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Tour Report Best of Scotland June 6-June 15 2018

This is a continuation of my trip to England and Scotland which included 2 Rick Steves tours.

It is long and detailed so if that bothers you, quit reading now and move on to the next thread!

Pre tour Transition: We ended our Villages of Southern England trip in Bath on a Saturday AM. We stayed there 3 more nights to see Bath, do a day trip with Mad Max to the Cotswolds and then traveled to Edinburgh. I chose to route us thru London even though folks here recommended I go via Bristol. I should have listened. I somehow thought the trip would be more scenic along the coast plus I was able to get the tickets on various sales and advanced purchases and it was much cheaper. It might have been OK if we hadn’t run in to multiple train cancellations to Edinburgh due to a line being down near Doncaster which meant about 3 trains worth of folks were jammed onto one train. I did find us seats even though this was not our reserved train. They were reserved for others but those people thankfully did not show up. We were about 2.5 hours late in to Edinburgh. I’m really risk averse when it comes to travel on the day a tour starts so I had us traveling to Edinburgh the day before. Very glad we did!

Tour Impressions

Fitness: I did not think this tour was as high a fitness level as Villages of Southern England, however, SIL fell on our orientation walk and bruised her arm and leg badly so we didn’t do everything. To me the most strenuous day was the Edinburgh walking tour plus visit to Edinburgh Castle. I found the RS tour page assessment of activity level accurate altho slightly overstated for Day 6 but I did not climb to the top of the ruins at Urquhart Castle. (It was the beginning of the end for me wanting to see ruins!) All in all I walked approximately 45 miles on this tour including the miles on Day 1 before the tour started. Day 2, the day of the walking tour in Edinburgh, was my highest mileage day with about 7.7 miles.

Wardrobe: I put my detailed list of clothing on the Villages of Southern England post. I forgot I also threw in a pr of wool/poly glove liners, a buff and a polarfleece headband. I’ve been using Smartwool glove liners for the last couple of years at home and they are great. They were kind of worn looking so I tried to find some replacements at the end of winter to take on this trip. I wound up with Rab brand merino/poly blend and they were awful. The Smartwool ones are slightly water repellent (they are my snow shoveling gloves!) but the Rab ones seem to excel at being absorbent – not what you want on a rainy, windy day on Iona and in Oban! Yikes. They are going in the charity shop bag come fall. I do recommend some kind of light gloves for a Scotland trip this time of year. No sense being uncomfortable and they are easy to tuck in your day bag. I did not use the headband but in retrospect, I’d pack it again as it doesn’t take up too much room.

Packing - Carry-ons/day packs/bus bags: In the first part of my trip report I didn’t mention our day bags. On previous trips I carried Rick’s Veloce but in January switched to a LiteGear day pack. It is a bit taller but quite a bit narrower and fits better under an airplane seat. It’s sized right for my rain jacket (yes carried and used it nearly every day), extra layer, ziplock with gloves, snacks, guide book. My SIL used her new Rick Euro Tote. I think the big drawback to this piece is that it holds too much, lol! I also didn’t like how it zips open around the top as stuff tended to fall out. It also looked awkward to carry as the base is a bit wide when you try to carry it cross body.

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Weather – We had a warm day here and there but mostly had cloudy and cool weather. Daytime temps were mostly upper 50s to mid-60s. This was comfortable to me but someone from a warmer climate might have needed a light fleece or light down jacket/vest. The only day that was really rainy was the day we took the ferry to Mull then over to Iona. I had on all my layers (SS Tee/Long sleeve tee/longsleeve ¼ zip/cardigan/rain jacket/gloves/buff and was chilly. Walking back from the Oban ferry terminal and dinner we had the wind/rain at our backs so our pants were soaked by the time we got to the hotel. It was the only time on any vacation I wished I had packed my rain pants. I did note the guide had hers with her this day! The hotel had the towel heaters on so things were dry within hours! Funny thing – according to the awesome Mull coach driver we had just missed 3 weeks of sunshine that had the farmers worried about drought. Umbrellas are useless altho one couple purchased umbrellas in Aberfeldy and for several days we felt like they were the charm that was holding off rain while touring. They gave up the ghost on Iona…!! Some other tour members also had ponchos which were equally useless in the wind. My shoes were soaked by the time I got back to the hotel so I thought I would need to use my back-ups however…I pulled out the insoles, placed them under the towel heater and they were dry within hours.

Allergies: SIL and I have lots of environmental allergies so we both were worried about pollen for both this tour and the one across Southern England. Neither of us had as much trouble as anticipated. I think I only had to use allergy meds a few days. We wanted to go this time of year so she could see the gardens in England and Scotland and that was a hit!

Hotels: As with the first half of my TR, I will list the tour hotels in case this helps anyone decide on taking an RS tour. Not all tour departures use the same hotels. I think recently people have named at least 3 different Edinburgh hotels for this tour and I know not every tour stays in Dunkeld.

-Edinburgh – Brooks Hotel for nights on front and back ends. Elevator, no AC, fans in rooms I found this hotel very tired, in need of a top to bottom reno including carpet and paint. It’s heavily used by tour groups, not just RS but by a number of German tour groups. Breakfast was adequate (not as good as Brooks Hotel in Bath) but the servers were inexperienced younger folks who did not have the skills or speed to replenish the cold buffet after the other tour groups cycled thru. I had booked us in a night ahead and 3 nights after the tour. I should have changed the last nights after our first night’s stay because I knew I did not like the hotel or the neighborhood. I didn’t do that and would probably have enjoyed Edinburgh more if we were elsewhere. The local guide said the area is up and coming. Well the “area” has come up quite a bit in some spots but the street where this hotel is located gave me an overwhelming impression of dumpsters. I was in 3 different rooms in this hotel, basically small, medium and large. The mattresses were all quite comfortable to me. My brother and SIL were also in 3 rooms and found their mattresses uncomfortable. So…YMMV. Front desk staff very nice, engaging and helpful. All seemed to be from perhaps an Eastern European country? Not sure but they all spoke very good English.

-Dunkeld – Dunkeld House Hotel Had an Elevator but my room was close to the front stairs so they were quicker for me, no AC, fan in room. Wow, what a beautiful spot along the River Tay! This was an elegant country hotel and I felt a bit shabby in my athletic shoes but others were dressed as I was and the staff didn’t bat an eye. Gorgeous walk along the river in Tall Trees, wonderful terrace for drinks. Lovely breakfast buffet.

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-Inverness – Glenmoriston Townhouse hotel, I was in the Windsor Annex. No elevator, no AC, fan in room Very nice, comfortable bed. Well located on the Ness.

-Oban – The group was divided between the GlenBurnie House and a small hotel 2 doors down (sorry I don’t remember the name as I was in GlenBurnie). No elevator, no AC, no fan but not needed. I believe my brother and SIL’s room had a fan here. Again, a very comfortable bed and a lovely location on the water. It was about a mile from the hotel to the ferry terminal where we caught the boat for the Isle of Mull.

Food: Again, I’m vegan so my take is different than others. We were served vegan selections for all group meals. We found vegan options readily available in Edinburgh. The 2 nearest restaurants to our hotel had separate vegan menus. We also ate at a nearby restaurant that was only open for breakfast and lunch and yes…I had a Vegan Haggis Benny. Oh my word…was it delicious! Our Villages of Southern England guide, Robert, who usually does Best of Scotland recommended we have back up food available for the day trip to Mull and Iona and this was an excellent suggestion. We might have been able to find food at the small Spar grocery store on Iona but our time there was very compressed due to weather issues. We had about an hour and a half on Iona as a storm was moving in and the ferry was expected to be cancelled at 3PM. We had time for a truncated local guided tour to the Abbey, a quick look at the museum, then a slower walk back to the dock for the boat. The guide had arranged for the Mull bus driver to pick up sandwiches for the group to eat on the bus after we got back from Iona. We had brought food so they didn’t have to try and figure out something vegan which worked just fine.

Isle of Mull/Iona day: The guide warned the day before that this day was mostly about transportation to get to/from Iona and that anyone who was not sure they wanted to do a long day could consider skipping. Almost everyone went but it was fairly tedious as we had weather that impacted the whole day. There was nothing the guide could have done about the storm.

Wow moment: Split between Clava Cairn and Cawdor Castle. Both very interesting (even though I am not an Outlander fan) and very different. During the tour I thought my Wow moment might be the Crannog visit which I really liked a lot but when I think back on the tour, these 2 sights are what come to mind!

Group: This was an unusual group make up to me and I can only assume it was related to time of year. It’s the first tour I’ve been on that had no solo members. It had roughly the youngest average age group with 6 people under about 30 (or maybe 35?). There were 2 family groups of 4, 3 family groups of 3 and 4 sets of couples. I am sensitive to this since I am usually a solo traveler but I am sure that if there were a solo traveler they would have been welcomed. I enjoyed everyone!

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General thoughts:

Edinburgh – Loved the local guide and walking tour plus wandering around some of the green spaces. I had previously read the Alexander McCall Smith 44 Scotland Street series and started re-reading it during the trip. Cracked up at how many street, square and location references I recognized! Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile were jammed but you could get away from the big crowds if you headed away from there. Loved the Castle even though it was crowded as well as the National Museum. I was very puzzled by the first night walk to dinner. (Printed itinerary says “We'll then take a neighborhood walk and tour of Georgian Edinburgh before getting acquainted over dinner.”) I thought walking down streets in the New Town area and havingnumerous places for coffee and meals pointed out seemed odd as we were not staying convenient to this location. Perhaps the other tour hotels are closer to this area so it would be handy for those folks to know where some restaurants were located. For future tours staying at Brooks, I’d suggest a modification of this walk. I did like an introduction to the New Town, just not all the emphasis on eateries in that area.

Edinburgh taxis: We had the hotel call us a taxi one evening and they used their car service which was an Audi or something. Nice but we 3 were jammed in the back seat with a driver who did not speak English. On our own we hailed a black cab a different time and had a completely different experience. We got a card from the first Black Cabbie and had the hotel call the black cab the next time we needed transportation. We found the black cab drivers very friendly, all wanting to give us advice about what to see and regaling us with stories. They were also less expensive than the private car the hotel called. I’d recommend if you need cab transport, use the licensed black cabs. Had them take us to the airport and did not book ahead, just went with the advice of one of the drivers to call 15 minutes before we wanted to leave and had super service and a great narrative! We also used the airport time frame he suggested for Monday AM and it was perfect. And for heaven’s sake…our cabbie to the airport had actually been in Idaho – of course he was staying in Utah and went over the state line to buy alcohol but it was quite the coincidence, hahaha!

Bottom line: I very much enjoyed the sights and scenery on this taste of Scotland. I loved the variety we had on this tour from the Bronze Age burial tombs to modern day sheep herding and from the land form differences with the flat area around Dunkeld to the acres of planted commercial forests (surprised to see so much Douglas Fir!) to the mountains on Mull. This is a very out of doors trip and after you leave Edinburgh, lots of rural scenery which I so enjoy.

Link to the Trip Report for the first part of the trip:
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/tours/tour-report-villages-of-southern-england-5-21-6-2-18

General comments on the whole trip:

-My rough calculation for walking mileage for the whole trip from departure May 14 to arrival back home on June 18 including both tours plus independent time is 181 miles! No count on flights of stairs!

-I had my usual travel purse (Le Sportsac Everyday bag) and my usual older Eddie Bauer Connect wallet. I used the wallet cross body almost every day on both tours. I only used the purse when I was in a city and needed to carry a map and umbrella (so London/Bath/Edinburgh). Sadly, I looked at EB before I left and they’ve changed the wallet so it is stiff and doesn’t have the slot for bills but I’d recommend any kind of small cross body purse that you can zip up under your rain jacket.

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-Most hilarious sight: When we got back to our coach in the parking lot at Stirling Castle a German tour bus was unloading next to us. It was one they had driven from Germany (left hand drive) and it had a dang KITCHEN area mid bus! From the window I could see 2 big urns that looked like they were for coffee plus a prep area and fridge. Then Alan, our coach driver, came thru our coach aisle with a paper plate and 2 big knockwurst, bread and mustard. The German coach driver had brought him over a plate of food! We all just cracked up. I think I’ll recommend to Rick that his tour buses be fitted out with kitchens! What a hoot!

-As mentioned on the Back to Back tour thread, I’d not do 2 tours from the same cultural background again. That would include England/Scotland/Ireland or 2 in Italy or France or Germany. For myself, I’d prefer the stimulation of another language, culture and food.

-Extra expenditures during a tour: People often ask how much money they need for meals and things not covered during a RS tour. I think Rick’s suggestion is $50/50€/50£ a day. On neither tour did I spend anything extra for transportation or entry to extra sights. My only expenditures were some lunches, some dinners, some wine/mixed drink or two (hahaha) and some snacks. It averaged out to about 13£/day over 8 actual tour days in Scotland and 14.50£/day over 11 actual tour days on the Southern England tour.

-WIFI tour hotels: In general I had pretty good wifi in all tour hotels. In the hotel in Chagford on the Southern England tour for some reason I could often not get it in the room but could get it in the bathroom, hahaha!!

-Daily Departure times on tour days: Southern England – generally between 830 (many days) and 9:30 (a few days). Earliest was 815 on the last tour day when we were headed to Tintagel, then Bath. Scotland – generally 8:30-9. Earliest was 815 the day we left Edinburgh.

Altogether I had a great time on both these tours. We saw and experienced a lot and made wonderful memories! Love RS tours!

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1845 posts

Oh, my gosh, Pam. This is such a terrific report and a very timely addition to my folder for my own RS Scotland tour in September. As usual, you have provided a plethora of valuable and useful information-for example- oh, yes...I will now definitely be taking warm(er) clothes than I had originally planned! Thank you for posting your experiences and the heads' up about the hotels used on your tour (we don't have our list yet), level of activity and what we might expect to enjoy while in Scotland!

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Thank you both!

Andi - I forget when in Sept you are going. If toward the end, I might even consider a light bottom base layer.

Donna! It was vegan haggis benedict - Here's the description:

http://loudons.co.uk//eatingin.php
Vegan English muffin with vegetarian haggis, garlic roasted flat cap mushrooms, black bean salsa topped with vegan spinach hollandaise

They also had to die for vegan desserts. In fact we found a number of places in Edinburgh with delicious vegan desserts!

However, the best vegan dessert was the welcome dinner in Canterbury where we had a dessert with meringue made with aquafaba. I've never tried making that - seems like too much trouble and too much sugar plus the thought of aquafaba makes me king of gaggy BUT this was delicious!

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595 posts

VAnother great report! Had you been to Scotland before?

We stayed at the Parliment House Hotel while in Edinburgh on our tour and it was really convenient, its unfortunate if they've changed it. How neat that you stayed right in Dunkeld!

I'm very glad to hear the pollen wasn't too bad. My mom has terrible allergies and we are going next year at the same time for the same reason- to see the gardens! But I had been worried about that.

On our Scotland tour there was another couple who was doing the England Tour right after, and they had the same feeling about it as you did. It would have been better perhaps to mix it with a different culture, as you mentioned.

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2366 posts

Pam, great trip report!
Thanks for all the details.
I really enjoyed reading this.
So glad you guys had a good time!

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741 posts

Pam: Thanks so much for posting this report and offering so much great detail. We will very likely be taking the Scotland tour next May and your report will be a valuable resource when we start planning.

I'm ashamed to say I still haven't generated a report on our VFR tour more than a year ago, so it makes me admire your efficiency all the more. Cheers!

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Pam, I will be taking the Scotland tour from 24 September to 4 October but will be in London for some days before meeting up with the tour in Edinburgh. Our tour will be staying at the Parliament Hotel in Edinburgh. We have booked some extra days there both before and after the tour. I will take your clothing advice to heart, Pam. Being from Colorado, I've learned I'd much rather pack 'too warm' (can shed layers) than not have the extra layers for warmth, if needed. I did order that shirt form Macy's you posted about. 😄. Vegan haggis, huh? Interesting........I do plan to try the haggis but yours sounded really good!

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Tamara, SIL and I both took gobs of allergy meds with us and had them stashed everywhere. I took a bottle of 100, hahaha! I was surprised I didn't need them as before we left the pollen had gotten really bad here (you could see waves of it coming off the pines in a breeze). I'm not sure if we just hadn't had enough exposure there to be allergic or what. I'd plan for the worst with meds...and hope for the best! The last time I was in Edinburgh was in a previous life time, with a then -husband, in-laws and step children. It's changed as have I, hahaha!

Thanks Rebecca!

Stoutfella - I do the Trip Report mostly for myself, so I can organize my thoughts to fill out the RSE evaluation form. I do journal during the trip and have a page at the end of that section that I jot notes on as I go, about what I want to highlight.

Andi - I figured you were a pro at layers. I did fine in short sleeves most of the time but the rainy day got me really chilled. It's so much more humid there than in Idaho or Colorado! For late Sept, I'd go with the lightweight base layer as well. Glad you liked that Macy's top. It's been so chilly here the last few days that I've had it on in the AMs as well.

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358 posts

Great reports Pam. We took this tour in 2014 and stayed at the Parliament House. As we had been to Edinburgh before, we asked the front desk what we could do that would be completely different from anything we might have done before. He sent us to Prestonfield House for tea and cakes and it was a great time. There were five of us and we were totally underdressed for it, but were treated like royalty and had our own room to enjoy our visit (maybe that was to hide the fact that we were in jeans, etc. from the other guests). As you said, the black cabs are the way to go.

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504 posts

Loved your trip report! Loved the cabbie-who-had-been-in-Idaho story. Son lives in southern Utah. Everybody there drives to Mesquite. chortle chortle!

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1526 posts

Thanks for your report Pam. We will be in Scotland, independently, at the end of July. Look for my trip report by end of August. Giving myself a deadline, as deadlines motivate me!

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352 posts

Thanks for another detailed and entertaining review Pam. The Scotland tour remains one of our favorites. We did this tour in late September and got very lucky with weather. Sunny, cool fall days with very little wind. As travelers we always prepare for bad weather and determine to enjoy no matter what. Even so, when you have glorious weather it definitely enhances mood and memory.
Our tour stayed at the Bonham in New Town. Lovely rooms and cooked- to- order breakfast each day. When I was hospitalized at the end of the tour the hotel staff went above and beyond to help my husband.
I think your discernment about back to back tour choices is valuable. You need some contrast in cultures and experiences. Otherwise it could diminish the experiences that each tour provides and make it more repetitive than intriguing.
We also stayed at the Glenburnie in Oban. A very elegant place. In fact I am certain that is where my DVT and emboli revealed themselves. We didn’t get to Iona on our tour because of choppy water. We have considered taking that tour again so we can visit Iona. And break the Health Issue jinx. 😏

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1834 posts

The rail fares from Bath to Scotland via Bristol are very expensive. (This might be why you went via London - even though you had the hassle of the tube from Paddington to King;s Cross). The way to reduce the fares from Bath to Edinburgh /or Glasgow is to pre-purchase split tickets with the splits being at Cheltenham (where you stay on the same train) and Birmingham (where you can change trains for one using the west coast route (you won’t see the coast) to Edinburgh or Glasgow = quicker than going via Newcastle by about 1 hour). www.nationalrail.co.uk

Alternatively - fly from Bristol Airport (which is near Bath):> see www.skyscanner.net for flights.

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271 posts

Pam, I enjoyed your trip report. I should have written my report from my Eastern France trip, but I had so much going on after I got back that it never happened. Scotland is on my bucket list. I will make notes for the future. How long does it take you to organize your thoughts to write your trip report. Do you work on it as soon as you get home or wait until the jet lag is over. What is on the horizon for you next?

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7635 posts

Thanks for continued comments!

Janet - I try to journal a little every day. I used to write complete sentences. Now I just jot down what I did, key words if something funny happened and sort of keep track of expenditures. At the end of the trip pages, I leave a few blank. This time I wrote hotel notes as we traveled, added our daily steps even though I can get them from the Fitbit app and jotted down notes to myself on things to include on the TR that I thought others would like to know before they did either tour. It's much easier than starting from scratch. I also do the Trip Report before I do my RS evaluation. I do the TR in Word and then let it "rest" hahaha for a few days. I always remember something I wanted to add or think of a better way to phrase things. I do them for myself because I love to read back and re-live my trips!

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184 posts

Pam - Ditto on the others responses to your trip report. So full of useful information. Thanks for posting it!!!

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184 posts

Pam, just wanted to ask, did you use or carry a backpack everyday? I hate to carry around a lot of stuff if I don't need to, but want to make sure I have what I need. :))
Thanks, Kathy

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7635 posts

Kathy, I don’t carry a backpack at all except.... I use one as my personal item on the plane and when I am on a Rick tour and we have a bus day, I use one for my bus bag (clothing layers, snacks, guide book). Otherwise I have a purse (le sportsac) or a travel wallet that zips under my rain jacket if the weather is bad. I don’t carry a lot if stuff during the day!

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Great useful information Pam! We will be doing the Scotland tour in June 2019 and I will be on the lookout for a waterPROOF jacket and pants as part of my packing. Did you or anyone else in the forum do anything worth mentioning in Edinburgh before the RS gathering in the late afternoon?

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7635 posts

dmahkorn, yes waterproof, lol!!

We were in Edinburgh for an extra night before the tour as well as several after. We had just come off the Villages of Southern England tour so were taking it a bit easy. From our hotel (Brooks on Grove ST) we walked to The Meadows (a park) then cut back thru George Street Gardens to the University of Edinburgh and continued toward City Center. From there we stopped in briefly at the National Museum (free and nice toilets, lol), then headed over George IV bridge to the Royal Mile. Did some looking for tweed items along here then back to the hotel.

Unfortunately, as I found out the next day on the walking tour by the local guide we had walked right past the pub where JK Rowling wrote some of her books and past the Grayfriars Churchyard where she got some of her character's names!

I'd recommend the National Museum if you are not spending time afterwards in Edinburgh. The tour does go in as part of the walking tour but it's a huge museum with wide ranging collections. We had planned to go to the Botanic Gardens and the HMS Britannia but did not make it to either.

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440 posts

Pam, thanks for the terrific narrative. I’m on the first Best Of Scotland tour in April, 2019. I have two extra days in Edinburg both coming and going. Planning on the train to Glasgow at least once.

I’m in Boise. I’ve ridden my bike into Troy on the trail from Moscow twice while on cycling tours with Ride Idaho.

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7635 posts

Oh my gosh! Give me a shout next time you are in the area! Was just on the trail heading south out of Troy earlier today and saw 3 moose (plus 2 in a neighbor's yard on the way to the trail!). That and the trail toward Moscow are my usual walking routes for getting in shape for RS tours, lol.

We have an informal Rick Steves meet up in Moscow the 3rd Sat of each month except December which we skip, so you are always invited to come for that as well. There are a couple of posters here from Boise. I've met up with Lynn before but Janet is also from that area as well. Lynn has done some RS tours if you have questions altho not the Scotland tour I don't think.

Living in Boise, you'll be well set for layers for Scotland. In April I'd expect wet and last year it was pretty cold. I'm heading for Belgium in April and will also have base layer bottoms.

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182 posts

Hi Bogiesan,

Nice to see another person from Boise on the forum. A few of us tried a meet-up group awhile back but lacked participants. However I did get to meet Janet who posts on the forum and her husband. And as Pam mentioned, we managed to meet up when she was in Boise. I know someone who did bike Idaho this year. Welcome!

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440 posts

Lynn, Pam, and other Boise metro folks:
I’d enjoy getting together for coffee or an adult beverage to talk about your RS experiences. I recently retired so my schedule is wide open these days. Suggest a time and place?