Four Places to Drink in Edinburgh

For various reasons, my husband and I stuck close to home in 2015, but that doesn’t mean our desire to travel has diminished. Being Preparing to sip a cocktail.home-bound for so long, though, means that I’m feeling especially nostalgic for past adventures. Maybe it’s on account of all the Christmas Market and Hogmanay photos I’ve seen on travel blogs and social media lately, but I keep finding myself thinking especially of my 2014 trip to Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is rich in history and culture, and there’s no shortage of great places to eat and especially to drink. I really can’t begin to do justice to the city’s bar scene here, so instead, I’ll offer a sampling of what’s in store for travelers through the lens of four of my favourites. Continue reading

Random Observations upon Returning from British Columbia

The Rocky Mountains as seen on a clear day in Langley, British ColumbiaOver the last five years, I’ve looked outside Canada for vacations. Canada is home, and home just doesn’t seem interesting or appealing when you have the chance to escape your comfort zone, does it? But Canada is a big place — almost-10-million-square-kilometres big — so there’s actually quite a bit of room for the novel and different. I was reminded of this fact over Christmas when I visited British Columbia for the first time.

I’m still processing my B.C. experience, but my impressions were varied and generally positive. A few random observations:

– Vancouver is just like any other large North American city, except for the mountains and ocean peeking around seemingly every corner. That’s the draw of this place: the proximity to such natural beauty — an open-invitation to leave the city behind, if only for an hour. I was enchanted. The hiker in me can’t wait to return so I can spend time in those mountains.

Vancouver skyline– given B.C.’s reputation for being green, I was startled by the number of public recycling bins and garbage receptacles in Vancouver, Langley, and White Rock. This will sound like the set-up for a joke, but it’s not: waste receptacles are everywhere in Toronto. In B.C.’s lower mainland? Not so much. What do people do with trash on the west coast? Stow it in their pockets until they return home? Or are Vancouverites just more adept at those other two Rs — reduce and reuse?

– a lot of people complain about the LCBO’s monopoly on and pricing of alcohol sales in Ontario, but if my unscientific study is any indication, a public-private retail mix may not mean lower prices for consumers. My husband and I made a point of visiting a public and several private liquor stores in Langley, and we discovered that where whisky’s concerned, bottles there command on average $3 to $5 more than they do here in Ontario. And then there were the jaw-dropping exceptions to the rule, like a bottle of The Balvenie DoubleWood — about $90 here in Ontario — going for about $120 in B.C. What B.C.’s public-private mix does seem to guarantee is variety. Expressions that can sometimes be challenging to find at the LCBO — namely Auchentoshan Three Wood and Nikka Whisky from the Barrel — were easier to find at B.C. liquor stores. If one store didn’t have it, there would be another one not too far away that did have it. Perhaps that’s something worth paying more for?

Dram of Ardbeg Uigeadail at Vancouver's ChambarChambar. Known for its Belgian beers and seafood, this restaurant was a serendipitous discovery when we had all but given up finding an open bar that wasn’t rammed full of rowdy football-watching patrons. After a rainy Sunday spent walking around Vancouver, my husband and I were both looking to warm up with some whisky. We were returning to our SkyTrain stop after striking out at several Gastown pubs when we noticed Chambar’s large uncovered windows from the courtyard below. With its exposed red brick and amber-coloured tables, it looked chic and inviting and — above all — spacious. We were sold and quickly entered to settle in at the bar. They had a small but good selection of whiskies, including a bottle of the Macallan Amber, which I’ve been meaning to try and would have that day had the damp hours in Stanley Park not whetted my appetite for peat. On this visit, I ordered a dram of my comfort whisky — Ardbeg Uigeadail — but I would love to return to Chambar when we have the time to explore their cocktails and menu more fully. During our short time there, we found the beer and cocktail selection intriguing, the staff friendly, and the ambiance at once sophisticated and unstuffy. An added bonus? I’ve since discovered Chambar is committed to doing business ethically and sustainably. How very Vancouver!

Travelling with Strangers: A few words on group travel

Planning your next vacation? Trying to decide whether to go it alone or to join a tour? To help you decide if group travel is for you, I’ve cobbled together a few points from my experiences.

1. Package deals where most, if not all, meals are included make it easier to budget your money.

2. Accommodations are arranged and paid for in advance, and guides are vetted for you. This takes away some of the stress of trip planning.

3. There’s less control over where you stay and where you eat. On the up side, you can end up in some real gems you may have overlooked on your own–for me, this was All the Twos guest house in Clifden, County Galway, and The Old Inn‘s restaurant and pub in Gairloch, Scotland–but you can also end up in places whose only redeeming qualities are location and price.

4. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people. This can be a pro or a con, depending both on your outlook and the people who end up in your tour group. I’ve had the good fortune to travel with many warm, witty, cultured people whose openness and warmth have enriched my experiences with a destination. On my most recent trip, including our guides, our decidedly international band came from Scotland, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, and the United States (in addition to Canada, of course). There were teachers and dentists, writers and biochemists. There were retired professors, and several public servants. The bus ride banter and dinner chatter was as compelling as it was multilingual, and I came away from the trip with almost as much knowledge of my companions’ countries (albeit secondhand) as I did of our host country.

On the other hand, I have less fond memories of companions whose stubborn singlemindedness threatened to wrest control of the travel agenda from our guide and derail a long-hoped-for trip to, for instance, Slieve League.

5. While group tours can provide some helpful structure to your travel plans, there’s less room for spontaneity. Vacation or no, I’m always tempted to linger in bed, and schedules get me out the door and into life before it and the sights pass me by. However, in my experience, group tours rarely allow room to linger a little longer in that perfect pub discovered off the beaten path, or to explore the shops before that rest-stop town shutters for the day. With group travel, the needs of the group come before the whims of the individual.

6. Homegrown tour companies are a great way to access the local perspective. While there’s really no substitute for seeking out non- touristy pubs, cafés, and galleries and chatting up residents yourself, tour operators often hire local people as guides, and there’s nothing like experiencing a host city or country as home! Local guides know the history as well as how people live now. They know the tricks of navigating cultural terrain that the guidebooks miss. The point is Trafalgar isn’t the only option out there for North Americans. As with any travel undertaking, do your homework. It will be richly rewarded!IMG_2193.JPG

Saturday Spotlight: Extreme Ireland

Given last Sunday’s post on climbing Croagh Patrick, it seems appropriate to devote the first Saturday Spotlight to my favourite Irish tour operator, Dublin’s Extreme Ireland.

For our first trip to Ireland, A and I scheduled most of our time in Dublin, but we knew we wanted to take a couple day-trips out of the city. “When will we have another opportunity to see the Cliffs of Moher or Blarney Castle or the Hill of Tara?” we reasoned.

After several hours of research spearheaded by my master-planner husband, we settled on three tours with Extreme Ireland: one to the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren; one to the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, and Cork; and one through the Boyne Valley with stops at the Hill of Tara, Trim Castle, Loughcrew, Drogheda, Monasterboice, and the Jumping Church.

Right off the bat, we were impressed by the variety of destinations Extreme Ireland’s tours covered, and the ease and flexibility of booking — we could buy tickets online or in person at their office — but the best was to come. While Extreme Ireland certainly can’t take credit for the country’s lush terrain and rich history, it can lay claim to expertly curated day trips and some of the most knowledgeable, engaging driver-guides you’ll ever have the pleasure to travel with.

My husband, A, is notoriously hard to impress. But I knew even he was won over when half way through our Boyne Valley tour he turned to me and said, “You know, these guys do multi-day hiking trips, too.” Very high praise indeed.

Higher still: we returned to take one of those hiking trips the following year. We wouldn’t have climbed Croagh Patrick or Diamond Hill — highlights of my life so far — without Extreme Ireland, and for the planning and expertise of their guides, I’m extremely grateful.

Into the Reek

The sun is bright for late September and the breeze drifting across Clew Bay is teasingly summery. This may be one of the last truly lovely days of the season, and we’re going to make the most of it.

“It’s not a bad climb,” we’re told, “But the last bit is quite steep.”

A and I are four days into our week-long hiking trip through the west and north of Ireland. Our legs are feeling stronger, more solid than they did after Monday’s climb up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park, when they felt more like unset gelatin than limbs. Whether it was the ride up from Clifden or a temporary lapse in memory, we’re eager to get moving. This is what we’ve come for. Croagh Patrick.

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