Friday, December 14, 2012

Missive #13 - December 2012

[Sad Note: This Holiday Season will forever be tainted by the shootings in a Portland Mall and a Connecticut elementary school.  Our hearts and prayers go out to all the victims--those killed or wounded, those friends and family who have had their lives ripped apart by the tragedies, and those of us who recoil in fright at what America has become.  It is time for our political, theological, and social leaders to show that they too are sickened to death by these senseless atrocities and to have the guts to make the difficult choices which can help reign in the insanity.  It is time for the rest of us to demand that those same leaders take positive actions and hold them responsible if they don't.]  

Our Christmas Missive, in lieu of a Christmas card or letter, tells what we’ve been doing through some small stories or observations.  Since the travel blog entries give the big details, these vignettes will fill in the small bits.  

Troubles with Rental Autos or Stop the Alarm and Lock the Boot!  We love the Toyota Prius we rented from Arnold Clark Auto in the spring--it was comfortable, easy to drive, and very economical which is important when petrol is $12 a gallon. 

We found out it did come with a major problem.  At Huntingtower Castle outside Perth the car’s alarm sounded as we toured the castle--we heard it and then it shut off.  

I left the castle and checked on the car.  Everything seemed fine.  As I walked away the alarm sounded again.  I shut it off by opening the door and starting the car.  We didn’t have a problem the rest of the evening in our B&B--it never went off at Merlindale.  The next day as we arrived to play Carnoustie’s Burnside golf course the alarm started going off every ten minutes and we couldn’t get it to quit.  We met Colin McLeod, the golf manager, who said he’d take care of the car.  We gave him the key and heard the alarm as we headed down the first fairway.  

We heard the alarm again as we came up to the 18th green. They had moved the car to the front of the office and a secretary would unlock and re-lock the car when the alarm would sound.  Colin had even called Arnold Clark in London, but didn’t get any answers to our problem.  After profusely thanking Colin and the secretary, we drove to our B&B in Crieff and called Arnold Clark’s repair number.  Shortly a mechanic came out to check the car.  He did everything he could to set off the alarm--we rocked the car, popped the bonnet, simulated breaking through a window--nothing would trigger the alarm now.  His conclusion was that the alarm sensor was completely bedeviled and he had no idea what it would do next.  I called the rental company and made arrangements to return the car if the alarm sounded again, but said that I’d keep it even if the alarm wasn’t functioning.  The next day we headed for the Highlands.  The alarm never sounded again.  
In the fall we again rented a Toyota.  A couple of weeks into our trip we thought we discovered a problem with the car.  

One day I walked up to the locked car and opened the boot (truck) without punching the key to unlock it.  Opps!  Had I forgotten to lock it or was it not locking?  All the next day I kept locking the car and checking the boot.  Each time it opened without touching the key.  Now we were really worried that our possessions would be very much at risk.  After golf, as the rain was pouring down, we drove past an Arnold Clark dealer.  I turned around and drove back hoping they could help us.  The dealer wasn’t rental and was selling VWs not Toyotas, but a mechanic said he’d try to help us.  In heavy rain he played with the lock and the key and got the same results.  Finally, he got an idea--locked the car, gave me the key, and told me to walk about 20 feet away.  The boot wouldn’t open!  It had been opening because I was in range and the lock recognized the key in my pocket.  Not a word about that was in the manual--we had checked.  Problem solved.  The boot had been locked all the time, until I’d walk up to it.  Ah, the trials and tribulations of rental cars!

The Bad Knee and Grocery Shopping.  Before our spring trip to Scotland I was told by my doctor that about half the cartilage in my right knee was gone and prescribed PT to strengthen the muscles around the knee.  I could golf with care, but no more carrying clubs.  No problem until we got to Scotland.  I had no problems on the course or touring castles, but the first time and every time I went shopping with Anne in a grocery store the pain would flare up, my knee would start to pop, and I would walk out limping.  A few minutes later I’d be fine with only a little residual tenderness.  Anne and Jacky (our B&B friend) wouldn’t believe me.  Why only the grocery store, they’d say.  I had no answers, but I swear I wasn’t trying to get out of shopping--I rather enjoy seeing the differences between our stores and the Scottish stores.  The fall trip was the same.  For the most part it doesn’t happen in our Fred Meyers or Thriftway grocery stores.  I’ve come to the conclusion that my knee is allergic to Scottish grocers and I’m trying to come up with a name for my newly discovered ailment.  Storitis-Scoticus, perhaps.

Potato Skins at Turnberry.  In a fit of inspiration we stopped at the famous Turnberry GC to find out if we could play.  We could and without breaking the bank.  

After a wonderful round on a world class course we went into the clubhouse lounge for an after-round snack.  The special was potato skins with bacon and cheese, and we ordered one order to share. Think about what one order of potato skins would be in a US clubhouse or pub--a couple of bakers hollowed out, filled with cheese and bacon bits, and broiled. What we got was a small plate with five halves of fingerling potatoes, each about two inches long, hollowed out and lightly sprinkled with cheese and bacon.  Each skin was about one bite’s worth, maybe two if you nibbled.  Price: £5.50 (or $9.00 US)--that’s more than a pound sterling per fingerling half!  Moreover, the potatoe skins (I took spelling lessons from Dan Quayle) weren’t even Yukon Golds.  

Ordering Lattes in Scotland.  Anne and I arrived in Aviemore in time to stop into a local coffee shop for an afternoon latte.  

Here is the exchange when I went to the counter to order:
Me:   I’d like two large vanilla lattes with nonfat milk for staying in, please.
Barista:   That’s two cappuccinos?
Me:   No, two lattes.
Barista:   What size?
Me:   Large, please.
Barista:   To go or stay in?
Me:   Stay in.
Barista:   Two cappuccinos to go...what size?
Me:   No, two large lattes for in.
Barista:   Two large lattes for staying in?
Me:   Yes, with vanilla.
Barista: Two large cappuccinos with vanilla.
Me:   (Louder) No, two large vanilla lattes for staying in!
Barista:   Okay, do you want that for here or to go?

We eventually got our drinks, but I’m sure they were not nonfat.  Some days you’re the windscreen, and some days you’re the bug.
Have a Great Holiday Season.  Slainte!  Bob and Anne

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Viva Las Vegas!

Why would anyone want to go to Las Vegas, 

except for the pleasant fall weather, the good golf you can still find under $40, the exciting variety of food, the shows (if there are any good ones that you can afford), the sights, and the chance to win a million?  Anne and I planned an anniversary getaway (our 44th) of three nights at our Worldmark timeshare in Las Vegas, then a drive through the Mohave over to Palm Springs to spend three nights with our friends Nick and Kathryn in their condo before returning to Vegas to fly home.  Plans, though, have a way of changing, as you’ll read.

Our Vegas adventure began at PDX with an early morning United flight to San Francisco.  

We pulled back from the gangway right on time and then stopped on the tarmac.  After ten minutes the pilot told us that all United computer terminals just went down and we’d have to wait until they came back up.  With that they pulled the plane back to the gangway and let passengers disembark with the warning that the plane could leave at any minute. Two hours later we began our taxi to the runway--the pilot and crew had done a good job keeping us all informed about United’s progress with the problem or lack of it. Of course, we had missed our flight from SFO to Vegas, but we discovered soon after arriving that we were already booked on the next flight.  To United’s credit, within a day we both received emails with an apology and awarding us $50 each in future travel credit.  

The second trauma of the trip occurred the day before we were drive to Palm Springs to stay with our friends.  Anne got a call from Kathryn which told us that their condo which they hadn’t visited  for a few months had become the domicile of one or more large rats.  The rat or rats had gotten into everything, severely fouled the carpets, chewed the bedding, and generally performed normally offensive rat behaviors.  Nick and Kathryn would be living in a hotel while busily doing cleanup duty (hopefully wearing full PPE-personal protective equipment). Needless to say our travel plans changed.  Without much trouble we extended our stay in timeshare the extra three days.  

Anne and I certainly kept ourselves busy in Las Vegas, somedays bordered closely on doing too much.  
                                                          Black Mountain GC Golf was high on our list, especially since the previous couple of weeks in Oregon had been ungolfable [Is that word?].  To get good prices for golf in Vegas (or Phoenix, Portland, or almost any other major city) I use for reduced rates.  You have to pay in advance and there are no refunds, but the savings can be anywhere from 20 to 60%.  Our first tee time in Vegas was for Black Mountain GC in Henderson about 20 minutes from our Worldmark unit.  Price was right, the course was nice, and the weather was perfect--scores could certainly have been better, but then you can’t have everything, even in Vegas.  Next was The Legacy, 
                                                             Legacy GC an upscale dessert-style course with some problems.  We had a noon tee time and found later that they stop marshaling the course at noon.  Twice we ended up with five groups on one hole--for non-golfers that means the play was slow and crowded.  We played 13 holes and could see that we wouldn’t get our 18-hole round done before dark.  What we played was good, but we have some words for the management--GolfNow has a system for reviewing courses.  Our third golf was in Boulder City southeast of Las Vegas at Boulder Creek GC.  
                                                           Boulder Creek GC This was, for me, the best of the three courses--interesting holes, well conditioned fairways and greens, very good price (almost 60% off).  It’s hard getting into the spirit of Oregon winter golf after the dry, 65ยบ of Vegas golf.

Our next adventures concerned dining Vegas-style.  It used to be--now I’m talking about the 60s and 70s--that you could eat on the cheap all over Vegas: steaks all day for $4.99. Today, though, the prices in Vegas assume everyone has already hit the jackpot, so we saved money by eating breakfast in our unit (except for one day) and skipping lunch on golf days.  Dinners were still dear.  For instance, in New York New York at Nine Irish Guys Pub I had a wonderful pork porterhouse (pork chop on steroids) with apple chutney for $28--no sides, no veg, no starch, just the meat.  Anne meanwhile had a good, but not distinguished, fish and chip supper for $22 and a simple side salad for $6.  We did find inexpensive steak and prime rib ($16) at the Coronado Cafe in Southpoint Casino and good prime rib for a little more at the Red Rock Cafe in the Red Rock Casino.  It seemed to us that the off-the-strip and away-from-downtown casinos had quality fare for decent prices.  We definitely did enjoy a shared seafood mac and cheese (one of the best we’ve ever had) at Margaritaville on the strip--the Jimmy Buffet tunes in the background certainly didn’t hurt the ambiance.  The star of our meals, at least for the story, was our first night’s dinner at Hash House A Go-Go in the M Resort south of the strip.  

The restaurant has been featured on the Food Channel and Travel Channel, especially on the program  Man vs Food which features places serving huge portions.  Anne’s meatloaf sandwich was humungous! It came with a side of mashed potatoes which must have weighed three pounds and came covered with bacon and cheese.  We both had the leftovers for breakfast for two days!  For me the best meal of the trip was our one breakfast out the day we played golf in Boulder City.  We had breakfast at The Coffee Cup Cafe,

a restaurant featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.  My pork chile verde omelet was outstanding and a bargain as well.  Prices at times may have been high, but overall this trip was an gastronomic success.

We did manage a little sightseeing during our six days, but only a little.  One night on the strip was enough.  

Even off season it was crowded everywhere we went.  The shuttle from Worldmark dropped us off at Caesar’s Palace and we walked about a mile south on one side of Las Vegas Blvd. and then back to Caesar’s for our ride home.  

Street performers made the sidewalks even more crowded.  Though some were very interesting, 

like the Gene Simmons of KISS impersonator and a string quartet, but most were mediocre at best. The other street performers were the young ladies partying in Las Vegas.  It seemed like roaming gangs of twenty to thirty-year-olds (and a few older) were undressed to impress, 
                                    This is about how short the skirts were in real life.

though whom they were trying to impress I’m not sure since the groups of guys we saw wandering were significantly less than impressive.  We heard one young lady in a micro-mini skirt tell her friend that she didn't thing she could "walk up the steps into the casino with this dress on."  The Fremont Street Experience, the remake of old downtown Vegas, was rather boring, 

especially in the afternoon with not much neon aglow.  

Red Rock Canyon National Park was a pleasant drive with some decent photo stops.  Most interesting were two special tours going through the park--

a three-wheel scooter group and an exotic auto tour ( which cost $399 for an hour drive in a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Audi, Porsche, or other exotic.  Also on this trip we finally got to walk on the Memorial Bridge to view Hoover Dam, though Anne mostly clung to the back rail instead of looking over the bridge at the 600 foot drop to the canyon floor.   

As for shows, luck wasn’t with us.  Even the discount tickets to Blue Man Group or Cirque du Soleil shows were in the $130 range each.  Carrot Top, whom we’ve seen before but wouldn’t mind seeing again, was sold out for our entire stay.  Other than those everyone interesting had either been in town last week or was coming next week.  Other attractions we had planned to see were either closed or open at the wrong times.

So how did we fill the rest of the time in Las Vegas?  The games, of course.  Both Anne and I love to play the slots--oh, we know it’s a poor bet, that they are set to take your money, that the likelihood of even breaking even is remote.  We still enjoy the bells and whistles, the chance for even a small jackpot.  We also know that the only way to play is set aside an amount we can lose and never go beyond that limit.  The game then becomes can we stay ahead of our loss limit. 

This trip had a twist to it: we had brought our casino stake based on spending three days in Las Vegas and we we’re now spending six days.  At the end of the six days we actually brought home about a fourth of what we had planned to spend in three day.  That made this a successful gaming trip!  We did come away with some general impressions about the gaming in Las Vegas.  First, stay away from both the strip casinos and the Fremont Street Experience casinos.  We certainly had little luck and, with the exception of some jackpot winners in New York New York, we didn’t see anyone else having good luck.  Second, we had significantly better luck at the satellite casinos, such as M Resort, Southpoint (where we walked right by basketball star Bill Russell--I don't know how Anne, who was walking beside me, didn't notice 6'11" Bill Russell), Red Rocks Hotel, and The Orleans.  Third, the slot of choice this year in Vegas is called “Buffalo.”  

Every casino had banks of this game throughout and most of the time they were filled with players.  I’ll admit the reason our money stretched from three to six days was because “Buffalo” often paid well for me.  The obsession with “Buffalo” reminded me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation 1991 episode “The Game,” where a mysterious alien tries to take control of the crew of the Enterprise through a euphoria inducing game.  The slot machine’s variable ratio reinforcement creates the same kind of anticipated euphoria.  Oh, well, even knowing the theory we still enjoyed the games.  

We are sorry we didn’t get to visit our friends in Palm Spring (victims of the Rat Effect), that we didn’t get to Joshua Tree Park, or get to play golf in Palm Springs, but despite missing that part of the trip we still enjoyed a nice six days in Fun City, USA.  In fact, we’re ready to begin saving for another visit next year.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Scottish Gardens, Part 2

In Scotland’s south, the shire of Dumfries and Galloway, we explored a couple of gardens new to us on this fall’s trip. 

Threave Estate and Garden.  One mile west of Castle Douglas just off A75 is Threave Estate and Garden (National Trust for Scotland), which shouldn’t be confused with Threave Caste (Historic Scotland) on an island in the middle of the River Dee.

The 64 acre garden,  part of the 1500 acre Threave Estate, was developed in 1867 by William Gordon who bought the estate.  The garden consists of numerous small gardens: Secret Garden, Walled Garden, Patio Garden, Rockery, rose garden, heather beds, etc.  

While the one acre walled Garden is not as large as many others, it still held many interesting plants and blooms.  The estate also features a Visitor’s Centre with cafe and gift shop, an education centre in the old stables, and tours of the grand Threave House, 

a restored Scottish Baronial mansion, can be arranged.  
                                             Golden raspberries at Threave Garden

The National Trust for Scotland lists the Threave Estate and Garden as one of its ten most visited attractions. 

Logan Botanic Garden.  If it weren’t so far out of the way (14 miles south of Stranraer in the Rhins of Galloway off B7065) 

Logan Garden, part of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, would be impossibly crowded.  As it is, plenty of visitors find their way to what is considered Scotland’s most exotic garden.  Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the garden is filled with a large variety of palm trees and semi-tropical plants.  

The Walled Garden with its 15-foot tall stone walls was part of the walled garden of the Logan Estate.  In 1969 the garden became a regional garden of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh and its stature and plantings grew accordingly. 

The Walled Garden contains a Desert Garden, a Rock Garden, and a Woodland Garden. Also built as part of the wall is the Potting Shed Bistro whose quality fare rivals that of Kailzie Garden (see previous gardens entry). 

Logan Botanic offers as part of its reasonable admission charge a self-led audio tour--Anne and I chose to wander without the audio guide.   

Logan Botanic Garden was the last garden we visited on this trip, and after lunch and a wander in the garden we took a series of single-track back roads to the southernmost reaches of Scotland and the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse--

one of several we visited on this trip, but that’s a topic for another story. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Scotland's Gardens, Part 1

In our recent travels in Scotland and England we’ve sought out gardens, both private and national trust, not because I fancy myself as a gardner but because I love to take photos of the flowers and plants.  Sometimes I even remember to find out and write down what the flowers are.  Most of the time, though, I take the picture and try to identify the flower later.  Our favorite gardens are Branklyn Garden in Perth (a small 2 acre plot in town) and the National Garden of Wales (a large outdoor garden with a huge controlled environment indoor facility).  On this fall’s trip we visited neither of our favorites, but we did manage to spend significant time in some major and less than major Scottish gardens.  

Kailzie Garden.  The first garden to mention is one we’d visited a couple of times before, Kailzie (kay-lee) Garden 

in the Tweed valley of the Scottish Borders about 2.5 miles from Peebles on B7062.  Originally known as West Kelloch (meaning wooded glen), King David II granted the land to James of Tweedie in 1326.  The land remained in the Tweedie family for several centuries.  In 1638 the land belonged to the Earls of Traquair and it was around this time that much of the planting took place.  

The land then passed through several families until acquired in 1914 by William Cree who was responsible for the current garden arrangement. One of the features of Kailzie is the restaurant 

converted from the old stables which serves nice snacks, lunches, afternoon teas, and special Saturday evening dinners.  The Walled Garden, 

established in 1811, is several acres large and is surrounded by 18 foot tall stone walls.  Several greenhouses within the Walled Garden specialize in tropical plants and flowers.  

Besides the Walled Garden, Kailzie has a Wild Garden, a Burnside Walk (in an area that was part of the garden of old manor house), and the Majors Walk which leads to the Duck Pond (the site of the old manor house). 

Kailzie is a pleasant stop and has several other activities (especially for kids)--fishing, osprey watch, putting green.

Blair Castle Garden and Grounds.  Up the A9 from Perth is one of Scotland’s premier tourist attractions, Blair Castle and Estate.  

The home of the current Duke of Atholl, who legally maintains the only private army in Europe, Blair Castle has over thirty rooms available to tour, the Tullibardine Restaurant, and a full gift shop.  More to the point of this blog entry, the castle is also noted for its nine acre walled garden, 

Path to Hercules Garden

named the Hercules Garden after a statue at the top of the garden.  Established in the 18th century, the Hercules garden contains within its fifteen foot tall stone walls landscape ponds, 

a folly, a Chinese bridge, a 100 tree orchard, 

as well as the usual plantings and herbaceous border.  

The beautiful gardens have been fully restored to the original Georgian design.  If you plan to take in the gardens, forested grounds, and the castle tour, you’ll have a quite full day.

Riverside Garden Centre.  Of course, not all Scotland’s gardens are historic or under a trust’s care.  You can find commercial gardens of various sizes throughout Scotland.  One of our favorites (which we didn't visit on this trip) is the Speyside Heather Centre near Aviemore in Cairngorm National Park.  Famous for its Clootie Dumplings (a boiled pudding containing a variety of dried and fresh fruits), the garden is a great place to learn about planting and maintaining heathers.  

On this trip we stopped for coffee and a sweet at the Tullybannocher Cafe on A85 about a half mile west of Comrie in Perthshire.  The Riverside Garden Centre consists of the cafe, the Handy Shop which sells fruits and veg, and the Woodlands Garden Centre and Gift Shop.  The Garden Centre is small and sells a variety of trees, plants, and flowers.  Even the commercial gardens can be fun to wander and yield some interesting                  photos.

Part 2--Two Gardens in the South of Scotland (Coming Soon)