Scotland: Edinburgh the Trossachs and Loch Lomond
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You tak the High Road and I tak the Low Road and I'll be in Scotland before ye.
Which ever 'road' you take, the wonderful sights and experiences that await you are why people say, 'why go abroad when you can get scenery like this at home?' We decided to choose a coach tour, for a stress free journey North of the Border. No passports to think about, no flying, no luggage worries, no maps. Just get on board sit back and let the journey unfold.
We started our experience in Edinburgh, joining our coach party organised by the Coach Tourism Council (it promotes tours on behalf of more than 140 UK coach operators) at the Doubletree Hotel in Bread Street, a very well placed hotel, more of a business hotel, but it is definitely all about location, location, location. From here it was easy to explore this amazing, diverse city, with its world famous Castle, its shopping paradise on Princes Street and its culture at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
The Castle which towers over the city on Volcanic Rock is steeped in history and tradition, and no visit is complete without a visit to Edinburgh Castle, part of the Old and New Towns’ World Heritage Site. The cost is £12.80 for concessions and the Castle does have parking for blue disabled badge holders plus mobility vehicles are available. Join the excellent guided tour, which is free with your ticket and enjoy the banter and knowledge of the guide. The Castle has the Scottish Crown Jewels on display along with the oldest building in Edinburgh, St Margaret's Chapel, also the world famous one o'clock gun. A tip: it isn't an easy walk for Silver Travellers, take good walking shoes.
Evening entertainment is plentiful in Edinburgh and one of the highlights is the Mercat Ghost tours, named Mercat because many years ago travellers would go to the Mercat Cross in the centre of the Royal Mile and ask for directions.The tour of the city’s 'haunted' vaults below South Bridge, was interesting, informative and very well presented by excellent guides; it costs approx £9 per person for a variety of tours, including the Canongate graveyard. Have you heard the saying 'Saved by the Bell?’. Well we found out that many years ago when body snatchers were in Edinburgh, people would put a bell in their coffins, just in case they had been buried alive and they could then ring the bell. Very spooky!
Our next stop was a meal at the Amber restaurant at the Whisky Experience; the ambience is superb and the restaurant boasts one of the largest whisky collections in Scotland. The food and service are excellent and a tour of the whisky collection is included.
Our coach was waiting for us the following morning outside the hotel, with a driver and guide. A coach tour really is the ideal way to travel: cases on the coach, no maps to read, no traffic to negotiate around Edinburgh's busy streets, no parking worries, all taken care of by your tour operator.
Our first stop was the Royal Yacht Britannia, and we had been there before so please read my review. Our next stop was a tour at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence, where she hosts her annual Scottish Garden Party during the month of June. It is a fascinating tour, the grounds and gardens are magnificently maintained, and a tour of the ancient 17th Century ruins of the abbey is included. The cost of entry is £10.30 for seniors, and it does have wheelchair access except for the Mary Queen of Scots apartments.
Our 'group' was now getting to know one another and enjoy the relaxing journey through the Trossachs area of Scotland, the beginning of the Highlands. The coach takes you through some wonderful scenery to our next destination the Falkirk Wheel. This is a giant lock device that has replaced eleven locks and does the turn in 4 and a half minutes!! It is a magnificent, mechanical marvel, 21st century, state of the art engineering and can take up to 6 canal boats and transport them up to the higher river. The area from the cafe to the children's play area is certainly well worth the visit and if you do not have a head for heights then fear not, it is just like being transported in an aeroplane and you don't even notice that the capsule that you are sat in is moving.
The route we were taking was to Stirling, and on our way we stopped and viewed the newly opened magnificent sculptures of The Kelpies. The horses named Kelpies have been part of the Scottish way of life for many years, and the horses’ heads have been sculptured by public art specialist Andy Scott to ensure that they are seen by thousands of people and enjoyed for all time. Tours are taken inside the heads and soon lights will be installed to enhance the eye-catching spectacle that they create.
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a trip to a Whisky distillery, and we weren't disappointed. We visited Deanston Distillery, at Doune, Stirlingshire, which was transformed from a cotton mill in the 1960's and has been distilling whisky using traditional methods ever since - it is a very good whisky enjoyed by many all over the world. The distillery is on the River Teithe - have you heard the saying 'Armed to the back Teeth?' Well it came from the old pistol factory near the distillery. Our evening was spent in Stirling at the Golden Lion Hotel, a central hotel next to shops, restaurants and bars. After a good meal and the company of your fellow passengers, a comfortable bed was all that was required.
We left the Golden Lion Hotel to travel a short distance to Stirling Castle, the Royal Palace which was the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots which was once a favoured residence of the Stewart kings and queens who held grand celebrations at the castle. The knowledgeable staff bring the castle to life as they recall the battles, the marriages and murders which took place in this amazing castle. Visitors are met by costumed characters in the roles of royalty, bodyguards and servants who give insights into the royal Stewart Court. It is the 'golden' castle and can be seen for miles around. It was in fact painted a golden colour to make all the poorer people think that a great powerful King and Queen lived in this Castle. It is very impressive and well worth a visit, but again tip: strong shoes: There is disabled access, and a courtesy vehicle for the steep inclines.
Now on to the 'battle', well the Battle of Bannockburn was fought near the new Heritage Centre that is situated at one of the most important historic sights in Scotland. The visitors’ centre is fabulous, where 3D technology is used to bring the events of 1314 to life. The archers and the cavalry men 'come out of the walls' as you stand and look at the pictures, they move and talk. We then went to the interactive battle game, English against the Scots, where the audience had to have their soldiers move around the board to save the Kings - brilliant for all ages. The area has an excellent cafe and a walk out to the statue of Robert the Bruce where he sits in splendour on his horse and views the scene of the great battle.
We had a short visit to Loch Katrine, which is a beautiful Loch, and sadly because of a shortage of time and another place to visit, we only had time to take pictures and have a drink in the cafe, but it is one place I would love to go back to and enjoy a boat ride on the Loch.
Retail Therapy? Well it has to happen sometime. We visited the Scottish Wool Centre in Aberfoyle, there are sheep of different kinds with the shepherd explaining what they were and where they came from. It is in the open air and we were very lucky with the weather, but I don't think it would have been so good standing outside in the rain! We had time to shop and look at Harris Tweed jackets and Cashmere jumpers - a good place to pick up the bargains and the shortbread to take home.
Our bed for the night was at the Winnock Hotel, which caters for many coach tours; they are professional and have good staff, who are helpful and friendly. It is in Drymen which is on the East Side of Loch Lomond, the food was excellent and the Scottish theme is all around, from tartan carpet to hunting scenes on the walls. We had the Haggis 'brought in' and Rabbie Burns poetry read out by burly Scots. The evening was rounded off by us joining another coach party to sing 'The Flower of Scotland', and Scottish dancing finished the evening and me too - I was ready for my bed!
We had a lie in - 8 o'clock - be prepared for early starts when coach touring, as the tour companies want you to see as much as possible and pack a lot in, so early starts are the norm, but a flexible approach is always the best and your tour guide will explain the itineraries and schedules. Tthey are there to ensure you have a good holiday, but, remember they cannot change the weather!
Our next delight was a 90 minute cruise on Loch Lomond, the 'bonnie banks' were explained to us as we sipped a cup of tea whilst gliding along the Loch. Look out for the Cave - it is said that it was Rob Roy Mac Gregor who was hiding out whilst the Clansmen and the British were looking for him in the Cave. We had good weather again, but if it is raining, the views are reduced, and that goes for anywhere in Scotland - you cannot rely on the weather, also there are the green fly and the midges - take the umbrella, sun cream and the insect sprays with you just in case!
Our next stop was for lunch at the Loch Lomond Shores which is a retail development with cafes bars and an aquarium on the banks of this famous Loch. The business are doing very well, and on a sunny May day, there were lots of families out enjoying the area.
Our last stop was a visit to Hill House, which is an iconic house and gardens designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The National Trust Scotland, now own Hill House, and it previously belonged to the publisher W. Blackie, where Charles and his wife designed many of the features now on display. You can buy the distinctive jewelery and gifts to take home from the small shop and enjoy a drink in the cafe.
Well, we were then on our way home, we were not sure if it was on the High Road or the Low Road, as our 'whistle' stop coach tour of the Trossachs National Park and Edinburgh was coming to a close, but we all went home 'richer' for the friends we had met and the wonderful scernery we had experienced. Coach touring is a great way to see our wonderful countryside and places of interest; from the comfort of you 'armchair' surrounded by like-minded people, I will certainly be going by coach in the future, and as the Scottish say - Haste Ye Back - we certainly will.
Scotland is one of the most popular coach tour destinations, and many operators who are members of the Coach Tourism Council organise a variety of itineraries and will pick you and your luggage up from your home or pick passengers up from convenient points near to where you live. Most tours include half board accommodation, excursions and coach travel from all over England and Wales.
For more information contact www.findacoachholiday.com/. To find your ideal Scotland experience contact www.visitscotland.com/. 2014 is themed 'Coming Home Year', and it also includes the Commonwealth Games and many other events to celebrate. Check the web site for events throughout the year.
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• The Falkirk Wheel
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