#CatTravels: Inside the Scottish referendum

IMG_5731

We didn’t plan this at all.

It just so happened we ended up in Scotland the week of the historic independence vote. More than 5 million Scots will hit the polls Thursday to answer one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

And right now, it could go either way.

The latest polls have suggested the result is too close to call. One survey published Wednesday afternoon put support for “Yes” at 49 percent against 51 percent for “No” when undecided voters were excluded. Another poll released earlier on Wednesday showed support for independence was at 48 percent, with 52 percent support for Scotland staying in the U.K., once undecided voters were excluded.

And social media is a-buzz with reasons to #VoteYes or #VoteNo.

But the real action is right here in Scotland.

IMG_5661

IMG_5706

IMG_5708

We just walked from Leith to Edinburgh this afternoon and passed dozens of people wearing stickers and pins declaring their support for either side. There were people waving signs and handing out flyers with information about the referendum on street corners, urging people to take a side at the polls tomorrow.

We even saw a farm in East Lothian, on our way back from a whiskey tasting at the Glenkinchie Distillery, with the words, “NO,” plowed into the fields.

I mean, this is serious.

On our way back from dinner at Monteiths on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, we came across a group of people gathered around a van parked at the top of Cockburn Street. From the van shot a huge spotlight with a scrim that read, “Yes,” on it, boldly displayed on the side of the building. (See first image)

And that was after a #VoteYes rally spontaneously gathered there and walked to the Scottish Parliament, several thousand strong. (Some were chanting, “Where’s your cameras, BBC?”)

This referendum is not just the biggest news here, it’s the only news. No one is talking or thinking about anything else — aside from maybe where to grab a pint after the polls close.

This is huge. If the results are in favor of independence, Scotland will transition to its own country by early next year. That means Scots will need to vote in a new government, decide on a new currency and figure out what to do next.

And that’s not something the Scots aren’t already accustomed to.

It seems, in every chapter of Scottish history, they’ve always made do with whatever they have. They’ve always figured it out — and succeeded. And I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Scots.

But the vote right now is so close: there are people who truly believe they deserve independence from Great Britain and should be allowed to make their own choices about what’s best for their country — and there are others who feel separating from the U.K. would be detrimental to the country.

At the heart of it, though, these Scots love their country, unconditionally and unabashedly, and this referendum has split a very spirited and proud people. To me, both sides are looking at what they feel is best for the country and its people. I believe that. But what’s best is what’s on debate, and each side has compelling arguments.

IMG_5667

IMG_5696

IMG_5694

We’ve been spending a lot of time with Andrew, head of social media at an independent digital consultancy in Edinburgh, whose loft at which we are staying. (He’s the guy in the photo above, on the left.) And he’s pro-independence — for all the reasons that make sense to me. They finally get a say in what happens to their country. They can get rid of the nuclear weapons stored on their land. They can keep the tax and revenue made from its oil reserves. I can’t help but feel sympathetic toward the #VoteYes folks.

Whatever happens, though, we’ll be here for it. Voting starts tomorrow morning and runs until 10 p.m. Then it will take several hours of counting each vote to determine the outcome, which is expected to be announced around 8 a.m. Friday. And then we’ll know.

No matter what the outcome, there will be revelry in Edinburgh — on the streets and in the pubs. And either way, I’ll be toasting the beauty of democracy.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 5 }

#CatTravels: My take on London’s tourist spots

IMG_5194

London is one of the world’s top destinations for travelers — and no surprise why.

The city is packed with everything: world-class museums, Broadway shows, dozens of public parks, boutiques and restaurants galore, a historic castle in the middle of the city with dungeons and jewels, and a 443-foot-tall Ferris wheel.

More than 15 million people from all over the world visit The City every year, making it one of the world’s most visited areas in terms of international visits.

I’ve been to London three times now, and there’s always something new to see. This time around, I got to visit Borough Market, Harrods Food Hall and Warner Bros. Studio Tours London (read: the set of “Harry Potter”) for the first time. And there were a few other spots — Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, Kensington Palace and the Lamb & Flag, possibly the oldest pub in London — that I missed. But since this was my husband’s first time to London, we planned on hitting some of the usual spots.

I believe that there are some places, no matter how commercialized or crowded, are must-stops on any travel list. Can you really visit Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower? And why go all the way to Peru if not to stop and marvel at Machu Picchu?

Same goes for London.

There are some things you just have to see. Some are worth the long queues (British for “lines”) and others, well, are not.

Here’s my take on a few popular London attractions — and you can decide whether or not you want to put them on your list:

Tower of London, London. Phone: 0844 482 7777

IMG_5089

IMG_5096

IMG_5088

What used to be called Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress is one of the top attractions in London, with more than 2 million people visiting every year. Interestingly enough, it has been a visitor favorite since at least the Elizabethan period with the most popular displays being the Royal Menagerie and suits of armor. Today, people wander around this complex of buildings, with the longest lines outside the torture chambers — of course — and the tower housing the Crown Jewels. There are beefeaters — yeoman warders — still working the castle grounds (though now more as tour guides), which adds to the whole experience. I’ve never been here without hoards of other people, so if you want to see this place, you’ll have to deal with that. But this historic castle on the north bank of the Thames is worth visiting at least once. As my husband said, “It’s a living, breathing history experience.”

British Museum, Great Russell St., London. Phone: 020 7323 8299

IMG_7773

The British Museum is one of those things: It’s there and it’s free, so you may as well go. (The museums in London are all free, though it’s suggested — and advised, really — to offer up a donation.) But you’ll be surprised how much is crammed into this historic building on Great Russell Street. Its permanent collection totals some 8 million works, among the largest and most comprehensive in the world. And on display is everything from the famous Rosetta Stone to the stuff the Brits stole from the Parthenon in Greece. If you want a quick lesson in world history, this is the place to go. Cameras are allowed everywhere, and you can even touch Egyptian artifacts. Personally, I love the clocks and money exhibits.

Westminster Abbey, 20 Deans Yard. Phone: 020 7222 5152

IMG_5140

Who doesn’t love Westminster Abbey, the stunningly beautiful gothic church in the City of Westminster where countless royalty have wed, including Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. While you could just photograph the exterior — it’s one of the most photographed buildings in London — you can tour some exhibits including a collection of royal and other funeral effigies and the graves of such significant historical figures as Jane Austen, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. And with Parliament and Big Ben just across the street — not to mention the Tower Bridge and other attractions — a stop at the Abbey won’t derail your London plans.

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road. Phone: 44 (0)20 7942 5000

IMG_5227

IMG_5233

IMG_5239

This was the first time I’ve been to the Natural History Museum — or anywhere in that area — and I was pleasantly surprised. This museum is home to about 80 million life and earth science specimens in five collections, even some collected by Charles Darwin himself. The big draw here is its dinosaur skeletons, which weren’t accessible when we went. (The exhibit was closed for maintenance.) It was adequately interesting — but I probably wouldn’t go back.

Harrods Food Hall, 87-135 Brompton Road

IMG_5244

IMG_5248

IMG_5258

IMG_6749

The last time I was in London, people bugged me about not going to Harrods, the upmarket department store in Knightsbridge. This store, which sprawls over 5 acres, is best known for its food hall. Like the department stores in Japan, the bottom floor of Harrods is dedicated to all things food, from tapas to high tea to gastropub fare to high-end produce and goods. We actually didn’t have that much time to wander around, but the quick walk-through — with a nice meal at one of the restaurants — was enough to entice me to come back.

An old-fashioned English pub

IMG_5164

IMG_5171

IMG_5176

The short answer? Yes. Pubs are a must. And it doesn’t really matter which one you go to. Most of them are the same, serving British ales (warm) and traditional pub fare like fish and chips and meat pies. We found this one — Jack Horner — by accident, walking around looking for another restaurant. It sounded inviting — who doesn’t love nursery rhymes? — and there wasn’t any line to get in (bonus). So we walked in, grabbed a table, ordered some grub, including a cottage pie and chips with London’s legendary Brown Sauce, and called it a night. A great night.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 3 }

#CatTravels: A visit to Borough Market

IMG_5059

We had a late start to our first full day in London. (Blame jet lag and a very comfortable bed.)

But lucky for us, Borough Market, the most renowned food market in London near the London Bridge Station, was open until 5 p.m.

I had always wanted to tour this market, known for the breadth and quality of its goods and produce. But I was never in London long enough — or in the area at the right time — to visit it.

Until Saturday.

A little background: While today’s market is famous for its high-quality goods and unusual offerings — like mushroom pâté and exotic meats preserved in butter — it actually dates back to the 11th century, when traders would sell grain, fish, vegetables and livestock near the bridge. In the 13th century, the market moved to its current location on Borough High Street. In 1755, Parliament closed the market. It was reopened after Southwark residents raised 6,000 pounds to buy a patch of land known as The Triangle. (This is where you’ll find Northfield Farm — great steak sandwiches — and Furness Fish and Game now.)

Today, there are about 100 different vendors selling everything from fresh produce to dried meats to German sausages (top).

Here’s what the market looked like yesterday:

IMG_5019
Love the colors of these greens.

IMG_5021
Prosciutto (dry-cured ham) being sliced right in front of you!

IMG_5023
There were a few bread vendors. We had the olive and cheese roll here.

IMG_5025
We sampled the dried meats here — then bought a wild boar sausage. Not gamey at all — and perfect with the olive and cheese roll.

IMG_5031
This vendor was selling gourmet (and delicious) cheeses. I love how knowledgable and helpful these vendors are about their products.

IMG_5035
There were a few butchers here, selling a variety of meats from pork to wild rabbit.

IMG_5037
The market also features vendors serving hot and cold foods, like this one selling paella and curry prepared in huge pans.

IMG_5040
There were even stalls selling alcohol — like Pimm’s and champagne.How convenient!

IMG_5046
And there were also several stalls boasting fresh fish like turbot, monkfish, mackerel, oysters, scallops and tuna.

IMG_5051
My husband tried the lamb and mint burger from Northfield Farm, prepared with cheese and greens. If you like lamb, you’d love this.

IMG_5061
There were even more vendors outside in the Green Market selling honeys, vegan cupcakes, sausages and lots of desserts.

This is definitely a must-see on any itinerary to London. Just to see the variety of foods available is worth the stop. Not that you should just look at the food. Eat. And eat a lot. You won’t regret it.

Market hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for lunch on Mondays and Tuesdays; full markets run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 4 }

#CatTravels: Arriving in London

IMG_1270

It really wasn’t that bad getting to London.

We flew on Alaska Airlines to Seattle, then Delta straight to Heathrow. Including the layover time — which, by the way, we strategically used to eat some of the best chili cheese fries I’ve ever had at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — it only took us maybe 18 hours total.

Not bad for traveling directly around the world.

IMG_1240

While we could have taken the Heathrow Express trains, which take you from the airport to Central London in 23 minutes, we opted for the London Underground, also known as the Tube. This rapid transit system serves 270 stations and has about 250 miles of track, half of which are above ground. Opened in 1863, it’s consider the world’s first underground railway upon which other systems — like in New York and Japan — are modeled.

It took us about an hour via Tube to get to our hotel in the Bloomsbury district, an area of the London Borough of Camden near the Euston Station. It was developed by the Russell family in the 17th and 18th centuries into a fashionable residential area noted for its garden squares. In fact, there are three within walking distance of our hotel.

IMG_1245

I booked a room at the Ambassadors Bloomsbury, a modern boutique hotel just down the street from busy Euston Station and a short walk to the world famous British Museum.

It’s always difficult booking accommodations in a foreign city. You don’t know what to believe. Hotel websites say one thing, then guest reviews say another. I read mixed reviews on this hotel, with some complaining about the room size and unfriendly staff. My only requirements were simple: in a safe neighborhood near a Tube station and with a private bathroom. (Many hotels still have shared bathrooms.) And I have to say, so far, this hotel exceeded my expectations. I actually prepared my husband for what I figured would be uncomfortably small rooms. But if you’ve ever stayed in Tokyo or Hong Kong — which we both have — this is pretty spacious.

But it’s not cheap. I couldn’t find room rates for less than $250 USD a night in Central London. And yes, I was going to pay more for a private toilet in our room.

IMG_1253

And there are tons of restaurants in this area, serving everything from Indian to Chinese cuisine.

My husband has an obsession with fish and chips, so we, along with two friends from London, headed to North Sea Fish Restaurant, about half a mile away.

IMG_1266

It’s not a swanky place, but it had good reviews online. This restaurant started as a small takeaway (British for “takeout) serving fresh fish and chips with hardly any seats. But in 1977, a new owner transformed this into a bona fide restaurant that included a liquor license and a renovation that added 60 seats.

Today, the restaurant is even bigger, and the Beauchamp family still runs it. (His widow still makes desserts, starters and soups for the menu.)

IMG_1260

Of course we had to try the fish and chips!

The fish here is delivered fresh every day. The fish is deep-fried in pure ground nut oil in a crispy batter and served with chips (or fries). And unlike other places we’ve been to, you can actually choose the kind of fish you want, from dover sole to Scotch salmon to the traditional cod.

IMG_1257

My husband couldn’t have been happier eating one of his favorite English meals — and in London!

IMG_1262

Here’s the tuna, one of the daily specials, soaked in a tomato-based sauce with carrots and broccoli.

IMG_1258

I had to order the onion rings, which came in an incredibly light batter. But I was polite and shared. (smile)

IMG_1279

After dinner, we decided to take a walk around London. We headed south to Covent Garden, a lively area in the West End filled with restaurants, bars and shops. It’s in an old fruit and vegetable market in the central square, surrounded by theaters and the Royal Opera House.

IMG_1280

Though we were full from dinner, I couldn’t resist getting a macaroon — OK, I bought four — from Laduree, the famous French bakery that has an outpost here.

IMG_1292

Then we walked through London’s very small Chinatown on our way back to Bloomsbury.

There are more than 100,000 Chinese Brits in London. This area, in the city of Westminster, is packed with restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and souvenir shops.

IMG_1293

On our way back, we passed the British Museum — it was our landmark to make sure we were heading in the right direction — and stopped for a beer at the unassuming Museum Tavern.

IMG_1294

It definitely felt like a traditional London pub, with a nice selection of beers and spirits including Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Theakston Old Peculiar, Daleside Spring Frenzy, Young’s Gold, Hobgoblin and Fuller’s London Pride.

We found a table but had to order from the bartender working at the gilt-mirrored back bar, a nod to its predecessor, the Dog & Duck, which was in operation from the 1700s.

IMG_1301

Not a bad way to finish a long day of traveling, Tube-riding and eating.

Tomorrow is another day!

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 7 }

#CatTravels: Heading to the U.K.

scottish-highland-tour-2a

It’s always the case, right.

I’m scrambling to finish my work, clean the house, and run errands before we leave for Europe — and everything that can does go wrong.

My computer won’t back up my photos.

My laptop get hits by some kind of weird virus and I can’t book anything online.

And my credit cards — yes, both of them — get compromised.

All on the day before we leave for our two-week adventure in the United Kingdom.

Luckily for me, I don’t stress that easily. (OK, I stress, but you’d probably never know it.) If I forget anything — save for my passport and iPhone — I can buy abroad. And whatever I can’t finish, oh, well.

This trip has been a long time coming.

We actually had this planned honeymoon before we even discussed our wedding. (And let’s be real, there wasn’t much to discuss in that department. Beach, minister, marriage license and we were set.)

My husband traveled around Europe with his family when he was a kid, making a circular, two-month trek from Amsterdam to Paris to Hungary — and everywhere in between.

Everywhere except the U.K.

So when we talked about places to visit, this area — England, Scotland and Ireland — ranked high on the list. (In case you’re wondering, we also considered New Zealand, Alaska and Peru.)

grossbritannien_london_eye

I’ve been to London (above) twice. And while it’s a big city with all its urban flaws, there’s still an old-world charm to the place, with castles in the middle of modern buildings and cobblestone pathways where you’d expect paved roads.

While there’s lots to do there — British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Harry Potter Park — we decided to take a side trip to Bath in southwest England, a World Heritage site and major tourist area. It’s also closer to Stonehenge — read about the latest findings about what’s underneath it here — and the WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre, where we can feed nēnē (Hawaiian goose). (The organization was responsible for breeding the goose and staving off its extinction.)

And then there’s Scotland (top photo) and Ireland, two places neither of us have been, and likely the highlight of our trip. The Highlands, Edinburgh Castle, the search for Loch Ness, the Irish countryside — we’re going to see it all.

And yes, we’ll be in Scotland for the historic independence vote on Sept. 18.

So whatever happens, it should be interesting.

And whatever happens, I’ll definitely be blogging about it!

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

Comments { 8 }