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Scotland’s the Best, or Looking for Roots and Finding Single Malts (and Midges): long TR

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We’re just back from our long-awaited trip to Scotland. My DH, celebrating a big birthday, wanted to explore his Scottish roots, and we decided we had waited far too long to visit there. (We both grew up in England.)

We had an outstanding trip: loved the scenery, the people we met, the scenery, the places we stayed… I’ll try to organize the TR so it will be helpful to other folks planning a trip there. We got so much great advice from knowledgeable Fodorites – I used reams of paper printing it all, and you didn’t ever steer us wrong.

We decided in the end (after much debate over where to go and in what order) to take the overnight train to Inverness, drive to Durness in the far north west, then back down the west coast of Scotland, finishing up in Edinburgh. So from London we went direct to Inverness, then Durness, Opinan (near Poolewe), Skye, Kentallen, Perth and Edinburgh, then back south to England.

How we traveled
After much research on the National Rail website (http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/, great resource for train times, routes and fares) and comparing of costs, we decided to go with a 4-day BritRail Flexipass. That allowed us 4 days of travel anywhere in the UK, and included the Heathrow Express, a nice addition. Since we were also visiting rellies in the south of England, 4 days was not quite enough and 8 days was too many – so we took the 4-day option and bought a Bargain Berth on the overnight train to Inverness to cover the trip up to Scotland.

I bought the rail pass from BTS, very helpful folks. When I called, they suggested using the Senior Pass which is in First – I wasn’t sure we needed that, but it ended up being a great idea.

Bargain Berth on the Caledonian Sleeper: learned about this on Fodors, of course. You can buy the berths online from First ScotRail http://www.firstgroup.com/scotrail/content/caledoniansleeper/index.php. I never found out exactly what the release dates were for the limited number of berths, so just checked our travel date every Monday until it came up. (Now I see them posted on the website…) We got the one-way berths for 29 GBP each, a great deal (regular price starts at 75 GBP each). It’s the same trip, same train, same accommodation.

The Caledonian Sleeper leaves Euston station at around 8:00 pm (varies slightly by season), and arrives in Inverness just after 8:00 am next day. The check-in process was very simple: you already have an assigned cabin number, and walk along the platform till you find the right car. An attendant checks you in and shows you to your “room”, explaining how it all works. It’s a small cabin, with two single berths stacked on one wall, and just enough room to turn around in. Not a lot of baggage space, but we managed to get everything stowed okay. There is a small sink with hot running water in your cabin, and men’s and women’s loos (clean and well kept) at the forward end of each car (so wear jammies suitable for public display!) Each berth is already made up with fresh white bed linen, a tartan blanket, a comfy pillow and a reading light.

There’s nowhere to sit in your cabin other than the bunks (unlike Amtrak sleeper cars) so we stowed our stuff and headed to the lounge car. Very pleasant place to sit and talk or read, have a drink or bite to eat – we shared a bottle of wine and good cheese and pate plates, and a nice cup of coffee as the train pulled out and headed north. I had no trouble falling asleep, thought the berth was very comfortable and snug. The ride was pretty quiet, and I was just vaguely aware of occasional stops. When I woke up, we were travelling through heather-covered hills: ah, first sight of Scotland! Our attendant delivered our choice of tea or coffee and a small breakfast snack, and we arrived on time in Inverness. It’s a fine day, but noticeably cooler.

Hertz car rental: We found the best rate for car rental from BA (tied to our BA flight to London). We prepaid, declining the insurance because we were covered by our Visa Signature card (I checked this out thoroughly, on Fodors, and also on the Visa website. Um, was that thoroughly or obsessively?!) Nearest Inverness pickup spot is the Hertz office at the Thistle Hotel, so we took a taxi over and arrived as the desk was opening. I had my confirmation email from BA, which showed the pre-paid price in USD, with insurance clearly EXcluded. Woman on the desk was confused, tried to charge us that amount in GBP (almost double) with insurance INcluded. It took a call to the main office to get it all squared away, but eventually the price was confirmed, with no CDW insurance except the Visa card. Thanks to the obsessive research, I knew what we needed and stood firm on that when tried to steer otherwise. We knew that additional charges for extra driver, local fees etc. would be billed when we returned the car (bit of a rip, those totaled around 100 GBP!)

Finally done, we drove off (stay LEFT, stay LEFT) in our nice new Ford Focus wagon. Comfortable car, good handling, and good on gas too (just as well, at more than 6 GBP per gallon…)

Where we stayed, and where we ate
(By the way, when you are making reservations in Scotland, be sure you know if the rate is per person or per room…I show prices below for each place we stayed: PPPN is per person per night, and PRPN is per room per night.)

Durness: Mackay’s Restaurant with Rooms <http://www.visitmackays.com/
Chose this mainly because of their appealing website (nice photos) and it really blew us away. It is pretty far from everywhere: Durness is a small town in the north-western-most corner of Scotland: not much there (small grocery store, gas station, tourist info center, B&Bs, and an art/craft cluster. Mackay’s is an old stone building right on the intersection. Originally built by the owner’s great grandfather, Robbie and his wife Fiona are doing an outstanding job of creating a comfortable, warm and welcoming place, stylish and unpretentious. The rooms have all been renovated and are well equipped and decorated: top-notch bedding with down pillows and duvets, and such comfortable beds, tea/coffee maker, plasma TV, and even an iPod loaded with music! Modern spacious en-suite bathroom with tub and shower. The “restaurant” part was excellent, too. Small, nicely furnished dining room, friendly attentive service. Food was outstanding: most memorable were Mackay’s breakfast porridge with brown sugar and a dash of whisky ;-), “smoked haddock pot” appetizer, fish stew (Chris is a scallop diver), roasted veggie risotto, and an outstanding chocolate cake. The food was Scottish in nature, with top-notch ingredients and evidence of an expert hand in the kitchen. No bar, but Fiona served drinks or coffee in the small lounge. Fiona is a charming hostess, and takes time to talk to her guests and make everyone feel welcome. We loved it – hope we will stay there again one day, for longer.
B&B cost 45 GBP PPPN. Dinner was a la carte.

Opinan: Na Fir Chlis B&B <http://www.nafirchlis.co.uk/
Found this with Sheila’s help on the Undiscovered Scotland website. Run by Penny (who cooks) and Ian (who grows the veggies and bakes the bread) – they are friendly and welcoming hosts. It’s a modern house, customized for a B&B. They have 2 double rooms with en-suite bathrooms, all accessed via a spiral staircase: rooms are spotless and comfortable, and complete with tea-making supplies and a place to sit. On the ground floor the guest area is a big sitting/dining room, with TV, stereo, movies and books for our use. The room looks across the garden to Gruinard Bay – you could see the Stornoway ferry sailing out in the distance. When we made the reservation, Penny asked if we wanted to have dinner there, suggested we bring wine if we chose, and asked if there was anything we did not like to eat. We were glad we decided to take the dinner option, because it’s pretty far from anywhere else to eat! Penny is an excellent cook (the sticky toffee pudding and raspberry crème brulee were standouts!)
Dinner, B&B cost 36 GBP PPPN: no CC. (We appreciated that they made it easy for us to pay a deposit by providing a PayPal account.)

Skye: Eilean Iarmain Hotel http://www.eileaniarmain.com/
I have mixed feelings about our stay here. We chose it because it was our anniversary weekend and we decided it was okay to splurge a bit… Had a hard time making contact to get a reservation – the website didn’t work, and I got no response to my emails. In the end, I called and booked a “superior” room for the weekend, requesting dinner the first night. The hotel is on the south end of Skye, the Sleat peninsula – it was a beautiful setting. We could see the Isle Ornsay lighthouse from our bedroom window, and the mainland peaks behind. It was quiet and tranquil, and lovely (we were blessed with wonderful weather). The hotel had some charming elements: comfortable chintzy sitting room, dining room with big sunny windows, lively pub attached (live music Friday night). Our room was comfortable, more traditional, and the bathroom (with pink fixtures) was much in need of updating. But what did surprise me at that price level was that the only staff we saw the day we arrived (including dinner service) were two young men, probably in their late teens. They were pleasant enough, but not experienced. Check in was very casual, and the same young man asked us when we wanted dinner (5 courses for 31 GBP each), showed us to our room, answered the phone, and served dinner. The meal was nice, not stellar – and it took 2 ½ hours from start to end! After dinner, we chatted in the lounge with our fellow guests, who were similarly surprised about the dinner service.

Next morning at breakfast we met a very capable woman who I assume is the manager – her presence certainly energized the service. Don’t know if she served dinner also, because we ate in Broadford. I wish our young check-in guy had mentioned that we could also choose to eat in the pub – we might have preferred that option.
B&B cost 85 GBP PPPN: dinner was 31 GBP each.

We ate dinner the second night in Broadford, at the Harbor View Cafe. We came across the place by chance: we had stopped during the day at “Skye Surprises”, the multifunctional gas station/internet café/grocery store/Laundromat, and wandered down the road in search of coffee. We found great fair-trade coffee at the Harbor View nearby, and had chatted to Martin, the friendly owner. We saw the dinner menu, and decided to try it. After our drive round the island we returned, had an excellent meal cooked by Mrs. Martin: smoked mackerel, beef braised with wine and mushrooms, fresh veggies, berries and cream: (Good vegetarian and vegan options here, too.) We paid 38 GBP for two generous 3-course meals, with wine and coffee. They were doing good business, not surprisingly!

Holly Tree Hotel, Kentallen <http://www.hollytreehotel.co.uk/>
Small family hotel on Loch Linnhe, just south of Fort William. We stayed here (a) because we wanted to be close to Fort William but not in it (taking the Jacobite steam train) and (b) because Sheila recommended it!

Until the 1960’s, this was the railway station. Now it has been converted to a pleasant small hotel right on the water. Room was good size, comfortable, with a view over the loch and a modern en-suite bathroom. (View reminded us of Lake Maggiore…) Best of all was the dining room: huge glass walls facing the view, very good service, and outstanding food. Standouts there were an appetizer of prawns wrapped in smoked salmon; scallops; venison; and breakfast porridge with Glayva. Only downer was that they did not serve decaf coffee.
Dinner, B&B cost 80 GBP PPPN.

I hope I can always hold the mental image of waking up to that view after a rainy night: mist on the loch, water like glass, clouds on the hills opposite, small glimpses of pale blue sky: it was breathtaking, like a living watercolor painting.

Parklands Hotel, Perth http://www.theparklandshotel.com/
We had just one night in Perth, and this was a late choice. Found a not-bad rate offered for our date, and we liked the place very much (owned/run by a young couple). Location was very good, overlooking the South Inch park and a short walk to either downtown, the station, or the Tay river. Room was comfortable but a bit hot (it was a hot night) with a very nice very mod en suite bathroom.
B&B cost 99 GBP PRPN.

The hotel restaurant has hired the former chef of Let’s Eat, I believe, and has a good reputation – but we decided to try 63 Tay Street and were very glad we did. It was a short walk from the hotel. A clean simple room, packed on a Tuesday night: excellent and friendly service. They served (free) yummy amuse-bouche as we were seated, then we had excellent haddock and leek risotto, tomato-fennel soup; roasted cod in a creamy curry-mussel sauce. Too full for dessert!

2 Cambridge Street, Edinburgh http://www.aboutscotland.com/edin/cambridge.html
Again, fell for the photos on the website…Location was great, just below the castle, and near theatres and Princes Street. Helene and Erlend are welcoming and interesting hosts, who renovated this classic townhouse when they moved here from another B&B. Décor is striking –my journal says: “Like sleeping in a Victorian jewel box”. Deep rich colors, 14-ft ceilings, very comfy brass bed with duvet and down pillows, and very mod en-suite bathroom. We ate breakfast in the sitting room with another couple staying there – very agreeable company, and original breakfast offerings that included Greek yoghurt with raspberries, poached eggs with parmesan over grilled asparagus, and omelet with smoked salmon. We did miss being able to make tea in our room, but Helene served tea and home-made cake when we arrived! And we will remember chatting to Erlend in the comfortable sitting room, and drinking a wonderful liqueur, home-made by a friend of his from herbs on his farm in the Alpes Maritimes.
B&B cost 95 GBP PRPN, (no CC).

Eating in Edinburgh: So many choices! But after all the traveling, we were flagging a bit and didn’t want to go far afield. First night, on Helene’s recommendation, we went across the street to the Blue Bar Café in the Traverse Theatre: very contemporary, casual place. Service pretty casual, too… You can have “lights” (size of a generous appetizer) or “mains” – same dish, but bigger portions. We had lights: Thai fish cakes or smoked mackerel with celeriac, then banger and mash or sea bream. A good choice when we just didn’t want to eat as much. Nice casual atmosphere.

Second night we were tired from walking all day in the rain, and wanted again to stay close to home. We chose Stac Polly, which we really liked. Small simple place, good friendly service. Loved haggis in phyllo parcels with wine/plum sauce, roasted halibut or sea bream, good coffee and “tablet” (like dulce de leche fudge, so yummy).

If you’ve stuck with this lengthy dissertation thus far, thanks! Have to go and do some work now. :-( I’ll be back in a day or two with what we saw and loved along the way (including those single malts...) :-)

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