Now let's see, where were we? Ah yes, we were in our second week here, and continuing our ramble (as opposed to the very programmed first week here) in Oban, on Scotland's west coast. This is a very popular destination so there is no shortage of lodging choices. We wound up staying in a B&B called the Wellmark, found for us by a lady working in the Scotland Tourist Information office. This is a good way to go about finding a room. The service costs you 4 pounds, about 7 bucks, and saves you scurrying around to find what you want.
One of our reasons for coming here, beside the promise of fresh seafood - the place bills itself as the seafood capital of Scotland - was the presence of a small wildlife preserve. That was our goal the next morning. Small indeed and privately owned, apparently, but very nicely done. We made the acquaintance of a pair of sea otters, some seals and a whole aquarium-full of fish. As always, you can click on these photos to see them a bit larger.
Some interesting characters here, including a tank of little guys with no fins at all. What they had instead were legs and feet. Four each. Called Axolotls, these guys walked around the bottom of their tank. Darwin would be proud.
Oban also boasts a distillery (Oban single malt) right there in town, which we toured. Of course we did. These places always are interesting because they all work just a little differently and each distillery's whisky is different from the next brand.
About the spelling: Scotch is always whisky. Other kinds - bourbon, rye, etc., that is whiskey. And if you make single-malt somewhere other than Scotland, it's not Scotch. And even if you do make it in Scotland, if it is in the oak barrel for less than three years, it is not Scotch - it is merely spirit. The least amount of barrel time you will find is 10 years, though many distillers go to 12 years for their youngest product. Of course you can buy Scotch that is much older than that. If you do, you'll pay a lot more money. This stuff gets scary expensive. I suspect that's one of the reason that blends are widely enjoyed in Scotland (Famous Grouse is the most popular brand here, Bell's is the most popular in Britain, Dewar's holds that honor in the U.S.), with single-malts supposedly consumed on only on special occasions.
As always, we were on the hunt for good Scotch of any kind, so the plan was to take a ferry over to the island of Islay (pronounced, Eye-leh). Ah, but the car ferries were packed, with no reservations for the next several days. Islay is big, so you want a car to visit all the cool places, which include distilleries, ancient chapels, stone crosses and stone circles. So it was time to punt.
The punt went east on a tiny, single-track bit of pavement through farmland across the Kintyre peninsula that took us to Claonaig, where we easily drove aboard a ferry headed for Lochranza, a tiny town on the island of Arran. We'd never heard of it, so this was just what we like - an adventure. This island is quite remote and is very lightly populated. At least by people. It does have lots of sheep. It's also got a distillery, naturally, and is a very beautiful place. Once there we drove south for a bit and pulled into the Kinloch Hotel in a tiny town with the unlikely name of Blackwaterfoot. Very nice place, good restaurant, great views. We could not have been any closer to the ocean without getting very wet.
On the way to Blackwaterfoot we'd passed a sign pointing to a stone circle. This turned out to be a set of a half-dozen of them called the Machrie Moor Stone Circles, said to be about 4,000 years old. To reach them, we walked a couple of miles down a farm track, though several gates, past the ruins of an ancient stone farm cottage and through a mist and many sheep. I suspect the sheep outnumber the humans on this wonderful island. The circles are there, alright, silent and mysterious, making us wonder about the humans who created them so long ago.
We awoke the next day ready to ramble, so we took the ferry from a town called Brodick east to Ardrossan, back on Scotland's mainland. We drove south to Kirkcudbright, said to be an artists' town. We stopped for gas in the picturesque little village of St. John's Town of Dalry, where we lunched in an incredible country pub called the Clachan Inn. This place is a sportsman's paradise and was maybe the find of the trip. I shot several photos to capture the interior, which was replete with ancient fly fishing gear and trophy fish, antique shotguns and more. It would be great fun to spend a weekend here and maybe do some fishing. But not this time.
Once in Kirkcudbright, where we snagged another great B&B, this time in a magnificent old stone house that dates to 1886 called the Anchorlee. While here we prowled gardens and galleries, then drove down to Portpatrick, where we lunched outside in fresh lobster.
This was a good day for gardens. Visited the Castle Kennedy and Logan Botanical gardens, the latter of which displayed some of the finest nature photography we have ever seen. These two gardens were very different, both very beautiful and extensive. The Logan, especially, is impressive, looking more Mediterranean than you might expect, thanks to the temperatures and directions of nearby ocean currents - or so we were told. But it was the photos that got our attention. These were samples from the 2013 Scottish Nature Photography Awards and included some of the finest work I've ever seen. You can find them here: http://www.scottishnaturephotographyawards.com/. It's really incredible work, some of it by teenagers. Very talented kids, for sure.
We awakened the next day with heavy hearts - this would be the final day of our ramble: It was time for us to meander back toward Glasgow and the airport.
On the way, we visited the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum, a real gem built around an old three-story control tower on the remains of an old airfield. The tower contains more artifacts than you can count - most of them from WW II and many of them Spitfire bits, and the yard contains a selection of newer, but still ancient, aircraft fading away out in the hard Scottish weather. Wish I had money to donate to them, as the volunteers who run the place spend their free time discovering and exhuming ancient aircraft wrecks from the area's hills and lakes. And there are many wrecks. One of them was a Spitfire, which the volunteers here have rescued from its crash site and are slowly, painstakingly, restoring. Good on 'em, I say!
Finally we arrived in Glasgow, where we turned the car in. We drove about 900 miles in two weeks, all on the wrong side of the roads. Spent about $290 on gas. It is very expensive here. But we made it without a scratch on us or the car, in spite of very narrow, winding roads and enormous lorries driven by maniacs who seem determined to badly frighten us. Cheated death again, as we always assure each other at the end of such trips.
We checked into a Holiday Inn at the airport, a hotel that wanted to charge for everything. I mean, everything. First time in two weeks that free wi-fi was not provided. No free breakfast, either, again, a first for this trip. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant, easily the worst meal of this trip and the worst value for money. The place ought to be declared a crime scene. (Laura has remonstrated with me for this choice of language; she says at least the hotel is better than any Holiday Inn property has ever been; a dubious distinction, to be sure. She's nicer than I am. But you knew that.)
But there is one thing: Turning in the car, then walking across the street to check into the hotel, then walking across another street to the airport terminal the next morning, is handy as hell.
Saturday morning, the 12th, we are up early to catch our flight, during which this report is being cobbled together. We have a six-hour lay-over at Heathrow, London's maddeningly huge, complex and busy airport. We expect to unlock our own door and greet our two cats at about 9 p.m. Saturday night.
It will be good to be home, even if that means that our two-week reverie is over and now I can get back to worrying about the things over which I have no control that worry me these days (see a previous post titled "Thoughts on Aging." Sometimes I'm more like my dad than I'd like to admit. Still, it will be great to see the cats, who as always have been cared for in our absence by their Auntie Lois, great to sleep in our own bed, great to settle back into routine, great to have shower controls that I understand, great to have real coffee, great to get back to my daily 5-mile walks. And it will be great to be driving my own car on the proper side of the damned road.
At the end of the day, this was a fabulous getaway, filled with good times with my sweetie, nice people, gorgeous scenery, lots of interesting history, pretty good seafood and good Scotch. We like it here and most likely will return. But not for a while. Not for a while.
Post Script: A couple of things - first, suitcases. We're idiots. Against our better judgment, we both took our big suitcases on this trip. And because the airline allowed 50 pounds per bag, we didn't leave much out, which means we each packed way too much stuff. So we had to lug these monsters into and out of our car, up and down B&B stairs, and more. We know very well that packing in our 22-inch roll-aboards and a single daypack each is both doable and practical for two-week trips because we've done this. All it takes is some packing discipline. We have vowed that we will return to this practice. Taking the big suitcases is just dumb.
Another thing - we left our iPhones home, as usual. Instead, we took a cheap and simple little phone that we bought in Greece several years ago. What we do is, when we arrive in a new country, we buy a cheap local prepaid SIM card for it - cost this time was $17. This gives us a local phone number and greatly simplifies calls for reservations, etc. Using our wi-fi-only iPads, we just e-mail our local phone number to relatives and anyone else who might need to get hold of us. Beats hell out of the incredible roaming charges it is very easy to rack up if you don't set your iPhone just right, something many people don't do.