Tag Archives: CatTravels

#CatTravels: A lesson in Scotch whisky

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The only thing I knew about Scotch whisky was that, well, it was alcohol.

That’s really about it.

I had no idea whisky made in Scotland was such a special thing.

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When we arrived in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland (above), last week, one of the things my husband wanted to do was check out a whisky distillery.

To be honest, that wasn’t on my Top 5 list of things to do in Edinburgh. I’m not a whisky drinker, much less an aficionado, but I figured this was a good opportunity to learn a little something about Scotland’s national drink. So I booked a tour to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery, located about 15 miles from Edinburgh in a picturesque part of the country, to see first-hand what makes Scotch whisky so unique.

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We got on a bus near Princes Street with a group of French high school students. It took about 30 minutes to get to the distillery, where we toured the malting floors, production area and cask room. (We couldn’t take photos during the tour, since Glenkinchie is still a working distillery.)

This is a classic and historic distillery, started in 1837 during the time when distilling became legal. (In 1777 Edinburgh houses maybe 400 illicit distilleries.)

Blended Scotch whisky constitutes about 90 percent of the whisky produced in Scotland. These blends contain both malt whisky and grain whisky. Producers combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent brand style. Think Bells, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Whyte and Mackay, Cutty Sark, J&B, The Famous Grouse, Ballantine’s and Chivas Regal.

Glenkinchie, though, became well-known for its single malt whisky. (It’s one of six distilleries in the Lowland region of Scotland.)

OK, so all that was interesting. But here’s what I didn’t know. Scotch whisky is like champagne in France: there are rules to it. Meaning, you have to adhere to a certain set of standards before you can call the whisky you brew Scotch.

As defined by law, Scotch whisky has to be:

• Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
• Processed at that distillery into a mash
• Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems
• Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast
• Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 percent (190 US proof)
• Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) for at least three years
• Retaining the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
• Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel coloring
• Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40 percent (80 US proof)

“The whole process has to be done in Scotland,” said our tour guide.

And did you know this? Only Scotch whisky uses this spelling; all others are spelled “whiskey.”

“You know what ‘E’ stands for?” she asked us, a twinkle in her eyes. “We say it stands for ‘effort.'”

After sampling four different kinds of whiskies produced by Glenkinchie, we had the fortunate luck of staying with a guy in Edinburgh who is incredibly knowledgeable about Scotch whisky — and a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

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Founded in 1983, SMWS is the world’s foremost malt whisky club — with a location in Leith (above) where you can sample the best single cask, single malt whisky it has for its members only.

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Here, you can taste whatever the society has available — all rare whiskies from single casks. (Remember, most whiskies are blended.) That means whatever each bottle comes from an individual aging barrel, instead of being created by blending together the contents of various barrels to provide uniformity of color and taste. Even whiskeys that are not blends may be combined from more than one batch.

So these single cask whiskies are very special, very rare Scotch whiskies — and we were privileged to sample them.

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Even though I’m not a fan of whisky — with or without the “e” — I can totally appreciate the process, the subtleties, the effort put into each bottle, and the passion aficionados like Andrew have for Scotch whisky.

I think I feel that way about ice cream.

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#CatTravels: The mystic of Stonehenge

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Blame my fascinating with all things rocks, but visiting Stonehenge in England has long been on my must-do list.

But I’ve met a few people who have discouraged me from the side trip to Wiltshire from London, a two-hour drive west.

And you’d have to drive through London. I haven’t met a person yet — including Londoners — who said that was a good idea.

But my husband shared my desire to see this prehistoric monument, so I decided to plan a side trip to Bath, a quaint spa city in Somerset in southwest England, which is much closer to Stonehenge (and the wetlands nature preserve from my previous blog.)

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Now, I’m not going to lie: driving around England sans GPS (and WiFi to use Google Maps) wasn’t easy. But we somehow managed to find both the preserve and this iconic site — and while driving on the other side of the road!

The nice part was seeing a different side of England. Up until this trip, I had only stayed in London. And there are only so many museums and pubs you can visit in a week’s time.

Seeing a more rural side of the country was a great experience, even despite the UK’s love for roundabouts.

So we left our hotel early in the morning, meeting the misty roads just after sunrise.

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I had heard from a few people that the experience at Stonehenge had dramatically changed in recent years. No longer can you drive right up to it and walk around the massive stones. Because of vandalism — people were even chipping off pieces of stone to take home as souvenirs — English Heritage, which manages the site, decided to build a visitor’s center and exhibition area about 1.5 miles away from Stonehenge and now limits the number of people who can see the site each day. (Right now, more than 1 million people make the trek here.)

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You have to park at a car park next to the center — parking is free — and walk through an informative display of the history and cultural significance of the monument and surrounding area. There are five replicas of neolithic homes outside, with axes, pottery and other artifacts that help connect the ancient stones with the people who lived and worked in the area.

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After you tour the exhibition area, you catch one of the four-wheel-drive vehicles to the site. You can, like we did, get off a little earlier to walk about halfway to the site yourself, through open fields and cattle pasture.

Despite the biting chill in the air, I actually liked the walk. It was nice to see the monument off in the distance. You really got a sense of the landscape surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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But, of course, we came to see the rocks.

Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones surrounded by hundreds of burial mounds. Archaeologists believe it was built anywhere from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. And its meaning and purpose have been debated for decades.

Just this September researchers from the University of Birmingham discovered as many as 17 new chapels and hundreds of archaeological features around the monument using ground-penetrating radar equipment. (Read more here.)

So this was an exciting time to visit.

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Even though we were there with more than a hundred other people, circling the standing stones with cameras and iPhones, it didn’t feel crowded or frantic. In fact, the whole experience was surreal and serene. You could definitely feel the weight of this sacred place, but it was calming and peaceful, too.

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Seeing Stonehenge was definitely one of those travel memories that will stick for awhile. And even though it would have been ridiculously cool to walk around the stones and touch them, just seeing them was enough.

So worth the stress driving through roundabouts.

Visiting Stonehenge: Cost is £13.90 for adults, £8.30 for children ages 5 to 15, £12.50 for students with a valid ID and seniors over 60. It’s located near Amesbury in Wiltshire. Visit the website or call 0870 333 1181 for more information.

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

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#CatTravels: Visiting nēnē in England

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My husband has never been to London, which is a big reason why we went.

Since I had already been there twice before — once as recent as last year — I decided to let him pick the places he wanted to go.

Tower of London, the British Museum, a pub to eat fish and chips — he rattled off the usual London must-dos.

Then he said he wanted to see nēnē.

As in the Hawaiian goose endemic to the Islands.

As in the ones we can see at the Honolulu Zoo.

So why did he want to fly 7,200 miles to London to see our own state bird?

Turns out, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in London was instrumental in the successful breeding the nēnē in captivity back in the 1950s and staving off possible (or inevitable) extinction.

My husband had heard about this and wondered if we could visit the actual sanctuary where the nēnē were bred and kept.

Tall orders for me. Luckily, I have mad Google skills and found the preserve where this all happened.

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It was a nature reserve Slimbridge, managed by the WWT, where the goose were bred for later re-introduction into the wild in Hawai‘i. It’s located halfway between Bristol and Gloucester on the estuary of the River Severn, more than 115 miles west of London. It opened in November 1946 by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott and sprawls over 120 acres.

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This place is a birder’s paradise, with a number of ducks, geese, swans and birds roaming around the preserve. You can see large flocks of white-fronted geese, clusters of pink flamingos, and graceful Bewick’s swans here, in addition to peregrine, merlin, coots, black-tailed godwits, lapwings, ruffs, spotted redshanks and curlew sandpipers.

And yes, the nēnē are everywhere!

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What’s great about this reserve is that you can actually walk around and feed these birds. In Hawai‘i, you can’t even get close to a nēnē, much less feed one. (Well, they’re also not the easiest to find in the Islands. The best spots are Haleakalā and Pi‘iholo ranches on Maui and on Hawai‘i Island.)

The nēnē are one of the world’s rarest goose. At one time, there were an estimated 25,000 of them living in Hawai‘i back in the late 1770s. But hunters and predators such as the mongoose, pigs and feral cats have reduced the population to less than 30 birds by 1952. Today, and thanks to Slimbridge, the population is at around 2,500 birds in the state.

And they can also be found at all nine of WWT’s reserves.

“They have the golden key,” said keeper John Crooks. “They can do whatever they want.”

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There are even otters here, one of the most popular stops at the reserve. And for good reason. These North American otters — a mother and her two daughters — are playful and adorable. If it weren’t illegal, I’d probably have 12 in my backyard.

The otters arrived at the center in 2009 as part of its wetland mammal area called “Back from the Brink.” Crooks, who handles the otters, gives a quick 30-minute talk about otters while he feeds them every day.

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After the otter talk, we ventured outside the park and into the preserve. It was just a 20-minute walk along the wetlands.

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It was really quite spectacular to spend the afternoon here. And it wasn’t just about hand-feeding the nēnē, either (though I will admit that was one of the highlights). It was seeing how much people care about their natural environment and the animals and plants that are an integral part of it. These folks at WWT really believe in the profound importance about the wetlands, and that was the most inspiring part of our time there.

So yes, the nature reserve was beautiful. But more importantly, it was about how to keep the world this beautiful for other generations to enjoy.

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

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#CatTravels: Visiting Harry Potter’s world

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I met up with a girlfriend before we shoved off to London who told me, rather enthusiastically, that if I did nothing else in London, I had to go see the studio tour, “The Making of Harry Potter.”

Because, she said, if you’re a fan — and we both are — I will lovelovelove it.

Let me just tell you how much of a fan I’ve been of the book series: my sister and I rented a hotel room in Waikīkī to read the last book. Yes, we sat in a hotel room and read a book. Cover to cover. It was awesome.

Going to the actual set where all eight “Harry Potter” films were shot over a span of 10 years would be completely mind-blowing to this fan girl.

The films were shot in an area called Leavesden, just north of London. Leavesden Studios — now owned by Warner Bros. — is built on the site of RAF Leavesden, a former World War II airfield and wartime aircraft factory. (This is where some of the James Bonds movies were filmed, too.)

Once production wrapped on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ in 2010, the studio was left with a treasure trove of props, artifacts, photos, costumes and sets, all created specially for the film series.

In order to preserve these artifacts — and, let’s face it, still make some money off the franchise — Warner Bros. set up a studio tour where fans like me can walk down the Great Hall, meander down Diagon Alley (top photo) and even drink the famous Butterbeer. (Oh, I’ve been dying to try that!)

So on March 31, 2012, two years after the last film was shot here, the studio tour opened, sprawling over two soundstages and a backlot used in movies’ production.

The tour costs 31 pounds (roughly $50) per adult, 2 pounds more each for the bus from Watford Junction to the studio. You have to book your tickets in advance — you pick a time slot so the tour groups don’t overwhelm the studio — and find your own transportation to Watford Junction, where the tour bus will pick you up.

Here’s what the tour looked like — and I’ve toned down the gushing:

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Here’s the bus at Watford Junction. You have to catch a train here. We stayed near Euston Station, so it wasn’t too bad getting here. Maybe 40 minutes.

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We booked one of the latest tours — around 6:30 p.m. — so we spent the rest of the morning and afternoon touring around London. We figured this would be a nice way to end a day of sightseeing and eating. It turned out to be a great time to go since the tour was small and there weren’t that many kids screaming and running around. (I would’ve done that had I been 10.)

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The first stop on the tour is the Great Hall, incidentally the first place Harry Potter himself visited when he arrived at Hogwarts. It was really only fitting the tour started here. This is the actual set where the Great Hall scenes were filled. And lining the wall were costumes from each of the four houses.

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This was the actual set for the common area of Gryffindor, the house of which Harry and his friends were part.

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Remember this from the Chamber of Secrets?

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Here are the actual horcruxes from the movie. How exciting! I wanted to take one home!

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These are the portraits that hung on the walls of Hogwarts. Some of them feature production crew members!

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There were even displays of the various animals used in the production!

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Even the wands were all handmade. The boxes — and there were thousands of them — were handprinted, too. Amazing, the detail!

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One of my favorite parts was walking down Diagon Alley. This is another real set. Just wish the shops were open for business!

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Some of the thousands upon thousands of props created and used in the movies.

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Last but not least, the Butterbeer. It was really cream soda topped with a sweet cream. I liked it, but some people didn’t. Oh, well. Guess they weren’t fans.

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

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#CatTravels: Today’s Happy Shot

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I’ve been slacking on the blogging while in Scotland, mostly because I don’t have WiFi for very long — and I crash out as soon as I’m anywhere near a bed. Or couch. Or flat surface. (Stonehenge included.)

So I decided to post an enticing photo of one of my favorite things in Scotland: the ice cream. Made with local cream and fruits, it really doesn’t get much better than this. And yes, it’s great in cold weather. Never melts!

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

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