Friday, August 30, 2013

Edinburgh, Scotland

Stop #4: Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is probably one of my favorite cities in the world, at least in the top 5. What a fabulous place! This is definitely a city that I would live in if given the chance, just fantastic!

Kim & at the bar
We arrived in Edinburgh later in the evening, after a long day of touring Belfast. Throughout the trip, we have been taking short flights on EasyJet and RyanAir to get to each new city. It was cheaper and less time consuming that taking trains and ferries everywhere. I would highly recommend EasyJet. They were prompt, clean, and friendly. RyanAir isn't bad, it's just like being on an informercial the entire flight! And it's not quite as clean as it used to be, but it works, and it's open seating like Southwest. Both airlines require baggage fees, but if you pay online when booking your flight, it's cheaper than at the airport. They are both very tight on their weight limits and carry-on policies, so you have to be aware before heading to the airport, especially if you are on a time sensitive basis.
Church on High Street

Fun night out!
Once arriving in Edinburgh, we took the Airlink bus into the city, which has a few stops along the way, but will terminate at Waverly Station, which is right in the middle of the city. Luckily, our hotel was only a few steps away. We stayed at Motel One. What a great surprise! This place was fantastic, just like the city was going to be. They have amazing rooms, very swanky, yet affordable, and they have a great late night bar area within the hotel. They are opening more of these hotels around Europe, and next time I go overseas, this is the first place that I will look up to stay!

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
We checked-in, grabbed a drink at the bar, and headed to our room to refresh and make a plan for the was Saturday night after all! After doing our happy dance about the great accommodations and enjoying our cocktails, we headed back to the bar to gather information about where to go for the night. The bartender was very friendly and gave us a lot of great, and some not so great recommendations. We headed out after a couple of shots and went looking for some fun. We headed up the hill to High Street, which is the main "old town" street in Edinburgh that leads to the Edinburgh Castle. There are lots of bars and clubs along this street and the place to find some fun. We finally found a great outdoor bar, had a beer and made some friends. As the night went on, the bar was moved into an upstairs bar area with great music. People were dancing and having fun, it was just one huge party and it didn't matter who you were, everyone was just having fun with each other and dancing like maniacs. As the night wore on, we realized that we had a tour the next day, but we were having so much fun, it didn't matter...

Loch Ness
The next morning, it wasn't so pretty! Booking a tour first thing in the morning is a rough thing to do!  for us, there was a Starbucks across the street from our pick-up point, so we could grab something to get us going. The tour that day was to Loch Ness and the Scottish Highlands. It was going to be a long day on a small bus full of annoying people, but at least we were going to see some amazing things. The first stop was in a small town where we had some tea and pastries. On the way up to Loch Ness, we learned about the history and stories of the Scots, and stopped a few times to see bagpipers and the beautiful mountain scenery. Our tour guide Sarah was great and very outdoorsie, so I was able to get some great ideas for amazing hiking trips in the future.

We finally got to Loch Ness and took a boat ride out into the Loch (lake), obviously looking for Nessie. Unfortunately, we didn't get any sightings of the "monster", but it was relaxing and there was quite a bit of wildlife along the shores and in the cliffs above the loch. Upon return, it was back to the bus to make the long trip back to Edinburgh.

Upon arriving back in the city, we went and signed up for a tour of the Mary King Close. We then dropped off our belongings at the hotel and went to grab dinner before our Murder Mystery tour

Murder Mystery Tour
of the city. Kim wasn't too thrilled about the tour at first, but I was so excited to learn about the dark history of this mysterious city. Edinburgh has a dark past, and the buildings and feeling in the city emulate this. It reminds me a lot of Prague, kind of creepy, but very comfortable at the same time. We had a quick dinner at a pub and headed to our tour. The tour guide was dressed up like a vampire and his sidekick was just something creepy. It was pretty humorous and our group got plenty of stares along the way. As we walked through dark alley ways and stood in corners of the city, our guide told us about the history of the city and all of the death and destruction that took place during the plagues and other battles that the people fought. It was a great time and a fun way to end the long day.

Edinburgh Castle
The following day was our day to explore Edinburgh before heading off to our final destination. We first had our tour of Mark King's Close. Edinburgh was a very crowded city at one point, with people building upwards just to fit more people in. They were living in filthy conditions, throwing their own waste out the windows multiple times a day and having to walk through it to get to and from everywhere they went. Once the plague hit, it spread like wildfire because of the waste in the streets. People were dying everywhere and each close (narrow street) was being quarantined as the plague continued to spread. At one point, the developers of the city made some big decisions and decided to cut the multi-story buildings down, leaving only the bottom floor or two, and paving a new street over the top, essentially burying the old city underneath where they planned to build the new one. The Mary King Close is the one underground area that is still reachable. You are able to walk through what was once a street and many houses where people once lived. It is said to be haunted, and you can feel the sadness in this area where people once lived and died. This is definitely something that you should see while in Edinburgh, just to really understand how the city began and became what it is now.
Edinburgh Castle at Night

Edinburgh at Night
After touring the close, we headed up to see the Edinburgh Castle. We have both seen many castles, but this one is the focal point of this city and something that we felt we should walk around. It wasn't all that it lived up to, in our minds anyways. It was neat to see, but if you are in a time crunch, it's not a vital part of touring Edinburgh. We then hopped on the bus and rode it around the city, seeing all of the other major sites. Edinburgh is definitely a city that has so much more to see than you can imagine and takes more time than you might originally plan on taking. Overall, we felt like we got a good feel for the city and we know that it is a place that we will both return to one day.

Time to move forward, which means a bus ride back to the airport and our flight to the final destination of the trip.

Edinburgh--Amazing, magical, beautiful--definite travel destination!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Stop #3: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Coast of Northern Ireland
This was one stop that we were unsure of in the beginning, but so glad that we made once we arrived! All that most people remember is all of the fighting and danger in Belfast, but the city itself was actually pretty quiet and nice to walk around. There are definitely some places that you don't want to find yourself, as with any city, but overall, it's easy to get around and there is plenty to see.
Me at the Giant's Causeway

Belfast, Northern Ireland
When we first arrived, it was pretty late at night, so we took the Airport Express from the airport, which puts you right in the city center. From there it was a short walk to our hotel, Ibis Belfast. The Ibis hotels are found all over Europe and are great hotels to stay at. They are reliable, clean, and typically pretty inexpensive. If you are ever in doubt of where to stay, look for an Ibis hotel. They are usually near anything that you want to see and do anyways, so they are a good fallback option. We were only going to be in Belfast for a short time, so this was perfect.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Shoreline at Carrick-a-Rede
On our first full day, we had a day trip planned to the Giants Causeway, which is on the northern shore of the island. After a huge debacle, which I'm not going to get into, we were finally on our tour and headed north. The first stop was a small castle on the shore. There were gorgeous views, but we were ready to get to the cool stuff! The next stop was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. There was a 0.7 mile walk to get to the bridge, up and down hill, so we were getting exercise and enjoying the beautiful sunny day that we were blessed with. Since it typically rained or was overcast, we were lucky! The rope bridge was short, and not completely what we expected, but the landscape and views that we had, were well worth the walk and time. It was gorgeous! We had enough time to walk to the bridge and back, as well as take a few pictures and we were off to the next stop. We had lunch along the way,  was at a small roadside cafe, and in which they served burritos. I don't know what the deal is with Northern Ireland and burritos, but they were everywhere! (And who am I to turn down a burrito?!) From there we continued on to the Giant's Causeway. This is an area along the shore of the ocean, where the "beach" is made up of thousands of hexagonal shaped rocks. It's a natural wonder as to how this was all formed, but it was fun to walk and climb around with the ocean crashing against the shore behind us. Definitely something to see and NOT to be missed. Our last stop on the tour was the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery. Not being a huge whiskey person, I was a little nervous of sampling, but when in Rome! It was a small, quaint place, but the whiskey was good, as far as whiskey goes and a great end to the tour.
View at Carrick-A-Rede

Giant's Causeway
Once we returned to Belfast, we headed back to the hotel to clean up and head out for dinner and drinks. We went to Robinson's, a pub/restaurant that had been recommended to us. The bar downstairs was lively, with lots of after work people mingling and having a few drinks. The restaurant is upstairs, where I enjoyed some Guiness Stew, which was fantastic...trying to be more authentic! We then headed back downstairs to the bar area and went into the back where there was live music and more craziness! It was a great place to spend our last evening in Belfast and within walking distance of our hotel.
Rock structure at Giant's

Wall dividing Belfast
Political Murals in Belfast
The next day we jumped on the hop-on/off bus to tour the city. There was so much great information and things that you would never really understand about Belfast unless you toured the city. We saw the wall that was built between the two sides of the city that were fighting, and how they built the same things on either side so that no one could complain about being without. There were lots of political murals painted on walls and buildings, and lots of new construction. We also saw the dock where the Titanic was built and the place where they are working on a full-scale replica. We took lots of time to walk around and really get a feel for the city, before heading back to the hotel to pack up and head to the airport. It was a short stay, but we saw so many amazing things.

Belfast--a place to see, with beautiful land surrounding the city.


Stop #2: London!

I've never been to London before and I was so excited to finally check out this city. The one thing that I didn't realize was how big it was! London is fricken huge and the biggest part of being able to see the whole city is having a hotel in a great location. Luckily the Tube and trains around London make it easy to get to and from the airports easily, as well as around the city.

We stayed in a hotel near Paddington Station, which put us near the Nob Hill area. We chose the Stylotel. This hotel was small, but clean and cute. The staff was also very friendly and helpful with all questions that we had. Kim and I tend to ask a lot of questions because we want to know what the locals know. We aren't in town to just do the tourist stuff, we want an authentic experience. The Stylotel reminded me of a cruise ship. Narrow hallways and tiny rooms, but it was all that we needed, included breakfast in the mornings, and near public transportation. You are also given a free drink at the pub associated with the hotel, which is right around the corner. It was a decent enough place. The drinks were reasonably priced, plenty of seating, and had good music.

London Eye
One thing that we learned on our first night in London, was that most pubs don't have music because of noise ordinances, and most close by 11pm and must have a special license to stay open later. Those that have food, tend to stop serving by 10pm, so if you are arriving later in the night, like we did, don't expect to have a late, crazy night, unless you want to pay to go to the city center areas. Also, for as much beer as England produces, the people there didn't seem to be too interested in the local brews. Being a beer "connoisseur" and I use that term loosely, I wanted to try everything local. I didn't think it was that bad, but the locals looked at me like I was nuts. Despite their confusion of my liking their beer,  they were all very friendly.
Big Ben

We had an early night and headed in because we knew we had a long day the next day. We got up pretty early and set out to get on the hop-on/hop-off bus tour. This is something that we have found to be a great way to see cities quickly and determine what we wanted to do. I would highly recommend these tours to anyone! I will say that I was pretty unimpressed with the service that we chose in London. The buses took forever and one even left us at our stop and kept driving after waiting for over 20 minutes. In London, and this is the only place that I will say this, DON'T take the city sightseeing bus, take the Big Bus Tour.

Due to traffic, it took a lot longer to get across town than we had anticipated, but it was a good time to relax and take in the atmosphere. We rode past a few of the sites and decided to get off at the Tower of London. Maybe I was just
Westminster Abbey
ignorant, but I thought that it was an actual tower, I didn't realize that it was basically a fort where they kept royalty and the crown jewels during times of war. It was really worth seeing, a whole walled-in village that still holds the crown jewels. We took our time and checked out all of the exhibits, including the torture chamber. From there, we hopped on the boat and rode it down to Big Ben, where we got off to take more pictures. Along the way, we saw the replica of the Globe Theater and the London Eye.
Kensington Palace
Tower of London

After a quick lunch at another pub, we walked around near Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, which is a sight to be seen! It was beautiful! Then we hopped on the bus again, and rode it over to Kensington Palace. There are huge gardens and a great walking area near the palace. Unfortunately, the palace itself was under so much construction that it didn't live up to what we were hoping for. After that, we went to Buckingham Palace, which was magnificent. Of course there were plenty of people around, but it was just a great feeling to be standing there. That evening, we had dinner at the Black Swan pub, which was fun. Then we walked around and checked out a few other places before heading back to the hotel.

Windsor Castle
The next day we went to Stonehenge, Windsor, and Oxford. The first stop was Windsor Castle. There is an entire town built around the castle, with the storied boarding school that the princes went to when they were younger. The gardens and everything were pristine and the Queen was even in residence, although we didn't have the opportunity to see her. It was a beautiful day out and it was nice to be out of the city and seeing a gorgeous castle. The next stop was Stonehenge. This is a place that I have been wanting to see since we booked the trip. This was going to be the highlight of England for me! Stonehenge is such a mystery, still to this day, the stories that are told and the theories surrounding the construction of the monument is insane. You can't even imagine moving stones as big as the ones at Stonehenge and you begin wondering yourself. There is just a magic about this place. It was everything that I had hoped for and I was so excited to have finally been there. The last stop on the tour was Oxford. Oxford is a town built around Oxford University, which is actually 29 smaller schools built in different areas. Everything is old, as you would imagine, and the architecture is amazing. It's a great little town, and place that would be great to stay overnight in. We took a walking tour around the town, seeing all of the main sights, and then went to a pub called Eagle & Child, known to have been a watering hole for C.S. Lewis, to have a pint while we waited for our return bus. That evening, we went on a walk around town and landed ourselves in a pub talking to some locals. There was a brother and sister there who were very friendly. They grew up in the country and the sister had moved to London with her boyfriend and was loving city life. They were a wealth of knowledge and very interested in the trips that we had previously taken. It was a great evening, plenty of drinks, and we were able to stay out later than in our own area!

The last day in London, we got up and went for a walk through Hyde Park. It's a lovely, huge park, and a great place to relax and get some fresh air. Since we didn't have anything pressing to do and our  flight wasn't until the evening, we could spend the day "being local". We came across the Princess Diana Memorial, which was a beautiful fountain structure, and walked along the river, watching the ducks and swans swim around happily. We then made our way to Harrod's, the famous department store. It was HUGE! Much bigger than I had imagined. It was just a day of window shopping because there was no way we could afford anything in there, even with their huge sales! We then continued our journey into a small italian cafe, where we had a great lunch and time to reflect on all that we had done in London.

It was time to walk back to the hotel, and head off to the airport. London was nice, but it was time to move on...


This past summer, I was fortunate enough to take an amazing trip to the British Isles, which was made even better by our first stop in Iceland!! Iceland is one of those places that I've always dreamt of going because of the mystery and unknown, and it lived up to expectations. Although a little chilly for a summer vacation, it was amazing and I would go back tomorrow if I could!

We arrived around midnight at Keflavik Airport, which is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik, the capital city and main tourist hub. The Flybus is a cheap and easy way to get anywhere from the airport, and is available until the last flights have come in for the night. You can buy tickets inside the airport, or as you are getting on the bus. You do not have to buy them in advance! If you buy the "plus" ticket, they will drop you off in front of your hotel, not just at a central location. It's worth a few extra dollars!

Reykjavik Harbor & Music Hall
Because of it's position, Iceland gets 24 hours of sunlight during the summer, which means 24 hours of darkness during the winter. (However, the Northern Lights can be seen, which I think would definitely be worth the trip during that time!) We headed right to our hotel, being so late and having had a long day of travel, we decided to get some rest and be prepared for the next day, the first day of our great adventure! **One tip that we received before arriving in Iceland, was to buy alcohol at the duty free store in the airport before heading into town. It's cheaper there, as everything in Iceland is expensive, especially alcohol...we found this to be a great tip, and you will just be joining all of the locals who already know this to be true, in line at the duty free store, buying their quota!**

The key to Reykjavik is Laugavegur. That is the main street for everything in the small town. Staying anywhere on or directly off of this street will ensure that you have restaurants, bar, clubs, shopping, and tours at your disposal. Our "hotel", the Einholt Apartments, was right off of this street and there was a 24 hours pizza place nearby, which was key to survival! So when planning your trip to Reykjavik, keep this road in mind and don't stay anywhere far from here, you will regret it!

It's a Whale!
On the first morning, we decided to walk around, get the lay of the land, and grab something to eat. We stopped by the tourist information office first, to see what our options for the day might be. We had a few ideas in mind, but didn't settle on anything except the fact that we needed to eat! While eating we discussed the options: whale watching, horse back riding, golden circle, sky diving, etc. Shortly after lunch, we decided to go whale watching. It was a nice enough day and with the ocean right there, why not? We were pleasantly surprised by all of the marine life that we were able to see! There were tons of porpoises swimming around, along with the Puffin, which are my new favorite birds...and of course, we saw whales. It was amazing, and we learned about the smell that comes when they shoot the water out of their blowholes! It was hard to get great pictures because they would come up so fast out of nowhere and then disappear back underwater, but it was an amazing experience and something magical to see.

After watching whales all afternoon, we stopped at a couple of bars on the way back to the hotel to see what was going on and find out what the scene was was Saturday after all, so we had to have someplace to go out and celebrate being in Iceland! One of the places we stopped at was the Lebowski Bar. Yes, it was exactly what it sounds like...themed from the Big Lebowski, bowling and all. It was interesting, but happy hour was buy one, get one, so saddle up! We were informed that we didn't need to head out for the evening until 11pm or later, so we had time to take a nap (get rid of some of the jet lag) and get ready...and that's what we did! **There is a "tourist" newspaper available in the information centers, and it will outline things to do and give you a complete list of all bars and clubs in Reykjavik, which includes reviews, prices, and who goes where.**

At Glaumbar
We headed out around midnight, and started the evening at a lounge called B5. It seemed like it was the place to be. People dressed nicely, good cocktails, and a line at the door. They played great music and there was plenty of people watching to be done! We took a breather and headed over to Glaumbar, which is known to be a crap-hole, but we wanted to see it. The inside looked like the inside of an old wooden ship, and smelled equally as bad. The drinks were fairly cheap, so we didn't complain about that, but it was a one and done! We headed back to B5 and had made friends that could get us past the line, which was nice. (Not bad for only one day in the country!) We had a great time. I decided to go check out a few more places, while Kim stayed and danced. Normally we would NEVER separate, however, since everything was on one street and it was light outside, eh, what the heck?! I went to a few different places, met some Icelandic friends, had my credit cards frozen, and ran out of cash. AWESOME! By the time I got back to the hotel, Kim was already there...and she was nice enough to go grab us each a slice of pizza, which we both needed before heading to bed. What a night!

Getting some fresh, spring water
Pingvellir National Park
Pingvellir National Park
The next day was a later start, but with the late nights, come late mornings! We had a tour called the "Golden Circle". This is a signature tour in Iceland, as it hits three of the main tourist points in the country. We went with Iceland Excursions, as they were recommended to us and I would pass that recommendation along...they were always on time, professional, and very friendly and informative! The Golden Circle begins at Pingvellir National Park. This is where the two continental shelves come together, so as you drive through the park, you go from the Euro/American side to the Asian side. It's pretty neat and any good tour guide will explain all of this and show you where the fault lines are, which are clearly visible. There are also some great places to stop and refill water bottles, as there are many natural springs in Iceland and they have the purest water in the world. It's amazing!! Once you leave the country, you will notice a difference in the water all around. The next stop was the Gullfross Waterfall. It's a smaller version of Niagara, or for you beautiful South Americans, a much smaller version of Iguazu Falls (still my favorite). It was very beautiful though and you can get right up next to the falls to take pictures or just get a great view. There is also a path up above where you can get a better panoramic view of the falls. At the visitors center, they are said to have some of the best lamb stew. Lamb is very popular in Iceland, as it is a staple in their diet. I've never been a fan, but as with my traveling, I like to try different foods and those that are popular in other I tried the lamb stew, and after two slurps, I was done! It just wasn't me and it wasn't making me feel good, so I had to move on to the white asparagus soup.
Gulfross Waterfall

Gulfross the "Golden Falls"
The last stop on the tour was the Geysir Hot Spring area. There were geysir, big and small all around, similar to some areas of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The main "attraction" geysir spouted every few minutes, so it was neat to see and get pictures of and you didn't have to wait around, like for Old Faithful. Since our tour was running on-time, our guide took us to a couple of additional sights, another small waterfall area and Kerio crater. The crater was magnificent, and Bjork has even performed a concert from the center of the lake inside of the crater. All in all, we had seen a lot of southern Iceland and were amazed by everything. It's such a beautiful landscape, in such an interesting way. Most of the ground is moss-covered lava rock, seeing as the island is made up of volcanoes. There are no trees on the island, except the ones that have been reintroduced in recent years. There are mountains and flat lands, all surrounded by the ocean, and it is a sight to see.
Kerio Crater

Our final day in Iceland was a sad one, but not wasted! We got up early, packed our bags, and headed to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a large, lava rock area that has been filled up with the steam water from the hydroelectric plant nearby. It created an area of mineral rich, milky blue water that stays around 97 degrees Fahrenheit. We decided that the Blue Lagoon was our place to splurge on this trip and we were going to live it up before getting on our flight to London.

Outside of the Blue Lagoon
bathing area
Enjoying our mud masks!
Blue Lagoon bathing area
When you walk out into the lagoon area, there is steam rising from the water because the air temperature is at most 50 degrees. There are people moving slowly around the lagoon, some with mud masks on, and some enjoying a glass of wine. We got in an tried out the water, which was amazing and sucks you in immediately. We soaked for a while, and then decided to head over for our massages. These massages are done in the water. You lie on a floating mat with a warm, water-soaked blanket over the top of you, and the masseuse reaching underneath you to massage from the bottom. It's hard to explain, but holy crap did it feel good! We only went for the 30 minute massage, next time, it's gonna be the whole shabang! The entire midday was awesome. We had lunch, a glass of wine, put on our own mud masks and left feeling amazing and refreshed. I wasn't ready to leave Iceland, but since I had to, that was the send off that I definitely needed!! **For anyone going to the Blue Lagoon, wet your hair and put in a large amount of conditioner before entering the pools. Leave the conditioner in your hair while you are bathing. The large amount of chemicals in the lagoon can damage your hair and will leave it feeling stringing and abnormal for days.**

Iceland--Amazing--Go Now!!