After a day of climbing some Edinburgh hills, my group and Alistair graciously saw me off at the bus station in Edinburgh.
From there I took an overnight 8:30pm National Express Bus #954 from Edinburgh to London, with the bus taking a half an hour rest stop at 1:45am in the morning.
As nicely run as National Express buses are, I remained stuck sitting 90º upright even with the chair “fully reclined.” Nevertheless, it came with enough power plugs that work pretty well, a functioning big clock in the front, and superfluous seat belts. There’s no wifi on the bus, but when does that ever work?
I arrived at London Heathrow at 6:15am. No transfers needed!
From there I took the tram to Terminal 5.
Last year I acquired 100,000 British Avios miles by spending $20k on its eponymous credit card on anything I could (gift cards to myself, taxes, group dinners, flights for other trips) and with those miles, I was able to get a first class seat on this trip back to NYC.
And with that first class status on my ticket, I breezed through Fast Track to security.
After security, I checked into the exclusive Concord Room, which is open only to First Class flyers. The big difference is that there’s no self-service; you have dedicated butlers and service staff with all the food and drink being complimentary and delivered to wherever you sit.
You can also get a free 15 minute service at the adjacent Elemur Day Spa whether it’s a massage, shave, or facial.
After an hour here, I headed towards the gate and into the plane towards the first class section.
I chose my seat to be at the very front of the plane: 1A.
There I settled in with a glass of orange juice and bubbly.
The best part is having your seat fully recline to a 180º flat bed, along with an adjustable footrest at 2 different heights.
The best part of first class on British Airways is that their service is impeccable, with them delivering in choreographed succession: welcome drinks, a newspaper of your choice, US customs forms, a leather washbag…
…containing a plethora of high class vanity and sleep products…
…as well as a pajama set…
…then a menu…
…followed by a peach and raspberry smoothie…
…a really well done tea set…
…appetizers and bread basket…
…and then the main course.
After the meal if you start to develop food coma and start to look a little drowsy, you can put away your clothes in your personal closet (on the right) as they carry over for you a pair of slippers and a duvet.
Then after a 2 hour nap, I woke up to afternoon high tea…
…accompanied by a bottle of water and pastries…
…and fresh warm scones.
After feeling satisfyingly full, rested, and 3 movies in, it was time to land after 6 quick hours in the air.
Thanks for the experience BA!
Although the hard product of BA’s first class is very similar to that of business class of other airlines, it’s the more focused and fine-tuned orchestrated service and feeling of privacy that transitions it from business to first. And I guess their champagne is higher quality? Either way, if you have the chance, it’s worth a one-time experience.
After landing I was treated to a remarkable Monsoon Diaries reunion 2 hours later in the east village, where I was able to meet up with Sidian (who showed me around his native Athens 2 years ago), Dmitry (whom we got to know when we ran into each other in Romania 5 months ago), Nisa (whom went on my Southeast Asia tour led by Dave 2 years ago), William (whom went on 3 trips with me), and my unnamed partner-in-crime (whom was in Romania with me when we met Dmitry, and Greece when we met with Sidian, amongst many others).
- At time of posting in London, it was 7 °C -
Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy
Seemingly on an unrelated note, now that it’s spring break season the past month I’ve been working closely with fellow YPT colleague Alistair Riddell — who was aso our guide on our famously epic 40-person Cuba trip in 2014 — on a bunch of tours for Cuba. It’s been hard for us to coordinate, however, given our relatively busy schedules.
Well, guess who I ran into today in his native Edinburgh? And crazy enough, we’re both there for just a weekend!
And thanks to Alistair taking some time off today, we were able to hike up the 3 great hills of Edinburgh to view the city from 3 separate angles and all from the top.
With the help of Alistair’s trusty Skoda car to pick us up from the hostel, we first did a brisk 5 minute walk up the stairs on Calton Hill:
Here you get the classic panorama views of Edinburgh that you see in all the postcards, with the castle in the center:
By the hill is an odd incomplete structure that remains unfinished due to a lack of funds, which has rendered it from its originally designated status of national symbol into a national disgrace.
Then after about 20 minutes there, we drove further out to Arthur’s Seat, which takes about 15-20 minutes to climb.
In the distance you can still see Edinburgh Castle pretty well:
But more laughably was the idea of Calton Hill that we had just climbed minutes before:
After a half an hour taking in the views at Arthur’s, we decided to go all out and drive out into the suburbs of Hillend. There at the Midlothian Snowsports Centre (formerly the Hillend Ski Centre and also known as the longest dry ski slopes in Europe), we paid 3£ for the ski lifts to take us up halfway.
This is skiing in the spring:
After getting off our gondolas, we hiked up the rest for another 20 minutes to reach nearly the highest point you can get for views of Edinburgh:
And from Hillend if you squint hard enough, you can make out the sorry excuse of a hill Arthur’s Seat was, which you had climbed only minutes before…
…behind you are the range of Pentland Hills that stretch 20 miles beyond Edinburgh:
Unlike Calton or Arthur’s, there are no crowds at Hillend. So after about 20 minutes taking this all in and being on our own, we headed back down.
Driving back into the city, we happened to pass by The Elephant House, famous for supposedly being where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter “on the back of a napkin.”
Then it was back around the Edinburgh castle grounds for dinner…
…and with the weekend already over before we knew it, I now bid my fellow travelers goodbye as I hop on an overnight 8:30pm National Express direct bus to London Heathrow Airport.
- At time of posting in Hillend, Scotland, it was 13 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After a whole day exploring the grounds and undergrounds of Edinburgh, we headed to Leith for our first night out.
With the help of the Scottish expert Eve, we began our night with some fine Scottish Glemorangie Whiskey at The Granary:
And after saying our goodbyes to Eve, we checked into our 9:30pm reservations at The Kitchin, arguably Scotland’s best and most renowned fine dining restaurant. Ironic, because how does a group of 4 people staying at the cheapest hostel in Scotland also get to experience its most well-renowned fine dining restaurant? But that’s how we do it baby.
It’s also famous for being helmed by chef Tom Kitchin where at the age of 29, he became the world’s youngest winner of the coveted Michelin Star.
We opted for the “Surprise” Seasonal and Classic Tasting Menus for 85£ each, where we made a team effort to try almost all the dishes Tom Kitchin could throw at us.
At the beginning of the meal they will provide you with the best they can do for a “surprise menu”: a map of Scotland and the locations from where all of his dishes have been sourced.
PC: Mihaela K
RYE BREAD STICKS: Seaweed, Rosemary, Honey & Oat
CARROT SOUP with vegetables
SCALLOP AND CLAM POT PIE
PIG CHEEK, LANGOSTEEN
GREEN CAULIFLOWER, MONKFISH, CLAMS
COTTAGE CHEESE, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin sorbet, granola
TART & TREATS
For a meal 3 hours long and satisfying on every level, this one was worth it.
- At time of posting in Leith, Scotland, it was 4 °C -
Humidity: 68% | Wind Speed: 7km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
It’s another weekend on the road. Fresh off the heels from 2 months of speaking engagements that had led me from North Carolina to New Jersey, New York, and Michigan, I finally jumped on my first open weekend in months to take a group of previous monsooners to the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Getting on a $300 Thursday 6:35pm WOW Air flight leaving from Newark, I popped some melatonin and slept like a baby for the next 6 hours, after which I spent a 2 hour layover in Reykjavik, Iceland.
It was good to be back in this well functioning Icelandic airport.
After delectably consuming some much needed Skyr (Icelandic yogurt) and getting by with some not-so-great chocolate-licorice candy bars, I then passed out again on my 2 hour flight from Reykjavik to Edinburgh, Scotland, landing at 9am Friday morning.
I then joined with Ambrose at arrivals, from where we took a 4£ Airlink Bus directly to the city center within 35 minutes.
After reuniting with Mihaela and Taylan at 10am and dropping off our bags at Budget Backpackers Hostel on Cowgate, our first stop was to climb down Victoria Street, supposedly to have served as an inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
Then we linked up on The Royal Mile along High Street and headed west to Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle just got served
The castle costs about 17£ per person to get in and is home to the Edinburgh Tattoo. Situated on one of the highest points in the city, this royal fortress remains in pristine condition despite its continuous use for over a millennia.
The best part of the castle are its views over Edinburgh:
After an hour exploring every nook and cranny on the castle grounds, we headed back down to the Royal Mile and walked east towards St. Giles’ Cathedral:
Imagine The Royal Mile as the spinal column of Edinburgh’s old city, while cramped streets (aka closes) serve as ribs that protrude outwards into the rest of the city.
It is along these cobblestones of The Royal Mile where Sherlock Holmes, The Encyclopedia Britannica, and Harry Potter were all conceived.
Photo Credit: Mihaela K
One of the highlights is to actually experience what one of the closes were like back in the medieval times. Grab a 15£ ticket for an entertaining one hour tour of Mary King Close where you literally go underground and experience what life was like in Mary King Close during the Black Plague.
Many of the streets are still haunted, so watch your step!
Then it was a much needed lunch at hotspot Oink, where you get a mouth watering pulled pork sandwich served with all types of Scottish sauces and toppings.
Head up to the edge of New Town for the glimpse of the impressive Scott Monument, which was built in 1846 to commemorate the life of Sir Walter Scott. You can climb it for 4£ for 200 ft tall views of the city centre.
Afterwards we rested a bit with some shisha on a perfectly situated balcony overlooking Victoria Street at Hanam‘s.
Then at around 6:30pm, Ambrose’s work friend from JP Morgan and a Edinburgh local, Eve, met up with us after work to take us out to her side of the city.
We swung by Greyfriars Kirkyard, famous for Disney’s Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal pup who stood guard by his deceased master at the cemetery until he became a permanent resident himself…
And headed up north to meander among the charming and eeriely calm residential upper crust streets of New Town.
Far from the bustle of Old Town are infinitely lined frescos of New Town and dynasty-ruled properties owned by family lineages that probably stretch back as far as the 1800s.
This was a completely different aspect of Edinburgh we’ve experienced, and a much appreciated one as we wouldn’t have found them without Eve to guide us.
Then from here Eve and the group took a 10 minute cab ride onwards to her current home in Leith.
- At time of posting in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was 4 °C -
Humidity: 68% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
For our upcoming weekend March trip to Edinburgh, I present to you our next class of monsooners:
Calvin "O Captain My Captain" Sun - Expedition Leader | NYC | Emergency Medicine Physician | Columbia University '08, SUNY Downstate College of Medicine '14
Mihaela K. - Previous Monsooner: Jan. '17 (Mongolia & Tibet) | NYC | Cytologist
Michelle W. - Brighton, UK | University of Sussex
Ambrose "Knickerbocker" Chu - Previous Monsooner: Aug. '15 (Scandinavia), Dec '15 (SE Asia), Aug. '16 (Southern Africa) | New York, NY | JP Morgan | Boston University
Taylan S. - Previous Monsooner: Winter '16 (The Trans-Mongolian Railway) | Brighton, UK | Administration | Bucknell
Interested in joining us? More details about the trip can be found here.
And space is still available! Inquire within.