New York in December – Where we Stayed

I love spending time in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, so as we were only going to be in NYC for three days, we treated ourselves to a hotel in the area rather than staying in our usual hotel in Midtown. I can’t remember where I saw it first, but I have fantasised about staying in the Maritime Hotel, pretty much opposite Chelsea Market, for a very long time. The iconic porthole windows, the sophisticated decor – it was my dream NYC location. Once we had booked our flights, I started obsessively scouring the internet to find the best room price, and stumbled across Tablet Hotels who had a great sale on, so my dream was finally being realised.

The first thing that you notice when you get to the hotel is the amazing scent – the lobby area smells beautiful. I don’t know what it was, but every time we walked through, it made me happy. I love a well-scented hotel.

The lobby doesn’t just smell good – it also looks stunning – dark wood, warm lighting, gorgeous furniture. They have a very pleasing aesthetic, very hyggelig. We didn’t get a chance to experience the restaurant just off the lobby during our trip, but it was shortly about to close for renovations so perhaps we should have been visited. The problem is that there is too much choice for where to eat in the area.

We had a standard room (called Superior on the website) which was a pretty average size for New York (by that, I mean small) but that’s just to be expected. Having just experienced exceptional Texan hospitality at The Archer in Austin the month before, my expectations were sky high so the room and service did leave me a little underwhelmed. Perhaps I was judging them too harshly but I just wanted a little more more than what was on offer. I’m hard to please when it comes to hotels.

Those porthole windows though.

I will say that we slept well every night in a very comfortable bed, and I really appreciated the bathroom stocked full of my favourite Co Bigelow toiletries. Every room faces the same way, so you’re guaranteed a good view and we spent ages just watching the world go by. You can see the High Line in the distance which was super helpful when deciding when to visit – Saturday afternoon was rammed, whereas we couldn’t see anyone on it Sunday morning.

I didn’t get any good photos of the room, but they look exactly as they do on the website – that same dark wood and blue colour scheme with really unusual decor on the armchairs. They could easily have gone too kitsch with the theming, but they pitched it just right.

We were on the 10th floor so weren’t bothered by any significant noise. Apparently, on the lower floors you can sometimes hear noise from the club below the hotel but all we heard was classic New York car horns.

Taken from the High Line – I asked Husband to run back to the room to wave at me. He said no.

It truly is in the best area of Manhattan. More blogs will follow which will cover the rest of our trip, but I loved every second of being in Chelsea. Restaurants, shops, nightlife – whatever you’re into, Chelsea has it with the benefit of being away from most of the tourists (Chelsea Market aside, which I still adore but was constantly busy). When I visited NY for the second time in 2015, spending time in Chelsea made me finally “get” the city. This was where I fell in love with it and is the reason why I keep going back. Just sorting through photos is giving me wanderlust again, and I’ve only been back home for three weeks.

Why can’t I live in New York?

Flying on New Year’s Eve

Back in November, I noticed that the prices in the Virgin Atlantic Black Friday sale were good.  Crazy good.  So good that I found myself unable to say no, so booked a little trip to New York for the bit between Christmas and New Year. We initially wanted to go from the 27th to 30th December, allowing us to be back home in plenty of time to go back to work, but we left booking just a smidge too long so the dates we wanted sold out.  Always a good lesson – if you see flights you like, snap them up.

We ended up with 28th to 31st December instead, which meant we’d be flying back home on New Year’s Eve.  It also meant that the return flight was with Delta – not ideal, but we were still able to use the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK so it wasn’t all bad. Both planes were A330s.

We flew out on VS3, departing Heathrow at 8.50.  We don’t live that far from the airport but I still made Husband get up stupidly early so we could get to the Clubhouse as it opened.  I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to get myself a spa appointment this time (like last time where I was left sorely disappointed).  I manoeuvred a sleepy Husband through an empty Upper Class security lane (praise the lord!) and we made it to the lounge about 10 minutes after it opened.  It was so peaceful and empty – I could only see 8 passengers including us – so that spa appointment was mine.  Husband managed to get himself booked in for a haircut as well.  I paid for a manicure which actually wasn’t that great because the product they use is appalling but to their credit, they have now refunded me.  Still enjoyable even if it did start to chip the following day.    

We sauntered down to the gate at about 8am – gate 22 again, which is a pain in the neck to get to as it’s pretty much 15 miles away from everything.  I always seem to get gate 22.  Upper had just started boarding, so we walked straight onto the plane and got settled in.  We had the usual reverse herringbone seats with 1-1-1 configuration, and we had picked 3A and 4A so were facing the back of the middle row.  I’ve read a lot about how people hate the reverse herringbone, but I still enjoy the seat.  This one seemed fairly well maintained, with all the buttons still shiny and new.  I got a purple Herschel amenity kit this time which pleased me greatly (I love purple).

We were served lunch at about 10.30 which felt way too early to be eating a three course meal.  I had the soup which was delicious, followed by the chicken but I skipped dessert as I wanted to get some sleep.

The last time I few Upper Class and tried to sleep, I could not get comfortable. This time was much better and I slept for hours, only waking up when we hit a lot of turbulence and just in time for afternoon tea.

I was a little confused as I thought this was supposed to be the big fancy afternoon tea by Eric Lanlard, so was a little underwhelmed when this arrived on my tray.  This wasn’t quite what I was expecting, tasty though.  

We landed at JFK at little earlier than schedule, but were then stuck on the plane for 30 minutes as they couldn’t get the air bridge to work.  The ground crew moved it to the front, moved it to the middle, moved it back to the front repeatedly for about half an hour.  The captain asked all the passengers to sit back down as he had no idea how long it would take, and at one stage, they were talking about getting old fashioned steps up to the door.  They managed to get it working eventually, and once again having Global Entry got us through immigration quick as a flash.  

On the way back, we left Manhattan a little earlier than planned as it had just started raining so we thought we’d head to the Clubhouse rather than find something to do.  We checked in at the Delta One check in area with a classic grumpy Delta member of staff (all Delta staff seem grumpy), and she advised us where the Sky Club was.  Ha, as if we’d go there when the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse was available to us.

I love the JFK lounge.  It’s so quiet, the showers are amazing, and the staff are generally excellent.  The ability to have a shower and get changed into clean clothes is my favourite thing about using the lounges.  They still have Bumble and Bumble hair products in the showers even though they seem to have got rid of the hair salon from the spa. I had been looking forward to a hair treatment this time round, but had a wonderful 15 minute facial instead. I wish I’d paid for a longer one.

There was one bit of irritation – they’ve put in this god-awful “B8ta” pop-up, and the staff seemed more interested in chatting with the B8ta staff than checking on customers.  We weren’t as looked after as we were in London.

The Delta flight itself was pretty much the same as our Atlanta experience.  The seats were a little old but still comfortable, the staff were welcoming, and I got hammered on two cocktails (I really should know my limits).  It did get incredibly and uncomfortably hot in the middle of the trip, but other than that, fairly uneventful.  Well, after the fun of take-off

This was our New Year’s Eve flight and we were greeted by flight attendants wearing 2019 glasses.  I thought that might be the limit of their celebrations – we were leaving at 7pm EST so I couldn’t figure out when our midnight would be.  One of the staff explained that they shift to London time as soon as the flight starts, so we would be leaving New York directly at midnight GMT.  We started taxiing at about 6.55, and five minutes later, the flight attendants ran through the aisles with party blowers screaming “Happy New Year!” before running back to their seat for take-off.  It was actually wonderful – I had a tear in my eye.  That might have been down to the cocktails however.

We landed in Heathrow earlier than scheduled, managed to get through immigration really quickly, and our bags were the first off the plane so we decided to visit the Virgin Atlantic Revivals Lounge for the first time.  It’s a small lounge but there was plenty of free seats when we got there, with a spa and showers.  If I was going directly to work, this would have been a godsend.  As it was, we were only half an hour from home so we just had a bit of breakfast which was served in no time at all – we only spent about 45 minutes in the lounge in total but it was just what I needed as I hadn’t had any breakfast on the plane.  The spa was tempting, but my bed was calling.

Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

The last stop on our mini-Texas tour was Dallas-Fort Worth, which is technically two cities (or one “metroplex“).  We were visiting friends who live about halfway between the two cities, and they’d very kindly offered to show us some of the highlights.  We only had a day in the area so we definitely only scratched the surface of both locations.

First up, we drove into Fort Worth for some brunch.  I’d seen some good reviews for Yolk in Sundance Square, and whilst it was good, I don’t think it was worth the hour way.  We did get to explore Sundance Square whilst we waited which was very relaxed and peaceful on that Sunday morning.  It was also freakishly cold (again!) so we were pleased to finally get into the warmth of the restaurant.

I loved the neon signs around the area, and there were some very pretty old buildings.

Continuing the old theme, we then drove to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards.  I have such little knowledge of American history that I don’t think I understood the significance of the Stockyards, but there once was a lot of cows here.  There still are some cows here who get herded down the street twice a day (we weren’t in time for that), but there’s also cowboys, shops, bars, and a rodeo in the district.  It was fun to wander around and see the wild west – a little cheesy, but fun!

We jumped back in the car and drove the 45 minutes over to the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.  When we were asked what we wanted to see, we hadn’t wanted to spend a significant amount of time in Dallas city centre – we figured that it was similar enough to other big American cities that we’d been to, and as we had such a short amount of time, we wanted to do something different.  The Arboretum looked beautiful, and we were lucky enough to visit when they had both their Fall and Christmas displays out.

It was a grey day, but that didn’t stop us spending an hour and a half here, enjoying their wonderful displays.  I can imagine it’d be stunning in the spring.

We then drove around Dallas for a bit, seeing the big skyscrapers and going passed the infamous grassy knoll.  For dinner, we’d asked for something authentically Texan so were taken to the Truck Yard.  This place was amazing – they have different food trucks every day and if I lived in the area, I’d be here all the time.  Husband had some kind of huge chicken sandwich, I had a hot dog, and we sat people-watching as the sun went down.

I really wish I’d taken a photo of the front entrance as it was covered in lights.

On the way home, we stopped at a Dairy Queen (or DQ as it’s called now) for some ice cream – I have always wanted to try DQ ice cream – it’s one of those places that I saw referenced in TV shows as a teen – and it feels quintessentially American to pick up dessert on the way home.

We were so grateful to our wonderful hosts for showing us so much of their cities.  We only experienced a small slice of this huge state, but loved everything.  Maybe next time we go, it’ll actually be warm (yes, I’m still grumbling about this, two months later.  I’m not over it).

Magnolia Market at the Silos, Waco, TX

As much as I would have loved to spend more time in Austin, we had places to go and people to see, so we checked out of the glorious Archer hotel, jumped into our rental car and found our way to the interstate. We were headed north to a little town just outside of Fort Worth which was about three hours away and fortunately, we were to have an uneventful journey. Built-up Austin gave way to huge endless roads and we were able to take it easy and enjoy the scenery.

In my humble opinion, an essential part of any road trip is stopping along the way, so I planned one “quick” stop pretty much halfway – Waco, Texas. Admittedly, the only thing I knew about Waco was its infamy, but when Googling for places to eat, one place was recommended over and over again, so we had to visit to find out exactly what it was.

Waco itself appeared to be a quiet town – as we drove in, we couldn’t really see much going on, and there really weren’t that many people on the roads. We found some street parking next to an (abandoned?) railway line and walked towards two huge grain silos. Husband was incredibly confused – I had promised him grilled cheese for lunch, and now I was taking him to some rusty old silos?

The Magnolia Market at the Silos is quite an abstract concept for people who aren’t familiar with the programme Fixer Upper ie both me and Husband. I had never heard of it before, so honestly much of the visit to the silos was lost on me but for fans of this show, this is like Disneyland. There’s a shop where you can buy merch, food trucks, a lawn area to sit and play on, some more food trucks, a garden store, bakery, and yet more food trucks.

The food trucks were what we were here for and I naively thought we’d just grab a couple of grilled cheeses, take a few minutes to eat them, then be back on the road in next to no time. You know how I said that Waco appeared to be a quiet town? That’s because EVERYONE IN WACO WAS AT THE SILOS. It was crazy, and despite there being about a dozen trucks, the queue for each one was about 20 minutes long.

The Cheddar Box was our chosen truck. Husband changed his mind in the queue and went for one of the Mac Daddies pots – a cup filled with gouda mac and cheese and bacon whereas I stuck with my original plan of a bacon and gouda grilled cheese. And they were definitely worth the wait. After a quick wander around the perimeter, and about 15 minutes of standing about, we had our hot lunch in our greedy little hands.

It still wasn’t particularly nice weather so I was so surprised that the place was as busy as it was. There were so many people on the lawn, and there was no way we were getting into either the store or the bakery as they were rammed. Good for Chip and Joanna Gaines though – they’ve taken two old silos and made them into the place to be in central Texas. People come from miles around to visit this area that used to be… well, nothing!

Unbelievably, we ended up spending an hour and a half in Waco (which really threw off our schedule) without seeing very much of the actual city but I would have regretted not experiencing the incredible grilled cheese so I’m pleased we did stop. I had given serious consideration to visiting the Dr Pepper Museum and really wanted to walk around the centre of the town as well, but we just ran out of time. I’d scoffed at the Waco travel guides that recommend more than a day in the city, but you really do need more time to explore. Especially if you’re going to spend a day solely going to each of the delicious food trucks of the Magnolia Market – what a life goal.

Dr Pepper Museum in Waco

Austin Day Two

After spending our first day exploring downtown Austin, we drove south of the river and parked up at Zilker Park, very close to Barton Springs Pool.  There was zero chance of relaxing by the pool today as the temperature had dropped further, but there were some brave souls taking a dip in the natural spring water.  I can imagine how beautiful it would be to spend time here in the summer.

We walked along the creek, crossed a footbridge, and continued parallel to Ladybird Lake.  There were a few people out on the hiking trail, but we had much of it to ourselves – the wind was quite harsh coming off the water which I suspect kept people indoors.  As we passed under Congress Avenue Bridge, we could hear (and smell) the hundreds of thousands of bats that live there – tiny little squeaks!  At sunset, people watch them fly out from underneath the bridge – there are some amazing photos to be found online of this phenomenon.  

We continued our walk down South Congress Avenue, stepping over the Bird scooters that had been liberally abandoned all over the place (I didn’t even know they were a thing).  The road was a little trafficy, but it was a lovely to spend the morning checking out the unique shops and restaurants with their glorious signs.

We thought about going into Allen’s boot store but a) it was really busy and b) I knew I end up spending a lot of money on boots I’d never wear, so I settled for just photographing their sign.  We then peered in more store windows before stopping for lunch at Jo’s Coffee, warming our hands around our hot cups because it had turned bitterly cold (I know – I keep complaining about the weather, but it was just so unexpected!).  I spent way too much money on a Jo’s tote bag – in my defence, it’s an amazing tote bag – and headed back to Zilker Park to find the car.  

This walk around South Congress had made me realise that I needed more suitable clothes – the t-shirts I’d packed were not remotely appropriate – so on the drive back to the hotel, we stopped at a few retail parks.  We just visited some standard shops including Ulta and Skechers.  Nothing special, but I really appreciated having the car so we could go and buy an emergency coat from an outlet store!

Back at The Domain, we went on a little wander for some more shopping.  The Domain is a lot bigger than I expected, and we seem to have ended up walking about two miles and even then I don’t think we saw everything it had to offer.  Once we’d had our fill of window shopping, I stopped by the Sprinkles cupcake ATM (conveniently opposite our hotel), Husband stopped by the Apple store (conveniently next to our hotel) and we went back to the room for a little nap.  

We didn’t end up going out for dinner in the end as the Archer’s excellent room service tempted us.  We spent the evening planning for the next day – a nervous drive north to see more of Texas.  

I think we managed to see a lot of Austin over our two days in the city.  If we had more time, we perhaps would have spent some time exploring east and west of downtown, maybe been a bit more courageous with our driving, or visited Lake Travis.  There’s always next time

Austin Day One

With two days in Austin, we wanted to tick off as many sights as possible.  We decided to split the city into two – north of the river, and south – day one being our northern adventure.

Before we flew out, the weather looked really promising – beautiful sunshine and a not-too-hot 25ºC.  We packed t-shirts, sunglasses, and plenty of SPF for me.

What a waste of time that was, because the temperature dropped to 8ºC and we were FREEZING.  I had to buy a coat as we were completely unprepared – it’s Texas for goodness sake, it’s supposed to be hot!  The consequence of this was that some of our walks were not particularly pleasant, and the rain got a little tiresome, but I suppose at least we weren’t walking around in the sweltering heat!

Although we’d hired a car, we decided to get an Uber from The Domain down to the city centre as Husband didn’t feel like trying to find a parking space.  It was a good decision as the traffic was crazy, so we just sat back to enjoy the half-an-hour ride.  

Our Uber driver was very confused by our first stop and checked with us a couple of times to make sure this was where we wanted to be.  Oh yes, this was exactly where I wanted to be.  The Co-Op on Guadalupe Street is three floors of merchandise from the University of Texas – we’re talking flags, bumper stickers, sweaters, children’s clothes, even Christmas decorations.  I bought a bauble.  A BAUBLE!  I am not ashamed to admit that this was my favourite store in the whole of Austin and we spent 45 minutes filling a basket full of Texas Longhorns goodies.  I should have bought more.

After my spending spree, we walked south towards the Capitol Building, stopping to take photos of Jeremiah the Innocent – an iconic mural by Daniel Johnston of a frog saying Hi How Are You.  This was one of my Austin must-sees, but I can’t remember where I saw it first – I’m sure it’s appeared in the titles for a TV show I watched years ago, but no idea what that was.  I’m pleased I’ve seen it in person now.

We wandered around the outside of the Texas State Capitol building for a while, taking photos from every angle.  We were in Austin just days after the divisive mid-term elections which had initially worried us as we thought there might be some unrest, but there was no drama whilst we were there.  The Capitol building and the grounds were very peaceful, quite impressive and imposing and we considered going on a tour – maybe if we had more time.

As we sat in the grounds and watched the visitors (and squirrels), we scoured Google Maps for somewhere to get brunch.  It was only 11am but we were a little peckish after skipping breakfast so we took a little detour to Walton’s Fancy and Staple on 6th Street.  This was a deli/restaurant/florist and I fell in love with it.  We got there when there was plenty of seating, but by the time we left it was packed – I’m so glad we got there early, as we would have missed out on their delicious sandwiches.  

After having the first of many debates with myself over whether to get a tote bag (a recurring theme pretty much everywhere we went), we continued our walk and ended up at the 6th Street Historic District.  We were here to pick up some legendary Voodoo Doughnuts, and spent a good 5-6 minutes just deciding on what to get – their flavour combinations are phenomenal.  The restaurant is cash only (I made sure I had plenty of $$$) and is open 24/7 – I hadn’t realised this prior to our visit and had spent the morning being worried that they’d sell out.  After a really great chat with the guy behind the counter who seemed genuinely excited that we were from the UK, our choices were boxed up and we continued our adventure.

In all of the travel guides about Austin, people raved about 6th Street.  We were there during the day, so we didn’t see it in all it’s neon glory, but honestly we didn’t want to hang around for too long.  It felt kind of… sketchy, and this is coming from someone who has hung out in some very sketchy places.  Neither of us felt particularly comfortable, so we quickly took some photos and wandered further towards the river.  

We didn’t want to cross the river today as that was scheduled in for day two, so instead we walked west down the hiking trail.  It started to rain ever so lightly and the wind was picking up a little, so after a quick Google, we decided to find a place to get some snacks and head back to the hotel.  We cut up West Avenue and found the most amazing building – the Turbine Generator Building of the Seaholm Power Plant.

The whole area has been turned from a decommissioned power station into a new neighbourhood full of residences, shops, and restaurants, and is just a delight to walk around.  I really liked the energy and the atmosphere here, and whilst a few of the retail units are still empty, it definitely has promise.

We popped into the nearby Whole Foods which was very exciting (for boring people like me) because it’s the original one, dating back to late 1970s.  If you like Whole Foods, I highly recommend a visit, but I admit that it’s not going to be top of many people’s list.  

We picked up some water and other fun snacks, then Uber’ed back to our hotel room (with a driver who was not happy about going to The Domain).  Back in the hotel room, we feasted on our Voodoo Doughnuts before having a quick wander around the rest of The Domain.  We did consider going back downtown for dinner that evening, but having walked almost 20,000 steps, we decided to stay local for the night.

Should have got more doughnuts though.

Archer Hotel and The Domain, Austin

We had two days in Austin on our Texas mini-break and knowing we were going to hire a car gave us a bit more freedom than we normally do when picking a hotel – we didn’t have to rely on finding something super central.  I am so pleased that we had this option as we were able to choose one of the best (if not the best) hotels in Austin – the Archer Hotel.

The Archer is located at The Domain shopping and restaurant district in North Austin which isn’t everyone’s idea of what Austin should be, but I loved it.  It was very easy to walk around and we felt very safe even exploring the area at night.  It has everything we need in a holiday base.  Well, almost everything – we missed having a CVS/Walgreen type store, particularly when I urgently (yes, urgently) needed nail polish remover and couldn’t find anywhere that stocked it.  

The hotel itself is beautiful.  We booked a King Suite which was very generously sized with a separate seating area and the most insanely comfortable bed.  There was a wonderful waterfall shower in the bathroom which was stocked full of Malin and Goetz toiletries (my favourite!), topped off by a comfy dressing gown and Archer branded slippers.  The decor was perfect, everything was so clean and tidy – we really couldn’t have asked for anything more.  

We had a great view over The Domain from our huge window where I could see my favourite stores (Sephora and Sprinkles cupcakes), and there were fantastic restaurants just steps away.  We ate at Velvet Taco on our first night and had amazing chicken tacos – I would happily have eaten there again but we were too exhausted after our walk around South Austin so we ordered perfect room service from Second Bar + Kitchen in the hotel.  

I’ve already mentioned the amazing service that the Archer offers, but it really is second to none.  When we arrived, there were caramel sweets waiting for us in the room, and the turndown service came with delicious snacks – we had shortbread one night and a moorish caramel brownie the second night.  I wish we were there for longer.  

As we checked out, we had a great conversation with Nate on the front desk – he gave us valuable advice for our drive up to Fort Worth, we chatted about his visit to the UK a few years ago, and he talked passionately about the hotel brand which has genuinely made me want to stay at the other Archers.  He told us all about the ‘souvenir’ cabinet in the lobby – instead of generic, tired tourist rubbish, each Archer has its own curated range of gifts made by local artists.  The display was almost like a mini gallery, which complimented the rest of the beautiful art displayed around the whole hotel.

We were throughly impressed by our stay at the Archer and should we find ourselves in Austin again, we wouldn’t hesitate to go back.  Not only because we didn’t get to experience their outdoor space like their pool and patio (it was so freakishly cold – more on that in later posts) but also because I really want to see what other turndown treats they offer!

Delta One Business Class – A330

A few months ago, one of the many travel blogs I follow alerted their readers to a sale on some unusual routes for Virgin/Delta codeshare flights.  One of the destinations was Austin, Texas – a city Husband has visited many times for work but never as a tourist – so I spent the evening playing about with flight options.

Unfortunately, we took too long thinking about it and the flights disappeared at midnight (very Cinderella).  We berated ourselves for not being more spontaneous, and I set up an alert on Google Flights just in case they appeared again.  And a few weeks later, they did – this time, we didn’t wait and snapped them up immediately.  Heathrow to Atlanta on an A330 followed by Atlanta to Austin on an A321.

Whilst I was excited about visiting Texas for the first time, I was equally excited about visiting the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in LHR again.  When I visited for the first time last year, we’d had a bit of a stressful morning, so I had planned to get there earlier to take full advantage of the facilities this time.  Sadly, it was still not meant to be – the traffic was horrendous and that ridiculous private security lane in the Upper Class Wing took forever once again.  People in that queue simply do not understand how to go through airport security.  Once we got to the lounge, we only had about 45 minutes there, which was not enough time to get a spa treatment.  Boo.

I had been reading up on the Delta One product over the past few weeks and found that there are a lot of mixed reviews depending on which plane you fly in.  We were unfortunately in some relatively old A330s – clunky buttons, creaky seats, stinky toilets and just very noisy overall.  But there were several things which made the flights more pleasurable:

  • The bedding – the seats have seen better days, and it felt really weird not having an armrest on one side (we were in 2C and 2G which were open to the aisle) but the bedding by Westin was amazing.  The pillow was the softest pillow I’ve ever slept on, and the blanket was the perfect thickness.  I slept so well on both the international flights – I really wish I could have stolen the bedding.
  • The staff – the Purser on the LHR-ATL leg of the journey was amazing.  He had the perfect level of care for us – referring to us by name when checking our meal preference, making sure we had everything we needed but also giving us plenty of space to nap and watch films.  We didn’t feel harassed or ignored.  It was exemplary.
  • The amenity kits – Kiehls products, cute socks, and mouthwash.  Hell yes!  Why do other airlines not offer mouthwash!?  It was a shame we got the soft Tumi bag going out to the US –  you can get the hard case monogrammed free at Tumi stores and there happened to be a Tumi near our hotel that we could have visited.  Never mind.

We haven’t done an indirect flight to the US for a while, but we gave ourselves plenty of layover time in ATL as I have read that it’s a nightmare to get through.  However, immigration for us was a breeze as we now have Global Entry so we sailed through in record time, collected our bags, re-checked them, and were sat comfortably in the Sky Club by gate A16 in no time.  There are a lot of Sky Club lounges in Atlanta, so I did a bit of Googling to find out which to visit (the best report I found was on pointsmd.com) and A16 came out tops for us on the way out.   We had popcorn, plenty of coffee, and big windows to sit by to watch the rain whilst waiting for our flight to be called.  It was not Clubhouse standards, but still a welcome spot of calm in an otherwise manic Atlanta Airport, and I’m very grateful for it.

We even had time to explore underneath the concourses and see the wonderful Flight Paths installation between terminals A and B.  What a lovely thing to have in an airport!

The two internal flights from Atlanta to Austin were unremarkable.  We were lucky to have much newer planes for both trips although they were still insanely noisy, and we didn’t get any cabin service because of turbulence (which honestly didn’t feel that turbulent).  I don’t think we were missing much though – they were short flights, and I mostly slept.  The main thing bringing us glee was that we were in seats 1A and 1B.  Because we are nerds.

We flew back to Heathrow from the International Terminal in Atlanta so visited the Sky Club there.  It was small, with very similar food choices as in A16 and a very… active bar crowd.  It was raining very heavily, so the outdoor space was closed – from what I’ve read, the outdoor space is what makes this lounge unique so it was a shame to miss out.  There were showers at the back of the lounge, and if we’d have had a little more time, I would have taken advantage (it took forever to get to the correct gate when we flew in from Austin which eat into our layover time).  The other passengers astonished me in this lounge though – we had screaming drunks, loud Instagram Stories vloggers, and parents allowing their children to smear food all over the place.  I’ve never seen anything like it!

Atlanta back to Heathrow was a very similar experience again, except the toilets were somehow worse and Husband’s seat hadn’t been cleaned properly so he found a crusty old sock waiting for him before he sat down (eww).  However, the flight attendants called us by our names again, and still provided the same excellent level of service so we could look over the negatives.  The food on both flights was good, but I’m not really a foodie person so I skipped a couple of the courses as I preferred getting some nap time.

Something I wasn’t particularly comfortable with was the biometric boarding used at the gate in Atlanta.  I know I’m fussy with my data, but no one explained to us why we were having our photo taken or how it was going to be processed.  I only found out afterwards what it was, and not once did anyone explain that we could opt out.  I don’t really understand when we actually opted in!

It was a perfectly decent flight, but I don’t think we’d choose to fly Delta Business on the A330 again as they’re too old and noisy.  I’d love to try the new suites on the A350 or 777 but I’m not sure if any of them currently go from the UK.

That said, if a good deal pops up again, I could easily be tempted.  Only this time, I’m going to get to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse the night before.  Just in case.

Islay – The Distilleries

Islay is stunningly beautiful, and we both would have fallen in love with it regardless, but the main reason we visited was for the whisky.

There are currently 8 distilleries on the island, although there have been many more ‘lost’ over the years.  Islay whisky is so very strong and very distinctive, all down to the peat fields that you drive through on your way around.  I’m saying all of this as if I tasted any, but don’t actually drink so was purely there as a driver for Husband.  Expect dirty looks if you tell the locals and tourists that you’re a teetotaller.

Our whirlwind tour started with Husband’s favourite – Laphroaig.  He was treated to a two hour experience – a tour of the distillery, followed by an hour in one of their warehouses tasting three special casks.  This was a really fun 2 hours (and introduced us to people we would see again and again from our tour group – Islay truly is a ‘small world’ kind of place).  After tasting the casks, we used a wooden suction tube called a valinch to extract a small bottle’s worth of our favourites (well, Husband chose his two favourites).

During this first tour, I learnt about something which would save Husband’s liver – the driver’s dram.  As I wasn’t drinking, I assumed we’d only have two options for the samples we’d receive – we decline mine, or Husband drinks them all.  Fortunately, the distilleries have tiny bottles that you can pour your samples into and take away with you.  Goodness knows what would have happened if he had to drink double the whisky.

Laphoraig was my favourite tour, and I especially loved the shop and bar area – warm and snug, with free coffee and big comfy sofas to aid recovery.   I could quite happily have spent all afternoon here, but we had more distilleries to visit.

Next up, we went to Ardbeg – we didn’t actually tour this one as we couldn’t quite fit it into our schedule, but stopped here for lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe where we ate hearty sandwiches followed by clootie dumplings.

With full tummies, we drove back to Lagavulin for another hour tour followed by three samples (and some driver’s drams).  I found Lagavulin slightly more corporate, although their waiting area was very cute.  There were no photos allowed on the tour which made me roll my eyes a little – Laphroaig positively encouraged it – but it was still enjoyable.

Two tours was probably enough for the day, so we started afresh the following morning with Bruichladdich.

We chose their Warehouse Experience, which was less of a tour and more of a ‘sit in a warehouse and get hammered’.  Again, very enjoyable for a whisky fan as you got to sample some limited edition casks whilst sat amongst the barrels, listening to our guide telling us all about life on the island.  Bruichladdich is noticeably different to the others – they call themselves progressive, and they definitely feel less stuffy, more youthful.  They also make a gin called The Botanist so we’ll need to go back and try that at some point as well.

Our final distillery on this visit was Kilchoman which was different again.  Whilst the first three we visited were right by the sea, Kilchoman is on a farm, more inland and down a long single-track road.  They’re a much smaller scale operation, really family-orientated.  They really felt like a hard-working team – not that the others didn’t seem hard-working, but Kilchoman is the newest distillery so there was a lot more of a buzz in the grounds.  Another added bonus – their small cafe at the back of the shop served amazing cakes which I highly recommend.

Four distilleries in two days didn’t seem like a lot, but we were definitely tired.  Our next trip needs to be longer – we have four other distilleries to cover off, and we possibly even need to pop over to the neighbouring isle of Jura to samples their whisky too.

For a someone who doesn’t drink, I sure have been to a lot of distilleries.

Islay – The Logistics

Once I’d figured out where we were going to stay on Islay for Husband’s surprise birthday trip, I then had to figure out how to get there.

The first leg of the journey was to Glasgow which was the easy part.  From there, there are a few options but realistically for our schedule, we could either fly with Logan Air or drive to Kennacraig to get the Calmac ferry.  There are pros and cons for both modes of transport but considering my goal was to get to Islay as quickly as possible, flying ended up being the best choice.

Unfortunately, flying made the beginning and end of our trip quite stressful.  We almost missed our first flight from Heathrow as there was an accident on the M3 which was so frustrating as we only live 30 minutes away from Terminal 5.  Not only that, whilst I thought I had given us enough time to switch planes on the way back from Islay at Glasgow airport, our Logan Air flight ended up leaving Islay half an hour late so we had to run to our gate.  And I hate being that person who runs through airports.

Not only that, but Husband was sad that our luggage wasn’t big enough to pack all the whisky he wanted.  Next time, we’ll have to drive the 13 hours from our house so he can fill the whole car with bottles of whisky.

Ignoring the stress, flying into Islay is very special.  It takes 40 minutes from Glasgow on a tiny 34 seat turboprop plane (which was only moderately terrifying).  For most of our journey, the cloud level stopped us from seeing anything below but all of a sudden, the iconic Laphroaig appeared out of the right side of the plane.  I confess – I squealed when I saw it.

The airport itself is as small as you’d expect – two check-in counters, a bijou but comfortable lounge, a cafe serving locals as well as visitors.  I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a dog at the front door, but I don’t think he’s there all the time.

There’s a few transport options on the island – a regular bus service, a few taxi companies, but I decided on hiring a car from Islay Car Hire at the airport which was incredibly easy.  I booked a medium sized car as I knew the route to our Airbnb was a little off-road and I didn’t want to risk a small car.  Within about five minutes of getting off the plane, I was adjusting the mirrors in a Vauxhall Astra who I named Sassy.  The car hire worked for us mainly because I don’t drink, so was happy to ferry a tipsy Husband from distillery to distillery.

So other than drive from distillery to distillery (which I’ll be covering in a future post), what else did we do?  Not much to be honest.  With only two full days on the island, Husband wanted to maximise his whisky tasting time but we did manage to see a few non-whisky related places.

On our first night, we went up to Bowmore for a little wander around and some pizza at Peatzeria (good pun).  It was surprisingly busy for a Monday night and we ended up getting one of the last tables which I was relieved about as it would have been a shame to miss out on tasty pizza.  Bowmore has a lot of lovely little shops which were all closed as we were there late, but it’s definitely somewhere to get cute souvenirs as well as more every-day items.

The second night, we were too tired to go out so we ended up in the Port Ellen Co-op and cobbling something together to cook back at home.  I won’t tell you what we ended up with as it’s so pathetic (in our defence, the Co-op isn’t that big).  We did want to try the Sea Salt Bistro but instead tried their sister restaurant Yan’s Kitchen for lunch on our last day where I had an amazing burger.

My two favourite things about Islay:

  • The empty landscape.  There are a few “main” roads across the island but you can drive for miles and see nothing but fields.  Following the coast down to Port Charlotte, you’re right next to the sea.  When you’re not on a main road, you’re on a single track lane going through farmland.  There’s just nothing and I adore it.
  • The people.  I don’t want to being a patronising mainlander who just thinks everyone is sooo cute and quaint but every single person we came across was incredible friendly.  People wave at you as you’re driving along – other drivers and pedestrians – and I very quickly got used to waving back.  It felt really jarring to be back at home where people aren’t so nice.

What a phenomenal island.