Whirlwind UK: from England to the Scottish Highlands

Going by rail from London to Edinburgh, with a stopover in Glasgow and a quick one day tour of the Scottish Highlands, going as far north as the southern edge of Loch Ness
Whirlwind UK London Glasgow Edinburgh Highlands
Whirlwind UK

Overview:
We essentially had one week for this trip, which makes it hard to see more of England than London if you also want to get an overview of Scotland.  We considered stopping in Liverpool or Manchester on the way to Glasgow, but couldn't make it work.  An alternative itinerary would have been London to Edinburgh to Aberdeen, as the latter would offer a little more variety than Glasgow, and allow us to tour the Highlands a little more (rather than the 1-day Hairy Coo overview -- see below).  Not to hate on Glasgow, which was nice, but it would have been ultimately miss-able for the greater good.    

Outbound:
JFK to LHR flying Virgin Atlantic (VS 112/Airbus A340-300) in Premium Economy. Booked into economy using SkyMiles earned from the signup bonus on the Gold Delta SkyMiles card (30k miles/ticket x 2 = 60k SkyMiles redeemed), which saved us the huge surcharges that VS charges if you book directly with Flying Club miles.  The night before the flight, called Virgin Atlantic at 1-800-862-8621 and upgraded with cash ($200 x 2 = $400) to Premium Economy, which was totally worth it (VS offers one of the nicest Premium Economy experiences in the sky).  Allowed us to catch a few decently comfortable hours of sleep before landing in LHR.  Total cost 60k SkyMiles + $400 for 2 tickets.  

Day 1-2
Big Ben London
I believe this famous clock is called "Big Dave"
Stayed at the Park Tower Knightsbridge using 50k SPG points for two nights (25k/night), worth about 2 cents/point based on the cash rate for these days.  Probably not worth it, as this was a steep price to pay for hotel in need of renovations (and, for example, 50k Starpoints would be enough to transfer to Marriott for 2 nights at the Ritz Carlton NYC, with a few thousand Starpoints left over).  But, it was centrally located and (sort of) walking distance to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, etc.  A lot of wealthy Middle Eastern patrons at this hotel for some reason, with a revolving slew of absurdly expensive automobiles being valeted out front.  Worked as a base from which to see the aforementioned sites but probably wouldn't stay here again (and certainly wouldn't pay cash).  Won't delve into London too deeply, but I will advise you to wander Borough Market with an appetite.  I'll also give a special nod to Dishoon Carnaby in Soho, our best meal of the trip by far, and a throwback to the Irani cafes of 1960s Bombay -- and one of the few restaurants you'll visit with its own soundtrack.  Yes, I bought a copy.  Jaan Pehechan Ho!

Transfer: London to Glasgow

There's not much that can take us back to the bygone days of romantic rail escapes, but the experience in Virgin Train's First Class car may be as close as any of us will get in the 21st century (unless you're going to shell out a few grand on the revamped Orient Express).  The 4.5h trip from London to Glasgow cost $87.50 per person/$175 total, and was worth every penny.  Our little table was comfortable and food/beverage service was frequent to the point of absurdity.

Day 3-4

Kelvingrove Elvis Statue
Thank you very much!
Two nights at the Hotel Indigo Glasgow, courtesy of 60k IHG Rewards Club points picked up during the last lucrative "Priceless Surprises" promotion from IHG (no purchase necessary = an entire day mailing in note card entries).  The redemption here pegs them at 0.6 cents/point, respectable for IHG.  The Indigo Glasgow is clean, hip, and hop/skip/jump from one of Glasgow's main shopping districts, Buchanan Street (and the so-called Style Mile).  A little further afield awaits the Glasgow Cathedral and the beautiful hilltop necropolis that offers some wonderful city views.  From there, we descended and walked an hour back across town to the funky Kelvingrove Art Gallery (check out Saint Elvis in all his blue suede glory).  Sure, they also had originals from Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, etc.. but come on!  Electric Elvis!

Transfer: Glasgow to Edinburgh
A no-nonsense trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh via ScotRail.  It took less than an hour, cost twenty or thirty bucks, and I have very little to say other than it was.. utilitarian?  And forgetful.  And devoid of any particularly notable scenery.

Day 5-7

View down Roxburgh's Close near Old Town Chambers Edinburgh
View down Roxburgh's Close near Old Town Chambers
Three nights at Old Town Chambers, a collection of stylish and modern apartment-style hotel rooms, converted from original 15th century dwellings.  Way cool.  It's smack dab in the center of the Old Town, tucked into a "close" (the name given to the narrow alleys that run between buildings and often open into spacious courtyards).  We were booked into Apartment 45, and although it was pricey, it was unique, full of character, and in a dynamite location.  And, considering we used points to cover the other nights of our trip, we didn't feel too bad about loosening the purse strings.  Be sure to escape the old city and climb up to Arthur's Seat, the highest point in Holyrood Park, for panoramic views of Edinburgh and the North Sea (is that the North Sea?  I don't know.  It's definitely a big, cold body of water.)  We were feeling quite proud of ourselves at the summit, until we noticed how many young children were up there too.  Anyway.  Later that evening, we ate at Chaophraya in New Town, and for anyone who digs Thai food, it's a can't-miss spot for dinner.

The Highlands
Nessie Spotted Loch Ness
Nessie?  Is that you?
Although there are many options for 1-day Highland tours, we went with The Hairy Coo, which is as good as any of them.  Our itinerary (part of the $60 "Loch Ness, Glen Coe & Whisky" tour) included the Deanston distillery outside of Doune (great breakfast in the distillery cafe!), the tragic and serene Glen Coe, and the town of Fort Augustus.  The latter sits at the southwestern end of Loch Ness and is a launching point for 1h boat trips down the loch (which we skipped and opted to stroll through Fort Augustus instead).  We also stopped at the Commando Memorial near the Spean Bridge, which offers great views of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain.  While ferrying us around the Highlands, our guide (Donald) also gave us the quick and dirty tourist-slanted history of Scotland, from Rob Roy MacGregor to William Wallace.  It was both lighthearted and informative, and helped passed the time as we trekked from place to place.  We got back into Edinburgh near dusk, ate dinner, packed our bags, and mentally prepared ourselves to leave Scotland the next morning.


Glen Coe
Hauntingly beautiful Glen Coe
Inbound
Prior to our flight's departure, we killed a few hours lounge-hopping at EDI courtesy of the Priority Pass membership that came with the Citi Prestige card -- first at the serviceable-but-busy Aspire lounge, followed by the swanky-but-sparse No.1 lounge.  I'd recommend getting your fill of food and drink at the former, and then unwinding at the latter.  Our inbound EDI-JFK flight was booked using SkyMiles into D1/Business Class (DL0209/Boeing 767-300) at a cost of 62.5k x 2 = 125k SkyMiles, which ended up being a great redemption (a relative rarity for Delta).

Bring back booze!
Edradour CaledoniaIf you're in Scotland, it's the obligatory single malt whisky, and as always, it should be something you can't find stateside.  In my case, I went with the Edradour 12-year Caledonia, finished in Oloroso sherry casks.  I heard good things about Jura as well, although the vaguely New Age, Celtic-looking boxes threw me off.  Does that make me superficial and/or susceptible to cheap marketing ploys?  Of course it does.


Point redemptions:
185k Delta SkyMiles @ 2.5 cents/point +
50k Starpoints @ 1.5 cents/point +
60k IHG points @ 0.6 cents/point =
~$5,700 in free travel!

Guides used:
Insight Guides: London
Insight Guides: London
Insight Guides: Scotland
Insight Guides: Scotland
     

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