Expedition IQuest-London & Scotland-Hogmanay

HogmanayThe Blackbird PubExpedition IQuest-destination Hogmanay 2016.

Highland Explorer Tours

taking the tri-rail to Miami-arriving at the airport early –enjoying bloody Mary’s and a light dinner and reflecting on our upcoming journey. Upon boarding the plane and getting incredibly lucky to have an entire row to stretch out on for the overnight flight to London.

Arriving in London at about 8am the next morning-it is time to learn to use the tube, which is London’s subway system. It is more than a bit tricky –but asking a Londoner for assistance can be even trickier as they are not prone to being very helpful.   Somehow we get our bearings and the tube puts us within about three blocks from our hotel. Being quite grateful for this-we quickly drop off our luggage and head out to explore. Within five minutes we find a pub that is featuring a local football (soccer) match. It is crowded and loud but full of tremendous excitement as the patrons cheer on their team with loud chants and songs. We finally find a small corner to settle in and enjoy our first pint in London. Edward is quite happy to have the experience. Our appetites are now ready to find dinner. Off we go to try to understand the landscape and find some authentic British food. We settle in on another small pub and realize the common layout is a room to drink and are surprised to find that almost no places have seats at the bar-the bar is simply where you go to order your drinks and/or food. There is rarely waitress service. Our first meal in London is traditional meat pie, which is warm and comforting for Floridians acclimating to weather in the 40’s.   We decide to take the tube to other areas and discover the tower bridge and a very nice area to walk along the riverfront. We find a really cool place called the Vault, which is under the bridge. It is small and intimate and time to enjoy a coffee as the riverfront was quite windy. We end up meeting a fairly drunk young woman from Texas who lived in London. She was quite animated and gave us some entertaining conversation.

 

We notice that Londoners tend to be serious and not much interested in exchanging pleasantries or making eye contact so we go about the trip seeing how many people we can coax into a smile.

 

The next two days we spend our time exploring the local sites such as Buckingham Palace and some local parks, which we find lush and green. The parks are perfect place for a run, a stroll or to let the dogs run free. There are lots of pathways, expansive lawns and rolling terrain.   The old gates, stairways and doors make for some great photo ops.

 

It is finally the morning we leave for Scotland. Making our way to the train station, which is an enormous old structure with a historical hotel. It feels quite Harry Potter-ish.

 

The train is wonderfully comfortable and we have a table to stretch out and do some work. The countryside goes by the window and it is full of lush fields with sheep and other livestock, rolling hills and beautiful old homes, churches and villages. We also see quite a bit of industry as well.

 

Upon arriving to Edinburgh it is a bit colder and damp with a light drizzle on and off. We are grateful our hotel is close and our room is ready. Our room turns out to be a fantastic small apartment with a full kitchen equipped with tea, coffee and cream. It is incredibly cozy with a hallway, large bathroom and a huge bathtub, which will prove to be heaven sent considering how many miles we will walk and stairways we will navigate. The room also has a washer/drier and will also prove invaluable with all of the wet ground and mud we will encounter.

 

Setting out to explore we discover the main road in Edinburgh which is the Royal Mile. The city is not only horizontal, but built on a fairly large hill so no matter where you are going you are walking uphill or up and down endless staircases. Everything has a great energy. The people are happy and full of life. I am thrilled that the people seem tremendously happy. The change in state is a wonderful contrast to London.   It immediately changes our experience and we enjoy the cheery atmosphere very much! The Royal Mile is filled with nonstop shopping, pubs and restaurants.   The choices are quite overwhelming. We do enjoy the cask beers being served at room temperatures as the wind, cold and wet has us quite bundled up. We choose a ghost tour as our first activity and it is spot on. Our guide is a striking woman with red dreadlocks to her hips and quite a fun sense of theatrics. She makes for a fun experience indeed! Navigating the areas of the city where public torture and executions took place to the underground vaults with their criminal histories and stories of crime, bootlegging and body snatching. She tells fascinating tales of the various ghosts that occupy the underground vaults.

 

Now our tour has ended and it’s time to dive into the local nightlife. Upon a strong suggestion of one of the pub hosts we go to a very historical pub called Whistle Binky’s and it doesn’t disappoint. It is built within the underground vaults. As we descend the staircase the history of the dwelling reveals itself in a quite exciting way. We can hear the live music and make it to the main level to find a fantastic mix of college students and locals all enjoying the music. The atmosphere is very animated and it is very enjoyable to watch everyone singing at the top of their lungs, dancing and truly having a ton of fun. We grab a pint and join in finding a really cool spot to observe and be close to the main area. The live band is excellent and everyone sings along. The next band comes on at 1am and they are equally awesome! The experience is fantastic right down to the sticky floor. The history feels so amazing! One can only imagine the scenes that took place in a pub that has been open for literally hundreds of years! It almost feels like a movie.

 

The next day we explore the outlying areas from the Royal Mile finding a fun little Christmas village with a huge ferris wheel and enjoy some hot mulled cider to warm our insides. The average temperatures are in the 30’s but the wind makes it feel a lot colder. There are endless crafts, art and food. We pass the time and get ready for the torch processional.   The energy in the streets is quite intoxicating as everyone is excited and festive. We share a few conversations along the way and make our way to the area for the processional. Finally we see the torches being lit and the sight is nothing shy of spectacular.

The next major event on the agenda is the torch processional. There was a ticket purchase required to be part of it, and more than a thousand did. It was noted that the streets were abundantly filled with observers enjoying the festivities. It was chilly, but the energy in the air was wonderful! There was no shortage of festive excitement while the participants waited for the torch lighting to commence. Once they got started, the view was spectacular. Thousands of giant torches filled the streets as the processional made it’s way from near the castle at the top of the hill, going through the town to the castle at the bottom of the hill where there was an enormous bonfire. As the processional arrived the fireworks started and WOW, they were absolutely spectacular. The sky lit up and the celebrations continued as the crowd cheered enthusiastically. This pre-new years event is very worth the extra ticket price. Several pubs stayed open late enough for a snack and a beer. The one we stumbled on was fantastic. Taking up the entire back of the pub was a group of about 15 people having an open jam of classical instruments. It was the perfect ending to an amazing day.

 

New Years eve was spent wandering the streets and watching the preparations for Hogmanay. It was time to venture to the Edinburgh castle to explore and do some photography. The historical elements were fascinating. Hogmanay was gearing up and there were plenty of choices for music, food and other entertainment. The festivities began and continued. Along the way were new friends, happy people and a fantastic time. As midnight arrived, thousands of people stopped in the street to sing, dance and celebrate. The fireworks over the castle were even more spectacular than the processional. The whole city was illuminated. Many pubs stayed open all night with live music and crowded with very happy people still singing and celebrating the New Year. There is no question as to why Hogmanay is one of the top five New Years destinations in the world.

 

The activity chosen for New Year’s Day was to climb Arthur’s Seat, which is a fantastic park at the edge of the Royal Mile. Quite chilly but that proved to be a good thing as it is a bit of a challenge. There were hikers of every age group and some that were obviously in training mode with weighted backpacks. The park is family friendly and pet friendly. In fact it was just plain friendly all the way around! Again, it was a true joy to be amongst so many happy people!

 

The next planned activity was a visit to the William Wallace Memorial. Which was a spectacular place and a must on anyone’s list and that includes climbing all 314 steps to the observation area. The second stop of the tour was The Famous Grouse distillery where there is still a very guarded historical recipe used for making their scotch. There was also a very elegant café on the property that served fantastic Haggis. Don’t ask what’s in it, just enjoy eating a local favorite. It really is quite tasty. There were plenty of scotch samples to try which hit the spot quite well. The next stop was a fantastic park where there was a very peaceful hiking trail that offered fantastic photographic opportunities.   The tour continued on to a cathedral built in the 1100’s. Photographing the cathedral at dusk proved to be quite stunning, especially as a light mist fell and there were dozens of black deer hopping the fences in the background. The final leg of the tour was the Forth Bridge. This bridge carries tremendous history and was quite spectacular as the city lights came up for the evening. A huge thank you must go out to Jamie from Highland Explorer Tours for his humorous and highly informative guidance and entertainment.

 

As the trip to Edinburgh came to a close it was time to head back to London. Again the train ride through the country is highly recommended. Just be sure to reserve a seat or you may end up standing for the four-hour trip.

 

London proved to be just as entertaining especially the Camden area. There are many historical pubs and clubs where very famous musicians got their start including the not to miss Dublin Castle. The enormous shopping area is a MUST.

 

The one restaurant that stood out above the rest was definitely the Chiltern Firehouse. Phenomenal beyond compare and worth the wait to get a seat at the chef’s table. This restaurant is so incredible; it is worth writing an entirely separate blog for.

 

Here is a list of notable destinations worth checking out:

 

The Blackbird Pub

The Vault

My Old Dutch Creperie
The Lyric Pub

Caffe Vergnano
Buckingham Palace

The Red Lion

Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben)

Virgin Trains

The Royal Mile
Edinburgh Castle

Mimi’s Bakehouse

Maxie’s Bistro & Wine Bar

Revolution Vodka Bar
Hogmanay

The William Wallace Memorial

Chiltern Firehouse

Dublin Castle

Highland Explorer Tours

 

So many thanks beyond belief to Edward Carr for making this all happen. His sense of adventure and passion for the journey is sure to create a lasting legacy.