121pilot, a commercial airline pilot in the United States who has offered his insights and analysis on a number of topics on Live and Let’s Fly recently traveled with his brother and father on a very special trip to Scotland. He asked me if I would be interested in a trip report and I quickly said yes. Over the next week, you’ll read about his trip planning, flights, and time on the ground in Scotland. Today, he writes about memorable whisky, a train ride to London, hotel hijinks, a great flight home, and most importantly, some great advice on traveling with friends and loved ones.
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Part I: A Special Trip To Scotland In Lufthansa First Class
Part II: A Pilot’s Review Of Lufthansa First Class
Part III: First Time In First Class Terminal + Lufthansa A321 Business Class To Scotland
Part IV: Hotel Hopping + Scenic Driving In Scotland
Part V: In Search Of Great Scottish Whisky
The Lodge Elgin Review
We arrived in Elgin where we stayed at The Lodge Elgin, a manor home on beautiful grounds that has been turned into a guest house. The room was not anything special, but it was comfortable, the staff friendly, and a tasty full English breakfast was included.
Booking The Perfect Guide
We had two days of visiting distilleries in the Speyside region and our car service, Speyside Executive Hire, was simply phenomenal. I simply cannot say enough good things about them. In fact the story of how we booked them is rather amusing.
I was in my hotel in Buffalo on a layover trying to find a car service or tour company for our time in Speyside that wasn’t going to cost and arm and a leg. I spoke with one company and while they could not help, they provided some referrals of people they knew personally who could. Speyside Executive was one of those, but when I called the numbers listed on the web page I got voicemails so I moved on. A short while later Mark, who owns the company, returned my call. Mark apologized for having missed the call and further warned me that having knocked off for the day he’d already had a couple of pints and thus might not be 100%. I will say it was apparent to me that Mark was our man within five minutes of talking to him. His rates were very reasonable and having worked in the Scotch industry, he knew it well. I can’t emphasize enough that if your going to Speyside, Mark is your man.
This proved out when we made an unplanned stop with him at Aberlour. The three of us (my dad, brother and I) walked into the small gift shop, and when we asked about getting a tasting the gent working the counter apologized and told us they really were not set up for that. Then Mark came in. He’s what I think of as a stereotypical Scotsman; a few minutes later the guy running the gift shop was headed into the back to retrieve a bottle from which he poured everyone a dram. A dram that turned out to be so good that I bought a bottle on the spot!
The tour that Speyside put together for us was wonderful; it reflected the advantages of finding people who know the ground and trusting in them. Without a doubt the highlight of the tour was the cellar tasting at Strathisla. Strathisla is the home distillery of Chivas Regal who sells a well known line of blended whiskies. Like a lot of whisky aficionados in the past, I’d tended to assume that single malts were superior to blends. The three of us were escorted into one of their cellars and we were able to dip the copper dog into a barrel and then our escort poured each of us a dram. Cask strength whiskys are higher in alcohol because during the bottling they get slightly diluted, so needless to say we were very much enjoying ourselves…especially when our escort made the fatal error of allowing us to take charge of the pours; the drams got heavier at that point. A lot heavier. We enjoyed the Chivas very much, but my favorite was the definitely the Strathisla single malt that they had.
Lunch our first day was at a place called The Dowans, a boutique 16-room hotel in a renovated Victorian Mansion. Spectacular doesn’t begin to describe this place. It’s family-owned and the restoration of the building has clearly been a labor of love. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves because it was truly a remarkable property.
They started by seating us in the lounge to have a pint and relax a bit. We were then escorted to the dining room; I ended up trying their venison burger, which was tasty. It was a truly wonderful lunch at a place we would never have found on our own. I’m not going to forget this place; it is ideal for a couple who wanted to spend a couple of days away in Speyside.
More Whisky + Inverness
After a wonderful two days where we visited Glen Moray, Strathisla, Glen Dronach, Glenfarclas, and Glen Grant, we headed to Inverness for the night. Through Airbnb,we had booked a very nice flat run by Richard and Melissa. It was close to downtown and spotlessly clean. All the amenities you could want were there, and they were great hosts.
LNER Train From Inverness To London
The next day we had tickets on the LNER train from Inverness to London which turned out to be one of the better decisions we made. We could have flown EasyJet for roughly the same money, but instead we, at a very reasonable price, bought first class tickets on the train. We had a section of four seats to ourselves, and in first class meals and drinks are included. The food was average and unlike Business or First on an airplane, the attendants would only refill your drinks when they were in the process of making a pass down the aisle with the cart. The seats were comfortable and it was a nice and relaxing way to spend the day watching the country fly by. All of us were happy at the end of the day we’d chosen the train over flying. Plus, it provided a great chance for the three of us to just sit and talk and reminisce about our journey.
Failed Stay At Queensway Hotel
Arriving London, we went to the Queensway Hotel near Paddington Station which turned out to be a bit of a disaster. First the room we booked, a triple with three beds, was not available. The desk agent offered us a single and a double which we accepted. My brother took the single and discovered that multiple lights in the room were not working. My dad and I got into the double and found that at some point recently the door had obviously been forced open. Whats worse is it had not really repaired meaning that we could not in any way trust the lock. The three of us pretty quickly decided that that was three strikes and we were going to walk on our reservation.
My brother checked and found we could get rooms at the Hilton Paddington for just over 100 GBP each. We decided that was clearly the way to go. I explained to the desk agent that given the problems, we would not be staying and reached out to Travelocity through whom I’d booked the room for a refund. I was prepared to get rejected, but the good news was that with pictures of the shattered door frame, they within hours agreed to a full refund.
Staying at the Hilton came with other benefits. My brother and I both hold Diamond Status and all three of us were given upgraded rooms plus Executive Lounge access. The lounge puts on a rather nice spread for both dinner and breakfast. Personally, I would have been happy to just sit in the lounge enjoying the free wine and food and call it good as opposed to going out for dinner. Our rooms were nice, but despite the front desk assurances that they did have air conditioning, I could never get my room to cool off the way I would have liked.
The major advantage of the Hilton Paddington Station is that it literally sits above the train station. In the morning after breakfast my father and I simply walked directly from the hotel to the station and boarded the Heathrow Express for our trip to the airport. My brother talked me into buying first class tickets on the Heathrow Express which I suspected was going to be a waste of money as it in fact turned out to be. The train only takes 15 minutes and all First buys you is a little bigger seat, but frankly the normal cars are perfectly fine, especially for a short ride.
United Airlines Home In Economy Class
Dad and I were both flying United, although on separate flights as he was headed direct to LAX, and I was going home to IAD. I originally planned to fly home standby, but it was apparent the flights were full and since I could get a coach ticket for only 35K United miles, it seemed like the smart move.
When checking in, I had the option of buying an extra-legroom bulkhead seat or sticking with my regular coach aisle seat on the 787. I made the decision to skip buying the upgrade, which I feared I might regret.
We went to the Plaza Premium Priority Pass lounge to wait for our flights. The lounge was pretty full, but we were able to find seats together without too much difficulty. Neither of us was hungry, but I did look over the food they had out which I would describe as standard Priority Pass fare. In other words, nothing to get excited about, but, hey, it is free and sitting in the lounge still beats sitting in the terminal.
I had a nice flight home on United, and my seat turned out to be perfectly comfortable for a daytime flight. The in-seat power worked well, though it was mounted on the front of the seat low and behind your legs. Whoever came up with this outlet mounting position, which far too many airlines use, needs to be drawn and quartered. It is nonsensical, especially in coach where room to maneuver is limited anyway.
Service was friendly and flight attendants were happy to provide drink refills on request. The food, while not up to Lufthansa First Class standards, was perfectly edible.
For those who might be planning a similar trip, some lessons learned. First book your car service or tour company early, as they tend to fill up fast. Second, before doing a trip like this, the temptation is to pack in as many distilleries in a day as possible. You’re thinking you’re going to want the full tour everywhere you go. Frankly, unless you have a truly burning desire to dive into the small differences between how distilleries produce their whisky, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. My advice would be to do no more than one full tour in a day and slow the pace down.
For American travelers, you’re going to get to taste whiskies that you can’t find in the States, and isn’t that the point after all? I think if we had it to do over again, we’d spend more time at some of the distilleries just sitting and enjoying the atmosphere as we sample a few drams. I will also add that water is your friend on a trip like this. You will want to drink a lot of it. Lastly, build in some time to just enjoy being in Scotland. It is a beautiful part of the world and a place I very much want to return to even without visiting any of the distilleries.
All in all, it was truly the trip of a lifetime. Sitting here writing this I wish the trip was ahead of me and not behind me. One of the post trip highlights was talking to my mom and having her tell me how dad had taken notes during the whole trip, determined not to miss a moment or lose a single memory of this time with his sons. He’d been sharing those notes with her and had ended up in tears. I owe my father so much in life, and I’d like to think that this trip gave some small measure of that back.
I’ll remember getting to see my dad’s face when he found out he was about to fly Lufthansa First and getting to enjoy that entire experience with him, standing in the cellar at Strathisla with my dad and brother enjoying drams straight from the cask. These are memories I’ll never forget and always treasure. Not to mention all the time we had to just simply enjoy each others company.
So my last piece of advice is that if your contemplating a trip like this don’t wait for the perfect moment to come along or for life to slow down. Just get out and do it. The demands of life never end. But our chances to build memories with our families and friends are all too easily missed. And some of those opportunities once missed, are gone forever.