Edinburgh, Scotland

The quiet, open spaces of the Highlands were such a contrast with bustling London — and made for a great opportunity to relax and gear up for the next stop on our trip, Edinburgh. Tony and I had been particularly excited to see Edinburgh — we both have heritage in Scotland (Tony’s maternal great grandfather was a butcher in Edinburgh, and my side goes further back but has Scottish roots as well) and my oldest brother and sister in law spent a summer in Edinburgh many years ago that made an impression on me as a teenager. So needless to say, we were excited.

Drive SHeep
Watch out for sheep!

Unexpectedly, the drive to Edinburgh was one of the highlights on the trip. Normally, long car drives just feel like something you have to get through in order to get to where you really want to be, but in this case it was so enjoyable. The Scottish countryside is MESMERIZING. The roads were hilly and winding, the sky was vast and beautiful, wildflowers were everywhere. For much of the drive, there were no other cars in view and so we could slow or stop to snap a photo, pointing out ruins to each other or pulling to the side to let sheep pass as needed. It was really fun!

Edinburgh
Edinburgh — Such a beautiful city

Once we made it to Edinburgh, I was surprised both by the size of the city and the beauty. The hills made for some incredible views. We snagged an Airbnb apartment right on the Royal Mile, putting us at a 5 minute walk to the Castle.

We loved so many things about beautiful Edinburgh. The weather was lovely and cool, and we only had a few instances of rain (we’d been prepared for far more moisture).

Highlights of the trip were definitely visiting Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence when in Scotland) and, for Tony, Arthur’s Seat. Edinburgh Castle was incredibly crowded on the day we were there, and was not stroller friendly, but even with those annoyances we thoroughly enjoyed seeing this historic site. The weather was absolutely perfect and the views from the castle walls were breathtaking!

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Edinburgh Castle

Holyrood Palace is on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle. We toured the castle and grounds in the morning. The highlight of this tour for me was the special exhibit of the Queen’s fashion — including items the queen wore when she was only 3 years old (beautifully preserved) all the way to present day. The items were beautiful and included information about each designer. It was interesting to see the garments and notice that as she grew up, she developed a very clear sense of style as most of the later garments were very similar in shape and style. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photographs inside the palace, but we did get a few nice photos on the grounds.

Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace

With the recommendation of my sister-in-law Melissa, we knew we wanted to venture up to Arthur’s Seat for the fun of a hike and the reward of more beautiful views. Because we would not be able to take Matteo, we decided to do the hike separately. Unfortunately, on the day I wanted to go we had rain and a cranky Matteo, so I didn’t get to do the hike, but Tony did and shared his lovely photos.

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Tony’s view from atop Arthur’s Seat

Because it’s Tony, he of course tool the long way and decided to run up to the top of the hill. In addition to being a great workout, he was greeted with gorgeous, albeit windy, views of Edinburgh.

Our time in England and Scotland went by so quickly. It left such an impression on us — it was love, really. If there’s one location we’ve visited that we think ANY AND EVERY ONE would enjoy, it’s the UK.

 

 

 

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Scottish Highlands

After four nights in bustling London, we packed our things and made our way back to Heathrow for our flight to Aberdeen, Scotland. London traffic on the way to the airport had me nervous, but the flight was short, easy and uneventful. At this point, the hardest point about traveling with Matteo has very little to do with Matteo — it’s all the “stuff” we have to bring (like the carseat and stroller).

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At Aberdeen’s airport, we picked up the rental car that Tony had reserved. I was quite nervous about driving in the UK — simply because I think the habit to want to overcorrect to the right side of the road would be difficult to overcome. But Tony did so well! I served as navigator and we were on our way for the roughly 3 hour drive from Aberdeen to the Airbnb we booked in the Highlands.

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The drive was lovely. Very little traffic and fairly straight forward with directions. We stopped on the way at a grocery store the Airbnb owners had recommended so that we could stock up on kitchen basics before we got in to the Highlands and away from store options. Every mile further we drove, the views became more and more impressive. Expansive, rolling green hills with gorgeous wild flowers everywhere you looked.

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The Airbnb we booked is without a doubt our favorite booking so far. We stayed in a renovated oat mill. The mill was the perfect set up for our family — beautiful and rustic, so comfortable, and in a location that made us feel the Highlands. All three of us loved it. It was the perfect place for us to stay with Matteo. The owners, knowing we were traveling with a  little boy, even left several of their sons old toys for Matteo to enjoy — including a train set that entertained him for hours.

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The Highlands felt like the opposite of London. Where London was a place to expend energy and fit as much into a day as we could, the Highlands made the perfect place to recharge and relax. The house had wifi but no television, and it was a testament to the beautiful set up that Matteo didn’t even notice the lack of television during our stay. We spent the days reading, walking, taking in the view, cooking, playing with Matteo’s toys, running*, and trying to figure out ways to move to Scotland permanently.

I think we could have stayed in the Highlands for a month without getting bored. The beauty of this part of the UK — its unrivaled by any place I have traveled to before. It was like love at first sight — an instant connect and feeling of compatibility. With so many beautiful locations on our planet, we try not to visit the same place twice. The goal is to see as much of the world as possible! But Scotland…that’s a place we’d like to visit again.

All good things come to an end. After a quick 3 days/2 nights in the Highlands, we packed our things and hopped back in the rental car to make our way to the next stop on our summer travels adventure — Edinburgh.

*On our first full day in the Highlands, Tony decided to go for a run. His plan was to stick to a 6 mile path/loop that he’d found on a map. He took off around 7:45 am — by 10 am he wasn’t back yet and, knowing his mile time,  I was officially nervous. Another hour passed, and I started to panic. I had decided to give him until noon to get home or else I would have to go over to the cottage’s owner place across the street and ask for help. I was terrified that something had happened to him! Luckily, at 11:45 Tony made it back. He had gotten horribly lost on the poorly marked path and had to figure out a way back to our rental by manner of cutting through people’s farms. He even was zapped by a cattle fence in the process! All said and done, he made it back — filthy and exhausted — but okay. Because I had been so afraid that something terrible had happened to him, we made a pact to never go running without letting the other person know the route we planned to run — particularly when we do not have GPS to rely on.  Funny story now, but at the time I was a wreck!

Oh, What A Summer (London)

What a great summer.

We have been absent from the blog because Tony, Matteo and I have been traveling for the past 6 weeks. Leaving a few days after Tony’s last day of work for the 15-16 school year in early July, we first flew to London (from Dubai, and via Amsterdam) before landing at Heathrow airport. After an uneventful, but not particularly restful overnight of flying, we were so exited to arrive in London and begin our week of sightseeing.

That excitement had to be contained for a bit, as we were dismayed upon arrival to have to wait a full two hours to get through the incredibly long, congested line at passport control. Something we should have anticipated we were arriving in London for the very busy summer holiday season. Once through passport control, we collected our bags, hailed an Uber and made our way to the Holiday Inn where we would spend our first night in the city. After the first overnight, we moved to the beautiful Andaz London Liverpool StreetAndaz London Liverpool Street — a beautiful, 5-star hotel that exceeded all of our expectations for comfort and relaxation.

While this was my first trip to London, it was Tony’s third and he already had a good feel for the tube routes/stops we would need to know. Tony wanted to make sure I got to see the bulk of the iconic London sights — Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, etc.

The first day of our arrival we had warm temperatures and plenty of sun, the rest of the trip was a bit more typical of London weather with intermittent haze, spitting rain, and cooler temperatures. Coming from the heat and humidity of Abu Dhabi, all of these changes were WELCOME.

It would be take far too long to describe everything we did while in London. If you followed along on Facebook or instagram, you probably have a good idea of what we were up to, but for now I’ll highlight three of our favorites from London.

HYDE PARK/PRINCESS DIANA MEMORIAL PLAYGROUND

Diana

If you aren’t traveling with young children, it might be tempting to skip this paragraph thinking its not for you, and technically you’d be correct — you can’t get in to the playground area unless you’re accompanying a child — but if you find yourself in London on a beautiful day, go to Hyde Park! Within Hyde Park is the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, and our family easily spent several hours playing at the playground and wandering the park. There is a beautiful carousel, ice cream, plenty of space for a picnic, gardens to tour, and a gorgeous expanse of green space to soak up in the middle of wonderful London. We happened upon the playground on a particularly beautiful day with lots of happy children, and giggled as we watched Matteo make fast friends with a little Brit named James.

HIGH TEA

Hightea

We knew we wanted another High Tea experience (our first was in Dubai, at the famed at.Mosphere restaurant atop the Burj Khalifa) while in London. A quick search on Groupon led us to a good deal at the London chain Patisserie Valerie. Tony ordered tea, I ordered coffee, and we enjoyed a simple, yet lovely, traditional English tea together. The finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets were all delicious.

STAMFORD BRIDGE

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Stamford Bridge is the home of Tony’s beloved Chelsea Football Club. As Chelsea FC is one of the reasons for Tony’s previous trips to London, I was excited to visit this spot myself. We decided to walk the majority of the way to Stamford Bridge, which happens to be in the middle of a rather lovely (and expensive) area of London. While there, we were able to visit the fan shop and take a few pictures outside. It was fun to share Tony’s passion for an afternoon.

London was fantastic! We thoroughly enjoyed our time here, though I think we both walked away with the opinion that it might be a better city to revisit once Matteo is old enough to walk several miles on his own, rather than drag the stroller everywhere. While it was doable, that part of the trip could have been more enjoyable, if that makes sense. But there’s a reason why London is one of the most visited cities in the world — it’s magic!

 

Park Hyatt Dubai

During the first weekend in May, Tony, Matteo and I packed up and made the 1.5 hour drive to Dubai for a long weekend spent at the Park Hyatt Dubai.

Park Hyatt Dubai

We love to stay at Hyatt properties because of our award status with the chain, which gives us extra benefits like suite upgrade when available, late check out, free breakfast, etc. This Dubai property followed in the footsteps of the other Park Hyatt properties we’ve stayed at, it was absolutely beautiful with fantastic service.

The property is spread out, with separate buildings attached by breezeways and walkways. Every square inch of the property was gorgeous — with the blue and white theme, and modern, luxurious furnishings leaving us saying “wow!” throughout our stay.

Upon check in, we were upgraded to a suite which meant that we had a large bedroom and a separate living area (where we could roll Matteo’s cot at night). Also of note? The gorgeous bathroom that featured a HUGE tub!

With several restaurants, a great pool, gym, and spa, we didn’t feel the need to leave the property for the duration of our weekend stay. Because it was Mother’s Day (US) weekend,  Tony and Matteo surprised me with a morning at the spa where I received a wonderfully relaxing massage.

Our weekend was quiet and relaxing — the perfect preparation for the end of school year crawl that awaited us back in Abu Dhabi as we wait for our mid July summer break and the exciting line up of travels we have planned (UK > US > Netherlands).

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We will definitely make plans to return to the Park Hyatt Dubai property for a future visit when we want to get away, but don’t have the time/inclination to leave the UAE. A great, relaxing weekend!

Castles in Copenhagen

Of all the attractions we saw during our week in Copenhagen, the castles we visited top both of our lists of favorites. We rented a car on Wednesday of our trip to head out and see some sites beyond the city. While public transportation in Copenhagen is efficient and accessible, we chose to rent a car so that we could go at our own pace, and easily add/delete items to our itinerary based on our moods (read: Teo’s mood) throughout the day.

The drive to our first castle, Kronborg Castle, was incredibly scenic with views of the sea much of the way. The day was gray, rainy and cold but that served us well as there were not many tourists when we arrived at the castle. We really did feel like we had the place to ourselves! Without a crowd, we could safely let Matteo walk, run and play which he enjoyed immensely.

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Kronborg Castle

Kronborg Castle is described as “one of northern Europe’s finest Renaissance castles” and was built in 1574-1585. It is famously known as Hamlet’s castle, and performances of the play still take place on the grounds every summer. The castle is absolutely beautiful — in a cold, romantic, tragic way. We thoroughly enjoyed wandering the halls and exhibits, viewing the art, and taking in the history of this majestic property. Matteo wasn’t the least bit bored as he imagined himself a knight while we were there, and prepared to defend his “fortress”.

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Frederiksborg Castle

The next castle we visited was Frederiksborg Castle. This castle was built by King Christian IV in the early decades of the 17th century, and then rebuilt after a fire in 1859. The castle has been turned into a Danish history museum, vand has a very different, more opulent feel, compared to Kronborg Castle. The museum is laid out so that each floor of the castle houses art and historical displays from a different era of Danish history, with the top floor dedicated to the modern day royal family. Covering 500 years of history, the art on display on each floor of this castle is exquisite — as such, it was slightly less Matteo friendly. Each floor had a “hall monitor” present to keep guests from touching anything, getting to close to displays, etc. They were all kind and gracious — but you could see them visibly tense at the sight of our wild child.

 We so enjoyed spending the day at these castles. If you enjoy history at all, they are a MUST SEE on a trip to Copenhagen.

The Copenhagen Card

If there was one takeaway to give you after our trip to beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark last week, it is this: GO THERE.

We loved it. We have been incredibly fortunate over the last year of purposefully pursuing travel to visit some really cool locations. In the US, we visited Austin, San Antonio, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle and since moving to the UAE in September we’ve added Muscat (Oman), Istanbul (Turkey), Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck (Austria), Munich (Germany), Ras Al Khaimah (UAE), London (England — just Tony) and now Copenhagen (Denmark). While we loved just about every location on that list, Copenhagen has pulled forward as both Tony and my favorite place to date.

It’s just a beautiful city. It was very “toddler travel” friendly with super high walkability/public transport, as well as being easy to navigate. Tony and I will take turns writing about some specific parts of the trip, including our top list of sites to see, but for now I wanted to start with how we travelled to an expensive city without blowing our budget.

Scandinavia in general is considered an expensive place to visit. With the help of travel hacking, we started this trip ahead of the game. The 7 day hotel stay was covered with a credit card award earned last year — the only hitch was we had to stay at the same hotel property for the full 7 days. Typically, we like to hit more than one city on a stay that long, so we wanted to pick a city where we felt like we wouldn’t run out of things to do and see. Copenhagen delivered on that front. Our flights were booked on points, although we had to deal with a less than ideal route to make that happen (we flew Abu Dhabi > Rome > Paris > Copenhagen). Because we stayed at the Marriott Copenhagen with elite status, we had access to the hotel’s executive lounge giving us free breakfast each morning, as well as afternoon snacks and a hot hors d’oeuvres each evening. This bonus alone insured we could easily keep our spending in check on our trip.

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The other big cost saver for us was the Copenhagen Card. Benefits of the card include:

Tony purchased the cards for us at the Copenhagen airport. You choose the card based on the length of your stay — options include 24, 48, 72, and 120 hours. With Matteo under 10, and thereby covered by the purchase of an adult card, we only needed to buy two adult cards. The cost came to just under the equivalent of $245. I know that might sound steep at first glance, but don’t forget that it includes our transportation (including to and from the airport) for 5 days and admission to so many museums and attractions!

By using the list of attractions covered with the Copenhagen card, we were more easily able to narrow down what we saw and did each day. We visited both Experimentarium City and the Zoo — without the Copenhagen card, entry to those two places would have cost $65 and $66 respectively. That’s nearly half the cost of the Copenhagen card right there. We also visited three different castles, and the Viking Ship Museum with free entrance under the Copenhagen card. Adding all of the entry fees to the costs covered, we ended up saving about $40 overall buying the card rather than paying admission charges upon arrival. That savings does not take in to account the public transport we used — mostly, because I can’t remember all of the buses/trains we took, and charges varied depending on where you were going (i.e. more expensive to go to the airport than to the center of the city). Had Matteo been a little older and able to handle longer days, the savings would have been even greater as there were several museums we didn’t get to visit due to him holding us back (kidding! well, not really, but that’s travel with a  three year old).

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Glad to have the option for public transportation when the wind made walking feel too cold to our desert sensibilities

So that’s the Copenhagen Card! They can be purchased online at http://www.copenhagencard.com/buy-copenhagencard or do what we did and pick one up at the airport. How you get the card isn’t important, what is important is that you GO TO COPENHAGEN. You’re going to love it!

 

 

Ras Al Khaimah

Last week the three of us made the drive up to the northern most emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, for a weekend away. We left quite quickly after Tony returned home from work on Thursday afternoon, hoping that by leaving early in the afternoon we could avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic near Dubai. We still encountered a fair amount of traffic getting through Dubai, but the rest of the drive was smooth sailing.

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The purpose of the trip to RAK was for Tony to participate in his first official half marathon. I say first official half marathon because it is not unheard of for Tony to run this distance on one of his longer runs on weekends. The man is a strong runner! This race is known as “the fastest half marathon in the world” due to the flat course and typically ideal conditions. I’ll let Tony speak more about the race in a later post.

For our weekend away, we chose to stay at a Hilton property, the Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort. The property is very close to the architecturally lovely Waldorf Astoria, but rather than one large building full of rooms and suites, the Hilton Al Hamra has a series of smaller buildings housing rooms across the property. While we didn’t golf on this trip, there is an absolutely beautiful golf course surrounding the property. It seemed to be quite busy all day long and was clearly one of the biggest draws to this resort on this particular weekend.

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The grounds of the hotel property were absolutely beautiful! We had an upgraded room in a small building housing about 8 total rooms, right on the beach. The paths around the property easily led us to the other amenities that were there to take advantage of — a lovely pool, children’s playground, outdoor refreshment stands, beach rentals, as well as the main hotel building that housed three restaurants, a coffee shop, concierge, and the spa.

Matteo has been to the beach before, but the easy access to the beach from our room on this trip made this trip extra fun for him. He loved picking up seashells to throw back in to the surf, playing in the surf, and running away from the waves as they broke on the beach.

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The weather was cooler than what we’re used to, at highs in the low 70s, but the water wasn’t freezing so we were all comfortable wading in ankle deep and enjoying the sunshine. Evenings on the beach got quite cool (for desert acclimated people like ourselves) and the brisk wind was a change from the very warm winter we’ve been enjoying in Abu Dhabi.

Tony’s race was early on Friday morning (he crushed it) and he was back by late morning. Our preferred status with Hilton means that we enjoy a free breakfast at their properties, so when he returned the three of us went down to eat at the buffet breakfast in the main building. The breakfast selection was great, including a fresh egg station and even real pork bacon and sausage! Breakfast was packed at 10 am on Friday afternoon, but on Saturday we went early, at 8 am and enjoyed a largely empty dining room.

The hotel was in easy walking distance of a mall which meant that we could get a (less expensive) dinner just a walk away. We did indulge in room service for dinner on Friday night, which we both enjoyed as well.

On Friday afternoon, Tony surprised me by booking an appointment for me at the spa! I had a glorious massage and a manicure. The service at the spa was EXCELLENT. Perhaps the best spa experience I’ve ever had, or at least tied with my time at the Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi last year. It was an unexpected, and very appreciated, two hours of pampering spent all by myself in glorious quiet.

I was surprised at how lovely RAK was (I didn’t realize what a beautiful resort town it is), and at just over a two hour drive, I definitely think we will make a return trip in the future. If nothing else, we plan to be back next year for the half marathon again.