Wednesday Wanderings: Oban and Crieff

Thursday, September 21, 2017

We woke up, dug ourselves out of the lumpy hostel bed, and made our way to the train station. The Jacobite train pulled in as we found parking. We had a quick bite in the station cafe, then discussed what we wanted to do. Try to ride the train to Mallaig, or just look at the train, take some pictures and head out again to see more of Scotland.

We decided to hit the road and try to hit some more distilleries and scenery. We picked Crieff as our stop that night, and I found an Airbnb quite easily. James’ Cottage.

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After breakfast, Stud Muffin had to take a picture of the array of sauces the cafe offered. This isn’t even all of them.

Then we went out to the platform. The train was beautiful! Old, obviously, yet, lovingly maintained and cared for. There were lots of people like us, just looking and snapping pictures. There were also others boarding, ordering their lunch and tea and snack plates.

If we get back to Scotland, I really do want to do this train ride. It looked like a fabulous time, and I’m sure you’d get to see different scenery from the train tracks.

We wandered back to the car and headed out. First stop: Oban. I knew Dave had tasted Oban, maybe even received a bottle as a gift once, and I remembered he’d liked it. Since the village of Oban was on “our way” to Crieff, that was our first stop.

Oban is a small town, on the coast of the Oban Bay. We lucked out, we thought, and got the last parking spot right in front of the distillery. There was a city lot at the bottom of the block, but it looked full, so we tried the narrow, dead-end street and were successful.

Our tour was led by Jim, who had a much thicker brogue than Angela at Dalwhinnie. It was a good thing this wasn’t our first tour because we would have been lost, trying to understand Jim while seeing everything. Oban has a very nice tasting room, and Dave and I each bought a shirt. We thought. Turns out they were both women’s shirts. So I got two. 🙂

We returned to the car to find we’d been ticketed. Sigh. We searched for signs and hours and restrictions, but couldn’t see anything that we’d violated. There were cones blocking off the neighboring spot, but we were well within our spots lines. So we (cough-Dave-cough) took pictures to prove that we were legal. The ticket said we had 21 days to pay and could pay online. I planned to print out all the pictures and send them with our check once we got home. On day 21, I pulled out the ticket and finally read it carefully. We were supposed to go down to that city lot at the bottom of the block and buy a parking pass. Although there are no signs anywhere in that alley that we saw saying that. So I paid the fine online and decided to let it go.

Back on the road, we turned toward Crieff, our destination for the night. Dave did some

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research on the area and found one more distillery: The Famous Grouse. We got there early for the last tour of the day so we had a bite in their cafe before the tour. Our guide was Michael. The Famous Grouse was the only distillery we visited that does blends. The others were all single malt.

Of course, Michael thought blends were superior to the single malts. He likened a blend to a full orchestra while the single2017-09-21_09-39-08_038 malts are one note instruments. The Famous Grouse has the Guiness Book of World Record’s largest bottle of Scotch. They filled it as an anniversary celebration and to raise money for charity. Patrons purchased a regular sized bottle and poured it into the giant bottle. When the record is broken and it’s not longer the largest in the world, they plan to auction it off, also for charity.

The tour was excellent and interesting, but I was getting tired of distilleries. I think you tell by my face in the picture on the right, I was pretty much done. I didn’t drink my samples, since I was still driving.

It was about 5:00 by then, so we decided to go find our Airbnb. It was a short drive and the listing said there was private off-street parking. We found both the house and the parking, but it was down a narrow, winding road with no clear way to enter the house, so we circled the block and parked out front. Michael was our host (not the same Michael who gave us the Famous Grouse tour). He eyed our luggage and immediately suggested we think about leaving one of the suitcases in the car. He was concerned about his walls being bumped and thumped on our way up the stairs. We readily agreed. I needed mine though, so Stud Muffin lugged his back to the car, took out his toiletries and a change of clothes.  I asked him to bring in my whiskey samples that I’d left in the car from the Famous Grouse tour. Michael then informed us that a “dram,” is “an unmeasured measure,” of liquid. So … a wee dram of whiskey is an unmeasured little bit in a glass.

Michael asked about our breakfast preference. Apparently Airbnb holds him to a different standard than Julia in Royal Tunbridge Wells. Dave requested the full Scottish with black sausage instead of haggis. I asked for two eggs and a sausage. Dave gave him careful instructions about how to prepare my eggs. I’m not an egg fan, and I the only way I can eat them is if they are really done done. Dave told Michael he could start frying my eggs, then go into town and pick up supplies, come back, and they’d be ready. He’s not exaggerating much. I do like them over hard and well done. Crispy with salt and pepper. Michael promised to do his best.

2017-09-22_01-01-32_775The next morning we got to chat with Michael a bit more. He was in his 70s. His wife had passed away about 8 years ago. He was Irish, living in Scotland. He’d played professional golf on the European Seniors tour. The breakfast room was full of pictures and trophies. I’ve googled him and found some stories about him on the tour. He enjoyed running the B&B. It was called James Cottage and was the oldest building in Crieff.

Once we were settled in our room, I enjoyed my dram. We were too tired to go out again and try to find a place to park and eat. We had some leftovers from our gas station lunch the day before, so we finished those, and read, and journaled, and relaxed for the evening.

 

 

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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.