Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eye Spy

The very last thing I did in London was ride the London Eye to get a bird's eye view of the city before I left. Unfortunately, the rains came and ruined all my potential pictures, but at least they left behind a beautiful full rainbow spanning the city.

Castles and Roses

Call me cliche, but roses have always been my favourite flower. So when I discovered that roses grow everywhere in the UK, I was quite excited and took the expression "stop and smell the roses" quite literally. I also took a lot of pictures of them! Given the ever-present threat of rain in the UK, when I had two back to back days of rain in Edinburgh and London, I took the opportunity to wander through parks and gardens: Princes St. Gardens in Edinburgh which is right under the castle, then Hyde Park in London.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Airline Woes

Is it just me, or are airlines competing to see who can provide the worst customer experience possible?

When I found a direct flight from London to Edmonton at a reasonable price, I was so excited! I booked with Air Transat because it was a little bit cheaper than Air Canada.

Well, it looked cheaper through Expedia.

Air Transat has a reasonable weight limit for long haul flights, but what they don't really tell you up front is that Thomas Cook, who actually operates the flight, only allows 20 kg for your checked baggage. And while I have a handy fold up bag that I can attempt to stow some of the excess weight, they put a 5 kg weight limit on your carry-on (I was allowed 10 kg on my 50 minute flight from Dublin to Edinburgh), AND you're only allowed one bag. So forget carrying on a purse and extra bag.

Air Transat also sent me a very helpful email today, three days before my flight leaves, to tell me that I can select my seat ahead of time. Yay! So I called their customer service, only to discover that Thomas Cook requires you to book at least five days before the flight leaves. Five days? Seriously? So yippee... I get to show up to the airport super early on Tuesday morning or risk being sandwiched in the middle seat. Thanks Air Transat and Thomas Cook for your assistance with my stress-free travel.

The frustrating thing is that if I'd known to look for this, I could have checked before I booked my flight and made a decision knowing all the relevant facts. But I feel stupid for not looking into it, and am now paying the consequences. It won't be a big deal: worst-case scenario, I pay an extra $100 and have to spend nine hours between two linebackers. It just frustrates me that the entire airline industry seems to be in a competition to outdo each other to belittle and nickle-and-dime the customer. If JetBlue can make air travel low-cost and low-hassle, with no hidden costs and a pleasant experience, why have so few other players caught on?

I've heard Virgin Atlantic is supposed to be good. And the fact that JetBlue has started to codeshare with them instills some confidence in that conclusion. Having a home base in Boston will hopefully offer a few more options so I'm not stuck with Air Transat ever again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Highlands and Islands

After two Londoners both told me I HAD to do a Highlands tour while in the UK, I figured I'd better heed their advice and book one. As I was looking through my photos trying to narrow down the few that I actually wanted to post, I realized how breathtaking the whole trip was. There are two main features that really stood out in the highlands and the Isle of Skye. First, the castles. They are all built into the natural landscape. The history that goes along with them is always interesting, and a big reason why I'd rather pay more for a tour than rent a car myself. Second, I love being on the island and seeing the distant islands. After the first day driving up to Skye, I was expecting a cloudy mystique, but the sun came out for the last two days of the tour.

This was the view outside my B&B in the morning. We stayed in the town of Portree, which is little more than some B&Bs, seafood restaurants and gift shops.

The Old Man of Storr. I was disappointed we didn't climb up there, but it was cool seeing it shrouded in clouds.

View from the Quraing mountains.

Lighthouse at the very edge of Skye. I have a million pictures I could post of the ocean with the mountains in the background, but as I've always been partial to lighthouses, I chose this one.

A highland cow on the side of the road. Just for the record, though, it's pronounced "heeland coo".

Eilean Donan castle. This is the most photographed castle in Scotland, and I'm sure I contributed significantly to the count as I sorted through 30 or so pictures in an attempt to decide which to upload.

I don't love this picture, but I didn't get any really good ones and HAD to post a picture of Loch Ness. I didn't see Nessie, but being on the big lake (all the water from all the other lakes in England and Scotland combined could fit in Loch Ness) and seeing the black water (from all the peat runoff) gave me some insight into why there is so much folklore around Loch Ness.

After three days exploring nature, it was time to head back to the beautiful city of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle is the focal point of the city, and the reason the city is even here. The high hill presented a perfect place to set up a defense against the English, and over time, the city grew around it.

Ever since arriving in Scotland, I've been told I need to try the scotch whiskey. Even one of my friends from home who does not drink told me I needed to bring back scotch. Since I am not partial to whiskey, however, I figured that if I was going to invest in a bottle of scotch, I had to learn something about it and find one I like. So, I went off to the scotch whiskey experience to learn about whiskey and find one I liked. I am posting this picture because another friend told me I needed more pictures of me. (now that I've learned about scotch in Edinburgh and Guinness in Dublin, neither of which I particularly enjoy, I owe myself a visit to France or Italy for some wine!)

Okay, so I wore down... Just had to post another photo of the Skye coastline.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Edinburgh Sunset

So the truth is that I haven't been up to much today other than packing (I had a 20 kg weight limit for my plane ride and had to figure out how to get my suitcase below that... And I had success! 19.4 kg), flying, riding in taxis, catching up on overdue Skype conversations and getting completely drenched in what the people from Edinburgh call "not even a shower".

But as I ate dinner in my hotel restaurant, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful landscape beyond the hotel, so I climbed up the hill beside the hotel and snapped some photos.

Friday, July 08, 2011

St. Paddy's Land

After getting a good deal on a hotel in Dublin on one of my travel websites, I added Ireland to my UK trip. Even though the trip has been quite quick, I've thoroughly enjoyed Ireland and can see why it's been the beautiful backdrop for many a movie.

The one thing I was told I HAD to do in Ireland was drink a pint of Guinness. Not being a particularly huge fan of beer, and even less so of dark beer, I not only obliged, but took a step further and visited the Guinness Storehouse (essentially a museum) and got my certificate for mastering the perfect Guinness pour. I also managed to consume my requisite pint.

Today I got up bright and early (I don't care how early you get up, it's likely too early if you're setting your alarm before 6 am on vacation!) to take a trip to Connemara and Galway City. It was in Connemara that I could see every romantic Irish movie ever made, and it was great to be there, jumping on the bog and walking along the side of the road next to the sheep.

Galway Cathedral. The inside is made of Connemara marble.

Connemara countryside.

Kylemore Abbey

Killary Harbour

Thursday, July 07, 2011


If I've learned anything while traveling, it's that you simply have to pause, enjoy the moment and know that you can never adequately capture an experience in a photograph or describe it in words. But as my train zips along the Welsh coast somewhere just beyond the Penmaenmawr train station, I want to attempt it, no matter how impossible a feat, (that is, during the moments my view is obscured by tunnels or walls) if only so that I can remember this serendipitously beautiful moment.

A rainbow stretches across the bay, though not quite full as the right side fades into the low cloud cover that brings a hazy blanket to cover the rolling hills just beyond the bay. Ahead of us, and visible on the left of the bay, a low, tree-covered hill holds the tunnel we are about to pass through. And to my right, endless stretches of sandy beaches with gentle waves rolling up on the shore - the same kind of beach that always invites me to pull off my shoes and walk in the area where water meets sand.

There are castles and city walls and sheep, all set against the Welsh countryside - green, rolling hills and the occasional rocky hill thrown in the mix. Some fields contain cows, normally not an exciting sight, but British cows are the cow-iest kinds of cows: white and covered in black patches. And rolling through towns, the train window affords me a glimpse of old houses and churches nestled in among the hills.

I did snap a picture, but with the angle I wanted, there was no way to avoid the reflection of the train window. So it will serve only as a reminder of a beautiful sight I witnessed on an unexpected July morning.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Penny Lane is in My Head

It's Tuesday, I think.

I left London on Friday to head to Bristol and spend the weekend with some good friends from home. She is pregnant and had her 30th birthday while I was there, so it was a good time to visit! We spent the weekend going for a lot of walks, celebrating with some of their friends and going for dinner at a fabulous restaurant (if ever in Bristol, Zizzi's was amazing!). I also stopped to smell a LOT of flowers, which didn't abode well for my once dormant allergies.

Monday while they worked, I headed off to Bath to take a tour to Stonehenge, see the Roman Baths and take a free walking tour of Bath. I was tired by the end of the day, and moderately underwhelmed by Stonehenge, so my photos reflect this. I will post a "true" picture of my Stonehenge experience: surrounded by tourists! (of which I am one, I know. Sigh.)

Today I hopped on a train to Liverpool. Not really knowing what to expect, other than knowing it was the birthplace of the Beatles, I've really enjoyed Liverpool. As it turns out, the entire dock is a World Heritage Site because so many of the individual buildings had already earned that distinction. While there, I had to take a Beatles tour, of course, and I was glad that it was accessible to even me, who enjoys Beatles music but doesn't know much beyond that.

This inconspicuous looking house is where John Lennon grew up!