Day 1: We flew into London, Heathrow early in the morning of August 7th and although tired from the long plane ride and the VERY long lines in customs, we were excited to start sightseeing. Our tour director, Nigel, met us in the Arrivals Hall and directed us to the waiting coach and our coach driver, Chris, loaded our luggage and we were off.
We enjoyed driving through West London with views of Westminster Abbey, Prince Albert Royal Theater, Big Ben and all the other typical highlights. After a half day orientation tour, we arrived at our beautiful hotel, Millennium Gloucester. Although I tried to stay awake, I had to fit in a 30 minute nap and then find a small lunch, which was across the street from the hotel - Bangers and Mash (why not start eating the local specialties right?).
That evening we had a Welcome Dinner at Scoff and Banter. The food was delicious and the staff was wonderfully accommodating and gracious. It was then off to bed for a great nights sleep.
Day 2: After a hearty hotel breakfast, we all headed to the coach and Nigel took us on a full day tour. We walked through Kensington Park, spent time exploring Kensington Palace and learning all about Queen Victoria and her romance with Prince Albert, as well as seeing Princess Diana's Dress Collection. We then rushed to our coach and headed straight to Buckingham Palace. One of the advantages of having a tour director is that he knows the best places to be at the right time and he was right. He positioned us directly across from Buckingham Palace where we had perfect views of the Changing of the Guard ceremony - so much so that the band and guards marched past us so closely that we could have reached out and touched them. That was an amazing experience, so steeped in tradition. We then walked to the Palace and learned about the grounds there, who lives there, and enjoyed a group photo.
From there, we explored the West End of London, saw the theatre district, the London Eye, and finally the Tower of London, which we toured extensively and even saw the Crown Jewels (although we couldn't take pictures of that). We learned all about the people who had been kept prisoner in the Tower and had some free time to explore. After that, we headed back to the hotel where we had the rest of the day free to ourselves. I found a great place near the hotel for dinner, one of the best filet steaks I've had. They brought it out seared, but rare on a hot stone and it continued to cook as I ate. I met some fun ladies from south of London, up for the weekend and we swapped stories, laughed, and even showed off our kids, even trying to hook up her son and my daughter, but to no avail. LOL!
Day 3: We woke up to rain but we had the whole day to ourselves so I jumped onto the Underground (or Tube as some call it) and headed towards Westminster Abbey. I laughed at how many people apologized for the rain, as if they could do anything about it. I told them it was what I expected from London, so I was prepared with my "brelly". My first stop was the Royal Horse Guards museum and barracks. I was able to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony there - another very traditional processional, and then found a little pub and had a tart and hot chocolate. From there, I walked across Westminster Bridge to the London Eye and did the 30 minute loop, from which I could see all of London - as far as the eye could see. I then wandered backto the hotel area in Gloucester and found a little Italian pizza place for dinner and then enjoyed an early night in the hotel.
Day 4: On the road again, with our new tour director Maria and our new coach driver, Gareth. We checked out of our hotel, jumped into the coach, and headed towards Birmingham. We enjoyed the beautiful countryside scenery and had a mid-day stop in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace and burial site of William Shakespeare. We were able to visit the church where he is buried, but they were having a wedding inside the church, so we could only catch a glimpse from outside. We had time in this cute little town to have lunch, shop, and wander and then we had an afternoon tour of Shakespeare's birthplace and home. We were able to see some of his personal artifacts, such as his first folio compilation of all of his written works. There were even actors doing on request scenes from some of his plays.
After our time in Stratford-upon-Avon, we were on our way to Birmingham, where we checked in at Radisson Blu. I had a beautiful room with a great view of the city. I walked around the area after checking in and had dinner at Nando's, a great chicken place. One thing I learned about the U.K. is that you will never go hungry. The portions everywhere I ate were huge and I could never finish everything. After that, I headed to bed and enjoyed a great night sleep.
Day 5: The main reason for this trip was for today. Gareth drove us out to the Birmingham Expo Center, where we spent the day at the International Quilt Festival. It was so fun seeing the different quilts in the show, visiting with all the vendors and of course my favorite sewing machine company, Janome, and having lunch there. Although some vendors were the same as what we see in the states, there were many new ones I had not seen, including a lot of wool vendors. I also even met an artist who draws scenes from European towns such as Paris and London, and then creates cross-stitch patterns from those - and yes, I did order a beautiful pattern and kit that I am anxiously waiting to arrive.
After arriving back at the hotel, I jumped into the bathtub to soak my weary bones from the busy day at the Festival. Shortly after getting out and dressing in my PJ's, the fire alarm went off. Dismissing it at first, when it went off for the 3rd time, I headed down the 16 flights of stairs to join the rest of the hotel guests. After about 15 minutes, they let us in. We will never know for sure what happened, but we heard stories that it was a glitch, that something caught on fire in the kitchen, and others. I went to the little store next door to get a couple of Diet Cokes and found some fun, interesting products I hadn't seen in the US, such as ManTissues and Candy Bar flavored milk. I ordered room service and then off to sleep.
Day 7: Leaving Birmingham behind, we were off to York, a couple of hours drive away. We had a short orientation walking tour of the area. We learned all about the many groups that had ruled the area, including the Romans and the Vikings, and even learned about the medieval time period here. We walked along the old Roman Wall, we visited the Abbey where King Charles I, King James I and even Henry the 8th had spent time. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant and I realized I actually liked Indian food, so I'll try that again sometime. We had time for a quick walk through the Shambles and then off to the Novotel York Centre hotel to check in, find somewhere for dinner (amazing macaroni and cheese) and then hit the hay.
Day 8: Our tour director, Maria, was able to get all of of us tickets for the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus in York, so we began touring the area. My first choice was to visit the Viking Center and learn all about the Vikings who had lived here. The Center had several artifacts found during an archaeological dig, so it was very interesting to see how they had lived so many years before. Following that, I had lunch at a little French patisserie, and then took some wandering through the Shambles, which to put it simply is where the "regular" people lived during medieval years, with the aristocracy watching over them. This area is full of shops, restaurants, street performers, etc and is a maze of tiny little roads - you can almost stand in the middle and reach out to touch walls on each side. It was hard to imagine how life would have been back then. I even found Gillies Fabrics and stocked up on many different British patterned fabrics, which I made sure were actually Made in England.
Jumping back onto the bus, we toured more of the area, passing the horse racing arena, the golf course, the chocolate factory (this is where the chocolate orange originated), and more. Suddenly, the rain appeared and luckily I was under the covered portion of the open-air bus, but I soon learned that the bus also held the rain and so I had to keep my feet up to avoid them being soaked. The rain passed after about 15 minutes, and I dropped my purchases off at the hotel. I then found dinner at a great little local pub - Ribeye steak, baked potato (best I've ever had) and veggies, with drink for around 15 pounds. After a walk along the river, I headed off to bed.
Day 8: Back on the bus, this was to be our long travel day as we departed from England and entered Scotland. We had a new coach driver, Bernard, just for today. We relaxed on the bus by listening to an American author who had written his stories about visiting England and Scotland. We had a quick stop in Selkirk for lunch and then on to Scotland. Our mid-day stop was in Lochcarron at the Lochcarron Mill. We had a private tour of the factory where they dye the wool and create the beautiful tartain plaids that Scotland is so well known for. We learned so much about clans, kilts and more. They then treated us to Tea and Scones, which was so fun. I think our biggest shopping was in this store as they had so many fun things to choose from. I was even able to find my Scottish heritage Boyd tartan.
We were thrilled when we arrived in Glasgow at our hotel, The Abode (which had just changed from The Arthouse). This hotel was so cute and I felt I had stepped back in time - beautiful decor, sweeping staircase, and an original elevator (lift) which required you to close the gate and in which you could see each floor as you passed it. We were exhausted from the long day so most of us ate in the hotel restaurant and then crashed for the night.
Day 9: We all boarded our coach and took a 45 minute ride out to New Lanark Mill. This amazing community was set up back in the early 1800s as a Socialist community, where everyone worked together, lived together, and supported each other. Everyone from the age of 6 and up worked in the mill, but there was time for school and family life, with hills to climb and Clyde's Falls and River to play in. It was really interesting to see how this community worked back then.
After arriving back at the hotel, we decided it was time to get some laundry done. Using Google maps, I found a laundromat only about 15 minute walk away. So, putting all of my dirty laundry in a small carry-on suitcase with wheels, I headed that direction. The lady who owns the laundromat was there and was so helpful and kind. She sat and visited with me during my stay there and it made the time pass by quickly. After dropping my clean laundry off at the hotel, I wandered around to find a good location to eat. It started raining and I was tired, so after picking up some Italian food to go (or as they put it - take away), I enjoyed this amazing meal in my room watching TV.
Day 10: Another long day was ahead of us, but it was a great day. Our new and final coach driver, Gary, arrived with a smile on his face and provided us with a goodie every time we boarded the bus. It became something we expected and it was something different each time. He was so fun. We drove along past Loch Lomond to the sounds of bagpipe music provided by Maria, which Gary decided he'd heard enough of after a couple of hours, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery along the way to the Highlands of Scotland, passing many lochs and rivers and small towns. We saw many Highland Cows and Sheep, and too many waterfalls to count. It was so beautiful. Our destination was Eilean (Island) Donan Castle, which was so beautiful and historical and intact. Besides its interesting history, it was fun to see which movies had been made here - Highlander, Rob Roy, Elizabeth, and even James Bond The World is Not Enough. We even had to cross a bridge to get to the castle and I imagined where the moat would have been.
After seeing the castle, we were all ready to find the hotel and rest but the bus had other plans. Gary noticed it wasn't quite right, so rather than drive off into nowhere land and break down, he decided to call in reinforcements. Maria was able to arrange for taxis to pick us up, transfer our luggage, and drive us to Inverness to our hotel. Gary stayed with the bus and overnighted somewhere nearby while getting it back up and running at full speed. We checked into the Best Western Inverness, which was right on the river with everything we wanted close by. We hit the local restaurant and then off to bed.
Day 11: We walked one block over to the Scottish Kiltmaker Center and had a great tour of the facility. We learned all about how kilts are made, their apprenticeship program, and even saw some of the kilts used in Braveheart and Rob Roy. After a bit of shopping there, we were met by a local driver who took us out to the Culloden Battlefield. Here we were able to walk through history with our own headsets and learn all about the Jacobite uprising against the British and this 1 hour battle. We saw some of the weaponry used during this time and how people dressed during this time period.
The driver then threw a surprise into the mix and took us to the Balnuaran of Clava, which are tomb cairns from the Bronze Age, which reminded me very much of Stonehenge. After being delivered back to the hotel, we found a cute place for lunch and then wandered around shopping and seeing the beautiful cathedrals here. Then, back to the hotel to relax.
Day 12: Leaving Inverness behind, we headed out towards Edinburgh. We stopped for lunch and shopping at House of Bruar, where I was able to visit a Clanhouse built by a local family. The family genealogy and scrapbooks were displayed, along with artifacts from the family (clan) history, including those who had fought at Culloden.
Upon arrival in Edinburgh, we picked up a local tour guide and she showed us Edinburgh in style. We stopped to see the Queen's Official Scotland residence, as well as Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Mile, and then a visit to the Queen's retired personal yacht, The Brittania. We were able to tour the yacht and see how the royal family lived when they could "get away" from their royal duties. It was fascinating. We then found our hotel, The Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square. It was in the perfect location, with a book festival in the middle of the square, restaurants all around, and we even enjoyed fireworks outside our window that night due to the big annual film and art festival going on in town.
Day 13: Our final full day was great. We boarded the coach and drove to Alnwick Castle. This was so interesting as it is the actual residence of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland during the winter, and during the summer it is open for tours. We toured the castle itself and saw how they live - their library is ridiculous and their china collection takes up a whole room. Amazing. But, on top of that, many movies have been filmed here. I quite enjoyed the movie tour in which the cute tour guide showed us where scenes had been shop for movies such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Transformers, Downton Abbey, and finally the most famous - Harry Potter. It was very interesting and I had way too much fun shopping in the gift store - but all of my kids will now love me forever.
To top it off, because Gary had provided us with little goodies every day as we boarded the coach, we gave it back - I handed out a goodie to each person on the bus and as they disembarked after our tour, we individually handed him a goodie. At first, he thought it was just a nice gesture from one or two, but he soon caught on and started laughing, saying "Who's idea was this....MICHELLE?" It was great fun and I miss him already.
We then headed back to Edinburgh where I wandered the area a little, did some last minute shopping, and then hosted a farewell drink with my guests. It was great reminiscing about the past 2 weeks and all we had seen and done. Then it was off to pack, weigh luggage (oh and did I mention I bought a new suitcase, because I did too much shopping), and go to sleep.
Day 14: We awoke and headed to the Edinburgh airport, checked in, said goodbye to Gary and Maria, made sure they were tipped well by all, and then headed back to the USA. What we thought was a long customs line in London was nothing compared to what greeted us in Washington DC, but we made it through and then we all went our separate ways home.
To sum it all up, it was a fabulous trip. What were clients are now my friends. We are already planning our next trip - possibly a river cruise through Austria during Christmas Markets. If you're interested in joining us, let me know and I'll put you on the list. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.