Sunday, October 23, 2016

Road Tripping in Scotland

For Drew's 30th birthday, I had a glorious plan. It involved Drew coming over to Birmingham, and the two of us travelling to the northern tip of Scotland for the summer solstice, when there would hardly be any night, to eat at one of Britain's best and most sustainable restaurants.

This plan didn't exactly work out as I had hoped. Drew was working a contract position that didn't include paid vacation, and I ended up teaching a course at the university that would have made this trip difficult. Thus, we put it off to when Drew's contract would be up and I had a quieter period. This coincided with the month that I believe to be the very best in which to visit Scotland: October.

Two weeks past saw us taking an early train from Birmingham to Edinburgh, where we rendezvoused with what would provide our transportation and our lodging for the next five days: Roseisle Campervan Hire's Fiat Westfalia luxury van. I am totally in love with this vehicle. You will see why as you read.

In the middle of Cairngorms National Park
This first day was ambitious. After the train and getting the van, we hit the road to the Cairngorms right away. It was a Friday, and I wanted to get us to Thurso, to the Captain's Galley Restaurant, for Saturday night's supper. Distances in Scotland are not that far - Google will tell you that it's only around 5 hours' driving from Edinburgh to Thurso, which is like the drive from Toronto to Ottawa: done in a morning with one Timmies stop and not a big deal. Except that it's not at all like the drive from Toronto to Ottawa. The roads are narrow and winding, and maybe if you're in a small, responsive vehicle and very determined you could get close to the 5 hour mark. In a camper van, even if you took the most direct route, the trip takes closer to 8 hours, partly because you must drive slower in some places, and partly because you're on vacation and can't help but stop yourself along the highway to gawk at the breathtaking vistas. Drew and I said 'beautiful' so many times that we had to laugh at ourselves.

Hands at 9 and 3
So, getting us to the Cairngorms from Edinburgh, just a little shy of a 3 hour drive, by nightfall seemed like a reasonable goal. And yet, I had only driven so large a vehicle once before, when we took a Uhaul from Montreal to Toronto, but that was on the right-hand side of the road on nice wide highways with plenty of visual space around them. In this case, I was driving on the left-hand side, something I had also only done once before, and I wasn't sure how the van would handle, how heavy it was and how quickly it could stop, or exactly where my mirrors were. Thus, I white-knuckled the van up the highway, and then onto ever smaller, narrower, more windy roads, never letting my eyes stray from the two lines marking my lane. It took us about an hour longer than Google said - partly my fault, but also partly attributable to the fact that it's not possible to take a large camper van up and down switchback roads at 60mph.

Drew chefs it up in the van!
That night I was exhausted, and it was pitch black, and there was nothing to do but eat some delicious food, drink some wine, listen to tunes, and snuggle into bed. The van (glorious vehicle) was equipped with two propane cylinders, an auxiliary battery for the cabin that was charged by the motor, and the separate motor battery so that you never drained that key power source. We stopped near Balmoral in a fairly sheltered pull-off near the road - since it's legal to 'wild camp' (camp outside of a campground) in Scotland, there are plenty of these pull-off areas all over the place, and especially in park reserves. We turned on the propane, got the heat going, and Drew cooked up a feast. The cabin of the van is heated (there's a thermostat), there's a two-burner stove and a fridge, and there is also hot water and a flushable toilet, so we had hot showers and hot meals, and got right cozy in there. With all of the van's blinds shut we were invisible from the road. In fact, that evening I stepped out of the van to see whether anyone could see it, and I felt like I had a blindfold on. The night was overcast, and there was no light coming from anywhere. I couldn't see a thing! I got back in and hit the lock button on the van's dash, and it was actually like being in a little bunker. It was so dark that night in the Cairngorms, and so cozy and safe in the van, that we fell asleep super early and had amazing sleeps.

Looking over Berriedale's hairpin curve -
probably good fun in a small car
The next day, we woke to a beautiful clear blue sky. The day's task was to get to Thurso, but not to do it at the expense of seeing the gorgeousness of Scotland. We tootled our way through the rest of the park, stopping at a little tea house to poke around and spend money, and then headed up past Inverness. Drew had found a classical radio station, and the dramatic music perfectly matched the landscape. It was perfect for me, too, because I didn't have to divide my attention between lyrics and driving. Like a new driver, I felt my attention entirely swallowed by the task of keeping us on the road. It wasn't until Sunday, day 3, that I felt I could relax and look around a little bit (to my credit, we put not a scratch on that van).

Drew cheffing again! Lunchtime.
We stopped at Dornoch Firth to make some lunch in the van, and then swooped up along the coast. The landscape was ever-changing, from the Lunar landscape of Cairngorm park, to the rolling hills around Inverness, to the distant Caithness mountains and falling cliffs into the sea.

The day was perfect. We arrived well before our supper reservation, and walked around Thurso, admiring the view of the North Sea and the Orkney Islands in the distance.

Drew enjoys a meal he
did not have to cook
Our meal that night was outrageously good. I had been to the Captain's Galley ten years previous, to help paint it, in fact. I was friends with the son of the owners, Jim and Mary, and we got to work one weekend giving the bothy a sprucing. Jim and Mary remembered me, and we had a good blether before sitting down to eat. Drew and I both decided to get the set menu paired with wine. The Captain's Galley has won Sustainable Restaurant of the Year for the past years running in part because Jim buys sustainably caught fish fresh off the boats in Scrabster Harbour, so you get what's being caught when you go to eat there. Sample menus are available on their website, but one must be prepared to go with the catch of the day! Mary expertly pairs Jim's dishes with their selection of excellent wines, from appetizers to dessert. The meal was speckled with amuse-bouches as well, which were fun and refreshing. To top it off, Drew and I got to meet Jim and Mary's new doggie, Beau, before walking back to our van in Thurso. This restaurant was entirely worth every moment of the drive to get there, and the drive was so wonderful in itself that it would have been worth doing anyway. People! Dear readers! You must go.

Looking across the highlands near Thurso
Our next goal was to be in Falkirk by 18:30 on Monday, and so Sunday we found ourselves with an entire day to do whatever we wanted. I was at the wheel, and judged that we could probably go and check out Loch Ness, and then make our way back into Cairngorms, thereby giving ourselves Monday morning to taste Speyside scotch whiskey and still be in Falkirk for dinner. We took our time, indulging every urge to stop for photos or tea. I was aiming for Drumnadrochit - a little town on the side of Loch Ness, which has a Nessie shop and a little lunch spot. The GPS was aiming to get us there by the most direct route, and we forgot to tell it that we were in a large van. Thus, we approached Drumnadrochit overland, directly from the north, rather than scooting along the loch. I wasn't sure at moments whether we were going to manage it - we were muscling up and falling down the rolling hills that finally give way to the big drop into the loch. The van, however, was prepared for this kind of scenario; it is equipped not only with an optionally manual transmission, but also with engine braking. With the press of a button, the van was helping me to guide it safely down the twisting side of a steep hill in second gear.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness
We made it to the loch in time for lunch and a wander up the road to Urquhart Castle. The sky was bright blue, the loch a deep and glossy black. Nessie-searching boats skimmed across the surface. It couldn't have been more gorgeous. From there, back into the wild Cairngorms, with a stop in Cawdor to see Macbeth's castle and enjoy a pint. That night was perfectly clear and perfectly dark. Every object in the sky revealed itself to us, and we could see the heart of the Milky Way with its black dust clouds and highway of stars. In the midst of this, I was extremely sad to be heading back south. I love northern places, and the Highlands especially - the ruggedness, the space. It makes my heart sing and my life feel appropriately small, giving a kind of freedom from importance.

Sometimes there is traffic

Such a lovely frosty morning
The next morning brought a heavy and gorgeous frost. The bright purple heather and green ferns were transformed into soft lavender and mint, and the rising sun sparkled on every tiny leaf as it filtered through the evergreens around us. We were so cozy in the van that we didn't notice the chill until opening the blinds and seeing the white-frosted world around us. Steaming hot cups of coffee and woolly sweaters helped us outdoors to enjoy the crisp air. It was with regret that we turned the propane off and started to drive out of our sheltered forest nook.

Drew screams for
ice cream!
We were, however, very excited to visit the Speyside distilleries. There are a critical mass of them all to the north-east of the park. We only visited a handful, but I believe we chose wisely: Cardhu, Macallan, and Aberlour among them. We made our way south, again joining larger and larger roads. We stopped at Stewart Tower for ice cream and a break, and made it to Falkirk in time to wander down to see the Kelpies before dinner.

The next morning we had to give the van back. We were sad to see it go. I believe in returning it that I set one of my favourite socks free as well. All bad. On the train back to Birmingham, we watched the landscape become green, flat, and dense with towns. Gone were the rocky outcrops, heather-covered mountains and long stretches of emptiness. Back to civilization.