Category Archives: Vacations

Halloween at Fern


Fern Resort is one of our favourite vacation spots. Is it as luxurious as a Carribbean all-inclusive or a Las Vegas casino resort? Well no, but the food is always great, the people are nice, there’s lots to do, and most of all it’s comfortable. We all know the place well enough and we feel safe enough there that we can give the kids more freedom than they’re used to, which makes them happy. It also means that Gail and I have some more freedom as well. We’ve been there every summer but one in the last ten years, and our week at Fern is something we all look forward to all year. We also went once during the winter, which was also a lot of fun.

This past weekend we tried something new – Fern in the fall. They had a special deal on for Halloween weekend where both kids were free, and they were also discounting the prices by 10% or so, and because we’ve been there so often in the past, we get an “alumni” discount as well, so it ended up being quite reasonable. They also had some special Halloween things happening, including a costume contest, so Gail got quite excited about that and spent part of a couple of weeks making costumes for the four of us.

The middle of summer is obviously their busiest time, and that’s when we generally go. When we were there in February a couple of years ago, we were amazed at how different it was when there were only about 70 guests instead of the usual 370 or so. This time, we arrived on Friday just in time for dinner and when we walked into the dining room, we were stunned by the number of tables set – maybe ten. We found out later that the actual count of guests for the weekend was 35. We asked how that compares to a normal Halloween weekend, and Mike the sports director said that they usually get around 100-120 people. He figures that the economic downturn is responsible for some of it, plus the fact that Halloween was on the Saturday night caused some people to stay home so they didn’t miss trick-or-treating. The lack of people made things much quieter than we’re used to at Fern. I think we might have been the only guests staying in the Main Inn – although that had its advantages too. We asked on arrival if one of the big suites was available and one was (I suspect that they both were), so they upgraded us. The fact that it was a suite was very nice, and while the balcony overlooking the pool would be great in the summer, we didn’t spend much time (read: zero) there this time. There were a few programs that ended up being cancelled because nobody showed up, so the sports director and youth director had more idle time than they are used to. It seemed that our family and one other family were involved in the programs, but I don’t know what the rest of the guests did all weekend. Other than bingo, the dance on Saturday night, and meals, we didn’t see them at all.

One of the neat ideas they had was a pumpkin carving contest – there was a pumpkin on our table when we arrived, and we had all day Saturday to carve it in whatever way we wanted. They awarded three prizes: most humorous, most creative, and scariest. We brought a bunch of templates and idea books and such, but we ended up just drawing a face freehand. We alsoOur pumpkin checking out the kids menu forgot to bring all of our pumpkin carving equipment, so we had to borrow a steak knife and a couple of spoons from the kitchen. Gail had the idea of painting the pumpkin black so that the face would really glow when lit, so we brought some spray paint and after cutting out the face, we went outside and painted it on the grass (we’ll have to check next August to see if there’s still a black spot there). The small crowd worked to our advantage, as we won the scariest pumpkin award, which was announced at dinner on Saturday night. We were happy enough with bragging rights (though bragging rights among people you don’t know aren’t worth much), but the dining room manager came around and told us that our prize was a bottle of wine plus a chocolate monkey (an ice cream drink with chocolate and banana) for each of the kids. When we told them we didn’t drink wine, they brought us a cocktail each – a Caesar for me (thanks for introducing me to those Jeff!) and a Smirnoff Ice for Gail.

The most popular non-food-related event was bingo, which happened a couple of times on Saturday and once on Sunday. Gail won a $5 gift shop voucher at one game, and Nicky won twice – his prizes were vouchers for Fern t-shirts.

We began brainstorming costume ideas a month or two ago, and the boys kept returning to Harry Potter. I half-jokingly said that one kid could go as Harry and one as Ron, I could be Dumbledore and Gail could be McGonagall. Gail thought about it for a minute and decided that it wouldn’t be all that hard to make robes for us, so over the three weeks before Halloween, that’s what she did (though she lost a week of that with a nasty cold). Saturday night after dinner we all got dressed and went over to Fireside (the building next to the Main Inn), where they had set up a haunted house / trick-or-treating area. About half of the rooms on the second floor had ghouls, goblins, or witches in them, scaring kids (and me in one case) and handing out goodies. Some of the goodies were your standard mini chocolate bars and such, but there was also some stuff from the bakery – some really good iced shortbread cookies and a big cupcake. Obviously the kids ended up with far less candy than on a typical Halloween, but they didn’t seem disappointed. We were also fine with it, since we normally end up throwing out at least half of what they bring home because they forget about it by mid-November. Our wizarding family

After the trick-or-treating, they had a costume party and dance over at Mary Lou’s, where Gail and I danced (I was very warm in the Dumbledore beard and hair, so I didn’t dance much – and had to pull the beard down off my face to drink my beer), Nicky danced a little, and Ryan stood off to the side – he kind of wanted to dance but was just not able to pluck up enough courage to actually do it. He never actually said any of this, but I know that’s how he felt because that’s exactly how I would have felt when I was ten. The time came to hand out the costume award and once again, they had prizes for different categories. This time it was most creative, scariest, and overall best costume. Most creative went to “Mother Nature”, a young girl who had stuck little paper butterflies and birds and (real) branches and leaves all over herself; a very clever costume. “Scariest” wasn’t that scary but was also creative – a boy of about twelve who made himself into RoboCop with lots of cardboard, duct tape, and flashing lights. The award for best overall costume went to a strikingly handsome man dressed as Professor Dumbledore. (sigh) No, there wasn’t another Dumbledore there, I am talking about myself. My prize was another Fern t-shirt voucher. I got the t-shirt (actually upgraded to a long-sleeved shirt) but Gail really deserves all the credit – she made my robes and hat (as well as the robes she wore), bought the hair, beard, and glasses, and even coloured my eyebrows – all I did was wear it. And as cool as my costume was, I think Gail as McGonagall was even better because she looked the part (though much younger) more than I did, and didn’t hide behind a fake beard.

So we were at Fern from Friday dinner until Sunday lunch and won three t-shirts, $5, and a round of drinks. And we had great food all weekend, and stayed in the nicest suite in the place, and played some games (throwing eggs at the archery targets was particularly fun), and for all that we paid about 25% less than the normal price and the kids were free. A great weekend all around.

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Fern 2009


We just returned from Fern Resort where we go every year, and once again, we had a fabulous week. (Here’s last year’s report.) Some highlights and lowlights:

Highlights

  • The food was very good, for the most part. The prime rib, pork tenderloin, and lamb medallions were amazing, but the leg of lamb on Wednesday night was just OK. I also had some tandoori salmon that was very good.
  • Jeff and I played tennis every day, and we even won a doubles tournament on Tuesday! Also, during the advanced lesson on Wednesday, we played a “survivor” game, and I won that. But then during the tournament right after that, we won our first match and then got smoked in the next three, mainly because I simply forgot how to hit the ball properly. Many of my shots went into the net or landed way out. Sorry Jeff.
  • Nicky ended up on stage again, playing Deal or No Deal. Last year he took the deal when we wanted him not to, while this year, he turned down every deal (including two that were quite generous) and ended up winning $30. Nothing to sneeze at, but he was offered $42.
  • Canadian children’s TV star Daniel Cook was there with his family.
  • I got lots of exercise. Tennis for two hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and one hour on Thursday, I ran 3.7 km on Monday and Wednesday, played beach volleyball, ten holes of golf (Hawk Ridge with Jeff and Jerry) on Tuesday and five (at Fern with Ryan, Jeff, and Jake) on Wednesday, rode pedal carts with Gail and the boys, and and a couple of innings of “mushball” (which is baseball with a soft mushy ball) – I even hit a home run! Oh, and swimming every day.
  • Golf at Hawk Ridge: Jeff, Jerry and I all shot 55 for nine holes. We were allowed to play the 18th hole on the way back to the clubhouse, and Jeff got a six while Jerry and I got sevens, so Jeff ended up the winner.

 

Lowlights

  • No Jamie Williams this year, as he played on Friday night while we were only there from Sunday to Friday morning.
  • Gail managed to miss archery again this year. No idea why, she just decided not to go. Last year she missed it because of a migraine.
  • I wanted to try water skiing, but never managed to find the time. Similarly, we didn’t get out on Jeff’s jet-ski either. Jeff did a little bit, but the water was pretty choppy.

We’re already booked for next summer, and we’re going back this fall too – we booked Hallowe’en weekend. We get 10% off because we’re alumni, and they gave us an additional 10% off, plus both kids are free. Obviously the water sports and outdoor pools will be less fun at the end of October, but there will still be lots to do.

UK 2009: By the numbers


KM flown 5730 Toronto to London,
535 London to Edinburgh,
12530 total
KM driven 1050
Different hotels 6
Nights on plane 1
Nights in hotels 17
Pictures taken 2201
Size of pictures taken 5.53 GB
Videos taken 82
Size of videos taken 6.75 GB
Number of aunts, uncles, and cousins of mine we saw 29

Amount we paid for parking at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh

about £5 ($9)

Amount we paid for parking at all other attractions (castles, Falkirk wheel, Loch Ness exhibit, etc.) combined

£0

Amount we paid for ~7 hours public parking during the day in Edinburgh £19 ($34)
Number of times we did laundry 2
Amount we spent on laundry about £25 ($44)
Price for a litre of gas in Scotland about £1.05 (~$1.86)
Price for a litre of gas in Canada about $0.95
Number of sheep we saw countless
Number of highland cows we saw 1
Number of Loch Ness monsters we saw on T-shirts, key chains, pencils and other assorted trinkets countless
Number of actual Loch Ness monsters we saw 0

UK 2009: Kudos and complaints


Similar to what I did for our trip to France, here are some positive and negative experiences:

Snaps to:

  • Toyota, for making the Avensis, which we drove around Scotland. It was big without feeling like a bus and was exceptionally comfortable. When we arrived home, I got in our 2007 Pontiac Montana SV6 with leather seats (which I’ve always thought was quite comfortable), and the first thing I thought was “I want my Toyota back”. It was a pleasure to drive too – it had lots of power, handled very nicely, and had great brakes. A number of times I had to hit the brakes hard for an emergency “Oh crap I need to turn here” turn and despite being in rainy Scotland, I never skidded once. Only minor complaint: our particular vehicle didn’t have cruise control, but with the windy roads, there were only a handful of places where I could have used it anyway.
  • our friends Sara and Jonathan, for lending us their GPS unit with UK maps. It was an absolute godsend and I will never ever ever ever ever rent a car again without a GPS.
  • The Original Tour, a open-top double-decker bus tour of London. We did this in Paris as well – once you have your ticket, you can get on and off the bus as much as you want for 24 hours. There are six different areas covered by busses, and each bus has headphone jacks where you can plug in headphones (supplied) to hear a recorded commentary in multiple languages. Some tours have a live tour guide giving commentary as well, and it goes pretty much everywhere.
  • Irn Bru – the most popular Scottish soft drink. Similar to cream soda but with a unique taste all its own. Yum.
  • The B&B’s we stayed at, all of which were cute and welcoming: Dalshian House in Pitlochry, Dunlichity House near Inverness, and Kilmalyn Guest House near Fort William.
  • The Urquhart Caledonian hotel in Portree, which was a very nice place with very warm and friendly people.
  • The Royal Terrace Hotel in Edinburgh. Beautiful hotel, great location, huge comfortable room, reasonably priced.

 

No snaps to:

  • lovinglondonapartments.com – we tried to book an apartment in London through them. I booked the apartment through their web site on May 1, and got an email on May 2 saying that we were confirmed. Then on May 5, three days later, I got an email saying that my credit card had been declined. I immediately replied, telling them that I was going to call the bank to see what was going on. I couldn’t remember whether I had use my card or Gail’s, so I called them both to make sure everything was OK, and neither one had any record of a declined transaction. I figured that I must have made a typo when entering my credit card number, so I went back to the site and did everything again, double-checking all the card numbers. The next day, I was notified that the apartment I wanted was no longer available. Even though they knew that I wanted the apartment, they did not reserve it for me and someone else grabbed it.
  • Heathrow airport – things went generally pretty smoothly at Heathrow; I only had a couple of minor issues, efficiency being the main one. Without going into all the details here, we went through security a couple more times than I thought was necessary. Also, the things that they do and don’t allow still baffles me. They tore Ryan’s backpack apart because they saw something weird on the scanner, and it turned out to be the bottle containing his eyeglass cleaning solution. They also told Gail that her contact lens solution was not allowed because the bottle was too big. They let the glasses cleaner through in a separate bag, but Gail had to throw her contact solution out. This, however, was on our flight home, which means that both of these bottles had already flown, in carry-on bags, from Toronto to London, London to Edinburgh, and then Edinburgh back to London. Previous security people thought they were safe enough on those flights, but not the one from London back to Toronto. In the US, the FAA specifically exempts contact lens solution from the 100 mL restriction and as I said they allowed it on the other flights, so I don’t understand.
  • North American car makers. Why is the “express down” feature only on the driver’s window, and why is there no “express up” feature? On the Toyota we had this time and the Opel we had in France last year, all the windows have both express down and express up. Even the car we had in England nine years ago had this feature, though it was a Mercedes.
  • Roadchef restaurant next door to the Premier Inn in Hamilton. I wrote about this in the Larkhall entry, but in a nutshell: the food was decent but overpriced, the service was less than impressive, and the whole place could have used a serious clean. The Premier Inn itself was fine – the room wasn’t gorgeous, but functional and very cheap, and the people were friendly. It was just the restaurant that was a hole.
  • Update: Driving home in the rain tonight reminded me of another one, this one also about North American car makers. Our car in the UK had three windshield wiper modes – I don’t remember what they were called, but I’ll call them Auto, Normal, and Fast. Normal and Fast are pretty self-explanatory, but Auto was awesome. It detected how wet your windshield was and adjusted the wiper frequency accordingly. The harder it rained, the more frequently they went. If the rain got lighter, the wipers went less often. If it stopped raining, the wipers stopped. If it started raining again an hour later, they started up again. I put the wipers on auto on our second day with the car and didn’t touch them again for days, whether it was raining or not. More useful and proven technology that is inexplicably missing from North American cars.

UK 2009: Larkhall and Edinburgh


This is the third of five articles I am writing about our UK trip. The first is here, and the second is here. As I mentioned before, I’m putting in a fair amount of detail, but I’m mainly doing it for my own reference in the future.

Note that if you’re reading this through Facebook, you might want to click on the “View Original Post” link at the bottom to view it directly on my blog. Facebook messes up some of the formatting.

 

July 11

When I reserved the rooms at the Premier Inn (weeks before the trip), they gave me the option to buy breakfast at a discount as well. For £7.50 each, Gail and I got vouchers worth £10 each, and the kids each got a £10 voucher for free. This seemed kind of expensive (£15 = $30/day for breakfast), but I figured (a) it’s a hotel so it’s going to be expensive regardless, and (b) this will save us having to go searching for breakfast every morning. Breakfast wasn’t actually at the hotel, it was at a place called Roadchef, right next door. It certainly ended up being convenient, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I’d do it again. Remember this the hotel/restaurant is at a service centre just off the motorway, so the vast majority of their business consists of travellers who may never set foot in the place again. They’re not overly interested in repeat business, and it showed. The food was decent enough, though (not surprisingly) overpriced. They had a little serve-yourself cereal area, but three of the four mornings we ate there I had to ask for bowls because there were none there. Many of the staff acted as though our presence was pulling them away from something they’d rather be doing. The silverware was in little baskets and rather than just grabbing four forks and knives, I had to get them one at a time and make sure there was no food still stuck to them – much of the time, there was. The tables were all sticky but I figured they were just cheap and old… until we spilled something. Once I wiped up the spill with a napkin, that part of the table wasn’t sticky anymore. Ewwww.

After breakfast, we went to see Aunt Sandra (my mother’s sister, in case you’re curious) again, and she led us out to her little “shop”, Alexandra’s, where she sells jewellery. It isn’t really a shop at all but a booth in a garden centre, but she sells some pretty nice stuff and Gail had a blast looking over everything and deciding what to buy as gifts and what to buy for herself. Aunt Sandra wanted to give us a huge discount but Gail wouldn’t hear of it, so they had a bit of a tussle over how much we were going to pay for everything. They eventually settled on a price, and we went back to her place for lunch. During lunch, Aunt Sandra got a call from her son Ian, who wanted to speak to me. He and his wife Lesley were heading out to the Hamilton Park Racecourse that evening for a special event, and they asked if Gail and I wanted to join them while Aunt Sandra watched the boys (as well as his two adorable daughters Alexis (5) and Zarah (2)). Nice of him to offer her babysitting services. Anyway, we decided it would be fun, and Aunt Sandra assured us that looking after our boys as well as Ian’s girls would be no problem, so we said yes. We arranged to meet at our hotel in the afternoon.

After lunch, we called my Aunt Trudy (another of mom’s sisters – she has three plus two brothers) in nearby Motherwell to make sure she was going to be home, and then went to visit her. While there we also saw my cousin Julie and her husband (Andy) and kids (Cameron and Sarah). Cameron wasn’t much younger than Ryan, and the three boys had fun playing soccer football. After a couple of hours, we went back to Aunt Sandra’s place and dropped the boys off for the evening, then went back to the hotel to change. Ian and Lesley arrived a little while later, and we all hopped in a cab to the track. The place was packed. We grabbed some drinks (the aforementioned John Smith’s for me, a Foster’s for Ian, a pint (!) of wine for Lesley, and just water for Gail) and a race program and attempted to figure out what we were going to bet on. We pooled our money on a handful of tickets where you pick horses in each race and if all of the ones you choose either win or place, you win a bunch of money. We decided that if any one of them was a winner we’d split the winnings, so we picked horses based on clever things like what their name was and what colour they wore. We followed those tickets until they were all wiped out (one ticket lasted until about the fifth race), and occasionally put additional bets on single horses. There were lots of different betting booths, and each was run by a different bookie – the booth had a big sign on top saying who was running it. But the bookies decide on the odds, so depending on where you went to bet, you might get slightly different odds on a particular horse than the guy in the next booth. So you’d see a horse with 6-1 odds at one booth, but the guy at the next booth was giving 7-1. And the odds changed while the bets were coming in, so if you bought your ticket ten minutes earlier than someone else, even if you bought at the same booth, you might have different odds on the same horse in the same race. Overall we won a few and lost more but had a lot of fun.

At the end of the night, I thought that perhaps my alcohol tolerance was increasing back to university levels, when we’d have a few beers and then go out to the bar – nowadays if I have more than one beer in a night I’m generally ready for bed. But I had five pints of John Smith’s over the course of a few hours. Make no mistake, I was quite drunk, more so than I’d been in many years, but prior to that I would have guessed that five beers in one night would have completely wiped me out. It wasn’t until the other day when I was writing the blog entry for the highlands and found the link for John Smith’s that I figured it out – it’s only 3.8% alcohol. Your average Canadian beer is 5%, and my personal favourite, Rickard’s Red, is 5.2%. (Stupid Molson web site won’t let me link to the miniscule amount of information on Rickard’s Red.) I know American beer is generally beer-flavoured water, but I didn’t realize Scottish beer was too. At least in Scotland you can get dark and good-tasting beer-flavoured water, unlike the American stuff.

We cabbed it back to the hotel around 9:30, and Aunt Sandra met us there with the boys. They had had fun at an Orange Walk parade going through Larkhall. I had never heard of such a thing (my knowledge of Irish history is woefully inadequate), and I guess it’s mainly an Irish thing, but I guess it’s a big deal in some parts of Scotland as well. Thankfully it seems nowadays to be more of a parade for the sake of having a parade rather than a “down with the Catholic bastards!” thing like it might have been in the past. Anyway, by 10:00 it was bedtime for everyone – late for the boys and early for us, but I’m pretty sure that thanks to my new friend John Smith, I was the first one asleep.

 

July 12

Luckily, I don’t get hangovers.

After breakfast we drove to a very cool playground in Chatelherault park in nearby Ferniegair. Aunt Sandra arrived with Alexis and Zarah a little while later, and the four kids had a great time playing together. It was a bright Sunday morning but the park was empty. By the time we left a couple of hours later, there were two other families there, but we couldn’t figure out why the place wasn’t packed.

After lunch, we went to visit my Uncle David (my dad’s brother) and Aunt Margaret who live just around the corner from Aunt Sandra. We had a bit of a Perrow family reunion there – Uncle David and Aunt Margaret, Aunt Betty (my dad’s sister) and Uncle Charlie, and two of my cousins – David (with his wife Caroline and daughter Suzanne) and George (with his wife Liz and his kids Mandy and Jordan and Mandy’s boyfriend Kevin). Seeing Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie was a wonderful surprise – they live in Manchester, and we had spent a fair bit of time during the previous couple of weeks trying to figure out the best way to get down there to see them. We didn’t want to come three thousand miles across the Atlantic and then not see them when they’re only a three hour drive away. But before we could decide on when we were going to go, we talked to Aunt Margaret and found that they had already taken the bus up and were staying in Larkhall until the 14th, which was when we were also leaving.

Uncle David’s house isn’t very big, so it was quite packed with all those people, but we all had a great time catching up. Suzanne and Mandy are about the same age – early 20’s – but Jordan is only 9, about a year younger than Ryan. The boys and Jordan played for quite a while together and got along very well. Uncle David and Aunt Betty both love trivia, as do I (and as it turns out, a number of other people in attendance as well), so we had a lot of fun answering trivia questions from a talking trivia game that Uncle David had. At one point, we mentioned that we were driving to Edinburgh in a couple of days and I was a little worried about where we were going to park, since I knew our hotel does not offer parking. My cousin David warned me that parking in Edinburgh was crazy expensive, and suggested that we take the car back early and make our way around Edinburgh without it. We considered this, but the next day, circumstances convinced us to keep the car, at least for one day. For the next day or two I was quote worried about the parking situation in Edinburgh but it turned out OK, as I will get to later.

We stayed at Uncle David’s until the boys ran out of steam in the early evening.

 

July 13

Another delightful breakfast at the Roadchef. I ordered a “bacon roll” without knowing precisely what it was, though I had a pretty good guess. Turns out the name was almost too accurate – it was a roll with a couple of slices of bacon in it. No butter or margarine, no lettuce or tomato, no toppings or condiments of any kind, just a roll with bacon. Presentation, people! Even the month-old sandwiches you find in vending machines have a sprig of parsley in them.

After breakfast we went to visit yet another of my mother’s sisters, Aunt Maxine. She promptly put me to work fixing her computer which hadn’t been working properly for a while. There were a couple of problems – the keyboard and mouse plugs had been twisted, so the pins were bent all to hell. A couple of minutes with a pair of tweezers fixed that, and then the hard part – I plugged her cable modem into the wall. Turns out that without power, those things don’t do much. It wasn’t rocket science, but Aunt Maxine now thinks I’m a computer god, so all’s well that ends well.

The two sides of my family collided to some extent for lunch, as we met Uncle David, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Charlie at the cafe in the garden centre where Aunt Sandra’s shop is. This seemed a little weird, but does make sense, since my parents have been married for 47 years and together for about fifty, and they and their siblings all grew up in the same small town where most of them still live, so the families are fairly well acquainted. Actually, Aunt Betty and Aunt Sandra used to play together as kids, long before my parents got together. Anyway, we had a wonderful lunch – I had steak and mushroom pie and an Irn Bru – does it get more Scottish than that? Well, I suppose there was no haggis.

After lunch and some wandering around the other shops in the garden centre, we attempted to go and visit my Uncle Billy (my mom’s youngest brother), but he was not home and Aunt Sandra couldn’t get hold of him. We made our way back to the hotel and the boys played some Harry Potter Scene It? (a gift from Aunt Sandra) while Gail and I packed for our journey to Edinburgh the next day.

 

July 14

The morning was spent touring around saying goodbye to people before heading east. We stopped at Uncle David’s place, Aunt Sandra’s shop (narrowly missing seeing my other Uncle David by minutes), and then Aunt Trudy’s. We filled up with gas, grabbed some McLunch, and headed towards Falkirk, a little over halfway to Edinburgh.

Falkirk is home of the Falkirk Wheel, the only rotating boat lift in the world. It performs the same function as locks in a canal, except that it replaces about 15 locks and turns in about 4 minutes. There are big gondolas (I told the boys to think of them as swimming pools) at the top and bottom of the wheel, and boats enter the gondolas. The gondolas are then sealed off (so the water won’t drain out), and the wheel turns, keeping the gondolas level the whole time. Four minutes later, the gondola from the bottom is at the top and vice versa, and the gondolas open allowing the boats to drive out. It’s an amazing feat of engineering. We took a tour boat and rode the wheel – from the top, we could see approaching rain in the distance. We had time to get back to the bottom of the wheel before the rain hit. We waited (in the conveniently-located gift shop) for a slight break in the rain before racing back to the car and continuing on to Edinburgh.

The highway took us to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and then we had to take city streets into downtown. It took us a while to get through the city and once we got near our hotel, the Royal Terrace Hotel, we found that a couple of streets were closed so we had forgo the GPS temporarily and use an actual (gasp) map (like, made of paper and everything! How quaint!) to find an alternate route. After a couple of U-turns (some required, some not), we found the place and parked on the street. The hotel was quite posh compared to most hotels we’ve been to, but compared to the Premier Inn, it was the freakin’ Ritz. We got the key to our room on the second first floor (the ground floor is floor 0 in the UK) and when I opened the door, my first words were “Oh my goodness”. The room had what had to be 15 foot ceilings, a huge chandelier in the middle, two queen beds, a couch and two wingchairs, a desk, and two TVs. It had to be at least triple the size of the Premier Inn room and several orders of magnitude nicer. There were three floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the street, and one of them had a view through the trees on the other side of the street to the Firth of Forth. It cost about double what the Premier Inn did, but was far bigger, far nicer, and had a far better location, so we were happy to pay it. At something like £110 a night, it was actually quite cheap for a beautiful place in downtown Edinburgh. Our first order of business was to find a local laundromat, and someone at the front desk told us about one just down the street. Unfortunately it was already closed, but opened early the next morning. On the way back, we found a pizza place and grabbed a couple of pizzas to take back to the room. The guy we ordered the pizzas from had a strong Italian accent (with hints of Scottish in it – very neat accent), which is always a good sign for a pizzeria, and we were not disappointed.

Shortly after returning with the pizza, we attempted to recharge the video camera, and as soon as I plugged in the power transformer (that we borrowed from Gail’s dad), we heard a loud bang. I quickly unplugged it, noticing the black mark on both the plug and the wall. The plug adapter rattled a little and when I shook it, little tiny bits of a capacitor or resistor or something fell out. It had literally exploded. We asked at the front desk if they had power adapters that we could borrow, and they did but they were for European plugs, not North American ones. For the time being, we were out of power. Luckily the camera batteries still had some life left in them.

The parking thing wasn’t as big a deal as we thought – overnight, anyway. Parking on the street in front of the hotel was plentiful and free from about 6:00pm to 8:00am, and the parking meters were smart – if you bought a two-hour ticket at 5:00pm, it didn’t expire until 9:00am the next morning. During the day, however, parking was limited to four hours. This would prove somewhat expensive over the next few days but the fact that we didn’t have to pay overnight saved us a bundle.

 

July 15

In the morning, we gathered up our dirty clothes and brought them down to the laundromat we had found the previous evening. Once the clothes were in the washer, we went across the street to a little cafe for breakfast. A couple of hours later, everything was done and we headed to the town of Kirkcaldy (the ‘L’ is silent, we found out later – it’s pronounced “Ker-KAW-dee”), about an hour north of Edinburgh.

A couple of days before, we found out that my cousin Lesley’s partner Wayne had just passed away. I had never met him, but he and Lesley had been together for several years. They had met through Lesley’s work – in a nutshell, she helps to rehabilitate drug addicts, and Wayne was one. With Lesley’s help, Wayne kicked the drugs and eventually joined her in helping others do the same. But many years of drug abuse had damaged his body, and at the age of 35, it gave out on him. I decided to attend the funeral since it was my only chance to see Lesley and I wanted to express my condolences. Gail took the boys down to the Kirkcaldy beach while I went with Aunt Sandra and my cousin Stuart (who also knew Wayne) to the funeral. It was a very nice service and I did get to see Lesley at the cemetery, though only for a few moments. She seemed happy to see me and grateful that I came, and so as much as I hate funerals (as most everyone does, I imagine), I’m glad I went.

After the burial, Aunt Sandra drove me back down to the beach, where we found Gail and the boys and had lunch. Aunt Sandra and Stuart headed back to Larkhall while we continued north to Dundee for our last family visit. My mom’s second-youngest brother Allan is in Dundee, so we went to spend a few hours with him. We were surprised to find my cousin Hazel there as well. We thought she was on vacation in Egypt, so we were happy to see her, and to meet her children, Christopher (5) and William (2). The four boys got along very well and played (LOUDLY) the whole time. Hazel and her husband Wilson are considering immigrating to Canada at some point in the next few years (actually they’re thinking about living in Hamilton, so we may end up being neighbours), so we tried to convince her that Canada is definitely the place to be.

 

July 16

We found a public parking garage around the corner from the hotel – we knew it would be expensive, but at least we wouldn’t be ticketed or towed, so we bit the bullet and drove there. We had breakfast at a little cafe inside the mall next door, and then walked down Regent Street to The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish home of the Royal Family. Mary, Queen of Scots once lived here and even witnessed her husband murder her secretary. Mary’s son became King James VI of Scotland when he was a year old and about 35 years later when Elizabeth I died without children, he became James I of Great Britain, the first King of both Scotland and England, thus uniting the monarchies.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson. We enjoyed the tour of this “working palace”, and were amazed to find that Princess Anne had stayed here just three days before our visit. Holyroodhouse is at the east end of the Royal Mile, with Edinburgh Castle at the other end. We walked the mile, stopping for lunch along the way, and then did the tour of the Castle, which was very cool. The views of the city and the Firth of Forth were amazing, and we could even see Kirkcaldy fairly easily across the Firth (though I don’t remember being able to see Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy). The boys were very impressed with the castle, especially Mons Meg, the 500-year-old 15,000-pound cannon that could shoot a 400-pound cannonball over two miles, and the display of swords and shields. Basically, Gail and I appreciated the architecture and history, the boys liked the weapons.

After the Castle, we walked down to Princes Street, which is almost completely dug up to install a new tram line. While strolling around, we saw a store dedicated to travellers, mainly for hiking and camping, but I thought maybe we could find a new power adapter there, which we did. We ate at T.G.I. Friday’s – after all the walking, everyone was hungry, and the boys devoured their meals. We walked back down Princes Street to pick up the car (parking cost: £19 = $34 – ouch) – while walking we heard the ominous sound of approaching thunder but managed to get to the parking garage before the rain started.

The new power adapter wasn’t perfect because there are a number of different European plug formats. Our transformer kit had a number of adapters, and luckily it was only the UK plug adapter that blew, not the whole transformer. We plugged the transformer into a different adapter and then that adapter into the new one we bought, and then plugged that into the wall, and lo and behold, we had power again. It was a little wobbly and didn’t look very safe, but it was only for one more day so we made it work.

 

July 17

The weather forecast for our last full day in Scotland was dreary and rainy, so we figured we’d have an indoor day. Luckily we’d seen the Castle and Royal Mile already. Around the corner from Holyroodhouse was a place called Our Dynamic Earth. It’s similar to the Ontario Science Centre, but smaller and dedicated to the Earth itself: its geology, geography, climate, and animal life. There was a 360° movie (planetarium-style) called We Are Astronomers which the boys enjoyed and was probably pretty interesting, but I was so baked that the comfy reclining chairs and dark room got to me before the movie did, and I slept through it all.  RyanSpinning

After the movie, we went out front where they had a zero-gravity training thing, which was basically a chair in a hoop which spun in one direction within another hoop which spun in a different direction. Nicky was dying to try it, but Ryan kept saying he wasn’t interested. Nicky went on and after seeing how much fun he had, Ryan decided to give it a try. The picture here shows how much he enjoyed it. Gail and I decided to pass.

After lunch, it was still raining, so we decided to stay downtown for the afternoon before heading back to the hotel to pack (again), so we went to the theatre and saw Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. The boys loved it, and Gail and I thought it wasn’t bad either.

The evening was spent trying to figure out the best way to pack all the stuff we had accumulated into the suitcases we’d brought – luckily we always pack an empty duffel bag for just such occasions, so we checked four bags on the way to Scotland and five on the way back. While Gail did the packing (as she always does), I took the boys down to the hotel’s swimming pool, which was quite small – the whole pool would have easily fit in our hotel room. It was also rather cold, so the boys only swam for maybe half an hour before I took them and their blue lips back upstairs.

 

July 18

We checked out in the morning and drove to the airport, filling the gas tank along the way. Dropping off the car was easy, and we walked to the terminal. We were actually a little early for the flight to London, so we had to wait a little bit before we could check our bags (though once we did, they went right on through to Toronto – we didn’t have to get them and then check them again in London). The gate must have changed after our boarding passes were printed, so we only knew which gate to go to when we heard “This is the final boarding call for flight to London Heathrow. All passengers should now be boarding at gate 44K”, while we were sitting at 44C. We zipped down to 44K and made it, all the while checking the boarding passes which said quite clearly “gate 44C”. The flight to London was uneventful, though getting through Heathrow was a little silly. We got off the plane and into the terminal and immediately had to line up with most of the rest of the passengers who were connecting to other flights. One person checked everyone’s tickets individually before allowing us through (I believe the name on his security card was “Mr. Bottleneck”), and we then boarded one of a number of shuttles going to various other terminals, depending on which airline we were on. At this point, however, we were no longer in a “secure” area, meaning that we were in the general access area of the terminal, so I’m not sure what purpose Mr. Bottleneck served. After checking in at the Air Canada counter, we found that they had assigned us two seats in one row and two seats in the row behind, but not together – we had seats H and K, with seat J in the middle. Duh. Gail sat with Nicky in one row, and the person assigned seat J had no problem switching with Gail, and I sat with Ryan behind them and nobody sat next to me until shortly before take-off, when someone moved to accommodate some other passengers. He was also happy to switch with me. Ryan played his DS and watched Race to Witch Mountain, while I read and watched Watchmen, which I will have to rent and watch again sometime, since it really deserves a bigger screen than the 6-inch one on the plane.

On arrival in Toronto, we picked up our luggage and took the Park ‘n Fly bus over to pick up the van. Our first stop, as it always is, was the Tim Horton’s across the street from Park ‘n Fly. The flight landed at 5:30 and we were home by 7:30, which is pretty good considering it’s a 45 minute drive.

 

And thus ends my very long-winded account of our UK vacation. We had an amazing time, and I have also enjoyed reliving some of it while writing all of this. I have two more posts coming about this trip, both based on posts I made about our trip to France last year: By the numbers and Kudos and complaints.

The only casualty of the trip was Nicky’s Nintendo DS, which we have not seen since the flight to Toronto. Gail thinks that he must have put it in the back of the seat in front of him to watch a movie. Because the movie wasn’t over when the flight landed, he watched until the very last moment and then grabbed his bag and left. We called Air Canada and they gave me a reference number and a promise to call me if they find it, but I’m not holding my breath.

UK 2009: The Scottish Highlands


This is the second of at least four articles I am going to do about our UK trip. The first is here. As I mentioned before, I’m putting in a lot of detail, but I’m mainly doing it for my own reference in the future. You can see a map of our entire trip here.

 

July 5

After arriving in Edinburgh, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the rental car pick-up area. When we got to the counter and confirmed our reservation, we pointed to our stack of suitcases and asked if the car was going to be big enough – this was our biggest worry about the car rental. The attendant said “Let’s go find out”, and she grabbed a set of keys, left the counter, and walked outside. The four of us followed her with the luggage until we found ourselves in front of a black four-door Toyota Avensis. She opened the trunk and we instantly knew we were fine. We grabbed the biggest suitcase and put it in the trunk and marvelled at how much space there still was. While Gail and the boys put the cases in the car and unpacked the car seats, I returned with the attendant to the desk to get the paperwork signed. A few minutes later, we were on our way. After a brief stop at a nearby Marks and Spencer’s to pick up a couple more pairs of shorts for me, we fired up the GPS we borrowed from some friends and headed north for Pitlochry. Sitting on the wrong right-hand side of the car wasn’t as big a change as I expected (though I was glad that we got an automatic, shifting gears with my wrong left hand would have added to the challenge), but driving on the wrong left-hand side of the road took a bit of getting used to. I asked Gail to tell me if I was too far left (i.e. partially on the shoulder), and I figured the drivers coming the other way would let me know if I was too far right. Thankfully, they never had to.

We crossed the Forth Road Bridge out of Edinburgh and about an hour and a half of relatively uneventful driving later, we arrived in Pitlochry. We stayed at a lovely little B&B called Dalshian House, just outside of town. This was the first time that Gail and I had ever stayed at a B&B. We had a family room, with a queen bed and two singles. We asked for a dinner recommendation and headed into town to a place called “The Auld Smiddy” where we had a wonderful meal. After dinner, we went to a little place across the street to get ice cream cones, and walked down to the Pitlochry dam and fish ladder. Everything was closed but we walked around anyway for a little while before heading back to the B&B and the boys watched some Harry Potter before bed.

 

July 6

Breakfast at Dalshian House was more like a restaurant than any other B&B we stayed at, in that there were menus given to us at breakfast time. In the other B&Bs, we got a menu the day before and filled it out for the next morning before going to bed. After breakfast, we checked out and drove up to Killiecrankie, where we planned on doing the entire 16km walk. But it was just starting to rain when we got to the visitor’s centre, and within a few minutes the skies just opened. After waiting and hoping for ten or fifteen minutes, we heard thunder and decided that the rain was not going to let up anytime soon. Even if it did, we were going to be on this walk for several hours, so if the skies opened again when we were halfway through the walk, it would be a very wet and uncomfortable morning indeed. This turned out to be a good decision, since it rained on and off most of the day. We decided to skip the walk and drove to nearby Blair Castle. The boys were kept far more entertained at this castle than at most of the chateaux we visited in France – when we walked in the door, the people working there asked the boys if they wanted to do a treasure hunt. The staff had gone through the castle and put together a bunch of questions based on the information in each room, and hidden a little white ribbon cross in each room. You had to find the cross and answer the questions and turn the sheet in at the end, and then there was a monthly prize draw. There were questions like “In the dining room, who painted the portrait on the wall?” and “In the tapestry room, when was the oldest tapestry made?” We had never seen that kind of activity before, but the kids enjoyed it, and we certainly appreciated it. We subsequently saw similar things at a couple of other castles.

After Blair Castle, we drove another hour and a half further north to our next B&B, Dunlichity House near Inverness. This one was quite remote; at least fifteen minutes along a small B-road off of the main highway. This was my first experience driving on a single-lane road. If it was a busy road it might have been nerve-wracking – there were lots of “passing places” where you had to pull in to allow cars going the other way to pass by (or they would pull in to allow you to go by) – but there was essentially no traffic, so it was no big deal. The B&B was a beautiful little place; only three guest rooms, and on our first night there, we were the only guests. The room had a queen bed and bunk beds for the boys, as well as a TV with DVD player. There was a small library of DVDs available, so the boys watched “Because of Winn-Dixie” before bed. Gail read in the room, and I read in the little lounge across the hall from our room. The lounge had a CD player in it with a collection of CDs – the one in the player was David Gilmour’s excellent album “On An Island”. I played that followed by Pink Floyd’s Echoes while reading and had a very relaxing evening.

 

July 7

This day was one of my favourite days on this vacation, a driving tour around Loch Ness. We started out by having a full Scottish breakfast including cereal, eggs, bacon, beans, and sausage, and I also had haggis. I’ve had it a few times before – it’s like a spicy sausage made with various types of meat (mainly organs). In the old days, it was made and cooked inside a sheep’s stomach, but they just use sausage casings these days. I really enjoyed it, though nobody else was willing to try it. With full tummies, we drove south-west to the Falls of Foyers, where we walked around a short trail (maybe 1 km). On the way there, we saw both a male and female pheasant, a few roe deer, and of course many sheep. We continued south-west to Fort Augustus, at the far end of Loch Ness. We stopped there for lunch, watched a woman create little Nessies out of glass (and bought a couple), watched some boats navigating the locks there, and the boys took their shoes and socks off and played a little in the frigid loch.

We continued our drive on the other side of the Loch, driving north-east to Drumnadrochit, home of Urquhart Castle and a couple of Nessie exhibits. We went to see one such exhibit, which was a movie about the legend of the Loch Ness monster, as well as a “conveniently-located gift shop”. This is one of our little jokes about touristy places – many of these types of exhibits (or even rides at places like Disney World)  empty out directly into a gift shop, so you cannot exit the attraction without having been given the opportunity to buy overpriced trinkets. Very convenient.

The drive continued north-east to Inverness, where we had dinner at a pub called Maverick’s before heading back to Dalshian House.

 

July 8

After more haggis for breakfast (yum!) we left Dunlichity House and drove to Inverness, where we spent a couple of hours doing laundry. Once the clothes were clean, dry, and folded, we headed west to the Isle of Skye. The GPS pointed us down the highway on the north side of Loch Ness through Drumnadrochit again, but rather than retracing our steps from the previous day, we drove further north and took a slightly different route, through the middle of the highlands. There were tall green mountains on either side of the car, lots of heather, and of course lots of sheep. The scenery was incredible. One thing we noticed in this part of Scotland was that place names on the highway signs had the Gaelic equivalents underneath the English names. After a couple of hours, we arrived at Eilean Donan Castle, one of the oldest castles in Scotland. After a tour of the castle, we continued over the Skye Bridge onto the Isle of Skye. One of the first things I noticed was that the street signs had changed – now the place names were in Gaelic with English underneath. Apart from that, Skye didn’t look much different from where we had just been driving, but as it turned out, that’s because we were at the south end of the island. We headed for Port Righ (Portree in English), which was a half-hour from the bridge. The further north we went, the less Skye looked like mainland Scotland – the mountains weren’t any bigger, but some of them were craggier and less smooth than the ones in the highlands. Portree is a cute little town, and we had a bit of a time finding our hotel. The front door is right on the main street, but to get to the parking lot you had to basically turn left onto a street that was one way the other way and then immediately turn left again onto another street, though the calling that second one a “street” was generous. It was more of an alley with a stone wall on one side and garbage dumpsters and storage bins on the other, leaving enough room for the width of our car plus a few inches. The hotel itself, the Urquhart Caledonian Hotel, was very nice though – once again we had a queen bed plus bunk beds. We went down to the bar/restaurant (I usually avoid restaurants in hotels since they’re generally overpriced, but this one was very reasonably priced – for the UK, anyway) for dinner, where I was very excited to have my first-ever Guinness. I generally like dark beer, but I had a bad experience with Guinness once (I took a big swig thinking it was root beer) so I’d been avoiding it. The impression I’ve always had about Guinness is that like Alexander Keith’s, those who like it like it a lot, so I gave it a try, but I guess I’m not in that camp. It was very smooth, but I wasn’t too fond of the taste. The John Smith’s ale I had the next week was much better.

 

July 9

We had a very nice breakfast at the hotel, and then strolled down to the pier in Portree and then back up to a visitor’s centre and gift shop (of course) to buy some souvenirs. During breakfast, we happened to ask our server for some advice on things to see on Skye, expecting a 30-second conversation. She proceeded to give us detailed directions and advice on what to see and what not to see on the island. We planned on driving north from Portree to the tip of the island, then heading west to Uig (pronounced “OO-ig”) and back south again, but she recommended going the other way – heading towards Uig first, then driving east back across the island (not all the way up to the tip) and then back down towards Portree. This turned out to be excellent advice, because the little single-lane road we took across the island from Uig contained some of the most amazing scenery of the entire trip. There was a little parking lot near the east end of the road that we stopped at and climbed some of the nearby hills for a while, which was a lot of fun. We drove back down towards Portree, and then back west towards Dunvegan. Our tour guide breakfast server had recommended we not pay to see Dunvegan Castle – she said it’s a nice castle, but very overpriced and since we’d already seen Eilean Donan, it wasn’t worth it for us to pay to see Dunvegan. From Dunvegan, we took a beautiful drive down the west side of the island to Armadale, where we took a half-hour ferry ride back to the Scottish mainland, arriving at Mallaig. From Mallaig, we drove towards our next B&B near Fort William. On the way, we stopped at Glenfinnan to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a huge railway bridge seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our B&B, the Kilmalyn Guest House, was actually in a town called Corpach, just outside of Fort William, and despite being in a two-hundred-year-old house, the room was very bright and modern, with an amazing view of Ben Nevis and the surrounding mountains. (We were in bedroom 1 – the purple one.) The huge bathroom had just been redone and looked very modern, complete with halogen lights in the floor. Though beautiful, the design of this new bathroom was a little odd – who puts a clear (not frosted) glass door on a bathroom, especially right in front of the toilet? Also the bathroom door didn’t latch closed properly and even if it had, there was no lock. Obviously bathroom privacy wasn’t a big deal for this guy. Other than that, the room was very comfortable and the owner and his family were very friendly. We asked for a restaurant recommendation in Fort William, and he suggested we try a pizza place called The Stables. The next morning when we thanked him for the recommendation, he admitted that it was his brother’s place. At first I was a little annoyed by this obviously biased recommendation, but we did specifically ask for a pizza place and the pizza was excellent.

 

July 10

After breakfast (even more haggis!), we went to Nevis Ridge, and took the gondola up the mountain (called Aonach Mor), where there are a couple of walking trails at the top. The boys loved the gondola ride, and the views were stunning. We grabbed lunch at the base of the mountain, and continued on our way south towards a town called Ballachulish, where we had read somewhere about a chocolate factory. Once there, we found that the factory was closed, but the person at the visitor’s centre told us about a little road leading towards the town of Dalness. She suggested that we take a little drive down that road for some of the most beautiful views of the highlands, and she just might have been right. It weaved through the bottom of the mountains right alongside a little river. We saw some people camping alongside the road, and a number of empty cars parked off to the side whose owners were presumably hiking nearby. We didn’t get all the way to Dalness, but we really enjoyed this little detour.

We continued south, along the west short of Loch Lomond, and this is where the driving got a little scary. The road was two lanes all the way, but each lane was just wider than the car. In addition, there was a stone wall on each side and no shoulder. To top it all off, there were lots of curves and it was one of the busiest highways we’d seen thus far. I’d really enjoyed driving in Scotland up to that point, but that hour of the drive wasn’t as much fun. Eventually we got to the south end of the loch, and drove through Glasgow towards Hamilton. The highways we took didn’t go near downtown, so this was really all we saw of Glasgow. But I’ve been to Glasgow before, and if I had to choose between seeing Glasgow and seeing Edinburgh, I’d choose Edinburgh in a heartbeat.

Our hotel in Hamilton was the Premier Inn right off of the northbound motorway, so we had to pass it going southbound, turn around, get back on the motorway going northbound, and then pull off at the next exit. The majority of my family lives in or near Larkhall (further south), so over the next four days, we became very familiar with the roundabout at the next motorway exit, since we had to do the same thing every day – go north to that exit, turn around at the roundabout and go south on the motorway, and then continue to Larkhall. After the lovely little B&Bs we’d stayed at in the highlands, the room at the Premier Inn could best be described as functional. It had walls and a ceiling, beds and a bathroom, and a TV for checking the weather on the BBC. The room we were given had a queen bed and a day bed with a trundle, which meant that one of the boys would basically be sleeping on a single mattress on the floor. For one night this would have been fine, but we were there for four nights, so we asked if there was a bigger family room. There was, but it wasn’t available until the next night, so we spent one night in the first room and then they moved us to the other one.

When we arrived, we called my Aunt Sandra to let her know that we had arrived, and she invited us for dinner tea. We went there and visited for a little while before heading back to bed.

Thus ended phase two of the trip, and the next day began phase three, visiting with my family. After four days with family, we did more sightseeing in Edinburgh, so that will be included in the phase three posting, which will be posted soon is here.

UK 2009: London


This is the first of at least four articles I am going to do about our UK trip. As I mentioned before, I’m putting in a fair amount of detail, but I’m mainly doing it for my own reference in the future.

June 30 / July 1

Our Air Canada flight left Toronto around 6:30pm on the 30th and landed at Heathrow around 6:30am (local time) on the 1st. Each of us had our own TV in the back of the seat in front of us, so the boys were kept entertained by that until they started falling asleep while watching. They slept about 3 hours each, and Gail and I might have gotten two each.

Our luggage came off the plane pretty quickly, and then we had to search around for the phone number of the guy managing the apartment we were renting. I had a nasty panic moment when I thought I hadn’t brought the phone number, but then found it and arranged to meet him at the apartment. We managed to manoeuvre to the Tube and figure out how to get to Gloucester Road on the Picadilly Line – luckily Heathrow is itself on that line, so no transfer was needed, though it was quite a long trip. We found the apartment, but we were pretty early, so the previous tenants were still there. The apartment manager offered to keep our luggage in his car and meet us back there in an hour while we went to get some breakfast. After eating and becoming somewhat familiar with the local area (by walking in the wrong direction while trying to find Hyde Park), we went back to the apartment, which was now vacant. We put our luggage inside and got the key, then got back on the Tube to head to Covent Garden. My sister had told us about the Maple Leaf Pub, which had Canadian decor and served Canadian beer and food (poutine, and… what else? Moose burgers? Beaver bacon? Kraft Dinner?) so we figured that going there for lunch on Canada Day was appropriate. Unfortunately, when we found the place, there was a sign on the door saying “Over 18’s only”, so we couldn’t bring the kids in. Disappointed, we found lunch elsewhere but while looking around for somewhere to eat, we decided to take a quick look at the Lyceum Theatre, where The Lion King was playing (the musical stage play, not the movie). Gail and I had seen it in Toronto years before, and we thought the boys might like it so we checked on ticket availability. We got tickets for the next night (third row in the balcony – great seats) and then walked over to Trafalgar Square to see the Canada Day celebrations there. There was an outdoor hockey rink (no ice), a concert stage with some guy playing Barenaked Ladies and Tragically Hip songs, a booth selling Sleeman beer, a Visit Alberta tourism booth, and lots of people waving little Canadian flags. After hanging out there for a while, we continued walking to Piccadilly Circus, which I thought was kind of disappointing. There was the big neon display (similar to Times Square) and lots of souvenir shops, but nothing else of interest. We grabbed the Tube back to the apartment and were all in bed by 8:00.

The apartment itself was a little bigger than the place we had in Paris. It had two bedrooms (one with a king bed and the other with a double), 1½ bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room with a TV.

 

July 2

I was the first one up the next morning, around 9:00. Nothing like a little 13-hour sleep to get over the jetlag. Gail wanted to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, which starts at 11:30, but it took us a while to get going, so we decided to do that another day (we never actually did see it). We took the Tube to the Tower of London and spent the day there. The boys really enjoyed the stories of murder, torture, and executions, and Gail and I got caught up in all the history as we always do on these vacations. Two weeks from now we’ll have forgotten most of it. The history in Europe is just mind-boggling to us North Americans. Before the 1600’s, there basically is no recorded history in North America. When you go back that far, you find things in history books like ” occurred in the general area of sometime between 1630 and 1645, we think. Or maybe it happened three hundred miles away in 1684.”. Then you go to Europe and find things like “On Wednesday, May 12, 1134 at 8:30 in the morning, happened in this particular building (which is often still there) to these particular people and here are lots of details on how it happened”.

London was in the middle of its worst heatwave in years – temperatures in the low 30’s and quite humid. This is not unlike a hot summer day at home, but the difference is that Londoners aren’t prepared for this kind of heat. None of the stores were air-conditioned, nor was our apartment. Even the theatre where we saw The Lion King wasn’t – I can’t imagine how hot it must have been for the actors in the big costumes under the spotlights. Luckily this was the last day of the heatwave – it rained hard overnight, and the rest of our time in London was quite comfortable.

 

July 3

Near our apartment was a stop for The Original Tour, which is a double-decker bus tour of London, where you can get on and off the bus as often as you want. We toured around the city, including going by Buckingham Palace, which we had since discovered is not open to the public until August. That was as close as we got to the Palace. We got off the bus near the Houses of Parliament, where Ryan delighted in informing us that Big Ben is not the famous clock tower, but the biggest bell inside the tower. We then crossed the Thames to the London Eye (called by some the “London Eyesore”). There are 32 pods and a maximum of 25 people can “fly” (you don’t “ride” the London Eye, you fly) in each one, though there were a few pods that were not used. I’m not afraid of heights but Gail’s not a big fan, and I wasn’t sure how the boys would deal with it either, but everyone was fine. The ride flight was very smooth, and the views are amazing. The boys still talk about the London Eye as a highlight of the whole trip.

Our bus tour ticket also included a boat cruise down the Thames to Greenwich, so we headed down there next. We walked around the Observatory in Greenwich, and the boys enjoyed standing next to each other in different hemispheres. We then took the boat back to the Tower Pier and had dinner at a spaghetti house near Covent Garden before taking the Tube back to the apartment.

 

July 4

Our bus tour ticket expired around 11:00 am, so we did more of the city tour in the morning before disembarking back at the London Eye. We walked across to Westminster Abbey and took some pictures there before taking the Tube over to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I remember St. Paul’s being a highlight of our last trip to London in 2000, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, and I was not disappointed. We climbed the 250+ stairs to the Whispering Gallery, where Gail and Nicky went to one side while Ryan and I sat opposite them and attempted to “make it work”. We leaned against the wall and whispered things and then looked across the gallery for the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. After a number of thumbs-down signals, a tour guide sat next to Gail and leaned against the wall. A second later I head a whisper: “You have to whisper loudly”. We tried that and the boys were excited that we did get it to work. I assume it has to do with the shape of the dome, so that sound waves get reflected to the opposite side of the gallery, but that doesn’t explain why whispering works but talking does not. The Stone Gallery was another hundred steps up, and the Golden Gallery another 150 beyond that, so Gail decided not to continue climbing, but the boys and I did. I was most of the way to the Stone Gallery when I realized that I hadn’t grabbed the camera from Gail. The boys had their little cameras and I had the video camera, so I figured that would be good enough. The views from the Golden Gallery are amazing, but it’s very cramped up there. Thankfully, many people seem more willing to move out of the way for young kids than they are for adults.

After St. Paul’s, we took the Tube to High Street Kensington and had dinner at a fun place called “Giraffe“, described as a “herd” of restaurants rather than a chain. We had what was probably the best meal we had in London, and then walked over to Hyde Park to visit the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground, but it was closing just as we arrived. The Memorial Fountain was also closed, and we tried to find the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens but couldn’t. We walked back to the apartment and the boys watched a little of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while Gail and I packed for our trip to Edinburgh the next day.

July 5

The Tube between Gloucester Road and Heathrow was closed for maintenance, so we took it up to Paddington Station where we took the Heathrow Express train. Because of the Tube maintenance, our Tube tickets (£11.50 for all four of us) got us on the train (normally £16.50 per adult and £8.20 per kid), and it was much more comfortable than the Tube, so that worked out OK. No problems at the airport, and the British Midlands flight to Edinburgh was less than an hour long.

Thus ended phase one of our trip. The second entry containing phase two is here.

UK 2009: Overview


…and we’re back. After 18 days touring around Scotland, we’re back in the land of Tim Horton’s. It was almost three vacations in one – the first was four days of touring around London, with lots of walking and travelling on the tube and a tour bus. We rented an apartment near the Gloucester Road tube station and didn’t drive anywhere. The second was a driving tour of the Scottish highlands, which are unbelievably beautiful. We stayed in three B&B’s and one hotel in five nights and drove at least a couple of hours each day. The third was several days visiting family (no sightseeing at all), even including a funeral. We had a fabulous vacation and before you ask, yes, I did have haggis. That’s good eatin’.

I’m planning on writing a fair bit about this trip over the next couple of weeks, mainly to capture it for posterity. I’ll include where we went and what we saw, though I’m not planning on including details like where or what we ate unless it’s particularly interesting. I’m telling you this, precious reader, so you don’t think “Why is he writing all of these details? Does he think I care about all of this?” No, in fact I’m quite sure you don’t. But I do, and this is my way of preserving this information for my own future reference. So feel free to skim or even skip these entries, which will all begin with “UK 2009”. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz at the end.

Ahm away fer a wee bit


We’re heading to the UK this evening, so I will not likely be blogging much over the next couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll get a chance to write from London or Scotland like I did from Paris, but I wouldn’t count on it. If you find that you can’t live without regular updates from my blog… well that’s just sad, but here is another way to get the same amount of wisdom and insight as you’ll generally find here.

In case you’re curious, here’s a map of where we’re going to be. Cheerio!

Vegas Part II


Link to Part I

On Friday night, we went to the Stratosphere for dinner, which might well be the single most expensive meal I have ever had. Gail and I got the “dinner for two“, which was one price for two appetizers, chateaubriand for two, and a dessert to split. We had a Caesar salad and the lobster bisque, both of which were excellent. Our chateaubriand was rarer than Gail likes, but Jeff and Kerri also got the dinner for two, and theirs was more well done than ours, so Jeff and I split the medium-rare one while the girls split the well-done one. The dessert was a Chocolate Stratosphere (see picture), which was basically a sculpture of the Stratosphere itself made out of chocolate on top of chocolate sauce, with vanilla sauce drizzled on top. Yum.

Our final bill only had three items on it:

Dinner for two: $170
Tea: $3.50
Tea: $3.50

The food was outstanding, and the view was pretty amazing as well. It’s a fair ways from the rest of the big hotels on the Strip though. We took the monorail to the northernmost stop and then walked about ten minutes to get there, but it certainly wasn’t the nicest part of town that we were walking through. I didn’t think it was that bad, but some of our group were downright frightened. It’s just too bad that they didn’t build the Stratosphere a little further south, so it was more in the middle of the Strip instead of way at the north end. The views of the Strip would have been even better.

After the Stratosphere, we visited Fremont Street, which Gail and I missed on our last trip. This is where the older casinos are, along with the famous neon sign with the cowboy. They’ve modernized it by adding this huge video display board that acts as a mile-long ceiling covering the entire street, and they have these cool video shows every hour or so. Apart from that, though, we didn’t find Fremont St. all that interesting. Just more casinos and hotels, none of which are as interesting (or anywhere near as big) as anything on the Strip.

On Saturday night, we took a shuttle bus from Paris over to the Rio, which is just off the strip. We had dinner at an Irish pub before taking in the Penn and Teller show. If you’ve never seen Penn & Teller and you like magic or comedy or both, I highly recommend it. They seem an unlikely pair – Penn is exceptionally tall (his Wikipedia entry says he’s 6′ 6″ but he said during the show that he was 6′ 7″) with a three-inch goatee (no moustache) and a long ponytail and never stops talking, while Teller is 5′ 9″ and clean-shaven with short hair and didn’t say a single word while on stage (we sat close to the stage and I did hear him talk to one of the audience members who was helping out). As magicians, they are two of the best, but they’re extremely funny as well. Unlike David Copperfield, who seems to want you to believe that what he’s doing is real magic, these guys will be the first to tell you that there is no magic – everything they’re doing is misdirection in one form or another. They stop short of telling you exactly how the tricks are done, but they do drop more hints than other magicians. At one point, Penn begins a trick by saying only “This next trick is done with a piece of thread” and then walking off-stage. Teller then appears to make a ball follow his hand around and jump on its own, but even “knowing” that a piece of thread is involved, we were still mystified as to how it worked. Another trick involved a light projecting a silhouette of a flower onto a piece of paper on an easel. Teller then took a knife and cut leaves and petals off of the silhouette, while the leaves and petals dropped off of the original flower. He then “cut” his hand and while no blood could be seen on his hand, the silhouette of his hand had blood dripping off of it. When he wiped his hand on the paper, bright red blood showed up on the paper while his hand was still undamaged.

Incidentally, if you get there early, check out the jazz duo opening the show. We were in the fourth row on the same side as them, and had a good view. Both the piano player and the stand-up bass player are excellent musicians, but the bass player seemed to be trying to hide his face (with the long goatee) from the audience. He was also exceptionally tall.

Sunday morning, Nicole and Steve took a cab to the airport to pick up two rental cars – both Dodge Chargers – and we drove out to Hoover Dam, about 45 minutes away (or, as it turns out, an hour and a half if you take the wrong highway). First off, I always thought that Chargers were so-called “muscle cars” but if that was a muscle car, then I’m the world’s foremost tech blogger. Maybe there’s a V8 version that’s more powerful, but the 6-cylinder models we got were pretty gutless – and that comes from someone who drives a Sunfire. The dam itself is pretty impressive, as is the way they constructed it. They had to dig four mile-long tunnels to divert the water from the river, then build the dam itself, then plug the tunnels. The tunnels took almost as long to build as the dam, and there’s enough concrete in the dam to pave Rhode Island. They poured concrete 24/7 for almost three years to build it. I could go on and on spouting off facts about the dam, but that’s all available online. Similar to the Grand Canyon, reading about it and seeing pictures of it are interesting enough, but you can’t really appreciate the size and scope of it until you actually see it. Suffice it to say that if you ever go there, the full tour is highly recommended.

A new City Centre complex is being built right on the Strip, between the Monte Carlo and the Bellagio, which consists of several hotels and (gasp!) casinos, as well as some buildings with apartments and condos (can you imagine living right on the Strip?) and even a grocery store. Right now the whole thing just looks like a big eyesore. There are a number of buildings all crammed together and they seem to employ different architectural styles (some buildings are, by design, not completely vertical), and the whole thing is just ugly. Hopefully, that’s just because of the construction and when they’re done it will be better, but I’m not hopeful.

Anyway, a good time was had by all in Sin City. Mental note: remember for the future that there’s no such thing as a “cheap trip to Vegas”.