Old Course at St. Andrews

Scotland Adventure

October 20, 2016

Unfortunately, because of how busy the trip was, I’m writing this journal entirely retrospective. It’s not my preferred process, but was necessary for a good reason. As such, it’s written almost entirely in the past tense with some future thoughts and ideas.

The last four weeks have been crazy for a host of reasons. Even as I start and write this now, a few days into my trip. I’ve been here now for three full days, and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to journal any of our adventures. I won’t spoil any of the surprises or discoveries until they happen below.

Day 1 – Sunday Departure from Orlando

I’ll forego the story of Hurricane Matthew and it’s impact on my schedule leading up to the trip, but for the purposes of this story, I had power restored to my home exactly one hour before I needed to leave for the airport. I frantically finish up my chores and whatnot that needed electricity and manage to make it out the door on schedule.

Traffic to my mom’s place is smooth and after I load up her car leaving mine at her house, we head to the airport. I’d wanted to give myself plenty of time for bag drop, security and making my way to the gate given all the cancelled flights two days before. As it turned out, all of it only took about 20 minutes.

Our flight boards about 30 minutes early and it looks to be packed with Brits as I may be one of only a handful of American passengers on the flight. Overall, Thomas Cook airlines and the flight were uneventful. I thankfully didn’t have a passenger in the middle seat next to me, which allowed me to stretch out and try and get some sleep. I say, “try,” because I don’t actually get any sleep. I read, listen to music, and watch the first two episodes of American Horror Story, Hotel.

With the eight-hour flight, and the five hour time difference, the day is shortened and we start with my first full day, tomorrow, in Scotland.

Day 2 – Arrive in and Tour Glasgow

While my flight from Orlando had been delayed by 30 minutes departing, we arrive in Glasgow 30 minutes early, which I knew would lead me to waiting for my friends to pick me up. It takes a bit of time to make our way to our gate after landing, but I’m off the plane in due course and after finding out I needed to complete an immigration form (I asked before we got off), I try and get in touch with the guys as I need the address of where I’m staying.

I’m visiting two friends, K and S, who live in Scotland and whom I met on my vacation in 2015 aboard the Norwegian Escape.

My bag arrives quickly and I make my way to the car park for pick-up. After about a 30 minute wait, as they had no way of knowing my flight was arriving early, we squeeze in and they’re both surprisingly awake for the early hour.

The drive into Motherwell is quick as morning traffic hasn’t started. They mention we’ll go to the house first, and then make our way out for the day after a “traditional Scottish breakfast,” which is largely a bunch of grilled meats, including bacon, sausage links, sausage meat, and haggis.

We’re picking up almost where we left off from the last time I saw them. They instantly move me into my room. I make friends with Yoshi, their Jack Russell Terrier. He likes the Mickey Mouse ice cream shaped dog toy I purchased two days earlier at Epcot.

I start handing out a few of the gifts I’d brought. K gets his Dolphin’s beanie, S gets his Tigger mug I’d also snagged while at Epcot. I mention there will be a few more as I unpack.

After breakfast, I quickly change as I’d been in the same clothes for more than 12 hours and didn’t want to get too much traveler funk.

Before I’d left, I’d realized that I didn’t have a proper adapter for my work computer’s power cable. I ask if either of the guys have an adapter for a U.S. three-prong cord to their outlets. Turns out, K’s company uses the same model generation of my work computer and he offers to lend me his cable. I fumble when I didn’t realized that in their home, each outlet has a switch next to it for actually turning on power to the outlet. This proves a good laugh. K saves my butt, or at the very least a little cash in not needing another adapter for when I start working next week.

We make a plan to hit a few key spots on our way into Glasgow, including the Transportation and Train museum that includes a visit with a tall ship nearby.

On our way, we see a traditional Scotsman wearing a kilt and sporran walking his dog on our way to the museum. I snap a couple pics from the car. I also see on the skyline the facility nicknamed the “Armadillo” which is event/convention space, the concert venue considered to be one of the most acoustically tuned in all of Europe, and a really old, no longer in use crane that once was the symbolism of Scotland’s industrial age.

The museum serves as a bit of a joke for S and K, as it’s mostly for kids and while K went when he was young, it was obviously new to me, and also S. We have good laughs at the situation and continue on our way after about 40 minutes touring the bicycles, cars, subway trains, and the tall ship.

The next stop includes the Scotland Museum of Natural History. The goal was to see the taxidermy Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal. However, the day before, that part of the museum and exhibit was closed for two years. Figures. “Can’t they just clone and stuff another one?” I ask. We make our way around checking out much of the stuffed animals, exhibits, and even have the opportunity to listen to a traditional pipe organ recital. I snap a few pictures, but having recently been to the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., not two weeks before, it’s a bit “lighter.” I do get to see the legendary “haggis” mythical animal, and a few stuffed red squirrels, which are endangered and hard to spot in the wild.

We make our way into Glasgow for lunch at a pub that’s near K’s old stomping ground. I have the fish and chips, K orders a stuffed chicken breast with cheese and haggis and S has a burger. I’m starting to think haggis is a staple within the Scottish diet. I am not wrong.

Heading toward the Glasgow subway, we plan to make our way into the heart of town. I didn’t even know Glasgow has a subway, and the train cars are … short. It’s only one line that completes a loop and goes inward, or outward. I assume one is clockwise and the other counterclockwise. No one speaks on the trains, which is absolutely British. We do, especially when I make this observation.

We end up in the city center and start walking down the main street, stopping for Starbucks. We make our way to the Museum of Fine Art, not K’s cup of tea, as he says, but because of our coffee, we’re not allowed into the museum itself. Instead, they share with me the story about the statue of man on a horse, with a traffic cone on his head in front of the museum. While originally started as a prank, it’s become part of the city lore and culture.

They keep us on track, walking about with stops to George Square and the Cenotaph. I’m fully playing up being a tourist. We visit/pass a few other monuments and buildings, including St. George’s Tron which is on a street dedicated to Nelson Mandela. They also show me the statue to Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar.

We also stop by a few shops along the way, including a fun comic book store with tons of merch. It reminds me of Stuart’s comic book store in The Big Bang Theory.

After a bit more walking, window shopping, and picking up my obligatory Starbucks mugs, we trek back to the car via the subway. Our plan had been to go back to the house and get Yoshi before going to K’s favorite brewery, West. However, traffic and timing being what it was, we head directly to the brewery.

I catch the guys up on the last year or so of my life with changes in work and employers, craziness with Orlando, family, friends, and whatnot.

We discuss our lives and what’s transpired in the past year or so since we last sat down for a beer. I explain in detail about my departure from SeaWorld and how it lead to Darden, which lead to Visit Orlando and then back to Darden. I share that it’s worked out for the best, given the increase in pay, more strategic thinking, a boss that understands me, the quality of my work, and that we can speak the same language on almost any subject. I truly am happy where I’m at professionally, albeit with the risk of a contractor status.

We have a second pint. S is drinking non-alcoholic beer as he’s the designated driver.

We head back to the house, and of course I’m asking all kinds of questions about what stuff is or why it’s there. A running joke is that S, originally from Northern Ireland, knows more about the Scottish monuments and culture than K does, who is a native and has spent nearly his entire life in the land. We managed to find regular laughter at how often it comes up while I’m playing tourist.

A quick stop at a Tesco on our way back to the house for provisions, leads to pizza, cheese, crisps (chips), some candy, and beer in a variety of flavors including a mini fridge keg for the next night.

Back at the house, we quickly unpack and get ready to watch the second U.S. presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It had aired while I was in transit over the Atlantic, and the guys were sleeping. It’s a unanimous decision to turn the debate into a drinking game with rules for each candidate.

The debate gets going and we start drinking, laughing, criticizing, agreeing, and disagreeing, all in good fun. The drinking game was definitely a fun idea.

After the debate ends, we look for some alternate programming. We switch on a new Netflix program titled, “Designated Survivor,” Before the end of the first episode, most of us are falling asleep.

My first day in Scotland has been fun and the rest of the trip should be exciting.

Day 3 – Forth Bridge & St. Andrews

The plan for the day is that K and I will head north past Edinburgh to St. Andrews. While it’s a small town with history, it’s the Old Course at St. Andrews that is the draw.

After my breakfast, we’re on our way. We stop along the waterfront on the way to check out the Forth Bridge; an iconic part of the Scottish skyline in this part of the country. There’s actually three bridges; one for trains, one for cars that’s falling apart (we do drive across it), and a new one that’s nearly finished with what appears only a small segment left to construct.

Our drive continues conversations on the U.K., Scotland and U.S. politics. A definite theme of the trip. The weather while sunny before we left Motherwell has turned cold and rainy when we arrive at the course. We drive around the car park a bit until we find a spot.

There had been a tournament the weekend before on the Old Course and much of the event equipment is still up, including the names of the players. K tells me that I MUST get my photo on the small stone bridge on the 18th hole. I guess it’s an iconic part of the course … which I obviously don’t know about, ha. We wait for the current group to play through from 17 to 18 and along with another couple, run up to the bridge for a photo. It officially means I’ve been on the Old Course. I’ll take it 🙂

Afterward, we stop by the Old Course Shop, which affords me the chance to purchase all the different St. Andrews merchandise I’d been asked to bring back to the states. Golf tees, balls, markers, a koozie, a shot glass and two hats later have my list completed. I’m even able to pick-up my VAT refund form for the balance of my gifts.

We grab lunch at a modern bar where I have my first haggis on a burger with pepper jack cheese and jalapeños. I also have one of my first Scottish beer. After lunch, we make our way over to St. Andrews castle, or the ruins thereof. It’s gotten a bit dreary out, and very windy along the coast.

The castle includes access to what the historians called a “mine,” and a “counter mine” which were tunnels dug underground during an attempt to take the castle. The first “mine” was dug by the invaders, the second by the residents of the castle. We are able to actually crawl through these tunnels, which are short and tight at several points. K leaves me behind both going into the tunnel, and in leaving.

Nearby to the castle is the old cathedral and cemetery, our next stop of the day. The architecture of the ruins of the church, combined with the history of those buried both around and within the old church walls is incredible.

We leave the cathedral grounds and as we cross the street and continue walking around and window shopping the golf supply stores. We both agree it would be an expensive hobby to take up. K spots a pet supply store. A new toy for Yoshi is a must and he finds his favorite squeak balls. After a trek back to the car, we have one more stop on our way out of St. Andrews, and that’s the Golf Academy to hit a bucket of balls on the range.

For £7 we get to rent an iron and 50 balls. In a covered bay, I insist we move away from anyone else actually practicing as I don’t want to a) risk looking like a complete fool in front of real players, and b) knowing it’s likely I’ll hit one of them with a shanked ball.

Surprisingly, I do … okay … given this isn’t the club I’d practiced with earlier with my friends. K is of course better than I am. I do manage to get a ball or two to travel at least 50-75 yards; by no means ready to hit the actual links but I think noteworthy just the same. Of course there are my fair share of misses and he’s ready with my camera to capture a couple misses and a hit or two. I don’t think we were there for 30 minutes in total, but it was on my list of things to do, if time permitted.

On our way back to Motherwell, K takes me through their old stomping ground of Dundee which is where they lived before moving to Motherwell. I see the new museum they’re building for cartoonists, as well as some of the “hallmarks” of the city. It’s not very large, but overall looks like a nice place to live.

It’s gotten a bit late and with traffic as it is, we head back to the house making only a passing view of Stirling where the Wallace Statue and a castle are visible. It won’t be the first time we drive by and see these monuments.

Returning home to make sure Yoshi is good, we take him for a quick walk and then return him back to the house to make our way up to their golf club’s pub for a couple of pints and to watch the Scottish National Soccer Team play Czechoslovakia. I can’t help but comment on the fact that the Scottish team is wearing hot pink jerseys, apparently their away kit.

We head back to the house after Scotland loses, badly. We turn on the TV and hit the mini keg purchased the day before. He and I each have two pints while watching several recorded television programs.

S returns home and shares with us his updated schedule, which means tomorrow will be the only other day he’ll have off during my visit. The plan for the next day is for him to take me into Edinburgh, and for K to join us at some point in the afternoon/evening.

Day 4 – Edinburgh

The three of us get up around 9 a.m., but S and I are the only ones actually dressed for the real world. K drops the two of us off at the Motherwell train station where we catch the next, delayed, train into Edinburgh; about an hour’s ride.

The train ride is uneventful, but he and I get a chance to catch up on each other’s lives, likes, politics, etc. He shares with me the plan of attack for the day, which has a good list of attractions. I’m not sure we’ll get to all of them, but better to have more to do than not enough.

Our train arrives in Edinburgh central station and after a quick rundown of the day’s agenda, S and I make our way to our first stop, Calton Hill. Considered to be one of the first public parks and spaces in Scotland, it contains several great vantage points of Edinburgh castle and the Old Town part of the city.

We trek back down and into the Gardens, which is a first for S. I realize this trip for me is as much a new adventure for the guys, too. Many of the places we visit are their, “firsts.” There are war memorials all over the country, as many small towns and villages lost men during both great world wars, including one in the Gardens.

Heading back up the stairs, we make our way to Edinburgh Castle; a bit of a hike both in distance and in height. It’s on this walk I learn about Scotland’s “right to roam” which essentially states that no land is actually owned by citizens, but the country itself and that all residents have a right to go wherever they please.

We make it to the Royal Mile. Entry into the castle and the grounds is kind of pricey, so I purchase our tickets and we venture in with a group of school kids. We learn about the castle’s history, the first kings of Scotland, and get a chance to see the Scottish Crown Jewels; a gold crown, scepter and a very heavy looking sword.

Hitting a few of the other landmarks within the castle, we wait for the 1 p.m. cannon shot, but it either doesn’t fire, or we miss the sound of I entirely. The running joke of, “what time does the 1 p.m. cannon fire,” continually makes us laugh.

After seeking shelter from a quick downpour in typical Scottish weather, we venture back down to check out the Scottish Whiskey Experience. The venue houses a very slow moving theme park style ride that takes us through the journey of turning barley, water and yeast into Scotch whiskey. In the barley drying phase, I ask if it’s going to smell like Rome burning? S doesn’t know what I’m talking about, so I mention how it feels very much like Spaceship Earth from Epcot at Disney. Sure enough, there’s an artificial smoke smell on the ride that does remind me of “the fall of Rome.” Disneyphiles will understand 😛

At the end is a tasting of one of five different whiskeys from each of the main producing regions. Each region has distinct smells and flavors, but all adhere to the minimum three-year aging process. All the available whiskeys for tasting are 12-year-old single-malt, with the exception of one blended whiskey for sampling.

S and I each select different whiskeys so that we can try two different regions. He’s not driving back tonight, which is one reason why K is joining us later. The tasting is in a showroom of sorts of the largest collections of Scotch whiskey, once a private collection but now on display within this venue. The bottles are aged and coming in various sizes, volumes, regions, etc. The most interesting might be one that’s actually a chess board.

With whiskey on an empty stomach, we head out for a bite to eat, stopping at a Pizza Xpress. Over a delicious lunch, S and I chat about his work, my interests in pursuing Yoga Teacher Training, and what not. We each have a pint with our meal and after filling our bellies with really good Italian food, we venture off to Scottish Parliament before they close.

A decent walk down the Royal Mile, I make a quick phone call home as I hadn’t heard from my mom in three days. Having internet, text, and phone has proved to be very helpful, although at $10 a day, it’s pricey. Along the way, we discuss how ice cream might be a good dessert idea. S says that tablet ice cream sounds amazing right now. Not sure what he’s describing, he tells me about a Scottish candy called tablet, which is essentially a bar made of melted pure sugar. It’s then cut/flaked and added as a mixer into ice cream. It’s supposed to be very good, and sweet like many British desserts, so it’s added to the must try list.

We get to the Parliament and before entering the chambers, is a fairly large photo exhibit by a Scottish photographer, who of all things, captured most of the United States modern history. S and I laugh at the irony. I have no interest in seeing photos of Reagan, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, etc., so we head to the main chamber.

We’d arrived shortly before closing and S gives me a Scottish civics lesson on the way in which their government interacts with that of the U.K. and E.U. We have fantastic dialogue on the similarities and differences and don’t even realize we’re the last to leave the chambers after being politely asked to exit. I do get a chance to see from a distance the scepter that the Queen has bestowed upon the people of Scotland in which they are allowed to govern themselves.

K is on his way to join us, or so we thought. Turns out he was at a nearby Starbucks but we don’t realize this until after walking halfway back up the Royal Road. We turn around and find him having a hot cocoa.

The last item on our list to see was the dungeons, however, because of how late we were leaving the house, they’ve now closed. After some Googling – a skill which becomes synonymous with S on our adventures – we decide on a haunted city tour.

The three of us venture back up the Royal Road, for the fourth time now, and find the sales booth. Outside this church converted into a series of shops. We get three tickets for a 90-minute tour that includes a walking tour above ground, and then below ground in the infamous vaults of Edinburgh, with a quick tour of the torture at the turn of the 18th century.

Before the tour starts, K grabs a bite of free food, a sort of vegetable curry and rice, which he doesn’t care for. The food is free as part of a local mission designed to create community engagement and involvement. We think it’s a bit odd not to be decidedly for the homeless, but the concept is cool. I also learn that S has a decent amount of claustrophobia. We’d joked about it the day before when retelling our adventures in the mines, but hadn’t really known how deep the fear was until now. S thinks he’ll be okay, but we’ll see how he manages.

Our tour guide is very good, and gives us a great history of the city during the 1800s. It’s much like Medieval Europe at the time; filthy, Christian, and dangerous for a host of reasons. He takes us from the street above down into the vaults that his company owns. The vaults are considered haunted and while there’s obvious debate on that fact, I did feel a bit constricted in one of the vaults. I do believe in the paranormal, but I’m not sure if it’s the atmosphere – both stuffy and humid – or the history of the space itself that makes me feel uneasy.

After the tour, which included a bit of theatrics, S is fine and we opt for a pub. K takes us to a bar that he’s, “only ever been pissed at,” previously. The location is in the second floor of a hotel with beautiful views of Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town, all lit up at night. The views are stunning for this ancient city on the hill and near the water.

S and I have a few cocktails, while K has some food and a couple pints of Coca-Cola. Between random chats, K books our RIB tour at Loch Ness for Friday, and I book our tickets for the Scarefest mazes at Alton Towers.

After we pay our bill, we make another hike down/up the Royal Road and we’re trying to catch the tram back where K has parked. The temperature has dropped and it’s still raining. I hear about how much of a boondoggle the tram has been, both in delivery and in cost overruns. We all joke Trump could have delivered on time, under budget, and covered in gold.

Venturing back to the house, we take Yoshi for a walk and then turn on Questions for Parliament. The three of us enjoy Theresa May’s attempts to answer everything from Brexit, to the National Health Administration, to other random needs of the kingdom. I also try to get some journaling done.

We all head to bed as the next day K and I will head north on our way to Inverness and Loch Ness. The plan is to make a few stops along the way, both planned and others based on what we see.

Day 5 – Onward North; Loch Lomond, Scottish Highlands, Eilean Donan Castle

K and I wake up and head out before S gets up. We have a journey ahead and need to get to the castle Eilean Donan before 4:30. We stop at a Tesco on the way out of town to provision, including what I affectionately call driving candy, water and a few bags of crisps. I pick up a bag of Peanut M&M’s, which he and I devour the first day. He grabs a candy called, Minstrels, which become our fuel for day two. Our drive contains random chats of things we see and items from talk radio (until we reach parts of the highlands where there is no radio or cellular coverage).

Our first real stop is at Loch Lomond. We don’t actually visit the center there, but do grab some coffee, a few pictures of the lake and the mountains as we luck out with sun. He takes me to a swanky hotel that apparently David Beckham had rented out entirely for the Commonwealth games back in 2014. We’re able to actually park and walk down to the water’s edge. I make a few jokes about our, “right to roam.”

We continue our journey through the Scottish Highlands on the road less traveled, as it winds up, down, and through the mountains traversing through The Trossachs National Park. Fall has started to set in here in Scotland and the leaves are beginning to change colors. I joke about being a, “leaf peeper,” a term a friend had shared with me about those up north.

We stop fairly often to take in the scenery, as the sun and clouds make for beautiful landscapes. The country is just amazing. With the landscapes and so few people around – sometimes just the two of us – we take a lot of panoramas. This becomes another random laugh of our trip, as we jump in and out of the car. At one stop, we even encounter a man bag piping over the crest. Neither of us offer a tip, but I do capture a bit of video as I’m not sure anyone would believe me about a random bagpiper out in the middle of Highlands nowhere.

We stop in a little village town for lunch, looking for a pub to grab a bite. I have the Sheppard’s Pie and a pint of Guinness. With lunch behind us, we get back on the road making our way north east continuing our adventure.

I do have a mission for me to get pictures of a Highland Coo (or cow for non-Scots) and I want to see, or ideally photograph, a rare red squirrel. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see either today, a missed business opportunity K and I discuss if we wanted to start our own highland coo viewing areas near each pull over.

We eventually make the turn toward Eilean Donan Castle; a location that’s been featured in more than a dozen movies and is almost synonymous with imagery of Scotland. While we make it just before 4:30 as planned, it turns out they are open till 5 p.m.

The castle is being beautifully lit by the “golden hour” of sunlight. We’ve been incredibly fortunate throughout the day with mostly sun or partly cloudy skies for our drive, neither of which was actually in the forecast for the day.

A well maintained castle, Eilean Donan has full-sized replicas of several parts of the castle, dating back to when it was used in the 19th and 20th centuries. The castle still has items of the family/clan to which the castle belongs. I have fun taking pictures of the angles of the castle, the textures of stone with grass, water, light. We tour the castle for about an hour before making our way back to the car to drive back to our hotel for the night.

K had booked a B&B for the night. I hadn’t researched his choice too much, but we arrive and check-in just after 6 p.m. right as it starts to sprinkle. Both of us notice that there’s no cellular service and all three of the main radio frequencies are unavailable. We are deep in the Highlands of Scotland.

Our hotel is located in what I suppose you could call the “village” of Invergarry. When checking in, we have to summon a staff person from the hotel’s restaurant and bar. She let’s us know when breakfast is the next day down the hall, and that dinner is available until 8:45 tonight, inquiring if we’ll be dining at the hotel. K asks if there’s really any other options nearby, not because of the hotel or the restaurant, but because of our current remoteness. She graciously suggests an option seven miles away. We laugh and say that we’ll be back down around 7 p.m., not that it really matters as there are only 12 rooms in the hotel. Even with road traffic that stops in, we can’t imagine it will be too busy.

We trek our stuff up to our room, No. 5, and settle in for a few minutes. Deciding to take in a pint before dinner, we head down to the bar that’s part of the restaurant. I order us Carlsburgs and we find a high-top table to chat while we wait to have dinner.

At about 7:15, we make our way into the main dining room for dinner. We both think the night’s special of lamb shank sounds good, but are informed that both it, and the duck (my second option) are no longer available for the evening. Looking to support locally sourced/caught seafood, I opt for the very fresh fish and chips, as does K, with another round of pints. Dinner is delicious and we decide to have another pint and make our way back to our original high-top table in the bar area.

We continue our conversations, eventually moving to the lobby, until the wee hours of the morning. It’s been great catching up with new old friends and eventually get to sleep and prepare for another fun day of adventure.

Day 6 – Loch Ness and Dalmore Distillery

We had decided the night before that I’d get up at 8:30, shower first, and head down to breakfast while K gets ready. My alarm goes off and I do my best to not make too much noise. I finish packing most of my stuff after the shower and head downstairs for a bowl of cereal, coffee, a croissant, and some seasonal fruit. K does find me and orders a traditional Scottish breakfast.

We finish up, grab our bags, and make our way out to the dock for our RIB tour Loch Ness. This proves a slight challenge, as the lack of cell service makes using our phones for mapping difficult. We do find our way to the dock and check-in. To our disappointment, we’re only two individuals reserved for the 10 a.m. tour, and at least four are needed for the trip. After milling around, and watching the loch system work between the two lakes, it becomes obvious that no one else is going to just “show up” for our tour. The operator offers us a spot on the more relaxing leisure cruise of Loch Ness. We decline and decide instead to continue our drive up and around the loch toward Inverness.

I’m still on the hunt for a photo of a Highland Coo, as well as seeing a Red Squirrel. I don’t have too long to wait, as after we make our way around Loch Ness, we make a few stops including next to a pasture where three cows are grazing. I grab my long lens camera and snap away, getting about 50 photos of the cows eating grass. I’m such a tourist. Shortly after we leave the cows, we see a Red Squirrel running in the middle of the road, almost getting hit by a car. No wonder they’re considered endangered, they aren’t very smart.

Our destination is the castle remains of Urquhart Castle. K purchases our tickets and we make our way through the giftshop grabbing a cup of coffee on the way. A short movie shares with us the history of the castle before unveiling a panoramic view of its remains.

We venture down to the castle ruins, which sits directly on Loch Ness. Wondering about, we capture a lot of photos and climb a lot of stairs. I make my way all the way down to the “beach” to at least touch the water and say I’ve touched Loch Ness. K does take a few photos of me, including a panorama. Making our way back up, I keep clicking away taking most of my photos with the two cameras on my phone.

I do not find Nessy.

After we leave the castle, he insists on stopping at a gift shop on the road up to Inverness. There is a model of Nessy which K insists on getting another photo of me with the statue. We go inside and I do some souvenir shopping. He somewhat insists I need to purchase a Highland Cow plush, but I opt for a desk sized Nessy multipiece statuette.

We continue on our way to Inverness, stopping a couple more times for photos. The chocolate Minstrels K had picked up the day before is serving as our driving candy for the day.

After lunch, we take the longer, winding road back to Motherwell. As has been most of our trip, BBC Scotland radio is our background entertainment. Along the way, we look for a Scotch distillery to enjoy a tour and a wee sample. After stopping at one location, the wait for the tour was too long, so we backtrack to Dalmore Distillery.

There’s a bit of a wait for the tour, but I confirm with a buddy back in the states that it’s a nice, high-end Scotch. They don’t allow cell phones or cameras on the tour. It’s an hour long tour that includes a sample of the 12-year single-malt at the end. We see how the washbacks are used, the copper stills and the rack houses. It was incredible, and as I sample the Scotch back at home, I can recall the sights and sounds of the distillery.

Dinner is reasonable, and there’s the Thursday night NFL game on the TV next to us. K is also watching a Rangers (his Scottish football team) game on another TV in the bar/restaurant. We continue the game in the car on our drive back to Motherwell, but I struggle to follow the announcer as I know none of the player’s names. On the way, we stop for a rest and a coffee. His car has the sensors that know if you’ve been driving too much or for too long.

We get to the house around 10 p.m. and find that Yoshi has in fact made a mess in the hallway. It wasn’t a surprise, as we’d known he’d be alone for a long part of the day. We start cleaning it up.

Hard to believe it’s been five days already and +500 miles. Another trek tomorrow and more fun in the forecast. Another night’s rest before our travels.

Day 7 – Manchester City Soccer and Canal Street

Our day starts early, as we have to be on the road at 8 a.m. to ensure we have enough time to get to our hotel in Stoke-on-Trent, taxi to the train to take us to Manchester, to get to the Manchester City vs. Everton English Premier League game.

My alarm goes off at 7:30 after about 8 hours of sleep. A shower and a quick double-check on my packed bag, and I await K in the kitchen. We take Yoshi for one last quick walk and are on the road by 8:15, a fact that he points out that, “we’re not too late.”

About 45 minutes into our drive and we pull off at the equivalent of one of our service plazas. We’d hit one the day before on our journey back from Inverness. He says this one has a Starbucks, which is perfect. I grab a coffee and a porridge, the equivalent of oatmeal. He gets a coffee and a ham and cheese croissant. The driving candy selection for today is a sour patch gummy candy. I don’t try any, but they looked a bit like what I’d imagine the U.K. version of gummy bears to be.

The drive moves fast, as we get involved in several conversations from the radio and other things we see on the road. We arrive in Stoke-on-Trent at about noon, and I realize as we approach the hotel that we must be staying right next to the Stoke city soccer stadium; a team also in the English Premier League. We are, which is hilarious. Why? Because at 3 p.m. Stoke is playing a game at this stadium, but instead of going to that game, K got us tickets to the Manchester City vs. Everton game. I’m even wearing kit from last season for Man City to ensure I don’t look too much like a tourist. Also, Stoke is Orlando City’s official Premier League partner team, and I saw them play back in July in Melbourne against Orlando City. Small world.

After checking into the hotel, K has the front desk call a cab to take us to the train station. We make our way to the train and I purchase us two round-trip tickets to Manchester. The train ride is a bit more than 30 minutes, we board one of the cars and grab two seats.

We get to the station at Manchester and navigate our way toward Etihad Stadium, a little more than a mile a way. The original plan was to find a pub along the way, grab a quick beer, and then continue on to the stadium. However, apparently we find the only entirely residential street in the U.K. with no pubs, bars, or even a market to grab a beer.

It takes us about 20 minutes to make our way to the stadium. Once there, we hit the Man City retail store, where I know I’d wanted to get a scarf, hat, and maybe the orange and purple kit I’d seen online. I’m either too sober, or really don’t like the new third kit, and just grab my other items.

While I see a bar tent or two, we do find a place to grab a bite to eat. I pay with cash for my order, and receive my first ever plastic paper money. That’s right, a few weeks ago it was making news that the Bank of England was printing a £5 note that was made of plastic instead of paper/cloth like the other notes and U.S. currency. It’s practically brand new, and it does have a very different texture. I joke with K, as he hadn’t seen one yet, either. From what I’ve read, I warn him not to wash or dry them, as I guess they can shrink in the dryer, among other challenges with plastic money.

We scarfed our food and make our way into the stadium. Neither K nor I knew what the rules for beer were in the stadium. He’d shared that in Scottish football matches, beer isn’t served at all during the game. We find out it is available here in England, but you’re not allowed to take it into the stands. With kick-off less than 10 minutes away, we pass on beer and make our way to our seats.

Depending on your opinion, we either had great seats, or “meh,” seats. We were row three from the pitch; crazy close. But, because the pitch in this stadium is elevated, our eyes were at knee level with the players. I liked our proximity, but it did create a challenge in depth perception when the ball was on the other side of the field in front of us. It was hard to determine whose legs were whom when fitting for the ball. I’m still able to get some amazing pictures of the players, the field, and the crowds.

At the 40th minute, we head up and nearly miss watching a P.K. by Man City. We run back when we hear the crowd scream and do catch the P.K., but Everton’s keeper does a phenomenal job at blocking the kick and we reach half-time with a score of 0-0.

K and I get in a line we believe has beer. We chug our last beers before returning to our seats about 10 minutes into the second. Thankfully, we’re able to see both goals scored; the first by Everton and the second about 10 minutes later by Man City. The game ends in a draw and we make our way out of the stadium with the hoards of people.

Admittedly, the gameday experience was VERY different from that in the U.S., but awesome nonetheless. However, the more I experience soccer/football in different cities, teams, and leagues, the more I realize how special what we have here with Orlando City may actually be within the sport. There truly may be nothing else like it … anywhere. That’s cool!

K is mapping our way back to the train station. It’s just after 5:15 with plenty of the evening ahead of us. I ask a sort of, “What’s next?” question, thinking we might actually try to locate a pub on our way back to the station. Making our way to the pub, we chat about the differences in the game experience, how walking is proving to be a faster form of transportation than any other, and that we’re headed past some sketchy parts of town, looking very much like a Chinatown experience complete with chopped vehicles and potential drug deals going down nearby.

We arrive to Canal Street as K gives me a bit of background. It’s early on the street, as sun is just setting, so the scene isn’t vibrant yet, but K makes a selection for a pub that’s one of his favorites. I grab us two pints chosing the Strongbow as I needed to have at least one in the U.K., and England seemed preferential as it’s no longer brewed the same way in the States. We only have one pint here and move on, as it’s pretty quiet.

We walk into one bar that’s hopping, but so loud and obnoxious we only stay for a minute before leaving. My shoes were actually sticking to the floor. I don’t want to know why.

Our third and last stop is a bar that’s featuring, “DJs and Drag Queens.” We both agree this should be fun, given the environment and potential scenery. We’d walked past earlier and now it appears to be a bit more hopping.

There are people singing karaoke, badly, with the DJ spinning songs in between each performer. We grab beers and a table. One of the shot girls – a woman dressed in a pantsuit and bun – takes the stage to sing a song. She does a few songs throughout the night, mostly Adele, as you can tell she considers herself kindred spirits.

Earlier in the week, I’d handed K some pounds for something we were purchasing. He mentioned, “Oh, you’ve got English money,” which I guess is a good thing. I inquire why it’s a big deal. The Royal Bank of Scotland prints and distributes their own version of the pound within Scotland. K has had problems with establishments refusing his currency when he travels to England. This becomes a bit of a problem when I hand K a £10 that has the RBS printed on it’s front. I had received it as change to a larger bill earlier in the week and didn’t even realize I’d handed him that note. Sure enough, he gets a bit of pushback at the bar, but the bartender does take it, as it is legal currency and the bar isn’t taking credit/debit cards.

We have three or four pints here before needing to head back to Stoke-on-Trent. The last train leaves just after 9:15, so we chug the last of our beers and venture back to the station. Finding two seats, both of us are on our phones. It’s my last day of my phone’s monthly plan so I see if I can watch/stream the Gator football game. It’s homecoming in Gainesville.

The train ride is again, about 35 minutes back to Stoke. When we arrive, K is hungry as am I, as we hadn’t eaten anything for nearly eight hours. K’s looking for chips and while we take a walk trying to find anything open, our luck runs out and we end up back at the Subway we’d passed by.

Along the way, we pass a couple who see my Manchester City jersey/kit and ask who won. I replay, “it was a tie, 1-1.” K immediately corrects me in that British football, there are no ties, but draws. I guess it’s the same as the difference between “nil” and “zero.” Oh well, I’m just a dumb American.

I discover that in the U.K., kernel corn is a popular addition to sandwiches. I knew it had made salads a few years back. I get the corn instead of my preferred spinach on my sub.

Knowing the Holiday Inn Express we’re staying at has a bar, we don’t get drinks and make our way back to the train station to catch a taxi. Thankfully, there were two left, as we think we were the last train in for the night, or really close to it.

We find a table in the lobby, which is packed with fans from the Stoke game earlier in the day. The crowd is pretty drunk, as are we, but K grabs us two pints to go with our sandwiches and potato chips. While I can watch the game on cellular data, I can’t on the hotel’s WiFi due to country IP restrictions. WTF?

We finish our beers and after a quick check-in if we want one more, we choose not, we head up to the room calling it a night with another busy day tomorrow.

Day 8 – Alton Towers

Neither of us set an alarm. The skies outside are grey, so not a lot of sunlight comes into the room to wake us. Eventually K gets up and jumps in the shower. I check my phone and realize it’s after 9:30. We both likely needed the sleep and we do have a long day ahead of us.

After my shower, I see K has grabbed all his stuff, so I finish packing all my shit and head downstairs for breakfast. I make it fast, grabbing just some coffee, a banana, and some eggs. We know weather today is scheduled to be crap, and Alton Towers opened at 10 a.m. We load up the car and hit the road.

The park isn’t exactly located in a “city,” so much as a converted estate pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. We arrive around 10:30 and aren’t too far behind the crowd. It is Sunday and appears a lot of people have had a slow start to the day.

My first surprise is to learn that Alton Towers has a monorail that runs from the parking area to the main gate. Sound familiar? We wait in line for about 20 minutes for the “no more than six to a car” ride in an aged train, rather than walk the 1.5 miles to the main entrance. I wasn’t aware of it until we’d been inside for a while, but the theme park is vast and taking the train is a smart decision.

We’ve been checking out the ride wait times in the app on our phones and decide that our first coaster should be Galactica in the back part of the park. We can then move our way forward, knowing we have reservations for the Scarefest haunted houses/mazes at 2:15. I’d reserved our tickets at £20/ea. while having drinks in Edinburgh Wednesday.

I’d done some research on the park prior to K’s mentioning it. Essentially, it’s the first theme park to get any new ride technology, so everything we have had in the States likely started as a ride concept at Alton Towers. In fact, several of the coasters I helped market at SeaWorld were built off initial concepts and “first of its kind” rides from this park. I’ll try to touch on each and its U.S. equivalent.

Galactica is the park’s first “re-do” of a ride. It was also the first ever inversion coaster. There are only two like it in the U.S.; one being SeaWorld Orlando’s Manta. The re-do included a retheme from Sky to now Galactica featuring virtual reality (or VR) headsets. I think it’s the perfect first ride for our visit, as 1) I love Manta and this type of coaster. Riding the first-of-its-kind feels kismet as a first ride. 2) I’ve been very curious about VR coasters, especially since SeaWorld has announced that its oldest coaster, Kraken, is set to have a similar VR redo, but will keep its underwater serpent theme.

The line isn’t too long and moves fairly quick. They’ve introduced a different ride photo experience, as no one really wants a photo of them looking dumb wearing a VR headset. We do check the photo after the ride, but neither of us plan on purchasing.

We are placed in the last row of the train, which is my second favorite row after front row. I put on the headset and adjust for my glasses and vision. We launch and admittedly I’m visualizing the Manta track and ride experience as the coaster goes through its immelman loops, corkscrews, drops and inversions. The ride finishes and we jump off. I didn’t care for the VR and really wanted to ride again without the headset, if they’d let me. K says it’s rubbish now and that they’ve ruined a perfectly good ride. While I don’t know what it’s like without VR, I agree given my feelings of Manta. At one point, my headset almost flew off my head with the g-force. That doesn’t seem like a great idea. I have no specifics on what Kraken’s install, but it pulls more G’s, so they better create solid head restraints.

After checking out the photo, we make our way to the next coaster, Nemesis. It’s a suspension coaster, similar to Dueling Dragons, Montu, or maybe my favorite iteration, Alpengeist. It’s a good ride, and we’re in the center of the train. It doesn’t have the drop as Montu, or the number of inversions. The track actually reminds me a lot of Great White Shark at SeaWorld San Antonio in its compactness.

Making our way around, we’re chatting about our experiences at various theme parks, We make our way to Thirteen, which was the first ever “drop” coaster, meaning part of the track drops to a new track path. Busch Gardens Williamsburg introduced a similar drop feature in their execution called Verbolten. This original version of the ride not only drops, but then runs backwards, before returning forward to the ride load platform. I actually really like the ride and it’s afterwards I realize that Alton Towers has introduced a “scary” element to much of their ride theming and design. This does play very well into the fact that Halloween is around the corner and we do have the mazes later in the day.

K takes us back to the other side of the park, which while there’s a skyride, we opt to go through the very wet and muddy gardens. Lots of stairs, hiking, and both of us take our jackets off. The sun has come out, to our complete surprise, and there’s not a cloud in the sky by the time we exit the garden. I am wearing my Dolphins jersey today, as they play shortly after we are planning to leave the park, but we’re going to watch the game tomorrow. I’ve asked my friends and family not to tell me the results and I turn off all notifications from ESPN, just to be safe.

It’s about 1 p.m. when we decide to grab lunch. The fast casual dining experience is different over here. This is the third or fourth restaurant where you’re seated by a hostess, and once ready to order, you go to the bar with your table number and place it. The pace seems better and I’m curious if something like this would ever catch on in the U.S.

We finish our meals and attempt to make our way to check in for the mazes. While we end up checking in a bit late at the one VIP station, we have 30 minutes to start and two hours to complete the three mazes.

I’m going to do my best to explain each of the three mazes, as the experiences have some similarities to Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-o-Scream, but a LOT of differences … but more on that in a few moments …

  1. House one is called “Terror of the Towers” and is more of a traditional maze. Guests are warned that they won’t get touched by actors and to ensure they don’t touch. We’re told to ensure we’re holding each other’s shoulders in a line as we weave our way through the course. There are strobe lights, hanging effects, screaming, actors blocking our path, that sort of thing. The theme is definitely more of an escape from a haunted mansion with that type of path through the various rooms of a home.

    We make it out and admit it wasn’t too scary, but definitely had its moments. K is in front of me for our trek through the maze.

  2. The exit from the first maze drops us near the entrance to the second, called “Sub Species.” This by far ends up being the best of the three mazes, and has completely different rules than what we experience in the U.S. First, we’re told that we will be separated from each other, that you must be at least 15 years of age, and that the actors will touch you. What they forget to define is what, “touch,” really means.

    We’re the first ones in our group of six or eight. He’s immediately taken away. I find out later he’s tossed back and forth between two actors joking as to if they’re going to “keep the little one.” He doesn’t like that.

    A few moments after K is taken, I’m directed to enter the same room, but he’s gone, the group behind me goes a different way, and I’m all alone in a fairly dark room. I think I’m supposed to go straight, but see someone in a room to my left, so I head that way. I find K and we continue with two others. Of course, it doesn’t take long to be separated, again, and this time in total darkness. Throughout, actors in some form of zombie or illness costuming, are screaming and yelling at us.

    Another woman finds me, as I’m now by myself. She’s screaming that she’s lost her boyfriend and is completely scared. She asks if she can hold my arm for the rest of the maze. I assure her it will be fine, but admittedly think the entire time she’s a planted actor that’s going to turn on me. We make our way into a completely dark, somewhat circular room. I try to navigate us along what I think is a stanchion. Of course, if you give me a right or left in an unknown place, I’ll choose the wrong way. I go left and end up running into an actor who for a split second flashes a torch on his face to prevent our eyes from adjusting. The actor jokes about us not being able to find our way out. I stay calm and say out loud, “okay, let’s try the other way,” but am disoriented, as designed. K hears me and calls  out, “Ross, that you?” I reply, but can’t find him in total darkness. I eventually find my way back to the stanchion and head left finding the doorway exit. K’s not so lucky and I guess is in the room for a few more minutes with the actors playing with him again. I at least had the woman with me, he’s entirely alone.

    The woman and I come to a room where the only way out is to crawl on the ground through a tube. Ladies first, and I assure her I’ll, “be right behind you.” Well, I should have known better because after I enter the tube, an actor moves in front of me from the right, places his hand on the left side of my head, and pushes me into the path he’s just emerged. I laugh at both the circumstance, how it’s happened, and that I’m alone, again. I come to a t-junction and choose to go left, thinking it should take me to about the same area I would have been, had the guy not redirected me.

    I’m still alone, but managed to continue my way out the maze. A man with a chainsaw, of course, is at the exit to scare people. This element always fascinates me, as you almost always hear it coming, but everyone still freaks out. I just move out of his way. K follows a few minutes later, completely shaken and like, “That was fucking crazy. Never again. Awesome!” We share our combined experiences as we make our way to the next and final maze. I don’t see the woman who clutched my arm exit, and she was a guest.

  3. The third and final maze is called, “Altonville Mine,” and is an attempt at the Brits trying to make fun of a West Virginia coal mine. We have to wait a bit for a group to arrive, and eventually there are six of us; three given coal mining hard hats. The rules of the second house apply with the added warning of anyone allergic to latex should not participate. Great!

    We’re greeted by the “son,” of the founding coal miner. We’re told pops was a bit of a crazy man, who would frequently get lost in the mine wearing only his underbritches, but those are just stories. The son’s accent is funny to hear as his British normal voice breaks through on a few words and syllables as he speaks with a hillbilly accent. He takes us into the entrance of the mine to meet his sister … and this is where things get … different …

    The sister is a sex-obsessed coal miner’s daughter and essentially molests the group by sticking her hand down our shirts. She plays with all the guys mouths and at the end, grabs my beard and practically sticks her finger into my mouth, and then into hers. This is more comically uncomfortable than scary.

    She turns on the three lights on each of the guy’s helmets and takes us into the room with the elevator to the mine. K and I are again leading the group and he notices a “hidden” door and makes a quick comment about something jumping out. With some lighting and sound effects, the room goes dark and the lights flicker back on. K is gone. Lights go out again and another man is gone, but two actors have appeared; two natives of the mine. They push us all around, and then lead us through the door K had seen.

    I’m now leading the group of four of us left as I push through narrowing hallways and corridors stuffed with hazmat-like suits that are inflated with air to create that pillowing effect against the body. This must have been what the warning was about.

    We wind our way through the dark and the various creatures of the maze. Of course we run into the father in tighty whities; an overweight ginger running around crazed reaching, but never touching us.

    I make it out of the maze and K is already outside. We agree this one was way more intense, especially with the opening sequence of the son, the molesting daughter, K being “snatched” from the group. It was a great house, but we agree that the second was the best overall.

In total it was about 45 minutes to go through the three mazes, and about an hour since we finished eating, so more coasters are on tap.

We venture over to the Smiler. This is Alton Tower’s newest coaster, but was shut down for more than a year after a very bad accident last year left several guests with amputated limbs. K had shared with me the story and I instantly saw into it that it was likely a team member error, but that of course doesn’t make it impossible to happen again. For the past week, I’d said I’d go on Smiler, but didn’t want to sit in the front row, as that’s where the injured guests were sitting in.

The wait is listed at 45 minutes, which was the least we’d seen all day. We get in line, but the queue doesn’t seem to be that bad. The theme of the coaster is likened to a crazy clown, or perhaps a yellow version of Batman’s Riddler. A stupid laugh/song plays on repeat with animated projections on three-dimensional surfaces. We joke the song will be stuck in our head for days.

After only 25 minutes, we’re next up in line and the two of us are directed to line one, the front row. “Of course,” I joke. He laughs and I say, “I always want what I can’t have, and in this case it’s to NOT be in the front row.” The train cars are floored with over-the-shoulder standard harnesses. What makes this ride unique is it’s the first to feature 14 inversions in less than ⅔-mile of track. The trains are three connected, but separate cars, each with a row of four guests. The first inversion is immediately after launch and before the first hill-climb. It’s an intense ride with a 90-degree second hill-climb after the first e-stop part of the track.

We get off the ride and agree it was an awesome coaster. To my knowledge, there’s nothing that’s equal to it yet in the U.S., and given it’s already dangerous history, it may be a few years before a theme park chooses to install a similar attraction.

There are still a few more coasters to visit before we call it a day. On our way to Oblivion, a coaster similar to Sheikra, we chat about music and concerts. He’d already told me that had tickets to see Justin Bieber before heading to London for the NFL game. I share about my “year of music” efforts these past two years, and how I’m glad I got to see “The Book of Mormon,” which they’re seeing while in London, but with “RENT” cancelled for Hurricane Matthew, I’m not sure if I’ll get to see it live. I also share that I’m planning on getting “Wicked” tickets when they go on sale on Friday.

At Oblivion, the line isn’t long at all and we’re on in about 10 minutes. The coaster features two rows of “stadium” seating and was the first 90-degree straight down coaster. I’m doing Sheikra injustice by comparing, and even Griffon. Oblivion is the same type of drop, but only one and the entire ride experience is about 45-seconds. I guess when it opened 15 years ago, it was HOURS wait to ride, which K retells of a story with his dad and sister about a near half-day wait.

After Oblivion, we make our way back to Rita. We’d passed the coaster when we’d been on Thirteen. It’s themed just like Verbolten, or I should say Verbolten is themed just like Rita. You’re in a ride car designed to be escaping the Black Forest of Germany. It’s a multi-launch magnetic coaster, which was likely the first. Another continued theme I rib K about often. It has a long wait, all things considered, but we ride nonetheless.

The sun is starting to set and we’ve hit all the major attractions. K asks if there’s anything else I want to do. I decline and we make our way back to the exit, stopping at a gift shop as I need a shot glass for my collection. With a return trip on the monorail and to Car Park Row C, we’re on our way back to Motherwell. It’s about a four hour drive. We venture out to the main highway and stop after a bit for a quick toilet break.

We stop for dinner at a service plaza of sorts and I try to work out the details for tomorrow for when I’m supposed to meet my previous cruise friend, Arlene, for a bit of time. Hitting the road, we listen to the Manchester United vs. Liverpool game; an important match. We make one more stop for coffee about an hour outside of Motherwell.

It’s around 10:30 p.m. when we roll up to the house, with S on the sofa in the TV room visible to us as we walk in. We share our adventures for the past few days. Yoshi is happy to see all of us, but I think my presence has distracted the guys, as Yoshi starts peeing in the house, then starts pooping while we’re watching a, “traditional Scottish comedy,” about two pensioners who live together in a changing time.

It’s been an amazing trip and about to come to an end.

Day 9 – Back to Work & a Wee Break

I set my alarm for 8 a.m. and get to work checking email. I’m working remote these next three days, but my boss has said I can make my time work with my activities for my trip, which is helpful. I hear S get up and head out before I hit the shower. At around 10 a.m. I move down to the kitchen to grab a quick bite, a cup of coffee, and to not sit in bed working.

K comes down about 11 and asks what the plan of the day is. I share if he’s still good with taking me to the train station at noon, I should be set. My friend from a previous cruise, A,  will meet me at Glasgow Central and we’ll have lunch from there. He heads back upstairs and about 15 minutes later, Yoshi comes down and gives me a look. I’m unable to find the keys to the back doors and had visions of the clean-up the night before. I grab his leash, a small trash bag and shoes and take him for a walk. We make the usual circle and he does both his businesses. I’m actually a bit surprised Yoshi would let me take him for a walk. We seem to have taken to each other nicely.

At noon, K and I head to the station in Motherwell, which is supposed to only be about 3 miles away. However, due to their version of never ending road construction, we have to go an alternate route which means I miss the train that would get me into Glasgow by 12:50. I catch the next available train 20 minutes later and give an update to A on my ETA.

The train ride is fairly uneventful. I bring my work laptop with me, thinking I might get some work done on the train. I should have known better. This train doesn’t have WiFi like the one to Edinburgh did.

I find a restroom in the train station before meeting A. She and I have a big hug and she genuinely has a huge smile on her face. She asks if I have a set time I need to return, and I said the day is wide open. We then walk to her car, where she says we’ll leave the city to have a bite to eat.

I fill her in on my adventures thus far, and much like K (before our adventures), I’ve now seen more of Scotland than she has. We leave the city and admittedly I have no idea where we are headed.

A’s husband has been on holiday with a friend of his on a cruise in the Mediterranean. She drives us to a small hotel around the corner from their home; a place called the Kincaid Hotel. A has been visiting this hotel since high school and the staff there know her by name.

It’s nearly 2 p.m. by the time we order lunch. We catch up on life and what not.

I share that both her hospitality, and the guys, has been amazing. The people of Scotland have been fantastic and I’ve truly enjoyed the week I’ve spent exploring and discovering. She insists on dessert, a toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream that’s both sweet and delicious.

A takes me to her house; a converted cottage once called French Mill as it used to have a mill on the property, and is located on a beautiful flowing river. The house is gorgeous.

On the way back to the train station, she offers to drive me past the castle that’s now the training facility for Celtic, Glasgow’s football/soccer team’s training facility and also where she was born when it was once a hospital. I decline the offer, but do appreciate her thinking of me. She drives me back to the train station and gives me excellent directions. I give her a big hug and promise next time I visit, it’ll be when her husband is in town, and who knows, maybe on a cruise ship.

I let K know that I’m at the station and search for the platform for my train to Motherwell. Of course it’s on a platform where I can’t find any signage for the number. Everything says 1-15 and the board reads boarding at platform 16. This must be some kind of insane joke. I ask an employee who sends me down a staircase. I know I only have minutes to sprint down a hallway, down several flights of stairs, through the ticket turnstile and I get to the train just in time to hit the door button, and the train rolls away. Damn! 🙂

I catch the next train, which calls on EVERY stop on the way to Motherwell. K is running a bit late now. He asks if I’ve dressed warmly because we’re taking Yoshi and me to visit the Kelpies. Admittedly, I’d forgotten what this was, but if he wants to get out of the house, that works for me.

I get to Motherwell just after 5:20 and wait about another 15 minutes for K to show up. He’s got Yoshi buckled into the back of the car and we head for the Kelpies. When he first texted it, I thought it was near the train station. Turns out I was wrong, and it’s back into the city.

It takes us about 30 minutes to get there just before sunset. The Kelpies are giant +100 foot tall metal horse heads that were built only a few years earlier to commemorate the engineering prowess of the Scottish people of Glasgow.

While walking Yoshi, I joke that I wonder if I can get him to sit still long enough to put his head over that of one of the horses. K thinks it’s unlikely, but does get a picture of Yoshi with his head about the same size, “playing tourist.”

We walk around the park as the sculptures are illuminating. This part of the canal appears to be a dock for canal boat users, as there’s facilities for showering and kind of like camping. We read about the Falkirk Wheel, which is just down the canal from the Kelpies. K offers to take me there to see the, “boat elevator.” I’m intrigued as he can’t really explain this contraption very well.

Leaving the Kelpies, I offer to have Yoshi on my lap as he was whimpering during the drive out. I guess it’s because when there are two in K’s car, he’s usually riding on the lap of shotgun. Yoshi loves this and enjoys being up front, resting his head on my arm.

We reach Falkirk Wheel and it’s nearly pitch black. The attraction, or loch as it were, is only open during the day. I do get some fun photos and can only imagine how this canal boat “ride” must actually operate. We don’t stay too long, and make our way back to Motherwell to watch a few games.

On the drive back, K tells me he’s learned the outcome of the Dolphins game, which we haven’t watched yet. I tell him not to tell me how badly we lose. We listen to a soccer game on the radio, before stopping for Chinese take out for dinner. We tag team with Yoshi for our orders.

With our food in hand, we head back to the house. We finish watching the soccer game before watching the replay of the Dolphins game. I had ordered a sweet and sour chicken, which for the first time for me has tomatoes in it. It’s not bad, but almost too sweet.

We watch the entire Dolphins game, while I’m simultaneously doing some work, work. Because the recording skips all the commercial breaks, it’s less than two hours to find out the Dolphins beat the Steelers, and pretty well. Go Fins!

After the game, and a work-related phone call I receive at about 10:30 p.m., we watch some random TV. S gets home around 11 and shares with us the good news. Turns out, he doesn’t have training tomorrow as originally planned, and doesn’t have to be at work until 4 p.m. It means we can all have a nice lunch out together before my flight out on Wednesday.

I start to drift a bit, nearly falling asleep once or twice, so I call it a night and head up to bed, setting my alarm this time for 9 a.m. My trip is winding down, and while it’s been action packed, I knew it would end eventually. Tomorrow is my last full day in the country.

Day 10 – Quietly Ending

My alarm goes off at 9 a.m. and I do a similar routine as the day before, checking email and then jumping in the shower to warm up. The house is freezing today and my only saving grace to not having cracked skin has been that the humidity is helping. I start packing items away as we’re scheduled to head out at 7 a.m. on Wednesday to take me to the airport, Yoshi to his doctor’s appointment, and S plus his coworker to training.

At about 10 I head downstairs for coffee and to sit at the table to work. At around 11:15, S comes down saying that K is not feeling well and that he’s heading out to get cold medicine. I ask if I can tag along if there’s chocolate where he’s going, since it will likely be cheaper than the airport.

S and I head out. Of course, the road we need to take is closed for construction and S and I embark on an adventure of, “We’re not lost, just exploring an alternate route.

At the British version of Walmart, S helps me find some chocolate and shortbread to bring back to the States. I also pick-up something for breakfast, as I hadn’t eaten yet. I help S pick out medicine for K, who is already texting wanting to know what’s taking so long. I make it out of the store for just under £16 and about five pounds of candy, snacks and breakfast. Not too shabby.

We return to the house with K taking all the medicine he can. Back at my computer, I start looking for options for lunch and shout out a few ideas. K has been in search of a good Steak Pie, not a Steak and Ale pie. Ironically, I had the dish he was looking for at lunch yesterday with A. I find a restaurant at a hotel that sounds promising. It takes about 25 minutes for K’s medicine to kick-in, and we’re all pretty hungry. We agree on a place the guys haven’t been to before called The Wide Mouth Frog at a hotel and golf course a few miles away.

Our food is good and K is able to enjoy his steak pie. The waitress disappears for nearly an hour after we eat, and we have to get S back to the house in time to change for work. We catch up while we wait. I finally go to the bar to pay for lunch and we head back to the house.

Back home, I pick-up doing some work while S gets ready. He’s off with the possibility of returning early enough in the evening that I might see him before I go to bed. He confirms the next day’s schedule means I’ll at least get to say goodbye at the airport before my flight.

Around 3:30, K asks me if there’s anything I’d like to do for the day. He’s been so gracious and has already shown me so much, I’m not sure what to even suggest. After some thought, I suggest we take Yoshi back to the brewery from the first night. They’d mentioned they wanted to see if he would be okay at a bar, and since it’s a Tuesday evening, I figure it should be fairly quiet for a first attempt.

It was a bit chilly today on our first venture out so I try to bundle up, too. The three of us load up into K’s car with Yoshi on my lap after a quick walk around the block, just to be safe.

It takes about 30 minutes to get to West brewery, which is in Glasgow. When we get to the brewery, K and I take Yoshi for a walk in the nearby park. We didn’t visit these grounds on our last visit, so it’s all new to me.

It’s the Palace of the People, which sits on a large open green space. Others are walking their dogs around the park. I’m a bit surprised at the lack of leash laws, or at least individuals using leashes, for their dogs. Thankfully, Yoshi doesn’t seem to have an issue with other dogs, and no crazy dogs seem to be interested in him or us.

We walk around the park, which K says is used for various events, including fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and other community events.

After ensuring Yoshi has properly evacuated his systems, we make our way into the brewery. We grab a table near the front and make unofficial bets on how long we’ll last before Yoshi will need to leave. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen.

We chat a bit about work, what I do for Darden. K is drinking the same non-alcoholic beer that S had our first day, and for some reason this place feels like the perfect end with how we began my adventure. I order us some chips as a snack when I grab a second pint for me, since I’m not driving. It’s Tuesday night, and that means a live piano. Shortly after he starts at 7, we’ve finished our beers and chips and decide to head back to the house. Yoshi has been pretty good and hopefully will be able to make a return visit.

On the way home, K mentions that we need to stop to get food for Yoshi. I remember both he and S saying Yoshi needed food, so when we arrive at Tesco, I stay back in the car with Yoshi while K goes inside for groceries. Making our way back to the house, we discuss our plans for the last evening. We have some TV to watch, and neither one of us are all that hungry.

We make our way into the living room, after grabbing a beer. A few times on the trip, K has expressed interest in catching Hillary Clinton on the Ellen Degeneres show. I guess it’s not going to air in the U.K. for another two days. I’m able to locate the video clips on the Ellen website from my phone and through the miracle of Apple TV, I’m able to stream to the screen.

After we watch some BBC news, I mention we need to try the Irn Bru with Whipped Pinnacle Vodka. While K has a limited sense of taste with his cold and medicine, I grab two glasses, put the few cubes we have split evenly into each, and mix the drinks for us using Irn Bru’s XTRA product recently released. He tries it, and as best as he can tell, he says it’s pretty good. I’ve left one more bottle for him to try the mix again later.

We move back into the living room to watch the second episode of Designated Survivor. S was supposed to make it home around 11 tonight, and while it’s after that now, I do my best to stay awake and watch the third episode. I unfortunately fall asleep on the sofa. When I wake, there’s about five minutes left in the episode. I say I’m off to bed, given the early morning and needing to do a few things before we leave.

I head up to bed and lay out my clothes for the next day. My last night has been equally delightful as the rest of the trip. Good night one last time, Scotland.

Day 11 – The Long Goodbye

My alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. and I get up, shower, pack my last few items.

When I emerge from my room around 6:50, both guys are up. S has gotten ready for work, and K looks a bit like the walking dead. I greet S, as I didn’t get a chance to see him last night. I move my bags downstairs and we get ready to head out for the airport.

On the drive to Glasgow airport, S and I briefly catch up from the night before. When we get to the airport, S pulls over, I hop out, and start to unload the car.

Once the bags are out, we say our goodbyes, including a scratch for Yoshi. It’s been a great trip and I really appreciate everything.

I check-in my bags, after a difficult conversation with the desk agent who forces me to pay for the overweight carry-on (what the hell) and I end up checking it and my overweight suitcase. $80 later, and I make my way back to the Starbucks to order a coffee, porridge, and a banana. It’s when I assemble my oatmeal that my sadness at missing the guys sets in.

After going through security, I make a few purchases in duty free for whiskey, souvenirs for my mom, and beverages for the flight.

After a general boarding call for my flight, because there’s maybe 50 people in total, the trek is largely uneventful. I’m able to get the first 10 pages of this journal captured before my battery dies, and enjoy a few episodes of American Horror Story: Hotel on my iPad before we approach for landing.

This trip has been incredible. I don’t even know how to describe it. I’ve been asked a few times what my favorite thing was, and while I saw a lot, did a ton, and have plenty of memories, it’s really hard to say, beyond spending some great time with amazing friends.

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Alton Towers, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Highlands, Holiday, Inverness, Loch Ness, Manchester, Manchester City, Scotland, St. Andrews, Vacation,