Monday, September 20, 2010

A Hunt for Nessie, A Visit with Frodo, and Our Arrival on Skye

02-05-09 Saturday

We are up early and quite anxious for our next round of the delicious full Scottish breakfast waiting for us downstairs. We know what to expect this time and are quickly back upstairs to grab our jackets. CG wants to stop at a gift shop we visited yesterday to get AS a large stuffed Highland Cow, and we happily head back towards the cobblestoned hill of the mall to grab our desired treasures before we leave Inverness.

The morning is sunny but the wind has picked up and, alas, clouds are starting to skirt the sky towards us. It soon is raining once more, but we shrug it off, knowing that this is Scottish weather and it is likely to change again, and then again, and then at least once again throughout the day. After stuffing said desired treasures into our suitcases when we get back to The Alexander Guest House, we head downstairs to the lobby to check out. There, we are fortunate to chat with F, the co-owner and chef of the Alexander. She has wonderful things to say about P and then offers a few suggestions on where to go and how to get out of Inverness. After thanking her for a wonderful time and then saying good-bye, we say a contented good-bye to Inverness as we cross over the bridge and head up the carriageway towards Urquhart Castle – Home of Nessie.

CG navigates the Volvo like a pro in the busy traffic, and we are soon bordered on the right side by the rising hills of Scotland and, on the other side, the beautiful blue waters of Loch Ness. I look over my shoulder and see the last glimpse of the River Ness as the loch narrows into the river banks on its trek to the sea. Looking back at the choppy waters of the loch, I discover that it would nearly be impossible to see any prehistoric head, or back, slicing through the waves so I concentrate on familiarizing myself better with the tour notes P had sent to us.

However, the scenery distracts me and the papers lay strewn across my lap as CG maneuvers the car down the road. Alert, we both scan the carriageway for road signs indicating that we are getting close to the castle. Suddenly, we spot the sign to the car park on the left (the sign is AT the car park, mind you) and CG brakes quickly, steers over to the left and bumps the curb.

We find a spot to park the car, get out and enter the visitor center. After deciding to purchase two Historic Scotland Explorer Passes (as many sites as we can see in 3 days over a 5 day period) we mull around the gift shop and then head outside. The castle ruins sit on the brink of Loch Ness, and we follow the path down to the entrance. After exploring the site and taking many pictures, it is time to leave so we head back towards the stone arch back to the visitor center. As we pass under the ancient arch, I bend down and snag a small stone that is lying in the middle of the path. I quickly slip it into my pocket and we make our way back to the car.

Back on the road again, we stop briefly at the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition Experience (we have to park at the top of the tiered car park and hoof it down some pretty steep steps), decide not to purchase a ticket into the museum, and visit the gift shop instead to search for something for Alena. After finding a small stuffed Nessie and a few other treats, we are back outside, and CG gallantly climbs the steps to the car and picks me up at the bottom. The day’s agenda is quite full and we are anxious to put more miles behind us.

Hugging the shore of the loch for several more miles before we leave Nessie sighting opportunities behind, we are soon climbing into the beginning of some of the most scenic places in the Highlands. Pursuant to P’s tour notes, we wind our way southwest towards Fort Augustus, and then a quick turn back to the northwest towards Invergarry where we are to look for a wee point of interest called The Well of the Seven Heads.

CG and I soon find that it is wee indeed as we overshoot the statue by some 14 miles, and then have to backtrack until we cruise past the stone monument. Since the parking is at a premium (if there was any, I should say) on the narrow carriageway, we find a picnic area where we pull in and park the car in the mud.

Springing out, we try to cross-country the meadow towards the statue and, due to the muck, are finally forced to climb the hill to the road where we gingerly step off of the payment whenever a car approaches. We finally reach the monument on the banks of Loch Oich, and gaze at the circle of stone heads at the top. Certainly, the looks on their frozen faces are those of frightened men, and we locate the side of the four-sided obelisk that is in English (the other three are Gaelic, French and Latin - according to P it is the only statue in Scotland that is in four languages).

It seems as though in 1663, two sons of a clan chief were murdered by an uncle and six of his sons. In retaliation, the townsmen beheaded all seven men, washed their heads, Roman-style, in the spring directly below the statue and took the macabre proof to the Chief at Glengarry Castle. After checking the spring out (more like a tunnel to a small well), we cross the road, peruse the gift shop and then are on our way again towards the west coast of Scotland.

As it nears lunchtime, I have the same small inn in mind for lunch that I had quickly grabbed a cup of coffee at 10 years ago, and we finally arrive at it by 1:00. The 100 year old Cluanie Inn looks exactly the same to me as we park across the road and then enter the inn’s restaurant. After being handed menus at the bar, we are instructed to find our own table and return to the bar with our order. I am certain it is because the place looks just like a hobbit-hole would, and there is little room for a complete wait staff to maneuver through the maze of crowded wooden chairs and tables.

I order some nutritional fish and chips and CG decides on a ham and cheese jacket since, he says, it sounds like it could be like a “little hot pocket.” The food takes awhile to arrive at our table but once it does I am greeted by three steaming pieces of beer-battered fish and a pile of chips, while CG is handed a lukewarm baked potato with ham bits and un-melted cheese. CG picks at his lunch as I devour mine (hey, what can I say? I like fish ‘n’ chips!), and, after paying our tab, we are off again into the rising wind.

There is perhaps one good thing about the breeze - it makes the flags outside the inn snap and wave gaily as I get some photos. As we drive towards the gathering clouds, we admire the rugged terrain and slender silver waterfalls in the distance and I declare that I can’t choose where I think Scotland is the most beautiful.

After a brief rain shower, we round a bend on Loch Alsh and see the infamous Eilean Donan Castle jutting out on a shaft of land into the water.

Oh the view! CG pulls over to smoke a quick cigarette and I artfully snap some pictures across the water. Then it is back in the car to enter the car park, find a spot and head towards the visitor’s center.
After purchasing our tickets, we walk towards the bridge over the inlet to the castle (moat? Who needs a moat when you have a Loch with a tide?), and are quickly bellowed at by the small woman in the ticket booth. “Tickets here please!” she grumbles as we redeem our stubs abashedly to her. It has started to sprinkle as we tour the castle, inside and out, down stairs, then up stairs and then down stairs again, enjoying the views and luxuries with about a hundred other tourists. I snag a stone to take with me from the ground as we walk across the small bailey before we exit through the arch.

Deciding a hot cup of coffee and a warm spot to dry off is needed; we head into the visitor center/coffee shop and snag a table up the stairs near a window that overlooks the castle. Huddling over our mega-cups, we enjoy the view again (this time from the warmth of the building) and then exit to the car. The day is disappearing and we still have more sights to see and more driving to do!

The rain starts again as soon as we cross the bridge to the mystical, magical, Isle of Skye. Struck by the vast diversity of the countryside that slides past our windows, we enjoy the splotches of both sunlight and rain on the green hills and rugged moonscape of the Cuillin Mountains, as well as the stormy water of both the Inner Sound and the Sound of Raasay.

With the storm overhead and about us, it seems pre-maturely dark as our headlights meet the pavement and we finally drop down into the wonderful harbor town of Portree. We find our hotel on the hill above the town square, check in at the pub (ok, that was a bit odd but certainly understandable as the staff was adequate for the size of the hotel).

We learn that the contemporary Marmalade Hotel is a recently remodeled Georgian building, and we are shown up the stairs and down a narrow hall to our room at the end of the hall. It is definitely the largest room we have had thus far (ok, only the second one of the trip but I am acutely aware of the lack of space in most U.K. rooms from my last trip). We drop our luggage off and head back downstairs to enjoy a leisurely glass of Sangiovese-Merlot before we walk down the hill to explore the town.

The rain has stopped and the clouds hang over the hills of the mainland in the distance. We pass a park where “football” practice is going on while a “rabbit fan” quietly watches on the grass nearby before we stroll down the narrow lanes of the capital of the island. After wandering past wee shops and assorted lodgings, we take a flight of stone stairs down to the street below the town square and make our way to the dock.

The harbor is peaceful and CG is enamored by the serenity of the boats in the bay. Finally ravenous, we find our next “suggested” dining location, The Isle Inn on the town square. Boisterous, loud and exactly what a Scottish pub should be, we are quickly seated near the front window and order steak and mushroom pie again this evening with a glass of wine for me and a glass of whisky for CG. Daring, CG has chosen the local product, Talisker, and, after his first sip of the pungent peat taste of the scotch, he decides that his preference in scotch is still the Balvenie and The Glenlivit.

We finish our meal and head back up to the Marmalade. After admiring the very large bathtub when we dropped our luggage off earlier, my thoughts have been straying to that of taking a nice leisurely hot bath, and I soon have the tub full. Unfortunately, the surplus of hot water is less than ideal (i.e. non-existent) and my tepid bath is quick. We watch TV and finally turn off the lights on this very long and eventful day.

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