Driving the German Autobahn: Where are the potholes?

Hooray!  Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations:  the Rhine Valley region,  a short stop on the Romantic Road,  Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France.  We rented a car for the entire trip.

We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in  European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens.  I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line.  Plus,  the price was good –  really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites.  I also priced out Sixt and Hertz,  two other big providers.  Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip. 

Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive.  Why is that?

We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early,  the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn’t available yet.  I’m not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever.  The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon.  Maybe not as “sexy” from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted,  Germans looooove their station wagons.  This proved true –  there aren’t many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons.  My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver –  we knew we both wanted to drive here. So,  no harm no foul.  5 doors instead of 4. All good.  I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):

I declined the CDW insurance,  after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card –  we were clearly covered as primary insurance,  this saved us hundreds of dollars.  Always read the fine print though :  there are exclusions,  such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars,  and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.

We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:

Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination,  tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight,  so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour. 

The car ended up having a “pop-up display”,  visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle’s speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield.  This ended up being very useful.  We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures,  border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits. 

I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display,  parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic,  and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred.  On the highway,  speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign.  This car not only  displayed the limit,  but on both the dashboard and the pop up window,  our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.   

Things you see on German highways, part 1

I was also impressed with German highways – the “Autobahn” in general.  Here, an important side note/ question:  am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so,  feel free to laugh at me.  “The German Autobahn” turns out to be any major highway starting with “A”.    And many, many miles of these “A” roads indeed have speed limits,  especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But –  then you see a speed limit with a line through it,  usually in a wide open, rural area –  and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*

Things you see on German highways, Part 2

We did experience a fair amount of traffic,  especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising)  and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction.  It seems as though every 10-20 miles,  lanes were closed.  Bridges, tunnels, open stretches.  Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure.  The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ?  NO potholes.  And NO accidents.  The highways are correctly graded,  with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes.  We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained. 

Things you see on German highways, Part 3

So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But,  we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers,  never tailgating ,  minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic.   We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane,  content behind a tractor trailer. 

When we hit the limitless areas,  we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this –  due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW’s potential.  But , over the course of the trip,  each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for –  a wide,  3 lane road ,  dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views.  When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal. 

It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‘keep right, pass left” laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live.  Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane.  And when in the left lane,  if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror,  they move to the right.  How refreshing !!  

Our  top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.  

Wheeeeee!

The display in kph added to the rush we experienced –  seeing “200” on the gauge.  Yikes!  Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience. 

One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.

Austrian vignette on top; Swiss vignette on bottom

Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.

Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following:

  • Enlightening
  • Exhilarating
  • Rainy
  • Scenic
  • Fun
  • Exhausting?
It’s a good thing Husband trusts my driving…

Singapore Air Business Class: Expectations = Sky High

Hi friends!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted – life intervenes! – and I have so many things to share with you.  In addition to our spring 2019 trip to Costa Rica,  Husband and I recently  returned from Germany and France,  achieving  a lifelong goal of attending  Oktoberfest!  I’ve also spent time with Oldest in Chicago and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and with family and friends at our new home in nearby Lewes. Delaware. We managed to squeezed in a work-related extended trip to San Diego as well.

In the interest of getting back into the writing habit as quickly as possible,  I’m going to start with our most recent trip to Europe first, before sharing highlights from prior trips such as Costa Rica (she says hopefully). 

This post will detail our departure experience on Singapore Airlines flight # SQ25 from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany in Business Class. 

Although JFK is not our most convenient airport, often the best value-for-points flights to Europe originate there.  As I’ve noted previously,  I really REALLY prefer a lie-flat seat on an overnight flight.     For me, actual sleep is important, and  I’m saving a whole day of vacation by landing with at least some semblance of my consciousness intact on that first morning.    So,  we bit the bullet, paid the $100+ Uber fare, and headed across Manhattan at rush hour to catch the 8:55pm flight. By the way, the late time of this flight is what I usually look for when traveling to Europe – the later the flight, the more chance I’ll be tired enough to sleep shortly after takeoff.

My very first trip over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!


It may seem odd to have a flight on Singapore Airlines that has neither an origin nor destination anywhere near Singapore.  It turns out,  this is a rather unique itinerary known as a “Fifth Freedom” route, allowing Singapore to pick up and drop off passengers on what is essentially a stopover in JFK. You can read more about Fifth Freedom flights here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/05/30/what-you-need-to-know-about-fifth-freedom-flights/#2270a7b63c85

I booked the flight using Chase Sapphire Reserve points, transferred to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.  Singapore has a vaunted reputation for service,  and it’s easy to get excited about their beautiful suites when you click around on their website.  So much space!  So comfortable!  See, here’s the thing –  the suites are only available for First Class, not Business Class.  They would have cost a sizeable amount of additional points. So, nice,  but no.  More trips > one trip , amirite? 

So what DO you get in Business Class? Pre-flight lounge access. A short but wide, angled flatbed capable seat. Free alcoholic drinks.  Professional, courteous service. Dinner, and/or breakfast, and/or the right to be left alone and skip dining in favor of sleep (I chose the latter, Husband chose dinner only). 

We arrived well before the flight, and our tickets granted access to the King David lounge at JFK.  I was surprised,  because my research told me that the typical lounge for this flight is Swiss Airlines’ lounge, as part of the Global Alliance.  However,  the Swiss Lounge was under construction.  The King David Lounge, sponsored by El Al,  appears to seat about 85-100 people, and every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor and window ledge.  The majority of the passengers were headed to Israel, so when that earlier flight boarded, the lounge felt much less crowded.  I’m fairly certain that the food was  Kosher, although I didn’t actually see any signage to this effect. The well-stocked buffet included mostly cold foods, such as lox and bagels,  tuna  and egg salads, and a Greek-style salad.  The wine was a very tasty red blend from Israel.  We were lucky to find an outlet to charge our devices – I would estimate there was one for every 10 or so passengers in the lounge.  I didn’t take photos in the lounge.  Lounge grade:  B-, due to being overcrowded initially with little hot food available.  

Now let’s get to the plane. Singapore flies a two-decker A 380 on this route. The Business Class seats are all on the upper deck; unlike the 747s of old, you don’t climb stairs on the plane, you simply embark on the upper level. The boxy style of the seats reminded me of the Commodore 64 computers that adorned my college computer lab.

Someone at Singapore Air really likes beige.

As to the seat itself:  I don’t claim to be the world’s most experienced overseas flatbed seat traveler,  but I’ve been on Aer Lingus, United, Virgin, and Lufthansa.   Singapore’s bed was easily the worst.   Husband and I were in middle seats (both aisles, the configuration is 1 – 2 – 1) so we could be next to each other;  seats next to the windows were singles.  They appeared to have the same dimensions as our center seats.  The seats are wide,  but the space available to lie flat is made for people 5’6” or less. 

Husband settles into the Business Class seat.

It’s not every day that my vertical challenges are an advantage, but today was that day.  The seats are in a pod style format ,  with a footwell in the seat in front – but angled toward the middle of the plane.  The “bed” is created by folding down the back of the seat toward the footwell –  you have to get out of the seat for it to become a bed.  I prefer the seats that simply recline all the way to a flat position –  it’s just easier.   A flight attendant is ready to assist, but I didn’t want to wait for that – I had taken my sleep aid and was ready to go down as soon as the plane was in the air –  so I struggled a bit but eventually figured it out by watching like-minded passengers set up their beds.

The bigger issue was the length of the bed. I am almost 5’3 and I just barely fit.  Taller people, including Husband, had really no choice but to lay in a fetal position – and due to the angled footwell,  they had to stay on one side.  I don’t know about you, but I usually move at least once or twice in a 6 hour period – middle age creeping in, after all.   I knew what to expect from reading other reviews, but I was still surprised by the discomfort.   In addition,  when upright (even when somewhat reclined) ,  my short legs barely reached the footwell –  because the seat doesn’t shift forward,  there’s nothing supporting your legs if your feet don’t  reach.  

stretching so my toes reach the footwell – not so comfortable


Husband reports that his filet mignon dinner was tasty enough, and he enjoyed a few cocktails as well.  He doesn’t need as much sleep as I do,  luckily,  because he didn’t get much. 

Also, the bed was very hard. And it would have been nice had the center console lifted up –  we both would have benefited from more space that way and could have better utilized the angles. Plus, a little snuggly time. Overall seat grade:  C+.  Only because flat was technically possible. 

The flight and service were timely, well-coordinated, and smooth,  we actually arrived in Frankfurt a full hour ahead of schedule –  a mixed blessing when jet lag looms.  Flight grade was an A.

Overall:  lest I sound like a whiner or unappreciative, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Singapore Business Class experience.  It was good. I’ve certainly suffered through more uncomfortable flights (and more uncomfortable situations, but that’s a story for another day….).  We arrived, early, in one piece and with a little sleep to boot. Germany, here we come!

The Ring of Kerry: sometimes those “Best of” lists have it right

Any search of “things to do in Ireland” will undoubtedly include a tour of the famous Ring of Kerry.  It’s often cited as one of Ireland’s top sights to see: #6 on this list,  2nd on this one,  and at the top of Frommer’s “best scenic drives in Ireland”.  What is the ring?  It’s a driving route around the Iveragh peninsula, hugging the Atlantic coast closely and circling through the towns of Killarney and Kenmare, as well as Killarney National Park.

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It’s also offers breathtaking scenery including the ocean, mountains, cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, fields, domesticated animals, and wildlife.  And although I’d been to Killarney before, I had never driven the full Ring around the peninsula,  only the bit near town and the Killarney National Park.  Here is a preview of a few of my photos from the area:

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See? breathtaking!

So you know I’m a planner,  but my plans usually leave a bit of flexibility. I was planning to drive the 111-mile Ring myself;  many tourists do it every day, and although there are  harrowing stories involving oncoming buses,  I figured my approximately 20,000,000 hours of commuting time spent on Rt 287 in New Jersey leaves me well prepared for just about anything.  I even made a map with scenic pit stops and approximate drive times. But, as the day approached, and as I spent as a passenger on the “wrong” side in Scotland, I realized that if I drove myself,  I would not be able to fully enjoy the scenery.  So when Dave, our Corporate Transfer driver from Dublin, offered us contact information for his friend Aidan at Killarney Chauffeur,  I took him up on it.  We booked a day with Aidan and never looked back.

Aidan arrived around 9 am in a beautiful BMW 5 series, which was a nice upgrade from the rattletrap I had been driving. The day started out a bit overcast, but the gloom added to Kerry’s atmostphere (and we eventually found the sun once again). After a brief stop at the Aghadoe viewpoint just outside of Killarney, we drove through the tiny town of Killorglin.

In the center of Killorglin is the statue of a goat,  named King Puck.  Aidan explained that the goat had warned residents of the approach of Cromwell’s army, earning himself such a royal title. There is an annual “Puck Fair” in his honor as well. A very accomplished goat!

King Puck
King Puck!

Just beyone Killorglin, we stoped at a roadside display of crafts that Aidan recommended, and once again came upon the sight of a dog… sitting on a donkey.  I guess this is a thing in County Kerry?

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Dogs + donkeys.  Why?

Next, we stopped by the beach in Rossbeigh,  which looks across to the Dingle Peninsula.  Somehow I’m still surprised to see beaches in Ireland.

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checking out a portion of Rossbeigh beach

Aidan offered us an educational tidbit here and there, including a brief explanation of common town name origins around Ireland:

Kill = church

Bally = Town of

There are a number of ancient ring forts around Kerry,  and we had told Aidan we were interested to see one.  He took us  to Cahergall Stone Fort, which we were able to climb and take a few fun photos:

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I’m the King of the World!

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Please don’t fall

Just outside the fort, I took one of my favorite photos of this trip.  This home is so peaceful looking,  I think I could live here, very happily:

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Serenity Now

Valentia Island was our next stop,  offering dramatic, steep cliffs and views back to the larger island.  Aidan took us by the Valentia slate quarry, bored deep into a mountain:qjs+mnnfqvyncme8hvdmua

You may or  may not have noticed in the photo above, but Mary watches over it all:

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Beyond the quarry, we stretched our legs by hiking up to Bray Head on Valentia:

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Skellig Michael, filming site for Luke Skywalker’s home in “The Last Jedi”, in the far distance

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Looking across toward Portmagee

After a stop in Portmagee at The Moorings for a very pleasant lunch, we arrived at the Kerry Cliffs.  By now, Aidan had figured out that we like taking photos on cliffs.  We worked off our lunch hiking to the top, which was only about 2/3 mile from the parking lot, but fairly steep. Also, the sun came out while we were at lunch!

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Skellig Michael, closer now, in the distance.

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On our way to put those calories back on at the Skellig Chocolate Factory, I spotted an abandoned cottage that I tried photographing from several angles.  I thought the sky, clouds, and shadows seemed almost surreal.   I do need to photoshop out the antennae, but I love these photos.  You tell me which is best:

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We completed our trip around the Ring with stops in Caherdaniel:

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Mary is very popular in Ireland

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Somehow, we will pass that car, and no one will fall off a cliff

The bright little town of Sneem:

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Just the cheeriest looking pub ever

And a few views across Killarney National Park:

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An overlook known as Ladies’ View, where Queen Victoria’s laides-in-waiting visited in 1861

Now, 111 miles may not sound like a lot –  here in America,  barring traffic,  it’s an easy 2 hour drive. But attempting the ROK in anything under 6 hours is a foolhardy endeavor,  due to a combination of low speeds; windy, narrow roads; and the absolute compulsion to photograph nearly everything in sight. My iphone says I took 133 photos on our trip around the ring –  and it wasn’t enough.  Guess I need to go back!!

 

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or ….you are really entertained

This was a day Oldest and I had looked forward to for months.  Not long after deciding that Scotland and Ireland would be our graduation trip destination, we also decided that we needed to do a Game of Thrones tour.  In fact,  I arranged our entire itinerary around this highlight.

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Originally, I had thought of spending a couple of days in Belfast,  because the GOT sites are all located in Northern Ireland. Between difficulty finding a direct flight between Inverness and Belfast,  and planning for further destinations in southern Ireland, we ended up flying into Dublin and opting for this tour:  Game of Thrones Dublin Winterfell tour –  as far as I could find, the only one originating in Dublin. I promise to return to Northern Ireland and visit Belfast!  This was a very difficult decision.

Oldest and I are both very big GOT fans.  I initially read the books in 2007-2008, during that dark and dreary winter following the banking crisis that seemed to last a dozen years, like in the novels.  Now,  I am a big reader, but I am not generally a fantasy fan.  While I read an average of 30-40 books a year, I have not read all of the Lord of the Rings trilogy,  nor have I read all of the Harry Potter books.  It’s just not my thing;  I prefer historical fiction and crime/murder mysteries. In fact,  I tried at least 3 different times to start the series,  and couldn’t get past the first 50 pages.  Eventually, though,  I plowed my way through about 1/3 of the book and –  ta da –  I was completely hooked.   Finally, after two seasons of the HBO series,  I ended up re-reading all 5 books to jog my memory about the minor plot points skipped over by the TV version.  That’s how much I enjoy it.

**Rant warning**   Finish the d*mn books, George R.R.! **End rant warning**

So, it was quite a thrill to see the setting for Winterfell:

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Castle Ward, the setting for Winterfell. They use a lot of CGI to make the walls look larger

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The yard at Castle Ward

Dress up like a Stark:

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Oldest trying to look mean

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Getting my Stark on

 

and meet two of the beautiful dogs that played the Direwolves Summer and Greywind in the HBO series.

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BEAUTIFUL, and patient, dogs

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Me and Thor.  He looks a little bored

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Oldest and friend Odin

 

Our tour guide Lady Aenne was extremely knowledgeable about both the show and the settings.

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Lady Aenne showing us THE STUMP that can is visible in the series’ opening scene

She was also a FAST walker.  Winter may be coming, but I was sweating my butt off, especially with the heavy Stark-esque cape I wore.  I ended up carrying it for much of the walking parts of the tour.

We enjoyed lunch at The Lobster Pot in Strangford,  which hosts the tour group daily with this hokey but fun drink menu:

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Pretty much everyone on our bus was also a fan (there are always a few bored but willing tag-a-long partners). We played a GOT trivia game, the winner of which was crowned “King in the North”, to whom we later bent the knee and swore our fealty. Of course!  Oldest and I thought we did fairly well on the 20-question quiz,  but this guy was on a whole different level –  he got all 20 questions right.  Impressive.  I swear fealty, milord.

The tour was a long day –  we met at 7:45 am, and returned to Dublin right around 6:00.  There was a fair amount of time on the bus, but the tour kept us entertained with behind-the-scenes videos,  the trivia game, and,  on the way home,  the first two full episodes of GOT.

I highly recommend this tour and   tour company, Game of Thrones Tours–  offering the only GOT tour choice out of Dublin, literally;  when I return to Northern Ireland I’ll eagerly try one of their “Iron Islands” tours from Belfast.

Next up,  we will return to the 21st century and – gulp- drive on the “wrong” side of the road!

 

 

 

Delightful Dublin

After 8 days in Scotland,  now it was time to revisit an old favorite:  Ireland!

We had  a ride to the airport through Inverness Taxi. A cheery, punctual driver picked us up in the morning for a ride to Inverness Airport.  It’s a small,  easy-to-navigate airport, and we encountered no security line whatsover.  The tiny LogainAir plane required a walk on the tarmac –  thankfully, again, it wasn’t raining.  We climbed up the stairs and performed a royal/ presidential wave as we embarked.

 

After a short, pleasant flight to Dublin Airport, we opted for a taxi into the city.  My research told me that this was the lazy person’s way out – the Green 747 Bus would have taken us within 1/4 mile of our AirBnB – but we didn’t care.   The taxi ride almost became embarrassing, however,  when we found out that the driver didn’t accept credit cards, and didn’t think he could make change for my €100 bill.  Having just now entered the EU, we hadn’t had a chance to break our larger bills yet.   Um,  you’re charming and all,  but I’m not giving you a €70 tip!  As I prepared myself to make a big old Jersey Girl stink, the driver magically found change.

Another mention of politics vs. World Cup fandom from the cab ride.  Although our driver was 100% Irish,  he supported England in the World Cup.  This, honestly, surprised me.  I could understand the Scottish having divided loyalties.  His explanation:  “they helped us with cash when we needed it in the recession, no one remembers that”.  I think he is referring to the post-2008 banking crisis.  Oh, and also he is a Liverpool FC fan, and several Liverpool players were on the England team.  Now THAT makes more sense!

We were too early to check in to our AirBnB: AirBnB Sir John Rogerson’s Quay , so we had a pub lunch down the street at the Ferryman pub.  Guinness pie –  always a favortie in Ireland.    Once again, the AirBnB proved to be a hit,  on the first floor with two nicely sized bedrooms,  and walkable to all our Dublin targets.

Our next stop was the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street.  We’ve both done the Guinness factory before, and Oldest recommended this instead.  We enjoyed the short tour,  which was less cheesy than Edinburgh’s Scotch Whiskey Experience.

 

 

After a brief history tour, we got right down to business with our free drinks at the bar.  There they conconted some excellent and varied cocktails using Jameson’s.  Oh, and the bartenders were cute (whoops did I say that out loud?)

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Drinking having commenced,  we wandered toward Temple Bar.  We got a kick out of finding the famous Temple Bar webcam and waving to Dearest Husband, who we texted to look us up, and then sent us a screenshot of us.  Technology!  Yay!

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Look!  there we are on the webcam!

We enjoyed an excellent dinner at Fade Street Social on Drury street, which Oldest had picked out on Yelp.   It was a definite foodie joint, and a welcome upgrade from the heavy fare we had generally been enjoying. The venue includes both an upscale restaurant and a more casual, loud gastropub.  Since the restaurant was packed, and even the gastropub booths were full, we ate at the tapas bar overlooking the open kitchen and enjoyed drinks while watching the staff prepare the tapas-style meals.   When a man in a leather jacket arrived toward the end of the evening, observing the chefs, having discussions with the manager, tasting the food as it was prepared, and generally seeming in charge,  we googled the restaurant (technology! yay!) and found that he was indeed the restaurant’s proprietor, Dylan McGrath, a star of MasterChef Ireland.

A great day/evening in Dublin ended fairly early because we needed to rest up for …. DUN dun dun dun DUN dun dun dun DUN dun dun dun DUN dun dun dun duuuuunnnnnn

(what the heck is that? find out in my next post 🙂)  When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or ….you are really entertained

The sun never sets on Inverness (in early July, anyway)

Having successfully located Nessie, we enjoyed the remainder of the day and evening in Inverness.  We gathered with locals at the Castle Tavern (located, unsurprisingly,  next to Inverness castle) to watch a very exciting World Cup match with England vs. Colombia,  which resulted in an English victory via penalty shootout.

8smaxMBsQGC3MB42GmoK8wWe wondered:  Do Scots root for the English team, as loyal members of the United Kingdom?  Or is it a rivalry based on a history of war between the two countries?  The answer we found, by asking tour guides and pub patrons, was both.  As we were educated by John Alasdair Macdonald, our Hebrideaen Explorer tour guide, Scotland’s history began well before its famed wars with southern neighbors and Hadrian’s wall. While today there is most definitely a Scottish identity, the history of the people inhabiting Scotland is not as clear cut.  In addition, many modern Scots, such as John, have spent time studying or living in England.  So,  our very unscientific poll revealed that while many Scots eagerly rooted for England’s opponent,  just as many cheered their UK brethren. We just enjoyed watching them.

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Dinner was  at the Black Isle Brewery, which we had walked past several times during our time in Inverness and always seemed lively & busy.  As the name implies,  this is a craft brew house, but with an organic twist.  We were a little bit beered out by this point so we chose the organic wine,  which was delicious.  Black Isle is also famous for its pizza, but Oldest is non-dairy so we chose a vegan pizza with pesto –  I will admit to being doubtful,  but it was delicious.  Highly recommended, and one of our better meals in Scotland, especially if you are growing tired of traditional pub fare.

After enjoying some traditional music at Inverness’ most famous pub, Hootananny’s, we took one last stroll along the lovely River Ness.  By this point in our trip, I had successfully “closed my rings” (Apple-speak for getting enough exercise) for 7 consecutive days, and I wasn’t about to stop now.  By now it was fairly late:  in fact,  it was midnight. And yet, off to the southwest,  was a bright glow.  Indeed,  this far north, and less than two weeks past the summer solstice, Inverness’ sky never really darkened, and it was as bright as day by 3:00 am.   If you travel to Inverness during this time of year,  bring an eye mask if you like your mornings dark!

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Timestamp on this photo is 12:01 am

Thus ended our visit to Scotland.  The country’s wild beauty,  combined with its residents’ fierce patriotism, heartiness, and charm, won us over completely.  We may not have become whiskey connoiseurs, but we will undoubtedly return.

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Finding Nessie

Our next day in Inverness found us checking off another bucket list item:  Loch Ness.  Although many travel advice blogs and comment board afficianados will tell you that Loch Ness isn’t  Scotland’s prettiest loch,  and that there are many better sights in Scotland,  and they may be right, it’s still LOCH NESS.  Come on.  Even as an American child growing up in the Midwest,  the mythology of the Loch Ness Monster captivated me.  Perhaps because I grew up before technology, I believed the storytellers and witnesses,  just as I believed in Bigfoot. A few decades, uncovered hoaxes, and the internet later,  I am clearly aware of the non-existence of these imaginary creatures.  But that doesn’t make it any less fun to look for them.

Prior to arriving in Inverness,  this day was completely uncalendared and free for exploration. But as we rode the train into the Highlands from Edinburgh, coming closer and closer to Loch Ness,  both Oldest and I realized that we could not deny ourselves the opportunity of Nessie hunting.  So we booked the 4 hour “Sensation” tour with Jacobite Cruises.   Departing from Inverness bus station, the tour included a cruise on the Loch, a visit to the Loch Ness Monster exhibition, and Urquhart Castle.

Another perfect day –  actually it was a bit warm and we both got a bit of a sunburn! – resulted in some pretty amazing photos:

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We learned that Loch Ness is Scotland’s second deepest loch, and contains more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined.   And because of the high peat content in the soil,  its waters are very dark and murky.  With soft movement along the water’s surface, it is easy to imagine a large, dark form lurking just beneath.

And best of all:  WE FOUND HER! 😉

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Inverness and exploring the Highlands with a Macdonald (no, not a quarter pounder)… Warning: photo overload ahead!

After an active and lively 5 days in Edinburgh,  Oldest and I were ready for a little downtime.  We traveled via ScotRail train from Edinburgh Waverly station to Inverness.  The train was overcrowded, and the attendant a bit grouchy because people were putting their bags anywhere and everywhere.  We were grateful to have a seat, though, and the beautiful weather continued:

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After checking into our Airbnb in Inverness,  a lovely, 2-story, 2 bedroom attached home, (Inverness Airbnb), we enjoyed a relaxing walk along and through the islands of the River Ness.  No hills here on this walk!  At all!  My thighs thanked me.   Here are a few photos from our stroll:

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amazingly clear water!

Early the next morning, we were greeted by John Alasdair Macdonald, proprietor of The Hebridean Explorer, a private tour company based in Inverness.    Looking back,  Oldest says this day was a highlight of the trip.

John Alasdair Macdonald (I love saying all 3 names) spent time as a businessman in England before returning to his homeland to start his tour company and study for a Master’s in History.   He grew up speaking both Gaelic and English. Additionally,  he is a proud member of the fabled Macdonald clan.  A really interesting tidbit I found on the MacDonald clan,  courtesy of www.greatscottishclans.com:

 There are more than half a million Macdonalds worldwide, and a recent study suggests that one in four can trace their origins back to Somerled, the clan’s founder and “The Greatest of all Celtic warrior kings”.  Only one man has more living descendants:  Genghis Khan.

/returns from digression/

As we had a Loch Ness cruise tour booked for the following day,  I chose the “Hebridean Explorer Tour with Eilean Donan Castle”.  Unlike most Inverness day tours,  which  journey to the Isle of Skye and back,  this tour heads further north toward the Apple-cross peninsula. My planning thought process here was that we would return one day to Scotland, and spend a few days exploring Skye –  I wanted to do something that would give me a flavor of ‘wild’ Scotland, without the summer crowds expected on Skye.

As it turned out,  this choice was fortuitous –  according to John,  although it wasn’t his most popular tour,  it was the tour that would take the greatest advantage of the incredibly blue skies we enjoyed in Scotland.  He mentioned that he had been thinking about discontinuing the tour, because the views were frequently obscured by poor weather and required a disappointing re-route.  But then, on occasion,  he was blessed with a day like our tour day,  and was only too thrilled to explore the Applecross route.   Sadly,  it appears that the tour is no longer offered,  but I’m sure if you asked John about it he would be more than happy to set it up – and hope for great weather!

I truly wish I had taken more notes during our tour,  so I could do a better job of describing the day’s beautiful photos and telling you the exact route we took.  Then again,  more time spent on my ipad would have meant less time enjoying the incredible scenery.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking now.

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Our first glimpse of Loch Ness

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Eilean Donan Castle

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The drop below him was a good 60 feet.  I’m still a nervous mommy but managed to get a pic!

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The view and beautiful skies from Eilean Donan

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Eilean Donan Castle

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Viewpoint over Loch Carron in Stromeferry

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Near the shore at Sanachon

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The little seaside town of Sheildag was a favorite stop

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View from A896 between Sheildag and Torridon

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The Torridon Hills – made of sandstone

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Amazing viewpoint along A832 near Kinlochewe

I do know that we started off toward Loch Ness, heading through Drumnadrochit (it’s fun to try to say that in a Scottish accent –  spit out the “droch”), a town on the side of the lake and the home of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, which we would visit the next day.  Then we headed toward Eilean Donan Castle,  where we enjoyed lunch in the cafe, and up toward Torridon before heading back to Inverness.  The full tour took about 8 1/2 hours.

The historical tidbits offered by John Alasdair Macdonald definitely added to the trip.  We asked whether he rooted for England in the World Cup (spoiler: he did) which kicked off a long discussion about Scotland’s history.  Although modern Scotland is a part of the U.K., its history and people are a true melting pot of tribal Picts, Normans, Britons, and Vikings.    We also learned that in the 1790s,  after a rebellion of farmers,  Highlands clan lords forced people out of the highland plains and valleys in favor of sheep, which helped them afford their lordly lifestyle.  As a result,  the  majority of Scotland’s population to this day remains near the coasts.

The Hebridean Explorer tour was an outstanding day.  I cannot recommend John’s tour more highly.  Throughout the booking process, communication was top notch.  And the tour itself was memorable for our host’s knowledge, flexibility, and unbelievable scenery.

A note on my planning for Inverness.  I had considered several small group, multi-day tours, to take the most advantage of our short time in the Highlands.  In the end, I opted for booking our own lodging in Inverness for 3 nights, combined with a single day private tour, and  half day tour of Loch Ness.  There were several advantages to this approach, for us:

  • We chose our own lodging, and did not have to pack and move nightly to a new location.
  • We enjoyed a ‘downtime’ evening in our Airbnb, getting snacks from the grocery and watching a movie on our iPads
  • We slept late one morning
  • Our private tour was catered to our interests and tastes, allowing for plenty of interaction with our very knowledgeable guide.
  • We never had to wait for a line to use the toilet, or for lagging tour guests to return to a bus.

For us, even though it was not an inexpensive option, this was the right balance, Given our busy time in Edinburgh, combined with the fact that we were still only halfway through our vacation, we wanted to regain and retain some energy.  Because tomorrow…. we will be hunting monsters!

 

 

 

Ain’t no mountain high enough…

As has been mentioned, there are a lot of hills in Edinburgh.   Like Rome, the city’s position among “seven hills” is no accident.  It is easy to imagine 11th century nomadic warriors establishing a defensible stronghold here. Among those seven hills, I can’t neglect to mention the biggest of them all:  Arthur’s Seat. Some historians claim this may have been the site of Camelot.   Looming imposingly about a mile to the east of Edinburgh Castle,  Arthur’s Seat rises 610 feet from city level, to an elevation of 823 feet.  (creds: Google).  Actually,  that doesn’t sound like much, does it?  I didn’t think so either.

So,  after a busy day walking alpacas (see previous post), Oldest and I set off from our lodging for a quick jaunt to the top of Arthur’s Seat.  It was on his bucket list for Edinburgh, and who was I to stop him?  A  round-ish 50 something mom who usually sits in an air conditioned office, that’s who.

We didn’t have a map, or consult any guidebooks prior to starting off.  (what?  I didn’t plan the detail of how to get up Arthur’s Seat?  shocking, I know).  We just started walking up from the direction of Holyrood Palace, not realizing there were a number of potential paths for our ascent. As it turned out, the path we chose was the shortest to the top.  That’s great!  Except it also meant that it was the steepest.  Geometry 101.

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Halfway up, view toward the Firth of Forth

Huff. Puff. Wipe off sweat, take in beautiful views, repeat.  By the very top, there wasn’t much of a path at all, just giant boulders to be climbed.  Not only am I 50 something, I have short legs,  so this was quite a challenge.   I was literally drenched with sweat and breathing like Darth Vader. Oldest was well ahead of me,  checking back periodically to make sure I hadn’t croaked on the side of Camelot.

In all, the climb took me about 40 minutes of serious cardio.  With a diet heavy on french fries and beer so far this week,  the exercise was not unwelcome. And while there were moments when I thought I wouldn’t make it to the top, I am so glad I did.  At the tippy top there is a small marker. The moment I touched it, catching my breath, was unforgettable. Not only had I met the physical challenge , but I was rewarded with incredible views over the city of Edinburgh.

 

 

There is some sort of lovely, deep metaphor in this experience.  Oh I know:

 It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves –  Sir Edmund Hillary

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360 degree panorama from the top

 

My alpaca is a slack-a

On our last full day in Edinburgh, we headed out of town for another adventure.    Knowing Oldest is a huge fan of animals,  I booked the Alpaca Walk at BobCat Alpacas, just on the edge of the city center in the area known as Bonaly.  This was our only pre-booked activity in Edinburgh:  if you’re even thinking about it,  do it!  Click here for more info:  BobCat Alpacas

So a few things to know about alpacas:

  • They are as soft as they appear
  • They are typically very social and stay together in small groups
  • They are very photogenic
  • They take a couple of minutes to warm up to humans, then become quite loyal
  • They are (usually) sweet, mellow, and gentle
  • They have truly learned the meaning of “stop and smell the roses”

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Bob,  one of the proprietors, met us along with group of about 10 others for the day’s walk.  Bob and his wife Catherine manage a herd of about 50 or so alpacas.  Each walker would be paired with one adult male alpaca for the walk; before our assignments, Bob gave us a rundown of each animal’s personality.  Balthazar is a leader.  Eureka and Amadeus are best buddies and will walk together.  Artemis is mellow and likes to trail behind others.  (I’m making up these descriptions because I don’t remember which was which except for our assigned alpacas, but you get the idea).  Oldest was assigned Artie, a very mellow alpaca –  and that is saying something, for an alpaca –  who preferred to bring up the rear.

I was assigned Orlando.  I just looked him up on the website’s herd directory, and I see that he is one of the primary stud males in the herd.  Well, that explains a lot!   I should have known….. while the other alpacas had large, soft, lidded eyes and sweet faces,  Orlando’s  heavier brow made him look kind of pissed off:

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The group started off on our walk.  Bob cautioned that we should expect a slow pace, as alpacas like to nibble on the roadside grass. Yes,  yes they do. Our roughly 2 mile walk took over 2 hours, and mostly went like this:
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Orlando, however,  was rarely part of the social group chewing the soft grass.  Like my Youngest,  he chose the road less traveled. His preferred activity was jumping, eating and rolling, tangling his leash in the bristly bushes along the roadside:

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Also unlike the other alpacas,  Orlando took his time warming up to me (or any humans).  He would duck away and snort when I tried to pet him. And he would simply not be told, pulled, or cajoled to leave those bushes.  He and Artie both did, however,  like to pose for the camera:

 

At one point,  we came across a family and their dogs out for a walk.  Alpacas do NOT like dogs.  And when dogs were sighted just as we crossed a small bridge,  we entered Alpaca Jam 2018.  They just did. not. move.  For about 15 minutes.

We finally returned to the farm and were treated to the sight of several newborn crias (babies) with their mothers;  one was as young as 2 days old!  IMG_0828.jpg

Despite Orlando’s stubbornness, he eventually let me pet him and actually seemed to like me by the end of the walk.  Probably because I gave up and let him be his badass self.