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Northern Scotland- 2 weeks of Castles, Gorgeous Scenery, Whisky, and Gin!

Northern Scotland- 2 weeks of Castles, Gorgeous Scenery, Whisky, and Gin!

Old Jul 1st, 2018, 01:12 PM
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Northern Scotland- 2 weeks of Castles, Gorgeous Scenery, Whisky, and Gin!

My husband and I spent about two weeks in Scotland and the UK in mid-June and I thought I’d write a quick trip report. Many thanks to all the people who answered my planning questions on this thread: Advice needed for 2nd Scotland trip

This report is going to be an abbreviated version of the highly detailed ones I usually do and post on my own blog. I figured if I didn’t write something now, it might never get done! We spent 8 days in Scotland last summer (Edinburgh, Callander, Glenfinnan, Isle of Mull/Iona, Oban and Glasgow as well as 2 nights in London) and I still haven’t written that report. We enjoyed that trip so much we thought we’d return this summer to explore the more remote far northern highlands and the northeast coast.

Winchester and London:
Our flight on Virgin Atlantic from LAX to LHR was fine. We'd paid to pick seats with a little extra legroom and it was worth it. Arrival at LHR was a cluster. Immigration had almost 2000 people in line in a giant room with no A/C. It took an hour and 20 minutes to get through. Fortunately, we had carry-on only so we didn't have to worry about our bags.
We started our trip in Winchester, south of London near Southampton. My father in law lives there so we went for a quick visit. Our one day in Winchester was lovely; we saw the cathedral and walked around to check out the other sights. It’s a very cute town. We had a wonderful dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant called the Black Rat.

From there we took the train to London where we had 4 hours before catching our overnight train to Inverness. During that time we had to get from Waterloo to Euston station and have dinner. We took the tube to an Ottolenghi restaurant called NOPI and they graciously held our bags next to their front desk for us while we dined (I had worried about what to do with the bags during dinner and I emailed them in advance). The food is innovative and inspired by Mediterranian and Middle East flavors. Our meal was excellent and so was the service. We then took the tube to Euston and it was convenient that we had Oyster cards from last year that we were able to top up.

Train to Inverness
The overnight train was ok and fun, though yes, it's hard to sleep with the train noise. I'd like to try it again after they get new trains and carriages with upgraded compartments next year. Our compartment had two bunks and a sink in the room, with the toilet at end of the carriage. It was much more basic, and smaller, than sleeper compartments I've had on Amtrak trains or trains in China. We had a drink in the lounge car, which was very busy and crowded so I was glad we had dinner in advance. Whiskies tasted: Balvenie Doublewood and Edradour 10.

On arrival in Inverness, we had a hard time finding our Europcar rental office which turned out to be at a kiosk inside the mall next to the train station. We'd reserved a "Ford Focus or similar" and it ended up a Hyundai IONIQ which was a gas/electric hybrid that got great gas mileage (about 50 MPG). We had the car for 10 days and our plan was to drive part of the “North Coast 500” and then end up on the east coast to explore the distilleries and castles.

Dornoch and Dunrobin Castle:
From Inverness, we drove to Dornoch for one night where we stayed at Dornoch Castle in their “Old Courtroom” room which looks exactly as what one would want when staying in a castle (big four poster bed, fireplace, lots of stone, etc). The hotel is in the center of town right across from Dornoch Cathedral which we could see from our room. They have a nice small bar with an award-winning whisky selection and a gin distillery on site. We had dinner in their restaurant and while the food was decent, the setting did not match the menu prices. Tablecloths on the Formica tables would be a good start. Breakfast in the same room was good the next morning. That first day we also visited Dunrobin castle where we saw their falconry show in the rain and toured the castle which until recently, was still lived in by the family that owns it.
Whiskies tasted: Balblair 99; distilled in 1999, bottled in 2016 and Bowemore 15. Gin: Thompson Bros made in the Dornoch castle distillery, made into a Negroni cocktail and a Martini.

Aside: Food and drink. I’m a former chef who still works in the restaurant business so good food is important to me. In many cases, we ate at our hotel because it was convenient, or because it was considered to be the best place in town. Other times we sought out local places and pubs. We also love whiskey and gin, both of which are very popular in Scotland and we made a point of trying a different one almost every day which is very easy to do in Scotland!
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 01:49 PM
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The NC500:
The North Coast 500 is a relatively new tourist route (trying to market itself like the US "Route 66") that goes approximately 500 miles around the northern coast of Scotland, typically starting and ending near Inverness. We drove most of it “anti-clockwise” as they say there.

From Dornoch, we drove to Tongue the next day via John o Groats which had us going north up the east coast to the northernmost point of “mainland” Scotland. We'd wanted to do a wildlife boat tour that day from JOG but the wind was gusting at 50 mph+ so the boats did not go out. Along the way, we stopped at Wick for lunch and went out to Duncansby Lighthouse to view the Duncansby Stacks. The wind was so strong at one point I thought I was going to get blown off the cliff. We stopped at Dunnet Bay Distillery where they make Rock Rose Gin, one of our favorites, tasted some, and bought a couple of bottles.
Gin Tasted: All of the Rock Rose flavors.

Tongue:
We stayed two nights in Tongue at the Ben Loyal hotel. While in Tongue we visited Smoo Cave (most of it closed due to weather), Durness (and Cocoa Mountain for hot chocolate!), drove around Loch Eriboll (gorgeous!), and climbed up to Castle Varrich which we could see from our room (small room but excellent view of the water, the castle, and mountain Ben Loyal). The hotel has a great bar frequented by locals and dinner was decent in their restaurant. Very good breakfast too. This area is just stunning. Much of the driving is on single track roads but the scenery cannot be beaten. During the moments the sun came out, the water and beaches looked like they belonged in the Caribbean.
Whisky Tasted: Old Pulteney (local, from Wick), Clynelish 14 year, from Brora, Sutherland, and Tamnavulin from Speyside. Gin Tasted: Orkney Gin Company Rhubarb Old Tom

Lochinver and Ullapool:
Next up was Ullapool. To get there we drove through Lochinver where we stopped for lunch at the well known Caberfeidh restaurant. It turns out their lunch menu is severely limited as compared to their dinner menu. We had Crabcakes with Lochinver crab, steak and serrano ham meatballs, and mushroom and Madeira soup. The food was good but I wasn’t as wowed as some of the reviews I’d read. We also popped in at “the pie shop”, Lochinver Larder, where we bought some sweet pies to take away.

In Ullapool, we spent 2 nights at the Royal Hotel where we had a nice large room with a terrace and a view of the harbor. Unfortunately, the breakfast was the most disappointing of the trip. While in Ullapool we had dinner one night at the Arch Inn which has excellent food; we both had perfectly cooked fish-wild halibut and Scottish salmon in lovely presentations. The next night we ate at the Seaforth which had very good fish and chips and burgers. There’s a cute little ice cream shop next door.
Whisky tasted: Scapa Skiren, from the Orkney Islands, Gin tasted: Strathern Rose Heather Gin.

In Ullapool we were foiled again in our quest for a wildlife boat tour as our full day there was on a Sunday and the boats don’t run that day. We heard there was one out of Lochinver that did go out on Sundays, but again the weather wasn’t great for being on the water, so we skipped it. Instead, we visited Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Inverewe Gardens which is a National Trust of Scotland site. The scenery on this drive, from Ullapool to Inverewe was stunning. We even saw a herd of wild deer on the road from the Gorge to Dundonnel. Fodor’s calls this Destitution Road ( https://www.fodors.com/world/europe/...on-road-593817)

Aside #2 : Before leaving I joined the US National Trust for Historic Preservation (www.savingplaces.org). I bought a family membership for $30. The organization has reciprocal agreements with several other National Trust organizations around the world including the National Trust in Scotland. With our membership cards, we were able to get free admission to the four NTS sites on this trip which saved us a ton of money considering each place had admission prices of 11-13 GP per person. This may be a new benefit because while most of the sites were familiar with it, it wasn’t hardcoded into their computer system yet. Still, we were given the benefit in each place. FYI, the National Trust for Scotland Discover ticket costs $37 to $50 per person depending on the length of time you purchase (3-14 days). There's also the Scottish Heritage Pass for $69 and the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass for $43-$58 per person (we did this one last year). There are several different pass options for sightseeing in Scotland and they each cover different properties (some overlap too) so it pays to do your homework before you go.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 02:01 PM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report.

I've stayed at the Dornoch Castle twice -- once in a bog standard 'garden room' which was nice enough, and once in the tower which was quite posh. I think the 'Old Courtroom' was still a bar when I stayed in the tower but can't totally remember. Did they say it was semi-recent conversion?


•••• Oops - missed your 2nd installment - was interrupted half way through posting so I'm already behind . . .

Last edited by janisj; Jul 1st, 2018 at 02:05 PM.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 02:29 PM
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Janisj- yes the Old Courtroom was once the bar, now converted to a guest room. No bar details remain as far as I could tell but the windows still have stone bench seats built in like I've seen in other castles. We actually used the fireplace too. The room has windows on three sides which is great. The bathroom in the room is somewhat open. Wall divider but no door or ceiling. WC in a separate teeny tiny room with a door.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 02:36 PM
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From Ullapool we drove to Dufftown for two nights, stopping at Culloden (another NTS site) and the Clava Cairns and stone circles (these are well worth the stop if you are fascinated by standing stones as I am). We stopped in the town of Nairn for lunch, walked around for a bit and ended up at the Classroom Bisto where we had an enjoyable sandwich and pasta.

Dufftown:
In Dufftown, we stayed at the Gowenbrae B&B which is very cute and has lovely hosts. Our room had a window seat with a view of the clocktower and the world’s smallest bathroom. While in Dufftown, we did the Dufftown Distillery Walk on our second evening there. Speyside Tours - Whisky in Speyside We did the extended tour because that’s what was available on our day and there were about 10 people on the tour. This walk deserves all the praise it gets. Michelle, who leads the walk and offers 10+ different tastes of whisky along the way, really knows her stuff. You do need to be pretty mobile to keep up with all the walking.
Whiskey tasted on the tour: too many to list, but all local

We also visited the Speyside Cooperage ( Speyside Cooperage Visitor Attraction Craigellachie Moray Whisky Trail ) where we learned all about the building and repair of whisky barrels (more interesting than you’d think!) and explored the ruins of Balvenie Castle which we had to ourselves. For lunch, we drove to Aberlour where we ate at the Mash Tun (I had a very good Scottish Salmon “nicoise” salad). For one of our dinners in Dufftown we ate at the Seven Stills where they have a very extensive whisky list and French-inspired Scottish food (the chef is from France). On another night we had dinner in the local pub called the Stuart Arms.
Whiskey tasted: Benromach Sassicaia (this one was my favorite and we ended up buying a bottle. It's aged in Tuscan wine casks).

Aside #3- what’s the deal with hotel beds in Scotland? Without fail, in every place we stayed, the mattresses were absolutely awful; they were sagging, or lumpy, or had squeaky springs and sometimes all three. This did not improve with the cost of the room. I really wish that the proprietors would spend the night in their rooms to experience what their guest’s do. (/rant). All that said, I would stay in most of the places again, I just wish they had better beds.

Castle Fraser and Tomnavere Stone Circle:
From Dufftown, we drove to Ballater and along the way we stopped at Castle Fraser (an NTS site). This castle is fully furnished and fun to walk around in. There are knowledgeable docents available to answer questions. There’s also a lovely walled garden and a children’s interactive play area.

By the time we were done with the castle, we needed to find lunch and we ended up driving to a town called Alford. We had an unexpectedly delightful lunch at the Alford Bistro which we found via looking for restaurants on Google Maps! I had a fantastic lamb stew and my husband had a delicious pasta.

After lunch, on the way to Ballater, we stopped at Tomnavere Stone Circle which I found marked on our paper atlas. This hadn’t come up in any of my research, but it was well worth the stop to be able to stand in the center of a stone circle high on a countryside hill, with no one around but the local cows

Last edited by Kristina; Jul 1st, 2018 at 02:40 PM.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 02:53 PM
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Ballater:

Ballater is a cute little town, best known for its proximity to Balmoral Castle, the summer home of the royal family. This may be heresy, but we did not visit Balmoral castle. Only the grounds and the ballroom are open to the public and I didn’t think that justified the high cost of admission. Instead, we visited the nearby Royal Lochnagar distillery and did a tour there.

While in Ballater we had lunch at Rocksalt and Snails which while highly recommended, seemed to be out of everything on the menu we asked about on the day we were there (“soup? Oh we don’t make that in summer. Meat pies on the menu and posted on the wall? No, we don’t have any”). In the end, we had a very nice meat and cheese platter and a delicious piece of mocha cake. We had dinner one night at the Deeside Inn which had decent food but severely lacking service.
Whisky tasted: Royal Lochnagar from right down the road. Gin tasted: House of Elrick from Aberdeen

On our second night, we had one of the best meals of the trip at the Rothesay Rooms ( https://rothesay-rooms.co.uk/ ), a restaurant opened by Prince Charles to help stimulate the economy after the town was nearly destroyed by heavy floods a few years ago. The restaurant has won several awards, recognition from the Michelin guide, and is well on its way to winning its first Michelin star. It also operates as a charity. The food was locally sourced and imaginative yet accessible, and the service was excellent. Highly recommended.
Whisky and Gin: we tried new ones here as well, but alas, I did not record them.

In Ballater we stayed two nights at the No. 45 guest house which is about ½ a mile from the center of town. It was easy to walk to dinner. The room was lovely, with a 4 poster bed and a lot of space. Great towels, and lots of thoughtful touches, excellent shower. One of the best breakfasts of the trip too.

Stonehaven:
From Ballater we drove to Stonehaven, stopping at Craigevar Castle (another NHS site) along the way. This castle is fully furnished and has an interesting history. Guided tours on the half hour are mandatory and no photos allowed inside.

Stonehaven was our last night in Scotland where we stayed at the Marine Hotel, right on the harbor. We didn’t have time to see much of the town, but we did walk from the harbor to Dunnotar castle and back (about 3 miles round trip). The castle ruins are spectacular as are the views along the coast. That evening we ate the hotel’s restaurant which was very good. The hotel/restaurant also has a brewery called 6 degrees North which brews Belgian style beers (they are located 6 degrees north of Belgium).
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 02:56 PM
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“Without fail, in every place we stayed, the mattresses were absolutely awful; they were sagging, or lumpy, or had squeaky springs and sometimes all three.”

We have been told that the beauty of Scotland inspires friskiness among guests, which wears on the mattresses.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 02:59 PM
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https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/touring-pass Is this the pass? Great deal.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 03:03 PM
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Aberdeen to Heathrow to LA

The next morning, we drove to Aberdeen Airport, returned the car and discovered we’d arrived way too early to check for our flight. We needed to check our luggage before going through security because we’d purchased a few bottles of gin and whisky, so we had to check bags. This meant we could not go through security to hang out in the lounge. We had to wait an hour and a half in a café. Lesson learned. For what it’s worth, the Priority Pass accessible lounge at ABZ is quite nice.

It was a quick and easy flight to Heathrow where we’d booked a room at the Sofitel which is connected to Terminal 5 where we arrived. It was easy to walk there on arrival and the following morning to take the Heathrow Express (free inside airport) from terminal 5 to Terminal 3.

Our room was nicely appointed, good sized, and had a big bathroom. We had dinner in their fine dining restaurant Belle Epoque. The meal was quite good, though expensive. I would stay there again, and while the hotel is certainly more expensive than others in the area, it's convenient and I found it a good value when I was able to book it with Chase reward points instead of cash.

The next morning we went to terminal 3 early, checked in our bags and headed to the "No. 1 Lounge" accessible with our Priority Pass cards. The lounge is spacious and offers decent food for breakfast. One thing I don't understand about LHR is why they wait until 1 hour before boarding to announce the gate. The boarding also opens 1 hour before so by the time we reached our gate they had already started boarding. The flight home was uneventful except that it took over an hour for our bags to show up which just confirms why I prefer carry-on whenever possible.

If you’d like to see some photos from the trip please check out my Instagram Accounts. Many of the posts have multiple photos so make sure you click through if you see a little white box in the upper right of the photo.

www.instagram.com/wired2theworld for photos of castles, sightseeing and many of the different whiskies and gins we tried.

www.instagram.com/formerchef for photos of the meals.

I realize I've just touched on the highlights so please feel free to ask questions if you have them!
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 03:05 PM
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xcountry- Funny! Could be true!

Macross- That pass does not look like it covers Scotland. As I said, I did not buy a pass but instead used my reciprocal agreement with the US National Trust.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 05:47 PM
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Macross: That is a National Trust pass . . . not a National Trust for Scotland pass (different organizations)

Kristina: Craigievar is one of my VERY favorites. The first time I visited one could walk out onto the tower roof which is no longer allowed. And Dunnottar - oh my(!). If it was on the west coast Inverness/Skye/Ft William 'tartan trail' it would be over run with crowds. Fraser/Craigievar/Dunnottar - you hit the best in the area. Only other 'must' would be Crathes because of the glorious gardens, but the Fraser and Craigievar interiors are as good or better.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle (note the spelling) was an accidental find for me one time I was staying in Ballater -- been back a couple of times. (Psst . . . a few places you typed the dreaded 'e' whisky)

I have a one nighter at LHR in late Dec - I've always avoided the on-airport properties (mostly because I'm usually in T-3) but I may try the Sofitel this time.

Last edited by janisj; Jul 1st, 2018 at 05:50 PM.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 06:26 PM
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Loved your photos. . . .
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 06:36 PM
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Originally Posted by janisj View Post
Kristina: Craigievar is one of my VERY favorites. The first time I visited one could walk out onto the tower roof which is no longer allowed. And Dunnottar - oh my(!). If it was on the west coast Inverness/Skye/Ft William 'tartan trail' it would be over run with crowds. Fraser/Craigievar/Dunnottar - you hit the best in the area. Only other 'must' would be Crathes because of the glorious gardens, but the Fraser and Craigievar interiors are as good or better.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle (note the spelling) was an accidental find for me one time I was staying in Ballater -- been back a couple of times. (Psst . . . a few places you typed the dreaded 'e' whisky)

I have a one nighter at LHR in late Dec - I've always avoided the on-airport properties (mostly because I'm usually in T-3) but I may try the Sofitel this time.
Janisj- aaack! the dreaded "e" in the "whisky"! My auto-correct keeps wanting to change it and I must have missed a few. And yes, I messed up Tomnaverie too. Are you by chance an English teacher? ;-) That stone circle is just magical and the view from there is fantastic.

As for the castles, I visited the ones I did in part because you recommended them so highly. Then everything fell into place with the National Trust membership (I calculate we saved about $100 off just the admission prices on the places we went). We ran out of time to see Crathes. We also had to backtrack a bit because of opening days and our schedule. Craigivar was closed on Wed/Thurs when we were in the area so we had to go on a Friday. By the way, we were allowed to go out on the roof too!
Yes, Dunnotar is amazing. I love that you can access just about all the rooms and the kitchens were fantastic and fascinating to me. We walked back (partly) via the beach and then up the hillside to catch up with the path. That was a bit of a challenge. Dunnotar has a great app now that gives you a ton of info as you tour around. I also really enjoyed the ruins of Balvenie castle. It's small, but it was so cool to have the place to ourselves to explore.

Regarding the Sofitel, I usually avoid airport hotels, but I may now be a convert. The convenience factor was great. In fact, I'm now planning a trip to Egypt and we arrive at 11 pm. I just booked an on-airport hotel for our arrival.

Glad you enjoyed the photos. Eventually, I'll have this all on my blog, expanded with more detail, and a lot more photos.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 07:48 PM
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>>Are you by chance an English teacher? ;-) <<

Nope -- just been to Scotland many times and love my single malts . Visited Balvenie Caste before I ever tasted the eponymous whisky.

>>By the way, we were allowed to go out on the roof too!<<. Oh -- that's great -- they discontinued that for a few years. My Dad was a Forbes so Craigievar was the second castle we ever visited in Scotland (after Edinburgh) 30+ years ago.
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 08:59 PM
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The Royal Oak Foundation is the US affiliate of the National Trust (as distinct from the NT for Scotland). Membership gets you free entry for Scotland as well as the rest of the UK for a year. It's more expensive than the Historic Preservation Trust but covers all of the UK.

Join the Royal Oak Foundation | Visit National Trust Houses and Gardens

I'm planning to be in Glasgow later this year, Any chance of last year's TR before then?
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 09:27 PM
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thursdaysd: Re Glasgow . . . here is my TR from a couple of years ago (no need to read the whole thing - Glasgow is at the beginning right after Edinburgh). It talks about the Lighthouse, Riverside transport museum and the Kelvingrove. Posts after Sept 25 are 'non-Scotland'. 4 special meals, 2 GTGs, Benedict Cumberbatch and a Tattoo
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Old Jul 1st, 2018, 10:09 PM
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Thank you Kristina, we're at early stages of planning a return trip to Scotland next year, this time focused around the NC500, so lots of useful information here.
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Old Jul 2nd, 2018, 03:34 AM
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Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
The Royal Oak Foundation is the US affiliate of the National Trust (as distinct from the NT for Scotland). Membership gets you free entry for Scotland as well as the rest of the UK for a year. It's more expensive than the Historic Preservation Trust but covers all of the UK.

Join the Royal Oak Foundation Visit National Trust Houses and Gardens

I'm planning to be in Glasgow later this year, Any chance of last year's TR before then?
Thanks, looking more for the rest of the UK right now. Thinking of doing Crufts this year. I have to go through what I might see and weigh the difference. The Beatle's childhood homes are on this pass and are not on some of the others. I want to see now after the James Corden show with Sir Paul.

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Old Jul 2nd, 2018, 06:58 AM
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Thanks for the link Janis! Sounds like I should definitely plan to eat at Malmaison.
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Old Jul 2nd, 2018, 07:11 AM
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Thursdaysd- I don't know, but maybe (about last year's TR). Are you only going to Glasgow? Aside from the Tenement Museum (a must IMO), I'm not sure I could offer much more. I wasn't wowed by the city or where we ate while there honestly, but you know how that goes. I could return and have a different experience and love it.
I also saw the connection to the Royal Oak Foundation (from home and while there), but for our purposes for this trip, the other membership worked just fine. Didn't realize it covers all of the UK. That's a good thing to remember for next time.

ANUJ- Let me know if you have any NC500 questions. I did a ton of research on that part of the trip. Also, I found a Facebook Group that provided a lot of info: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NC500/
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