Home. A place I love to return to, but also love leaving once in awhile. The hotel I stayed in last night was the only one that had an optional breakfast rate, so I decided to book “room only” and go out for breakfast this morning. I had seen a little cafe called So CoCo, which specializes in chocolate but has a full breakfast menu, on my walk yesterday. Who can pass that up? (Hint: not me!) I had already decided to have Eggs Benedict this morning, but the scones were calling to me. So my last scone was actually a breakfast scone! Then it was off to the airport for my hop down to London, followed by a 3.5 hour layover before my flight to Boston.
Sometimes, I just know I will return to a place again. I felt that way last summer when I left Ireland. But I didn’t feel that way about leaving Inverness today. The vacation was good overall, and I saw some amazing places, but I don’t know that I will ever return to that part of Scotland. There are just too many other places I want to see in the world. I wasn’t sad to leave; I just felt content that I had seen everything I wanted to see in that small part of the world.
I spent time on the plane making a list for my favorite post-vacation activity: grocery shopping! I love restocking the fridge after I’ve been away for awhile. My body may go into carb withdrawal after everything I’ve been putting into it the past couple of weeks, but it’s back to my regular diet starting tomorrow! And since I’m pretty sure long pants and long sleeves haven’t helped my tan at all, clearly the rest of the day will be spent by the pool! I plan to write one more follow-up blog at some point, but my body thinks it’s 4AM right now, so clearly it is time for bed!
I didn’t see Nessie today. But I am pleased to report that the Loch Ness Monster tourism business is thriving in Drumnadrochit. I am very happy to be going home tomorrow, but I managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing on my way back to Inverness today. The ferry left Stornoway at 7:00 this morning, bound for Ullapool. I got very little sleep last night, so I grabbed a front row seat in the lounge on the ferry to rest and watch out the “front window”. I planned to drive off once we got to Ullapool, but it is such a cute little village that I spent about an hour walking around.
Then it was off to Loch Ness and the Urquhart Castle. I don’t think I realized the last couple of weeks how far removed from the main tourist routes the Hebrides are. I saw more busloads of tourists in that one spot than I have seen in days. And American accents galore! While I was dressed sensibly in my long pants and sweatshirt, there were people walking around in shorts and t-shirts carrying their selfie sticks everywhere (mind you, it was about 55 degrees out today!). But I digress. The castle was nice, in a tourist trap sort of way. Not anything like the castles I explored in Ireland last summer.
My final stop tonight is in Inverness, where I will be flying home from tomorrow. Inverness is everything I hate about cities, but on a smaller scale. I had actually been looking forward to getting back to “civilization” tonight, until I remembered that civilization involves mobs of people and tacky touristy souvenir shops and things like McDonald’s (have I just not eaten in McDonald’s in a long time, or are self-service kiosks a U.K. thing?).
I did the obligatory walk around town and tried to find dinner. Nothing really struck me, so I ended up at Zizzi (I think there’s one on every street corner in London) for a chicken and prosciutto dish, cheesecake, and an Italian cider. After dinner, I did the traditional unpack/repack of the suitcase and carryons. Repacking is always an adventure! I am obsessively neat and organized at home, but somehow when I travel, all of that goes out the window. (Last spring, I found a piece of fudge I had completely forgotten I had bought hidden in my suitcase!) The bed in my room is looking awfully inviting right now, but I’m hoping I can stay awake long enough to check out another traditional music session at Hootananny later tonight!
My problem is that once I start thinking about home while I’m on vacation (or on “holiday”, to borrow the British terminology), that is all I think about. So while it was a good day for exploring in Scotland, and I saw some beautiful scenery, my thoughts were in New England. Nonetheless, I spent my last day in the Outer Hebrides exploring the Isle of Lewis. Lewis seems to be more densely populated and less “off the beaten path” than the other islands I visited. There are far fewer single-track roads and the villages are more frequent and have more homes. Here are a few highlights from the day…
Tolsta Beach/Garry Beach: I spent the morning at these two beautiful beaches. Tolsta Beach is a long, white sand beach about 15 miles north of Stornoway. When I was there, the beach was completely deserted and I enjoyed a nice quiet walk. Garry Beach is past Tolsta, at the far north end of the road and has incredible (and accessible) sea stacks at one end. Since it was low tide, you could walk right out to and around the stacks. There was only one other family out walking on the beach while I was there.
Butt of Lewis: The Butt of Lewis is the northernmost point in the Hebrides. There is a lighthouse there and some rocks just offshore, then it is open ocean all the way to Canada. It was in the low 50s and the wind was whipping (it is said to be the windiest spot in the U.K.) and despite being bundled in my usual t-shirt, sweatshirt, and raincoat, I was still cold! Afterward, I stopped at The Buttery for a scone and Diet Coke (sadly, they were out of hot chocolate).
Blackhouses: I visited two separate blackhouses today. Blackhouses were homes built with stone walls and thatched roofs. They had no chimney, so the smoke escaped naturally through the thatched roof. The first one I stopped at was Arnol Blackhouse, a preserved blackhouse from the 1880s. The woman in the visitor center loaned me a copy of the guidebook so I knew what I was seeing. In the blackhouses, livestock lived inside with the family. There was also a more modern “whitehouse” across the street and a ruined blackhouse to see. Next up was Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, which is actually a collection of 9 blackhouses, only two of which are open to visitors. These were more restored. There was a gentleman weaving Harris Tweed in the blackhouse here as well!
Ceilidh: I ended the night in a local bar enjoying a traditional ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”). There were 6 locals playing fiddles, harp, accordion, and keyboard. I sat at a table with a couple originally from England who have retired to Lewis, and we spent almost 3 hours chatting between songs about everything from politics (both U.S. and U.K.), religion, music, and travel. It was a very memorable night. It’s still funny to see it light out so late; it was past sunset but still light out as I was driving back to the hotel at 11PM!
Random fact: I filled my car with the most expensive gas ever this morning… £1.20/litre (I accidentally put in super unleaded; regular was £1.16/litre) which is about $7.05/gallon!
I have the alarm set for 5AM because I have to be checked in for the ferry to Ullapool at 6:15. I was going to go north from Ullapool and loop back to Inverness, but I am ready for vacation to be over, so I’m going to head straight for Inverness and check out the town instead.
I’ll start right off with the best part of the day: Mangersta, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. Probably the best experience I’ve had in Scotland yet. I drove up through the rain and clouds and stopped first at the Callanish Standing Stones, thought to be about 4,000 years old. There are actually 3 sets of stones, with one set being the most popular. Since it is Sunday, the visitor center was closed, but you can just walk right up to the stones. Neat to see in a “been there, done that” kind of way.
Then I started down the coast and stopped at Bosta Beach on Great Bernera and Ardroil Beach/Uig Sands. There is only one road going down the coast from there, and it comes to an end about 6 miles south near Brenish. Mangersta was on my must-do list, but I couldn’t really remember why. I assumed it was just another beach. Boy, was I wrong (in a good way)! Thankfully, I had put directions in my itinerary which said to park at the end of the road in the village and walk across the machair. It was clear from the start that the beach was well below the grass I was walking across. But all of a sudden, I could see the sea stacks come into view and the grass just sort of ended at the top of a high cliff (no railings or danger signs here!). The view was incredible, with huge waves crashing on the rocky beach below, and cliffs and sea stacks towering over the ocean. I continued to walk up to the top of one of the high cliffs and the views just got better and better. No picture can possibly do it justice. Once I had walked as far as I could in both directions, I decided rather than turn around, I would keep going to the end of the road. I pulled over a little further south at a sign that said “shore access” and was able to stand on another beach and marvel at the sheer size of the waves. The only thing I can possibly compare it to is the coast of Oregon, and even then, it was a completely different experience.
In other news, I really am ready to go home. Like, today. Especially after tonight’s horrible hotel experience. Stornoway is a bigger town, and I was hoping for a more modern, bigger hotel than what I’ve had since I got here. (I have nothing against small, inn-like hotels, but I prefer a Hilton or Marriott any day). When I arrived at the hotel I had booked, my room had two twin beds. I can be pretty flexible (well, sometimes anyway… 🙂 ), but I am not sleeping in a twin bed on vacation. So I politely asked for a larger room. None available. The woman ended up calling one of their sister hotels, where I now have a tiny room with a double bed and a view of the industrial park. I dislike it so much, I actually thought tonight about trying to go standby on tomorrow’s ferry back to the mainland. But I don’t want to miss the rest of the Isle of Lewis, so I’ll be a trouper and stick it out…
Three words that perfectly summarize today: rain, clouds, and fog. The day wasn’t a complete washout though, as I was able to see a remote beach and drive up the “Golden Road” on the east coast of Harris. I’ll stick with the “highlights” format again, though these are pretty much the only things I did today anyway. (Plus a reverse repeat of the drive along Harris’s west coast – not nearly as nice in the rain – and another treacle scone at the Temple Cafe.)
Huisinis (Hushinish): I spent the morning driving the 15 mile road out to Huisinis from Tarbert and back. Huisinis literally feels like it’s at the edge of the world. And I guess in a lot of ways it is. The road is twisting and winding and constantly goes around blind curves and over blind rises. All single-track, of course. But at the end of the road lies the most beautiful beach, with clear turquoise waters, and a scattering of crofts and cottages. I walked the entire length of the beach and then decided to brave the water and dipped my feet in. The morning was cloudy and it was in the mid-50s temperature-wise, but it was the perfect place to experience the cold Atlantic waters.
The Golden Road: There are two routes from Harris’s southern end to Tarbert – the west coast/beach route and the “Golden Road” (so named because it cost so much to build, people said it “must have been made of gold”). Yesterday I took the west coast, and today I drove that in reverse and then drove up the east coast on the Golden Road. I almost turned around at Rodel and went back the way I came because the fog was so dense. But I decided I would just take it slow and take my time. By the time I was about halfway back to Tarbert the fog wasn’t quite as thick.
The Golden Road is also referred to as “The Bays” because the road weaves in and around many small bays with fishing boats and crofting cottages (which look like miniature fjords). The landscape is completely different from the west coast. It is almost other-worldly with a mostly rocky terrain and very little grass. It took about 2 hours to drive the 20 mile length of it, but I was in no hurry. Like the road to Huisinis, it is single-track, twisty, and dips up and down over many blind ridges. (That is one thing I won’t miss about Scotland… all of the narrow, single-track roads. I cannot wait to drive on a highway again!) I stopped at Clò-Mòr to visit the Harris Tweed exhibit and check out the shop. (When I was in Benbecula, I bought a framed Fáilte sign that is crafted with Harris Tweed. It’s wrapped up for travel, but I will take a picture when I get home.)
The weather forecast for tomorrow looks dismal, but I am packing up (again; I’ve already been in 6 hotels 😦 ) and heading north to the Isle of Lewis in the morning. It’s connected to Harris, so no ferry this time. EVERYTHING is closed in this area on Sundays. I did check tomorrow night’s hotel online and was relieved to see that their restaurant is open on Sundays. Otherwise, I plan to visit Lewis’s west coast beaches as long as the weather cooperates a little.
Good news… I love Scotland again! I mean, I never really stopped loving it, but you know what I mean. Seriously, it’s incredible here! If I could just skip over the last couple of days and go right from Skye to the Isle of Harris, it would be perfect. I’m going to skip the play-by-play of the day today and just go for the highlights. So pretty much we’ll start at 11:30AM when I got off the ferry in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. (Before that, I went to the beach, ate breakfast, went to another beach, and took an hour long ferry ride.) Harris is much more rugged and mountainous than the Uists. I think that’s what I like about it the most. So here are the highlights:
St. Clement’s Church in Rodel: An quaint and historic church/chapel in a very picturesque location on a hill in the tiny village of Rodel. The church is surrounded by a graveyard and you can climb up the tower in the church. It reminded me of many of the castles and ruins I saw in Ireland last summer. (This is also the location where I discovered that my camera lens was covered in salt water… I have no idea how long it has been like that, but it is amazing how much clearer everything looks now that I’ve cleaned it!)
Temple Cafe in Northton: I had read a million good reviews of this little place, and stopped for lunch on my way through today. It was amazingly good! Everything smelled delicious, but being the picky eater that I am, I ordered the “treacle” scone with cream and jam. The gentleman in line behind me told me treacle is basically molasses after I asked the waitress to repeat herself three times because I had no idea what she was saying. I had her write it down for me when I left so I could look it up. The scone was amazing. Did I already say that? Like probably the best I’ve had in the U.K./Ireland. And the cream was thick like clotted cream too (though I’m not positive it was). Depending on how the day goes, I may have to make a stop there tomorrow too…
Northton Temple walk: This walk was about 3 miles, and so worth it. After leaving the village of Northton and cresting the first hill, you can see four different beaches spread out along the coast, with the Northton Temple on a bluff at the far end. After being attacked by birds on the first beach (which was also the most beautiful, Traigh an Taoibh Thuath), I wound my way along the pathway all the way out to the Temple. Northton Temple is actually the ruins of a 15th or 16th century chapel built on a rocky headland at the tip of the Northton peninsula.
Isle of Harris west coast: The views just kept on coming! The drive from Leverburgh up to Luskentyre is incredible. Around every bend is another white sand beach with turquoise water. It’s hard to believe this is Scotland and not the Caribbean!
Scalpay: After dinner, the sun actually came out. Real sun, not just a break in the clouds. I decided to drive out to the Isle of Scalpay, a small island about 8 miles east of Tarbert and connected to Harris by a bridge. This little island was perfection, especially with the sun finally shining. It is all single-track roads which curve dangerously around outcroppings and above lochs and harbors. It’s very small, and I was determined to drive every road. I think I tried just about all of them, just to see where they go. They all ended at dead-ends, but the scenery was unbelievable. A perfect end to the day!
PS – I’m still ready to go home, but with scenery like this, I think I can “suffer through” a few more days of vacation! 🙂
Wind. That is the thing I will remember most about today. Not just a gentle breeze, but a blow-you-over wind. The other thing I will remember is that I didn’t fall in love with the Uists like I did with Skye. Not that they aren’t pretty islands. They are. Just not AS breathtakingly beautiful as Skye. Perhaps if the weather had been better the last couple of days I would feel differently. At least it didn’t rain ALL day today.
I went for a walk in the village before breakfast (when there were a few peeks of blue sky) and then headed south for the day. On my way to the island of Benbecula, I stopped at the Pobull Fhìnn standing stones and Trinity Temple. The standing stones are on a hillside overlooking Loch Langass. They are not large and the trail to get up close to them was a bit muddy. But still neat to see. Next up was Trinity Temple, the ruins of a medieval monastery and college. (There are tons of sheep everywhere, and they just wander in the pastures and on the roads. Lots of sheep also means lots of sheep… umm… “droppings”. Everywhere. The path to Trinity Temple went right through a sheep pasture. I’ve become quite adept at hopping and jumping around the droppings, but it’s not always easy!) The ruins are about a half mile from the parking area on a hill in the middle of a field/sheep pasture. You can wander around the site and the adjacent graveyard. There are lochs in every direction, as there are pretty much everywhere on these islands.
By this time, it had started to rain a little, but that didn’t keep me from driving across the causeway to the tiny island of Baleshare to visit the beach. There were whitecaps on the Atlantic, and the waves were rolling in right up to the rocks. The next land heading west is Atlantic Canada. I managed to snap a couple of pictures without getting completely blown away! I made a quick stop at Kallin Harbour in Grimsay before crossing to the Isle of Benbecula, which was a quick 5 miles across before coming to South Uist. The west coast of South Uist is one long (nearly 20 mile long) beach. The rain kept me away on the drive south, but I was determined to see the beach on my way back. I stopped at the Lochboisdale Cafe for a toasted ham and cheese ciabatta and another Irn Bru (it grows on you!).
The final island on today’s tour was Eriskay, to the south of South Uist. On my way, I passed a brown sign with a picnic table symbol pointing toward the ocean. I decided since it wasn’t raining right then, I might as well check out the beach at Garrynamonie. I put on my flip flops, determined to put my feet in the water. It was cold (and not the prettiest beach), but not freezing cold. Mission accomplished! Eriskay is another small island connected by a causeway to South Uist. I took a quick drive around the island and then headed back to North Uist. My final stop on the way back was at the Howmore Churches. Howmore is a tiny village whose claim to fame is the large Church of Scotland which operates presently, but also the remains of an older church and four chapels in a field nearby. The chapels are largely in ruin, but very picturesque with the gravestones surrounding them.
Then it was back to the hotel for dinner. I’ve never had langoustines, but I decided tonight was the night to try them. I ordered the appetizer portion and a half pint of cider. They taste similar to lobster, but look more like prawns. It involved a lot of work for little reward. Also, I don’t like seeing eyeballs in my food. But at least I tried something new! When I was in town yesterday, I saw a sign for an evening concert tonight, “Songs and Music of the Hebrides” in nearby Carinish, so I spent about an hour enjoying some local music and dancing at the village hall, mostly by teenagers and young adults. I was still hungry after the concert, so a tarte tatin with ice cream in the hotel bar finished off the night!