It also included a stop at hallowed St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf and usually the home of the British Open every five years. I almost felt like genuflecting before walking around the famous course. Visiting St. Andrews was amazing. So was the endearing and unique town. Example: The local Subway sandwich shop is housed in a building that looks like a castle.
Not exactly the same setting as the ones spread throughout South Jersey and the Philadelphia region.
But I digress….
When traveling, we like to find hidden gems, like to investigate areas that are off the beaten path.
When we went to New Orleans several years ago, we DID do a lot of the touristy things—exploring the French Quarter, eating at Emeril’s Restaurant (the sausage risotto was sensational) and sipping chicory coffee and munching on beignets at the iconic Café du Monde.
Outside of New Orleans, we took a swamp tour, one in which our captain scooped up baby alligators in a net and passed them along to the passengers. We toured a plantation and marveled at its outdoor kitchen from the 1800s. (Because they were afraid of fires, most kitchens were outside the house in those days.) And instead of dining at a well-publicized restaurant, we asked some locals where to eat, and they steered us to a place that was in a dark alley—a few blocks from the French Quarter—and literally had its tables in the street, which was so narrow that cars were not allowed on it. The meal was one of the best we ate all week.
It’s the surprises that usually produce the most memorable moments on a vacation.
When our children, Sara and Sammy, were young, we took them to Wyoming and, naturally, spent time in Yellowstone National Park and at the Old Faithful geyser. We saw a herd of buffalo, meandering elk, and pristine streams, and, yes, it was inspiring. But not as memorable as going on a dinosaur dig in Thermopolis, Wyo. Using chisels, we dug up dinosaur bones that were millions of years old; our tour guide dug up a femur that was roughly the size of a basketball backboard.
After three hours of digging, the guide took our lunch order and drove to a local Subway (there’s that place again!). When he returned, he stacked a few bags from the fast-food joint next to the dinosaur bones we had uncovered. To me, that photo was more priceless than the sprouting waters of Old Faithful.
And then there was our family trip to Punta Cana one summer. We stayed at a beautiful resort with all the amenities. It was relaxing, gorgeous, and a vacation-like experience. But what I remember more about the Dominican Republic is the tour we took of a typical house in the region. It was close to the posh tourist area, but the juxtaposition was startling. The house had dirt floors, an outside fireplace where the family did all of its cooking, and a generator that had to be hooked up to the residents’ old, beat-up car to provide electricity for the house. It was eye-opening, especially when you realized it was a short ride away from a glitzy casino and vacation spot that was filled with the obligatory tourist shops.
My wife said she always wanted to stay in a castle and feel like a princess, even if it was just a day.
Happy wife, happy life. Right?
We used Marriott points for most of the hotels on our trip, but we booked an overnight stay in Dalhousie Castle in Scotland. I’d highly recommend it (dalhousiecastle.co.uk), and it wasn’t outrageously priced, costing about $235 a night in U.S. dollars, when you consider its old-world splendor and that it included a terrific breakfast. There was a dark-paneled library that had a secret room. If you pushed aside the bookshelves on one wall, there was a hidden, well-stocked bar. There was a dungeon dining room, and four-poster, canopy beds in the huge bedrooms.
Oh, and did I mention they also have archery and falconry on the grounds?
The falconry was one of those unexpected surprises I’ve been talking about, and it made our visit extra special, extra unique.
In a beautiful meadow adjacent to the castle, a trained instructor commanded the falcons to fly from tree to tree, and then to return and land on your gloved arm. We watched the joy on the faces of the children and the adults as the falcons gently swooped onto their arms. This, we quickly realized, was something we had to experience.
Unfortunately, the instructor was booked and couldn’t squeeze us in, but she did have a compromise. In between her bookings, she had a few extra minutes and she could allow us to hold some eagles and owls.
Hmmmmm. We could drive to the touristy area of Edinburgh or do something that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It was not a difficult choice.
The instructor, a woman who looked to be in her 20s, put a sturdy glove over my left hand and wrist and placed the eagle atop it.
We had spotted eagles when we took a journey down the Snake River in Wyoming several years ago, but nothing like THIS.
The bird, inches from my face, looked at me menacingly.
The instructor could see the fear in my eyes.
“Don’t worry. He’s not going to take your head off,” she said in a calm, pleasant voice.
A sense of relief filled my body.
“You don’t know how good you just made me feel.”
I asked if I could pet him.
“No, no, no. He might get angry and do something to you,” she said.
I was more than content to just gaze into his dark eyes.
At the same time, my wife, JoAnn, held an eagle owl. They enjoy being petted, she was told. She stroked his feathers and he seemed to enjoy it. A few days earlier, JoAnn was doing this to our lovable golden doodle, Brody, in our South Jersey home. Now she was outside one of Scotland’s oldest castles and petting an owl like it was her favorite pet.
This vacation was getting better by the minute.
A few hours later, we were strolling down the main street in Edinburgh, whose Gothic architecture was a sight to behold. We walked around the Edinburgh Castle—perched high on a hill, adding to its majesty—and soon discovered it wasn’t just a “castle” that served as the royal residence for the king and queen in the 11th century.
It was like a mini city, with amazing views of the rest of Edinburgh.
Once primarily used as a military barracks, the castle had shops, a room that housed the Scottish crown jewels, a chapel that dates back to the 12th century, and museums, among many other buildings, and it looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie. That was fitting because we were told that J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, lived nearby. After touring the castle grounds, you could understand where Rowling got some of the inspiration for her wildly successful books. (A taxi driver told us he could take us over to her house if we liked. We politely declined, but we wondered how many hundreds of uninvited “guests” he brings there each week.)
After walking around the castle, we headed downtown. Our mission: To get a copy of my late grandmother’s birth certificate. Sarah (Factor) Sattin was born in Edinburgh in 1898 before coming to America when she was six years old. We stopped at the register’s office and the woman at the counter seemed confused as she tried to look up information on my grandmother, based on the birth date we had given her.
She said there was a baby with the last name of “Factor” who was born on that date, but that she didn’t have the same first name as my grandmother. She then told me the names of the girl’s parents: Harris and Martha.
The hair stood up on my arms.
“That’s her parents’ names!” I exclaimed. “That’s them!”
“But the baby’s name wasn’t Sarah; it was Sherry,” she said.
All these years, my grandmother, rest her soul, was going by the wrong name!
After e-mailing my Aunt Jackie (Sarah’s daughter) and my cousins, we surmised what probably happened: Sarah’s parents spoke only Yiddish and had a thick accent. When they said the name Sarah, it may have sounded like Sherry to the person who recorded it. Sarah’s mom didn’t understand English at the time, and she signed the birth certificate with an X. So she gave approval to the name “Sherry” but apparently didn’t know what she was signing. And I don’t think my grandmother ever knew that her birth certificate in Scotland had a different name on it.
I asked my aunt if my grandmother had ever mentioned anything about her six years living in Scotland.
She always talked about the floral clock, she said.
We were on a mission to find the clock. That is, if it still existed.
The first person I asked looked at me with a puzzled stare. Then a light went on. “Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” she said.
The clock was located a few blocks away in the West Princess Street Garden. It is made entirely of flowers—even its hands—and it works!
As we soon discovered, the clock was built in 1903. My grandmother was five at the time, so you can understand why it was such a big deal to her.
Joyously, we took dozens of photos when we found the clock and emailed them to my grateful relatives. It was a wonderful feeling to know we were on the same ground where my wide-eyed grandmother, Sarah—or is it Sherry?—walked more than a century ago.
An unexpected family find. Could this vacation get any better?
There has been peace in Belfast for many years, but you can feel the tension there. We went on a tour of the area, and the guide stopped at the massive Peace Wall. He explained that the Catholics live on one side, the Protestants on the other. The people are allowed to go on the “other side” until 6 p.m., he said, and able to go to work or school if it’s not in their area. But after 6 p.m., he said, you have to stay on your side or you will be asking for trouble.
The Peace Wall had a gate in the middle of it, and it was locked at 6 p.m. This seemed unfathomable to us. It felt like the ‘50s or ‘60s in America, when some cities had segregated water fountains, rest rooms and restaurants.
How sad. How eye-opening. Our trip also had many highs. If you go to Ireland, Dublin (a pub every few steps) is a lot of fun, but the cities of Galway—which had a quaint downtown filled with stone-clad cafes and boutiques—and Kilkenny (a medieval town with a 12th-century castle) are also must-sees. Ditto the breathtaking Cliffs of Mohr, and we walked over the famous Carrick-a-Rede Bridge—it is made of rope, stands high above the Atlantic Ocean, and has coastal views to die for—on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. (We ran out of time and didn’t get to the Ring of Dingle, which, I’m told, is sensational, in Southwest Ireland).
But I gladly traded going to St. Andrews for the trip around the photogenic Dingle Peninsula, which is home to a half million sheep.
A seaside town located about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, St. Andrews is known for its golf courses, especially the historic Old Course.
Friends told me I was crazy for not playing St. Andrews (it’s about $230 a round for the Old Course) or one of its seven courses, but I didn’t want to leave my wife alone for nearly five hours and it was enjoyable just to walk around the course and soak in the history. Golf has been played there for six centuries, and the views of the North Sea are stunningly beautiful.
“I fell in love with it the first day I played it,” Jack Nicklaus, who won the Open there in 1970 and 1978, once said. “There’s just no other course that’s remotely close.”
A Who’s Who of golf have played there. I was just happy they let us on the practice putting green for about a buck. I came close, but, showing why I’m about a 23-handcap, didn’t one-putt any of the loooong 18 holes. No matter. It was an honor to be on the course where the sport began…..and nice to check off another item on my bucket list.
I still have a couple hundred more to go.
Photos by Sam Carchidi. At top, the view of Edinburgh countryside from the Edinburgh Castle, which is like a little city itself.