When writing a travel story, the general rule is that you begin with a journey’s high point and continue on from there.
This would be easy to do if I wasn’t attempting to explain my recent trip experiencing Trafalgar’s UK and Scotland itineraries.
Because when it comes to memorable moments, there are so many it is probably best I list them in chronological order for you to read, weep, then book pronto.
It was a little gastro pub in Marylebone where I savoured the world’s best fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding and other traditional English pub fare. Washed down with incredible local sparking wine from the Kent region (the same altitude as Champagne and damn near as good as the famous French fizz).
Should I move to London (and after this trip I happily would) I’d live in the city’s revamped east end. The former Jewish and Bangladeshi inhabitants of the once down and out area have been replaced by artists, designers, IT campuses and hipsters. With them came trendy clubs, happening markets (check out Spitalfields and Brick Lane then keep walking if shopping bags not too heavy), incredible street food, galleries, restaurants and one off-boutiques. Food and fashion heaven.
Experiencing the old and new. After a morning buying edgy fashion from independent designers it was to the old established upmarket area of Mayfair and the handsome hotel Chesterfield for a traditional afternoon high tea.
I sauntered in as the Dalai Lama checked out to enjoy an orange, chocolate and popcorn macaroon lollipop starter, before slowly working my way through a tiered selection of wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and tarts washed down by pots Earl Grey tea in the ambience of old English aristocracy.
All that tea drinking can work up a thirst for something a little, um, sprightlier, so we hotel hop from one old gracious darling to another, this time Knightsbridge’s boutique Egerton, where the UK’s best martini is poured.
The reason behind its success is bartender Antonio, who looks like an Italian version of Manuel from Fawlty Towers but is far from bumbling. The trick to his legendary cocktail where “two is not enough and three is too many” is to fill it to the brim and never spill a drop. I was not so even handed after challenging his theory re the third. Hic!
There are no words to explain the nervous excitement I felt when disembarking a Virgin fast train in this legendary city some two and half hours north of London. As a Beatles nut, seeing the homes where John and Paul grew up, strolling down Penny Lane and spotting the “shelter in the middle of a roundabout” where the boys would meet, where the “banker never wears a Mac in the pouring rain” and shop where “there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known” was like visiting a religious shrine. But it was after descending the winding dark stairs down to the legendary Cavern where the Beatles famously played that did me in.
I still don’t know if my tears were the result of bittersweet childhood memories of looking at the photos of the band on that cramped stage or just the emotion of being so close to the legends when I always felt so far away. Whatever, it took several delicious frothy lagers and some cracking covers from the band that afternoon before I pulled myself together. Once I started smiling again, a grin never left me. PS: the Cavern and I are now Twitter buddies.
The sound of one machine operating did my head in, yet at its peak there were hundreds all operating at once. It was no wonder the young workers at Quarry Bank Mill were all deaf within three months, victims of an industrial revolution in Britain in which unwanted children were kept as indentured labour. And they were the lucky ones, the alternative being life on the streets hungry and helpless in London.
Still an operating cotton mill and museum, supported by worthy TreadRight organisation (Treadright.org) the mill shows how hard life must have been its young workers, whose limbs were routinely lost as they worked long days from the age of nine onwards picking cotton out of the crunching jaws of machines or succumbing to lung conditions from breathing in all the dust and fluff.
Now run by the National Trust, this perfectly preserved estate is shortbread box pretty countryside mixed with a seminal moment in time and history, when a country grew up the hard way – an unforgettable Insider experience.
From one side of the industrial revolution to the other, the Whitwell Hall estate dates back to 18OOs when it was used as a hunting lodge before being bought by wealthy textile magnet. Today, it is owned by the charming Gillam family, who open their homes exclusively to Trafalgar guests for a warm, intimate Be My Guest dinner.
From the home-cooked meal the family serves its guest in their grand dining room to the tour of the bedrooms and talk of parties past, the grand mansion may look like something the Addams family would live in yet the joyous Gillam’s just aren’t the spooky type. I’d like them to adopt me.
Standing in the middle of the Quidditch Field where Harry Potter and his alumni soared around on broomsticks was surreal. Then, the whole damn over the top mind-blowing royal extravagance of Alnwick castle (alnwickcastle.com), family home to the Duke of Northumberland for more than 700 years, is like a movie set come to life.
From the cavernous towers to rolling pastures and the insanely beautiful sculptured gardens (including a gated poison garden growing cannabis and opium), to the huge tree house that holds a restaurant, the place is a Disney Royal Land come to life, over the top spectacular.
There are some countries that make you feel like you have arrived at your spiritual home. I feel that way about Scotland.
Every turn, every village, every vista is so rich with history, beauty and charm, there are too many highlights to mention but here are a few:
Sipping fine single malt highland whisky where it is still slow distilled for breakfast in the prettiest countryside imaginable – a damn fine and embracing morning jolt.
Lunching in the historic old barn of redheaded Scotsman Fergus and his fine family in the Trossachs National Park. Not only did I feast on the most unforgettable fresh smoked salmon I may ever have the pleasure of savouring, I sang along with the family careful to ignore the men’s’ kilts as they rode up their legs having been warned the men dress traditionally ie: no underwear.
Then there’s the city of Edinburgh itself, the cobblestones winding streets redolent with history. Wistful memories include: the first sight of Edinburgh Castle sitting on high and proud in the middle of the city; drinking whisky in pubs so rich with history they have a personality of their own; the gamey repeating taste of haggis (don’t ask what’s in it – especially once it’s in your mouth); the feel of soft as a baby duck’s bum affordable local cashmere; cobblestone streets that wind and snake up hills; the architecture (OK, and shopping and pubs) of along the famous strip known as the Royal Mile; the incredible churches resplendent in the golden autumn light; and the thought of just how much ridiculous fun would be had visiting this warm and generous city during its annual blues, film or comedy festivals (or, even better, next year’s  Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup.
But perhaps the greatest high of this adventure was being piped on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, now moored in Edinburgh as a museum.
From the low-key grandeur of the boat’s interiors to the mean little double bed that dominated the famous honeymoon suite Charles and Diana shared to Prince Philip’s single bed cabin with its adjoining doors to the Queen’s floral-quilted boudoir – I doubt there could be a more intimate look at how the current Windsors live and just how low key their tastes are. And yes, I was tempted to steal an ashtray to bring back to the colonies.
BUT THERE’S MORE
There were other highlights of my trips that did not involve the places we visited but how we got there and where we stayed.
Travelling with Trafalgar isn’t “what country are we in today?” rushing but can be at a far more relaxed pace thanks to their At Your Leisure packages, meaning more time in the one place, no starts before 9am and lots of free time.
There were the expert guides who really love their work and know what they’re talking about, not robots going through the same old spiels day in and out.
I never had to carry a suitcase more than a few steps to my hotel room door where it was picked up each day (meaning I could pack as many heels and I damn well liked for a change), and the accommodation itself was great, always comfortable and always smack bang on the middle of all the action, making adventuring on your own easy, fun and safe.
The quality of dining was exceptional (special note to the magical Witchery By the Castle in Edinburgh), always offering the local cuisine at its freshest and best.
But if I had to say the greatest, most eye-opening and heart-warming experience of all was making new friends from all over the world out of my travelling companions.
I may miss Scotland, but I miss those fun souls even more.
Trafalgar’s 2014 Europe and Britain ‘At Leisure’ programme offers nine different guided holidays d. The 15-day The Britannia guided holiday is priced from $3599 per person – twin share, with savings of 7.5% available to those who book and pay-in-full by 31 March, 2014. For more information, visit www.trafalgar.com. For more information on the destination see www.visitbritain.com.
Have you ever been to the UK or Scotland? Would you consider going on a tour?