By Katie Sterling
There’s something to be said about Europe during Christmastime. The twinkling lights shine that much brighter against a moody sky, the mulled wine warms against the chill in the air and the cobblestone streets are awash with tourists and locals alike, intoxicated with seasonal merriment. Seeing as how Scotland had long been on my travel bucket list, it only took a mere mention of the Edinburgh Christmas markets to convince two of my friends to dig out their passports and venture across the pond for a bit of yuletide adventuring.
With only five days to fill with shopping, sightseeing, eating and drinking, the three of us were eager to break out the winter coats SoCal rarely lets us wear and discover all the gems the city had to offer. Our airline had other plans…After a severe delay and no available connections, we spent the night at the airport hotel. But, with every low comes a high, and we ventured to Edinburgh early the next morning by perhaps the most scenic manner to get there, the LNER train. Yes, it takes approximately five hours (or a smidge longer thanks to a railway incident that left us wondering if our trip would ever truly commence), but the stunning country landscapes out the windows far make up for the delays. With a packet of Uno to pass the time and some mini wine bottles from the trolley, we decided to laugh through the hiccups and let the travel cards fall where they may.
Stepping off the train and into the heart of the city, we were eager to make up for lost time and quickly immersed ourselves into the itinerary I had carefully crafted: eat, drink, shop, repeat. Without sounding like the gluttons we admittedly are, we were able to cross off The Witchery (a gothic spot nestled at the gates of Edinburgh Castle) for lunch and The Dome for a festive dinner (where the Christmas-wrapped Corinthian columns that greet you are just a peek at the extent that this iconic restaurant goes all out in festive décor). But between bites, we set off for one of the most anticipated shopping opportunities on our list: the infamous Edinburgh Christmas markets.
Nestled in Princes St., the central throughway of the city, are an abundance of twinkling huts with everything from custom-made ornaments to steaming cups of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream a mile high. Checking quite a few names off our list, the markets are the perfect embodiment of what you expect to encounter when you think of a traditional Christmas market. With a bit of seasonal shopping, delicious street food and carols drifting through the speakers, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re in your own European Hallmark moment.
But Edinburgh is not without its iconic monuments, and we made sure to pepper in some history into our schedule. You can’t visit the city without visiting the famous fortress on the hill, one of the oldest fortified places in Europe, Edinburgh Castle. Unaware that pre-purchasing tickets was the route to go, we found ourselves crestfallen until we were gifted with the pro tip to ask the Hop-On, Hop-Off tourist company who hold their own stash of castle tickets. Another low turning into an unexpected high!
For a bit of more recent history, if you can call it that, we ventured to Greyfriars Kirkyard to visit a specific 1806 grave, where J.K. Rowling found name inspiration for one of literature’s most infamous villians…To continue on this theme, in which Scotland has a long history of witchcraft, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to take a “Doomed, Dead and Buried” nighttime walk with Mercat Tours. This ghost tour, and I’ve taken many, was the perfect method to not only get a bit of history on the city, but also visit the famous Blair Street Underground Vaults. Michael, our guide, was the perfect blend of informative and theatrical that made trekking around the city under falling snow, while being regaled with the tales only these tours could give you, a night for the books.
Having had our fill of the city, we turned our sights to the country and had booked “Experience Scotland’s Wild” to take us on a multi-stop tour of some of the famous spots outside the city. First stop, my home away from home, Stirling Castle, a palace and fortress that played a pivotal role for many Scottish royals before the union with England. Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned at Stirling and the castle has been restored so well that walking amongst the halls feels like you’re stepping back in time. Having arrived right when it opened, we essentially had the castle and the few living actors that roamed the grounds to dispense information when inquired to ourselves. It was perhaps our favorite historical stop even if I sadly didn’t get any gift shop discount given my namesake.
With a quick stop at Loch Lomond to fill our nature quota, we ended our day with something that is non-negotiable when visiting Scotland, a whisky tasting! Glengoyne Distillery, just north of Glasgow, has been in operation since 1833, unique in that they produce Highland single malt whisky that is matured in the Lowlands. While this gin-lover struggled a bit with the whisky tasting, all attendees are treated to a tour of the distillery and taught the process in which this liqueur is made, which truly couldn’t have been more fascinating. You walk away with so much knowledge, and in the case of my friends, a few bottles to bring back home.
We awoke on our last day bright and early to pick up our rental car and make our way across the Highlands to Braemar and the luxury that awaited us at Fife Arms. After driving through beautiful snowy landscapes, and not killing us driving on the left side of the road, we arrived at the five-star boutique hotel, once frequently visited by Queen Victoria herself. On a small snowy street, in a tiny town, this imposing structure is a sight for sore eyes with its grandeur and opulence both inside and out. The owners are not only hoteliers, but avid art collectors who have filled the space with a myriad of pieces that mix classic elegance with modern edge. It’s not often you hear the words, “We have your reservation ready for afternoon tea. Your table is the one under the Picasso.” After a delicious and rejuvenating high tea, the three of us set out for one of the most anticipated activities on our itinerary: clay shooting. After all, when in the Highlands…
Our instructor for the day, Larry, was the heart and humor of the Highlands, as evidenced by the cheeky smiles that donned anyone’s face when they heard we had spent the day with him. Larry guarantees that everyone will leave his care having successfully shot a target, but simply hanging out with him in the mountains for the afternoon is enough to feel that you’ve already hit the bullseye. Seeing as how it was just the three of us, Larry not only set up shooting for us, but axe throwing and archery as well. After all, with the location of the famous Highland Games only minutes away from Fife Arms, it seemed only natural to channel our inner athlete. It was, without a doubt, one of the true highlights of the wacky adventure Scotland had thrown at us.
Reluctant to leave our new friend, but with many more reservations on our schedule, we returned to the cozy warmth of Fife and the first chance in our itinerary to do absolutely nothing but indulge in a much-needed massage. Tucked under a tartan blanket, it was the experience we wished for at the start of our travel kerfuffle, but made that much more luxurious knowing what lay ahead of us was nothing but relaxation. Retreating to our Nature & Poetry suite, I wanted nothing more than to pour myself their complementary namesake gin, tuck into the inviting bed and enjoy the snowy mountain views. But, if our schedule has reflected anything, it’s our need to jam pack as much as possible into the time we have. Refreshed and rejuvenated, there was nothing else left to do but drink, eat, eat and drink again. A quick stop at Elsa’s Bar indulged our dirty martini needs before we headed to The Flying Stag for traditional Scottish fare – a surprise for all of us, we loved haggis! To end the night, we retreated to Bertie’s Bar, a library of whiskies that is so aesthetically pleasing, this gin lover was tempted to tipple one of their 390 options. Each stop was so unique in its décor and its offerings, but was synonymous in their impeccable service and delectable bites.
Fife Arms was a labyrinth that could have kept us entertained, and well fed, for days but sadly, reality beckoned and home was calling. It may have taken planes, trains and automobiles to reach Scotland, but the experiences we had will forever be amazing memories to look back on. There’s something to be said about Scottish hospitality, that despite our various setbacks along the way, we were always greeted with a smile and cheeky banter that kept these lassies laughing and grateful for the adventure we found ourselves on.