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Lochs, Lox, Locks, and Rocks: Nikki's trip to Scotland

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Lochs, Lox, Locks, and Rocks: Nikki's trip to Scotland

Old Aug 25th, 2013, 04:18 PM
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Lochs, Lox, Locks, and Rocks: Nikki's trip to Scotland

It is arguable that I have taken more vacations over a period of 44 years with my friend Ellen than I have with my husband Alan. But we had not traveled to Europe together since the summer of 1972. When the time finally came, we decided to go to Scotland. Ellen and her husband Alan (no, they are not the same man) would meet us in Edinburgh; we would rent a car for ten days, travel around Scotland, and then return to Edinburgh for six days during the festival season.

Alan and I were in Scotland five years ago during August, and I loved the Edinburgh Festival Fringe so much that I said I would return in a heartbeat. It's been a long heartbeat, but we were getting back to it. Ellen and Alan were in Scotland for a couple of days thirty years ago and were looking forward to seeing what they missed the first time around.

Six months before the trip, I secured a two bedroom apartment in Edinburgh's New Town and bought tickets to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I knew it would be mobbed in Edinburgh in August so it was important to get our housing tied down. And tickets to the tattoo sell out early. We took a break from planning until June, when Ellen and I traveled to our fortieth college reunion and started putting together a tentative itinerary.

We ended up with a trip that took us to St. Andrews, Aberdeenshire, Nairn, the Isle of Skye, the Lake of Menteith, and Edinburgh. Along the way we saw castles in all stages of repair and disrepair; rocky and sandy shores; stone circles and ancient burial mounds; mountains and glens; battlefields and sites of legendary massacres. We gathered enough information to write a dissertation or two on single malt whisky and another on sticky toffee pudding, with a minor in Scottish cheese, porridge, and smoked salmon.

We saw thought-provoking new plays and a strip-tease show in an Edinburgh pub. We spent an incomparable weekend at the home of friends I never would have met without the internet message board to which I am addicted, learning more about Scottish history and culture from them and from their friends than I could have learned in a lifetime of reading books.

We did not end up in the ditch on the left hand side of the road, not for long anyway. We did not lose any members of our party for more than an hour or two, even though the police refused to tell Ellen (and that nice young woman who took her in, we must remember to send her some flowers) the phone number of our hosts. We did not have to call the alpine rescue to come and get me down after I climbed a hill (that ancient broch at the top looked so appealing!) a bit too steep for me to walk down unaided. It only seemed to rain while we were indoors and cleared whenever we went out.

And we are all still friends. So a success through and through.

Photos can be seen at https://nikkiscotlandaugust2013.shutterfly.com/pictures
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Old Aug 25th, 2013, 05:29 PM
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Oooh -- really looking forward to your report!!

But >> even though the police refused to tell Ellen (and that nice young woman who took her in, we must remember to send her some flowers) the phone number of our hosts.
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Old Aug 25th, 2013, 05:30 PM
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Fabulous photos BTW . . .
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Old Aug 25th, 2013, 06:25 PM
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Nikki, great pics. Merci. You certainly had great weather, eh? Also expect to see pics of great food from you.
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 03:16 AM
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Thursday, August 1, we arrive in Edinburgh after an uneventful flight on British Airways. We change planes in London, and there must be a backup to land at Heathrow, because we circle for a while. But we get an excellent tour of London from the air on a beautiful clear morning, flying over much of the city and picking out landmarks from the air.

Our layover at Heathrow is an hour and a half, and we need every minute of it to make our plane. There is an infuriatingly long wait on a deceptively short line at passport control when only one desk is open for non-EU passport holders and the passport inspectors keep walking away from the desk. End of shift? Breakfast? We let a guy behind us go first because he has a flight in twenty minutes, but once we see the line for security after we get through immigration we realize he must have missed his flight anyway.

We meet Ellen and Alan at the rental car center at the Edinburgh airport, where we pick up our Volkswagen mini-van. We are relieved to get this car. We had reserved a station wagon that would have been very cramped for our group, and when we tried to find a larger vehicle on line, we saw only much larger and more expensive vans. The helpful woman at the desk at National takes one look at our party, says we need a larger vehicle than the one we reserved, and finds us this nice van at a good price.

Our first destination is the Fairmont Hotel in St. Andrews. I have brought along my GPS from home and key in the destination by postal code. This works beautifully, takes us out of the airport and onto the highway easily and helps us navigate without going around every roundabout several times trying to figure out which direction we need.

This first leg is somewhat nervewracking. Alan and I are up front, and Alan is getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road in a jet-lagged state. I am keeping up a constant chorus of "keep left, not that far left" as he gets used to the narrow lanes on the road. We have planned a short drive for this first day, but it is not short enough.

After about half an hour we slow down for a car in front of us that is turning off the road. I see a sign for a farm stand and suggest we turn in also. This turns out to be fortuitous. We have scones with clotted cream and jam at the Blacketyside Farm Shop and Tea Room, and then we get back on the road. http://www.blacketysidefarmshop.co.uk/index.html

We find the Fairmont Hotel with no trouble and retire to our rooms for a much-needed nap. We had had difficulty securing hotel rooms in St. Andrews. When I sent out a number of e-mails requesting rooms for this night back in June, I came up empty. One of the responses pointed out that it was the weekend of the Women's British Open Golf Championship, and many hotels were full.

The Fairmont is a large hotel and is located outside the town and still had availability, so we booked rooms there even though it cost more than we had hoped to spend. But it is a great choice for our first, tired day. There are large rooms with good beds and large bathrooms with very good showers. And after our naps, a very helpful concierge drives us into town when the hotel's shuttle is too full to take us.

We wander around the ruins of the cathedral and the castle and take in the stunning views over the ocean. We end up having drinks on the terrace at a bar overlooking the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. There are bleachers set up for the golf tournament and many people watching.

Dinner is at the Doll's House Restaurant. http://www.dollshouse-restaurant.co.uk/ This restaurant serves Scottish and French cuisine. We all love it. It is set off the street in the center of town on a plaza next to a church with outside tables, although it is a bit chilly to eat outside, so we eat in an upstairs dining room. For dessert we share a marvelous sticky toffee pudding with berries and spend the rest of the trip trying to find one as good.

The restaurant calls a taxi to take us back to the hotel and this very long and rewarding day comes to a close.
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 03:33 AM
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Always love your reports Nikki! So glad you had a great trip
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 03:42 AM
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Enjoying your trip report Nikki and especially appreciating your use of paragraphs.
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 03:44 AM
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And a bit envious of your blue sky
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 08:32 AM
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Friday morning we head out to explore the secret bunker located under a farmhouse in the Fife countryside. This is a large underground complex of rooms from which Scotland would have been governed during the cold war in the event of a nuclear attack. It is now privately owned and maintained as a museum. There is an interesting audio guide and we spend much longer here than we anticipated. http://www.secretbunker.co.uk/

There are two films shown inside. One is a depiction of the horrors of nuclear war. I remember such films from my youth, although perhaps not quite as graphic as this one. The other is an instructional film about preparing for nuclear war at home by stocking supplies underground. This makes surviving a nuclear war sound like making it through Hurricane Bob.

I make this point and Ellen, Alan, and I discuss Hurricane Bob as we wait outside for my husband. We all were renting a house together with our children on Cape Cod when the hurricane hit in 1991. After a week with no power and no water, and hauling trash barrels filled with water from a pond, we learned just how much more water gets flushed down the toilet than is used for cooking and washing. Went home and installed low flush toilets. But I digress.

The former Royal Air Force pilot who is manning the entrance to the bunker overhears us wondering what is keeping Alan so long, and he offers to make an announcement. To our great amusement, he makes a very attention-grabbing official call over the loudspeaker for Alan to return to the entrance. This finds Alan in the midst of a presentation by the owner of the bunker (in our defense, we did not know the presentation was going on), and he gets up with some embarrassment and joins us outside.

We drive to the coast and visit the East Neuk fishing village of Crail. We see a dilapidated hotel for sale in the center of town and think about the hard work vs. the fantasy of running an inn. There is a picturesque working harbor where I take many photos before we get back in the car for the drive to Aberdeen.

We meet Sheila in Aberdeen at the club where she gathers with friends for drinks after work on Fridays. I know Sheila from the Fodor's message board and have done a house exchange with her and enjoyed her hospitality both in Scotland and in France on previous occasions. She has generously offered to put us all up for the weekend, and I have been greatly looking forward to this. After drinks and introductions, we set off for her house in the countryside, where she prepares dinner and we settle in for a festive evening of food and conversation.
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 09:42 AM
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Great pictures. Looking forward to reading more about the trip!
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 11:48 AM
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Saturday Sheila and her husband guide us around the area. We take their cars so they can do the driving. Both Alans, who are the two drivers designated on the rental contract, feel very cautious about driving so far. The narrow roads in the countryside, which would have forty mile per hour speed limits at home in Massachusetts, have sixty mile per hour speed limits here in Scotland. Sheila figures that with the Americans driving the van, we'd never get to see the things we set out to do.

We start at the Bass of Inverurie, a cemetery housing a motte and bailey castle dating to the twelfth century. The castle consists of two large mounds of earth on which there would have been wooden buildings overlooking the nearby river. Also in the cemetery are stones carved with Pictish symbols which had been built into the walls of a nearby medieval church and then moved to this site when the church was demolished. http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.u...ass/index.html

From here we travel to see the Brandsbutt Pictish Stone, reassembled from fragments that had been built into a field dike and preserved in a park surrounded by a suburban housing subdivision. There are carvings of a serpent and a crescent, with writing in the ancient ogham alphabet down the left side. A stone circle which used to stand on this spot is marked out on the grass.
http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.u...ass/index.html

Lunch is at the Cow Shed Restaurant in Banchory. The restaurant presents cooking classes, and Sheila has contemplated taking a class in bread baking here. I enjoy a tiny whole roast chicken.

After lunch we head farther up the River Dee to Aboyne for the Highland Games. It is late in the afternoon, but we are in time to catch some of the heavy events such as the throwing of the hammer and the tossing of the caber, a log the length of a telephone pole that is tossed in the air with the object of heaving it end over end so that it lands pointing directly in front of the thrower. Large kilted men compete all summer in these events on a circuit of highland games all over Scotland.

We see the runners returning from the hill race, an eleven kilometer race with a 340 meter climb. There are piping competitions and dancing competitions all running simultaneously in a field in the center of town. Booths are set up around the grounds for different clans.

As we are leaving, we chat briefly with a friend of Sheila's who plays bagpipes in a band with his two sons. This reminds me of the community band in which I have played for most of my adult life, in which we have members of all ages. We have much less exciting outfits however, wearing just black pants and white shirts for our summer concerts. It would be hard to convince the guys in our band to wear kilts.

Dinner at the Redgarth Inn in Oldmeldrum, with views of iron age forts on top of hills in the distance, is followed by conversation and music back at Sheila's house. We have some traditional Scottish music on the agenda for our week in Edinburgh, and Sheila and her husband play samples of different artists for us while I take notes on which ones I would like to order or download when I get back home.
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 11:58 AM
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I am keeping up a constant chorus of "keep left, not that far left" as he gets used to the narrow lanes on the road. We have planned a short drive for this first day, but it is not short enough. >>

sounds like us in France, Nikki! [only there, it's "keep right", obviously].

>

you seem to have come across the public information broadcasts that were inflicted upon us back in the 1960s - as a young teen, I found them very disturbing, even the less vivid one.

keep the report coming - as ever it is most interesting and well written!
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 01:42 PM
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I left out a description of perhaps my favorite stop of the day, the East Aquhorthies stone circle, superbly situated on a hilltop overlooking the surrounding farmland. This is a recumbent stone circle, with a rock laid horizontally as a feature of the circle, which otherwise consists of upright stones. It is between four and five thousand years old and is one of around ninety such circles to have survived in Aberdeenshire. I can't get enough of this sort of thing; I could happily spend a week or two visiting them all. http://web.undiscoveredscotland.com/...eraquhorthies/
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Old Aug 26th, 2013, 05:14 PM
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Sunday morning Ellen heads out for a walk before anybody else is awake. Sheila has recommended a path that leads behind her house and along an alley of trees through the fields. Ellen has not yet returned when breakfast is ready, so we all sit down to a feast of porridge, freshly baked bread with butter and jam, smoked salmon, french toast with bacon, eggs, fruit, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Oh yes, Aberdeen butteries, a local pastry that is, well, buttery.

We are all deeply involved in consuming this feast when the door opens and Ellen walks in. "Hi," she says, "this is Emma, she drove me back when I got lost." We all look up and see Ellen with a smiling young redheaded woman, they are arm in arm. Ellen had missed the described walk through the fields and headed off down the road into the nearest town. She did not recognize the turnoff for Sheila's house on the way back, walked past the house, and proceeded to become confused. She stopped at a house or two where nobody answered the door and eventually came upon Emma's house.

Emma did not know Sheila, and Ellen did not have her phone or her phone numbers with her. They called the police. They did know Sheila's house and gave them the postal code but would not give them the phone number. Emma drove Ellen up and down the road until they located the entrance to Sheila's driveway. After telling the story, they hug each other good-bye. Emma has to get back to her baby.

Eventually Ellen forgives us for failing to send out a search party (at least I hope she does), and we get on with the day.

We explore without Sheila this morning, as she is preparing for a barbecue for us and some other guests in the afternoon. Ellen points out Emma's house, which is part of a complex of houses that used to be farm structures. We learn that zoning laws prevent development on lots that do not already have buildings on them. This maintains the rural, agricultural character of the countryside. Many old farm dwellings and outbuildings have been converted into residences used by people commuting to jobs in the cities and towns. Sheila's house is an example.

Our first stop is Tolquhon Castle, a fine ruin with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. Instead of crossing a moat to approach the castle, the visitor has to get past a deceptively docile-looking cat, who lies on her back as if to invite a pat, and then bites the hand that strokes her.

We drive to the coast, admiring the views and the scenery at the village of Collieston and the beach at Cruden Bay. It is very windy here, and the beach is strewn with jellyfish of many shapes, sizes, and colors. I do not test to see whether they are the stinging variety.

Our last stop is the Bullers of Buchan, a collapsed sea cave with a natural archway. The coast here is spectacular, and I take many photos.

We have been receiving text messages from Sheila with shopping instructions for things she needs to complete the meal, so we stop at a supermarket on the way back to the house. We have to settle for black currants, although Sheila specified red ones, but they seem just fine in the wonderful summer pudding that they end up in.

When we return to the house, other guests are just arriving for the barbecue. This is the family who joined Sheila and her husband staying at our house on Cape Cod when we did the house exchange six years ago. So although we have only met briefly, I feel like we know each other.

More guests arrive later, and one is a font of information on the subject of single malt whisky. He grew up in distilleries. He gives Alan the equivalent of a graduate seminar in the tasting of various whiskies, complete with demonstrations, and we take notes on various bottles to look for that we will not be able to find at home.

The conversation is lively, the company is excellent, and we are all hugging each other goodbye at the end of the evening.
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Old Aug 27th, 2013, 04:33 AM
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Monday morning we say goodbye to our wonderful hosts and drive up into the Highlands, to Dufftown, where we tour the Glenfiddich distillery. The tour is free, and there is a free tasting at the end of it. Afterward, we stop in town at the Whisky Shop to look for some of the bottles recommended by Sheila's friend, and we have lunch at the Stuart Arms Bar and Restaurant. I order cullen skink, a smoky fish chowder that we see on menus throughout Scotland, and that gives the chowder we get on Cape Cod a run for its money.

We drive up toward the Moray Firth and navigate along back roads to find the Clava Cairns, a group of three prehistoric burial cairns. Two of these four thousand year old stone chambers are built with passages oriented toward the setting sun on the day of the winter solstice. Rings of standing stones surround each cairn. http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.u...s/clavacairns/

Our last stop is nearby at the Culloden Battlefield, site of the last hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil in 1746. The excellent displays at the new visitor center detail the events leading up to the battle and provide historical perspective from both sides of the conflict, portraying it as a civil war with the two sides supporting different claimants to the British throne. We take a guided tour of the battlefield and come away with a deeper understanding of the history behind the sights we will see for the rest of our trip.
http://www.nts.org.uk/Culloden/Home/

The result of this conflict, the defeat of the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, was devastating for Highland life and culture. The Gaelic language was suppressed, as well as the manner of dress and the way of life. Highlanders were removed from their homes and the area became depopulated. We see and hear evidence of the lasting consequences throughout our journey. We see so many sites associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie and his flight from the Battle of Culloden that we feel as though we are following in his footsteps around Scotland. We also see many signs of the resurgence of Highland culture, and of the Gaelic language.

Tonight we are staying in Nairn, an old seaside resort town. Our hotel, the Invernairne Guest House, is beautifully situated, with views over a lovely garden to the Moray Firth and a path to the beach. We watch oil tankers and cruise ships through our window. A lovely English couple run the inn, a nineteenth century mansion which is immaculately restored and maintained. http://www.invernairne.com/

Dinner is at the Bandstand Restaurant at the Braeval Hotel. Beautiful views past a park (with a bandstand) toward the sea, and good food. We are eating a late dinner, but it stays light very late this far north in the summer, and after dinner we enjoy the park as the lights come on in the bandstand before heading back to the Invernairne for the night.
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Old Aug 27th, 2013, 05:00 AM
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What a beautiful trip report! I'm so glad I stumbled on this one -- my DH and I have been casually throwing around the idea of visiting Scotland next year. Reading this TR, now I *really* want to go!
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Old Aug 27th, 2013, 06:21 AM
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Interesting report - but why the use of the present tense?
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Old Aug 27th, 2013, 07:16 AM
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"why the use of the present tense?"

It's just how I feel it. I've written reports both ways, and the present tense seems more immediate to me.

Thanks for all the interest, it really helps me keep going. Hoping to get this all down in writing before I forget even more of the details than I already have.
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Old Aug 27th, 2013, 10:35 AM
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Tuesday we drive through Inverness and then down the western shore of Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle. This is our first encounter with mobs of tourists. The parking lot is full, and cars are cruising in circles to find an available space. We luck out, park on our first circuit and head into the visitor center, where there is a movie introducing the castle and a stunning view.

We spend quite a bit of time walking among the ruins of the castle on the loch. It is large enough to handle the crowds of people speaking all languages that we encounter. There are guides located around the site, and I have an interesting conversation with one of them. He tells me that the explanatory sign we are standing next to is full of misinformation: it names the wrong monarch and describes a structure as a latrine when it is actually a chimney. The signs are relatively recent, he tells me. A list of errors has been sent along to the proper authorities in Edinburgh, but he is not holding his breath for the signs to be corrected.

The drive through the Northwest Highlands toward the Isle of Skye takes us through breathtakingly beautiful, sparsely populated mountains and glens. I don't want to close my eyes for a second.

I have planned a short stop for photos at Eilean Donan Castle, but I am starting to realize there is no such thing as a short stop. We buy tickets and explore the castle, on the theory that we don't want to miss anything. After an hour, we are back on the road and we cross the bridge to the beautiful Isle of Skye.

It was harder than I anticipated finding accommodations on Skye. Many places I contacted were full. We ended up in the same situation we had been in earlier in St. Andrews, where the only place available for one of our nights was far more expensive than we had hoped. We are headed now for that hotel, the Kinloch Lodge. http://www.kinloch-lodge.co.uk/

Staying here ends up being a real highlight of our trip. We are not sure what to expect and have a slight expectation of feeling that it isn't going to be "worth it". But we all agree that it is a great value and I would love to go back.

When we arrive, we are greeted in a sitting room with champagne while we check in. There is a couple here who have just arrived and are having a snack; they have driven two hours out of their way and gone without any lunch. Their GPS directed them to the far end of Skye, and it wasn't until they got there that they realized they had keyed in an incomplete postal code.

While the GPS is a wonderful tool, and we have relied on it heavily on this trip, I always try to look at the spot to which it is directing us to see whether it appears to be where I expect to be going. I am mindful that our daughter once was headed for Queens and ended up following her GPS to Brooklyn instead. The horror!

A pleasant young man asks if there is anything he can do to help us. Yes, I can think of a few things. He can call and confirm our lunch reservation at the Three Chimneys. And would he please check with the ferry about our tickets? I have been worried about this since we picked up our car in Edinburgh.

When I made the reservation for the ferry from Skye for the car and four passengers, I had to specify the type of vehicle we would be driving. At the time, I thought it would be a station wagon, but we are now driving a mini-van, and I am worried that they won't accept us on the ticket I have purchased. Larger vehicles take up more room and the tickets cost more. The helpful young man does check it out and finds out the dimensions of the car and reassures us that our current ticket will still be good. This is a relief.

Dinner is included in the price of our stay. The restaurant at the Kinloch Lodge has a Michelin star. The hotel is owned by Claire MacDonald, a well-known Scottish chef and cookbook author, and her husband, who is the High Chief of Clan Donald. I have never dined in a Michelin starred restaurant before. Can it be that much better than the very good restaurants I have visited before?

Yes, it can.

Canapes and drinks are served before dinner in the sitting room. A tray is brought out to us with exquisite small appetizers. The hotel had requested that we notify them in advance of any food allergies. Since one of our party is allergic to fish and seafood, I had told them about that. So there is a separate set of appetizers with no fish or seafood included.

We are brought into the dining room for the rest of our dinner. I have the menu, but I do not have the list of substitutions made for fish dishes. First there is a "soupçon" of roast red pepper, with black olive. Next there is warm west coast crab mousse with rich seafood sauce. After this comes seared west coast scallop, parma ham and peanut sauce. For the main course, there is a choice of fillet of Fort Augustus venison with wilted leaf spinach and sauteed cabbage, parsnip and apple; or fillet of Mallaig seabass, rosti, crispy nest of julienne vegetables, coriander and vanilla sauce. I have the venison, which is terrific. Alan has the seabass, which is equally terrific.

Dessert is a very lemony tart with crisp pistachio pastry, honey and whiskey sauce. I choose to add the cheese course, which is a selection of Scottish and French cheeses. By the end of this meal, we are all in a wonderful mood. We then are sent back to the sitting room, where we are presented with coffee and a selection of homemade petits fours and vanilla fudge.

Alan says it's a good thing we can't eat here every night.

I'm not so sure.
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Old Aug 27th, 2013, 11:13 AM
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sounds like a wonderful meal, Nikki.

i know what you mean about whether to write in the present or past tense - that's bemused me occasionally too. this way seems to work very well for you!
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