“Better late than never,” as they say.
In May 2022, my husband and I, and four other couples, finally made it to Scotland for a couples’ whisky tasting tour originally scheduled for 2020.
I’d visited Scotland twice before, along with three of the women on this trip. Because both trips were fantastic, we decided to go again. With our men. To see all the sights and sample all the whiskys. Thankfully our one friend, Karen, an expert trip planner, made all the arrangements for the group.
For two years The Great Pause sidelined our international adventure, but:
When the number of Covid cases dropped this spring, we dared to book our flights to Scotland.
The pandemic wasn’t the only thing that threatened our trip. British Airways rescheduled various legs of our journey four times during the week prior to our departure. The changes necessitated us renting vehicles in London and driving eight hours–instead of flying one hour, 25 minutes–up to Scotland.
Along the way, our lead car seemed to take a wrong turn. In reality, they’d taken an intentional detour for a spontaneous supper: our first, and ultimately our tastiest, fish and chips meal, in the tiny town of Moffet.
That evening, when we finally arrived at our bed-and-breakfast in Arrochar, finding a pub attached to our resting place delighted us all.
In the pub–no more than a small room with a bar on one wall and locals on benches lining the other three–we ordered every beer we’d never tasted.
Since there was no available seating, the bartender suggested we relocate to an adjacent space. There, a slim young man was celebrating his birthday with a dozen female friends. In a circle they danced, shouting the lyrics to each song with great enthusiasm. Some of the women wore head-to-toe black, others sported the pastel hues of Scotland’s national animal: the unicorn.
While the guys ordered more pints, my girlfriends and I stepped onto the dance floor. To the wild and welcoming amusement of the Scottish lasses. Eventually we made our way, almost sleep-walking, to our small but smartly decorated rooms.
The next morning, after a hearty Scottish breakfast–eggs, sausages, “bacon” (more like country ham), potato scones, fresh berries, toast, tea and coffee–we drove an hour to board a ferry. In the parking lot, due to a parking space deficit, my husband Tony, who has a commercial driver’s license, backed our van into a space so small he had to exit via the rear hatch.
The ferry that conveyed us to the Isle of Islay was massive.
Cars drove on, then fuel tankers. A giant dump truck, then bicyclists. The first few minutes of the passage, the air was shrill with car alarms shrieking as the boat moved away from the shore. Upstairs in the cafe, we ordered multiple beers and coffees to enjoy on the top deck in the brisk sea air.
On Islay, our group squeezed with our bags into two vans. In our vehicle’s front seat, the driver and another young man, both islanders, kept up a steady stream of banter, rich with local gossip, frequently interrupted by long stretches of Gaelic. “There’s the heli-pad for the posh people,” and, “There’s the house where me mum was born. I have no earthly idea why someone painted it black.”
Our first distillery destination was Lagavulin.
Callum, a young Scot in his 20s, gave us a brief tour of the manufacturing facility, then led us into an elegantly appointed tasting room. At a long table, each of us received five drams of whisky to taste, a journal in which to take notes, and a pitcher of water. We could drink water by the glass, or drip droplets into our drams to “open up” the flavor. Though Callum confessed he’d only been enjoying whisky for about a year, he easily answered every question asked. Afterward, in the distillery store, many pounds sterling purchased several bottles and souvenirs.
Once our tour was over, our drivers–who had generously waited for us–returned us to town. As we unloaded luggage in front of the rental house, our driver pointed to the left. “There’s the ‘proper pub.’” Gesturing to the right, he declared the other pub as “cracking,” the island verbiage for big fun.
Before supper we headed down to the “cracking pub” to enjoy pints in a nearby park overlooking a beach.
The late afternoon was brilliant–a breezy 55 degrees with sun sparkling on the dark water. Two wiry men in their 70s–Tony and Gary–befriended us, sharing tales of their week spent bicycling on the islands of Jura and Islay. They’d pedaled through sun, wind, and driving rain, typical Scottish weather.
Afterward, we strolled a few blocks to the Hotel Islay where we enjoyed an elegant and delicious supper.
The next morning we walked three miles to Ardbeg Distillery where the enthusiastic and fabulously knowledgeable visitor center manager gave us a private tour. Ardbeg was officially closed on Mondays–due to staffing shortages, not unlike those in the US–but they graciously made an exception for us.
After the Ardbeg tour, most of our group relocated to the Laphroaig Distillery. Tony and I, plus our tour coordinator, took a car to the Bruichladdich Distillery. In a dark and damp warehouse, a stout and comedic lass with a thick accent educated us on the young upstart distillery and its offerings. She delivered each dram via a “whiskey thief,” a long glass tube she dipped directly into the casks. At her suggestion, we dripped whisky into our palms, rubbed them together and inhaled deeply to fully experience the fragrance of each elixir.
Later, after our second excellent supper at Hotel Islay, half of our group retired for the night while the rest returned to the “cracking pub” to enjoy additional drafts and drams.
Once a few locals discovered we hailed from West Virginia, they broke in to a rousing rendition of “Country Roads.”*
My friend Rebekah and I asked to take a photo with a young man wearing a kilt. “Deep in his cups,” he happily agreed.
The next day we took the ferry back to mainland Scotland in order to head to the remote Applecross Peninsula. Access to the village required traversing the famed Bealach na Bà–a winding single track road that featured five, very tight hairpin curves. Afterward, a surgeon in our car told us he’d traveled all over the world, but this particular road was the most intense he’d ever experienced. Tony declared the drive over “the cattle pass” the highlight of the trip for him: especially the first time.
At our well-appointed Vacation Rental by Owner property–Eagle Rock–we were greeted enthusiastically by Catherine Stewart, the owner, and her father, Alistaire. After stowing our bags, we enjoyed appetizers, whisky and/or pink gin and tonics, then a barbeque supper with all the fixings.
The next day Cath led a “walk and talk” to the village church and graveyard. In the church we sang “Amazing Grace” to take advantage of the exquisite acoustics.
In the graveyard, Cath told us about Maelrubha, the Irish monk who founded the monastery in Applecross. His grave dated back to 722.
Later in the day, we drove to a nearby archeological ruin where Cath showed us what remained of a mysterious roundhouse, built by a matriarchal society, to hide the villagers and their livestock from warring invaders.
That night we dined at Applecross Pub in the middle of town, such as it is. With only 230 residents in the whole village, there isn’t much to it. Delicious dinners–mostly fresh and local seafood–were ordered by all. For dessert, most of us polished off my favorite Scottish sweet: Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake.
The next morning some of us rose early to “have a wander,” while others didn’t appear until right before our foraging hike with Gil, a local botanist.
For over an hour she educated and entertained us with flora and fauna facts before dropping us at The Walled Garden Restaurant for pints, drams, and delicious fare.
There, many of us ordered the silky Wild Nettle Soup and/or the local “squat lobsters” in sweet chile sauce. Tony so enjoyed his duck lunch, he ordered it again the following day.
That afternoon, we drove a short distance to Coral Beach.
There we hiked to a former salmon-fishing community which now is only rolling green hills dotted with stone ruins and sheep. Walking further took us to a bouldered seashore.
The night ended with yet another delicious meal at the Walled Garden after which a few of us enjoyed a dip in the hot tub on Eagle Rock’s deck facing Applecross Bay.
The next day we drove back over the Bealach na Bà to the Isle of Skye. After a quick visit to the Talisker Distillery, we enjoyed fresh seafood at the Oyster Shed.
One of Tony’s four dozen mussels still held a wisp of seaweed in its “mouth.”
Since it had rained hard the night before, the Fairy Pools were too dangerous to hike. At a nearby beach–stony with dark sand–we gawked as a woman shed a long coat and waded out into the frigid water. She swam and splashed about for a good 10 minutes then exited the ocean, pumping her fists triumphantly. I decided the swim must’ve been on her bucket list.
An hour later, we arrived at the Quiraing, a destination of emerald, otherworldly landscape. Two of us waited in the car as the others set out to hike a mountain path. Ten minutes later they returned, driven back by frigid temperatures, driving rain, wind gusts, and a viscous fog. There was nothing to do but head to a cafe for more drafts and drams. And pizza.
Along the way, we stopped at a number of overlooks to take in yet more verdant vistas.
On Saturday, we drove over the Bealach na Bà yet again in order to tour Eilean Donan Castle. There we explored the restored property, marveling at the thickness of the walls, the ubiquitous arrow slits, and the fresh water well located inside the castle, despite the loch of salt sea water surrounding the structure.
After a fish and chips lunch at the castle, we drove back to Applecross. At the summit of the Bealach na Bà, we parked in order to hike to the mountain’s power tower.
When we arrived, we were breathless from the effort, but the 360-degree view took even more of our breath.
The next day we stopped briefly at Loch Ness to explore the castle remains (and scan the water’s surface for signs of Nessie) before heading to Inverness, our final destination before flying home.
Prior to driving downtown to souvenir shop, we made a stop to purchase a few suitcases. For transporting numerous bottles (dozens, actually) of whisky back to the States.
In picturesque Inverness, we cruised from shop to shop surveying tartan plaids, stuffed Loch Ness monsters, and shortbread cookies. We ate our final dinner at a quaint pub next to the River Ness where a number of us enjoyed traditional Guinness Beef Stew with puff pastry. And of course, more pints of yet untried Scottish beers.
In the morning we flew first to London, then to Washington Dulles. As we drove home–on the “correct” side of the road–we marveled how much fun had been had with ten people who barely knew each other a week ago. Our trip had definitely been worth the wait.
You may be curious as to which Scotch whisky was our favorite.
The overwhelming majority of us voted for the 26-year old Lagavulin Special Release Callum introduced us to. Did any of us bring this magic elixir home? At a price tag exceeding $2,600.00 a bottle, that would be a no.
This story originally ran in the WV Gazette-Mail.