Wednesday Wanderings: Of Highlands and Hostels

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

After our full Scottish breakfast at the Old Waverly Hotel, we Ubered to the local car rental agency where I’d reserved a car for us.

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Our breakfast view: the Sir Walter Scott monument in Edinburgh

We were back in a standard transmission. We found our way out of the city fairly easily. We had no real agenda. We knew we would end up in Fort William. I had seen an article in the AAA magazine a few months before about the Jacobite Steam Train, AKA the Hogwarts Express. It travels a daily round-trip between Fort William and Mallaig. I’d tried to book tickets as soon as I learned about it, but the schedule showed the train wasn’t running the days we’d be able to take it. A month or two later, I checked again, and those days were on the schedule, but already sold out. The fine print said some tickets are available, first come first served, on the day of. So we planned to be at the ticket office first thing in the morning.

We plotted our route to Fort William, planning to stop at a few whiskey distilleries. Stud Muffin likes a smoky scotch and he wanted to learn more about how the whiskey is made, what gives it the smoky and other qualities. We first stopped at Blair Athol distillery near Pitlochry. The name Pitlochry was familiar to me from a book, and I enjoyed seeing the picturesque village. The distillery tours were full, but the front desk gave us the name of a sister distillery about thirty minutes away and

they were able to get us in. We did taste at Blair Athol before we left, and we learned a bit about the Scotch regions. We determined Dave likes the Islay distilleries (very smoky) while I preferred Speyside, a slightly sweeter taste. Although I would never say I’m a scotch drinker or fan, I did learn a bit and was able to pick my “favorite” region.

We grabbed a gas station lunch, and ate in the car in the drizzly rain, then set out for Dalwhinnie.

Our guide, Angela, had a lovely and light Scottish brogue, which was fairly easy for our American ears to understand. She clearly enjoyed her job, and she had lots of interesting factoids and things to share with us. Dalwhinnie once rented storage space to a small, local distillery that went out of business and neglected to pick up all their barrels in storage. So Dalwhinnie has a barrel of I-forget-how-many-years-old (50-60, I think) scotch that most likely belongs to them now, but they haven’t made an effort to claim it legally and so there it sits, aging year by year.

We learned about single malts, grain whiskey, and blends. We learned that scotch is taxed by the government at 75%. Yes. That’s seventy-five percent. Not 7.5. Seventy-five. And scotch begins to be taxed on its third birthday. That’s when it’s officially “Scotch.”  As the whiskey is moved from barrel to bottle, a portion is observed on its journey through a clear plexi-glass, or plastic, or glass box, with a padlock. Photos are forbidden. 😦

After our Dalwhinnie tour, we made straight for Fort William. I’d tried to book us a B&B room from home, but couldn’t find any vacancies. I’d tried for a couple of days ahead of time from my phone. Still no luck. At the car rental agency, Dave asked the clerks if there was a festival or something going on, and why couldn’t we find a room. They assured us there were no special events in Fort William, and that there’s a B&B on every corner and we wouldn’t have a problem.

Well.

There is indeed a B&B on every corner and every single one of them said “No Vacancy.” We finally found a house that looked vacant and parked in the driveway while we both attacked our phones and searched. I found the house we were parked in front of, and it was an Airbnb, but not available. I finally found a room at a hotel for $300 that night, or a hostel. The hostel was about $80 and had a private bath so we booked it and headed to the address. Good thing I booked it because by the time we arrived to check-in, fifteen minutes later, they were fully booked too. We asked why everything was full and the response was a shrug, and “we’re a tourist destination.” In September. With cloudy, drizzly, gray weather. But we were tourists there in September in cloudy, drizzly, gray weather, so point taken.

The hostel room beat sleeping in the car which was our other option. But not by much. The bed was tiny, lumpy, and slanted to the middle. The place needed serious updating, but was clean and the bathroom was indeed private. Although the college boys in the room next to us apparently felt their room wasn’t large enough and they left their backpacks in the hallway and in front of our door. It was our turn to shrug and grin.

After checking in, I had to find a place to park for the night. Not an easy task. The hostel had a tiny lot in the rear that would hold four cars. There was a spot that looked like it might have held a fifth car, but I didn’t want to attempt it. I found a spot on the street2017-09-20_10-33-50_209 about a quarter mile away, that was labeled with the exact hours you could park for one hour, two hours, or longer. I took a picture of the sign because I was fairly certain I fell in the hours for overnight, but wanted to be able to prove it, in case I got a ticket. As I walked back to the hostel, the father and son who took the last room and checked in next to us, were inching into the one spot I’d skipped in the lot. Dave told me later he’d helped them navigate in.

Dave had been dragging our luggage up three flights of stairs while I parked. I entered the hostel from the rear and found the elevator. Which he hadn’t known existed until I told him.

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We headed out for dinner. On our way to the nearest pub, the Grog and Gruel, we passed a bookstore. I had to go in. Believe it or not, this is the only bookstore I visited on the whole trip. I still can’t believe it. We were on the go so much. I had planned to visit a bookstore in Bath that I’d read about, but we ended up bypassing Bath in favor of Hastings, so I’d missed it. This one wasn’t a large store, or particularly impressive, but I’m glad I got to visit it.

At the Grog and Gruel, Stud Muffin ordered the deep fried haggis2017-09-20_11-52-37_986 for an appetizer. We shared fish and chips (yummy) and each had a salad. We then made our way back to the hostel, and the lumpy bed.

Next week: The Jacobite Train, Parking in Oban, and the Famous Grouse.

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