around the world in 6 hours.

I’ve mentioned before that whenever I travel I love to splurge on a guided tour.  Usually it’s well worth the money (although our experience on the Isle of Skye was definitely an exception).  Disney, however, is no exception and we’ve done several amazing guided tours at both Disneyland and Disney World.  I know it seems crazy to have already paid over $100 for a park ticket and then have to come up with another $109 for a guided tour.  But since I was only paying for one and not for a family of 4, it was more do-able.  And it was so worth the extra money!

The tour we booked on our recent trip to Disney World is called World Showcase:  DestiNatons Discovered.  You can follow that link to read more about the tour, but here is a snippet of how Disney describes it:

The World Showcase: DestiNations Discovered tour is a fascinating 5-hour walking excursion through 11 “countries” and 4,000 years of history, culture and food. From the streets of Paris to the Bavarian countryside, Guests can immerse themselves in the architecture, landscapes, streetscapes, attractions, shops and restaurants of 11 themed pavilions.

Before we get started on our tour around the world, I want you to check out the photo (above) that I took just before our tour started.  Can you tell what’s missing?

Here’s a hint, they stop in the middle of walkways to take photos, they run their strollers right over your feet, and they eat 5 million hot dogs every year in Disney World … yep, it’s people!  Thousands and thousands of people.  The crowds at Disney World are simply mind boggling.  Disney doesn’t publish any actual attendance figures by day, by park, so I really can’t give you an official stat on this, but let’s just say the crowds can be a tad overwhelming.

So one of the biggest benefits you’ll get by taking this tour is the opportunity to see a park without the crowds.  The World Showcase in Epcot opens to the public at 11 a.m., but we started our tour at 8:30 a.m.   That’s 2 1/2 glorious crowd free hours!  There were about 12 of us on our tour, plus of course there were workers scattered about here and there, but otherwise we had the whole place to ourselves!

See?  Nobody else in sight …

Let’s get started on our world tour, shall we?

We started in Mexico.  Inside Mexico’s pyramid you’ll find the most charming restaurant.  I find Disney’s ability to recreate the atmosphere of a romantic dinner on a patio under the stars amazing.  Usually this place is bustling and I miss most of the details, but it was easy to get a good look at things while we had it to ourselves.

There is also a little marketplace inside, just in case you need some souvenirs from your trip to Mexico!

Next up, Norway!  After my trip to Norway last May, it was fun to compare the real Norway to the Disney version.  I saw the real Gol stave church in the open air museum in Oslo and the stave church in Epcot is supposedly a 4/5 scale replica of that same church.  Can you tell the difference?

Real:

Fake:

Yeah, OK, the real one doesn’t have a sign advertising Disney’s Frozen movie on it.  Plus I’m not really buying the 4/5 scale thing.  I feel like the real one was quite a bit larger then the fake.

Do you remember the Akershus fortress from my May trip?

They have a version of it in Epcot as well.

Unfortunately our guide proceeded to tell everyone that Norway’s royal family lives in Akershus Fortress.  I didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing out that their official residence is actually the Royal Palace.  Minor detail, right?

The Norway pavilion at Epcot has been ‘Frozen’d up’.  The ride that used to be about Norwegian culture now is the Frozen ride.  The inside of the stave church contains traditional Norwegian items with signs about how they relate to the Frozen movie.  Well, you can’t blame Disney.  They are going to ride those Frozen coat tails for a long time, and they are trying anything they can think of to make kids enjoy the World Showcase.

So let’s all sing a little “let it go, let it go” in our heads and move on to China!

One interesting factoid that we learned in the China pavilion is that while all of that amazing detail on real Chinese temples is painted on wood, the Epcot version is all done with stickers.

Apparently the humid weather of Florida was not good for painted wood.  Now when the stickers start to fade or peel, they just slap a new sticker on.

Now we take a big leap from China to Germany.

The Germany pavilion is very charming and it did remind me a little of our trip to Germany several years ago.  I think Disney has punched up the volume just a bit though.  The colors are a little brighter and more cartoon-ish.

But if you know my love for miniatures as most of you do, you’ll know that I was drawn to the model train garden that is located along the ‘Romatic Road’ …

It was interesting to learn that the trains are on loan from a local model train club and they change them out weekly.

Next up, Italy.

Since Venice is one of my favorite cities, I am always drawn in by the fake St. Mark’s Campanile and Doge’s Palace at Epcot.

In this next photo take a look at how oddly short the pillars on the right hand side seem on the street level of the Doge’s Palace.

Disney did that on purpose to give the illusion that the city is sinking, much like the real Venice.

I have to say, seeing the real Doge’s Palace this devoid of people is even less likely than an empty Disney park!

The American pavilion was purposely placed right in the middle of the World Showcase.

This is one of the very few Disney buildings that was designed to appear smaller than it really is.  With most Disney structures it’s just the opposite and they are meant to appear larger than they really are.

Japan is lovely, but unfortunately I was too busy admiring the garden which meant I didn’t pay attention to our tour guide at all so I have no insider secrets about Japan aside from the fact that apparently there is an eagle nearby that keeps eating all of the koi in the pond.

I started paying attention again in Morocco and I thought it was interesting to learn that this is the only pavilion in the World Showcase that was not sponsored by a corporation but instead was funded by the King of Morocco who also sent his own official artisans to Orlando to help build it.

This pavilion definitely reminds me of my trip to Tangier with Mr. Q.

Especially the tile work, which is very typical of Morocco.

By the time we got to France the park was open to the public and things started to get a little more crowded.

I just love the style of these Parisienne buildings.

And it just wouldn’t be Paris without the Eiffel Tower, would it?

Our tour included lunch at the Rose and Crown pub in England.  Our guide explained that they chose that name for the pub by compiling a list of the most popular words included in pub names throughout the UK and the words ‘rose’ and ‘crown’ were the top two.

Funny sidebar.  We were served Scotch Eggs as the appetizer for our lunch, a traditional Scottish food.  If any of you remember the sad story of my tour on the Isle of Skye last May, you may remember that on that tour we were served tomato soup and egg salad sandwiches that were billed as the ‘best of Scottish cuisine’.  Apparently I should have just gone to Orlando to get some authentic Scottish food!

And in case you are wondering, the Scotch Eggs were delicious and so were the Bangers & Mash that I had as my main course, but the absolute best was the Sticky Toffee Pudding that was served for dessert.  Delish!

And here’s a little insider info on the thatched cottage on the right.  Apparently when it was first built they used real thatch only to discover that thatch and Florida do not go together, so now it’s fake plastic thatch instead.

I feel like the Canada pavilion has the most diverse collection of features ranging from totem poles to a French gothic ‘hotel’.

The famous Butchart Gardens are also represented, as well as the Canadian Rockies.

Our guide brought us behind the scenes in a few spots on our tour including here in Canada.  We went behind “the Rockies” to see that all of the trees are actually planted in big tubs so that they can be changed out easily when they get too big.  Large trees would totally throw off the illusion of scale.  And of course all of the rock is fake and from behind they are just hollow forms.  Picture taking was strictly forbidden ‘back stage’ though, so no worries about spoiling the magic.

As a special treat to end our tour, our guide brought us the back way to Soarin’ Around the World where he lead us to the front of the line and we were able to take the ride.

All in all, it was truly an incredible tour and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  So if any of you have a trip to DisneyWorld planned I encourage you to consider a tour.  Or maybe you’ve already been on one, if so I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

 

 

 

a short break.

Hey everybody!  I’m going to be taking a short break from the blog next week while my sister, niece and I are in Disney World!

Rather than schedule posts ahead of time, and then try to respond to comments from afar, I’m just going to go on a blog hiatus.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that my sister and niece moved here to Minnesota from New Jersey just over two years ago.  Prior to that I hadn’t lived in the same state as my sister since she was 20 and I was 18 (and had never lived close to my niece)!  So for more than half of our lives, my sister and I lived far apart.

During that time rather than just visit each other in our respective home states, we always met at various destinations instead.  Sometimes Mr. Q, my niece Kris and/or our mom would join us as well (Mom lives in Las Vegas).

We’ve been on so many fabulous trips together including a whirlwind trip across Europe from London to Rome.  A second trip just to London.  And a trip to Budapest with a cruise on the Danube River.

We’ve done plenty of trips closer to home too including a Mexico cruise for our mom’s 70th birthday.

And we’ve done a few trips to either Disney World or Disneyland.  We’ve been going to the Disney parks since 1969!

Our last trip to Disney World was just before I started blogging, October of 2013.

I’m telling you, heat and humidity does my hair no favors!  And I’m sure you can see why I really prefer to be behind the camera instead of in front of it.

We’ve been itching to go back to a Disney park so when my niece was asked to be a bridesmaid in a wedding that was taking place in Florida we decided this was our golden opportunity.

I thought now that we all lived in the same state we would be able to fly to our destination together.  Ironically, no.  We are all three on different flights.  My niece leaves a day ahead of us and heads to Boca Raton for the wedding.  My sister and I head to Orlando at the same time the next day, but she’s on the cheaper Sun Country fight while I’m using frequent flyer miles on Delta.

Oh well.  We are pros at flying solo by now.  We’re used to meeting up at our destination’s airport!  We did it before cell phones and texting, so we can easily handle it now.

Have a great week you guys, and be sure to check back  in another week.  I’m planning a fun blog giveaway when I get back!

the beamish.

I feel just a little sad to be bringing you the last post about our trip to Norway & Scotland.  I have really enjoyed reliving the trip while writing these Wednesday posts and I’m going to miss doing them.

Our last port of call was Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but we didn’t actually dock right in Newcastle, we docked in a rather industrial area with not much at all to see right there at the port.  However, once again there was a locally provided shuttle service that would take you into Newcastle or several other locations (including the Beamish, if only I’d known).  But this port is where we took our one and only ship sponsored shore excursion, a trip to the Beamish.

If Disneyland and a traditional museum had a baby it would be the Beamish.  The Beamish is an open air museum that was founded by Dr. Frank Atkinson.  He was inspired after visiting some of the Scandinavian open air museums, like the one that we visited at our first port of call, Oslo (it’s as though we have come full circle!).  He wanted to preserve the history and culture of this more industrial part of England.

The Disneyland part comes in because first of all the place is quite large at 350 acres.  Second, it’s basically set up as a series of themed areas situated around a circular 1.5 mile road.  And finally, because you can ride on various vintage forms of public transportation to get around (much like on Disney’s Main Street).  The only thing that it’s missing is a boat ride with singing dolls, and of course The Mouse.

We decided to start off in the 1820’s section of the museum and so after entering we headed to the right towards St. Helen’s, a lovely medieval church that was saved from demolition when it was moved here.

I truly felt as if we were traipsing through the English countryside exploring incredibly charming out of the way places.  This is exactly the way I picture England in my imagination (probably a result of all of the Father Brown shows I watch).

Here is a view from inside the church.

After visiting the church, we made our way through the beautiful Georgian landscape up to Pockerly Old Hall.

As you can see, the place isn’t just buildings and functioning vintage transportation.  There are also plenty of animals like the horse above, and this comical guy who stared me down through the fence.

 Plus there are costumed characters demonstrating what it was like to live and work in each era, such as this woman doing a little baking in the manor house.

You could test taste the results too!

It started to rain a bit just as we got to Pockerly, but I braved the elements to snap some quick photos of the gorgeous terraced gardens.

Don’t forget, this was May so things were just sprouting in the kitchen garden.

Then we headed back inside the hall to get out of the rain and tour the fully furnished rooms.

I would love to get my hands on that dresser.  It needs a little milk paint and some new knobs.  It seems to be missing ‘just one.’

After touring the rest of the manor hall we decided that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt us, so we headed off through the ‘English countryside.’

We followed some pretty country lanes back to the main circular road which then led us to the 1900’s town.

There were a few more people in town than there were in the countryside, but there was also a lot more to explore.  All of the buildings are furnished appropriately for the period and you can walk through them.  Many of them also have costumed workers who can tell you more about the place.  There are so many buildings that I’m not going to take the time to list them all, but you can check out this link to the Beamish website to read more about them if you like.

The inside of the print shop was full of interesting bits.

Just check out the fabulous old cup pulls on the print cabinet.

Even though we never actually rode on any of the old street cars, it was fun to see them being used.

The rain had ended by the time we were done exploring the town, so instead of riding we opted to continue on foot.  Our next stop was the 1940’s farm.

This area focuses on life in England during WWII with rationing, land girls, and finding ways to ‘make do and mend’.

The final stop on our circuit was the 1900’s pit village.  I wasn’t really sure what exactly a ‘pit village’ was, so I looked it up on wikipedia …

A pit village, colliery village or mining village is settlement built by colliery owners to house their workers. The villages were built on the coalfields of Britain during the Industrial Revolution where new coal mines in isolated or unpopulated areas needed accommodation for the incoming workers.

I’ll admit I wasn’t terribly excited about seeing something called a ‘pit village’, but I ended up loving it.

Especially the miner’s cottages with their small gardens and cobbled together green houses.

I’d love to have one of these in my own backyard!

This area was so charming.

They really paid attention to the details with things like old quilts hanging on the laundry line …

and old posters pasted to the walls …

We really enjoyed our afternoon at the Beamish.  It was a little bittersweet knowing that it was our last port of call and our trip was coming to an end.

But honestly, 16 days of traveling was just about perfect for us.  We felt like we saw so many great places, but we were ready to head home and sleep in our own bed again.

Overall it was an amazing trip.  If you’ve been reading my posts and thinking that one day you’d like to take this cruise, well sadly Holland America doesn’t seem to be offering this exact itinerary next year.  They still have a cruise called the ‘Fjords & Highlands‘, but it only has one stop in Norway at Kristiansand, which if you’ll remember was my least favorite of the Norway ports.  Otherwise they have switched out all of the Norwegian ports for Ireland.  I’m puzzled as to why they are still calling it by that name because it doesn’t even seem to sail through any fjords.  Are there fjords in Ireland?

Anyway, this brings my Wednesday travel posts to an end.  I hope you enjoyed them!  I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with my Wednesdays after this, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.  You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out!

edinburgh.

Happy Wednesday!  It’s time for the next segment from my series about our May trip.

 Edinburgh, Scotland is another spot in Europe where your ship is a distance away from the city centre.  Large cruise ships will anchor near the Firth of Forth Bridge (which, let’s face it, is just fun to say).

You’ll take a tender (a small boat) to the pier in South Queensferry (and maybe you’ll be greeted by some awesome bagpipers like we were).  From there, you need to find transportation into Edinburgh.

This is a port where Mr. Q and I decided to fly by the seat of our pants, sort of.  We didn’t have a specific plan for getting into Edinburgh from South Queensferry.  The ship offered an ‘Edinburgh on your own’ shore excursion option for $69 per person.  It included a bus ride into the historic district at a specified time, about 5 hours to explore the city on your own, and then a return trip by bus at a specified time.  That seemed like a pretty steep price for what was basically a shuttle service with no flexibility at all.

So I followed a hunch that I had based on lots of travel experience, that there would be some sort of independent shuttle service that would be much cheaper.  And I was right.  As soon as we walked off the pier we were met by a sign for a shuttle service to Edinburgh that cost £10 (or around $13) per person round trip.  Plus the shuttle departed and returned every half hour up until 5 pm.  You could time your stay to suit your wishes.

Wowza, right?  The ship was charging a whopping $56 more per person for less flexibility.  This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on cruise ships.  If you ever take a cruise, just be aware of this and know that there are usually lots of options outside of the ship sponsored shore excursions.

Mr. Q and I hopped on the shuttle and after about 30 minutes or so it dropped us off in the heart of Edinburgh, just behind Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh castle sits on top of the remains of an extinct volcano.  There has been some sort of settlement on this spot since the Bronze Age, which totally makes sense because it’s a very defensible position.

We walked around to the front and then up the hill to the Castle only to discover that it was completely overrun with tourist groups, people following guides holding up those flags so their followers could keep up.  We managed to make our way all the way up to the entrance of the castle and then we looked at each other and we both said “nope, not doing it.”  We just couldn’t convince ourselves to battle our way through the crowd to see the Castle (the most visited tourist attraction in Scotland).

So we turned around and headed down the Royal Mile only to find that was where the rest of the tourists were!

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Edinburgh was having unusually warm, sunny weather while we were there.  It was full sun and in the lower 80’s.  We thought we had come prepared for Scottish weather with our rain jackets, umbrellas and scarves.  As it turned out we weren’t prepared for lower 80’s at all.  We had no sunscreen, no hats, no shorts.

I suspect the gorgeous weather brought everyone out to enjoy the sunshine, tourists and locals alike.

We had a little more than an hour to kill before our planned Book Lovers Tour, so we decided to get out of the sun and away from the crowds by heading into the Scottish National Gallery.  This photo is taken while standing at the entrance to the National Gallery looking out on Princes Street Garden.  As you can see, people were out in droves enjoying the park as well.

We didn’t have time to see as much of the museum as we would have liked, but did see some beautiful artwork and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere inside.

Next we headed towards the Writers’ Museum to take the Book Lovers Tour with Allan Foster.

Allan led us around the historic center of Edinburgh while sharing stories about famous Scottish authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander McCall Smith and Robert Burns.  He showed us the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling wrote portions of her Harry Potter books.  None of the locations were particularly fascinating on their own, but Allan was a great story teller and that’s what made the tour so fascinating.

The tour concluded at the famous Greyfriars Cemetery, supposedly the most haunted spot in Edinburgh.  Considering Edinburgh must be a pretty haunted place, that’s saying a lot.

I’ve seen lots of photos online of a misty, spooky Grefriars, but all of my photos have blue sky and sunshine.  Not quite as atmospheric!  It’s a bit more difficult to imagine spooky ghosts under these conditions.

After checking out the cemetery we found a kiosk selling bottled water, which we badly needed.  We were hot, sweaty and worn out, so we made our way back to the designated spot for catching the next shuttle back to the pier.

We really just barely scratched the surface of this uniquely beautiful city.  This is definitely a spot that I would like to return to someday and see much more in depth.  Maybe we could even brave the crowds and head into the castle next time.

But for now we say goodbye to Edinburgh.  Next Wednesday we head to Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  Be sure to check back to read all about the final port of call on our trip and the fabulous Beamish open air museum!

the best day ever.

Here’s something to know about Inverness, Scotland.  If you travel there by cruise ship you won’t actually dock in Inverness, but instead you’ll be docking in the Cromarty Firth at Invergordon.

The harbor in Invergordon is deep enough for large cruise ships and your ship will be able to dock rather than having to use tenders to ferry passengers to shore.  However, this does leave you about 40 minutes away from Inverness.  And from what I could tell there is very little to see in Invergordon.  By the way, this is a fairly common practice in the cruise industry.  Itineraries will often say ‘Paris’, ‘Rome’, ‘Florence’ and so on, but none of these cities are actually on the coast.  Just a little thing to be aware of if you ever plan a European cruise.

In this case, this was no problem at all for us because this is the port where we chose to hire a private guide through Invergordon Tours.  We try to hire a private guide at least once on every trip.  In some places (Budapest, Prague) it’s more affordable than others.  This guide came with a car and that definitely added to the expense quite a bit.  So it was a pretty big splurge for us, but based on the cost of most of the ship’s shore excursions we only spent about $165 more for six hours with a guide and her car for just the two of us v. being on a bus with 60 other passengers for a 3 hour packaged tour.

We were able to go exactly where we wanted and spend as much or as little time in each spot as we wanted.

Our guide was a lovely woman named Alda.  She met us at the pier with a sign with our name on it.  She was parked just across the street, so she led us off to her vehicle which was roomy, comfortable and spotlessly clean.  Once settled in the car, Alda reviewed our plan for the day (which we had arranged in advance via email).  We could have made changes to it at that point, but we didn’t.

Our first stop was the Falls of Shin.  Honestly, if I had a do-over I would have skipped this spot (although they did have nice, clean, brand new bathrooms).

Apparently when the salmon are spawning you can see them leaping up these falls, but there were no salmon that we could see.  Honestly, the falls themselves are not very impressive, especially when compared to the gorgeous Gooseberry Falls near Duluth.

But that is the beauty of having a private guide!  We were able to take a quick look at the falls and then say ‘let’s move on’.  Had we been with a group we would have had to wait for 60 people to line up and use those brand new bathrooms.

Our next stop was the Big Burn walking trail in Golspie, Scotland.  I had read about this trail online before our trip and thought it looked like a beautiful place.  In Scotland, a ‘burn’ is a stream or brook.

Alda told us to take as much time as we wanted hiking the trail, she’d be waiting at the car when we returned.  The trail follows a small stream (burn) up to the Big Burn Gorge, and then there are a series of footbridges that crisscross the gorge.  It was so lush and green all along the trail.

I will always remember Scotland as a very green place!

The Scottish Bluebells were in bloom and there were fields of them everywhere.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day.  We really enjoyed hiking this trail and were able to take our time enjoying the gorgeous sunny day.

After our hike we piled back into Alda’s car and headed towards Dunrobin Castle.  But first we made a quick stop at Carn Liath, the remains of a Broch (a prehistoric fortified dwelling).  Here are Mr. Q and our guide Alda on top of the wall of the Broch.

We had the place entirely to ourselves.

There was a gorgeous view of our next stop, Dunrobin Castle, from the top of the broch.

Although parts of Dunrobin Castle date as far back as the 14th century, most of it was built between 1835 and 1850 for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland.  It has 189 rooms, and although at one point it started to feel like the tour included all of them, of course it really didn’t.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside so I can’t share any of those rooms with you.  However, since we were on a private tour, we were able to spend as much time touring the formal gardens as we wanted to and I was free to take unlimited photos out there!

Remember, this was the end of May, so the gardens probably weren’t quite as lush yet as they would be later in the season.

But the allium was in bloom.  Seeing this big clump of them makes me want to add more to my own garden.

And of course all of the formal shrubbery was looking lovely.

Once we’d seen enough of Dunrobin, Alda took us to her hometown of Dornoch, Scotland.  It was the most charming little village.

She recommended we pop into the Dornoch Patisserie for a bite to eat.  We just had some simple sandwiches and some ‘chips’ (what we call french fries), but they were delicious and no one was claiming that they were the ‘best of Scottish cuisine’.  The people in the restaurant were so friendly, it was just a pleasure to be there!

After eating we walked around the Dornoch Cathedral where I was surprised to find this gargoyle peering down from above.

Does that guy remind anybody else of a certain large purple children’s character?

 

I know that gargoyles are meant to be frightening, I’m not sure they succeeded with that one.  What do you think?

We walked around Dornoch a bit longer, and then hopped back in the car to make our way back to our ship.

After spending a totally enjoyable 6+ hours with our guide, I thought that our day could not possibly get any better.  We had just returned to our cabin on the ship and were putting away our bags when I heard what sounded like distant bag pipes.  I went out on our balcony and was met with the most amazing sight.  An entire band of bagpipers and drummers marching down the pier towards our ship.

It was a pretty long pier, this photo gives you an idea …

The Sutherland Schools Pipe Band marched all the way down that pier playing the entire time.

Once they got to the end they formed a circle and kept playing.  The drummers were so entertaining to watch!

They would spin and twirl those drum sticks over their heads.

Seriously, this was the coolest thing ever!  I wish I’d gotten video, but since I didn’t you can check out this YouTube video instead.

And they just kept on playing the whole time our ship was preparing to sail away and as we finally pulled away from the dock.

This was definitely one of those magical moments that I will always remember!  And once again, something we would have missed if we hadn’t had that balcony!

As we continued to sail away from Invergordon I admired the bright yellow fields of rapeseed, isn’t that some lovely countryside?

Overall this was one of the best days on our entire trip.  It was well worth the splurge to hire the private guide.  She catered to our every wish and made it so easy to see everything we wanted to see in the time we had on shore.  We would definitely do this again on a future trip!

I hope you enjoyed this post about Invergordon, Scotland.  Remember when I said it was going to take me all summer to post about our trip?  I wasn’t wrong.  We have two more ports of call remaining, Edinburgh and Newcastle, which will take us right through August 23.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Wednesday’s after that, but I hope you’ll stay tuned.

 

the isle of skye.

Way back when Mr. Q and I were trying to figure out where to go on our vacation this year it was Mr. Q who stumbled across the cruise we ended up booking.  The main reason he was drawn to this particular itinerary was the stop at the Isle of Skye.

You see, Mr. Q’s step-dad is a McLeod.  And Castle Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye is the seat of Clan McLeod.

So you could say that this entire trip was planned around seeing Castle Dunvegan.

And this is where my story takes a turn for the dark side.

I made the decision to book an independent shore excursion to Castle Dunvegan with a company called Tour Skye (not to be confused with several other tour companies operating on Skye with similar names).  I’ve booked shore excursions with independent companies before and always had good luck with them, so I wasn’t particularly worried about the fact that we had to pay in full in advance (and after all, we also paid for our ship sponsored excursions in full in advance as well).  But when I couldn’t get the tour operator to commit to a specific start time for the tour I started to get a little nervous.  Instead we were just told to get off the ship as soon as possible and we would be met at the pier.

I understand where they are coming from on this.  They are taking a group, and they want everyone to get off the ship as soon as possible while at the same time they don’t want people to be worried that the tour will leave without them if they aren’t the first people off the ship.  Since this port requires a tender (that means the ship is anchored away from shore and you take a small life boat to the pier), it can take a while to get everyone off the ship.

Sure enough, we were met at the pier as soon as we disembarked from our tender and we were told to walk up the hill to the town square and wait there for our entire group to be assembled.  So far, so good, I thought.  But what I didn’t realize was that our group of 8, all of whom were ready and waiting at the appropriate meeting point by 8:30 a.m. would be left waiting in the town square until 9:45 for our tour guide and van.  It seemed as though our guide was responsible for getting all of the other tours organized and on their way before she could head out with us.

Had we known how long we would be waiting, we could have walked around Portree and at least enjoyed a little of the town.  Instead we sat in that square not knowing if our guide was going to show up in five minutes, or in 75 minutes.  Turns out it was the latter.

But we finally loaded into our van and headed off to see the Isle of Skye.

It was a foggy, drizzly day, but I actually loved that.  It was exactly the kind of weather I expected to find in Scotland and it gave everything a misty, mysterious air that was very romantic and lovely.

As we drove along our guide explained that she was taking us to a scenic overlook, but we might not be able to see much in the fog.

 Sure enough, we pulled off the road and were surrounded by nothing but fog.  We drove on to another site with a similar result.

We drove to a third site, Kilt Rock, and this time we could see the view and it was lovely.

But I was starting to wonder, when were we going to go to Castle Dunvegan?  Did we somehow get on the wrong tour?  Our tour was supposed to include a morning stop at Castle Dunvegan, then a lunch stop where we would dine on “the very best of the Scottish cuisine”, followed by a “whiskey tasting experience” in the afternoon.  After our late start it was already closing in on lunch time and we hadn’t even gotten to Dunvegan yet and the last tender to our ship was leaving at 3 pm so how were we possibly going to fit it all in?

Our guide next drove us quite a long way down a harrowing single track lane in ever thickening fog to take us to the Fairy Glen.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a single track lane, it is basically a narrow road that is only one car wide, but yet it isn’t a one-way road.  Cars can travel either direction, but every so often there is a little spot where one car can pull off and let another pass.  So, if you come upon another car and you aren’t near one of those spots, one of you has to back up until they can pull off.  Cars are bad enough, but people drive camper vans down these roads.  And trucks pulling trailers.  It was quite the experience!

But we made it to the Fairy Glen in one piece.  The Fairy Glen is made up of unique geological formations that were the result of a landslip.  Or, as I prefer to believe, it was created by fairies and they may still live in ‘Castle Ewan’ (below) to this day.

The Fairy Glen was beautiful and so unique, and it was perfect seeing it in the misty fog.

As much as I loved seeing it, it really wasn’t supposed to be on our itinerary so I approached our guide and asked “um, we are going to Castle Dunvegan right?”

“Oh yes,” she said.  “We’ll have lunch next and then we’ll go to Dunvegan.  Don’t worry.”

Our lunch stop was at a lovely hotel, but I was surprised when asked if I preferred a ham sandwich or an egg/mayo sandwich.  Huh?  This is “the very best of the Scottish cuisine” that we were promised?  A sandwich and some tomato soup.  Underwhelming, to say the least.

At this point it was about 1:30 in the afternoon.  Everyone in our small group of 8 was wondering how in the world we were going to fit in a Dunvegan visit and a whiskey tasting and still make it back to our ship in time for the last tender.

Our guide kept assuring us this was possible though, so I was shocked when I asked her how far away from the ship we were and she said about 40 minutes!

By the time we pulled into the parking lot at Dunvegan it was 2 pm.  And we were 40 minutes from the ship!  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out at this point that not only are we not going to get to the whiskey tasting, but we are only going to have 20 minutes to see Dunvegan.  Oh, and did I mention that our guide/driver hit a pedestrian with the van in the Dunvegan parking lot?  Thank god the person wasn’t injured, just startled and rather pissed off.

Dunvegan looked like a lovely place, what little we got to see of it.  We took some really quick photos including one of Mr. Q in front of the castle so he could prove he really was there.

I felt just sick inside that we were standing right there at Dunvegan castle, but we were going to have to race through it and not see much.  I had this experience once before at Versailles and I am still bitter about it years later.

The quick glimpse I got of the gardens while running past them told me that I was missing out by not getting to see them at all.

We basically dashed through the castle straight to the gift shop.  We HAD to bring souvenirs back for Mr. Q’s step-dad.  After making our purchase we literally had to run back to the van.

What followed was a nail biting 40 minutes of dead silence as our guide drove us back to the port.  Not a single person said a word that entire time including our guide.  I think we were all wondering the same things, were we going to make it back in time?  Would our ship really sail without us?  Is the last tender at precisely 3 pm, or will there be another at 3:10 for the stragglers?  How far is it to our next port of call if we miss the ship and have to get there on our own?

I think I looked at my watch about 25 times during that ride.  I kept thinking that surely the port was just around the next corner.

We finally screeched to a halt at the pier at 2:58 p.m.

We all practically jumped out of that van and kissed the ground.  The personnel from our ship were there to greet us and welcome us back on board the Zuiderdam with smiling faces.

We had made it!

Upon our return home I sent an email to Robert at Tour Skye to express our dissatisfaction with the tour.  Of course, that email as well as a 2nd email have fallen on deaf ears.  I haven’t even received a reply, let alone an apology or remuneration of any kind.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that booking independent shore excursions is a mistake.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve done this many times and never had a problem.  I’ve also had equally bad experiences with ship sponsored shore excursions, like the time my tour bus caught on fire.  The local tour guide told us to stay in our seats, even though the bus was on fire (obviously we ignored that instruction and everyone got off the bus!).  We had to be rescued by another completely full tour bus from another cruise line, and then stand in the aisle of that bus all the way back to the ship.  I didn’t get my money back from the cruise line for that excursion either!  Although that time we did get to see all of the promised stops on our itinerary, they were just augmented by a potentially life threatening situation.

Travel is always going to involve some glitches of course, but it’s so disappointing when people don’t live up to their promises and can’t even be bothered to apologize for it.  Perhaps Mr. Q and I will make it back to the Isle of Skye someday.  If so, we’ll definitely do it differently next time!  It really was a beautiful place and we’d like to see more of it.

But let’s move on, shall we?  It’s definitely time to put our bad experience with Tour Skye behind us.  Be sure to come back next Wednesday to read about the opposite side of this coin, our fantastic experience in Invergordon with our private guide, Alda.

the shetland islands.

After Mr. Q and I booked our May trip to Norway & Scotland, we happened to stumble across the TV show Shetland.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a BBC Scotland crime drama based on a series of books by Ann Cleeves.  We binge watched seasons 1 and 2 before our trip.  We fell in love with the unique landscapes that were used in the show (some of which aren’t really in Shetland at all, but mainland Scotland).  Still, we were really looking forward to seeing the place for ourselves.

One of the main things you’ll notice is the lack of trees.  I was curious about that so I googled it.  According to this article from shetland.org, that is mainly due to the sheep rather than the climate.

Before I continue on about our day in Shetland, let me explain something.  One of the really fun things about taking a cruise is the opportunity to meet people and get to know them a bit.  These days on most cruise lines you’ll have some options for dining.  You can choose ‘any-time dining’ where you just show up at the dining room and get seated anywhere, or you can choose a specific time slot and be seated at the same table with the same people every night.  You can choose to have just a table for two (or however many are in your group), or you can do what Mr. Q and I like to do, choose to have additional dinner companions.  On this cruise we chose the late seating (8 pm) and a table of 8.

We always feel like we are taking a bit of a risk with this option.  What if we get stuck with a total bore?  Or worse yet, someone totally obnoxious?  But if that happens, you can always ask to be reassigned.  So far we’ve always been lucky and have ended up with friendly, interesting dinner companions.  This time we ended up with Ann & Alex from Australia, Craig & Cheri from California and Paul from Boston who was traveling on his own.  What a great way for him to have company at dinner, right?  We all got along really well and had some great conversations over dinner.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is because Mr. Q and I didn’t have any pre-booked plans for Shetland.  While discussing this over dinner, Craig and Cheri (the couple from California) mentioned that they were renting a car in Lerwick and were planning to drive all over the island.  So we asked if they happened to have some extra room in the back seat for us.  They were willing to let us tag along, and we insisted on paying for half of the rental fee (a whopping $30) and considered it a total bargain.

By the way, kudos to Craig for being willing to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and on some very skinny winding roads at that.  Not to mention some ‘single track’ roads, which I’ll talk about more when I post about the Isle of Skye.

Our first stop was the archaeological site, Jarlshof.  This site was discovered in the 1890’s when some heavy storms washed away the surrounding vegetation.  It was later excavated to reveal a series of dwellings that dated from 2500 BC to the 1600’s AD.

We rented the audio headsets and if you ever make it to Jarlshof I totally recommend this.  You’ll get so much more out of the site if you have a little explanation of what you are looking at.

For example, the large structure in this next photo is the hall of what was the laird’s house.  Those stones in the yard are exactly what they look like, grave stones.  In this case, marking graves of shipwrecked sailors from the 1600’s.

After exploring Jarlshof we moved on to the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.

This spot is known for bird watching.  It wasn’t quite the right season for their famous Puffins, but we did see a couple.  We also saw quite a few Guillemots.  In addition, the lighthouse has some interesting historical displays such as the replica of the WWII radar station.

By the way, this next photo is taken from the parking lot.  Yes, you have to walk from here up to the lighthouse, see it there at the tippy top?

Although they do allow cars to drive up and drop off handicapped visitors.

The next stop on our very well planned (by Cheri) itinerary was the Croft House Museum.  I was so excited when Cheri mentioned they were planning to visit this spot.  It was a place I had read about online and really didn’t think I would get a chance to see.

This is a mid-19th century croft that was lived in until the 1960’s.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse of how people once lived in Shetland, with burning peat in the fireplace and box beds for keeping warm at night.

The inside was very dark, with low ceilings and even lower doorways, but I bet it felt like a really warm, snug refuge from the wind and rain on cold winter days.

Of course, there was no rain on our day in Shetland (although wind is another story) as we continued to be really lucky with the weather.

Our last stop of the day was Scalloway Castle.

Construction on Scalloway began in 1599 by Patrick Stewart, the Earl of Orkney.  Apparently Black Patie was not a good guy.  He was a ruthless tyrant who oppressed the Shetland people and was ultimately executed.

It does have a bit of a sinister vibe, right?

Not much remains except the shell of the castle, but it was interesting to see how it was constructed.  This was a fun stop for us as well because there was a great chase scene in Shetland (the TV show) that was filmed inside Scalloway Castle.  By the way, we heard that they were going to be filming some parts of season 3 the day after we were in Lerwick.  Dang!  We just missed seeing it.

All in all, sharing a rental car with friends turned out to be an incredible way to spend the day in Shetland.  We saw 4 different sights that would have been separate shore excursions from the ship each one costing more than our share of the car for the full day.

If you are brave enough to drive in a foreign country, this is definitely the way to go.  And honestly, once we got out of Lerwick the roads were mostly empty here.  The most complicated part of the journey was getting out of the parking lot at the port!

Our next stop is the Isle of Skye, check back next Wednesday to hear more about the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod, Castle Dunvegan, and what ended up being the most disappointing touring experience from our trip.