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SCOTLAND
 

To us, this is the friendliest place in the United Kingdom.  It's a rare day when you run into a bad apple around here.  The people of Scotland are also among the proudest in the world.  I asked a train conductor on the short haul between Edinburgh and Glasgow if "Brits" resented Americans over the decision to attack Iraq.  He was quick to start out by saying:  "Well I'm a Scotsman and we don't dislike Americans at all.  And of course I'm a Britt, too, but first and foremost a Scotsman!" When it comes to Scottish culinary adventures despite what you may have heard about haggis, try it.  It's really quite tasty.  If you're from Philadelphia where they enjoy scrapple or if you're from Cincinnati where goetta is popular, then you've practically already tasted haggis!

You'll recognize the Scottish accent in Edinburgh but it's not nearly as pronounced as it is in nearby Glasgow.  There it was actually hard for us to understand some of the cabbies.

 

EDINBURGH 
Pictures of Edinburgh:  Page 1  | Page 2

This is a wonderfully vibrant city loved by locals and visitors alike.  Make sure you say it right!  It's not "Edin-burg" but rather pronounced "Edin-burra."  The famous Edinburgh Castle sits on a hill offering magnificent views from the top.  There are a number of shops as you approach the castle and some inside the castle including an outstanding whisky store where you can find some rare and expensive scotch whiskies that are not available outside of Scotland.  Personally, I'm not a scotch drinker but I brought a bottle back to a friend here in the states and he was thrilled with it.  If you're a scotch aficionado then you'll probably want to make a stop at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre.

One "must see" part of the city is the Royal Mile in Old Town.  It reaches from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.  It involves four streets -- Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate.

When planning a trip to Edinburgh either avoid August and early September like the ebola virus or book the trip on purpose for that time frame.  It's the Edinburgh International Festival and draws hundreds of thousands each year for arts and music.  Hotels are full and restaurants are mob scenes.  On a recent trip to the city, we forgot about the festival and barely were able to secure a room (at the boutique Albany Hotel).  The hotel, while very small with micro-bathrooms, was very nice and the building it is housed in dates back to 1812. To be assured of getting in at restaurants, we used our noodles and made dinner reservations several days in advance by phoning from the U.S. and it's a good thing we did!  This advance planning is usually only necessary during the festival although the city is quite popular during the summer tourist season and you may not get the hotel of your choice unless you start thinking about booking it in January or February.

The festival ends each year with an incredible fireworks show launched from the top of the castle over the city.  If you're into festivals like this---and this is one of the great ones---you can find out more about the next festival by clicking here.

Edinburgh is one of the safest cities in Europe even at night although it does have a pretty severe drug problem among young people.

There are some terrific pubs in this great city.  During one visit my family "scattered" because everybody wanted to do something different.  My wife and son went to visit the castle.  My daughter and her husband went shopping.  I chose just to leisurely stroll through the streets of the city and wound up popping into a place called "Dirty Dick's" for a pint.  As I downed my second one my daughter and her husband strolled by outside and I ran out and lured them in where we all enjoyed more local suds.  Fast forward to a later visit and we wound up by accident at the pub's sister outlet.   My wife and I were walking along when it started to rain. So we ducked in the nearest pub.  We laughed out loud when we saw the name "Clever Dick's!"  Next time we'll actually make it a point to hit their third establishment "Bad Ass Bistro."  They're fun and friendly places.

EDINBURGH RESTAURANT REVIEWS

Skippers Bistro located near the water in the fishing village of Leith is an outstanding option.  We enjoyed wonderfully fresh fish there.  Your taxi drops you off at a little dead end street and the restaurant is just a few steps away.  It's very casual bordering on rustic.  I had the whole plaice (a fish like flounder) and my wife had salmon which she pronounced the best piece of salmon she has ever eaten.  We highly recommend this place and you'd be wise to make a reservation, especially on weekends.  I see from their web site that the place has had a change of ownership since we were there.  But if it's half as good as it was on our visit, you're gonna enjoy your meal!  Read our review of the establishment here.

Stac Polly offers two branches.  The one we dined at was just off the beaten path not far from the Albany Hotel.  This is true Scottish cuisine and to start out my meal, I chose the haggis in filo.  It was excellent.  My wife enjoyed some Scottish seafood soup in a cream base and it was wonderful, too.  For our mains, she chose the salmon and I went with sea bream.  Both were very, very good.  I sipped a cup of coffee at the end of the meal while my wife enjoyed a peach vanilla parfait.  Read our review here.

Fischers In The City Bistro was a great dining experience although the tables were pretty close together.  I started off with perhaps the best mussels I've ever had anywhere in the world  Sorry to our friends in Belgium where mussels are a religion but these were better than yours!.  For my main course I had a whole Dover sole.  My wife chose Isle Barra Scallops for her main dish and ended the meal with a rich apricot raspberry Brule.  Very rich and delicious!  Read our review here.

Haldanes is the signature hotel restaurant in the basement of the Albany Hotel.  It is consistently rated as one of the best in Edinburgh and while we tried to get into the place, it was booked solid.  We did, however, get to try it for breakfast since we were staying at the hotel and it was quite good.  We enjoyed a "full Scottish breakfast" which is just like the full English breakfast.  You get fried eggs, toast, bacon (more like our ham), sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and in this case, haggis is an option.  We ordered it with our meal and it was great.  As for preparation, they served it like sausage patties, more or less.  The only slight problem we encountered was extremely slow service.  I'm glad we didn't have to rush to the airport that morning!

 

GLASGOW  
 Pictures of Glasgow

In speaking to some of the people in Edinburgh they often asked us about other cities we planned to visit while in Scotland.  When we mentioned Glasgow to one woman at a hotel, she quipped:  "Oh really?  You'll find more Scottish people over there."  I presume she meant that the Scottish dialect would be more apparent.  And it definitely was!

Glasgow is a city packed with culture.  And while Edinburgh residents were very proud of their city, the people of Glasgow were even more fiercely proud.  One cab driver actually turned the meter off briefly on the way to the the train station so that he could take us around a block or two and show us some of the cultural venues of the city!  He asked us if we were going to visit Edinburgh, too, and after we told him "yes" his response was:  "They think they've got it all over there.  I hate Edinburgh.  Well I actually don't hate it but we've got a lot more to offer right here in Glasgow."  It was a funny encounter.

While Edinburgh is more of a glitzy city, Glasgow is more of a working person's town.  And while we didn't do much shopping there, we were told that merchandise was a bargain in Glasgow compared to Edinburgh.  So if you're a big shopper, you might want to keep that in mind.

Glasgow, while certainly not a dangerous place by any means, carries a reputation of being more of a problem than Edinburgh.  Mainly just purse snatchings, etc.  But as when visiting any city, keep your hand on your purse while walking.  And guys should put their wallets in their front pockets instead of the rear pockets.  Be especially careful around tourist hot spots and around train stations where you are likely to be distracted.  During our visit, we saw nothing of a threatening nature and no creeps at the train station!

Among the tourist sites is George Square with a whole bunch of statues. They've got a neat 24 hour a day web cam from the square here.  Other Glasgow attractions for visitors include various art galleries (lots of them), and cathedrals.  But it's best to just take off and tour the center of this vibrant city on foot.  The Glasgow Cathedral was very impressive!  It's near the oldest part of town.

GLASGOW RESTAURANT REVIEW

The City Merchant is an outstanding restaurant specializing in fresh fish and shellfish.  They post the daily arrivals outside the restaurant on a chalkboard.  During our visit, they offered several different fish choices and fresh prawns and oysters.  They also feature wild game when it's available.  Our luncheon started with a small bowl of tomato-salmon soup and a salmon/prawn cocktail for appetizers.  The soup was rich and creamy.  The salmon/prawn timbale was creamy and wonderful.  We each chose a fish called butterfish for our main course.  It came with a great risotto.  Butterfish (whatever it is and wherever it comes from) resembles blue marlin in texture only the meat is more white in color.  The meal was excellent although the service was a bit slow.  Tip:  Go with the pre-set menu.  It's much more affordable than ordering ala carte. Read our complete review here.

 

AYR  
Pictures of Ayr

Ayr is a little coastal town on Scotland's west coast.  It sits right on the shores of of the Firth of Clyde.  We had read in several publications that this was a popular resort in Scotland.  It's a nice little town but not exactly a "happening" place.  However if you'd just like to enjoy a pretty beach setting, it's certainly worth a few days of rest and relaxation.  And if you go, I'd highly recommend the hotel we based at--the Fairfield House Hotel.  The only thing that separates the hotel from the water is a large field which is popular with dog owners so....watch where you step!  From the minute you e-mail this hotel and ask about rates, train schedules to Ayr and so forth, you realize just how friendly these folks are.  Their hospitality was absolutely outstanding.

From the pictures, you'll see that Ayr is a pretty little place and offers some surprisingly good restaurants.

AYR RESTAURANT REVIEWS

Fouters is a very popular place right in the downtown area.  It's a fairly easy walk from the Fairfield House Hotel.  As we entered the restaurant we received a warm welcome from two of the three owners--Brian and Odette.  They told us a funny yarn about what happened when they took over the restaurant in 2003.  The place is in the basement of an old bank building and it includes an old vault.  Well one time they had just placed a whole bunch of food items and beverages in the vault area when the door accidentally closed and locked!  They had to hire a lock expert to open the door so the food and beverage items could be rescued!  Your meal starts out here with a small complimentary starter consisting of what looked like a couple of micro-pizzas and two tid-bits of highly marinated beef.  Both were excellent.  (Brian and Odette--forgive me on the appetizers.  I know they were very fancy and no doubt have very fancy names.  But I'm just trying to accurately describe them here.)  My wife wasn't all that hungry on this evening so she chose not to go with a starter.  I selected seared west coast scallops on a salsa base.  They were quite tasty.  For my main course I had venison with red wine sauce and beets and it was a good selection.  My wife opted for a rich and creamy chicken supreme.  It was a great meal and the hosts were terrific. Our "official" review of the restaurant is here along with some snapshots.

Wellington Fish Restaurant is a very simple fish & chips place.  There is a take-away counter and a "dining area."  You sit tightly packed into cramped, wooden booths.  But the fish is very good.  For something like 5.95 sterling, you get two large pieces of fried fish (haddock, I suspect), traditional chips (French fries) and mushy peas (smashed up green peas, a traditional accompaniment to fish and chips in the U.K.)  We also tried haggis here.  In this case, they just cut off a "bar" of it, bread it and deep fry it along with the fish.  It was good!  This restaurant is on Sandgate in Ayr.  Just ask anybody for directions.  And again - you can walk it from the Fairfield House Hotel.

The Anchorage Restaurant (in Dunure about a 10 minute cab ride from Ayr) sits in a pretty waterfront setting overlooking a very old marina.  The marina has probably been there for many years.  Actually decades if not centuries!  Also, if you take time to explore out back and around the corner, you'll see an old dilapidated castle.  Neat place.  Wish I knew the story on it.  I was a little nervous as we entered this place because there was only one other couple in the establishment.  And the guy who seated us seemed very nervous and raced about seemingly doing everything by himself with no assistance.  But our fears soon eased into enjoyment.  This wound up being an excellent dining experience.  Turns out the "nervous Nelly" was uptight because somebody had called in sick so he was the only waiter on duty at the time.  After carefully studying the menu and the blackboard specials (fresh crab was offered that night), we placed our orders.  I began with a goat cheese bruschetta and my wife selected a smoked mackerel tart.  Both were very good.  For our main courses I went with breast of duck in a red wine sauce (excellent) and my wife had the steak and ale pie.  My wife was well pleased with her meal, too.  Your cab driver will know how to get to this place but it's located at Harbour View, Dunure/Ayr with a postal code of KA7 4LN.  Read our personal review here.

Currency in Scotland is the Pound Sterling (as it is throughout the U.K.) and you'll need a passport to enter the country although American visitors do not need a visa.  Driving is on the left and crazy!

 

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