Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Wee Time in Glasgow

Trip date: April 2018

I was on the last stretch of my 17 day trip in the UK and for the first time it was considerably cool, cloudy, and drizzly. I got in my car and drove from Oban to Inveraray, taking the A85, as I wanted to see the castle there. The drive was gorgeous and as I followed the road around Loch Awe I saw a crumbling ruin of a fortress out on the point. I pulled over and consulted my guidebook as to what it was but didn't find anything. Finally I just zoomed in on the GPS and saw it was the 15th century Kilchrun Castle, formerly of the Clan Campbell. If I didn't have a 100 mile drive, and other stops planned, I would have taken the trail that led out there!

In about 1 1/2 hours I was in the small town of Inveraray and was parked at the namesake castle, the 18th century home of the same clan. Since I didn't have a lot of time I chose to just wander around the grounds and gardens (£5). It's a beautiful castle and the gardeners were busy getting ready for spring, I'm sure it is stunning when everything is in full bloom.
There a small sheep farm on the grounds as well so I got in my last dose of Scotland sheep. They were very chatty!

I had lunch at the Inveraray Inn, exactly what I was in the mood for, a rich bowl of Cullen Skink and a small beer. The hot soup, warm bread, a cold beer were perfect for the drizzly day and it didn't take me long to get back on the road. I had 1 1/2 more to drive and the weather was definitely getting more "authentic Scottish"! 

It was another gorgeous drive through the mountain pass at Loch Lomond, where the Highlands meet the Lowlands, but weather and traffic kept me from stopping. Soon I was driving over the big bridge, with 4 lanes of busy traffic, into Glasgow. It was little bit of a shock after being in the countryside!
I had a tough time finding the Hertz car rental office in town until I finally parked in a load zone outside of the hotel my GPS kept taking me to and asked the front desk. The office was on the 2nd floor and they just had me leave the car in the load zone. Easiest drop off ever. 

Driving tour of Scotland officially done. I'd spent 6 days driving just over 600 miles on the wrong side, had nearly worn out the car's chime warning me to stay in my lane, but I made it and it was an awesome experience!

I grabbed an Uber to my hotel, the Dakota Deluxe, which is in a great location and is quite nice. If there is one thing I've learned from traveling it is to splurge on your last hotel. 

By the time I had checked in the porter had my bags waiting for me in my room. It was super cozy and the bed was crazy comfy. My plan had been to head out for a little walking tour of town but it was sleeting and cold and I was tired. I grabbed a glass of wine from the downstairs bar and chilled out in my warm room.

That night I met my friend Sharon, who lives in Glasgow, at Mother India which came highly recommended. 

It was good, and we had a great time catching up, but it wasn't as good as the Indian meals I had earlier in the trip in London and Edinburgh had been. Maybe it was just an off night.

The next morning I had breakfast in the hotel, they had a nice buffet of meats, cheeses, yogurts, etc. and then you also ordered something from the menu. All for £12 if you reserved through the front desk (£15 if you just showed up I think).  

The day was cold! I had been spoiled by all the sun over the last week. Now it was raining, snowing, and cold! I ditched my plans to walk, called an Uber, and headed to the Kelvingrove Museum for the special exhibit on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scottish furniture designer, architect, and painter who I knew little about. 
The exhibit was very interesting and it's on until August 14, 2018 if you end up in town. The entire museum is quite awesome, I didn't have a lot of time before my lunch reservation but I did a quick poke around.

Lunch was in Ashton Lane, where everyone will tell you to go as it is a very cute pedestrian only area with lots of restaurants and bars. I found my way to Ubiquitous Chip and had a lovely 3-course lunch of cod & crab beignet, roast fennel with crispy risotto, a side of beef stovies (I'd never heard of them before!), and a lovely cheese plate. I'd absolutely recommend this spot!

Next up was a visit to the Tenement House Museum , which was the house of Miss Agnes Toward from 1911 until 1965. It has been preserved with her things to show how she (and others in the tenement) lived. There are additional exhibits about tenements in general. It's just a small house so it doesn't take long to go through, I thought it was very interesting!

Culture, √. Time for shopping. The bartender at my hotel had told me that I would likely find all the gin I could imagine at The Good Spirits Co. He was correct!
I had been keeping a list of all the Scottish gins I had tried and I was ready to bring a few home. The staff here is excellent and they will happily pour you tastes of most anything. They also carry more than gin but that is what I was there for. Excellent shop!

On my way back to my hotel to drop off my purchases I noticed the Principal Hotel overlooking Blythswood Square. I had heard that the bar here was really good so I stopped in for a drink. The hotel is stunning! There is a bar both upstairs and on the main floor. I liked the vibe on the main floor and had a great time chatting with the bartender while sipping on a Scottish gin martini. 

Continuing on the gin theme, it was time for my massage at The Gin Spa, which I was super excited about! Massage + gin = happy Wendy! I made my way to the Merchant City area and checked into the tiny little space. There wasn't really a proper waiting room, no locker room to change, just a little entry that shared space with two manicure tables. I was shown to my room where I changed. I don't know if my masseuse was even a trained masseuse, the massage was so bad. She basically just rubbed oil on me, it was very weird. No discussion of gin botanicals, or anything really.

After I was led to these little bleachers and they brought over a cute trolley with a good selection of gins on it. I asked about a few that were unknown to me but they didn't have any other information than what was written on the bottle. I chose a sloe gin and they made me a gin and tonic with it. Which was nice but if that's all it takes to call yourself a gin spa, feel free to come to my house where I will rub some lotion on you, make you a G&T, and charge you $150!

The weather had cleared when I left so I was finally able to go on a nice walk around the Golden Zed area of Downtown. I was on my way to my next drink at The Pot Still. The bar opened in 1867 and has had a few different owners over time. There are over 700 whiskies on the shelves and when I was there they didn't have a menu. I stood at the bar and told my bartender Cathy what I generally liked, didn't like, and had interest in knowing more about. 

She climbed around the shelves for a few minutes and then brought down a selection of 5 whiskies, explained each to me and had me smell them. I chose one and thoroughly enjoyed it while talking to some locals. She did the same thing when I was ready for round two. I really can't recommend this place more highly, and even if they do have a menu I wouldn't use it! Everyone is so friendly and they love introducing people to new whisky!

That was a fully packed day!!! I was ready for dinner. I took advantage of the holding weather and walked back to the Dakota Deluxe where I had a nice dinner in the restaurant there. 

The next morning I checked out, took an Uber to the Queen Street Station, and caught the train to Edinburgh Park Station. I had purchased my ticket online, which was good for any time train that day, for £12 and it took 1 hour. And the countryside between the two cities had had a bit of snow!

At Park Station I transferred to a tram to the airport. You have to walk out of the station and then cross the road to the tram tracks. I bought my ticket at the kiosk for £6, it was 10 minutes to the airport and the trams seemed to run every 10 mins. Both the train and the tram were quite nice and not crowded at all even though it was 8am on a Thursday.

I had a quick flight from Edinburgh to London on British Air Business Class where, besides enjoying a nice little split of Champagne, I was also treated to amazing views of London! I had never flown in from the north before and the plane pretty much followed the Thames!
In London I boarded a 747 and found my seat upstairs, where there are only about 12-14 seats. This is an amazing experience as you feel like you are in a private jet! Especially since the cabin wasn't even all the way full!

Champagne, 4-course lunch, a nap on the lay flat bed, afternoon tea with little sandwiches and scones, more champagne... I love using my miles!!!

 And then I was home!

- 1 new country visited
- 600 miles driven
- 14 Scottish gins tried
- 7 castles viewed
- too many sheep to count

This was truly one of my favorite trips I've done!

All photos from Glasgow here

Other posts from this trip:

Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye
Oban & the Isle of Mull

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Oban & the Isle of Mull

Trip date: April 2018

The drive from Skye to Oban took me back along the A87 to Invergarry and then south on the A82 to Spean Bridge, part of the same route I had taken on my drive from Pitlochry to Skye. Normally I dislike taking a repeat route but the scenery on this road is so fantastic I was actually looking forward to it! I promised myself that since I had a 4 1/2 hr drive ahead of me, and that I'd seen part of this before, I wouldn't stop until I was on unchartered territory.

I almost made it! I had to stop to take in these mountains! They were so spectacular, photos really don't do it justice. But then I was good and just snapped a few moving shots while driving past Loch Lochy until I got to the Commando Memorial.
This is a beautiful memorial park with more amazing views of the mountains including Ben Nevis (highest peak in Scotland). And as I was 2 1/2 hours into my drive, it was the perfect spot to stretch my legs.

I pulled into Oban and found the Kilchrenan House, a waterfront Victorian mansion turned into a bed & breakfast, where I'd be staying for the next two nights. The b&b has free parking, very nice hosts - Colin and Francis- and gorgeous views of the bay (they also have some great itinerary ideas on their site). I was shown to my room and welcomed with a wee dram of whisky.

I took advantage of the gorgeous weather and went for a nice long walk before dinner. Just north of the house I walked to the park that has a nice little war memorial and also the remains of Dunollie Castle (home of the MacDougall clan). I'm telling you, this country is crazy for castles!
From here it was about a 1 1/2 mile walk to the center of the town and around the harbor. I found a spot for a martini and caught the most gorgeous sunset. Hello Oban!

I had dinner that night at Cuan Mor which made a half way decent martini, some nice little fried haggis balls in gravy, and some really tasty mussels.

My plan for the next day was to tour the three Inner Hebrides Islands of Mull, Iona, and Staffa with West Coast Tours.  I had booked this months in advance and honestly it was my whole reason for being in Oban. But shortly upon arriving in town I had an email from the tour company saying that the weather was too windy and the trip was cancelled. I couldn't believe it as the weather that night was gorgeous and that morning I woke up to another beautiful day! I was bummed to say the least.

So I went down for breakfast and had the traditional porridge with both cream and whisky (that's a thing in Scotland and it is awesome!), along with some fried eggs and bacon, and came up with an alternate plan.

I walked down to the Tourism Office and they confirmed the ferry time to the Island of Mull as well as the connecting shuttle to Duart Castle. Then I made my way to the Oban Distillery, which is right in the center of town, and got a spot on their morning tour.

This is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, now owned by Diageo so again no photos inside, but really interesting and just like at Talisker, I had a fantastic tour guide. My day was picking up!

On the pier by the ferry I passed a seafood shack that seemed very busy selling whole crab and lobster, freshly steamed mussels right out of the pot, and a selection of nice looking sandwiches. I grabbed a lovely smoked salmon sandwich for the ferry ride. Never saw a name, just the green awning, but I would highly suggest eating there or grabbing something to go! Cash only.

Then I went to the ticket desk and got round trip tickets for the ferry to Mull, bus transfers and entry to the castle all for about $20. Mull is the 2nd largest of the Inner Hebrides islands (after Skye) with about 3,000 residents and normal ferry runs to the main port of Craignure. The islands of Iona and Staffa are much smaller (Iona only has about 150 residents!) and because there isn't anything between them and North America, the weather can be quite bad, canceling the few ferries that travel there.

The ferry ride to Mull was fantastic! I grabbed a pint to go with my sandwich and then took a seat outside and enjoyed the scenery. I love a boat ride!

The minivan transfer was waiting when I disembarked and about 12 of us were driven to Duart Castle. It's a small but interesting fort, built in 1360 and the home of the Maclean clan.

One of the guys on the bus was super excited as he is a Maclean and decided to use his day off to visit. I thought that was pretty cool! The castle has a long history of battles and seizes, but in 1911 it was bought by Sir Fitzroy Donald Maclean, the 26th Chief of the Clan Maclean. In 1990 Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean of Duart and Morvern inherited it from his father. He and his family live in one section of the mansion while the other is open to tourists.
It's filled with all sorts of personal items from various Macleans, including recent family photos. It reminded me of some of the castles in the Loire Valley that also have their owners living in part while making money for repairs from tourism. It's reported that at this point $1.94Million has been spent on restoration during his ownership, some of this is from a historical grant but a lot is from ticket sales and donations.

And although there were pretty blue skies, the wind was crazy strong. I felt like it might knock me down! I now understood the high wind issues with getting to Iona and Staffa.

I had a little time when I was finished touring the castle before my minivan headed back to the ferry so I stopped in the teahouse for a snack. When I saw a mention of them using local cheeses and charcuterie I asked if they had a little cheese plate I could order. They didn't but within minutes the woman put together this amazing spread for me!

I grabbed another beer back on the ferry, and enjoyed it with another gorgeous ride as we sailed back to Oban.

Oban is very small, the ferry port is at one extreme end while my b&b was at the other. I strolled around a bit as I made my way home, exploring a few streets I hadn't been on. It's quite a pretty town but there isn't a lot going on.
I chose George Street Fish for dinner that night as I wanted more fish and chips and the space looked very cute. And the space was cute. But unfortunately the fish was fine at best and the chips were just bad. Would not recommend. I stopped back at Cuan Mor for a couple of drinks before strolling along the waterfront home.

The next morning I had cream and whisky in my porridge again, as well as haggis and fried eggs before checking out. Even with a wrench thrown into my plans, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Oban and Mull. And I enjoyed parking the car for a few days!

All Oban & Mull photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Slice of Skye

Trip date: April 2018

I arrived on the Isle of Skye a bit later than I had planned, originally thinking I would get there, grab lunch and then go hike the Fairy Pools and taste at Talisker. But after a 4-hour drive that had my heart racing from time to time, and stopping to gaze at every mountain and lake I passed, I was tired and hungry and ready for a few drinks!

I parked at the Sligachan Hotel and walked across the road to wander along a small trail at the base of the Cullin Hills. It was gorgeously sunny, a creek flowing down from the mountains almost unbelievably clear, and with no one around I felt like I had this little slice of Skye all to myself.

My grumbling stomach finally pulled me away and to the hotel bar for lunch. A local beer (btw, pints in Scotland are larger than normal pints!) and some truly fantastic fish & chips. Turned out to be the best I had on my entire trip.

From here it was a 30-minute drive to Portree where I would be staying for the next two nights. This is pretty much the main place to stay on Skye if you want to explore the Trotternish Peninsula, which was the main thing I wanted to do. It’s a very small town without a lot of choices for lodging or dining.

I checked into the aptly named Portree Hotel where one of the staff nicely carried my bag up to my room on the 3rd floor. I had a single with a peek-a-boo view of the ocean. Nothing fancy, not by a long shot, but it would do.

The hotel didn’t have a parking lot but the front desk let me know I could park for free at the Community Center which was just a few blocks away. I moved my car and then went for a stroll around town. It took me about 15 minutes!

I then walked down to the harbor with its brightly colored buildings, that took even less time! But it felt good to stretch my legs and the weather was lovely.

I stopped into Merchant’s House, had a beer while writing some postcards, and then had a martini while chatting with another couple who seemed to be doing similar hikes and drives as me. Luckily I saw the bartender measure out sweet vermouth before he added it to the gin. Ugh.

Not inspired by any of the dozen restaurants around town I headed back to my hotel which also had a restaurant. It was packed and I didn’t have a reservation but when I mentioned I was staying there they found me a table within minutes. Very nice. And my venison meatloaf was actually pretty good!

Breakfast was included in my hotel price, so the next morning I had some lovely smoked haddock and poached eggs before taking off for the day. I had planned an entire day of driving and hiking around the Trotternish Peninsula, the most northeastern part of the island.

From the moment I drove down my first “one track lane” and saw a large hawk watching me from a fence post, I knew I was in for a spectacular day! My first stop was at The Storr. The parking lot, roadside, and trail were packed! As I started to hike up I realized this trail was also incredibly steep! But there was another trail to the left and two people were coming down from it. I stopped and asked them about the path and they explained it went to the same place, the base of the huge rock formation which had toppled off years ago called The Storr, but was less steep as it curved around.

I made the right choice, and I was the only one on the trail save for some sheep! It was beautiful and peaceful and I was having a great time! I got to the main base of The Storr and decided I was good at getting photos from a far. People were looking absolutely wrecked coming down!

Following the road, my next stop was Lealt Falls & Gorge. More stunning views, this time straight down at a beach which use to have peat factory. The trail here is super easy and the ocean seems to stretch out forever.

Back in the parking lot there was an elderly man with a small food truck, baking fresh baguettes in a little oven, which he split and filled with a pan fried hot dog and onions. Lunch was served.
The next stop on the road was Kilt Rock, a 200-foot cliff of volcanic rock that resembles the pleats in a kilt. Some guys were flying drones out over the ocean in front of the cliffs, I'm sure their photos were awesome but the sound of those things is incredibly irritating!

There's no hike here, just a crowded parking lot (I can't imagine this road in the high season!) and some look out areas. But the views are gorgeous.

I turned off onto a smaller road after leaving here and made my way up to The Quiraing. I wasn't exactly sure if I was heading in the right direction as there were no other cars and no signs.
But soon the road started climbing high up the Trotternish Ridge. As I got near the very busy parking lot at the top I noticed that people were parked in the turn outs. When you are on a single-track road, on the top of a very high ridge, and cars are trying to pass you going the opposite direction, you really need those turn outs! Me and another had a VERY close encounter. I got as near to the car, parked in my turn out, as I could, while he passed me without tumbling off the cliff or sideswiping my car. BARELY.

I hiked a way up the ridge, the wind was incredibly strong, and was rewarded with stunning views and strange rock formations. It was amazing! And worth the near-collision!
Back out on the main road, I continued around the north tip of the peninsula. The wilderness of this part of the Isle of Skye had me absolutely captivated. It is so remote, naturally gorgeous, wild. I pulled over and hiked out against the wind on a bluff where I could see the remains of Duntulm Castle in the distance. The fort was built in the 12th century and was abandoned in the early 1700's.
In the distance I could see the Outer Hebrides Islands. I'm absolutely going out there on my next trip to Scotland! My newest obsession.

At one point on the road a large tractor hauling bales of hay was coming directly at me. Both of us had passed our turn outs and since he was bigger than me, the only thing I could I do was to back up. Which I suck at. So as I slowly drove in reverse back to my turn out, with the Scottish tractor driver right in front of me, we both laughed and he gave me a hearty wave and smile when he could finally pass. But for the most part it was just me and the scenery.
My last "official" stop for the day was at the Museum of Island Life where thatched huts are set up as a traditional small town. Three of the huts are original and over 200 years old. If you stop, and you should if it is open, they only take cash both for tickets and items in the gift shop.
I continued along the coastal road, through the beautiful little town of Uig, past more gorgeous scenery. This shit just does not get old for me.

I'd left Portree at 10am and was back in Portree at 4:30pm where I stopped into the Isles Inn for a much deserved beer before getting cleaned up and going out for dinner at The Granary. I rewarded my day of driving and hiking with a very good lamb steak and a delicious sticky toffee pudding. And wine.
The next morning I had a traditional Scottish breakfast with sausage, bacon, black pudding, potato scone, egg, and tomato (they were out of mushrooms which are normally included). I've come to realize that I although I like English breakfast, I'm not a fan of the grainy sausage that the Scotts use. First world problems.

I checked out of the Portree Hotel and drove south and west on the Isle of Skye. The morning was brilliant and the Cullins were absolutely stunning as I drove past.
I arrived at Talisker Distillery at 10am and grabbed the last spot in the 10:30 tour. My hotel had tried to call the day before to help me reserve but they were already closed. I was worried that they might not be doing tours as it was Easter Sunday, but the receptionist assured me that such a holiday would not get in the way of whisky. ha!
Talisker is owned by Diageo now so they don't allow photos on the tour, but our guide Nettie was excellent and the distillery is very interesting, it is the oldest on the Isle of Skye. And I ran into the couple I had had drinks with in Portree so we swapped some hiking stories from the day before (the husband was still recovering from the hike up The Storr!)

I left the distillery and drove out to the Cullins to hike out to the well known Fairy Pools. The day had gone cloudy but it was still gorgeous and I was really looking forward to this hike. The parking lot was another clusterfuck but I found a spot and was on my way.

It's short and relatively flat as the trail follows a stream that soon turns into a series of small waterfalls filling incredibly clear pools. The mountains are a dramatic backdrop!
In one of the pools there were some bad ass divers exploring! I thought this was an absolutely beautiful hike and only took about 1 hour round trip (much less if you aren't gazing at the scenery and taking lots of photos!). The hardest part of the hike is coming back up the hill to the parking area, and I also had to ask a man for a hand while crossing one part of the stream. There are large rocks you step on to cross but I don't have the best balance and didn't want to chance falling in!

I went back to the bar at the Sligachan Hotel for lunch and had my first Cullen Skink, a delicious  and creamy soup of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. I had a long drive ahead of me, I was heading to Oban, so I just ordered a 1/2 of beer to go with it. Oh and there was an Easter Bunny and lots of families having brunch. Beer and soup was such a better option.

I can't believe how incredibly beautiful the Isle of Skye is! If you are planning a trip to Scotland I'd put it on my do-not-miss list for sure.

All photos from Isle of Skye here.

Other posts from this trip:
Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
Oban & the Isle of Mull