Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Highland Fling - Christmas in Scotland

Before launching into details of our Christmas adventure it is worth remembering the following facts:
  1. The Scots are great people
  2. Scotland is a great place
  3. We've had a very enjoyable time in our previous four visits to Scotland
  4. Amy didn't like whiskey until she went to Scotland the first time (and now rates it very highly (although not as highly as coffee))
  5. Scotland is cold
This fifth trip since we arrived in London, making it almost as popular a destination as France, did not disappoint and facts 1,2,3 and 5 remain very true (fact 4 also remains true).

The first hairy-coo

By way of background, this was our fourth Christmas during our travels. The first we spent with friends just out of London, the second was just the two of us in Prague, last year we had the family and friends trip to Egypt. After two away from the UK, Christmas here made sense.

In a world full of choices, one where no one had to drive and the accommodation was sorted seemed to make the most sense. So, ignoring the fact the Amy, Paul and Paul's sister Mel have an average age of 30 we set off to explore Scotland on a Haggis Tour. Thankfully we were not the oldest on the bus as someone had bought their Mum along on tour.

The tour meant that we are able to cover a huge amount of the Highlands, even making it as far north as here.

We ventured from Edinburgh, through Callander, Glencoe, Fort William, Fort Augustus, out to the far end of the Isle of Skye, back to Loch Ness (where the brave (or stupid)) took a dip on Christmas day before heading to Carbisdale in the very north for Christmas in a real castle.

The Wallace Memorial, Sterling

Loch Ness

Amy with her feet in Loch Ness

Amy, Paul & Mel - Loch Ness

Paul with a wee dram by Loch Ness

Eilean Donan Castle

Paul enjoying the highlands

It would have to be one of the more unique places to have Christmas dinner, sitting in a grand hall full of millions of pounds worth of marble statues, suitably adorned in tinsel. Christmas dinner was a very British affair with turkey and Christmas pud (and although Amy is a fan of the Brussel Sprout this is unlikely to become a tradition at our house).

Christmas morning

Boxing Day we wagged the tour and went walking in the hills to enjoy the fresh air, the lochs and the waterfalls.

A wee loch

Sunset about 3pm the day we went walking

Although the final day was mostly driving back to Edinburgh the sights en route were rather special as we drove for hours through thick frost which made all the trees look white.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Amy's Birthday (Observed)

A bit like the Queen, Amy decided this year to observe her birthday on a separate day to her actual birthday.

The observance day started with a girls trip out to Hampton Court Palace where we got to meet King Henry VIII himself...

We then had a very enjoyable meal at a local Turkish restaurant, followed by drinks in our local pub (the pub is newly refurbished to look like it used to, only clean and with non-sagging seats).

Turning 29 was so good Amy thinks she might do it again next year.

Fran, Bec & Jo in the clock courtyeard at HCP

King Henry VIII and one of his attendants

Jo, Amber, Amy & Fran

Friday, 19 December 2008

New York, New York

Those familiar with even the most basic geography will know that Canada and the USA are both rather large places. Combining a trip involving Calgary and New York makes about as much sense as one involving a trip to Moscow,just because you happen to be in London. All the same that was Amy's logic when organising the trip to Canada which was followed by a few days in New York over Thanksgiving weekend.

As accommodation in NYC is ridiculously expensive (hmm perhaps true of London too but we never pay for hotels here) we were pleasantly surprised by our hotwire.com mystery hotel for it's location, price and general niceness. Work trips aside it may just be the best place we've ever stayed in our travels (mind you, we normally err on the side of backpacking). The location just off Wall Street was not only a great base to explore the city but also kept Amy's inner finance geek very happy.

Our first full day in NYC itself was Thanksgiving. It would have been a shame to be in the city and not see the parade so after a fortifying breakfast of bagels and cream cheese we braved the cold for a few hours to see the giant balloons. Amy had a small advantage in having spent the previous week with small kids so knew the cartoon characters and was able to explain to Paul who they all were.

We then embarked on a lengthy walking tour up 5th Avenue (which luckily for Paul was mostly closed due to the holiday), through Central Park and then over to the upper west side. It certainly felt like being on a giant movie set, especially as it was not super chaotic, presumably as everyone was inside eating too much. As it was Thanksgiving we made some time to have pumpkin pie and pecan pie during the day while dinner was less traditional Malaysian food in Chinatown.

We were very fortunate for the most part we were able to explore the city in the sun, even if it was a bit chilly. It seems that over the few days we were there that we covered all the ground south and west of Central Park although there's no way that could be possibly be true.

On the one day it was totally grim we were not troubled in the slightest as it was perfect weather to spend the day inside the American Museum of Natural History. Amy usually has an attention span at museums of about an hour but this was a definite exception as we left because it was closing six hours, having passed through billions of years of history, later.

Not all our days were spent walking. One day we used our finely polished English queuing skills to get to the top of the Empire State Building to enjoy the views. Another day we visited the UN and toured into the main chamber. We were model tour participants however I don't think our (American) guide was too impressed with other people trying to work our why the US hadn't ratified many of the treaties...

In the evenings we made to the most of the great US service, nothing being too much trouble, bread and water being brought to the table without even asking and the giant American servings. In the evening we visited a comedy club (the Comedy Cellar). We had been worried that we weren't going to get the jokes (as had been the same with our first show in the UK), but it was a very polished performance and one of the best comedy shows we'd seen in a long time.

It was a lovely trip, but over too soon. We'll just have to look forward to the next visit to NYC!

Our view of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade

New York Public Library and two of many many yellow cabs.

A resourceful hawker selling fake Louis Vuitton outside the NY flagship store...

View from Central Park to the City

Paul in Times Square

The New York stock Exchange

Statue of Liberty mimes

The real thing

...in the current climate and given their collapse the Lehman Brothers Emergency Centre just seemed like a very funny sign...

Chinatown and the Empire State Building

Amy and Paul up the Empire State Building

... and yet it keeps going up!

Looking towards downtown and the Statue of Liberty from the ESB

Paul and the dinosaurs

Oh Canada

Never one to stay still for very long, a few days after coming back from Ireland, Amy set off for Calgary, Canada to visit her friend Andrea and her family - husband Chris, Hanna (5) and Alex (all of 6 or so weeks old at the time of Amy's visit!). Annie and Amy met as Rotary exchange students in Belgium in 1997 and kept in touch through the various stages in life after returning to their respective homes half a world apart. The last time they saw each other was when Annie, Chris & Hanna visited in 2005 just after Paul & Amy moved to the UK.

Photo of us all at Windsor in 2005

Although it was a short visit, the M family were lovely hosts taking Amy to visit their friends, to the hot tourist spots in town like the Calgary tower and memorably a trip into the town of Bannf in the Rockies. There was also lots of time for cuddles and stories with the little ones and bbqs, wine and coffee with the grown ups. Hopefully we'll all get to catch up again soon!

Hanna, Annie & Alex

Hanna & Alex

Amy standing on the frozen lake

Amy with her hand in a frozen lake

The Rockies