It was the beginning of our grand adventure: a week of hiking in Wales, a week of cycling through Scotland, and a visit to London to meet my new sister, Susie. Our driver, Hakim, was scheduled to pick us up to take us to the Santa Barbara airport for a leisurely Noon flight to Dallas on. September 1, 2022. However, we soon learned that the flight had been delayed by two hours, so we quickly rescheduled our ride. Now, we were worried about making our connection to the flight from Dallas to Heathrow.
Sure enough, our flight arrived so late at the Dallas airport that it looked like we would not be able to make our connection to Heathrow. But we just kept walking as fast as we could toward the gate hoping that this plane had been delayed as well. As we arrived at the appointed gate, we noticed that there were no passengers present but there were a couple of airline attendants. They looked us like we were completely out of place and said the flight had not even started boarding. I thought that was strange, so I asked them to clarify exactly which flight number and destination they were referring to.
We quickly realized that our flight was about to close the doors and we were the very last passengers. When the airline attendants figured that out as well, they hurried us along to board the plane. Thankfully we made it just in time for the nine-hour flight to London Heathrow.
Our adventure begins.
We settled into our business class nest with a glass of champagne and various accoutrements. There seemed to be a problem, though. It turned out that a passenger had a health problem and had to be removed but then they had to find her luggage in the plane’s baggage area which took a very long time. After an hour or so we took off for our long flight.
After watching a movie, enjoying a nice dinner and wine, and then sleeping for several hours I turned on the television screen near my seat so I could tell where we were. It showed cities I’ve only heard of like Cheltenham, Nottingham, Cambridge and, of course, London. We were now about 10 minutes from landing. Those nine hours sure seemed to go by fast.
We boarded the swift airport shuttle after pulling our luggage through the immense airport. A short train trip from the airport took us to Paddington and then we climbed on the train to Cardiff for a leisurely two-hour ride. Since we were weary from our long day of travel, the taxi waiting to drive us to our Cardiff hotel was a welcome sight.
Disaster strikes right away.
Just as we pulled up to the front of the hotel alarm bells went off in my head. My heart began racing and beads of sweat popped out on my forehead. I realized in that moment that I had left my purse on the train! My purse contained my passport, driver’s license, credit cards, cash and phone. The cabbie began wailing, “Oh lady! Oh lady! Oh lady” when he heard I had left my purse on the train. At his strong suggestion, I ran into the hotel lobby to ask the concierge to phone the train station to see what could be done. Dennis took care of unloading our luggage.
I tried to imagine all possible scenarios as millions of questions raced through my head. How could I get back home, or anywhere, without my passport? What should I do to protect my phone? Should I hurry and cancel my credit cards? It was then that I realized I had also left a grey plastic bag containing my favorite hiking shoes on the train too. They just wouldn’t fit in my suitcase, so I decided to carry them separately; but at the last minute I put one of those paper luggage tags from the airport on the bag.
We climbed on the elevator and punched the button for the top floor, number seven. Hardly noticing anything, I lugged my suitcase into the room. I almost didn’t hear the telephone in the room ring. Dennis answered. The concierge downstairs said he was working hard on completing the online forms to find my purse. Next, I heard Dennis answering his cell phone. “Hi Eva,” he said. I tuned out his conversation because I thought he was talking about an office matter with his colleague, Eva. “Oh sure, put him on,” said Dennis eagerly.
Now I was curious and tuned into his conversation with Eva. Dennis put his phone on speaker, and I heard a third person on the phone say, “I was sitting across the aisle from you on the train and I saw your purse lying on your seat after you left the train.” Relieved and flabbergasted, I heard the passenger (Keith Peel) say he would meet us at the Swansea train stop the next day so I could retrieve my purse. I was overjoyed!
We agreed to meet at the train station between 11 and Noon. I said we would call him to give him a more specific time once we boarded the train. As we were whisked along the tracks toward Swansea, we dialed Keith’s very long phone number which we had so carefully written on a notepad. It wouldn’t work! We kept getting an error tone. We tried again and again, each time entering a different country code. Nothing was working! What would happen if we couldn’t contact Keith? Would he think we weren’t coming and forget the whole thing?
I looked across the aisle and smiled at a young couple sitting there. I guess they could tell we were having trouble. I explained the situation and showed the woman the paper with the phone number. “Oh, that’s an Ireland number,” she said quickly. “Let me try with my phone.” It rang right away, and she handed me her phone. We were both so excited as we spoke to Keith to report our arrival time. Just like Keith, those two young people were angels taking care of us!
After the hour-long train ride to Swansea, we exited the train, walked down the long walkway next to the tracks and entered the station. There he was! We recognized him right away. His big smile told us we had the right guy. He proudly held up my purse. What a day!
Keith lives in Ireland and was visiting friends for a few days. We are so glad he was sitting across the aisle from us on the train and really glad he was such an honest and diligent person. After chatting with him a bit, we got back on the train and headed back to Cardiff where we had a delightful dinner with several fellow hikers.
Trouble looms for us on the first day of hiking.
The next day was Day 1 of our hike. We met everyone in the hotel lobby at 8:30 to get organized and put our bags on the bus that would take us to our first day of hiking at the famous Breton Beacons National Park. But first we stopped at a sweet little cottage where the proprietress prepared proper tea and scones for our group. Beautiful and delicious!
We gathered all our hiking gear and headed up the steep rock covered grassy clumps. At first, the weather was perfect for hiking—a little chilly but no rain and not a lot of wind. But after a couple of hours, it began to get really windy and then it started to rain. We scrambled to put our rain fly on our backpack, put gloves on our cold hands and tighten our hats so the wind wouldn’t blow them off. We could only focus a couple of feet in front of us for fear of falling.
After a few hours of hiking, we were hungry but couldn’t bring ourselves to stop and eat our sandwich because it was so cold, windy and rainy. So, we trudged ahead even though we were both really hungry. Then suddenly, Dennis was down on the ground. I sat down with him and told him to just sit still and collect himself. He seemed disoriented. I gave him some water and after a while I helped him to stand up. He told me he fell because he fainted not because he tripped. That was a big worry! We kept slowly walking across the expansive moors even though we were still hungry and tired. The fact that we were all alone was a little unnerving, but we just kept moving forward.
Finally, we saw one of the guides who showed us the way to the van. But we had to walk for a long ways over big rocks to get to the place where the bus would pick us up. We managed to sit down on a pile of grass and dirt. While we waited, we ate some of our lunch which made us feel somewhat better. When Dennis fell, he hit his head which made his neck and shoulders hurt as well as his leg with the newly replaced knee.
As soon as we reached the hotel and got into our room, I hurried downstairs to get some ice. I had Dennis lay down on the bed and I put bags of ice under his neck and on his knee. He slept for a while. Later, Myron Shapiro (a friend, fellow hiker, and medical doctor) came to check on Dennis. He brought his blood pressure cuff and stethoscope and asked lots of questions. He determined that Dennis would be ok but should get a thorough cardio work up when we get home, to which we eagerly agreed.
That night, the hotel staff brought Dennis’ dinner to the room, and I went back and forth from the room to the group dinner. Everyone was concerned about his condition.
We both slept well that night and went down to breakfast the next morning just as the group was headed out for their hike. Dennis and I both ordered the “proper” Welsh breakfast complete with eggs, sausage, bacon, potato, tomato, baked beans and toast. Clearly too much food, but delicious.
Taking a day to rest up.
On day two of the hike, upon Myron’s recommendation, we did not go with the group. After breakfast we went for a pleasant walk along a tree-covered lane on the hotel property with Myron. We walked for about an hour and had a delightful conversation. Later we three sat around a beautifully decorated table in the solarium for another chat. Myron wasn’t hungry, but Dennis and I ate our sack lunch as we sat in the warmth of the lovely room. Then I asked the concierge for more ice, got Dennis settled with the cold packs on his knee and neck and he went off to dreamland.
That evening the renowned Aberhonddu & District Male Choir serenaded us with several resounding Welsh tunes. After that we had a nice dinner with the group. And then off to bed.
Exploring the beautiful countryside.
On day three of our hike, we all checked into a charming hotel called The Grove at Narberth near the darling little town of Hay on Wye. Dennis felt a bit better, so we opted for a tour of the village and a tour of a nearby botanic garden. The Aberglasney Gardens in Carmarthenshire were absolutely amazing! Old stone walls, carefully manicured gardens, bright orchids, lush ponds and every manner of verdant plant greeted us at each turn. It rained pretty hard that day, so we ate our bag lunch in the little theater before entering an enclosed garden.
That night was a delicious dinner at a local restaurant about 20 minute’s drive away from the hotel. We were all tired and glad to pile out of the van by the time we arrived back at the hotel around 10:30.
As with every day, on day four of our hike, we were up bright and early for breakfast, the reading of the student letter thanking the climbers for raising funds for the program, the talk for the day and the bus ride to the trail head. This day’s magnificent six-mile hike took us along the craggy, rugged, spectacular cliffs along the coastline at Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park. The blustery winds off the North Atlantic battered us to and fro, sometimes making it difficult to stand upright.
Our hike ended at St. David’s which is the smallest city in the world. Even though it has a population of only 1,800, it has the requisite cathedral, which qualifies them to be officially called a “city.” They are very proud of that designation and, in fact, they correct anyone who calls St. David’s a town. St. David is their patron saint, although most people there don’t know much about him.
Our hike ended with a delicious lunch at the St. David’s Distillery overlooking the cathedral. Since it is an excellent gin distillery, we enjoyed superb gin and tonic drinks with our lunch. After lunch we toured the beautiful cathedral which was quite expansive.
Dennis and I opted to stay at the hotel for dinner rather than go with the group to the restaurant. My lips were extremely sore from some sort of virus that I get sometimes. Strangely it affects my whole body when this happens, so I wasn’t feeling up for a group dinner. So instead, we enjoyed a quiet dinner at our hotel dining room and went to bed early.
On day five, we were up early, enjoyed breakfast, listened to the letter reading and then the route talk. Everyone gathered their hiking poles and backpacks and off we went for another beautiful hike along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. There, we were met by jagged rock formations, craggy cliffs and peaceful inland beaches. We had to be careful to watch every step on the somewhat treacherous path.
After hiking a little over four miles along the stunning coast, we all enjoyed the quintessential Welsh pub lunch at the Stackpole Inn. Then our van carried us back to our cozy hotel room to rest and get caught up on our emails before our farewell dinner with our group. We all enjoyed a sweet farewell dinner in our lovely hotel dining room and then off to dreamland to prepare for the next day of travel.
Off to the next adventure in Scotland.
Nine of us were continuing on to start the week-long bike ride in Scotland. We left by bus from our hotel, The Grove in Narbeth, and drove two hours to the Cardiff airport. Once there, we waited for three hours for our delayed plane. We were surprised to see a prop plane arrive, but after sitting around so long we were happy to see it. The plane was fairly small but we all fit just fine and enjoyed the hour and a half ride to Edinburgh, Scotland. There, we all filed into the surprisingly beautiful airport and quickly found out luggage on the carousel.
The line for cabs was too long so Dennis and I opted to take the tram. It was similar to a train and the 40-minute ride was very comfortable. We disembarked at Princess Street and pulled our luggage a short way to our impressive hotel, The Balmoral. Even though there was no hiking or physical exertion on this day, we were all tired and ready for bed. But we were also hungry and eager to see a bit of the hotel. So, we went into the bar where we enjoyed a little snack and a gin and tonic with our friends, Bill and Carol.
Then it was off to a luscious visit to dreamland. The next morning, after a restorative ten hours of sleep in our beautiful room overlooking the city center, we went down to enjoy a delicious breakfast. We had a nice visit with Bill during our time there.
Next, we were off to explore the city and see the famous gardens. Since Queen Elizabeth passed away just days before we arrived, many streets and venues are closed. It was interesting to navigate through the city.
The streets of the city were filled with lots of people touring around. There were also lots of police and guards making sure people didn’t enter the many closed areas. As expected, the Castle was closed but we took some good photos of the outside from various angles. It is so impressive!
We stumbled upon the beautiful St. John’s church, and we were pleasantly surprised by the stunning interior—the elaborate alter, the intricate ceiling, and the colorful stained glass windows on both sides of the church.
After that, we navigated several angled streets with traffic coming from all directions, to visit the famous Johnny Walker store. We sipped specially prepared whiskey and ginger ale from a paper cup as we moseyed around the store admiring the classy merchandise.
We stopped into a quaint little outdoor cafe for a quiche salad, oat bar and latte. Such a welcome respite to sit in the sunshine and enjoy our little lunch. Then we made our way to the famous Gardens and walked through on our way back to our hotel where Dennis took a well-earned nap as I caught up on emails, journaling and posts.
The next day was Sunday, September 11. We were up early to gather our things for our next adventure—biking in Scotland. By 8:30 all cyclists in our group gathered and prepared to board the bus for the hour and a half ride from Edinburgh to St. Andrews.
We journeyed around the Firth (estuary) of Forth to the ancient Kingdom of Fife. The historic East Neuk maritime region of the Fife Peninsula stretches from Levenger to St. Andrews and is dotted with quaint fishing villages of whitewashed and red-roofed homes and harbors filled with pastel-hued fishing boats.
Our Backroads trip leaders fit our bikes to us, gave us a brief talk on biking techniques and safety, and we set out on our inaugural ride along the quiet roads with stunning views of the coast and across to Edinburgh. This was an easygoing 14-mile morning route that gave us ample opportunity to warm up our legs and get well acquainted with our bike as well as take in the bucolic scenery.
We stopped for lunch at the Stables Cafe at Cabo House, a delightful family-run country estate that has been in the same family since the 1670s. After a delicious lunch of cauliflower curry soup, veggies and ice cream we explored the estate’s spectacular walled garden.
The second day of our ride took us ten miles across the peninsula into the lively university town of St. Andrews. We found it a bit challenging navigating the many round-abouts since we had to look in the opposite direction than we are used to for giving the right-of-way to cars. I found it very confusing, especially when there were lots and lots of cars.
Marveling at the famous St. Andrews golf course.
Finally, we reached our home for the night, Old Course Hotel, a stately property overlooking West Sands Beach and the 17th hole of the famed Old Course at St. Andrews, a traditional links course dating back to the 1500s and considered the world’s oldest golf course.
Feeling weary from our ride, we were happy to settle into our elegant room looking out on the expansive golf course. After a short rest, we met the group for a welcome reception and a delicious dinner.
On the second day of our Scotland ride, our bus took us from our beautiful hotel in St. Andrews, an hour down the road, to Anything Cycles, a quaint bike shop/coffee shop where we gathered to hear the talk for the day, drink lattes, and use the facilities. Then we all climbed on our bikes and off we went on the day’s 25-mile ride.
The bucolic scenery and heavy scents from the bright green fields was heady. Sheep, cattle and fields of baled alfalfa greeted us at every turn. Only twice did we encounter traffic and even then, drivers are very courteous even though the roads are extremely narrow.
Once I saw a big truck behind me and pulled over as soon as I found a spot only to discover that it was a giant trash truck that wanted to pick up the cans right where I stopped. All four of the guys in bright uniforms laughed and waved as I realized I was once again in their way and had actually pulled over for no reason.
Our ride took us to the sweet town of Dunleld, where we parked our bikes and enjoyed a delicious lunch basking in the warm sunshine with another couple of cyclists. After rousing ourselves from our comfortable spots, we pedaled along another 14 miles of lovely roads bordered by bright green pastures and a fast-flowing river. At the end of this second ride of the day, we arrived at the impressive Fonab Castle Hotel where we were greeted by two gents in traditional Scottish garb.
We were thrilled to be able to drop our bags and relax in our beautifully appointed room overlooking the river. After a delicious dinner in the beautiful dining room, we retired to our lovely room for a well-earned rest.
Day three was 50 miles of breath-taking beauty. Lush green ferns waving their fronds in the chilly wind, sweet little purple heather snuggled together on the hillsides, and the strong scent of freshly plowed fields in the air. We rode through the lush highlands, over open moors, and along the glistening Rannoch River. I never imagined there could be so much beauty in one place. After such a long ride, we were grateful for our wonderful dinner and an early bedtime.
Day four was another spectacular day of cycling in the Scottish Highlands. We pedaled 41 miles up incredibly beautiful hills at over 3,000 feet elevation gain with a steep grade of 14 percent, ending at the Glenshee Ski Area where we gobbled up a delicious catered lunch.
Then it was all downhill into the lovely village of Braemar surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. Once there, we checked into the beautiful old castle called Candacraig. Our room walls and ceilings were lined with fabric representing the various Scottish clans. Our first dinner was family style and absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, I was very car sick from the hour-long bus ride so I couldn’t eat much but I was glad for a bit of food. I vowed that the next day I would do whatever it took to sit in the very front seat!
The fifth day of cycling was the wildest in terms of weather. We rode only 31 miles, but it was through freezing cold powerful wind and pelting rain. I was thankful for my dependable rain gear and even put on multiple layers for warmth. It felt so good to return to our sweet castle hotel and take a long hot shower. That evening we all gathered in the charming parlor for a farewell drink and sharing of stories. It was a very sweet time of talking about our favorite memories that we will take back with us.
Our dinner was plated rather than family style and, once again, delicious. It included haggis made from vegetables, a small cheese soufflé, a firm Scottish halibut and strawberry fondant for dessert. We were all glad to tromp upstairs to our respective bedrooms for a good night’s sleep.
Bidding a fond farewell to Scotland.
Day six would be spent traveling. Everyone gathered, couple by couple, in the dining room for our yummy berries, yogurt and scrambled eggs. After enjoying the last cup of coffee and sharing our plans for the coming days, we boarded the bus to head to a display of Scottish games.
We arrived at the expansive Braemar Highland Games Centre, home of the Braemar Gathering, a sporting event that has been a highlight of the Scotland sporting calendar since 1832. We were surprised to discover that we would be walking a long way in the very cold wind to gather in a large field to see the display of games. No one was dressed appropriately, so we were all shivering in the cold.
Two very large, kilt-clad young men greeted us and began to explain the games. They explained that the popular shot-put throw began when idle soldiers would challenge each other to see who could throw cannon balls the farthest. When there were no cannon balls available, they used large stones of the same weight. In today’s games a player may choose to throw a shot or a stone. Several in our group, myself included, tried our hand at throwing the stone. They also threw 50-pound weights over their head and demonstrated throwing the hammer, a large heavy ball at the end of a long stick. It was all quite thrilling and fascinating, but we were glad to get out of the cold and into the warm café.
Finally, the bus took us to the airport, train station and Balmoral Hotel for the next leg of our respective journeys.
Onward to London.
On Friday, Dennis and I got off the bus at the Balmoral Hotel where we hurried around the corner to catch the train to London. Unfortunately, we were too late to catch the train where we had reserved first class seats, so we had to barter with the train steward after we boarded. But it worked out okay.
Queen Elizabeth had passed away several days before our arrival in London and we were a little worried about road and transportation closures due to the various ceremonies. Thankfully the railroad strike planned for Sept 15 and 17 was canceled in honor of the Queen. My sister, Susie, and her husband Charlie got online and tried to find out if any of the mourning activities would be affecting our travels, including or plane ride home. It all worked out fine, but we appreciated their efforts on our behalf.
We took a taxi from the London train station to our lovely hotel, Covent Garden, where we were greeted with open arms by the friendly staff. Dennis began to complain about a sore throat, so I asked for directions from the concierge and walked a few blocks to purchase various medicines to make him more comfortable. I also bought home tests for Covid. He slept that night and all the next day.
Saturday, we were scheduled to meet my new sister, Susie, and her family. But now I realized that Dennis would not be able to accompany me because by now he had tested positive for Covid. I did what I could to make him comfortable and then I headed to the train station. Originally, we were going to meet in London, but the Queen’s death changed those plans because of closures and fierce traffic. It was decided that I would take the train to Guildford, about a half-hour train ride from London, to meet Susie.
I was worried that the train station with its hubbub of activity, confusing schedule boards and multiple platforms would be too much for me to figure out. But I was determined to accomplish this. Susie’s husband, Charlie, sent me a text with very specific instructions about how to navigate the train station. He suggested I leave a little early, which I did.
I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to figure out where to buy my ticket, find the right platform for my train, and decide where to get off. It all worked so smoothly!
I disembarked at the Guildford station, hurried to use the bathroom, and then looked around trying to figure out where I should go to wait for my sister. Suddenly, there she was! Right in front of me. She was beautiful. Looking into her eyes was like looking into my own. I saw such a family resemblance. She gave me a big hug and introduced Charlie and their daughter Jana. Such a sweet, loving family.
We walked around the historic town of Guildford listening to Charlie relate various significant aspects of the town’s history, enjoying the nice sunny day and just getting to know each other. Very soon we entered the March Hare, a delightful restaurant in the center of the village based on a theme from Alice in Wonderland. The story goes that author, Lewis Carroll, once lived in the house that was transformed into this quaint restaurant.
We all enjoyed a delicious lunch and refreshing wine while swapping stories about each other’s families and our father’s history. I relished every moment. I was so impressed by their genuine welcoming of me into their family and their sweet love for each other. Jana, who celebrated her 28th birthday earlier that week, is very kind, talented and extremely bright. I can tell she will be successful at whatever she decides to do. It sounds like she will be tutoring art students and making her own art to sell.
After lunch, we walked around town some more and then stopped for a latte that we enjoyed under the trees next to a beautiful lawn bowling site. After a while it was time for me to head to my train. They drove me to the station and after many hugs and promises to stay in touch, I was on the train back to London. I had no trouble finding a cab to take me to my hotel.
That night we ordered room service for dinner. Our meal was tasty, but we had only a tiny space in our room to eat. So, we huddled around our tiny table to enjoy our dinner. I wanted to be sure Dennis would be well enough for us to travel on Monday, so I requested the concierge to ask a local doctor to examine Dennis. The doctor arrived about 9:30 that evening, fully masked and medical valise in hand. After a thorough examination, he said it would be okay for Dennis to travel but that he should wear his mask.
The next day, Sunday, I walked around the Covent area near our hotel and purchased more medicine for Dennis. He slept most of the day. That evening he wore his mask, and we had dinner in the hotel’s dining room so we could say goodbye and thank you to our favorite wait staff.
On Monday morning, we were up early and climbed into our cab to take us to Heathrow Airport for our long ride home. We had some extra time before it was time to board our plane, so we sat near a giant screen television and watched the Queen’s funeral along with hundreds of other passengers. It was quite moving.
The flight back to the U.S. was smooth, and we were thankful for our business class seats that reclined into a bed because we slept most of the way home. We arrived in Phoenix and then sat in the lounge area for our three-hour layover until finally it was time to board our plane home to Santa Barbara.
We always love looking down from the plane as it circles our sweet little airport. The crystal-clear ocean, the enchanting mountains and the lovely landscape all seemed to be saying, “Welcome home!” Of course, we were thrilled to see our driver, Hakim, waiting for us with open arms. What a spectacular adventure this was!
Postscript: For those readers who may not know the story about my sister Susie, I will tell you why it was so important for me to meet her and why it was in London.
I never knew who my father was because I don’t think my mother even knew his identity. She was living in Pensacola, known as a “navy town,” when WWII was over. She and her family were very involved with the local Naval Officers’ Club. When the service men returned home from the war, my father was one of the officers my mother connected with. I was conceived in June of 1945. At that point, the Navy sent my father to duty in Coco Beach, about five hours from Pensacola. Neither my father nor my mother knew she was pregnant. She went to live with her mother in Selma, Alabama which is where I was born.
I never thought I would discover the identity of my birth father; but during the pandemic, I met a professional genealogist who wanted to try to find him. She told me to put my DNA on four specific sites, which I did. Four months later, she called to say she had found him. He had died many years earlier from cancer but at least I had a name. She also discovered that my father and his wife had seven children in their first ten years of marriage. So, I also had seven new half-siblings! They all live in Florida except for my sister, Susie, who lives in London with her husband and their daughter.
So, you can imagine why I was so eagerly anticipating my meeting with Susie. Hopefully, I will meet the others someday.