Sunday, September 30, 2007

Working now...

At last! Check out the photos on the St. Andrews posting.

And follow along. I'm not sure when we'll be back on line with web access, but I'll post as often as possible.

Technical difficulties

At the moment, at least, the blogger software isn't posting photos...a pity, since St. Andrews is truly beautiful!

I'll try again in the morning (it's late here.)

After that, I may be in out of touch for a few days as I head into the Lake District for a rambling trip. I'll be in touch soon as I can!

The mecca of golf

Over the centuries, St. Andrews, Scotland, has been a place of pilgrimage...first for Christians, who came here to pray before the bones of Andrew the disciple (brought here by St. Rule, it's said) and then by those in search of higher learning at St. Andrews College (from which Prince William recently graduated.)

Now, of course, they come for golf.

That was the draw for Bob Armstrong and wife Linda Aaker of Houston (he the former Assistant Secretary of the Interior under Clinton), who brought son Will as a combo 75th birthday present for Bob and college graduation present for Will.

"It's wonderful,'' said Bob.

"It took Scotland to make me fall in love with golf,'' said Linda.

The trio played King Barnes, Carnoustie and of course, The Old Course.

The Old Course is said to be the first place that golf was played with holes, according to spokesman for the St. Andrews Links Trust. But it's not the only course in town; the Trust manages six currently ... for players from children to the pros...and will open a seventh next year.

And yes, these are public courses. And yes, women are allowed (just not in the private Royal and Ancient Golf Club overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course.)

As a nongolfer, I'm surprised to find myself actually interested in all this. That the sport mastered by Tiger Woods was begun by a bunch of bored shepherds hundreds of years ago who used their crooks to push stones into rabbit holes, well, that's pretty entertaining.

But better is the town of St. Andrews, bubbling with college kids -- about 4,000 of them -- and picturesquely crowned by ruins of a great cathedral toppled in the 1550s after reformationist John Knox incited the masses. And it's still a fishing village (lobster mostly, not that I ever got one.) All in all, quite a place.

Even if you don't care about golf.

Friday, September 28, 2007

To the manor wished

A falcon will go to the highest perch. Which is why I must keep my arm canted upward, the thumb on top. Otherwise Victor, the Harris hawk who is my hunting partner this afternoon, becomes unsettled.

I open my leather-gloved hand and cast a pitch…and he flies off, just as he’s been taught, to a nearby perch, then flies immediately back. The impetus, as falconer William Duncan has explained, is simple. Food. Upon arrival on my glove, Victor receives a bit of steak tartar.

The falcons are kept as close to an ideal weight as possible…so they are a little hungry, but still with plenty of energy for hunting. For that was the purpose of falconry, at least in it’s earliest days … to catch food.

The falconry program is one of many country sports available at Gleneagles, an estate hotel built by the railroad in the early 1920s.

By a sad quirk of fate, I was not to the manor born. Had things been as they should have, I would have been born to a place like Gleneagles.

Patrick, the private butler that goes in the newly designed suites in Gleneagles’ former maids quarters, has just arrived to make me a special cocktail with 15-year-old Johnnie Walker Green, a mint-and-ice concoction that, to a Southerner, seems remarkably like a mint julep. The tray of canap├ęs plays to the salmon theme, with salmon curls, salmon on brown bread with cavier, salmon tartar.

They’re delicious. Too bad I have to save room for dinner.

Seduced by Scotland

My best friend and I have vowed never to take up golf. There are practical reasons for this: long work hours that preclude any frivolity that takes up a full four hours at a go, and a total and complete lack of sports ability.

Yet here I am in the birthplace of golf, touring the finest of the world’s courses: Turnberry (home to the 2009 British Open), Royal Troon (home to eight Opens), Gleneagles (host to the 2014 Ryder Cup) and St. Andrews, frequent Open home often called the Home of Golf, though I’m assured it was actually first played elsewhere.

Here’s the thing: While duffers may golf, there are others of us who may come along … and wish to venture beyond the spa.

“Well, if you’re not into history, there’s no much here,’’ one gentlemen told me, speaking in the Scots' way of the West Coast near Turnberry and Troon.

Not so, I’m finding.

I’m being seduced (yet again) by Scotland…so often that I’m perpetually late to my next date as I stop to ooh-and-ah over the ruins that appear over every rise, the cliffs along the coast, the black-faced sheep and shaggy Highland cattle. Historic castles are as a common as Starbucks at home, and in two days I’ve visited two already, Kelburn Castle, home to the Grafitti Project, a mural by two Brazilian artists on a turret and castle wall, and Culzean Castle, a stately haven to lairds and royalty and, for a bit, a holiday home for Dwight D. Eisenhower in honor of his service to Europe during WW II.

But what I love the best is the people.

A lovely gentleman led me to my B&B, going miles out of his way to be sure I dodged sheep and pheasants – which tend to stand in the roadway and simply gawk at you – to arrive safely.

And at my B&B in Troon, Copper Beech, I was greeted by the lovely Norma. I’d made her late for her dinner appointment, and rather than to be gruff or cranky, she invited me along. And so I spent the evening solving the world’s problems with a trio of Scotswomen in a hotel that was once home to Johnnie Walker. We avoided the whisky … too dangerous, that … but how can you solve problems without a glass of wine?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When in Britain

By now, you have figured out that I'm in Britain.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be visit four of the globe's greatest golf courses here in Scotland (Turnberry, Troon, Glenagles and St. Andrews), and find out what you do here if you DON'T play golf. I'll walk through England's Lake District, attend a conference in Manchester and head off to visit the faeries in Ireland.

You can follow my trip most days here on my blog. If I miss one, don't worry: Strange as it may seem, some places still don't have wireless access.

When nature calls

So by now, I’m running late. And I’m running late on a country road, which means there’s no gas station or shop with a loo.

Finally I see a pub and stop…but at 6 minutes past three, the staff is 6 minutes gone for the afternoon break, which lasts until 6 p.m. So I do what any good world traveler would do: Head for the nearest bush.

I take a good look around. No brambles. No poison ivy. No snakes.

What I don’t realize – at first – is that the innocent-looking leafy plant beneath me is a Scottish nettle, part of the thistle family. And its leaves carry a nasty, nasty sting.

Two showers and six hours later, the backs of my thighs still burn.

Let’s blame it on Mapquest. And hope it settles by tomorrow.

Curses on Mapquest

I can’t blame Mapquest for the first time I got lost today (coming out of the airport) or the second time (just missed the exit.) But the third time….

Once I was over the panic of nearly allowing the aforementioned Land Rover to cream my rental car, I noticed what a rare and stunning day it was. A crystalline day, when the air is fresh and the green of the hillsides looks like a fine carpet woven with sheep and Shetland ponies and cows so massive they belong in a giant’s fairy tale. Stone hedgerows set before the U.S. was even a country. Cottages covered with vines gone red with autumn.

And then I noticed that my holographic video was going on too long. I should have been in Turnberry, Scotland, an hour before.

The culprit was Mapquest. Rather than taking me on the biggest and most logical roads, it had led me along back roads and lanes – even a seasonal road that might well have been closed had it been raining.

I’ve had this experience before, when Mapquest has sent me a way its computer brain thinks is logical, rather than the way a local or someone looking at an actual map might go.

The moral of this story: Technology is grand, and Mapquest can be a great tool. But nothing beats asking for directions.

Dangers of the Road

Jetlag, driving on the left and a manual transmission are a dangerous combo.

Less than five minutes since I’ve left the rental car office in Manchester, England, and I’ve already by-passed my turn (should have sprung for the GPS rental at $8 per day) and missed a Land Rover by mere inches.

As a South Floridian, I figure I should be able to handle the road conditions anywhere. And I can. I can drive a stick (I do at home). I’ve driven in Britain plenty of times before. Driving alone – no problem: did it for 28 days, 4997 miles this time last year as I traversed the U.S. from Miami to Seattle.

But jetlagged, by myself, on the wrong side of the road? Bad idea.

In fact, automobile accidents are the No. 2 cause of death for American traveling abroad, right behind heart attacks, according to a presentation I heard last spring. Next time, I'll bring my chauffeur.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tell us where to go

Several times recently readers have said to me, "I know your job is to promote tourist places.'' While I hate to jump in and correct them, that's the kind of statement that makes me cringe.

My job has nothing to do with promoting anyone or anything or any place. My job is to report, as fairly as I can, about experiences of interest to South Floridians. In short, my job is to help readers find and get the vacations they so desparately need.

Between traffic and kids and jobs and parents and everything else that happens every day, we all need a break. The thing is this: Each person needs a different break...and neither I nor any other editor can know exactly what it is that will make your soul feel rested. But what we can do is offer up choices, and make it as clear as we can what each of those experiences is that each reader can see for him or herself what best fits his mood, lifestyle, interests, budget.

But we need help. So each fall we ask readers to tell us what they'd like to read about...Europe or Costa Rica or Colorado? Traveling with kids, with a partner or alone? What columns do you love best, and which can you easily live without?

Give us a hand, and take this year's survey. There's a bonus: One lucky participant will get a Carnival cruise for two, courtesy of Carnival and MK Cruises.

Now there's a vacation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

NYC Sticker Shock

And I thought London was unreasonable.

Friends are throwing a party in New York in late October, and we thought we'd go up. Best I can figure, the airfare -- FOR TWO -- will be cheaper than a single night in a Manhattan hotel.

A survey of the various websites reveals that just about any midtown hotel is going to run upwards of $300 per night. The Hampton Inn Times Square North is running a whopping $369 per night, according to SideStep. The trend Hotel Gansevoorst is a mind-boggling $772.

Good grief!

I resort next to the opaque sites -- Hotwire and Priceline -- where you find out post-booking exactly where you're staying. Their inventory was severly limited and just as disgustingly expensive.

The best deals I saw were on, where you can actually book a room for under $200 -- but only if you book within the next 24 hours. It's a sale.

Got any reasonably-priced ideas for New York? Share them. At these prices, I can't even afford the Days Inn.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Britain on a budget

The last time I was in London, I shelled out $88 for two Thanksgiving pies -- one pumpkin, one pecan. The experience convinced me that Britain may simply be too dear for mere mortals -- and that was before the dollar dropped even further.

But as I'm researching an upcoming trip to Manchester (in northern England), Scotland and Ireland, I'm finding prices that are affordable, though not cheap.

In Troon, in Scotland's golf country, I've booked a night in a B&B called Copper Beech for 35 pounds, about $70. (The cost would be double if I were traveling with someone else.)

In St. Andrews, I'm paying more because the less expensive options were already taken ... a hint that you need to book really early. (Finding singles is also more difficult.) The going rate at St. Andrews B&Bs runs 35-50 pounds ($70-$100) per person.

One bonus to the B&Bs is that they include a hearty breakfast, so you can pig out early and pass on lunch, or just grab a sandwich.

In Ireland, I've found things a bit cheaper: somewhere between 28 and 55 euros per person, double, or $40 - $70. Again, a big breakfast is included.

In cities like Dublin and Manchester -- even London! -- the prices are cheaper if you're traveling this fall, midweek, and you're willing to stay in a two or three-star hotel. Booking on, I've seen prices for just over $100 for a double room in all three places, depending on the date. (Added advantage: I lock in the price in U.S. dollars.) And rental cars have been surprisingly affordable.

The key: Booking early. Even delaying a few days seems to push the price up.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

How not to miss your plane

The Husband and I just returned from a holiday in Maine. It was a great trip...a couple of days at Moosehead Lake, a Windjammer Cruise, then a few days in Rockland. We came home dreaming of return visits...until we hit the Maine Turnpike/I-95.

What should have been a 15-20 minute section of the turnpike turned out to be 90-plus-minute exercise in fuming. The problem: Heavy traffic backed up at the toll plaza.

Can we say Missed our Flight?

The irony: Just before the toll plaza, lovely State of Maine tourism people were handing out the State of Maine's annual gift to travelers, this year a cute moose cookie cutter. Add in the packaging, and I'm guessing the cost of the gift wasn't that much less than the toll we paid. Which led me to think that a better gift would have been my time...and a day of toll forgiveness.

Or just doublecharge on the way north, and forgive all charges on the way south. Which would make sense, since it seems that this toll-plaza backup occurs nearly every weekend -- not just on Labor Day, according to the various Southwest airline agents who helped us find a routing to get us home.

The moral of the story: Whenever possible, ask the locals for advice. Because we had driven north on this very road just days before, we thought we knew how long it would take us to return. If we'd asked at our B&B, we might have learned that the southbound I-95 corridor backs up regularly.

We're still a little mind-boggled about how a state can charge tolls on a federal interstate highway, but we're sure there's an explanation somewhere. If I find out, I'll pass it on. If YOU know, please post the answer by clicking on Click to Comment, below.

And if you've had a similar experience ... in Maine or elsewhere ... or have other ideas for checking out such problems in advance, please post a comment below!


Top: On the coast of Maine
Center: Windjamming on the Victory Chimes