Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ten things I learned on our trip to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ireland...

From Mount Stewart House's beautiful gardens...

It's that time again.  When Bill and I take trips, I like to sum them up with a "ten things I learned" post.  Although we've been to Scotland three times and we visited Ireland last fall, this cruise on Hebridean Princess took us to Northern Ireland for the very first time.  You wouldn't think there would be that much of a difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland... and, I guess, there isn't that much in terms of how it looks and how warm the people are.  But we learned that there's still some tension over the fact that Ireland and Northern Ireland are divided.  I will get more into that with this list.  For now, here's the countdown in no particular order.

10.  There are a whole lot of Presbyterians in Northern Ireland!

I was born and raised Presbyterian, although I am not really a churchgoer these days.  To be honest, when I did used to go to church, I didn't know that much about it.  I simply went because my parents made me.  It wasn't until I was in college and worked as the cook at a Presbyterian church camp that I learned about what I was supposed to believe and realized that it's a very Scottish religion.  Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised to see so many Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland, but when we visited Derry, our tour guide told us the story of Presbyterians in that large city.  We visited the First Derry Presbyterian Church and The Blue Coat School Visitor Centre and I came to realize just how prevalent the faith is there.

9.  There's still a lot of tension between British people and Irish people over Northern Ireland's inclusion in the United Kingdom.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised that many Irish people would like to see their island nation reunited the way Germany has reclaimed its east.  As we listened to our Irish tour guide in Carlingford talk about growing up in Northern Ireland and visiting the Republic, I got a firsthand account of a man's experience having to pass through checkpoints during a very volatile period in Irish history.  I had sympathy for our Irish guide's viewpoints, although I admittedly don't know as much about the subject as I should.

8.  Bill knows a lot about Irish folklore.

My husband seemed to impress a number of other passengers about how much he knows about Irish folklore.  It's a special interest of his, since he has a lot of Irish ancestry.  He took a course at American University when he was a college student and learned a lot of the old stories.  It came in handy during our tour of Carlingford.

7.  The city of Derry has a connection to Harvey's Bristol Cream, a favorite sherry of ours.

Although I'd be hard pressed to accurately retell the story as our tour guide told it, I was very surprised to find out how Bishop Harvey in Derry had a connection to Harvey's Bristol Cream.

6.  If you visit an Irish restaurant in the Republic, you're liable to hear old fashioned country music.  

Yes, I know country music comes from Scotland, Ireland, and the other isles up there, but I sure wasn't expecting to hear "The Ballad of Jed Clampitt" in an Irish restaurant as we were discussing Irish folklore.  The music moved on nicely to "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" by Tammy Wynette and a number of other feel good classics from when I was a wee lass in the 70s.

5.  I learned more about the plight of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Although I had heard a little about Catholic oppression by the British when we were in Ireland last November, I learned a bit more about religious persecution on this trip.  For example, when we visited Derry, our guide explained that the Catholics were mostly very poor and were forced to settle in a marshy area of the city.  Because they were so poor and many people often lived in one home, they were underrepresented in elections.  For years, only one person in a Catholic household was allowed to vote and they really suffered because of that rule, which only changed in the late 1960s.

4.  Every year in Carlingford, people are allowed to hunt Leprechauns for one day.

Our tour guide in Carlingford, a man named Dermott, explained that the town of Carlingford has a fund raiser that allows people to go up in the hills and "hunt" for Leprechauns.  It is technically illegal to hunt for them on any other day of the year.  

3.  Crossing the border into Ireland from Northern Ireland is a non-event... for now.

Dermott, our guide in Carlingford, told us that as a young man, he had to submit to extreme vehicle searches whenever he wanted to visit Ireland.  Although he was born and raised in Northern Ireland, Dermott considers himself Irish and wants to see the island united as one country unto itself.  He told us of having the wheels and seats taken out of his car when he was a young man as border patrols looked for bombs or other weapons.  Today, one can cross into Ireland and not even notice.  But if Brexit comes to pass, that may change.

2.  Mount Stewart is a beautiful place!

Bill and I had the pleasure of visiting Scotland's amazing Mount Stuart House in Bute, Scotland, on our first Hebridean cruise.  As the crow flies, Northern Ireland's Mount Stewart isn't that far away.  It's also a very impressive place.  I really enjoyed the gardens at Mount Stewart, although I think I like Mount Stuart's house a little more.

1.  The Titanic Experience in Belfast is amazing... and amazingly crowded!

I really didn't know much about the Titanic, the ill fated cruise ship, before we visited Belfast last week.  I still don't know that much about it because the Titanic Experience, while very comprehensive and impressive, is positively loaded with people.  I overheard some passengers on our cruise saying that France's exhibit in Cherbourg is better.  Perhaps we will visit there and see for ourselves.

We really enjoyed ourselves in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ireland.  I hope someday we will get to return.  At the very least, I need to sit down and watch the movie, Titanic.  I can't believe I still haven't seen it in the 20 years it's been out.  Maybe this weekend...

Friday, September 22, 2017

Scotland and Northern Ireland 2017, Part fifteen...

I think this will be my last post in this series, mainly because it's always sad to get back to real life after such a fabulous cruise.  Actually, I was a little ready to go home.  Being sick on vacation is no fun and I was missing my dogs.  Also, as nice as it is to be coddled, it can get a little tiresome after awhile.  We had plans to get on the coach to the airport in Glasgow.  Thankfully, this time I didn't end up with norovirus, so I was perfectly ready to get on the coach after a breakfast consisting of oatmeal with a wee dram and some fruit.

Our waiter, Mariusz very kindly said goodbye and I got hugs from Sergei, the bartender, and David, the purser, even though I was sniffling up a storm. I also bonded a bit from Egita, a fabulous waitress from Latvia who was also on our scotch cruise, and Wioleta, a lady from Poland who offered me hors d'oeuvres and laughed at my jokes.  I will miss them all and probably stalk them on Facebook.  Mariusz even seemed to hope we'd come back.  We're probably among the easier guests he's dealt with, my mushroom phobia notwithstanding.

We had nice weather in Oban on the morning of disembarkation, so the drive back to Glasgow was very pleasant.  I wish I had sat on the other side of the coach.  I could have gotten some more photos of the beautiful scenery on the way back.  As it was, Bryan continued advising us of points of interest and when we stopped for a potty break, they broke out the tea, coffee, and biscuits for us.  While we were stopped, we talked to another passenger who was on our first cruise.  She said this was her 26th time on Hebridean Princess since 2002 and she had never cruised on another vessel.  Yes, I'd say that little ship has her fans and we are among them.

Nice morning!

We stopped by Loch Lomond for a potty break and some coffee and tea.

We arrived at the airport in Glasgow at about noon, which was two hours before check in at the Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn.  After we said goodbye to those who were on the bus and headed for the train station, we picked up our bags and walked to our next hotel.

The Holiday Inn at the Glasgow Airport is super convenient.  You can easily walk to it, which is a blessing when you have four heavy bags and a purse to carry.  There is also a Holiday Inn Express at the airport that is a little further away.  I am left with the conclusion that both properties are a bit mediocre, especially after a week on Hebridean Princess.  

There weren't any rooms open when we arrived at the hotel, so we sat in the lobby and surfed the net. We had lunch... I had a cheeseburger and Bill had a sandwich of some sort.  We both had beers.  Once we were finished, we were able to check in.  I had booked an "executive room" and it wasn't cheap.  However, I can't say that the executive rooms at the Holiday Inn at the Glasgow Airport bring to mind an executive class.  The room was tiny... smaller than our room on the ship.  And the bathroom floors had cracks in the tile.  I couldn't even get the shower to work, although Bill managed to after fiddling with it a bit.

The bed, which was adequate.

A chair Bill couldn't sit in because I really needed a nap and every time he moved, it squeaked and made a terrible racquet.

The bathroom floor.

The shower was the same kind we had on the ship, but I never could get the water out of the sprayer.  I took a bath.  Bill got it going later.

And the real kicker...  the minibar, which we couldn't use if we wanted to, because we couldn't get the damn thing to open.  I don't know if it had a key or what, but it wouldn't open for us.  We did get two bottles of water (one sparkling, one still) and a Mars Bar with the room.  That was nice.

After I took a two hour nap, we went to the airport for dinner because the Holiday Inn's restaurant was packed.  The airport had a few other options besides what the Holiday Inn had, as well as a few different beers.  I will say that their breakfast was impressive and run by a very cheerful lady named Pat who made me smile.  She was probably my favorite part of the whole experience.  I think next time, we'll just get a cab and stay in Glasgow or go to Edinburgh for a couple of days.

I did leave a somewhat negative first impression on and the general manager responded promptly.  I believe they are going to renovate the Holiday Inn, which is good news.  It badly needs renovation.  At least the WiFi worked well and we could watch TV.  I think the inn has a good staff, but it needs to be brought into this century.  But if you need a hotel close to the airport, it's definitely an option.

Bright and early Wednesday morning, we checked into British Airways and went directly to the lounge at the Glasgow Airport, which was the nicest of the three we tried.  It was bigger than the one in Stuttgart, but a whole lot less chaotic and obnoxious than the one in London at Heathrow.  

A couple of shots of the Glasgow British Airways lounge.  It was a lot less crowded and annoying than the one at Heathrow.

We had a good flight to Heathrow and went to the lounge, which was marginally less zoolike than it was on September 9th.  We spent a couple of hours there, got on our flight to Stuttgart, and landed safely at about 6:30pm.  Fortunately, we told Max that we'd get the dogs on Thursday morning.  There is no way we could have gotten them before he closes at 7:00pm, even though he's close to the airport.  It took forever to get the car.  Once we got back home, the driveway was torn up because our landlords decided to redo the bricks.  The work is done now and it looks really good.  But our asshole neighbor across the street took Bill's regular parking spot.

Ah well.  We had a very good trip.  I am now eyeing future cruises on Hebridean Princess and we're also looking at barge cruises in France on French Country Waterways.  We'll see where life takes us.  For now, I'm here to say we had yet another wonderful time in Scotland and Northern Ireland and it's largely due to a great, underrated cruise line.    I hope it won't be long until we're back onboard lovely Hebridean Princess again.

Scotland and Northern Ireland 2017, Part fourteen...

Monday morning, I awoke with a full-fledged cold.  I was coughing, hacking, and had woken up several times during the night to blow my nose and drink some water.  I was legitimately sick (and still am, though I'm getting better).  We had plans to visit a distillery on the beautiful island of Islay.  Bill and I visited Islay on our last Hebridean cruise and had the chance to visit a couple of whisky distilleries, Laphroaig and Kilchoman.  This time, we were supposed to visit Bowmore, but that was cancelled before we boarded the ship.  Then it got switched to Lagavulin, but since we didn't do our itinerary as planned, that tour, too, was cancelled.

Islay happens to be rich with whisky distilleries, so the folks at Hebridean fixed us up with a tour at Bruichladdich, an old distillery that makes both whisky and gin.  Before we got on Islay's schoolbus for a trip out to Port Charlotte, we had time to walk around.  Bill and I went to a tiny grocery store and bought some cough medicine and candy for me.  I've been sipping Covonia Chesty Cold formula ever since Monday.  I don't know if it works like NyQuil, but it's got booze in it and tastes like Jaegermeister.  

With that taken care of, we were ready for our trip to the distillery.  Thanks to our whisky tour last year, Bill and I are very well versed as to how scotch is made.  I was pretty happy our guide did not take us through the process, but rather told us the distillery's history and showed us the equipment.  The tour was short, sweet, and ended with some rather generous whisky tastings.  Bill and I left with a bottle of scotch, a bottle of gin, a wool throw for me, a music CD by Islay native Angela Paterson, who performed on our last cruise, and some soap.

We got back on the ship in the early afternoon, just in time for lunch, a ham buffet.  The captain would be taking us closer to Oban during the day.

A beautiful morning in Port Ellen.

I got a kick out of the sign... it's perfect if you like your whisky.

A shot of Hebridean Princess in port.

Distillery time!

And the distillery shop, where I parted with some cash.

We were invited to try the barley.  I did, knowing that it wouldn't make me sick like wort did last time we did a distillery tour.


Those vats were full of some very alcoholic brew...

The gin still, which the distillery picked up when another distillery was closing.

The spirit safe.

We visited the warehouse.  Lots of scotches in different barrels, everything from bourbon to sherry casks.

Bill enjoys a taste.  They were quite willing to let people try different whiskys.  We were told if there was one we wanted to try under 200 GBP, they would oblige.  I think the distillery was rewarded, because I witnessed one passenger spending over 500 GBP on whisky.

Down the hatch!

Moody skies for the drive back to Port Ellen.

The beautiful ham.

Lots of salads and pasta.

And more seafood... including oysters, shrimp, smoked salmon and trout, and the like...

I had a crab salad as a starter.

Bill had a sundae for dessert.

I had warm rice pudding with raspberry jam.  It was very satisfying... took me back to my childhood days in England.

After lunch, I was feeling a little under the weather, so I went back to our stateroom, packed my bags, and took a nap.  Two hours later, Bill woke me up to tell me to get ready for dinner.  I was tempted to go back to sleep.  Then he showed me a picture of dolphins he managed to get.  It's not the best picture, but it's still cool.

Too bad I was sleeping when this happened.

Monday night was the evening of our second gala.  I broke out my blue sequined gown, which rained shiny sparkles all over the place.  In retrospect, it was a little fancier than I usually go for.  The one thing the dress had going for it was that it was floor length, so I didn't have to wear control top panty hose.  I wore knee highs instead, and pinned the top of the slit so my cheating wouldn't show.  I felt a little silly at first in my sparkly gown, but eventually relaxed.  It's not like I haven't seen worse at any Army ball (sorry, it's the truth).  And besides, Bill was there in his blues.

David Indge mingles with guests at the Captain's Farewell Gala.

I was absolutely enchanted by the sunset in Castle Bay, so I had to go take pictures while Bill explained to another passenger that the Pentagon really was hit by a jet airliner on September 11, 2001.  I always defer to Bill when it comes to 9/11 because he was actually in the Pentagon that day.

David addresses everyone and introduces our captain, Trevor Bailey.

More gorgeous sunset pics.  I could look at these all day.

Bill is smiling because he doesn't have to wear that jacket anymore!

Prepped for haggis.  They bring out the whisky beforehand.

Haggis!  This ceremony is a treat!  I got a good view this time, but my camera died and I had to switch to an iPhone.

I happened to be sitting under this bell, so I got to ring it a couple of times.  I think I almost went deaf the second time.

Haggis!  I couldn't really taste it due to my sickness.  I have had it enough times to know it wasn't a bad thing not to taste it, although haggis is not as horrible as it sounds.

Because I didn't like the liver starter, our kind waiter, Mariusz, brought me smoked salmon.

Bill bravely tried the liver.  I don't think it was a hit; we had some in Germany that actually tasted like chocolate of all things.

A nice palate cleansing sorbet.

I had turbot filet, which is a favorite.  

Bill had venison, which he loves...

Then we had creme brulee and a biscotti for dessert.

Our one selfie together.  Maybe I should have gotten someone to take our picture, but I don't photograph very well, especially when I'm sick.

One more shot of my dashing Bill in his blues...

And Toby was kind enough to make me a Brandy Alexander.  It was fabulous.

Goodbye, folks...

The castle in Castle Bay.

A few more spectacular pictures!

 Part fifteen is next.