02 August 2014

Edinburgh and the Queen

When United decided to run a seasonal service to Edinburgh from Chicago, I decided it was finally time to plan a first trip to Scotland.  While they already offer service from Newark, I tend not to like the shortness of those read-eye flights.  The flight from Chicago was going to be about an hour longer, so I thought that was going to be the best opportunity for me.  So, I picked a long mid-summer holiday weekend to maximize chances of good weather and long days. I would have 4 full days on the ground, counting my mid-morning arrival into Edinburgh.  I usually try to avoid these types of schedules when flying into Europe, but I had no choice in this case.

My early-morning flight from SFO to ORD would give me plenty of time for the connection to the two-class 757 connecting flight that would depart at around 8 pm Central Time for the 7-hour flight to Edinburgh.  I had lots of time to hang out in the United Global First Lounge at ORD.  Fortunately, my inbound and outbound flights were using the same terminal, and they were also the same as the lounge location.

This would also be my first time using a single-aisle aircraft to make an international trip.  I have flown internationally-configured 757 aircraft many times (United p.s. transcontinental flights), and the flight length is only about an hour longer.  But still, it seemed too small a cabin to be in for such a long flight.
in he end, it was fine.  The overnight flight did not allow much time to sleep, given time taken for takeoff, dinner, and pre-arrival meal.  I maybe had 1.5 hours sleep -- much less than even I thought I would get.

We landed at around 8 am.  The Edinburgh Airport is a significantly smaller facility than Heathrow in London.  It does not handle any super-large jets.  So passport control processing was fairly quick.  I only had carry-on baggage, so I was out of Arrivals and in search of my train into town.  earlier int he summer, Edinburgh just opened part of its new light-rail system, which included a direct route from the airport into central Edinburgh.  From the airport zone, it would be a £5 ticket, or for £9, I could ride all transit in Edinburgh until the end of the transit day.  And my hotel would be only a block or so from the station.  It was about a 5 minute walk to the station, and there were automated ticket machines (that take credit cards).  You are issued a paper ticket that you have to show to fare inspectors whenever asked (which was every time you rode the train or boarded a bus).

It only took about 25 minutes to reach the Haymarket stop, which is also a secondary heavy rail station and where the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor Hotel is located.  As is usually the case, a morning attempt to check in doesn't usually yield a room yet.  So, I checked in my bag and headed off to explore the city.  I hopped back onto the light-rail and continued the route in toward the center.  First landmark I hit was the Sir Walter Scott Memorial.
A short walk away, I found the central tourist information center.  I picked up a good paper map and directions to Parliament Square.  I wanted to find that location since there was a day trip I was thinking of taking later on in my stay that would meet at that point.  I was currently at the main train station adjacent to the New Town section.  I located a main street that would cross a bridge and take me over to the Old Town section.  I took a bus ( could have walked, but I was trying to conserve energy), and got off at the Royal Mile and headed up towards Edinburgh Castle.  Around the area of the St. Giles Cathedral, I saw the beginnings of a large crowd gathering.
I saw a few well-dressed people headed towards the cathedral and passing through some screening before they proceeded into the building.  Listening to some conversations, I learned that they expected the Queen to arrive for services at some point in the day.  I decided not to wait around, since I didn't know exactly when things would be happening, even though I could have secured a good viewing spot.
Instead, I headed past the church up the hill towards Edinburgh Castle.  My plan, with my pre-purchased Scottish Castle Explorer Pass in hand (which included Edinburgh Castle), was to visit the Castle today.  There were many tourists about, but there were information agents outside the main gate.  I also saw a sign indicating that some sections of the castle area would be closed that day for scheduled events, and that large bags (like my backpack) would not be allowed in.  I approached an agent, who instantly asked if my logo shirt was from the San Francisco Giants (it was -- turned out she and her boyfriend had just gotten back from visiting SF and went to a baseball game).  I asked if there was a locker to store the bag, and she said no.  I also had a question about when I should activate my pass, and she directed me to the pre-paid ticket office.  In the office, they said that if I wasn't going to go in, I should wait to activate the pass, otherwise, the clock would start ticking on the 3 days of use over a five-day period would start.  Sounded good to me, so I retreated from the castle back down the hill.

In the meantime, the gathered crowds had increased greatly.  There were also ceremonies outside the cathedral that were beginning.  As I thought it was too early to go back to the hotel to check on the room, I decided to stick around and see what I could see.

The Queen is exiting the Cathedral in the ceremonial robes.

The Queen in entering her limousine.

I later learned that the Queen was in Edinburgh and had been for about a week for her annual visit during Holyrood Week. This also was the reason why parts of Edinburgh Castle were closed and for the stricter security.  It also meant that Holyrood Castle (where she stays) had been closed to the public and would not reopen for public tours until Sunday (fortunately, I would still be in town).

Afterwards, I decided to head back to the Hilton. I needed to get back in time to freshen up and change for an afternoon tea reservation later in the afternoon.  Turns out, the room was ready.  They had upgraded me to a nice and spacious room.

By booking so early in the year, I managed to find a great special rate, where I was given a bottle of Prosecco and dinner for all the nights of my stay for only £79 a night.  My status already provides for breakfast and Internet access, so it was a nice deal overall.

I had a chance to settle in and reconfirm how I was going to get to my afternoon tea at The Prestonfield. Fortunately, there was a bus about a block away that would take me very close to the location in about 20 minutes.  It would then be about a 7-minute walk. I found the buses in Edinburgh interesting in that they do not have back doors for exiting -- everyone going in and out passes through the front.

I had tea in the Yellow Room.
Free refills on the scones were offered!
 Being out at The Prestonfield was like being out in the country, even thought it was right in a neighborhood of the city.

The next day was going to be a bit more busy than I had originally planned.  I also was going to compete a little with the forecasted weather (a bit of rain later in the afternoon). I chose to start of with a visit to Edinburgh Castle right when they opened. I bought a transit pass for the day, since I would be traveling around town a bit (£3.50 from vending machines). I noticed that there were no signs about closed off areas nor restrictions on backpack sizes today.  I went back into the office and they activated my Explorer Pass, which works much like a rail pass, where the activation date is noted and you mark of the the subsequently used days.

View towards the New Town
After exploring all the buildings and rooms in the complex, I headed down the hill and to the main train station.  I bought a round-trip same day ticket from a machine to Stirling, which was about an hour from Edinburgh. Train departures are frequent.

Stirling Castle is where many Stewarts had stayed while they ruled Scotland.  Important battles against the English were fought here.  From the train station, it is about a 15-minute walk generally upwards towards the castle grounds.  The train turnstiles will keep your ticket when you exit the station.  There are several maps along the route, so it is easy to find your way to the castle.

View of an important battlefield
Throne room

Afterwards, I returned to the train station to head back in the direction of Edinburgh.  However, with my ticket, I am allowed to stop off along the way.  On the way back, I wanted to visit Linlithgow Castle.

The castle ruins are a short flat walk from the Linlithgow train station.  It was mid- afternoon, and the promised precipitation came in the form of a constant light drizzle.

There was one tower with stairs to climb to the top.

Linlithgow Castle was in a country location and served as a royal palace and convenient stopping point between Edinburgh and Stirling.  It was the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.  It ceased being a royal palace when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England and he moved the court to London.

On returning, I exited at Haymarket Station since it was closer to my hotel than the main train station at Waverley.  I had enough time to rest, shower and then head off to my planned dinner at a place called Castle Terrace.

It turned out that the Castle Terrace Restaurant, located at the foot of the Edinburgh Castle Hill, was a little walk or a short bus ride from my hotel.  It serves local ingredients prepared using modernist techniques.

Pre-dinner snacks

Salmon tartar with wasabi sorbet

Diver scallop and onion tart

Peach and hibiscus dessert
To read the full write-up for the restaurant, click here.

After dinner, around 10pm, I was greeted with this residual light show from the sunset.

For my next day, I signed up for a day trip out of Edinburgh to visit Rosslyn Chapel, Melrose Abbey and Alnwick Castle (way back across the border into England).  Highland Experience Tours is the only one of the tour companies that runs this particular itinerary in a single trip.  You start out at 9 am at Parliament Square and return by 7pm.  Transportation (in a small bus) and tour guide are provided.  Entrance fees are not covered, but we did get a group discount at Alnwick Castle, and my Explorer Pass allowed me free entry into Melrose Abbey.

The first stop was Rosslyn Chapel, which is a famous location associated with Arthurian Legend and the Holy Grail.  It was made even more famous by Dan brown's The Da Vinci Code novel.  It was about a 20-minute ride from our starting point.  You are allowed to take pictures of the exterior, but no photos are allowed while inside.  We were there right at the opening.  They give a free talk inside the chapel at selected times, which is very interesting. There are many tales to tell about the intricate interior stonework.

Our next stop led us out of the Edinburgh area and south to the ruins of Melrose Abbey.  The ruins are from the buildings erected in the 14th century.  However, the site was first selected as monastery around 1136.  Robert the Bruce's heart is supposedly buried on site.

You are allowed to climb to to top of one of the towers.

View of Trimountain on the way to Alnwick Castle
 After Melrose Abbey, it would be well over an hour's drive though the countryside and across the English border to Alnwick Castle.

 In addition to being an historic site, the castle draws many tourists as it served as background for many exterior shots in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwart's School.  The Royal Apartments are open for touring, but no interior photos were allowed.

On our drive back to Edinburgh, we took the coastal route and made a quick stop at Holy Island.  It's famous for how much the tide changes and how very quickly it can do it.  We arrived at low tide.

 The tide can rise up to the level of that shack on stilts in 20 minutes.  There are lots of caution sides along the road to keep aware.

On my final full day in Edinburgh, the Palace of Holyroodhouse would be open for touring (now that the Queen had departed Edinburgh).  A ticket entitles you to visit the Royal Apartments of the Palace (free audio guide) and a free guided tour of the Abbey ruins.  Again, no photos are allowed from inside the palace building.  If you purchase your ticket directly from the Royal Collection Trust (the Palace is not part of the Explorer Pass), it will be valid for a year.  So you can return within that period of time, show your ID that matches you with your signature on the ticket, and gain entrance again for free.
Just a nice view of Castle Hill

The ruins of the Abbey intersect with the palace building.

Exterior forecourt view

View of Waverley Station, Calton Hill from near Holyrood. 
 After my morning touring of Holyrood and a bit of shopping around, I headed to the Balmoral Hotel (adjacent to Waverly Station) for a very nice and surprisingly modern Afternoon Tea.

Live music came from above.

 After more strolling about town and a bit of a rest back at my hotel room, I headed to dinner at a place called The Witchery.  It's located very near to the entrance to Edinburgh Castle, so it was easy to find.  The cuisine could be called Scottish modern.
My duck and citrus appetizer.
I had a late-morning flight that would take me back to Chicago.  I decided to try taking the airport bus back to Edinburgh Airport.  It was rated as taking only a few minutes longer than the train and a pound cheaper.  I wanted to see what the experience was like, compared to the train.  In my case, the pick-up point was pretty much the same.  It also runs all day and night.  I found that the service was frequent during the day and convenient to use if you can pay in cash (ticket is purchased form the driver).  One additional advantage is that the bus drops you right at the terminal, instead of at a station about a 5-minute walk away.

Being a small airport, lines were short, and security was fairly easy to navigate.  There was a lounge, although it was pretty crowded for a time with many Monday-morning people at the airport for business flights out.  My flight left on time, and with my early arrival into Chicago, I had plenty of time to clear immigration and customs, take the train to the domestic terminal and relax in the lounge before my mid-afternoon flight back to SFO.

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