle and bustle at all.

Dorcester

Dorcester, Dorset’s county town and heart of Hardy country, is an interesting mix of new and old. Poundbury, west of the town, a recent urban extension to the town, is a pleasant neighborhood with handsome buildings and wide roads.

High East and West Street along with Trinity Street are where you’d find many historic buildings and sites featured in Hardy novels, The Dorset County Museum, St Peter’s Church, The King’s Arm’s Hotel, The Corn Exchange and the Antelope Hotel, etc. Trinity Street is a pedestrian only street lined with shops, restaurants and more historic buildings. Dorcester itself is featured as Casteridge in Hardy novels.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Maxgate House east of town is Thomas Hardy’s former home from 1885 to 1928. It is now a National Trust property and house museum open to the public. It is a comfortable house that had seen many distinguished guest, including Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wale. As you learnt about the novelist and his great work, the man and his life, the not so great ending for his first wife Emma came into light. Humans are so full of contradiction!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thomas Hardy’s statue can be found on the corner of The Grove and High West Street.

Hardy’s Monument

This is however a different Thomas Hardy, a Royal Navy officer, Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, 1st Baronet GCB (5 April 1769 – 20 September 1839).

The monument is built on top of the hill in Portesham. The monument itself is average, the far reaching panoramic view atop of the monument is very fine indeed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Abbotsbury

Abbotsbury is one of the prettiest little villages I’ve ever seen. Arriving just before the last light of the day faded away, it was a charming picture of idyllic serenity. Although the only people around were a few last minute tourists like us, we were in good company of many sheep, a few pheasants, a swan and a flock of ducks.

Abbotsbury is also home to its well-known Swannery and Subtropical Garden. Alas we missed them this time.  St Catherine’s Chapel located on top of a hill is supposed to offer an advantage view of the village and surrounding area. We didn’t hike up to the hill this time. Luckily you can also get a great view of the village on B3157 approaching the village from the west.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Weymouth

Weymouth is not far south of Dorcester. We made a brief stop at its water front and were pleasantly surprised by the flat, long stretch of beach, an unusual but impressive sight, the long row of buildings lining the beach front is equally impressive. After that we drove by the old harbor which was quite lively, with music wafting out of pubs and pub goers spilling out on to the street.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Osmington White Horse

Intrigued, we drove to a look out on A353. If you want to get up and close, it is possible to do so by foot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Corfe Castle

Castles, ruins and treasure hunting are my husband’s fantasies and Corfe Castle fitted the bill perfectly.

With Corfe Castle towering over, the Village is picturesque and evocative in equal parts. The castle itself is impressive even in its ruined state. A National Trust property, we as members benefited a free entrance. You have to take a walk through the ruin and get close up to its various parts to appreciate its former glory and the political intrigue behind its destruction.

Being a tourist hot spots, there are nice restaurants and shops in the village center. Dinner at Grey Hound Inn was great. I had Crab Gratin with kale and mash potatoes and it was very good. I’d rate it a gourmet pub.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.