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Trip Report Scotland Trip Report – The Single Track Roads of Scotland Country

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Our big holiday destination this year was closer to home as like so many people we’ve been affected by the economic downturn. But it’s giving us a good opportunity to explore our own country a little more, which is definitely a good thing. The one bit of the UK that we’d never really visited before was the Scottish Highlands and so I organised a week at the beginning of July. So to start with the executive summary – it was great and we wished we’d done it sooner.

With the help of my usual resources – travel books, about half a dozen of them, (notably Scotland The Best by Peter Irvine), the Fodors forums, Tripadvisor, a good map and the fantastic website www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk – I settled on an itinery that had us stopping in a different place every night. We love driving holidays (we drove from London to Athens and back a few years ago for the Olympics and neither of us has a big commute and we now share one car) and so doing a fair bit of driving was no problem at all and offered us the opportunity to see as good a variety of places as we could in a week while still allowing quality time out of the car – if we particularly like somewhere we can always come back for a more in depth visit another time.

In hindsight we have no regrets, we only made one bad call on places to visit and we are just looking forward to going back to some of the several very special places. Overall we were very lucky with the weather, this was the first week in July – mostly it was dry, sometimes it was sunny, a couple of days it rained and on a couple of days the weather was glorious. We did 1800 miles in a week and at no point did we feel like we’d been in the car too much but next time we will definitely be spending more time in a place and doing a lot more walking and relaxing.

Our trip got off to a dreadful start as my debit card had been cloned a couple of weeks before and bank mistakes meant no card replacement until the day before we were due to leave and no replacement PIN so we set off from Manchester a few hours after our intended early start. Our first stop was the wonderful Tebay services on the M6 – worth getting on a motorway for. The farm shop here is superb and was the perfect place to get a picnic lunch for later in the day.

Our first stop just over the border was at Caerlaverock Castle. This is a lovely little castle must be one of the best looking in Scotland due to its triangular design and huge moat. There was plenty to do and the nearby nature reserve would have made an excellent longer day out. The sun was shining and we had our picnic lunch in the grounds. After that though it was pretty much a direct drive to our first overnight destination, Glasgow. We’ve been before and love this city. It has many similarities to Manchester – the great Victorian architectural heritage, the grit and the humour and the friendliness of its people. It’s also great for a night out. The first of many very good accommodation choices was an apartment at 38 Bath Street that cost us just £45 for a Saturday night – unbelievable good value. First of all it’s in a great location near many of the big hotels and within easy walking distance of the main shopping area, the centre of the city, great restaurants, bars and clubs. We were able to park right outside the building and didn’t have to pay as we arrived after 6.30pm. When I booked this place I had expected to pay £85 but the guy on the reception desk just asked for an extra £20 to add to the deposit I’d already paid – we didn’t question him – a great bonus after the difficult start to the day. We stayed in a one bed apartment on the top floor – 5th I think. It was perfectly clean and well maintained and had great panoramic views over the city centre. The bedrooms are at the back of the building and even though we had the window open on a Saturday night we had no trouble sleeping. To eat we chose Gamba which we found to be perfectly good with great fish. We then went on to a couple of bars and had an excellent evening – Glasgow is a great party town. Also felt perfectly safe on the streets in the early hours of the morning. All in all an excellent start to our holiday.

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    Sunday.
    The next day we headed out to the upmarket Cafezique in Glasgow’s West End, it’s located in a lovely neighbourhood that made us think Glasgow would make a good home if we ever tired of Manchester. Our timing was perfect and we managed to get a table before it started filling up. The breakfasts were great, really good quality bacon and sausage although the orange juice was a little watery – great way to start the day though.

    Our next stop was the Burrell Collection. Sir William Burrell liked his art and the family shipping business was successful enough – by buying ships during economic downturns, hope for us all maybe - to allow him to spend a fortune on an eclectic mix of art, antiques and artifacts. The great thing about this place is that the building is purpose built and the range of antiques and art is so wide – whole rooms from his castle home, tapestries, stained glass, furniture, armour, some excellent impressionist paintings by Cezanne and Degas, a brilliant collection of Chinese pottery that includes rare imperial china, medieval art and Islamic art. We could have spent longer here and as it doesn’t open until 11am on Sundays we were well into the afternoon before we set off to Loch Lomond. It was great to be further north than we had ever been in the UK.

    Our one stop on Loch Lomond was Luss. We were lucky enough to pass a clan gathering on the edge of the village – no entry to ordinary members of the public but we stood on the pavement and watched a few races – clan gatherings are a great Scottish tradition and we were pleased that we’d chanced across it. Luss itself was not that great, there was a long queue to get into the car park, it being a sunny Saturday – the village is pretty enough and has a nice setting by the shore but we didn’t feel inspired to linger.

    Our next stop was much better. It being the afternoon and not having had a drink since breakfast we stopped for tea at the station cafe in Crianlarich – a fantastically typically British experience – think Brief Encounter; the station buffet building long and narrow between two platforms, little to hint at commercialism, old photos on the wall, a pretty narrow selection of things to eat and drink, very plain tables and chairs and Myrtle Bagot was behind the counter – we were the only people there and we absoltely loved it.

    Doune Castle was our last sight for the day and we were running late so it was full speed along the A85 and A84 through Callander. Unfortunately we got there too late to get into the castle but it was fun to walk round trying to remember the scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    The day was still comparatively young so we then went back the way we came at a much slower pace using the back roads and made our way to Loch Katrine. Although the boats had stopped working the scenery en route was stunning and it was good to stretch our legs with a short walk long the loch - definitely a place to return to. Another leisurely drive back through the back roads of the Trossachs to our overnight stop in Stirling at the Terraces Hotel.

    Terraces hotel is ranked 3rd in Stirling on Tripadvisor and was perfectly ok as it cost just £30 per person including full breakfast. The location was great, close to the centre of town but not at all noisy and there was free parking right outside the hotel. The room was a bit on the small side and a bit dated but it was at the back of the hotel and did have a nice view of a church. Service was friendly but having Pizza Hut as one of the recommendations for dinner that night didn’t fill us with promise. We passed on Pizza Hut and went on to Mamma Mia – not a name that promises culinary delight but the interior far exceeded the exterior and we loved it, the best thing being the great atmosphere plus the great food. The owners come from Italian families and are very friendly and the place had a few tourists in of Italian heritage, some from US and a guy from Canada. The food was good and my seafood linguine was excellent. A great day, perfect sunny weather and excellent experiences and despite the disappointment of not getting in to Doune Castle the holiday is going well.

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    I am also looking forward to the rest. Nice to hear you can get languostines in Scotland - much of it is shipped to Spain. I am planning a Glasgow trip so there are some good tips here (thanks). Its very refreshing to hear someone who lives in Manchester not being already tired of Manchester.

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    Monday morning was devoted to Stirling Castle. We’ve been to Edinburgh a few times and reputable guides describe this as one of the best castles in Scotland and so we weren’t going to miss it. It’s located high above the surrounding countryside on a volcanic plug (the same as Edinburgh Castle) that means it is likely to have been occupied before the Romans came to Britain. It has an excellent history, having become established as a royal centre by 1110, particularly events of the 16th century with Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots and James VI who inherited Elizabeth I’s throne, and has been well restored recently. It has a good audio guide which I always like and it was an excellent three hours.

    It was then a swift drive heading west across country on the A811 but then taking the more scenic road alongside Gare Loch and Loch Long to our next destination, which was a late lunch at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. There are lots of Loch Fyne restaurants across the country now but this s the original and by far the best. The last time I had fresh oysters was in a restaurant in Manchester years ago and I was very ill so this was going to be my first venture back since then. I only had two, and only one was raw but of course they were gorgeous and we had a perfect lunch. It’s great that this lovely place is run by a trust on behalf of all the staff – a kind of co-op I guess and it is definitely a destination in its own right. (+44) 01499 600 482.

    From there it was a short drive on to Inverary Castle. Two castles in a day is pushing it but it’s a great one, very different from Stirling, a bit more French chateau like, not as old and smaller than Stirling but just as interesting in its own way.

    Sightseeing done for the day it was then a leisurely drive along the northern shore of Loch Fyne and then up the coast to Oban and then on past Loch Etive and Loch Awe, before diverting on to our first proper Scottish single track road through Glen Orchy to our overnight destination at Bridge of Orchy. This main drive is one of the dozen or so suggested on the Undiscovered Scotland website and was beautiful with a great mix of stunning scenery. It took a few hours and we got to our hotel quite late, still in daylight though, but it was a great way to finish of the day. Especially good was the single track road through Glen Orchy. It runs along the side of the River Orchy and allowed numerous opportunities to stop on the way for some great pictures of the beautiful river. For anyone wary of driving on roads like this they really are quite easy – there was hardly any traffic on this one and there are plenty of places to stop and let oncoming vehicles pass (don’t ever, ever forget to wave) and are great fun to drive.

    The Bridge of Orchy Hotel is in an isolated location and is popular with walkers. The food was good and the accommodation perfectly fine if unremarkable, but the quiet setting is beautiful. www.bridgeoforchy.co.uk

    One of the things that has worked out well is the pacing of the trip, allowing a few well researched stops during the day but then allowing great drives through stunning scenery late in the afternoon with the anticipation of knowing you are going to reach a destination that is good and better than other choices that might have been made (based on the overwhelming votes of confidence from Tripadvisor responses).

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    The road from Bridge of Orchy, the A82, crosses Rannoch Moor, one of the most desolate and isolated places in the country, “a wearier looking desert man never saw” according to Robert Louis Stevenson, and passes through Glen Coe, the scene of one of the most murderous events in Scotland’s history, is a road that is well worth travelling. It is also on Undiscovered Scotland’s best road trips. Even better than the road trip is the rail journey – from Glasgow to Mallaig - one of the best rail journeys in the world, but hard to fit in when you’re doing a road trip. Undiscovered Scotland also recommends a 14 mile each way side trip down another single track road to the head of Loch Etive, which we were so glad we took the trouble to take. There was hardly another car on the road even though it was the height of summer and the sense of isolation is wonderful. When we got to Loch Etive there were just a few people there. The views are stunning all along the road and we saw our first deer here. The only thing that could have made this more wonderful would have been to have had our first day’s picnic lunch here too.

    Glen Coe is described by the BBC somewhere as “one of the most magnificent areas of natural wilderness in the whole of Britain”. It certainly lived up to it and does not take a huge amount of imagination to picture the events of over 300 years ago given that man’s impact on the landscape here is so slight. We stopped frequently along the route just to take in the fantastic views and stopped again at the visitor centre, which didn’t really appeal so we didn’t linger and we knew the key facts about events in Glen Coe.

    After Glen Coe was Fort William, and as a good Fodorite I knew that there was no need to linger there either. By now the glorious weather of the morning had evaporated and it was now cloudy and there were no good views of Ben Nevis even.

    So on to the lovely beaches on the way to Mallaig. If you are driving to Mallaig then as you get closer to the town do get of the main road and take the coast roads. The beaches along this short stretch have the most lovely white sand and were quite empty of other people. Undiscovered Scotland calls this road one of the most memorable in Scotland due to these stunning beaches with the views to the islands of Eigg, Rum and Skye. These beaches were one of the many highlights of our trip and could so easily be missed by just staying on the main road.

    In a tightly packed week Mallaig was our chosen point for fish and chips – one of Britain’s most iconic meals and at their best the food of gods. I’m lucky enough to work just a few miles from a great fish and chip shop in Swinton and maybe once a month treat myself to lunch there. They are one of the best in the north west and all others are compared to them. I was hoping that the proximity to the sea might produce a memorable meal but unfortunately the best restaurant in Oban for fish and chips was full – on a Monday night! And so we were forced to eat in a lesser establishment. Missing out on the best through a lack of planning is one of the things I try my hardest to avoid and so I was annoyed to put it mildly. There are few places to eat in Mallaig - so make sure you book the Cornerstone restaurant, which is a very short walk from the Seaview. www.seafoodrestaurantmallaig.com (+44) 01687 462 306.

    The B&B though in Oban was excellent. www.seaviewguesthousemallaig.com

    The Sea View Guest House is ranked #1 on Tripadvisor and deservedly so. It is located right in the centre of the town and has its own small parking area, it’s close to the train station (which was the appeal for other guests we spoke to at breakfast) and was very comfortable and homely. I'm always surprised by criticism of Tripadvisor as I've only ever found it to be an excellent resource as long as it is used well and with some care.

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    Wednesday

    The next morning we overheard two lovely posh women from London saying how fantastic the smoked salmon and scrambled egg was - apparently the salmon comes from a local smokehouse and seemed to be excellent quality and much better than their usual smoked salmon. Our cooked breakfasts were top notch too. The women from London had been prompted to come by Michael Portillo's tv programme on great rail journeys and the landlady, Fiona, told them that he had stayed at this place while he was making the programme - not sure this info will put you off or encourage you.

    We’d chosen not to go on over the sea to Skye so instead retraced our wheels back the way we’d came. This was our first day of poor weather. By the time we got to Glenfinnan, the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to start the Jacobite Rising in 1745, it has cleared a little and we stopped at the car park there and climbed the hill to get the great views of the viaduct, the monument and Loch Shiel itself. There was quite a crowd gathering but we didn’t stay around and so missed the Jacobite steam train crossing the viaduct – the scene from the Harry Potter film of the Hogwart's Express.

    What should have been a lovely scenic drive through the Cairngorms National Park was somewhat spoilt by the poor weather. Luckily, the Dalwhinnie whisky distillery was not far off our route and so we took the tour. Even though I’m not a fan of whisky it was an excellent experience and well worth doing. From there it was on to Inverness which we were looking forward to exploring. We got this one badly wrong! It didn’t help that it was raining but the town itself is a bit of a dump. I’m a town planner by profession and I’ve never seen such a mess of poorly designed buildings side by side with lovely old buildings.

    The day improved when we got to our B&B in Dores on the quiet, south, side of Loch Ness. www.potteryhouse.co.uk Again, this place is ranked #1 on Tripadvisor and currently has 343 reviews of which 325 give the place an ‘excellent’ rating – no need to say much more. As the Scottish Open golf tournament was on near Inverness I’d made sure I booked the Dores Inn for dinner that night. This old pub is right on the shore of Loch Ness and is walking distance from the B&B and the weather finally improved to offer some stunning views down the loch from the pub garden. The food was excellent gastropub quality in a lovely old farmhouse setting and it can be thoroughly recommended – much better than its website gives it the impression of being. (+44) 01463 751 203.

    Not the best of days, poor weather and a poor call on Inverness, but we have Skye to come.

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    Thursday
    Our first stop the next morning was at the Falls of Foyer. This was a lovely short walk through woodland to some pretty spectacular waterfalls – well worth doing. It was then on through spectacular highland scenery, especially through Glen Shiel, across the country towards Skye. Our only diversion being on to some more single track road north of Loch Duich where there was a tiny parking area that allowed an even shorter walk to a hill high above the loch that gave stunning views, that we had all to ourselves. Just below us was one of the most photographed and beautiful castles in Scotland – Eilean Donan – this we certainly didn’t have to ourselves. It was only restored in 1932 but contrary to some views on TA was well worth paying to get into.

    The weather today was excellent and we made use of the long summer day to drive up the east coast of Skye. The Isle of Skye has recently been voted 4th best island in the world (I forget where I found this fact) and after several days of stunningly good scenery it really was hard to believe that it was getting even better. We were able to stop several times and take short walks – the best being at the Quirang. The drive up what looked like a pretty sheer rock face from afar was amazing and the rock formations are stunning. We could definitely have spent far longer exploring and it would have been great to have had more time to enjoy this area, particularly given the good weather.

    Our destination on Skye though was the Three Chimneys Restaurant. The whole trip had pretty much been worked round getting a table here and I was hugely pleased with myself for finding a B&B that had a separate little cottage that was available for the night just a few minutes walk from the restaurant. This restaurant has been running successfully for more than 25 years in an isolated location on an island off the coast of the Highlands. Not only is it reported to be one of the best restaurants in Scotland, it has an international reputation. Harden’s Restaurant Guide 2011 listed it as 30th in its top 200 restaurants in the UK.
    First though the lovely cottage at the Silverdale Guest House www.silverdaleskye.com The one bed cottage is set a little way up the hill behind the main house and has the most stunning views – we absolutely loved it and wished we could have stayed longer. Our host was lovely and we couldn’t have wanted a more perfect place given the reasonable cost of just £88 a night. Being able to walk the 8 minutes to the restaurant with the fantastic views of Loch Dunvegan with seals basking on a small island off the shore on what we were told was one of the sunniest days for months was truly magical.

    As for the Three Chimneys the service, the food, the wine, the building, the setting were all excellent and its isolation just makes the whole occasion so much more special. Understandably in a building that is over 100 years old and that was once a crofter’s cottage the tables are fairly close together but this just makes it cosy rather than cramped. And it did mean we got to enjoy the woman on the table behind getting drunker and louder as the evening went on – in a funny way, rather than a bad way. And of course the short walk home was the perfect way to end the evening. The Isle of Skye really is exceptionally beautiful and has some absolutely gorgeous scenery. Of all the places on our trip this was the one that we want to return to the most.

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    Friday
    The good weather continued and our drive the next day took us back on to the mainland and north and our first stop was at Plockton. This is a gorgeous little village with palm trees on the main street and that seemed to have great places to eat and stay, as well as restaurants and pubs on the cute main street there was also a castle across the water that we found out later was a hotel - www.duncraigcastle.com We spent an hour or so walking through the village and just sitting in the sun overlooking the loch at peace with the world, it would have been lovely to linger for longer but we now know where it is and will be back.

    Our next stop, via more single track roads and stunning views was Applecross. Having just been to Plockton we didn’t stop but the drive round the Applecross peninsula was lovely. More stunning views followed one after the other on roads that are a joy to drive on, there is so little traffic.

    Having eaten well the night before and having another really good meal booked for tonight we didn’t bother with lunch but when we got to Kinlochewe we just pulled in by the Whistle Stop Cafe and bought just a single chicken sandwich – and why am I mentioning this boring fact? – because it was simply, and by far, the best chicken sandwich ever. So good that I would make a specific trip back for one. When I lived in Bath many years ago a friend, who had moved to London, once jumped on a train and made the trip back just to have a burger. I forget the name of the burger place now, and it’s no longer there, but at the time I completely understood why they had done it – some tastes, some foods, are so powerfully evocative that they are worth making huge efforts for. And so I can still picture the sandwich, the fresh bread, the huge amount of freshed shredded chicken packed between the slices, the small amount of mayonnaise, and the sad fact that we were sharing it and I only got two bites. And I remember it just as vividly as the pie, mash and peas at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels in Sydney 7 years ago, and a prawn in a restaurant in Washington about 25 years ago, and as vividly as we all probably remember the favourate foods that our mothers made for us as children. So...the Whistle Stop Cafe is worth a pretty long detour for, and if you happen to be passing, then definitely stop by and grab a chicke sandwich - it will be the best you've ever had.

    We love really good gardens and our next stop was Inverewe Gardens – we’d picked this one out of several excellent gardens that were on our route. While it was good it maybe wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be and I was a little underwhelmed by it. I think a big part should be the improbability of the variety of plants that thrive in this location but it didn’t really register that strongly.

    From there though it was another beautiful drive around the coast and along the banks of Little Loch Broom and Loch Broom through Ullapool (where we had planned to stay) before a long but gorgeous single track road with more amazing views of mountains and coast that ended in Lochinver and the Albannach hotel and restaurant – www.thealbannach.co.uk This is an expensive but excellent place – the only place in seven nights that we paid more than £50 per person for. As with the Three Chimney’s on Skye, the journey is part of the thrill – do take the single track back roads rather than the main road as the coastal scenery is stunning. On arrival we were offered tea in the conservatory that has lovely views over Lochinver and beyond to the distinctive Suilven and Canisp mountains. The tea came with excellent shortbread, perfect after our long drive. The building is Victorian and much of this old charm has been retained in the dining rooms, staircase and hall - our room though, the white room, was thoroughly modern. It has the same excellent views as the conservatory and a large bathroom with an excellent shower plus a modern bath (stylish but doesn't allow you to stretch out easily).

    People undoubtedly come here for the food though, the restaurant has a Michelin star. Dinner is served at 8pm and is a single set menu but changes are easily made as long as you give notice. It all starts with drinks outside on the terrace or in the conservatory (midges permitting). Drinks came with a super fresh langoustine and serrano ham that was then followed by oysters that were delicious – can’t get enough of them now. People were then taken into the dining room, we were lucky to get one of the two window tables that have the same fantastic views - I forgot to ask how they allocate these window tables so can't offer advice on how to bag one. The food was lovely - guinea fowl, gazpacho, monkfish and scallops, some good cheese and finally soufflé. The bill was £365 - dinner would have been £116 plus drinks which seems to be excellent value given the quality of the ingredients and the cooking. Roughly the room works out at £80 per person which seems perfectly reasonable given the quality of what is being offered. As with just about every place we visited the service was excellent.

    The final, sad installment follows soon.

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    I would have to refresh my geography, but am wondering about the choice of Applecross over Torridon. Was it roads, or just wanting to see the saltwater scenery? I've thought of stopping at the Torridon Hotel, but haven't read a report where someone went over that pass.

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    We wanted to do Applecross as the drive looked to be a good one and it is on of the recommended drives on the Undiscovered Scotland website, where it says it is "possibly Scotland's most challenging and highest roads" - we loved it and it was fine. We still got to drive through Glen Torridon, about which the Undiscovered Scotland website says "a first trip along the single track road through Glen Torridon is an unforgettable experience. Applecross village itself was not as interesting as Plockton and I expect that the same applies to Torridon. The Torridon Hotel looks excellent and it was on my shortlist but we wanted to do The Albannach instead and were happy with our choice. Interestingly the Torridon won Hotel of the Year 2011 - this is a really interesting site www.scottishhotelsoftheyear.com - The Albannach won the Ultimate Bolt Hole award! The roads really are excellent to drive and there is so little traffic - we are used to big city traffic though and I'm not sure how it will compare to Alaska. Do go though - I'm sure you will love the hotel and the journey there.

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    tjhome, thanks for the response. The Torridon is probably over budget for me unless I got a special or spent every other night in a small b&b. The road info is really encouraging though! The Torridon does apparently own a second, cheaper property nearby, too.

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    The sad end
    Saturday was meant to be a leisurely drive to Glasgow for another great night out and a visit to the newly opened Zaha Hadid Riverside Museum. Unfortunately though the early morning £90 tank of petrol in Lochinver maxed out the credit card and so we had to drive all the way home to Manchester - 460 miles. The weather was dreadful, which made us feel slightly better and also I'd not booked any accommodation in Glasgow for that night. We were also being a bit greedy going for consecutive Saturday nights out in Glasgow. We shared the driving and got home about 8pm and didn't really mind that much that we'd missed out on the last night of our trip. The museum will be there next time and it just adds to the looking forward to the next trip.

    Final thoughts
    The Highlands of Scotland are absolutely stunningly scenic. We went to Ireland a few years ago and lovely as it was I think that objectively Scotland offers more in terms of a variety of scenery and the spectaular nature of it. Add to that two great cities and you have a brilliant destination.

    Skye was magical and we will return for a much longer stay there as soon as we can manage it.

    Avon's 'Skin So Soft' worked on the midges.

    Midges didn't affect us too often.

    The single track roads were huge fun and for the most part empty of traffic.

    Tripadvisor turned out excellent, again.

    B&Bs were much better than we thought they were going to be - we've never really used them that much before.

    We still love driving holidays.

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