Blue Zoo Restaurant - Swan and Dolphin

Dining is one thing that always forms an integral part of our holiday planning. For both of us, Disney works as such a wonderful holiday destination: not only because of the vast amount of uniquely magical entertainment but also because of its ability to allow you to have pure adult indulgence in the evenings at some of its best restaurants - for some reason when you mention Disney's Restaurants to a lot of people they seem to think its turkey legs and pretzels  and never see what the hotels can and do offer.

We arrived at the Blue Zoo directly by boat from the International Gateway, the restaurant is easy to find from the dock. You first see the fantastic cocktail bar with its multi level booths, the bar takes up the entire length of one wall before it turns into the open kitchen area. Upfront at the side of the pass is a huge circular enclosed coal grill with various rotisserie skewer attachments, which are used to skewer whole fish at an angle and slowly roast them over the coals, these are the so called “flying fish” the signature dish of the restaurant. After this is the more formal dining area, with booths along one wall, windows on the other wall looking out over the dock if it was daytime.

We are sat in a table for two which has a wall couch seat and chair, J notes later on to remind her not to sit on the couches as she finds they leave her a little low at the table and unable to sit back. She simply has to order the flying fish, which the waiter tells her will be whole sea bass. Perfect.

It’s served whole and the  chargrilling adds to the various flavours whilst keeping it moist and tasty. Im not sure what butter herb mix they used to baste it as it cooks but it really adds a nice taste along with the charred lemon zing.  Among the  accompaniments  are a white bean puree,  and grilled hearts of romaine and asparagus. An emulsion of lemon and capers has been set into the puree which gives a real lift and bite to the dish.

I would have chosen the same thing, it looked special the moment I saw it when we walked in but I decide to order the Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass (a larger meatier fish). This is a fusion cooked affair, something I sometimes regard with suspicion having been disappointed at some places by the result of this description; but our server describes it well, assures me its excellent and I take the plunge and order. This is served with warm sesame spinach and pea and mustard tendril salad.

The fish is moist and transluscent with just a hint of the miso ( orange being the main flavour) - the sesame spinach contains more flavours of the east and would be edging over to the sweet side if it was not for the pea tendril salad whose dressing and the heat of those hot little shoots balances it nicely. It’s a dish that when put together works very well, however get the balance wrong, and it could go too sweet. I suppose that’s why fusion cooking can go so chop suey sometimes.

Taking advantage of the fact (almost) every bottle of wine here  can be taken by the glass, we decide to try out some Californian Sauvignons. To be fair there are perfectly great New Zealand Sauvignons to be had which would be just perfect with this meal; but - when in Rome. I try a mid priced from the Napa area whilst J tries something a little more expensive (yikes) from Sonoma. To be honest the Napa is just a bit too light and flowery with not enough acidity to tackle this dish so more Sonoma is ordered. The Sonoma is excellent just the right balance, pure gooseberry delight.

 A platter of desserts is offered here which is made up of, sorbet, fig cobbler, vanilla crème brulee, chocolate raspberry molten cake, lemon cream sponge, strawberry confit and biscotti, wow!

A fantastic meal in all and a great room - not to noisy, not too freezing with arctic AC and attentive but not in your face service . Best of all though delicious food with a fish bias - our favourite type of place.

The Caledonian Express - Inverness part 2

A gentle knocking at the door from the steward wakes us from what's best described as a sort of sleep. To be fair it was quite smooth, though I'm guessing when they separated the train and split it up into bits the shunter driver took his revenge (either that or there was an earthquake last night) - it was also a little too hot even with the AC turned to zero.

We had preordered breakfast and tea which is brought to the room just as we pass Aviemore. (Breakfast consists of a hearty highland breakfast - we had ordered smoked salmon and eggs as one choice but they have managed to run out - which I suspect is code for forgot to load) - the windows are a little small so its hard appreciate the scenery; something the new trains will correct (along with dbl beds) - however one thing the new train wont have is the ability to pull the doorway windows down and stick your head outside (carefully) into the full blast of cool Scottish air. It's at this point that I notice we are now traveling in the opposite direction to when we left Euston - the engine has been placed on what was the back of the train when we got split up - no wonder I had weird sleep.

Soon we pull gracefully (on time 8:30am)  into a slightly damp Inverness station and depart the Caledonian Express - a very good experience all round - I cant imagine how many miles we have now covered in the space of 24 hours since leaving Manchester - but we have not only completed the journey but when you think about it we have arrived for a full day in Inverness - saving the cost of one nights accommodation. The train will now be shunted off into some sidings before it makes the return overnight journey this evening. The route operates every day except Saturdays and is very popular with politicians, actors and  lowly tourists - but its the only train you can book a full year in advance at very decent rates - so plan ahead; click here:- We booked direct with them on the Caledonian website. 

We are booked into the Royal Highland Hotel for tonight. This used to be called the Station Hotel which presumably didn't sound quite as grand as its new name however its the rather obvious name as it is literally a 2 yard walk from the station platform. 

It does have a certain Grande feeling about it though and has tried to retain its Victorian/Edwardian heritage (apparently the staircase was the influence for the Titanic's own). Obviously its way too early to check in, but they are happy to store our small bags for us until we come back later - I suspect they are quite used to people arriving on the sleeper service.

We have a full plan already in place - thanks to the wonders of free wi fi and the internet we know exactly where the bus station is (turn right out of the hotel, then right again after 50 yards), the number of the bus gate (2) we need and the bus number (19) & time that we need to get us to Urqhuart castle and Loch Ness. So in less than half an hour we are on our way on Inverness' local bus service along with every nationality in the world - we are literally the only English speaking tourists on the bus (actually that's not true because of course all the Germans, French, Spanish, Chinese speak perfect English).

The bus operates on a circular route that means every 90mins its ready to pick you up and return you to Inverness. Just perfect timing to explore the ruins, read the history and have coffee in the gift shop/heritage center. A lot of money has been spent here and it shows - its a well designed and presented heritage site and the setting itself is breathtaking.
We are back in town by lunch time and Inverness is not a town to disappoint when it comes to eateries. We already have dinner booked at a small seafood restaurant across the river but for lunch we head for a place we noticed as the bus passed passed by.

The Mustard Seed is a modern bistro restaurant set inside a disused Georgian church with lofty ceilings and balconies along the banks of the river Ness. Its main philosophy is sourcing everything from as near to the town as possible.  Every lunch they have  a set dining menu of about 5 choices. Its a superb find - the food is simple but inventive. Its obviously a hot ticket in town popular with both tourists and locals. We arrive relatively early at noon but within half an hour the place is so full they are turning people away. After a walk around the town & view the museum we check in to the hotel.

 The room, rather like the main entrance foyer and staircase, is a little like a step back in time - but they are a very good size and full of charm with 2 double beds. There's also a huge bathtub - after walking around London all day yesterday and a night on the Caledonian a good soak in the huge tub is a big bonus.

When we first planned this trip we searched for the best place to have dinner in Inverness. It wasn't to hard to find - The Riverhouse.  Book way in advance - there are few tables, and it is always full. It's so popular they have to lock the door so guest aren't disturbed by people begging to get a last minute table. It has one basic specialty - local fresh fish and seafood and it does this superbly.

I started with local scallops served in shell and sat on a piece of buttery brioche that was soaking up the juices of the brown shrimp dressing. Jack opted for an Orkney Crab and Crayfish cocktail with a fennel and spicy cocktail dressing.  For main I had the Shetland Turbot - cooked to perfection and served with a romesco sauce and pieces of tender octopus whilst Jack had wild sea bass with an Orkney crab and shellfish cream sauce.  A cleansing Lemon posset for Jack and an unforgettable if slightly disturbingly pink looking cranachen martini for myself (shot of Tomatin malt whisky, Chambord raspberry liqueur and Grenadine, shaken with ice and cream and topped with toasted oatmeal) - Oh Yes!

Its been a superb trip - a real weekend adventure from North to South or South to North and by the time we returned even a 'there and back again'. We actually returned on the Scotrail Service from Inverness to Glasgow Queen St then changed to the Trans Pennine Service from Glasgow Central  back to Manchester Piccadilly - great journeys on their own as we passed through the beautifully sunny and dramatic highlands then on through the lowlands before finally passing through the hills and valleys of the lake district. 

The Caledonian Express to Inverness - part 1

Flying through the countryside towards London from Manchester
Living in Lancashire there isn't really an  opportunity to travel on one of the great romantic overnight train routes. Technically it seems a bit silly to head south to come north again but with London only 2 hours away from Manchester by train it's quite an easy trip to make. So we left Manchester at 10:55am  on the Virgin Pendelino service to Euston. -just enough time for lunch, wine and coffee before pulling into Euston at 1pm.  This is a great mid week service as it hardly stops at all and gets you in to the city just in time for a matinee at the theatre, an early dinner and then a hop back.

This time we had decided to pass the time (as you board the Caledonian Express at 8:30pm) by heading to the Tower of London, taking advantage of the arrive by train offer (show your train ticket and you only pay admission for one person, the other gets in for free). There's actually a couple of reasons for wanting to do this; I think we last visited the Tower of London over 20 years ago so a revisit was always on the cards but secondly it had been all over the local press recently that a locally born Sergeant Major had become the first woman in 10 years - and only the second in history - to be made a Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London.

The Royal Courts of Justice
We both much prefer to walk around London (though to be fair the Tower is quite a hike across the city), almost 3 miles each way!). People do miss so much by getting on the tube (often to travel distances that would be far quicker to walk anyway). This time we decided to head south past Russell Square then on to Aldwych before striking left to the Courts and from here  through the lovely quiet streets of Temple before continuing along the Thames.

South Exit of Middle Temple
174 The Black Friar - London's very own little Flat Iron Building
St Pauls from the Millennium Bridge

A Quick History Lesson - The Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters)  are descended from the ancient band of warders who guarded the gates and royal prisoners early in the Tower's history. Their modern duties mix a traditional ceremonial role (ceremony of the keys every night etc) with leading tours for visitors. They are still extraordinary members of the Queen's bodyguard and, to qualify, applicants must have served at least 22 years in the armed forces, hold the long service and good conduct medal and reached the level of Warrant Officer. They live in the grounds of the tower in cute little cottages which line the cobbled streets between the inner and outer walls. 

As you enter the tower you're directed to a waiting area in the old moat should you wish to hear the 'Story of the Keep' which serves as your guided tour conducted by one of the Warders. To be honest it would be quite a coincidence if  our local Sergeant Major would be doing this just at the time we arrived but to our delight it was indeed Amanda.

Once a warder is inducted the first challenge they face  is to prepare for the Ceremony of the Keys, a closing ceremony that has taken place every night without fail for at least 700 years. Next they  have to learn word-for-word the ‘Story’ – the script of the famous Yeoman Warder Tour of the Tower. As we finished the tour in the  Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, Amanda  drew breath to ask if we had all enjoyed ourselves and announce that this had been her very first day of tours. Now that's not just coincidence - its a bit spooky :)

We had a lovely chat afterwards (all expressing our disbelief in how the stars had aligned for this event)  and shared a few photos before we carried on to explore the rest of the grounds.

The village green of the Tower
Traitors Gate 

The Crown Jewels (used with thanks to HMP)
We left the Tower as it closed at around 5.30pm but still had a few hours to pass before we could board the Caledonian. First things first - time to find a place to sit down and  relax as we have been walking all day and still planned to walk back to Euston. We found a lovely little independent coffee shop near Fleet St and enjoyed cake, good coffee and rested feet.
One thing I am starting to dislike about modern London is  that you could almost be in any city in the UK due to the plethora of branded coffee shops and restaurant chains  & clothes shops. At least the pubs all seem to be doing a roaring trade though when the city suits all leave their offices.

Old and New - London is quickly losing its historical city landscape
Stock Exchange London
We head back to Euston through the city, passing the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange before passing by Guild Hall Square and through the Barbican - awash with summer colours from the flats' balcony gardens.  Then heading North via Hatton Garden we take another break in a traditional pub for pre dinner drinks before we board the train.

Euston is crazy busy as usual and still retains the award for being the ugliest railway station in the world bar none. Hard to believe they knocked down the beautiful original building with its doric arched entrance and cathedral like great hall to build this fifties concrete monstrosity.

The train is set to leave at 9:15pm but you are allowed to board at 8:30pm to get into your cabin, unpack and if 1st class; head for the lounge for your dinner and drinks. Check in is smooth and quick and you're directed to your coach and cabin. The Caledonian is the longest  train in the UK comprising of 16 coaches which are split at Edinburgh whilst you sleep. One portion is then taken to Inverness, the other to Fort William.

Compared to our overnight trip last year in the States  - on Amtrak City of New Orleans (click here to read about that trip) - the Caledonian's cabins are best described as tight and functional, hopefully the ride will be smoother and the horn blasts less frequent. This is in fact the last year that these old coaches will see service as from summer 2018 a whole new train has been built with larger rooms, proper restaurant cars and lounges and in room showers.

In the lounge - a carriage with couches down two sides and tables and chairs at one end with a kitchen - we order wine and dinner, both opting for the hearty sounding Lamb Cassoulet washed down with a great bottle of Malbec and finish with a selection of highland cheeses and a superb blackberry fool and blueberry cheesecake. There's a great selection of malt whiskeys from the well known to some rarer samples - probably explains why this route is rather popular with Scottish members of parliament.

Our fellow travellers in the lounge are a mixture of single office workers and serious walkers (you can always tell them by the boots they seem to wear at all times regardless of if they are plodding around a city or climbing Ben Nevis); there is also a group of office workers with managers who I suspect are on a bonding course in the highlands.. As we relax and finish the wine we hardly notice that 'The Caledonian Express' has now pulled out of London and is flying back up the west coast main line - the line we came down only this morning.

 Click here for part 2 (Inverness - Loch Ness and Urqhuart Castle)

September is here already.

Sunny start to follow what has been a rather mixed (but mainly wet) August. The giant sunflowers have finally opened (a month after the rest of the countries no doubt) - they do remind me of triffids and always seem too much effort and wait for not much of a result. Next year if we bother with them its back to the multi-headed coloured varieties. I'm a big fan of the darker bronze ones (though Jack isnt't) -  but at least there would be some contrast in flower colour from the Rudbekias which have gone rampant this year and will have to be split - split and split again. Saying all that though the butterflies  are having a great time feasting on them.

Roses have been great this year and are still producing flower after flower with little effort from us. All we do is feed every once in a while, dead head daily and give them a mulch of the rotted manure from the stables down the track. The two big performers have been 'Rosa super fairy ' on the south wall; this is  now in its first full year the aim being to train it around the windows.
The first rose we planted is a now two summers old  Gertrude Jekyll which is being trained around the west wall and into the porch area. If you are ever looking for a reliable rose for scent Gertrude is your lady - absolutely stunning.

We order our roses bare root from David Austin in the autumn and the new addition last October was a pair of Lichfield Angels which we planted in a new terrace  against a rebuilt  south facing stone wall - created when we had to move it back a few feet before it collapsed.  The soil  under the wild coarse grass is a rich loamy dark mix that turns to clay the deeper you dig. At first it appeared this pair of new arrivals were just not taking to this position. Eventually we realised the terrace was getting extremely dry and wasn't holding onto water very well (even after a downpour) so we mixed in a lot more organic compost and topped up with more manure from the stables. Both are now flowering profusely (in fact too profusely for the size of the plant so we take a lot as cuttings). Beautiful apricot tinged flowers and as long as the roots establish well before October it should flourish into a full shrub by next year.