We had been planning this trip for almost one year. Plunketts were going to Scotland for one week and invited us to join them. Why not go to London while we're at it? Then some friends moved to Ireland. "Come see us, too!" So our trip bloomed, and bloomed, and bloomed! And, as we did not have any winter clothing or outerwear, or snow boots, or hats, or gloves ... I think our credit card bloomed, too! And, we decided to try out backpacks instead of suitcases. So, 8 backpacks later, and lots of packing, we finally left in a taxi (actually, 2 taxis - the highlight of the trip for Jolee for some reason!) early one December morning to the Dubai airport to hop a plane for an 8 hour flight to London Heathrow Airport. It is amazing how short an 8 hour plane ride is when you are used to 17 hours in a plane to the USA.
Grand Plaza Serviced Apartments - London
We arrived in London and managed to find the train to take us close to the hotel. We walked down crowded London streets towards the hotel in the cold drizzle - Chris in short sleeves and Julia refusing to wear a hat and trying to pull off the coat (she'd never worn either before!). We got lots of appalled stares - was it the 6 children or the lack of appropriate clothing? We meet up with the Plunketts and found some pizza for the growling bellies. Bed, several of them snug in a TINY hotel apartment, sure felt good that night!
On the top deck of the Double Decker bus
London is an interesting place to spend a few days. With all the people crammed together and the Tube running under the city, it is like a beehive on top of an anthill! We had purchased a visitor's unlimited train and tube pass for the UK, so getting around the town was easy. We also rode, to everyones' delight, on top of a double decker bus!
London Eye over the Thames
Inside the Eye
The Eye of London and the Tower of London were my favorite places. The Eye has an awesome view of all of London. We had a car to ourselves so plenty of room for walk around and view London, the Thames river, Big Ben, etc. The wheel is in constant motion, so you have to get on and off quickly, but for 30 minutes we soared up and over and back down the British skies. The Tower of London is full of history, and a joking tour guide told us ALL about it. Lots to see, but the cold and damp were getting to us by the end of the day. We had spent that morning waiting in the drizzle for the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham palace who decided the wet weather canceled the need to change the guards formally! We ate some wonderful fish and chips and bangers and mash with tea for dinner.
Timothy at the Tower of London
Uzzells @ the London Bridge
We also saw Westminster Abby, more because we passed by it than because we really wanted to see it. It was not at all like I expected. I thought it was a big open cathedral. It is more like a crowded tomb with monuments of lots of ancient famous people - honoring the person more than the God. Quite disappointing, but interesting because it has survived so many centuries, wars, royal families, etc. We also went, along with most of London, to the famous seven-story department store Harrods. It definitely has one of everything! We bought some chocolates and looked for Father Christmas, but he was sold out!
Waiting with our luggage at the train station
On the fourth morning we hopped a train to Aviemore, Scotland - another 8 hour jaunt. We did this purposefully to see the country side. Nice green fields with hedges as fences, quaint stone cottages that looked cold. As we got into Scotland there was a little snow on the ground. The train dropped us and our backpacks off in the dark station and we found a taxi - as in ONE. So he made several trips to the lodge for us! I think he was glad to do it as it is not the local custom to tip but Americans tend to. The next morning we hiked back into town (on foot) for groceries and had the taxi take us back to the lodge, half of us at a time, again.
Hiking is so much fun on a nice winter day!
Chris, Jolee catching snokeflakes, Matthew collecting sticks
We crossed this creek a few times on our hike
My favorite day was the next - we hiked some trails on a preserve called Rothiemurchus near the lodge, stopped at the cafe for a soup (Cullen Skink - like seafood chowder) and sandwich and scone lunch, then headed out again to find the castle in the middle of the loch. However, I forgot that the sun goes down at 4pm, and the trail was long. Then it started raining, then sleeting, then snowing quarter-sized snowflakes. But we had to finish! So we kept going. However, we were disappointed as the castle looked like a big rock from our side of the loch. We took a picture, then ran into the visitor center thinking they could call a taxi for us (we were right off a road). There was a very nice restroom in the visitor center, some nice pictures, interesting pamphlets, but no employee. We were a bit disappointed but decided, short of spending the night there, we had better hurry back down the trail to the lodge as fast as we could in the snow before it got dark! Julia was riding in a backpack (a real one, not one meant for a baby - but it worked!). Timothy, we learned, is really good at reading maps and found us a short cut that dropped us off right at the lodge. I have never been so excited to see a hotel before! I was really getting worried there for a while - mainly that the kids would get tired, start crying, lag behind or want us to carry them. Jolee cheerfully talked the WHOLE time, Matthew stopped to pick up EVERY stick just as he had been doing all day, Timothy was always a quarter of a mile ahead of us (or it seemed so!). Anyways, I dropped down on a sofa in the lobby as soon as I stripped off my drenched coat and ordered a coffee!
There is a castle out there - really!
The next day we went up the mountain to the ski resort. I sat in the "lodge" (a restaurant of sorts with very little climate-control) with the kids who couldn't or wouldn't ski. The mountain was beautiful in its own way - there was a lake at the bottom - but there wasn't a tree to be seen! After the lifts closed, we waited and waited in the cold wind for the last bus. We packed in like sardines - people, skis, poles. Unfortunately, the car ahead of us went into the ditch and we had to wait for it to be pulled out - I guess the tow truck was blocking the road - it was too crowded to stand up and see what was going on. Julia let everyone know that she was there and didn't want to be! Cole was the only one who wanted to go skiing again the next day.
Katelin enjoying some hot chocolate after a hard day skiing!
Cairngorm Ski Resort - lake at the bottom
We took the train the next day to Inverness - about 1.5 hours away. Again, pretty countryside towns, some wild deer, men in caps with dogs checking on the sheep. We walked around Inverness, looked at Loch Ness but saw no monster, ate lunch at Ash (steak pie with sticky toffee pudding for dessert!), toured a kilt-making factory, and took the train back to Aviemore. The last day in Aviemore was spent washing clothes (in a TINY washer/dryer unit) and repacking backpacks.
Loch Ness - no monster seen!
We got up before dawn on Friday, having already arranged for the taxis to pick us up at the hotel, and headed to the train station. We beat even the station master there! We got on the first train to Edinburgh (still dark) and had plenty of time upon arrival to get lost trying to find the hotel. We dumped, literally, all the luggage in one hotel room and walked through old, narrow streets towards the Edinburgh Castle. We had booked a Christmas lunch there months before, and the kids enjoyed the bang and the toys in the Christmas crackers. The Scottish food was different but good - interesting that tea and coffee are served AFTER dessert, definitely not with your meal or dessert! We spent the whole day at the castle - so much to see - swords, kilts, guns, Jacobites, a prison, jewels, Red Cross, cannons. Tired, we walked towards town looking for a place to grab a bite and ended up, somehow - out of desperation I think, at the Mark & Spenser's cafe (department store). On the way back to the hotel we walked through the winter street festival, and the kids rode the swings and carousel, we got pretzels, chocolate-covered marsh mellows, and a stollen (YUM).
Christmas lunch at the Edinburgh Castle - the kids enjoyed the Christmas crackers with toys and paper crowns inside
Saturday morning we headed to the Edinburgh airport to fly to Ireland. The SMALL plane landed in Shannon, and Ruben and Lori Cortez (Chase, Mason, and Madelynn) picked us up and drove us to their home in Galway. The next morning we drove to Limerick for a special meeting. While we didn't know anyone else there, several people there knew people we knew elsewhere! It was nice to feel the Spirit of God in another country and to be the visitor for a change! Monday was St. Stephen's Day in Ireland (the day after Christmas), so most shops were closed, but we toured the cobbled town of Galway anyways. It is right on the Atlantic with beautiful ocean views and lots of inlets. The land across from the Cortez's house actually floods every day when the tide comes in. I guess the horses there are used to it! It also rains every day of the year - no wonder it is so green! That night Ruben made his famous enchiladas for dinner.
Cliffs of Moher - watch your step!
Quaint little town of Galway (west coast of Ireland)
Tuesday we drove south to the Cliffs of Moher where you have to watch your step - the trail is just a few yards from the edge of the cliff! The part we stayed on had a wall for safety, but the trails on the other side were quite frightening to watch as people walked against the wind to the edge of the cliff! The story is that several go over every year. That night the neighbor girls came over to babysit, and we ate at a Spanish tapas restaurant - nice adult company!
By now, the kids were tiring out, and they picked up a tummy bug! One by one they took over a bathroom - some for a few hours, some all night. We left Wednesday morning for the airport with plastic bags! Miraculously, we made it home with no incidences. We had an 8 hour layover in London but managed to move our tickets to the next flight out (1 hour). We arrived back in Dubai in the early morning hours and went to bed. A great trip - we covered 3 countries in 2 weeks and enjoyed family, friends and good food!