Sunday, June 24, 2018

My Midsummer Dream


Trip date: June 2017

The Midsummer celebration in Stockholm, Sweden is one of their most important holidays. And although I flew on the summer solstice itself, the city celebrates starting that weekend. Most of the shops, bars, and restaurants close, as the majority of locals leave town to celebrate with their families and friends on islands or in the countryside. I've traveled enough over Christmas and New Year's to know about these closures and do my research on what is open; I had my plan set!

I landed in Stockholm at 6am, collected my suitcase, pulled some cash from the airport ATM, and was on the train headed into town by 6:35am! It's a 20min train ride and costs about $32, you buy your ticket on the train. Could not be easier.

This wasn't my first time to Stockholm, but my last visit was in 2005 for one night en route to St. Petersburg Russia for New Year's Eve. It was dark the entire time I was there; this visit was pretty much the opposite!

I took a flat rate taxi from the train station and checked into the Elite Eden Park Hotel, a great recommendation from friends. And they let me check in at 7am so I could take a much needed nap!
And then I was ready to start exploring! My first stop was Ostermals Saluhall, Stockholm's 120+ year old food hall and market. The original building is undergoing much needed repairs so there is a temporary set up at Östermalmstorg until sometime late in 2019.

I browsed the pretty fruit and vegetables displayed by farmers, and the delicious looking preprepared skagen (shrimp salad),  sill (herring), meats, cheeses, sauces, chocolates, etc. at the various shops. It made me all very hungry so I grabbed at seat at Lisa Elmquist and had a lovely first lunch.

My "house" fish soup with mussels, white fish, and shrimp was fantastic. It also cost about $34! Add a glass of Sancerre to that and my lunch was over $50. Welcome to Scandinavia!

It was an stunningly beautiful day so I headed out to walk along the Strandvagen and check out the waterfront. Along the way I did a bit of shopping at Svenskt Tenn, an interior design shop with absolutely gorgeous items (that would also be closed for the rest of my trip starting the next day)!

I walked all the way to Djurgarden, a small island connected by a bridge, and strolled around the beautiful park before heading back along the waterfront side of the Strandvagen and stopping for a glass of rosé.
That evening I had reservations at the community table at Gastrologik, an intimate 1-star Michelin restaurant, within walking distance of my hotel.

The community table was a great experience, there were a total of 8 of us and over the ~20 small bite courses I learned that a few of them were chefs and restaurant owners visiting from different countries.
The food, wine, and service at Gastrologik were all fantastic! The dishes were each little works of art and were fun without being too gimmicky. The wines were interesting and well paired. And each of the chefs, including owners Anton Bjuhr and Jacob Holmström, were really friendly when they presented their dishes.
Our group was even taken into the kitchen for a tour and then one of our courses was served to us there.
I would absolutely recommend dinner here, and I hope to go again one day!!! I walked home at 11:50pm in a still-light sky!

The next morning I had a tasty smorgasbord breakfast in the hotel before catching the tram along the waterfront to Skansen, a huge park and outdoor museum. The city was putting on a big Midsummer festival all weekend; kicking things off was the raising of the maypole at 2pm, which I planned to be there for.
It was another incredibly sunny day in Stockholm as I walked around the park catching glimpses of the city. The outdoor museum is the oldest in the world and is made up of about 150 traditional style cottages, shops and such. It was really interesting to wander through the different village exhibits, each representing the way Swedish people from different parts of the country, lived throughout the ages. There's also a zoo, aquarium, farm areas, etc. It's really incredible!
I then made my way to the central market area where artists and food stands were set up for the festivities. There were so many delicious smells but I was still stuffed from breakfast!
Midsummer is all about traditions and the Swedes are particularly gung-ho about it.  It's considered a magical occasion since the sun doesn't fully set. People were picnicking all over the place; picking flowers from the fields and weaving them into crowns. It was really fun to see it all as I made my way to the big meadow where the maypole would be raised.

The band started playing and everyone gathered around, the official kick off of Midsummer was starting! It took the team of men a bit of time to raise the pole completely. They haul it up a bit at a time, placing wooden braces under sections, until they can finally get it all the way upright. It's quite a thing to watch and the crowd really gets into it, chanting and singing!
And then everyone dances around, arm in arm, in rotating circles. It was sooooo fun!!!!

I had more on my agenda for the day, so I continued to wander the park for a while before finally stopping at one of the restaurants for a glass of rosé and a dish of the ripest strawberries I've ever eaten. Strawberries are everywhere during summer in Sweden, bars sell them like most places dole out dishes of nuts!
It was an easy walk out of the park and down the road to the ABBA Museum, I mean what's more Swedish than ABBA? This is a very fun, interactive museum, showcasing the pop group's music, costumes, and history. You can even get up on stage and sing with holograms of the group!
After shopping in the gift store, which sells everything you can imagine with the ABBA logo on it, I had a lovely late lunch of an open-faced shrimp salad sandwich and a glass of rosé.

That evening I continued my ode-to-Sweden by having dinner at Matbaren. Another 1-star Michelin restaurant, this one run by the Swedish restauranteur Mathias Dahlgren, is a more casual concept housed inside of the very swank Grand Hotel.
I had a great seat at the bar and ended up chatting with a local couple next to me who were quite the regulars. They gave me some very good ordering advice; my steamed pork bun, Swedish squid, and special Midsummer dessert of strawberries and meringue were all delicious!

After, I stopped in the Grand Hotel Bar for a nightcap of a Swedish gin martini, it's a beautiful old lounge. And when I was headed back to my hotel it was still light out!

A very successful, fun, delicious and absolutely Swedish Midsummer!

All Stockholm photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
The Longest Day
30,000 Islands & Counting
Iceland Stopover



Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Wee Time in Glasgow

Trip date: April 2018

I was on the last stretch of my 17 day trip in the UK and for the first time it was considerably cool, cloudy, and drizzly. I got in my car and drove from Oban to Inveraray, taking the A85, as I wanted to see the castle there. The drive was gorgeous and as I followed the road around Loch Awe I saw a crumbling ruin of a fortress out on the point. I pulled over and consulted my guidebook as to what it was but didn't find anything. Finally I just zoomed in on the GPS and saw it was the 15th century Kilchrun Castle, formerly of the Clan Campbell. If I didn't have a 100 mile drive, and other stops planned, I would have taken the trail that led out there!

In about 1 1/2 hours I was in the small town of Inveraray and was parked at the namesake castle, the 18th century home of the same clan. Since I didn't have a lot of time I chose to just wander around the grounds and gardens (£5). It's a beautiful castle and the gardeners were busy getting ready for spring, I'm sure it is stunning when everything is in full bloom.
There a small sheep farm on the grounds as well so I got in my last dose of Scotland sheep. They were very chatty!

I had lunch at the Inveraray Inn, exactly what I was in the mood for, a rich bowl of Cullen Skink and a small beer. The hot soup, warm bread, a cold beer were perfect for the drizzly day and it didn't take me long to get back on the road. I had 1 1/2 hours more to drive and the weather was definitely getting more "authentic Scottish"! 

It was another gorgeous drive through the mountain pass at Loch Lomond, where the Highlands meet the Lowlands, but weather and traffic kept me from stopping. Soon I was driving over the big bridge, with 4 lanes of busy traffic, into Glasgow. It was little bit of a shock after being in the countryside!
I had a tough time finding the Hertz car rental office in town until I finally parked in a load zone outside of the hotel my GPS kept taking me to and asked the front desk. The office was on the 2nd floor and they just had me leave the car in the load zone. Easiest drop off ever. 

Driving tour of Scotland officially done. I'd spent 6 days driving just over 600 miles on the wrong side, had nearly worn out the car's chime warning me to stay in my lane, but I made it and it was an awesome experience!

I grabbed an Uber to my hotel, the Dakota Deluxe, which is in a great location and is quite nice. If there is one thing I've learned from traveling it is to splurge on your last hotel. 

By the time I had checked in the porter had my bags waiting for me in my room. It was super cozy and the bed was crazy comfy. My plan had been to head out for a little walking tour of town but it was sleeting and cold and I was tired. I grabbed a glass of wine from the downstairs bar and chilled out in my warm room.

That night I met my friend Sharon, who lives in Glasgow, at Mother India which came highly recommended. 

It was good, and we had a great time catching up, but it wasn't as good as the Indian meals I had earlier in the trip in London and Edinburgh had been. Maybe it was just an off night.

The next morning I had breakfast in the hotel, they had a nice buffet of meats, cheeses, yogurts, etc. and then you also ordered something from the menu. All for £12 if you reserved through the front desk (£15 if you just showed up I think).  

The day was cold! I had been spoiled by all the sun over the last week. Now it was raining, snowing, and cold! I ditched my plans to walk, called an Uber, and headed to the Kelvingrove Museum for the special exhibit on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scottish furniture designer, architect, and painter who I knew little about. 
The exhibit was very interesting and it's on until August 14, 2018 if you end up in town. The entire museum is quite awesome, I didn't have a lot of time before my lunch reservation but I did a quick poke around.

Lunch was in Ashton Lane, where everyone will tell you to go as it is a very cute pedestrian only area with lots of restaurants and bars. I found my way to Ubiquitous Chip and had a lovely 3-course lunch of cod & crab beignet, roast fennel with crispy risotto, a side of beef stovies (I'd never heard of them before!), and a lovely cheese plate. I'd absolutely recommend this spot!

Next up was a visit to the Tenement House Museum , which was the house of Miss Agnes Toward from 1911 until 1965. It has been preserved with her things to show how she (and others in the tenement) lived. There are additional exhibits about tenements in general. It's just a small house so it doesn't take long to go through, I thought it was very interesting!



Culture, √. Time for shopping. The bartender at my hotel had told me that I would likely find all the gin I could imagine at The Good Spirits Co. He was correct!
I had been keeping a list of all the Scottish gins I had tried and I was ready to bring a few home. The staff here is excellent and they will happily pour you tastes of most anything. They also carry more than gin but that is what I was there for. Excellent shop!

On my way back to my hotel to drop off my purchases I noticed the Principal Hotel overlooking Blythswood Square. I had heard that the bar here was really good so I stopped in for a drink. The hotel is stunning! There is a bar both upstairs and on the main floor. I liked the vibe on the main floor and had a great time chatting with the bartender while sipping on a Scottish gin martini. 

Continuing on the gin theme, it was time for my massage at The Gin Spa, which I was super excited about! Massage + gin = happy Wendy! I made my way to the Merchant City area and checked into the tiny little space. There wasn't really a proper waiting room, no locker room to change, just a little entry that shared space with two manicure tables. I was shown to my room where I changed. I don't know if my masseuse was even a trained masseuse, the massage was so bad. She basically just rubbed oil on me, it was very weird. No discussion of gin botanicals, or anything really.


After I was led to these little bleachers and they brought over a cute trolley with a good selection of gins on it. I asked about a few that were unknown to me but they didn't have any other information than what was written on the bottle. I chose a sloe gin and they made me a gin and tonic with it. Which was nice but if that's all it takes to call yourself a gin spa, feel free to come to my house where I will rub some lotion on you, make you a G&T, and charge you $150!

The weather had cleared when I left so I was finally able to go on a nice walk around the Golden Zed area of Downtown. I was on my way to my next drink at The Pot Still. The bar opened in 1867 and has had a few different owners over time. There are over 700 whiskies on the shelves and when I was there they didn't have a menu. I stood at the bar and told my bartender Cathy what I generally liked, didn't like, and had interest in knowing more about. 

She climbed around the shelves for a few minutes and then brought down a selection of 5 whiskies, explained each to me and had me smell them. I chose one and thoroughly enjoyed it while talking to some locals. She did the same thing when I was ready for round two. I really can't recommend this place more highly, and even if they do have a menu I wouldn't use it! Everyone is so friendly and they love introducing people to new whisky!

That was a fully packed day!!! I was ready for dinner. I took advantage of the holding weather and walked back to the Dakota Deluxe where I had a nice dinner in the restaurant there. 

The next morning I checked out, took an Uber to the Queen Street Station, and caught the train to Edinburgh Park Station. I had purchased my ticket online, which was good for any time train that day, for £12 and it took 1 hour. And the countryside between the two cities had had a bit of snow!

At Park Station I transferred to a tram to the airport. You have to walk out of the station and then cross the road to the tram tracks. I bought my ticket at the kiosk for £6, it was 10 minutes to the airport and the trams seemed to run every 10 mins. Both the train and the tram were quite nice and not crowded at all even though it was 8am on a Thursday.

I had a quick flight from Edinburgh to London on British Air Business Class where, besides enjoying a nice little split of Champagne, I was also treated to amazing views of London! I had never flown in from the north before and the plane pretty much followed the Thames!
In London I boarded a 747 and found my seat upstairs, where there are only about 12-14 seats. This is an amazing experience as you feel like you are in a private jet! Especially since the cabin wasn't even all the way full!

Champagne, 4-course lunch, a nap on the lay flat bed, afternoon tea with little sandwiches and scones, more champagne... I love using my miles!!!

 And then I was home!

- 1 new country visited
- 600 miles driven
- 14 Scottish gins tried
- 7 castles viewed
- too many sheep to count

This was truly one of my favorite trips I've done!

All photos from Glasgow here

Other posts from this trip:

Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye
Oban & the Isle of Mull

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Oban & the Isle of Mull

Trip date: April 2018

The drive from Skye to Oban took me back along the A87 to Invergarry and then south on the A82 to Spean Bridge, part of the same route I had taken on my drive from Pitlochry to Skye. Normally I dislike taking a repeat route but the scenery on this road is so fantastic I was actually looking forward to it! I promised myself that since I had a 4 1/2 hr drive ahead of me, and that I'd seen part of this before, I wouldn't stop until I was on unchartered territory.

I almost made it! I had to stop to take in these mountains! They were so spectacular, photos really don't do it justice. But then I was good and just snapped a few moving shots while driving past Loch Lochy until I got to the Commando Memorial.
This is a beautiful memorial park with more amazing views of the mountains including Ben Nevis (highest peak in Scotland). And as I was 2 1/2 hours into my drive, it was the perfect spot to stretch my legs.

I pulled into Oban and found the Kilchrenan House, a waterfront Victorian mansion turned into a bed & breakfast, where I'd be staying for the next two nights. The b&b has free parking, very nice hosts - Colin and Francis- and gorgeous views of the bay (they also have some great itinerary ideas on their site). I was shown to my room and welcomed with a wee dram of whisky.

I took advantage of the gorgeous weather and went for a nice long walk before dinner. Just north of the house I walked to the park that has a nice little war memorial and also the remains of Dunollie Castle (home of the MacDougall clan). I'm telling you, this country is crazy for castles!
From here it was about a 1 1/2 mile walk to the center of the town and around the harbor. I found a spot for a martini and caught the most gorgeous sunset. Hello Oban!

I had dinner that night at Cuan Mor which made a half way decent martini, some nice little fried haggis balls in gravy, and some really tasty mussels.

My plan for the next day was to tour the three Inner Hebrides Islands of Mull, Iona, and Staffa with West Coast Tours.  I had booked this months in advance and honestly it was my whole reason for being in Oban. But shortly upon arriving in town I had an email from the tour company saying that the weather was too windy and the trip was cancelled. I couldn't believe it as the weather that night was gorgeous and that morning I woke up to another beautiful day! I was bummed to say the least.

So I went down for breakfast and had the traditional porridge with both cream and whisky (that's a thing in Scotland and it is awesome!), along with some fried eggs and bacon, and came up with an alternate plan.

I walked down to the Tourism Office and they confirmed the ferry time to the Island of Mull as well as the connecting shuttle to Duart Castle. Then I made my way to the Oban Distillery, which is right in the center of town, and got a spot on their morning tour.

This is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, now owned by Diageo so again no photos inside, but really interesting and just like at Talisker, I had a fantastic tour guide. My day was picking up!

On the pier by the ferry I passed a seafood shack that seemed very busy selling whole crab and lobster, freshly steamed mussels right out of the pot, and a selection of nice looking sandwiches. I grabbed a lovely smoked salmon sandwich for the ferry ride. Never saw a name, just the green awning, but I would highly suggest eating there or grabbing something to go! Cash only.

Then I went to the ticket desk and got round trip tickets for the ferry to Mull, bus transfers and entry to the castle all for about $20. Mull is the 2nd largest of the Inner Hebrides islands (after Skye) with about 3,000 residents and normal ferry runs to the main port of Craignure. The islands of Iona and Staffa are much smaller (Iona only has about 150 residents!) and because there isn't anything between them and North America, the weather can be quite bad, canceling the few ferries that travel there.

The ferry ride to Mull was fantastic! I grabbed a pint to go with my sandwich and then took a seat outside and enjoyed the scenery. I love a boat ride!

The minivan transfer was waiting when I disembarked and about 12 of us were driven to Duart Castle. It's a small but interesting fort, built in 1360 and the home of the Maclean clan.

One of the guys on the bus was super excited as he is a Maclean and decided to use his day off to visit. I thought that was pretty cool! The castle has a long history of battles and seizes, but in 1911 it was bought by Sir Fitzroy Donald Maclean, the 26th Chief of the Clan Maclean. In 1990 Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean of Duart and Morvern inherited it from his father. He and his family live in one section of the mansion while the other is open to tourists.
It's filled with all sorts of personal items from various Macleans, including recent family photos. It reminded me of some of the castles in the Loire Valley that also have their owners living in part while making money for repairs from tourism. It's reported that at this point $1.94Million has been spent on restoration during his ownership, some of this is from a historical grant but a lot is from ticket sales and donations.

And although there were pretty blue skies, the wind was crazy strong. I felt like it might knock me down! I now understood the high wind issues with getting to Iona and Staffa.

I had a little time when I was finished touring the castle before my minivan headed back to the ferry so I stopped in the teahouse for a snack. When I saw a mention of them using local cheeses and charcuterie I asked if they had a little cheese plate I could order. They didn't but within minutes the woman put together this amazing spread for me!

I grabbed another beer back on the ferry, and enjoyed it with another gorgeous ride as we sailed back to Oban.

Oban is very small, the ferry port is at one extreme end while my b&b was at the other. I strolled around a bit as I made my way home, exploring a few streets I hadn't been on. It's quite a pretty town but there isn't a lot going on.
I chose George Street Fish for dinner that night as I wanted more fish and chips and the space looked very cute. And the space was cute. But unfortunately the fish was fine at best and the chips were just bad. Would not recommend. I stopped back at Cuan Mor for a couple of drinks before strolling along the waterfront home.

The next morning I had cream and whisky in my porridge again, as well as haggis and fried eggs before checking out. Even with a wrench thrown into my plans, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Oban and Mull. And I enjoyed parking the car for a few days!


All Oban & Mull photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye

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