Tag Archives: weekend getaway

A (Wee) Taste of Edinburgh.

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If anyone had told me that my first meal in Scotland would be porridge, I’d probably have said, “Yeah, right.” But after a night flight from Newark, I needed some comfort. The June solstice may have been looming but that early Edinburgh morning greeted me with raw and rainy weather. I suppose that was my first Scottish experience.

History, fishing, golf, hiking the Highlands, pubs, whisky, kilts, haggis, Outlander. All of these things—and much more—are part of the Scottish experience. I didn’t particularly have one in mind when I arrived but it was so nice to see tourism alive and kicking here. If you’re looking for a large helping of history and culture, with a generous side of fresh air, wonderful hospitality, good grub and beautiful scenery—Edinburgh has it.

After taking the tram into the city center (and spying all the motorway traffic from my comfy £5 seat), I dumped my bags at the hotel and went in search of breakfast. I didn’t have to look far. A few steps from the hotel a sidewalk chalkboard beckoned me the message, “I would walk 500 miles for CAKE.” Warm and welcoming, Pep and Fodder serves up fresh-baked goods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A cluster of croissants and other assorted goodies flirted with my attention but when I saw porridge with honey and cinnamon on the menu board, I just went for it.

You know when something is downright delicious? Well this was it, pure comfort food perfection. As my spoon swirled around to catch every creamy bit it struck me that on some future cold and crummy day I’ll be saying, “I could murder a bowl of Pep and Fodder porridge.” So that was my first tasty Scottish experience.

Edinburgh Castle, the jewel in the city's crown.

Edinburgh Castle, the jewel in the city’s crown.

The majesty of Edinburgh is striking. From my tram seat I saw the giant rock of Edinburgh Castle. Staying in the New Town area, it was an easy 15-minute walk to the city’s most famous and glorious attraction. I’d hooked up with a friend from Ireland and our visit coincided with the setup of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual extravaganza of historical ceremony and entertainment. Scaffolding and bleachers were underway with the castle serving as the backdrop to the grand celebrations that will unfold in August.

After paying an entrance fee, we opted for the do-it-yourself castle tour. The majesty of this fortress, which dates back to the 12th-century, happens outside as much as inside its walls. Entering through a clock tower door, we joined a moving stream of visitors gazing upon the Crown Jewels. America doesn’t have this kind of history. After hearing the term used as an expression for so long it was a wonder to see the real deal gleaming, the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles.

Secrets of the Royal Mile, a small group walking tour with Mercat Tours, provided a fun intro to Edinburgh’s history. Led by a cheeky historian who accented our route with tales of crime and culture, this 90-minute journey offered a bit of a workout as we navigated through the Old Town’s steep stairs and hills. For commitment phobic travelers, it’s an easy way to dive into history without blowing your day.

Sweet songs on a summer night from Daniel Docherty.  (Photo: C. Reilly)

Sweet songs on a summer night from Daniel Docherty. (Photo: C. Reilly)

The ancient cobblestone streets call for walking shoes, my ankles were glad I’d worn mine.  This road runs the length of the Old Town that surrounds the castle and bustles with pedestrian, buskers and souvenirs. It’s very “ye olde” and close alleys tease your curiosity. Chasing history down the tiny lanes wedged between buildings that squeeze out the light is a good way to explore the area. Colorful candy shops draw you in and liquor store windows blaze with beautiful bottles of whisky of all ages. Along all the main drags, stores market a massive offering of cashmere sweaters, kilts and tartan.  It’s a wonder there’s any wool left.

With its incredible architecture and heritage, Edinburgh invites walking. It has world-class museums and the badge of honor for being the “world festival capital” so you don’t have to go far to indulge yourself. Relaxing in a sidewalk pub is great for people watching. Old world meets new as bridal parties proudly don kilts.

Get me to the church on time. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Get me to the church on time. (Photo: C. Reilly)

But what would a visit to Scotland be without a pot of tea? It’s kind of a must for a first timer. Whether you’re looking for an elegant or shabby chic atmosphere, Edinburgh is stocked with teahouses offering freshly baked cakes and sandwiches. Clarinda’s kitschy tearoom on Canongate, where I made quick work of a slice of orange cake, suited me just fine. With an abundance of cafes, pubs and restaurants refueling is easy.

Do you like it smoky? That was the question the ginger-haired bartender at The Balmoral Hotel’s Scotch bar posed when I asked for a whisky recommendation. We’d just come from a deliciously memorable feast at The Witchery, an award-winning restaurant at the gates of Edinburgh Castle. This dining destination attracts visitors as much for its magical atmosphere as for its menu. I’m still thinking about the hot-smoked Loch Duart salmon that I tried to eat very slowly.

The evening began with cocktails at The Scotsman Hotel. Walking over the North Bridge around 9PM the solstice sun lit this Edinburgh institution up like golden ale, making it way too inviting to pass up. Its bar buzzed with locals and tourists and we found prime real estate at its brass rail.

Solstice sun warms The Scotsman. (Photo by author)

Solstice sun warms The Scotsman. (Photo by author)

By the end of the night I wasn’t going home without a proper whisky. Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to whisky tasting in Edinburgh. Yet I couldn’t bypass the Balmoral Hotel. Its Scotch bar is known to have one of the largest collections of whisky in Edinburgh; it’s also a very comfy place to hang out. After chatting with me, the bartender unlocked a walled cabinet and carefully weighed the options before presenting me with his recommendations. I’m no expert but I did fall for the Glen Elgin 12-year and my nightcap turned into a night hat.

Warm and welcome whisky hospitality at Scotch. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Warm and welcome whisky hospitality at Scotch. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Strolling along Calton Hill the next morning rewarded us with stunning views of the city. We even saw hikers on Salisbury Crags. The city’s magic and majesty also lays in its proximity to the coastlines and mountains that surround it and which are easily reached by foot. Hiking boots I did not pack.

Cutting downhill through an old cemetery, we headed towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse where a long line of royalty reigned, including Mary, Queen of Scots. Today, Queen Elizabeth entertains there when she’s in residence. We lingered in the remains of its original foundation, an Augustinian abbey where it felt as if the history of the world was contained within its crumbling walls.

The Abby. (Photo: C. Reilly)

The Abby. (Photo by author)

That afternoon on a Virgin-Atlantic fast train to London, the Scottish countryside appeared like a never-ending painting of verdant green fields, with clusters of black-faced sheep and cows lazing around. Trees with tops flattened by the winds resembled acacia and bright yellow wildflowers popped from the fields. The train slowed through Berwick where the remnants of an old stonewall stood on the edge of a riverbed. Old stone cottages evoked house envy and a band of horses gathered on a hill appeared like a page from a storybook. Solstice sunlight pierced angry clouds as we barreled south. It was the longest day of the year and it was all part of my Scottish experience.

Cherry Blossoms, It’s Poppin’ Time.

US-FEATURE-CHERRY BLOSSOMSIt’s April and that means it must be cherry blossom season. Nothing says spring like these glorious trees and even though there’s still a chill in the air, I’m going to trust Mother Nature to make one of her finest appearances when she’s ready. After the drudgery and darkness of what seemed like the longest winter in ages, when these buds burst in shades from the softest white to the deepest pink and reach full blossom, the world just looks a whole lot brighter. Few things are more delightful than lying under a cherry blossom tree, its pinky petals swirling a magical snowstorm around you.

I’m crazy for cherry blossoms and crazier for them because of the travel they inspire. If you’re looking for a good reason to get away, I’m giving you one. Washington, D.C. may showcase the grand dame of cherry blossom, or sakura, festivals in the U.S., and a trip to the nation’s capital never disappoints, but there are plenty of other places around the country to be in their good company. So if you’re looking for a day trip, weekend getaway, or something a bit longer, figure one of these destinations into your plans and don’t forget the camera.

Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival
Branch Brook Park, NJ

April 5-13, 2014
Cherry blossoms are the crowning glory of this town and Essex County takes great pride in these trees.  Locals and visitors pack this park to take part in a 10K run through the cherry tree groves, bike race in the Cherry Blossom Challenge, or enjoy a number of other events. Vaux and Olmsted, who designed NYC’s Central Park, conceived the design for this park so visitors are in for a treat.

Essex County Branch Brook Park, NJ April 5-13, 2014

The pride and joy of New Jersey’s Essex County.

Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival
Vancouver, British  Columbia
April 3-28, 2014

Vancouver came late to the cherry blossom garden party but after their first festival in 2006, the city’s been attracting visitors to this extravaganza ever since. The festival’s organizers believe so strongly in the power of the beauty of these blossoms to unite people, that their purpose behind this annual event is simple—to embrace citizens of all ages.  Yet another great reason to visit Canada.

Vancouver's very cherry trees.  (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

Vancouver’s very cherry trees. (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon, GA
March-April

Cherry blossom season peaks early in Georgia, with these natural debutantes making their entrance in March. No worries, festivities run through April and because this town is the cherry blossom capital of the world, visitors can reap the benefits long after the crowds have gone.

Southern bells.

Southern bells.

Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival
April 2-13, 2014

Philadelphia, PA
The City of Brotherly Love, karaoke, and cherry blossoms—it doesn’t get much better than that!  A project of the Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival is an engaging cultural celebration with events like Dine Out Japan, musical and dance performances, sushi making classes, martial arts and loads more.

Philly's festivities await you.

Philly’s festivities await you.

Sakura Matsuri,Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
April 26-28, 2014

Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s CherryWatch Blossom Status Map predicts the first tree to bloom next week and Brooklynites can’t wait.  Held the last weekend of April, the Sakura Matsuri is an entertaining celebration of Japanese culture, including a traditional kimono fashion show.  The garden will be buzzing that weekend, so if you’d like to avoid the crowds and have the view all to yourself, plan an off visit during the week.  No matter when you go, make a day of it by visiting the Brooklyn Museum, located next door.

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

You don’t need to visit a festival to enjoy these blossoming beauties.  They’re easily found along esplanades, in most parks, and sprinkled throughout neighborhoods that have cherry blossom friendly climates.  All that’s required on your part is to gaze up and enjoy their pink but fleeting loveliness.

 

Autumn In New York, We’ve Got You Covered.

A bird’s eye view of the Cloisters Museum & Garden in New York City.

October’s the time of year when New York’s Hudson Valley is teeming with weekend visitors who leave their urban boundaries to witness one of nature’s greatest displays, fall foliage. For anyone who can enjoy this scenery on off hours, good for them. For others, it’s often a painstaking experience as they sit in traffic along the highways and byways that lead them to this glory.

For those of us who can’t get away, or for anyone visiting the New York metro area, we’ve got some pretty nice displays of our own on tap. Some natural, some manmade, but all of which are pleasing to the senses. So if you’re local and feeling at all guilty about not heading north, don’t feel so bad. There’s plenty of good stuff right here.

Anyone bent on appreciating the jewel tones of fall need only to spend some time strolling through Central Park or Inwood Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to get their fix. There are also loads of smaller parks throughout the boroughs with showy displays where you can walk, contemplate life and check out the local neighborhoods.

One of them is Fort Tryon Park where the Cloisters Museum and Gardens is one of the city’s most unique treasures. Spending the day among its medieval art, architecture and gardens is like being transported to another place and time. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they offer events, talks, tours and exhibits that cater to all age groups. Sights & Scents at the Cloisters is a specially designed gallery program for visitors with dementia and their care partners. A current exhibit, The Forty Part Motet is a sound installation set in the Fuentiduena Chapel where visitors can experience an 11-minute immersion of Renaissance music. It closes on December 8th but I’m heading there tomorrow and can’t wait to experience it.

Fuentiduena Chapel houses the Forty Part Motet.

The Fuentiduena Chapel houses the Forty Part Motet.

The Raven, The Bells, Annabel Lee. These haunting pieces of literature make for great reading, but why not enjoy them by surrounding yourself with the works of the macabre master himself? Edgar Allen Poe: Terror of the Soul is the Morgan Library & Museum’s newest exhibit and explores the writer’s fiction, poetry and influence on his contemporaries. Located on Madison Avenue and 36th Street, you can easily pair a visit to the museum, followed by a walk down to Madison Square Park at 23rd street where you’ll find a delicious assortment of culinary pop-up food vendors that await your selection.

A tech talk at See/Change at the South Street Seaport.

A tech talk at See/Change at the South Street Seaport.

With the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy fast approaching, there’s been a lot happening on a local level in and around New York City. I don’t typically spend time around the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan but I recently passed through it. The last time I was in that area, all the restaurants, shops and businesses were shuttered because of storm damage. It was basically a ghost town. No more.

As of May, a group of like-minded folks from different walks of urban life saw the opportunity within a bad situation to improve the area for its residents, businesses, tourists, and the city. The result is See/Change and it has created a rebirth in this area and it’s a nice thing to behold. The October Fall Fest of events features music, a farmer’s market and pumpkin carving demos. Landbrot is partnering with the Seaport to celebrate Oktoberfest with their beer, brats and pretzels…yum. It’s the perfect way to spend a sunny weekend in the city. You’re out, you’re about, and even better you’re near the water.

So those are just a few things off the top of my head that are within an easy walk, train or bus ride throughout the boroughs.  If you can get away great but if not, we’ve got you covered.