President Harry Truman loved Key West. With only a few hours before our ferry takes us back to Fort Myers, we’re headed for the Truman Little White House.
I knew very little about Truman but our guide Eric was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He related his experiences meeting some of the more recent Presidents who visited the compound. He was interesting and well-spoken, and his knowledge of the house and his Presidency was evident.
After a brief introduction in the garden, Eric took us into the house for a 20-minute tour. He described the furniture, mostly original, and the care taken to find identical fabric and wallpaper when replacements were needed. For instance, the fabric on the wicker furniture had to be recreated from old photos because it was no longer available.
Researchers spent two years contacting the major wallpaper companies to find the original wallpaper. As they were considering copy write laws, exhaustive research was necessary to track down the company which produced the original wallpaper. When none of the companies could claim the design, it had to be copied and reproduced.
After the tour, we went into two small exhibit rooms with interesting photos and memorabilia.
Over the years Presidents Taft, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton visited or stayed in the house, as well. Thomas Edison stayed a the compound for six months in 1918 working on 41 weapons for the US war effort. The decor of the Truman era is being maintained because of the time he spent there as President.
Built in 1890 the Truman White house is a short walk off Duval Street. The compound was a former naval base and Command Headquarter for three wars, the Spanish-American and World Wars I and II. In 1946 it became the Winter White House for the Truman Presidency.
During Truman’s time in office between 1945 and 1953, he spent 175 days in Key West. According to our guide, he originally came to Key West seeking sunshine and rest following an illness, and on the advice of his doctor.
Apparently, Truman was a workaholic who’s health was not strong and although he traveled with his White House staff, he found a happy compromise between work and relaxation on Key West. As soon as he arrived the suit went into the closet, and the floral shirts came out of the suitcase!
I walked away with a better appreciation of Truman, who was President the year I was born.
How Truman became President
Prior to his time in politics he owned a haberdashery in Independence MO. When the business failed he ran for office and eventually in 1934 was elected US Senator. In 1944, for Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, he was tapped for Vice President. After three months as Vice President Roosevelt died Truman became the 33rd president.
During his Presidency he faced many complex issues:
The decision to drop the atomic bomb to end World War II.
The formidable task of re-building both Europe and Japan.
Restructuring American foreign policy.
Recognizing the State of Israel Involvement in the Korean War
As well as creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
The National Security Council (NSC)
Information about the Museum:
The Little Winter White House is located at 111 Front Street, Key West, FL. The entrance fee is $17.20 per person ($16 if purchased online, Seniors $15.05 or $14 online) The Little White House is open seven days a week, 365 days a year including all holidays. Tours are offered approximately every 20 minutes from 9am until 4:30pm daily.
Traveling to Key West from Fort Myers on the Key West Express
Sunny Key West is a great place to go in the winter. Its March and my brother and sister-in-law are visiting from Toronto. The weather in Fort Myers has taken a turn, and temperatures are unseasonably cool. After several lovely days of beach, pool, and sightseeing we decide why not go to Key West for the day. That decision was likely made after a few cocktails.
The ferry departs from Fort Myers at 8:30 am and takes 3.5 hours but after reading reviews we realized we had to be there at 7:30 to get a decent seat. So the 3.5-hour trip became 4.5 hours each way. By the time we disembarked, it was about 12:30P.
Key West is charming, quirky, fun, lively, and historical. We only had a few hours, so we hopped on the Conch Train for a quick tour. Train tickets were sold on the ferry and maps were included (adults $30, Kids 12 and under $15), several other people from the ferry had the same idea. The initial tour is an hour, has three stops, and is hop on-hop off. The train took us past the major sites, including a few passes by the bars, restaurants, and shops on Duval Street. Your ticket is good for the entire day, but the last trip is at 4:30 so careful planning is required if you intend to take it back to the ferry for the 5 pm boarding
Now that we had the lay of the land, our next priority was lunch. We were hungry and wanted something on the healthy side (versus a “Hamburger in Paradise” and a beer). Right across the street from the Conch Train stop is Roof Top Cafe (308 Front Street), ZAGAT rated one of the 8 Hottest Restaurants in Key West. Our table was outside on an upper deck with sun, street view, and white tablecloth. A leisurely lunch with two-for-one Mimosas and excellent fish and Cuban sandwiches; we were happy campers.
After lunch, we decided a choice between Hemingway’s house and the Truman White House was necessary. We only had a little over an hour before we had to walk back to the ferry. The choice was Truman’s Little White House. See details on this post Truman’s Little White House Tour
Returning to Fort Myers on the ferry
On the return trip, the website says to be on the boat by 5 for a 6 pm departure, another 4.5-hour trip. To make it more interesting, what we realized later is many people returning to Fort Myers after staying in Key West overnight are willing to get on the boat early to get a good seat. Those in Key West for the day want to take advantage of every minute and arrive at the designated time.
According to our seatmates at 3:45 the seats were filling up – we arrived at 5P. Seats were hard to find and we ended up on the lower level and facing the bow, but we were able to sit together. Ferry personal ask those at tables to share as there are limited seats and they tend to fill the boat!
You might like to bring a supply of Bonine just in case.
The website has an interesting FAQ on their website —“Keep in mind that marine travel is influenced by winds, waves, tides, and weather.” Hmmm. The weather had been windy the last few days and unfortunately picked up for the ride home. The waves crashed on the windows, and the boat was rocking and rolling. It wasn’t long before we learned why the nice men in sailing whites stood watchfully throughout the voyage carrying white bags and paper towels. Fortunately, the three of us were not struck by an unsettled stomach, but many were!
As the Captain was shifting his route trying to avoid the worsening seas our 4.5-hour trip turned into 5, all were grateful when we finally arrived in Fort Myers! I wouldn’t take the day trip again but would love to return to Key West and stay a few days. This trip serviced as a good introduction but there’s so much more to see and do in Key West, a day just doesn’t skim the surface.
Important information and available services:
As we exited the ferry terminal on arrival there was a row of “electric cars” (essentially golf carts) rented in advance and delivered to the ferry. Bestonkeywest.com The cars come in 2, 4 and 6 seats, and you can rent them for 4 hours, or a full day.
“Don’t Drag your Bag” is the line Paradise Porters advertises. They have a booth at the ferry. This company will deliver your luggage to your hotel and pick it up from the hotel on departure. Rates vary you can call or email them from their website.
Key West Express Ferry information:
Senior over 62 $145
Junior 5-12 $92
Age 4 and under $62
There is a discount for booking 8 days prior to departure, $140 for individuals.
Key West Express Amenities:
Full service bar
Galley sandwiches, burgers, hotdogs, chips and more
Large flat screen TVs
Air conditioned cabins
Open air sundecks
Thomas Edison is a household name; however, it wasn’t until I moved to Fort Myers that I considered his life and work. After a visit to the Edison Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, I started researching his inventions and life. I’ve been back to the estates several times and learn something new each time.
Edison is genuinely a Fort Myers son; there are reminders everywhere. You can’t move around the area without being aware of his influence on the city. McGregor Boulevard on which the estates are located is lined with palm trees planted by the Edisons (hence the City of Palms name for Fort Myers). There’s a beautiful statue of Edison, Ford, and Firestone in the city’s Centennial Park; Edison Bank, Edison Mall, Edison Restaurant to name a few.
Thomas Edison discovered the 21-acre property in Fort Myers while cruising the Caloosahatchee River in 1885. He was 39 and already widely known for his inventions of the incandescent lamp and the phonograph. When Edison first landed at Fort Myers it was a booming cattle driving town of 349 people! He bought the property within hours of arriving and started planning to build. Edison created the plan and had the white pine precut and shipped from Maine. The builders were able to erect the house within days once the materials arrived.
Edison married his second wife Mina Miller in 1886, (his first wife Mary Stillwell died in 1884), he and Mina built their house, Seminole Lodge, along the Caloosahatchee River. During their tenure in Fort Myers, the Edisons were a force in the growth and development of the city. After Edison’s death in 1931, Mina deeded the property to the city of Fort Myers.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were two of the most influential men of the 20th century. Although they are of two different eras, they became good friends later in life. Their paths first crossed in Brooklyn in 1896 when 33-year-old Henry Ford was struggling with his gas-powered engine, and 50-year-old Edison convinced him to quit his job and put all his energy into his design work. Years later they met again and became lifelong friends.
In 1916 Henry Ford and his wife Clara purchased the Craftsman style property next door to Seminole Lodge for $20,000 and named it The Mangoes.
When visiting the EdisonFord Winter Estate as you leave the parking area your first site is of the famous banyan tree: what appears to be a forest of separate trunks are the roots of the same plant. The massive tree was planted as a sapling in 1923, amazing.
One of Edison’s many interests was to find a substitute for imported rubber. To this end, he and Henry Ford built a laboratory across the street from the estates so they could test the many species of plants imported to the property for this purpose.
Edison’s laboratory office.
The laboratory, machine shop and darkroom are so well preserved it’s as if someone could walk in and pick up where they left off so many years ago.
Machine shop and darkroom
Edison and an assistant tap the Ficus tree for its latex milky sap.
Across the street from the parking, ticket/gift shop and museum are the two estates, close to one another, and right on the river. They are sprawling but not opulent, built more for comfort than for glamour. Large, wide, wrap- around porches with original wicker furniture add a homey feeling. There is an adjacent swimming pool/ bathhouse, and a long pier where the Edison family kept their electric boat, the Reliance, one of the first electronic boats to be built.
Surrounding the houses are trees, bushes, and plants, both domestic and imported. Edison, Ford, and Harvey Firestone were testing plants to find a fast-growing plant with enough latex to create a substitute for imported rubber. At that time rubber came exclusively from Southeast Asia. Worried that if there were ever a cut in the supply it would curtail many industries now reliant on rubber, the three inventors were determined to find a substitute. To this end, they tested and cataloged thousands of plant samples. In the end, the lowly Golden Rod proved to be the winner.
From 1916 to 1924 Edison and Ford along with Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs took camping trips together and called themselves the “Vagabonds.” Over the years the trips became more and more elaborate and included Presidents (Harding in 1921 and Coolidge in 1923). The entourage eventually included servants, photographers, and other friends. The wives came on the 1920 trip to the Catskills in New York. In the picture below notice the large round table with a lazy susan, no passing of food was necessary. The men in their obligatory shirts and ties, ladies with dresses and hats, and likely talked for hours. How I would have loved to be there listening to what had to be lively and interesting conversations.
Interesting facts about Thomas Edison
Edison was taken out of school at an early age because although he was inquisitive, he was not a good student and disruptive in class. His teacher called him”addled” which incensed his mother. He never returned to formal schooling after that, his mother Nancy, home-schooled him and he later said he owed everything to her. “All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” In this early picture Edison looks like he was mischievous, but hardly “addled.”
2. Edison’s mother bought him a basic science book with experiments which could be conducted at home. He was hooked. Edison built his first lab in the family basement at 10. His father offered him a penny if he would come out of the lab and read more. He did so, then used the penny to buy more chemicals.
3. At a young age, Edison started losing his hearing either from a bout of scarlet fever or perhaps a family trait. His father and brother were also hard of hearing. He didn’t mind his compromised hearing; he said it helped him focus.
4. At age 12 Edison worked for the railroad and set up a lab and printing press in the baggage car. There he did experiments and published a newspaper. At one point his experiments caused a small chemical fire for which he was thrown off the train.
However, while employed with the railroad he learned Morse code from the station master. He later worked as a telegraph operator for Western Union but was fired after he spilled sulfuric acid while experimenting with a battery.
5. In 1869 when Edison was 22, he received his first patent for a telegraphic vote-recording machine for the legislature. It was a flop because members of the legislation agreed that the slow pace of the voting count allowed time to filibuster and convinced others to change their vote. It was never used. After that failure, he vowed to work on commercially viable experiments only.
6. Thomas Edison was an inventor who accumulated 2,332 patents worldwide. Of the 2,332 – 1,093 were for his US patents.
7. In 1872 Edison proposed marriage to his 16-year-old employee Mary Stillwell. In the 13 years they were married they had three children. Mary died in 1884 at age 29 of “congestion of the brain,” some accounts say she died of typhoid.
In 1886 Edison met 20-year-old Mina Miller and was smitten. He proposed to her by Morse code which he had taught her so they could have secret conversations.
Although only 20 when she married 39-year-old Edison, Mina was up to the task. She was well educated for a young woman of the time, her father was also an inventor, and she came from a large family (the seventh of 11 children). Edison spent most of his time working, and she cared for the house and children, she called herself a “home executive.” By all accounts, Edison admired her greatly but was a workaholic who consistently forgot birthdays and anniversaries! I suspect Mina had many interests of her own and kept herself busy at home and in the community.
8. Edison had five dots tattooed on his forearm, but it was never clear why. It may have something to do with the electric pen he invented (which was later refined into a modern tattoo pen), but there is no evidence that he used his invention to create the tattoo.
9. An employee died while working on one of Edison’s experiments. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Edison directed a glass blower employee named Clarence Dally to develop a fluoroscope (called the Edison X-ray focus tube). It was a commercial success and is the basis of the modern fluoroscopy used today.
Unfortunately, X-ray was not believed to be dangerous at the time, and Clarence tested the tubes on himself. In 1900, he developed a lesion on his wrist and eventually his hand was amputated. His condition worsened and after the amputation of both arms, he died of cancer.
His illness shook Edison, and he stopped all work on fluoroscopes. In a 1903 interview he said:
“Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” he said. “I am afraid of them. I stopped experimenting with them two years ago, when I came near to losing my eyesight and Dally, my assistant, practically lost the use of both of his arms. I am afraid of radium and polonium too, and I don’t want to monkey with them.” (Source: New York World)
10. One of Edison’s failures with his cement ideas. He invested vast amounts of money and time into this project. He was convinced that he could solve the affordable housing crisis by building houses from concrete. He created a mold for the single pour, but the houses never took off. The venture wasn’t successful, but there are homes built with this technique still standing. However, he has 49 related patents that changed the cement industry.
One of Edison’s single-pour concrete homes in Montclair NJ
11. Edison was a notorious napper and would lie down when he felt the need – sometimes on top of the workbench or the floor of his office or lab.
Yesterday was my sixth visit to the estates and we had a guide “Bo” who was fabulous. Bo had a nice clear voice, lots of good information, a lively sense of humor, and could easily answer questions from the group. I recommend paying the small additional amount to have a tour. If time is short there is a headphone tour option.
The estate is open 7 days a week from 9am to 5:30pm. Cost is $30 per person with a historian-guided tour or $25 with headphone self-guided.
There is a small outdoor cafe near the ticket counter and museum but the hours vary so don’t count on it being open when you are there.
However, Pinchers Edison Fort Myers Marina, a large restaurant overlooking the Caloosahatchee can be accessed right from the river side of the property and is a fun beginning or end of the tour. You can buy your tickets at Pinchers as well as at the museum ticket counter.
Mary, Wendy, and Lynn at Society of the Four Arts Palm Beach FL
Making the three hour trip from Fort Myers to Stuart last Sunday I drove through the flat and scrubby middle of Florida. I passed fields of cattle, broken down greenhouses, dilapidated buildings, and a few small, dreary towns. Just as I was feeling particularly depressed I came upon Lake Okeechobee, some nice RV parks, and more interesting topography. Past the lake there’s a stretch of road covered by a canopy of trees that’s quite pleasant. It reminded me a little of the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland. Definitely not as dramatic, or as beautiful, but a pleasant change from the frankly ugly scenery of central Florida.
I was taking a few days to visit old friends Lynn and Jim who are living on their sailboat in Stuart’s Sunset Bay Marina for the winter. The marina is well named – sunset every night (just add the cocktails and good company). Actually they have a tradition they call “docktails” sharing drinks, apps, sunset, and stories with fellow boaters. Most civilized.
After spending three days of retail therapy, sightseeing, and lazing on the boat drinking Rumchatas! Lynn and I were off to Palm Beach to spend the day with two of Lynn’s childhood friends. The drive from Stuart is an easy 50 minutes south, but Palm Beach could be a different planet. More on this later.
Our first stop was at the Mounts Botanical Gardens of West Palm. We were there to see a special exhibit called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea. The exhibit consisted of 10 impressive sculptures interspersed throughout a lovely garden. The sculptures were made entirely of plastic collected by volunteers from the ocean and beaches. Children’s beach toys, boat parts, nets, bouys, flip-flops, umbrella handles, sunglasses and so on were artistically attached to a frame. The sculptures were amazing and it was fascinating to see people (us included) spend several minutes on each sculpture identifying the various parts. Most people were shaking their heads at the amount of plastic we each consume,. Much of it ending up in our oceans, not recycled. Let’s try to buy less plastic, be sure to recycle, and let’s get companies to use less plastic on packaging!
After quality time at the botanical garden we headed for Palm Beach. It IS a different planet and Worth Avenue is the capitol. Cars, oh yikes, cars – we first stumbled on a Rolls Royce illegally parking, Mercedes, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, and Bentleys were everywhere! Then there are the woman, lots of plastic, dressed to the nines, perfectly coiffed and made up, I wondered at their uncanny ability to walk with an air of “notice me”. The whole picture reminded me of the Rodeo drive scene from “Pretty Woman” – and I was Vivian. The little boutiques were positively threatening. (smile)
We ate lunch at restaurant Bice, it was lovely, with all the trappings, but frankly the food didn’t match the decor, or the address. The people watching was good though.
After lunch we drove the short distance to the Society of the Four Arts a few blocks from Worth Avenue. We were there to see an exhibit of Isabelle de Borchgrave: Fashioning Art Through Paper, I had no idea what to expect but it turned out to be fascinating. Everything was made of paper, not only the dresses but the jewelry, shoes, hats, and even the gloves.
The description from the Society Website … “Five hundred years of fashion are explored in the breathtaking art of Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave. Painting and manipulating mere paper, she creates historic fashions that are trompe l’oeil masterpieces. Each sculpture is inspired by depictions found in early European paintings or fashion collections from around the world. Rarely seen in the U.S., this exhibition presents quintessential examples in the history of fashion—from the Renaissance finery of the Medici family and gowns worn by Queen Elizabeth I, to the creations of the grand couturiers of the 20th century such as Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret. Borchgrave to create a gown inspired by a painting from Peter Paul Rubens, “Portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, Princess of Condé,” from ca. 1610. Both the dress and the original Rubens portrait will be on view at the Four Arts. While de Borchgrave’s work has been seen throughout Europe for more than 20 years, this is the first time American audiences can see her Les Ballet Russe series. In addition, organizing partner Frick Art and Historical Center commissioned de Borchgrave to create a gown inspired by a painting from Peter Paul Rubens, “Portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, Princess of Condé,” from ca. 1610. Both the dress and the original Rubens portrait will be on view at the Four Arts.”
The work was huge and amazing.
After a quick tour of the city (the Breakers, oh my!) we headed back to the marina, our little heaven. Glad to be back to reality.
JAX the official stamp licker, the Portree post office mascot.
Skye Boat Song
“The Skye Boat Song” is a Scottish folk song recalling the escape of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) from Uist to the Isle of Skye after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. The story goes that the Prince, disguised as Flora MacDonald’s Irish spinning maid Betty Burke, escaped to the island of Skye after the disastrous battle. Flora MacDonald, a secret supporter of the Jacobite cause, was later arrested and held in the Tower of London for her part in the escape. She was quite a character and seemed to be in the right (or wrong) place in history a few times, including the American Revolution, before her death in 1790 at 68. The Prince ultimately escaped to Italy where he spent the rest of his life.
There are various versions of the Sky Boat Song. Robert Louis Stevenson composed this version.
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul:
Where is that glory now?
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
We have another full day off the ship, today is the island of Skye, the town is Portree. We must tender into this port and, of course, it goes very smoothly (thank you Azamara). We have a full day tour scheduled with Skye Tours.
As we’re leaving the ship Captain Carl comes to the gangway with a couple of other officers. He explains (in his lovely Irish/Scottish accent) that once everyone is ashore he’ll be going hiking, that what started out as a small group has grown to 25 officers and crew, and that he must wear shorts (its quite cool out). The reason, he says, is that one of the other officers doesn’t have “track” pants with him and has to wear shorts. Not to be outdone in the manly Scot department, the Captain says he must wear them too. One of the other officers points out that to outdo the person in shorts the Captain should wear a thong. It was a funny exchange and indicative of this very capable Captain not taking himself too seriously and having some fun with passengers, officers and his crew.
The port is small and charming, the town square, where we’ll meet our small group tour, is a short walk from the harbor and we have a few minutes to walk around. It’s early and shops are just opening up. The town is tiny and very friendly. We zip into the post office to buy more stamps and learn from a friendly postmaster that the stamps we’ve been using to send postcards to the US are domestic only and, alas, the postcards will end up in a trash bin.
Kathleen will be our driver and guide for the day. She’s been a tour guide for over 25 years and is in her early 70’s. She has a bad knee and will have surgery in Glasgow this summer, but otherwise she’s as sharp as a tack. We have a bit of a drive before our first stop and she tells us a little about herself. She explains that she grew up on Skye and has both English and the Gallic. When she was a girl she and a friend were riding on a train to Glasgow. As she wasn’t on Skye she was comfortable speaking to her girlfriend in Gallic when she didn’t want others to understand. A good looking young man entered their car and they talked about how good looking he was and wondered if he was going to the dance they were attending in Glasgow. As they reached the Glasgow stop the young man turned to them in perfect Gallic and thanked them for their kind words and said alas he wouldn’t be going to the dance but wished them a good time. I’m sure he was chuckling to himself, and the girls were mortified.
Our first stop is the Old Man of Storr its not a great day for pictures but the mist adds the right amount of drama to the scene. You can’t get the full effect of the rock formation, but I imagine it’s a rare day when there isn’t mist. Skye is known for its rocky mountainous landscape, lochs, fields of grass, wild flowers, and sheep, but its the mist that gives the landscape a surreal feeling. Its rough and the roads are winding, narrow, and can be steep. Kathleen drives them with ease.
Next we stop at Kilt Rock with its lovely water fall. Its called Kilt rock because the rock formation looks like the pleats of a kilt.
Kathleen makes a stop at the Skye Museum of Island Life. We don’t have a lot of time, but its very interesting. Crofts like this were still lived in only 70 years ago in some parts of Skye. It was an island of farmers and sheep herders living very simple lives. Peat fires, fish liver oil lamps, not exactly all the comforts.
Very close to this museum is the burial place of Flora MacDonald, just a few miles from where she landed with the Prince 200+ years ago.
Kathleen tells us the island is experiencing a surge in population these days – mostly retirees coming from all over Europe. They come for the better real estate prices, the beautiful views, and quiet life. Sounds good to me. Kathleen talks about a couple of “German Ladies” who recently built a house with a grass roof, which has the whole island talking.
Next is lunch at an Inn Kathleen has set up. Its a lovely old house which has been converted into a small hotel off the beaten path – lots of fireplaces, wood paneling and comfy furniture. We’re tucked up in a private dining room with a bowl of steaming fish soup and its delicious. I’m not usually a fish soup person but this is tasty.
After lunch we’re off again to Dunvegan Castle. It too has a Flora MacDonald story. Her daughter married a Macleod and lived at Dunvegan, her mother stayed with her for a time and Flora MacDonald’s Jacobite relics are displayed at the castle. Dunvegan Castle is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. Its been the stronghold of the chiefs of clan MacLoed for more than 800 years.
Our last stop is at a local bar for some Scotch tasting. The young man has a 12 year old GlenFiddich, my mother’s favorite Scotch, and a 10 year old Talisker (made on Skye) set up with glasses. A good “nosing” glass is tulip-shaped, with a decent bowl (for swirling) and a narrow lip (to catch the aromas). Ideally it is made from crystal, but not cut crystal, which distorts the hue in its facets. David, who studying the art and refining his “nose”, first talks about the color and has us swirl the liquid. Next he explains that adding a touch of water opens the aromas. We try it first without water then add just a few drops and swirl again, you can see the oily lines as they swirl around and you can smell the enhanced aroma. Or maybe its all in my head but it was interesting anyway.
Kathleen takes us back to the harbor to board our tender to the ship. Its been a great day on the Isle of Skye.
Returning to the ship
Gail and I have a reservation at one of the ship’s small restaurants and after cleaning up a bit and a cocktail in the “Living Room”its time for another great Azamara dinner.
Yup that’s me on stage after the show – no shame.
After the show its off to bed but not before a stop on the deck where the sky is still light at 11pm!
Day 4 of our Azamara Club cruise of the British Isles.
We left Edinburgh’s Leith harbor about 2:30pm on Wednesday, July 6 on route to Kirkwall, Orkney islands.
We’re scheduled to arrive at 8:00am and have a full day for exploration. At this point I’m wondering why we need 10 hours on this little island but I soon discover there’s much more to the Orkney islands than I imagined.
The harbor is small and we’re the only ship docked. I can see the town in the distance with St Magnus Cathedral dominating the skyline, otherwise the landscape is rolling hills and very few trees. Apparently the salt air isn’t very kind to trees and they have a hard time achieving full growth. However the grass is green and as we’ll see later there are fields of wild flowers and oodles of grazing sheep and cattle throughout the mainland. Many more cattle and sheep than there are houses and people it seems. It’s quite pretty despite the lack of trees. There are several farms and small clusters of homes, but for the most part the island is field and small hills.
Our Craigies taxi arrives on schedule and we hop in to meet Eddie who will drive us to the sites we’ve chosen in the three hours we’ve reserved. He agrees that we’ll have enough time to see the Stones at Stenness, Ring of Brodgar, and Skara Brae and if we’re efficient he’ll be able to take us to the Italian Chapel as well. I’ve been excited to see Skara Brae, the best-preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe, since I learned Kirkwall was one our stops.
Eddie starts out a little reserved but as soon as he realizes we don’t expect him to give us the history of the island he lightens up. He was born and brought up on the mainland of Orkney, not far from the town of Kirkwall. He doesn’t go off island often but he’s been to the US, he went especially to see Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. I guess there are “country” fans even in Scotland. He’s able to answer a few questions about the island, he admits he knows little about the standing stones and wonders why people come to see them. At one point we pass two people walking on the road, you rarely see people on the long empty roads, Eddie calls them “free range pedestrians. Eddie has a sense of humor.
Our first stop is The Stones of Stenness and there ‘s only one other person there. It’s peaceful and serene surrounded by fields and water. There are only three stones still standing but you can see the outlines of others and some stone remnants from where others stood. Little is known about the standing stones in this part of the world. They’ve dated nearby Skara Brae at 3100 BC but they don’t know when the stones circles were created or for what reason.
Next stop is The Ring of Brodgar this Neolithic henge and stone circle is said to have been constructed between 2500 and 2000 BC. It’s larger, with more stones visible and the circular shape more defined. Many of the stones are still standing, others have fallen over or split. The site is flat and surrounded by fields of wild flowers and grazing sheep and cattle, it’s peaceful. Our time is limited, so as much as I would like to sit down and think about what life must have been like 5000 years ago on this tiny island so far north we get back into our taxi and are off again.
There’s a lot of water (lochs) on this main island of the Orkneys, they seem to run into one another and Eddie tells us some are fresh water but most a mixture of fresh and salt. The neolithic sites we’re visiting are close together and are part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site.
Skara Brae is next on our tour, with Scaill house next door. Both are close to the coast and surrounded by open fields.
The story goes that there was a big storm about 150 years ago (1870). Lots of rain and high winds and once the winds died down the owner of Skaill house (William Watt) went out to survey the damage to his property. He found that the wind and seas had unearthed stone structures and knew he had unearthed something old and important. Soon the archeologists were unearthing more and more of the ancient village. It’s not possible to know how many houses were there originally because the village was built close to a coastline that has eroded significantly over the many years (like 5000!). A retaining wall now holds what’s left from being consumed by the sea as well.
The inhabitants had used the building materials available to build their houses and furnishings. Rock, rock and more rock! Slate was used for some of the ceilings on the passageways, but it’s speculated the roofs of the houses were made of whale bone covered with grass. There were no trees and they didn’t have the means to kill whales, they relied on what washed up on shore. Procured whale carcasses and driftwood were cleverly re-purposed into tools and utensils. Skara Brae has a neat little museum displaying tools, ornaments, and cooking utensils found at the site, some amazingly well preserved.
As you exit the museum on your way to the site there are stones set along the path indicating various important historical dates. These are used to put the age of Skara Brae into perspective. Skara Brae is older than the pyramids, people were living here 5000 years ago. It blows my mind.
By the time we reach the site the buses are arriving and it’s getting somewhat crowded but we’re still ahead of the majority of people.
The area is carefully blocked where they don’t want you to walk and they’ve built a substantial retaining wall right beside the sight where there is a large drop to the beach. Its windy and you can imagine what the weather must be like in the middle of winter with wind howling from the north sea. Its surprising the sight has remained at all over this many years in this harsh location.
We’re on somewhat of a timetable but Eddie’s fast asleep in the parking lot (he warned us he would likely be asleep when we returned) so we dash through Skaill house next door, which actually was pretty interesting. The house was built in 1620 and added to over the next 400 years. All 12 lairds were related and retained a collection of family furnishings and objects from the 17th century on. The current house is 1950s era (notice the pink tile bathroom) but with antiques and collectibles throughout the house.
Back in the car with Eddie rested from his snooze, we have time for one last stop before going back to Kirkwall.
Orkney has an interesting war history and there’s a chapel built by WWII Italian prisoners of war that we’re headed to now. On the way we drive over Churchill Barrier 1. These were a set a barriers started in 1940 to keep German submarines out of the natural harbor of the Scapa Flow. Today they’re used to connect the mainland to some of the smaller islands. The Italian chapel was built by Italian prisoners captured in North Africa and held in Orkney to help build the Churchill barriers. In their spare time they built the chapel from whatever materials they could scrounge, it was decorated by one of the prisoners. The light holders were made out of corned beef tins. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. The facade and interior painting is lovely.
Next stop Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral and the Earl’s Palace. Eddie drops us off in front of a cafe/gift shop he recommends for lunch. The menu is pure Scotland, love it, and we order local cheeses, bannocks, brown bread and tea.
To pay for the meal I gave the person at the counter a credit card. She put the card into the hand held credit card reader then frowned at it – held it up above her head waving it around, frowned again and repeated the gesture. Turns out the Internet signal is precarious and has to be just right. I thought it was hilarious – okay, you had to be there.
Right across the street from the cafe/gift shop is St Magnus Cathedral (it’s huge), the Earl’s Palace next door must have been stunning in its time. For a little, seemingly insignificant group of islands off the northern tip of mainland Scotland, there is an amazing amount of history connected.
The cathedral was started in 1137 and added to over the next 300 years. It’s built from a very porous red sandstone and I can believe it’s still standing.
Right across the street is the Earl’s Palace built in the 1600s. The guy who built it is described as being one of the most tyrannical nobleman in Scottish history. He used forced labor to build the palace – on land he didn’t own. It took the land from the owner by accusing him of a crime, fabricating evidence, and having him hanged so he could get the land. Not a very nice fellow, but apparently he got his in the end when he and his son were hanged for unrelated chicanery.
I was fascinated with the palace because of its beautiful lines, but also because its fairly well preserved and you can almost picture the inhabitants. There is a huge fireplace in the ballroom and you can actually see the scorched stone from fires so long ago.
By this time my Fitbit was telling us we’d walked quite a bit despite the taxi ride. We caught the bus back to the ship with time to spare and were very happy to have visited, if only for a short while, this interesting and beautiful island.
Day 3, Azamara Club cruise of the British Isles, Day 2 of Edinburgh.
We’re up, breakfasted, and off the ship by 8am as planned. The ship has a shuttle for us to go into Edinburgh and its outside as promised.
We’e excited about walking the Royal Mile again, the weather is beautiful and it’s quite busy, even this early in the morning. We’re headed to the castle at the top of the mile for the 9 am opening. We arrive in time to watch the changing of the guard and are in the gates and buying our tickets by 9:10.
Love the way their kilts swish when they walk!
As soon as we start walking around with our tour headsets it’s evident something’s happening at the castle that day. Having been there just last July the vibe feels different. There are people walking around with formal uniforms, more soldiers and guards, just more activity in general, and nothing to do with tourists.
Once we reached the main square there are formally dressed people waiting in front of the chapel and no nonsense guards at the entrance. Tourists are becoming interested and are hanging around. I asked one of the young soldiers and was told Princess Anne was coming to attend the annual ceremony to mark the loss of the ship Royal Oak which sank in the Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands during WWII. The ship was hit by a German submarine with the loss of 833 lives. Royal Navy divers place a White Ensign underwater at her stern every year. The ceremony Princess Anne is attending is related to the changing of the flag.
Side note: There’s a plaque and memorial in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall Orkney islands dedicated to those who lost their lives. The ship’s bell and a list of all those who lost their lives is part of the memorial. We’ll be in Kirkwall tomorrow and plan to visit St Magnus Cathedral.
Lots and lots of medals on display, even the clergy is resplendent.
We waited around for quite awhile with guards trying to keep everyone back, finally a black car drove into the square right in front of us and out pops Princess Anne. She quickly walks to the front of the chapel, exchanging a few words with people there, then goes into the chapel without turning around. Acknowledging the people patiently waiting to get a glimpse of her, perhaps a smile, would have been nice.
We’re under a little bit of a time constraint so we finish our tour of the castle and head back to the Royal Mile and the shuttle which will take us back to the ship. Walking down the Royal Mile is always a treat. Edinburgh is clean and friendly, the Royal Mile is a wide stretch of road with shops and restaurants on either side. People are happy and friendly, there are some street carts and buskers scattered along the mile. With the Castle on one end and Holyrood Palace on the opposite end, its fun to walk the length from one interesting and historical sight to the other. Holyrood Palace is closed this week because the queen is in residence – or so we’ve heard. Too little time in Edinburgh as usual. Back to the ship for our 2:30 departure.
We looked it up but still don’t know how these free floating buskers do it.
Back on the ship’s shuttle for lunch and watching the ship get out of Leith harbor!
After a restful first day on board the Azamara, we docked in Leith Port, Edinburgh, Scotland. Few ships can dock in this tidal port because it requires pinpoint navigation and just the right size ship. We went upstairs to Deck 11 to watch the pilot and Captain Carl thread the needle of this large ship through what seemed like an impossibly narrow lock. Gail laughingly compared this to being directed into a car wash, but without as much hardware at stake.
Leith Harbor locks, yikes, how is this possible?
Laughing our way through the optical illusion of this it’s-going-to-be-way-too small lock and our less than 12 inches success, we happily docked in Leith, finding ourselves next-door neighbors to Queen Elizabeth’s (now decommissioned) yacht, the Britannia. We were “moving on up!”
After leaving the ship and being greeted by a female bagpiper, we walked the short distance to a mall where we found the entrance to the Britannia museum on the third floor. After (happily?) paying our “concession” (a.k.a. senior) rate, we began what turned out to be an extraordinarily wonderful tour. You start on the top floor, the Royals residence, and move down to the officers quarters, then two levels of seaman’s quarters. The ship exudes the feeling that time has paused. Crews’ towels hang ready. Shoe shine kits are open, waiting to polish with regulation shine, and the queen’s formal dining room table is set for a grand reception, utensils scientifically measured for exactness, and knives, forks, and spoons stand like soldiers ready to greet her honored guests.
Royal living room
Officer’s Dining room
Gail and I stopped for a proper cup of tea at the yacht’s tearoom, and I thoroughly enjoyed my whiskey cake and Earl Grey tea. Then, continuing our tour, we marveled at the artful flower arrangements in every room, and the engine room that gleamed more like a Hollywood set, making it hard to believe that this same engine had circumnavigated the earth more than 11 times in its long history.
Brittania’s Tea room
View of Azamara Quest from the Brittania
A short walk back to our ship we grab a quick but LOVELY dinner at the buffet then ready ourselves for our Azamazing Evening at Hopetoun House, a grand estate near Edinburgh. This is a for-free evening for all Azamara guests, offered on each cruise. They are always different and seek to amaze guests with a cultural event that creates a unique life-long memory of the cruise.
From start to finish, the Azamara crew set a new standard for efficient excellence. Moving 600+ guests to an off-site location in 14 buses, we were greeted by a highlander war band, complete with highlander regalia, their “plaids” more rustic than the official versions you typically see, and their war chants, drum beats, and piping set the stage for collective fun! Lord Hopetoun, who had arrived only moments before from Queen Elizabeth’s afternoon garden party at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, greeted the Azamara guests with genuine enthusiasm. He and his family of 5 still live on the estate, and he has become an unofficial representative of Scotland’s welcoming nobility. Sharing the granite steps with Lord Hopetoun was our affable Captain Carl, a man of genuine wit and ingratiating humor who seems to generate a sense of shared fun whenever he speaks. Unlike other cruise captains, he does not take himself too seriously, and instead, always creates a mood where strangers feel authentically welcome.
Lord Hopetoun, the ships Captain Carl, the Cruise Director Russ (in the kilt)
Facade of the estate
One of the estate bedrooms
View of the bridges from the roof – there are three bridges, the closest is under construction, the third is a railway bridge from the Victorian era. The middle bridge is the currrent automobile bridge that has become obsolete. The new bridge will open next year.
My 18th century boyfriend. He was actually a nice man who gave me the run down on what parts of the estate were used in the making of “Outlander”. The central part of the facade was used as the “Duke of Sandringham’s” estate in season 2 and parts of the stable out buildings were set up as some of the Paris scenes. He had all the scoop because he too is a fan.
The Azamara 8 day British Isles cruise leaves from Copenhagen, Denmark, cruises wset across the North Sea to Edinburgh, goes North to the Orkney Islands, west to the Isle of Skye, south west to Belfast, Waterford, and finally Dublin. In Dublin we disembark and fly to Paris for 5 nights.
July 2, Saturday – Our Air France flight doesn’t leave until 10:50 so I’m finishing up work issues, tidying the house and have a last minute conversation with my mom. I should take a nap but I’m too wound up. Gail and I are sharing a larger bag that we’re shipping back after the cruise. We each have a separate carry on that we’ll bring to Paris. We’ve booked a limo to pick us up at Gail’s at 7:20 to make our 10:50 flight.
The driver is 20 minutes early but we’re ready to go. Not too much traffic on the roads or through checking/security – so far so good – then we go through to the international gates and its packed! Invariably our flight is delayed by an hour and we’re now talking about what we’ll do if we miss our connection from CDG to Copenhagen and miss the ship. However to put everything in perspective, we aren’t traveling with young children about to get on a 6 hour flight leaving at midnight, and we have the knowledge and means to readjust our plans if need be! If we miss the connecting we check for another flight Paris to Copehagen, if we miss the ship we fly to Edinburgh to meet the ship on day 3 and spend our time there (we both love Edinburgh). Could be worse.
No worries – we depart BOS at midnight, get in 25 minutes late, hit the long security line and the even longer immigration line in Paris, run to the gate with only minutes to spare – wow are we tired. (CDG, Charles De Gaulle airport is huge, but the signage is excellent)
I never sleep on a plane, much as I try, so I’ve been up for 36 hours. Fortunately we arrive in Copenhagen on time, a little wait for luggage, but no immigration or customs, easy getting to the exit and into a taxi. The driver has a list handy and sees exactly where the Quest is docked and we’re there in no time. We had exactly enough Kroner (450) for the ride. The travel gods haven’t forsaken us after
all. We’re here and so is our luggage.
We made it! After swearing that we haven’t brought Noro virus on board, pose for a security picture (who is that pale exhausted person) we enter we ship. We’re late and they’re about to start the safety drill. We don’t need our life vest and we aren’t led outside – good thing because while sitting in the Cabaret/theater (our designated lifeboat station) we discover its hailing outside!!! Very weird because although it was overcast when we arrived in Copenhagen it’s not that cold (60-65). It lasts minutes but caused quite a stir, we’re told that hail at this time of year is rare.
Our cabin is the normal outside cabin size but its newly refurbished and good quality. They’ve created plenty of storage space and we’re able to unpack and put everything away in closets and drawers. The linens and bedding are quality and I long to stretch out on the bed – but we have a ship to explore!
First things – we apply for the full voyage Internet package so we can keep up with the family and friends and I can post. It actually works surprisingly well.
Leaving Copenhagen – love the off shore windmills
Gail and I on deck – a bit chilly but the sun is lovely
Azamara offers wine and cocktails and you can upgrade to higher quality wines and liquors if you chose. We’re tired but we’ll enjoy a cocktail in the “livingroom” and light dinner before heading to bed.
Day 2 – Sunday, July 4
Day at sea
We’re not sure what time we woke up because the ship TV says 10:05, our iPhone says 9:05 and according to the ships clock its 8:05. Conundrum. In any case we had a good sleep and we’re ready to go. We’re in the North Sea going west from Copenhagen to Edinburgh. We left Copenhagen at 9pm Sunday night and we’ll arrive in Edinburgh at 2:30pm on Tuesday. The sun is shining but it’s quite windy on the top level jogging track and we’re not dressed for it. The gym treadmill is a good substitute, although it’s quite strange walking on a treadmill on a ship! The ship’s movement makes you feel unsteady, you need to hang on or fall over. The faster your pace the more you feel as if you’re careening around the treadmill. The gym is small but has great equipment.
After a shower we’re in time for the 10am Jazz brunch, champagne and all. Great food, atmosphere and service.
The ship is elegant and everything from furnishings, to decor, to food, is good quality, however the real difference with Azamara seems to be the staff and crew. The Captain – Carl is an Irishman and very personable and funny. He’s around a lot, as are his department heads. You get the impression the crew is genuinely happy to see you and the guests are genuinely grateful for the services provided.
At dinner we met two women from Houston TX, they are doing back to back Azamara cruises (Baltic first) and had arrived in Copenhagen 11 days ago. This is the second cruise and one of them is still without luggage! She’s surviving on borrowed clothes and whatever she can find in ports. The airline has no idea where it is and won’t give her compensation until its missing for 45 days. Ya gotta love airline customer service. Never fail to disappoint.
After dinner we head to the Cabaret to see Teacake (that’s her given name) a singer from Texas who sings Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin songs very well. Time for bed, anticipating arriving in Edinburgh at 4:30P tomorrow afternoon.
July 1, 2016 Packing and anticipating our Azamara 8 night British Isle cruise and hop over to Paris.
Gail and I were so enamored with Scotland last summer that we started looking for ways to return this summer to see the places we missed. Gail receives email offers for cruises and one thing led to another….. here we are leaving tomorrow for Copenhagen to board the Azamara Quest for our 8 night cruise. While we’re in Europe we decided to fly to Paris for a few days before returning home.
We spent the last few months planning, pouring over maps, and combing the Internet for things not to be missed. Some of the highlights we’ve arranged are – a taxi tour of the Orkney islands, a small group tour of the island of Sky, the Giants causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge , an independent tour to Mont St Michel, tickets to the top of the Eiffel tour, Louvre, Versailles, a private Citroen tour of Paris, and a Paris market and cooking class.
We’ve arranged an Airbnb apartment across the street from Notre Dame in the 5th Arrondisement and I’m familiar enough with public transportation and the layout of the city to get us around – famous last words.
The only regret – what WAS I thinking – is that we arrive in Copenhagen just a few hours before the cruise leaves. If Air France decides to delay either flight we may be meeting the cruise in Edinburgh two days late!
But I have to think positively.
Packing – just when I thought I had it down pat I run into the various weather types this trip will bring. Orkney Island and Skye could be very cold and wet – hat, gloves, rain gear, wool sweater and warm, water proof shoes. Edinburgh, Belfast, Waterford and Dublin will be mild but could be rainy – layers and rain gear. Paris could be hot and does require some thought to style, light layers, and good walking shoes that aren’t too ugly! Even though we’ve arranged Luggage Forward to pick up a bag with our cruise clothes so we can travel light to Paris, I still think I’m bringing more than I need despite going over and over the clothes laid out for packing. Sigh.