Tag Archive | travel

Walking in Queen Mary’s Footsteps: Palaces and Castles

Welcome to “Summer in Scotland,” our month-long celebration of Scotland and in particular the Scotland known and loved by its most famous queen, Mary Stuart, better known simply as “Mary Queen of Scots.”

Across Queen Mary’s forty-four years she lived in France, reigned in Scotland, and died in England. Though not all of the places she guested at, lived at, and/or worked from still exist (notably Fotheringhay Castle where she was executed in 1587), these six palaces and castles are not only still standing, but they are open to the public for you to visit this summer.

Linlithgow Palace

Linlithgow Palace (West Lothian, Scotland)

Built as a retreat from court life at Edinburgh Castle by the Stewarts, the peace and quiet of Linlithgow makes it the perfect getaway for royals and modern visitors alike. Overlooking Loch Linlithgow, there is scenic beauty and waterfowl aplenty to melt away whatever stress comes your way. No wonder it was the Stewarts preferred place to give birth and is Queen Mary Stuart’s birth place.

Open year round except on 25 December, 26 December, 1 January, and 2 January. Tickets start at £7.20 and are available at https://tickets.historic-scotland.gov.uk/webstore/shop/viewItems.aspx?cg=TKTS&c=WSLOTHIANS.

Chateau Blois 1

Château Blois (Loire Valley, France)

Located in the Loire Valley about halfway between Orléans and Tours, Chateau Blois was 15th and 16th century France’s preferred royal residence.  Here Queen Mary and Prince François spent countless weeks in the year at court.  Later, in 1617, it became home to Marie de Medici’s court in exile. Along with her came her very loyal chief advisor, Armand-Jean du Plessis, better known as Cardinal Richelieu (see “His Red Eminence, Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu”).

Open year-round, tickets start at €12. Go to http://en.chateaudeblois.fr/EvenementChateauVisite/2040-prepare-your-visit.htm for details and tourism package options.

Chateau Chambord

Château de Chambord (Loire Valley, France)

Favoured by Queen Mary’s father-in-law Henri II and designed in part by Leonardo da Vinci, Chambord is an architectural masterpiece that takes you into the mind of its creator.  Features a unique double-helix staircase designed by da Vinci so that no one going up can meet anyone going down on it.

Open year-round except on 25 December and 1 January, you can stroll the outside grounds for free. Tickets to visit the castle and private gardens start at €14,50.  Go to https://www.chambord.org/en/plan-your-visit/opening-hours/ for more information.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle (Edinburgh, Scotland)

At the heart of Queen Mary’s reign stands Edinburgh Castle which, appropriately, dominates the Edinburgh skyline.  Situated on a cliff high above the rest of the city, it is easy to see why King David I (son of Margaret of Wessex and brother to Empress Matilda of England) chose the site for his castle. Queen Mary and her parliament ruled from here and on 19 June 1566 she gave birth to King James VI in the same bedroom you can visit today. Queen Mary herself made several improvements to the castle which intially she found dark and cold compared to the airy grandeur of the French court, adding wall-coverings and art to warm both body and soul, especially in winter.

Open year-round except on 25th and 26th December. Tickets start at £17.50 if you purchase your tickets online or £19.50 if you purchase at the gate.

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle (Stirling, Scotland)

Built in 1107, Stirling Castle is one of the historically most significant landmarks in Scotland’s long pursuit of freedom and independence from English conquest. William Wallace and Andrew Moray famously fought the Battle of Stirling Bridge near here in 1297 to retake the castle from England. Robert the Bruce’s 1314 victory at Bannockburn likewise returned it to Scotland. In 1503, King James IV built its Great Hall. Queen Mary held her baptism service for her son James (VI) here in 1566. When it was James VI’s turn to baptise his son Henry in 1594, he also held the baptism and its celebrations at Stirling Castle.

Open year-round except on 25th and 26th December.  Tickets start at £15 if you purchase online or £16 at the gate.

Lochleven Castle

Lochleven Castle (Kinross, Scotland)

Built in the 14th Century, Queen Mary guested at Lochleven before its tower turned into her prison in 1567.  This is where she miscarried or aborted James Hepburn’s baby, and where she abdicated her throne in favour of her son James.

Open 1 April to 31 October. Closed from 1 November to 31 March. Access by boat only. Tickets start at £9.00 which includes boat fare. Go to https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/lochleven-castle/prices-and-opening-times/ to purchase advance tickets (strongly recommended).

 

Wherever your summer takes you, I hope you will spend part of it with Queen Mary Stuart and will make “Mary Queen of the Scots: the Forgotten Reign” your first and best introduction to Scotland’s most tragic and famous queen. Available at your favourite bookstore world-wide in English, Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian. See http//www.laurelarockefeller.com for complete links to all editions.

Review: Herbal Essences Dry Shampoo

I love to travel whenever I get the opportunity, especially if I can take my cockatiels with me (read that: shame on you United Airlines for still not allowing birds to travel in cargo as required for international flights). With my bags all settled this spring, it was time to test some of the products that are frequently on the lists from travel “experts.”

I decided to start with dry shampoo, specifically Herbal Essences Dry Shampoo after receiving a free product coupon from Protector and Gamble.  I purchased my canister at Dollar General which offered the volumizing grapefruit and mint version in the 4.9 oz size and the revitalizing cucumber and green tea version in the TSA approved 1.7 oz size (and yes, this DOES go in your liquids bag).

Dry shampoos work by absorbing oils near your scalp and adding scent to your hair so it smells washed.  You spray it on, then work through the roots of your hair immediately to spread it onto the oily parts.  I’ve also seen advice by hair stylists suggest that if you have fine hair like mine you should let it dry on the surface of your hair instead of working it into your hair because that creates more volume.

Herbal-Essences-White-Grapefruit-Mosa-Mint-Dry-Shampoo-Award-Winner

I have tried this “volumizing” version both ways.  My verdict:  if you work it into your hair with your fingers as instructed, it WILL absorb the extra oil — but it won’t add body to your hair as promised.  Likewise if you leave it on until it dries completely (about 5 minutes), you will get some extra volume — for about an hour — but your hair will still be oily where the “shampoo” doesn’t touch it.  If anything, my very fine hair feels a little sticky after using it.

Both versions dry out your hair — too much really if you are not careful.  When I applied this closer to the ends of my hair, I found those sections rather brittle and vulnerable to breaking off if I am not very careful when brushing it out.

Therefore, this is NOT a product I suggest for use with fine hair. It really seems to harm my hair more than it helps.

HE revitalizeOf the two versions, the cucumber and green tea version smells better and genuinely seems less damaging to my hair.  But it’s still damaging to fine hair and that matters to me.  Given I have recently experienced other issues with other Herbal Essences products, especially after coloring my hair this spring, I must sincerely suggest that if you have fine hair, especially color treated fine hair, this is not the product line for you.  Across the spectrum of shampoos, conditioners, and styling products I’m finding Herbal Essences performs poorly compared to other brands.

 

Since I have only tried Herbal Essences dry shampoo I do not know yet if other brands are better suited for fine hair.  But I am open minded to trying other brands and seeing what works and doesn’t work for me.

Air Crates For Birds: Specifications

Many of you know I am relocating to the United Kingdom so I can do the work of historian-researcher better and offer you the best information possible in the Legendary Women of World History and Legendary Women of World History Dramas. This means flying international with my two precious cockatiels whom I absolutely ADORE.

Arwen-4 2017 17 February

Arwen is ready to fly!

But getting a bird from the USA to UK is an annoying challenge — and it has nothing to do with UK immigration law nor with the USDA’s rules for taking a bird out of the USA.  Rather, the annoyance of this process comes from the circular information you receive when trying to answer that straight forward question:  what kind of cargo crate do I need and how do I get one that will be accepted at both JFK (the main airport birds fly to Europe from) and LHR?

The last several months I’ve been driven crazy in circles.  I consult one website which directs me to another page and another and another and not ONE BIT is about flying WITH BIRDS. Even the pages that say they are giving you information about flying with birds inevitably re-direct you back to something that only applies to cats and dogs. (Example pg 1 to pg 2. Note how general this gets (at best) for animals other than dogs/cats).  Messaging on social media doesn’t help either, nor does email or even phone calls.  No one seems to know anything and what they do know is to refer you back to the same pages you’ve read several times before that only talk about cats and dogs. It’s the customer service runaround that drives everyone crazy when planning a big trip.

Finally today I heard from IAG Cargo which handles air cargo for British Airways and is ultimately the company that off-loads animals from BA planes and brings them to Heathrow’s animal terminal for customs clearances.  What they gave me was a pdf of the following three pages from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which sets all the standards for all crates for all animals traveling internationally.

IATA container info pg 1IATA container info pg 2IATA container info pg 3

Does that look overwhelmingly complicate to you?  It sure does to me.  Which brings us to what it all really means:

When travelling with birds a custom crate needs to be made that meets IATA rules for your bird species. While you can do this yourself, the best way to make sure the crate conforms to that maze of rules is to buy one from a professional.

The first company I priced was Pet Relocation, a big company based in Austin, Texas.  However a better deal is to be had by shopping around. West coast based O’Brien Animal Transportation Services offers custom crates for birds and help with pet moves (avian, canine, feline) with personalized and personable customer service that far surpasses what I’ve experienced with Pet Relocation. A sweet lady at O’Brien referred me to Sally at Newark/New York City based Airborne Animals which offers exceptional customer service for pet moves beginning on the East Coast.  What I love about Airborne Animals: they are very upfront about what goes into moving costs actually TELLING YOU what the average fees are for each part of their service.  That’s something the competition DOESN’T do and why I’ll be flying with Airborne Animals’ help.

 

Review: TravelPro Maxlite 4 tote & spinner

If you follow this blog you know I move around a lot and I travel as often as I can to visit historical sites and sample delicious food I don’t get to eat regularly.  I travel by primarily by train and plane for most trips over 10 miles from home and use public transit for shorter distant trips.  I also use my luggage for shopping via public transit, a trick I learned after canned foods spilled out of my shopping wagon while crossing a busy Brooklyn street several years ago.  So I need something lightweight, durable, and flexible, bags that can handle grocery trips to Walmart as easily as a cross country or international flight as easily as a move to a new home.

American tourister carry on bag

Gifted to me when I was 18, this soft-sided carry on bag has been with me on every flight I’ve ever taken. It readily fits under the seat in front of me on even the smallest plane.

After twenty six years of use and abuse with all of the above I have FINALLY retired my American Tourister shoulder bag carry on I’ve used for every move, every flight, every Amtrak trip I’ve ever taken.  Indeed, it’s still a great bag — if you don’t need something with wheels on it.  That’s why it will still be used for moving, for packing day one items, but for regular travel it’s been retired.

Why the sudden change?  Simple!  I found something better than my shoulder bag and much better than the Skyway brand bags I’ve used for nearly 20 years, bags which rarely come off the baggage claim carousel without some sort of damage.

When shopping for luggage this summer (partially to take advantage of summer sales) I fully expected to buy another American Tourister, a Samsonite, or other major brand bag.  Fortunately for me I consulted Consumer Reports first and discovered that in 2016 the big name brands have performed much worse than lesser known brands in their tests. So it was time to expand my search and find something affordable that also scored well with Consumer Reports.

That is how I discovered the TravelPro brand, a $$ priced brand that is durable, flexible, and easy to use. Among their many collections, the MaxLite 4 bags caught my eye for being reasonably priced and having the features I want most in both carry on and checked bags. An added plus:  it comes in blue, black, and a very eye catching and fashionable purple.

maxlite 4 tote frontmaxlite 4 tote open

After looking at nearly 100 different bags marked “under seat” on ebags.com I decided upon the MaxLite 4 tote which (minus the wheels) is 15.5″ x 13″ x 8.5″.  Ebags sells it for $85 which is also the price on Amazon.com.  But ebags is deceptive:  they claim the MSRP for the bag is $200 — making you think you are getting a sale price and an incredible deal when in fact every competing website offering this bag sells it in the $82-$89 range.

As you can see, this is a very simple, flexible carry on.  It has a front pocket for your travel documents and an open interior space with a mesh pocket on the lid.  Unique to this bag are the velcro fastened side gussets which enable you to access the bag contents without opening it all the way (and having your belongings spill out onto the floor). The bag rolls very smoothly and the handle is the perfect length for easy navigation around an airport or on a train. Best of all:  it holds a LOT of stuff while still fitting neatly under the front seat on most air craft.

travelpro maxlite 4 29 spinnerI love this bag so much I just had to get a matching checked bag. I chose the 29″ spinner (which technically is slightly oversized because the wheels are not part of the listed 29″ x 20.25″ x 12″ dimensions; with the wheels it’s 30 7/8″ x 20.25″ x 13″) and I am so glad I did.  I am also very glad that I bought mine on Amazon.com where it sells for $153 compared to ebags $167.  As with the tote, Ebags deceives you into thinking their higher price is a great deal by claiming the MSRP is $360.

The interior on this bag is very basic and therefore very flexible with two straps for securing your belongings, a small mesh pocket, and a full size lid pocket.  Unlike most bags I’ve owned, the lid pocket zips around three sides, allowing you to lay flat choice clothing items.  The exterior has a single, full size lid pocket.  The handle is short — it’s designed to be used on all four wheels instead of tilted and rolling on two wheels.  The handle makes navigating airports easy, but it is about four inches too short for stacking the matching tote onto it which is really my only criticism of it.

After taking a test run to Walmart I must say I am extremely happy with my spinner, so happy that I would very much like to get the 26″ bag to complete the set.

No matter how you travel or where you are going to, you cannot go wrong with the TravelPro MaxLite 4 series.  I hope you will check out the entire collection because this is a very durable, easy to use, and flexible collection, especially for someone like me who prefers to organize with my packing cubes instead of a bag forcing me to organize a certain way.  It is hands down the best bags I’ve ever owned.  Just be certain to shop around for the best price because deals are to be had if you do.

 

History Profile: King William II (Rufus)

270px-William_II_of_EnglandDate of Birth: circa 1056

Place of Birth: Normandy

Date of death:  2 August 1100

Spouse: none

Issue: none

Successor:  Henry I

Openly homosexual and sceptical of the church in a time where questioning Church doctrine was almost unheard of, King William II was the favourite son of his father, William I (the Conqueror).  In 1087 William inherited the throne of England from his father; his elder brother Robert received Normandy while his younger brother Henry received money. A warrior like his father who stammered when he spoke, William worked to extend his father’s conquest of England into Wales and Scotland.  He forced King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland (of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” fame for his death at MacBeth’s hands) to swear fealty to him and acknowledge him as overlord.  In Gwynedd Wales he retained King Harold Godwinson’s puppet King Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, using him to displace King Gruffydd ap Cynan and force him into exile in Ireland.  In 1093 in Deheubarth, William II’s knights killed King Rhys ap Tewdur at the Battle of Brycheiniog, forcing his four sons into exile, including Prince Gruffydd ap Rhys (the future husband to King Gruffydd ap Cynan’s daughter, Princess Gwenllian).

William Rufus ordered the construction of some of the most famous and infamous castles in all of Wales including Chepstow Castle (1087, the year of his coronation) in Carmarthanshire and Pembroke Castle (birth place to Prince Gruffydd ap Rhys and Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd’s descendent, King Henry VII) in Pembrokeshire in 1093.

In England William Rufus was a passionate hunter who continued his father’s cruel Forest Laws (of Robin Hood fame) and extended them.  It was his love of hunting that opened the door for his younger brother Henry.  On 2 August 1100 under mysterious circumstances King William was struck in the lung by an arrow.  Walter Tirel is given the blame for firing the deadly arrow; many believe it was done on Prince Henry’s orders as a way of getting rid of a violent, impious, and almost universally hated king.

 

Though most people consider Henry I’s descendent King John the most hated king in medieval history, the prize rightfully belongs to King William Rufus whose wars and violent nature not only made him the bane of most English women and men but set the stage for the challenges still experienced forging a united kingdom out of England, Scotland, Wales, and northern Ireland.

I love Ebags Packing Cubes

I move around a lot.  I also enjoy travelling (as long as my birds are well looked after).  I’m an old-school historian who prefers to physically be where history happened before I write about it.  This means I’ve packed a lot and have learned what works really well.

ebags packing cubesBar none, the best tool for moving or traveling are Ebags brand packing cubes available (no surprise) exclusively from ebags.com.  These cubes have been out for a while — I bought my first packing cubes circa 2002.  Though the buying options have expanded and there are some new sizes available today that were not available when I first purchased them, the quality has remained consistent and they’ve handled the abuse I’ve put them through over several moves since really well.

The classic packing cube (there are now ultralights which have slightly different features) come in slim, small, medium, and large sizes.  These can be purchased as a single four piece set (see left) or in sets of three of the same size.  There’s also a new slim set of slim cubes in three different widths (14″, 10″, and 6.5″). Since my wardrobe is primarily skirts and dresses, I do not find the slim set all that useful.  Most of what I wear fits into the medium and large bag sizes with the slim and small sizes working best for socks, underwear (bras fit very nicely in the standard 14″ wide slim cubes), and accessories. Since they come in several colours, you really can colour code for each family member, making it easy to organize and locate every thing for every one.

ebags shoe boxFor those situations where I’m actually packing shoes, there’s a nice shoe bag that holds a lot!  Depending on how you pack and the type of footwear, you can actually often put two pairs in the same bag and keep everything else nice and clean.

These essentials (standard slim, small, medium, and large cubes, plus the shoe bag) are the core of the product line and bags I’ve had for nearly ten years.  The classics are the best!

But there is a new member to this classic line that does really get me excited as a traveller: the pack it flat toiletry kit.  It’s the essential I didn’t know I needed.  After all, I’ve been very successful in keeping my toiletries in the slim cubes.

This toiletry kit is not bulky.  I use a designer brand toiletry kit for my cosmetics at home.  You know the type:  it’s basically a slightly elongated cube that is as high as it is wide and a little longer on one side.  I never take it with me on trips because it is so difficult to cram into my checked bag — and why would I when I have my slim cubes for the purpose?  This new toiletry kit lets me save my slim cubes for other things.  It’s very organized with a plastic lined left compartment and a slim compartment on the right.  In the middle is an expandable compartment perfect for putting my non liquid cosmetics and of course the main centre compartment that has two zippered compartments and plenty of storage for almost anything you can think of (see photo above). There’s a hook in the top for hanging on a towel bar which I don’t use; I prefer to lay everything flat.

Once closed, this kit lays VERY FLAT. It’s designed to cram into that tiny space we all struggle to find and it works really well.  I don’t have a trip coming yet that I know of and yet just a few hours after receiving my toiletry kit in the mail I feel compelled to fill it up and get it ready for the next trip — grab and go with only a few small additions needed — like medicines where it’s important to pay attention to use by dates.  I am really surprised how much it will hold.  I haven’t figured out the best place for my toothbrush yet — maybe you have some ideas for me?  If you do, just comment below!

As much as I love these for travel, I really love them for moving.  The cubes are DURABLE and you can put so much more than clothing in them though I don’t suggest abusing them; they are still made of fabric and their are limits to what they can do. But for organizing the small “day one” essentials (I pack these in my luggage sets so I can find them among all the boxes) they are fantastic. Cutlery, can openers, and basic utensils fit in the slim cubes with ease so you can find them immediately. Slim cubes are also great for tea cups and most coffee mugs. Layer a couple plates between clothing items in the medium and large cubes.  And of course pack these breakables with small clothing items and kitchen linens.  The same skills that make you a world class traveller make you a world class re-locator.

Where ever you are travelling to this year, I hope ebags packing cubes are part of your travel organization strategy.  Bon voyage!