I was excited about going to the Marine Ball before we even joined the Foreign Service. I’d read about them in FS blogs, and loved the idea of celebrating such a significant occasion and having an excuse to get dressed up. Kind of like the Midwinter Dinner in Antarctica. Three years after joining, we finally got a chance to go.

Our first post was too small to have Marines, so there was obviously no Marine Ball. Last year, the ball was about a month after we arrived, we didn’t know anyone, had no babysitters, my hubby’s job hadn’t started yet, and we had spent most of our savings on home leave. Not to mention that the venue was out in Greenwich, which is like an hour away and real pain to get to, AND they were charging $250 USD PER PERSON. Not to mention the cost of said fancy clothes. So ya, we skipped it.

This year, on the other hand, they cut the ticket prices in half and held it at an amazing venue: the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which is gorgeous and historic (built in 1997 to look just like the one built nearby in 1599)…and was only 20 minutes away by taxi. So I guess it should’ve come as no surprise that the tickets literally sold out in five hours. Happily, I managed to wander on over at the right time and bought two of the last five tickets they had.

But as the event drew closer, my enthusiasm started to wane. For one thing: we weren’t able to get seats at the same table. So our romantic evening out would be spent separately. All we could do was hope that we knew some of the people at the tables where we were seated.

View of St. Paul's from south of the Thames.

View of St. Paul’s from south of the Thames.

Me in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Me in front of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Me and Shakespeare.

Me and Shakespeare.

And the clothing was becoming a problem. My hubby ordered a custom kilt for the event several months ahead of time. But his family’s clan is an old one and relatively rare. So it didn’t arrive in time. He had to go rent a different one instead.

And don’t get me started on the dress. Months before the ball, I ordered a lovely little dress from David’s Bridal. A month later, it still hadn’t arrived. I contacted them, and they had no record of the order. So I tried something locally, as time was running out. I found two lovely (and cheap!) purple dresses on eBayUK and ordered those. They arrived quickly and were beautiful! Technically they fit…but they looked AWFUL on me. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten to shop for my body type. So I decided that separates would be the way to go.

I ordered a black sequined skirt from another site that I thought was in the UK. Turns out it was actually in Los Angeles…and three weeks later, my order was still “pending fulfillment.” They didn’t respond to my attempts at contact, further internet research said they were a scam. So I had my bank reverse the charges.

By that time, I had pretty much given up on a glamorous night out and just wanted to wear something that wasn’t horrible. Finally, I ended up walking a couple blocks up the street to Marks and Spencer…and spent a mere £39.50 for a long black satin skirt. The night of the ball, I pulled a green blouse out of my closet from Dress Barn that I’d bought a while ago but never worn.

I still tried to make the event somewhat special though. I made a hair appointment and got some nice ‘40s waves. Then I let my four-year-old son pick out a nail polish color, and he actually picked one that matched better than the one I originally had. I put on the sparkly jewelry I had worn at our wedding, and voila! Time to party!!

Champagne!

Champagne!

One side of the room.

One side of the gorgeous room (yes, that’s a giant tree on the left…no, it wasn’t real).

Candelabra with drippy candles.

Candelabra with drippy candles.

Our sitter arrived on time and was pleasant and professional. Her mother was also one of the nurses at the embassy, so we figured our son would be in good hands. We had decided to take a taxi and save my feet walking to and from the tube station in heels (thank god!), but became slightly nervous when we read that half of the downtown bridges would be closed due to the Lord Mayor’s parade and Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. But it all worked out in the end. We directed the driver over the Westminster Bridge, and there was hardly any traffic.

We had only one more hurdle to overcome. We had accepted the fact that we wouldn’t be sitting together. But when my hubby got to the table where he’d been assigned (we’d double checked the seating chart on the way in)…the table was full, and there was no seat for him. So when the ceremony started he was the only one in the room…standing politely next to his table…waiting for the staff to sort it out. So instead of squeezing a 12th chair into his 10-top that had obviously been screwed up, we kidnapped him over to our table, the staff brought him a chair and a place setting, and the rest was history.

The decorations were beautiful, the champagne was flowing, and the food was great. We got to sit together after all and actually knew (and liked!) all of the people at my table. My hubby looked great in his rented kilt, and I got lots of compliments on my hair. We even got a few dances in and witnessed one Marine proposing to his girlfriend, which was super sweet, before we had to get home to the sitter. The party lasted until 2am, but we made it home around midnight since the poor girl had a 45-minute commute, and we knew our son would be up at the crack of dawn anyway.

The only really disappointing part of the evening was the fact that our table was placed behind a huge pillar…so I actually wasn’t able to see a single part of the Marine cake-cutting ceremony. But hopefully CLO will have some pictures up eventually and our professional portraits will arrive as well.

But I can honestly say that we truly enjoyed our very first Marine Ball! Happy 239th birthday, Marines!!

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…Reykjavik!! Woo hoo!! I am beyond excited about this. I spent almost three weeks in Iceland as a tourist back in 1999. At the time I was transitioning between jobs and relationships, and it was the isolationist break that I needed to really ponder what I was doing and where I was going with my life. And the country was absolutely stunning geographically and culturally with so many amazing natural resources.

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Me (far right) and the group of travellers I met on the road. Together at Jökulsárlón glacier lake.

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Me at the Arctic Circle sign on the island of Grismey (left), checking out one of the many geothermal vents on the tourist trail (right).

I had wanted to bid on Reykjavik the minute I saw it on the projected bid list. But preliminary conversations with the school informed me that they were dropping their kindergarten program, so my son would have no school. And they don’t have much for EFM jobs because the embassy is so small.

But then my husband found a position that he is now actively pursuing as a direct hire, so he might be away from post training at some point anyway. And we’ve heard of a few other possibilities in Reykjavik if that doesn’t pan out. And a new international school opened up with a kindergarten program that would accept my son’s “late” birthdate. So Reykjavik was suddenly back on the table!!

The bidding process was predictable yet stressful at the same time. Not necessarily because of its lack of transparency but because it took so long! We “lobbied” for five posts including Reykjavik and submitted our bids the first week of August when bidding season opened. But it didn’t close until the middle of October. Who needs the better part of three months to submit a bid list??

In the meantime, I contacted the posts I was really interested in and sent them my materials and the NINE references some of them requested. I had several phone interviews and one in-person as the hiring manager was in London for a conference. Two of the posts I didn’t hear a peep out of the entire time.

Three of them expressed interest in hiring me but forced me to tell them how they were ranked on MY list of priorities, which was probably the most stressful part. What if our #1 didn’t want us after all, and now #2 and #3 weren’t interested because they didn’t think we were?? In the end, I just went for utter honesty to keep things simple. And we were blessed with our first choice. So thanks to the Universe for keeping it all together!!

I recently came across this group on a great travel blog (Unlocking Kiki), and although I’m at the upper end of their demographic (21-45), it looks like a really neat organization for women living abroad and looking to meet up with like-minded ladies.

They’re called Girl Gone International, but I keep transposing the first two words thanks to the movie that just came out. They’re still working on their website, but they have a magazine that you can subscribe to that looks like a fun cross between Cosmo and Condé Nast Traveller.

They also have fun little travel posters like these (obviously not in numerical order). Oh, how true they are.

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One of the things that I was really looking forward to when we arrived last year was the embassy Halloween party for the kids. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a little disappointing. It was a tad disorganized and chaotic, we’d barely been here a month and didn’t really know anyone, and there were people intentionally scaring the little children and making them cry, which REALLY made me angry.

So this year, I had pretty much decided to skip the embassy Halloween and venture out into the neighborhood for some traditional trick-or-treating instead. I had seen a few costumed kids cruising around by our apartment last year and was pleasantly surprised that there would be enough interest here in London. Plus this year they had the embassy party on the same day as the actual holiday, so it kind of had to be one or the other.

And I’m so glad we chose to go out! We dressed our son up as a knight since we’re in the UK (even though he wanted to be a Transformer…maybe next year), met up with some friends…namely Spiderman and Superman, and hit the pavement.

I had read about the best neighborhoods near us for trick-or-treating and plotted them out on a map so we wouldn’t be wasting our time in candy-less cross streets. But I really need not have bothered. There were probably a thousand people out roaming around, and a ton of houses got into the spirit of things, so to speak.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how many people were out. We started our evening around 6:30pm and came across at least half a dozen houses that had “out of candy” signs on them already. And who could blame them? You’d have to spend hundreds of dollars to fill that many buckets. But after an hour, we managed to score a decent little load, which we then supplemented from our kitchen stores, and everyone was happy!

We ended the evening with drinks for the grown-ups back at our place while the kids continued to run around the apartment in costume occasionally asking someone to open a candy wrapper that was too tough for them to tackle. I think it was a great way to spend our last Halloween in London…and a great place for our son’s first official neighborhood trick-or-treating experience.

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Spiderman and our knight venturing into the dark streets of London.

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The first spooky house.

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My favorite house of the night…must be the cats in the windows.

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Another one with lots of great detail.

 

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My husband and I got to participate in a very special volunteer opportunity last week. You may or may not be familiar with the art installation that’s going on at the Tower of London called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. When it’s finished on November 11, the moat will look like it’s filled with blood.

According to the Tower website, the exhibit marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and was created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper. The heart of the installation is the 888,246 ceramic poppies that are progressively filling the Tower’s famous moat, and each one represents a British life that was lost.

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Aerial view of the Tower (photo courtesy of Metropolitan Police).

“The remembrance poppy has been used since 1921 to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. Inspired by the World War I poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, they were first used by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers who died in that war (1914–1918).

“They were then adopted by military veterans’ groups in parts of the former British Empire: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Today, they are mainly used in the UK and Canada to commemorate their servicemen and women who have been killed in all conflicts since 1914. There, small artificial poppies are often worn on clothing for a few weeks until Remembrance Day/Armistice Day (11 November). Poppy wreaths are also often laid at war memorials.” (Wikipedia)

A fellow embassy employee thought the Tower was kind of an odd place for the installation since it had a rather violent history as well. But I found this photo the other day in a BBC article that explained its relevance. The image is of new recruits being sworn in to join the Royal Fusiliers in the very same moat at the Tower of London. In 1914 the moat was used to swear in more than 1,600 soldiers.

Recruits being sworng in at the Tower moat.

Recruits being sworn in at the Tower moat.

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Poppies with the Tower Bridge in the background.

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Part of the installation that “spills” out of the window.

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Close up.

The embassy was able to bring 45 people (and had a waiting list) to the Tower for a three-hour shift to help plant poppies in the moat. Both my husband and I have had family members in the military and held them in our hearts as we spent several hours last Wednesday assembling the flowers and their metal stems and hammering them into the ground.

Despite the somber theme, the volunteers were all in good spirits and seemed more than happy to be contributing to such a great project. When the exhibit is done, the poppies on display will be sold for £25 each (and are already sold out!). The proceeds will be going to several charities.

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Me laying out poppies.

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Beautiful juxtaposition of ceramic poppies and Queen Anne’s lace.

The leaves are starting to change color quickly in London. We had a freak warm spell last week caused by warm winds pushed up by Hurricane Gonzalo, and we’re still getting a ton of wind as the system blows over Scotland. But our temps are back into the 50s and 60s, and it’s not raining at the moment.

On Sunday we walked over to Regent’s Park to see a bit of Fall color and let our son run around the surprisingly-busy playground. He was only lured away with the promise of a ride across the Boating Lake on a pedal boat.

I had wanted to try one of those during the summer and had assumed that they’d closed for the season. So I was happy to fork over £13 for 30 mins of being blown around on the water and taking pictures while my poor husband did all the leg work.

We also checked out Queen Mary’s Gardens and discovered the Triton Fountain, which we’d never come across before. The center of the fountain is a bronze sculpture of a sea god blowing on a conch shell with two mermaids at his feet. The fountain was designed in 1950 by William McMillan who also did the two fountains in Trafalgar Square.

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Pedal boats in Regent’s Park.

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Little legs trying to reach the pedals.

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Chilling in the back seat.

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Seagulls in the lake.

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Memorial gazebo to the seven people that died from an IRA bombing during a lunchtime concert in 1982.

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Beautiful Fall colors.

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Our son always on the run.

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In front of the Triton Fountain.

On Monday (Columbus Day) we had elaborate plans to explore the neighborhood of Chelsea, which we haven’t gotten around to yet after a year in London. But it suddenly sounded like a lot of effort…and it was supposed to rain all day. And I still have a ridiculously long list of things I really want to do. So instead, we hopped on a train and cruised over to the town of Whitstable on the north east coast of Kent.

Whitstable is very cool for a couple of reasons. The first is oysters. It is home to one of England’s ancient oyster beds…shells from which were supposedly found in the Coliseum in Rome. Second, it was once the home of Peter Cushing, a British actor famous for playing Baron Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Van Helsing many times throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He also played Governor Tarkin in the 1977 Star Wars! The novelist W. Somerset Maugham also wrote two novels (Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale) that were based loosely on his own childhood there. Plus it’s just a quaint little British seaside town.

Whitstable is about an hour and a half by train from the 19th-century gem that is Victoria Station in London. And tickets are pretty reasonable…about £29 return. There was even a tea service on the way back. It was also interesting to see all the school kids who commute in packs on the train from their hometown to wherever their school is located one or two stops away. Nothing like eavesdropping on a group from the local all-boys school. I’m not prone to blushing, but good lord…the things those boys said in public! Something our son would look forward to, I’m sure. ;)

After arriving in Whitstable we wandered around a bit and looked at the harbor and some of the shopping streets where we bought some yummy local cheddar, brie and goat’s brie, which I haven’t come across before. Then it was off to lunch!

I’d tried to make reservations at The Crab & Winkle, which has a nice harbor view. But they’re apparently closed on Mondays until next summer. So the other choice was the Whitstable Oyster Company, which was also super cute inside and right on the beach with about 600 years of history. We shared half a dozen raw local rock oysters topped with vinegar and shallots (they don’t do horseradish with oysters) and a bit of cocktail sauce, and washed it all down with a robust Oyster Stout.

For our mains, my hubby picked clean a whole plaice (flatfish similar to a flounder) with anchovy sauce, and I indulged in a whole Maine lobster. I know, I know, why order American seafood in a British restaurant?? I couldn’t help it. It was so nicely presented! And it was served chilled with lemon and tartar, which was different for me. And I hate fish for the most part…unless it’s salmon, halibut or tuna.

After our fabulous meal, we walked around town a bit more then made a beeline for The Peter Cushing. That’s right! Not only is he from there, but he has a venue named after him. And not just any venue, but a pub that used to be a movie theatre. What a perfect combination! And they did a fabulous job of recreating the ambience of the Golden Age with all kinds of great Art Deco details and Peter Cushing movie memorabilia. Even the walk up the stairs to the bathrooms was cool.

On the way home we spotted a potential next adventure. As we whizzed past the town of Rochester we couldn’t help but notice their massive cathedral and castle keep. But in the meantime, if you get the chance, I highly recommend a trip to Whitstable. :)

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Whitstable harbor at low tide.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company.

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Royal warrant for the Royal Native Oyster Stores.

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Rock oysters, yummy!

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Whole plaice with anchovy sauce.

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Whole lobster, nicely cut in half and chilled.

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Me hanging out on the rocky beach between erosion barriers.

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The Peter Cushing! (photo stolen from the internet)

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Peter Cushing memorabilia.

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Interior of the pub.

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Me at the Peter Cushing.

 

We went to our first London fashion show last weekend, and it was pretty cool! Everyone has probably heard of London Fashion Week. It’s one of the “Big Four” fashion weeks, along with New York, Milan and Paris that’s primarily a fashion industry trade show attended by supermodels, celebrities and fashion designers as well as fashion magazine editors and anyone else lucky enough to be invited.

The British Fashion Council states that “it is attended by over 5,000 press and buyers, and has estimated orders of £40 – £100 million. A retail-focused event, London Fashion Weekend, takes place immediately afterwards at the same venue and is open to the general public.

“The current venue for most of the ‘on-schedule’ events is Somerset House in central London, where a large marquee in the central courtyard hosts a series of catwalk shows by top designers and fashion houses, while an exhibition, housed within Somerset House itself, shows over 150 designers.” (Wikipedia)

London Fashion Weekend starts on Thursday and lasts until Sunday. There are various levels of tickets that you can purchase depending on when you want to go, how many catwalks you’d like to see and what level of access you’d like. The lowest level bronze ticket will get you access to Somerset House and all the retail shops set up throughout the halls, plus an empty tote bag, for £20.

A Luxe ticket at £130 gets you a welcome reception with champagne and canapés, a front row seat at one of the catwalk shows, access to the LUXE Lounge, a private till point with shopping collection service, complimentary gift wrapping service, and a designer tote bag filled with goodies.

We opted for something on the lower end since we planned on taking our son and figured he wouldn’t be up for too much stimulation. So we picked up silver tickets for a reasonable £37, which got us access to all the vendors, one catwalk show, and a tote bag stuffed with fun samples that included make-up remover wipes, nail polish, mascara, coffee, eye drops, a £25 gift card for a local health food delivery service and a fashion magazine. Not a bad haul!

The catwalk show was lots of fun with some beautiful outfits, and our son was really well behaved. He got a little wound up when we were looking at the vendors afterward though, so we didn’t spend as much time looking around as we would’ve liked to have.

But Sunday was a great day to go. It’s the last day of the show, and all the items are on sale. We headed straight for the accessories hall. They had everything from shoes to jewelry to sunglasses, and there were lovely £300 scarves on sale for £100…I settled for one for £30, which is more than I’d usually spend on a scarf, but it was also a great souvenir.

The shows happen twice per year in February and September. If you get a chance, I highly recommend it. Next year, we might even upgrade to a Gold ticket and see if we can get a front row seat!

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We just got back from five days in the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, and it was fantastic! After the crush and energy of London, it was so nice to go somewhere with seas and wind where there’re only 35 people per square kilometer.

Getting there and back was a pain in the butt though. On the way up we went from London to Edinburgh to Kirkwall. And they lost our bags on the way…mainly because the baggage agent at the Virgin Atlantic counter at Heathrow thought our son was soooooo cute that she let him press the button on the baggage conveyor belt…before putting the baggage claim tickets on it.

So we now get to file a £75 claim for the toiletries and pajamas we had to buy for the first night until our bags arrived. On the way back we were delayed due to fog and missed our connection in Aberdeen completely. So we had to exit security, reclaim our bags, get rebooked on a new flight, and go through security all over again. At least the little girl at the snack counter was nice enough to pour me a glass of wine in a paper cup so I could take it on the plane. :)

Transportation issues aside, I thought Orkney was quite a magical place. It’s made up of one big island called Mainland (perspective?) and a bunch of little islands. We stayed in the main town of Kirkwall (population 8,686) and found a great 3-bedroom rental cottage for only £250 per week. You can barely get a closet in a hotel for that price. So we really enjoyed it! We also rented a car so we could putter around the island.

The tiny town of Kirkwall on the left.

The tiny town of Kirkwall on the left.

Our little rental cottage.

Our little rental cottage and car.

Most of Mainland Orkney is classified as a World Heritage site called The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It has not just one but TWO rings of standing stones (Stenness and Brodgar), one chambered burial mound (Maeshowe) and a few settlements. The most famous settlement is Skara Brae, which is considered the oldest and best preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe having been dated to about 3,000 BC.

Skara Brae.

Skara Brae.

Our son with his Viking sword in the Ring of Brodgar.

Our son with his Viking sword in the Ring of Brodgar.

The Ring of Brodgar was truly awesome, but I’m slightly more interested in Viking history. The Vikings featured heavily in the development of Orkney and even have their own saga, the Orkneyinga Saga. Even the sign above the airport is written in Norse runes. They also have an amazing red cathedral that was built in 1137 for the Viking Earls and Bishops of Orkney and their accompanying crumbling palaces.

Kirkwall airport with sign in runes.

Kirkwall airport with sign in runes.

St. Magnus Cathedral.

St. Magnus Cathedral.

Part of a plaque inside the cathedral.

Part of a plaque inside the cathedral.

Earl's Palace.

Earl’s Palace.

But I think the most unique site has to be Maeshowe. Not only is it a great example of a chambered cairn…but when the Vikings plundered it, they left graffiti on the walls in runes. With 30 inscriptions, it’s one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe, which is phenomenal!! And their translations are hysterical. Things like: “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes.” Basically, Haermund Hardaxe was here! “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.”

Exterior of Maeshowe.

Exterior of Maeshowe.

Interior shot borrowed from the internet.

Interior shot borrowed from the internet.

Close up of runes borrowed from the internet.

Close up of runes borrowed from the internet.

Other highlights remain from WWII. There’s an Italian chapel constructed of two “Nissen” huts…the Brit equivalent of what we call Quonset huts…and beautifully painted by Italian POWs who also constructed the two massive barriers in the bays between two of the southern islands. There are also the visible wrecks of several ships that were intentionally sunk to block German boats.

Exterior of the Italian chapel.

Exterior of the Italian chapel.

Interior of the Italian chapel.

Interior of the Italian chapel.

WWII wrecks still visible in the water.

WWII wrecks still visible in the water.

And let’s not forget the food and drink. I opted for seafood for almost every meal…scallops, scallops, more scallops and a seafood platter with crab and scallops with a few sides of mashed potatoes and black pudding. And my hubby was always on the lookout for haggis, which he found. It was also his birthday, so the lovely staff at the Kirkwall hotel restaurant brought out his dessert with a candle in it. Happy birthday, baby!

Orkney also has no shortage of beverages. For an area of less than 400 square miles, they have three breweries (Orkney, Highland and Sinclair) and two distilleries (Highland Park and Scapa). Orkney beers were my favorite not just in flavor but because of their great names…like Skull Splitter, Raven Ale, Northern Light, Dragonhead Stout, and Dark Island! My hubby also picked up a lovely 16-year-old single malt from Scapa.

For the most part, our son was pretty well behaved in the restaurants…especially since my hubby had recently downloaded 20+ new episodes of his current favorite TV show, Rescue Bots. But his favorite part of the entire trip was throwing rocks in the water at the beach. I guess if we ever want to plan a trip that will make him really happy, we can keep it pretty simple.

Hanging out on the beach.

Hanging out on the beach.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and are not attributed to any government organization.

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