Edinburgh/S. Queensferry: Walking the Royal Mile

Friday, July 13, 2007 – Edinburgh (South Queensferry), Scotland

The ship anchored off the port in South Queensferry, and after a tender ride under the red railway bridge, we arrived. There are two options for those wishing to get into Edinburgh on their own: take a train into Waverly Station (the heart of downtown Edinburgh) or grab a taxi. We were told that taxis were limited, but did not want to make the steep climb up 150 steps to the train station. [NOTE: Later on in the day, I met a lovely older couple on the return tender who told me they walked up the steps to the train without a problem, so it might not be as bad as the ship’s tour folks make it out to be.] The trains also run only about once an hour, so we waited a bit and caught a private-hire car into the city, at a cost ₤20—not bad for the 5 of us. (This was a flat rate charge—no meter. On the way back, our taxi w/meter cost ₤17.50. We were told ahead of time it would cost ₤15-₤20, so depending on traffic and weather conditions, I’d say that was accurate). NOTE: there’s a shop just across the street from the dock area that has business cards for several taxi companies by the cash register. If there are no taxis waiting at the taxi stand, you can call for one yourself—provided you have a Blackberry or some other cellular phone that works there. Two of the cab companies that serve the area: Hawes Cars, 0131-331-1077, and Queensferry Cabs, 0131-331-4433. For our return trip, we lucked out and got a taxi that was just dropping off someone at Cannongate Kirk (opposite the Museum of Edinburgh).

Our driver into Edinburgh, Owen, was great. On the way into town, we had some great conversation with him about the super-strict smoking laws in Scotland and the crackdown on cell phone use while driving. I asked him for recommendations for lunch (since I was not going to leave Scotland without trying haggis first) and he said the best haggis in town can be found at a pub on the Royal Mile called The Mitre. Owen said it was a child-friendly pub as well, so we had him mark it down on our map for us (on High Street between Carruber and north Gray’s).

Owen agreed with our plan to start at Edinburgh Castle and proceed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, because that way, you’re walking downhill the entire time, rather than doing a steep climb in the other direction. He dropped us off at the Esplanade and we were on our way.

There were preparations in place for a Blondie concert that evening, so lots of stage scaffolding blocked our initial views of the castle. Once it came into view though, it was beautiful and impressive. When I got to the ticket office, I asked about a family rate, and it was then that I discovered a big mistake I’d made the day before. There’s a Scotland Pass you can purchase that is good for admission at many other sites throughout Scotland [For more info, see earlier blog post titled: SCOTLAND TRAVELERS: Money-Saving Tip] . If I’d purchased one at Urquhart Castle, admission to Edinburgh Castle would have been free. Darn it! Oh well…now YOU know, and you can save the money that I didn’t. It’s cheaper to buy the 3-day pass than it is to purchase 2 adult tickets and 3 children’s tickets, so I purchased the pass anyway, taking note for next time.

The castle paths are all cobblestone and quite uneven, so those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers will find it a very bumpy ride. The castle itself has several steep inclines, so those with mobility issues will also need to take it slow and careful. There were many cannons, including the famous Mons Meg, and a couple of small gift shops (not worth a visit, in my opinion). We went up to see the “Treasures” (aka the Crown jewels). There were lots of displays detailing the history behind the jewels, including how they were crafted and how they were smuggled away and hidden for over 100 years, lest the British melt them down during their struggles with the Highlanders. The kids compared these displays (with mannequins and animal figures posed in vignettes) to the wax museum in London. There is no photography allowed in this section, but that didn’t stop other tourists from snapping pictures, despite all of the signs prohibiting it.

When we finally wound our way through the rooms and arrived at the Crown jewels, I confess it was a bit of a letdown. The room is dark and cramped, with a small two-sided display containing the scepter and crown, and another flat wall display (with many people crowded around it, making it difficult to see) containing some rings and necklaces.

We exited out onto the castle grounds once again, took a few more photographs (there are some great views of the city from the castle) and then left to walk the Royal Mile.

Just outside the castle is the Camera Obscura, where you can ascend into an observation tower and get 360 degree views of the city, but we decided to skip it, since we’d already seen some beautiful vistas from the castle. Right across the street is the Scotch Whiskey Center, with its impressive gift shop (a huge array of scotch brands available). The tour was about an hour long, so we opted to pay ₤12 and just take the barrel ride instead. It’s very similar to those rides like It’s a Small World at Disneyworld or the Great Movie Ride at MGM in Orlando. except the cars you’re riding in are shaped like barrels, and you’re learning about the history of scotch whiskey. I think the adults got more out of it than the kids did, but it was a nice break for them to rest their little feet after the cobblestone climb of the castle. The barrel ride also includes a whiskey tasting for the adults at the coffee shop (Dewar’s White Label) and some soda pop for the kids.

We proceeded just up the street and down an alley into the Writer’s Museum. The younger kids waited outside with my husband while I went inside with my eldest daughter and checked out the displays on Robert Louis Stevenson. We popped in the small gift shop and I picked up a writing journal as a souvenir, and then we headed down the steps and across Market Street to the National Gallery.

The artwork at the National Gallery was wonderful: great works by Monet, Degas, Matisse, and more. Definitely worth a visit!

From here, we crossed the street once again, and crossed over the George IV bridge to take a picture outside of The Elephant House, which is the pub where J.K. Rowling has said she sat and wrote the first Harry Potter book. We doubled back over the bridge again and followed High Street to St. Giles Cathedral. Took a few pictures, and then proceeded up the Royal Mile, stopping in shops along the way to pick up a few souvenirs before arriving at The Mitre, the pub Owen recommended to us.

The way it works at The Mitre (and many other traditional pubs) is that you seat yourself, noting your table number, then grab a menu and place your order at the bar. You pay in advance, and then the wait staff brings you your food. I ordered the Haggis with Nips and Tatties (turnips and mashed potatoes) and it was DELICIOUS. It was similar to corned beef hash, and very, very tasty. [NOTE: They offer Haggis as a starter or as a main course, so if you’re not qute brave enough to have it for your entire meal, you can order the starter portion. I was very glad I ordere a full entree portion, though–it really was fantastic.] Rich and Christina both tried it and agreed it was great. There is a kids’ menu at The Mitre, but Cathy didn’t want anything they had listed (Chicken strips, fish & chips, veggie nuggets) so she had some of the Garlic Ciabatta Bread w/melted cheese (meant as a side order, but it was just the right amount for her). The older girls had the Lasagne off the adult menu, and Rich had the fish & chips, which was outstanding. As usual, we also sampled the local beer: Rich had a Bellhaven’s Best, while I sampled the Caledonian Light.

Our next stop was Neanie Scott, a wonderful shop on the Royal mile (131 Canongate), where we met Kathryn Erikson, the proprietor. The items in her shop were all Made in Scotland, with gorgeous cashmere ponchos, scarves and sweaters at competitive prices. Amy found an adorable Westie dog toy dressed in a tartan that was handmade in Scotland, and is sold exclusively at this shop (they also had a black Scottie version available).

We stopped in the Museum of Childhood, which starts out as a small toy shop that you walk through in order to access the other floors of the museum. The kids enjoyed seeing the old board games, dollhouses, model trains, and the many other toys on display in the 5 galleries located here. There are restrooms available on the 4th floor, too, and admission to the museum is free.

There wasn’t much more to see along the Mile until we reached the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where we quickly experienced sticker shock at the admission price: ₤33 ($66US) for family admission! We decided to take pictures of the outside of the Palace and skip the interiors, since the kids had already had their fill of spiral staircases, musty rooms and antique furniture. We walked back up the Royal Mile and stopped outside of Canongate Kirk, which is directly across the street from the Museum of Edinburgh. The kids sat on a bench outside of Canongate and I got them some homemade ice cream from Angel’s Espresso café, located next door to the Museum of Edinburgh. The only flavor they have is vanilla, but it was thick and rich and the kids agreed it tasted more like cake batter than vanilla—absolutely decadent and wonderful.

A large taxi pulled up to drop off passengers at Canongate, and since the kids had just finished up their ice cream, we hopped in and headed back to the ship. The rain started falling right after we got into the taxi, so the timing was perfect.

We relaxed for awhile, got ready for dinner, and went to the late show. It featured a return performance by comedian Rikki Jay (once again, he was hysterically funny) and singer Phillipa Healey. At the end of the show, the Cruise Director reminded everyone that we’d be turning the clocks ahead one hour that evening in preparation for our stop in LeHavre, France. We all looked forward to our last At Sea day, for some much-needed rest after all of the touring.

Coming up: Our last AT SEA day…

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