Our first goal on this trip was to spend about a week on the island of Islay, one of the islands that make up the Inner Hebrides in the highlands of Scotland. As you all know, Jim was turning 50 during our trip and he wanted to enjoy the peaty whiskies famous in this remote area!
So here is how our adventure started: We left Saint Louis on July 4 and arrived in Manchester, England, at about 7:30 AM on July 5 (Friday). Our first day had all kinds of challenges! First, since we couldn't get a direct flight from Saint Louis, we went to Chicago first and then our second flight took us over the Atlantic. That second flight was on an older plane with very little room for movement (I have flown a lot and never been squeezed that much!). The woman in front of me decided to push her seat back (though everyone else seemed to understand that doing this would severely impact the person behind you) and I couldn't even cross-stitch. Instead, I pretty much stared at the woman's forehead for about eight hours.
Once we landed, things didn't get much better (at first). The airport in Manchester seemed a wee bit understaffed so we had to wait in a customs line for about an hour. After making it through this first hurdle, we then tried to buy train tickets to Glasgow (where we would be staying the night) but quickly discovered that there had been a fire on the tracks near the airport and the trains were not running. A railroad employee suggested that we take a local bus to the Manchester Picadilly station and then we spent the next hour or so on a crowded, slow-going local bus that dropped us off -- finally -- about two blocks from the train station. After a hike up a hill, we made it to the station, purchased our tickets, and found ourselves on a crowded train. Once we transferred to another train, we were finally able to sit down and I think the both of us at that point were pretty darn tired (after being up for about 24 hours at this point). The best part of the day was making it to our hotel room in Glasgow. We were smart about it and booked a room at the Grand Central Hotel, steps from where we got off the Manchester train. The room was great -- here are a few pictures:
We walked around Glasgow a little, finally eating at a pub that reminded us of the Dubliner back home. I think we both slept pretty hard though it was difficult to sleep in a place where it didn't even get dark until about 11 PM. The next morning we were supposed to pick up our rental car right outside the hotel but apparently there had been changes made that we were not aware of. To make a long story short, the hotel helped us contact the rental car people and we finally got the car stuff worked out and pointed our rented Fiat 500 toward Kennacraig, a ferry terminal about 3 hours away. Since it was about 11 AM by the time we left Glasgow, we had plenty of time to explore before meeting our 6 PM ferry.
I should mention at this point that Jim caught on to driving on the other side of the ride with a manual transmission (so imagine having to shift gears with the other hand!) quite quickly -- and well! Though I was super nervous most of the time because of the narrowness of the roads, Jim did a fantastic job the entire time dealing with my nagging about how close we were to shrubs/ stone walls/ cliffs/ curbs. I know it wasn't easy to take on most of the driving (OK, all of it) but he did an outstanding job!
On our way to Kennacraig, we stopped at a castle that a friend has a connection to -- Dunans. We were able to only take some pictures from the outside but this brief stop was a nice way to kick off all the castle watching that we would be doing during the entire trip. Here is the Dunans Castle from a little stone bridge:
We then continued down the road, stopping finally for lunch at a castle we just happened to stumble upon and saw signs for -- Inveraray Castle. We were pretty hungry by this point so we stopped in the cafe first and I then discovered that this was the very castle in which the Christmas special from the third season of Downton Abbey had been filmed! Egads! How could this be? How did I not know this?! I managed to get through lunch quickly and then we were off to tour the whole castle! Amazing! I loved it!
By the time we got off the ferry (it was about a 2 hour trip), it was raining on Islay (the island that we were to spend the next week on!) but we found our B&B pretty easily. I loved Kathy's place (if anyone is headed to Islay, I would recommend checking out the web site for Octofad Farm!). She made the BEST breakfast!
The next day was a Sunday and we started our rounds of the whiskey distilleries! Since several of them were closed on Sundays, we made it to two on this first day: Ardbeg and Lagavulin. Jim had a nice time at both and then after Lagavulin we had a nice walk around the front and explored an ancient castle in ruins (the third picture):
We stayed on Islay for almost a week, spending our time at seven of the eight whiskey distilleries and exploring these amazing historical spots. I can't even list everything that we saw or did but here are some of the highlights from the first few days:
Kildalton Cross and Church: This was our first adventure in "single tracking" it down a narrow one lane dirt road! But wow! What a place! These pictures show Islay's most famous treasure, the ninth-century "High Cross of Kildalton." What is amazing, of course, is that the cross is unbroken and well preserved enough to enable us to see a lot of the detail (which suggest the idea of sacrifice). The cross sits in front of the ruins of a church, a late medieval roofless ruin (with some interesting grave stones).
Claggain Bay: After our visit to Kildalton we continued down the single-track dirt road to Claggain Bay -- lots of pretty stones and forever to be remembered as the place where we were attacked by kites (the bird, not the toy). We must have been too close to a nest but check out this beach! Isn't it beautiful?! And keep in mind that during all of our adventures in Islay we would see -- at the most -- maybe two other people! This is quite an isolated place!
(The view as you walk toward Finlaggan)
Kilnave: It took us quite a lot of work on another single-track dirt road to find this place but it was well worth it -- perhaps one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen in my life! Kilnave is a late medieval chapel set in a magnificent scenic location (just on the east side of Loch Gruinart). Jim and I were the only people there and, again, it was amazing just to soak in all the history.
Well, this blog post covers just the first few days -- there will be lots more to come (including more pictures!). I didn't think that I was going to be that excited about Islay because we were coming here for whiskey (and I don't like whiskey). But little did I know how amazing this place is -- and that there might even be a whiskey that I do like! But more about that later!