A quiet day in Speyside

This will be a relatively short post. I was feeling unambitious today. It’s two weeks since I left Vancouver, and tomorrow will be two weeks since I arrived here. Maybe that has something to do with it. I’m having a great time in Scotland, as I did in Ireland, but I’m missing my wife, my friends and family, even my cat. About the only thing I’m not missing to some degree is the daily commute to and from the North Shore. I also miss the variety of foods on offer in Vancouver. Here, most places offer variations on a theme. Maybe that will change in Edinburgh.

That sounded complainy. It shouldn’t. As I said above, I’M HAVING A GREAT TIME here. There are just things I miss about home. And the main one is Adele.

One thing they have in abundance here, but which we don’t have at all back home, is malt whisky distilleries. I could spend a week just visiting distilleries in the Speyside region, and still not get to all of them. Given that I can’t do everything – I never did get to John o’ Groats, for example – I’ve had to be selective. To date, I’ve toured two distilleries: Glenmorangie, which I wrote about a couple of days ago, and earlier today, Glenfiddich, which was my father’s favourite.

The Glenmorangie tour was very good. The Glenfiddich tour was excellent.

They’ve been making Glenfiddich for about 120 years in Dufftown, and it’s still owned by the same family, and largely made the same way they began in 1887. Like most other distilleries, they no longer malt their own barley, but buy it from maltings. Unlike most other distilleries, they have their own cooperage on site, and do their own bottling. They now sell to 184 of the 196 countries on earth, which makes them the biggest of the single malt whiskies on the planet.

Biggest isn’t always best, and to be honest, although I like Glenfiddich, especially the 18 year old expression, I’m more of an Islay malt guy. I like a bit of peat. Ok, a lot of peat. And even among the Speyside (and other Highland) malts, it’s not my first choice. Not far down the list, but not the top, either. (Sadly, The Glenrothes doesn’t have tours, or even a visitor centre, at their distillery.) But as they say, there are two kinds of single malt whiskies: good ones, and better ones. Glenfiddich belongs in the better group, just not necessarily at the top.

I do think it’s cool, though, how many of their employees are lifers. They have one cooper, for example, who’s been with them for 50 years.

And their tour would be hard to beat, even by a whisky I prefer. (Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Bowmore and Bruichladdich, Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain, among the Islays I’ve sampled.) It was surprising how different their approach is to whisky than, say, Glenmorangie. Using wooden washbacks, for example. (Made from Douglas Fir from British Columbia – just saying.) Or the fact they age their whiskies in both sherry and bourbon barrels for the full 12 (or more) years, and then blend those together to make their end products, rather than using bourbon barrels exclusively for the first ten years, and then “finishing” their whisky in sherry (or port, or Sauternes) barrels.

As I went their on the bike, I couldn’t partake of the tasting at the end. Scotland’s drink-driving rules are even stricter than those in British Columbia. The legal limit is 0.02, which is as close to zero as you can get and still have a test. Careful what mouthwash you use here! They gave me a wee bottle of the 12 to take with me.

The tour lasts 90 minutes, and afterwards I didn’t really see the point of visiting another distillery today, so I rode off into Cairngorms National Park. I didn’t set a destination on the GPS, just followed the road that led into the park on the assumption that all roads lead to somewhere. This one certainly did. Not only did I pass the Glenlivet distillery on the way to the road, it led me (after close to an hour) past the Tomintoul distillery, too.

The beautiful little B road also led me through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever ridden through. I stopped and took pictures along the way, although I haven’t transferred them over from the camera yet, so you’ll just have to take my word for it for now. It ran beside the Avon and Spey rivers (at different points, of course), through farmland filled with cattle and sheep, along steep hills and through green valleys.

And of course, like all roads, it did lead to somewhere, in this case to a junction with another, larger road, which ultimately brought me back to Elgin.

Tomorrow I’ll be off to Edinburgh, where I’ll meet up with my friend Gillian for a while. After that, I’ll be down to England and Wales. I can’t believe my time in Scotland is almost at an end! It’s been fantastic. The only thing that could make it better is having Adele here with me. Next time!

O Western Wind

O western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ! That my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

Anon.

Well, the damned wind blew today. Did it ever! Damned near blew me right off the highway. The rain wasn’t small at that point, though, and if it had succeeded the last two lines would have been very unlikely ever to occur again.

I woke up with the sound of the wind outside my window, howling down Crown Street in Inverness, shaking the small trees, and making them bend, but not break. It had rained in the night, but wasn’t raining when I got up. I showered and dressed and made some breakfast. I washed the breakfast dishes, and brought the cases in from the bike to pack my things into them (everything fits like a charm now), and then waited and read the news online for a while, since checkout wasn’t for another couple of hours.

When it was time to go, I dropped the key with Malcolm and Maggie, and thanked them for being such great hosts. I had set the GPS to hit a couple of distilleries on the way to Elgin, which Google Maps said was only about 90 minutes away from Inverness. There were four hours between check out and check in times, and that left me with 2 1/2 hours to kill. I might as well use the time productively, I thought.

As I got the Tiger started and waved goodbye to Inverness, the rain began. Just a mizzle at first, then more and more insistent. The wind picked up, too, and by the time I was on the A9 heading south, it took effort and concentration to keep the bike upright and going in a more or less straight line. The rental helmet doesn’t have an anti-fog shield (note to self: always bring your own helmet!), and I had to keep it cracked open to let in enough air to keep it clear. Unfortunately that meant water running down the inside of the visor. There was just no winning.

After a half hour or so of this, I decided to pull at a roadside parking area and reset the GPS to come straight to Elgin. I’d find someplace to hang out until I could check in if the weather wasn’t any better there. I pulled a u-turn, as instructed, at the first safe opportunity, and then the GPS sent me down some B roads heading east. The GPS said the speed limit was 60 mph, but you’d have to be mad to do that on a nice day on these roads, and this wasn’t a particularly nice day. I kept to about half that. Gradually the wind died down to merely blustering, and the rain all but stopped altogether. Overhead the clouds raced furiously across the sky. No type of weather was going to last long, except windy.

I saw a sign for the Culloden Battlefield historical site, so I took the road in that direction. When I got there, I discovered the National Trust wanted £2 for parking and £11 to access the site. I’ll all for preserving heritage and history, but I’ll be damed if I’m paying £13 to hike through a muddy moor in the rain. In wet motorcycle gear. With that wind.

A taste of what I missed not stopping at Culloden.

I found a gas station and filled the bike up, and then found my way back to the gloriously deserted B roads, which it turns out are part of the Tourist Route of the Highlands. Who knew? I didn’t stop at any of the castles along the way. I like the architecture fine, but I could give a fuck about the asshats who used to occupy them, literally lording it over the local population. (I find the idea of aristocracy and royalty offensively undemocratic. You may disagree, and I’m not going to try to persuade anyone otherwise who wants to be subservient to those whose ancestors killed someone else’s ancestors and took their land. It’s just not my idea of how the world ought to be.)

Anyway, the GPS by hook or by crook will take you back to a highway eventually unless you’ve expressly told it not to, and even then it might not recognize A roads as highways, and just keep you off the motorways instead. So, after a while, I was on the A96, whether I liked it or not. I should have tried harder to defeat it. For a long stretch we crawled along at under 30 mph anyway. Our progress was slowed by trucks hauling enormous propeller blades for wind generators, which we eventually passed when they took up the entirety of the left lane during the brief mile or so that we had a passing lane. (Note to North Americans: the right lane is the passing lane here.)

The wind began to pick back up again when I was about 10 miles from Elgin, although still not at the speeds it had been earlier. Storm Hector, as I’ve since heard it’s called, followed me eastward.

When I got to town, I found my hotel quite easily, and they were kind enough to let me check in early. The storm is supposed to blow over this evening. I’ve been out walking around, and the wind is still quite blowy, but it hasn’t rained in a couple of hours.

Elgin is a nice enough town. Almost like a miniature of Inverness, with a lot of old stone buildings and narrow streets. The lanes here are for walking only, or maybe you can cycle down them; they are far too narrow, and their widths too varied, to risk a car in them. There are a lot of shops in the centre of town, and a few pubs. I plan to eat at one of them tonight.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll head out to the Glenfiddich and Macallan distilleries, and explore The Cairngorms a bit, too. Maybe I’ll even take some pictures, something I’ve done much less of than I’d planned. If the weather is like today, though, I’ll find places to hang out and read. David has inspired me to take another crack at Ulysses. I can think of far worse ways to spend a day.

Tomorrow’s whisky

“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky. ” – not a Chinese proverb

The forecast has been calling for rain, and today it finally came, although so far still not in massive quantities. Just showers here, really, but a solid break from the weather Ive had for most of this trip. More is coming overnight, I’m told. With luck, the worst will be past by morning.

I had already decided to take a break from riding today. I’d booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery, and looked up the best way to get there without driving. The bus looked pretty straightforward, even if it was a long trip, so I walked down to the bus station for 9. The intertubes had suggested a cost of between £4 and £6, but it turns out it costs £10.50, which isn’t really all that outrageous for an inter urban trip.

The trip required two transfers, and I made the first one fine. Unfortunately I missed the second one, although I discovered it only covered a distance of about a kilometre. No biggy, I could add that to the 1.3 km I was going to have to walk anyway. I still had just enough time to get there for the start of my tour.

I discovered that just over half the distance was along the side of the A9, part of which I’d ridden on the day before. Yesterday’s bit was mostly dual carriageway, with no place for pedestrians. I assumed it would be similar here, so I called a taxi. She came in under two minutes, and I was at the distillery in about five minutes afterwards. I noted on the way that there was a gravel footpath along the side of the road, which was an ordinary two-lane road with sparse traffic. I could have saved the fiver and walked easily enough, but who knew?

The tour itself was an excellent walk through of the process of whisky making, and its many attendant aromas, not all of them pleasant. The height of the stills was astonishing. Nearly 17 feet!

Glenmorangie (and their sister distillery on Islay, Ardbegh) is owned by Louis Vuitton. Yup, that one. The ugly handbag company owns two of the world’s best whiskies. They’ve got an orange Cadillac with a snakeskin roof as a result.

I met a retired couple from Cowichan Bay, and we talked a little about whiskies, and about home, and our respective holidays. They’ve been all over Scotland, as far north as the Orkneys, and will be heading south in a few days time to visit family in Yorkshire. They were a lovely couple, and were kind enough to offer me a ride back to Tain, where I was planning to catch a train back to Inverness (as there were no buses until after 4). Since it had begun raining, I accepted their offer.

I’d read that it’s better to by Scotrail tickets online, so I did, and provided my email address as prompted, they said, so they could send me ticket. Then I went for lunch at a cafe at the station, since I had over an hour to kill before my train. While I was eating I received an email from Scotrail confirming my ticket purchase, but not my ticket. I could use the redemption code, the email said, at the self-serve kiosk. Except none such are to be found at the Tain station. “But your ticket on the train” a relatively small sign on the platform unhelpfully suggested. Whatever. I explained the situation to the conductor when the train finally arrived, and he just shrugged. “Show them that email in the station so they’ll let you out.” Good advice.

While I was a still waiting for the train, a lone Japanese tourist joined me on the platform. He saw the bag with the Quinta Ruban I’d purchased and asked in broken English (but far less broken, I assured him, than my extremely limited Japanese) if I’d done the tour. I said I had, and said he had, too, but he hadn’t bought anything. We exchanged as many more pleasantries as we could without me saying, “hello goodbye thanks delicious,” which aside from menu items is about all I can say in Japanese.

I was regretting not coming on the bike. It was raining a little harder now, but still just lightly, really. Tomorrow. I have time to kill between checking out of my B&B here and into my hotel in Elgin. There just happen to be a number of distilleries on the way. Sort of. I could stop in and see who’s got a tour.

Right now, I’m sitting in what I’ve decided, in my extremely limited survey, is the best pub in Inverness, the Number 27. I had an excellent pork chop for dinner, with potatoes and gravy, wilted spinach, carrots and turnips that didn’t suck. Who knew such a thing existed?

Soon I’ll head back and start arranging my packing. Again. I should have it all figured out by the time I bring the bike back. But that can wait a little longer, I think.

Applecross, like a boss

Some things have to be experienced. The best descriptions, videos, or other forms of depiction can’t really do them justice. The bealach na ba is like that. I apologize in advance that this post will be inadequate to the task of conveying to you what it’s like to ride the ‘road to Applecross’. I’ll try to do my best, and hope you’ll be forgiving readers.

I set off this morning under a mostly leaden sky, with just flakes of blue here and there overhead in Inverness. It felt warmer than I was expecting, although that didn’t last. But although it was cloudy, the forecast indicated there would little if any rain today, and so it seemed like a good time to attack the famed road. (You can see how famous by looking it up on YouTube. There must be hundreds of videos posted of people riding and driving on it. As I’ve mentioned previously, I decided not to GoPro my rides, so… You’re welcome.)

I took a detour down to Dingwall to fill up the Tiger, since I wasn’t positive I’d find another petrol station before I needed it. Anyone who’s ever run out of gas on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere can tell you just how much fun it is. I’ve done it once, and waited well over an hour at the side of a desert road for my friend to return with a jerry can. I have no intention of letting that happen again, especially when, like now, I’m traveling alone.

The detour resulted in a fascinating zig-zag through Highland villages, along narrow roads canopied by tree branches. Eventually the small, all-but-empty country roads led me to a point on the A835 I would likely have reached much earlier had I not diverted. But what would have been the fun in that?

The breeze grew brisker as I headed west, becoming blustery in places, and I pulled over into the a lay by to switch into my warmer gloves and to zip closed the vents on my jacket. The clouds thickened and lowered, and soon there were small drops of mizzling rain on my visor. I could almost hear voices whispering, Go back! It’s too cold, and starting to rain. It will only get worse. Fortunately I know the sound of my own nonsense when I hear it.

Dual track gave way to single track roads for stretches, and it seemed like the traffic engineers had been trying to prepare people for the real challenge ahead. Vehicle traffic had thinned, but there were still more cars and vans than I’d expected, or at least, hoped.

I stopped briefly in Lochcarron to stretch my legs and back (I’m old, and can’t ride for as long at a time as I used to), then hopped back on the Tiger, and soon reached Tornapress, and the real beginning of the ride. If I had needed a sign from the motorcycle gods, I found it. The only thing it lacked was a statement that road was reserved only for two-wheeled vehicles.

I snapped the picture above, and then put my gloves back on and the bike in gear. I didn’t come all this way not to ascend “The Pass of the Cattle”.

To put things in their proper context, Bealach na Ba, according to Wikipedia

is a winding, single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula…. The historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is engineered similarly to roads through the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft)….”

Challenge accepted, I said.

And it is a challenge, not primarily because of the road itself, although some of the “hairpin turns” are as tight as U-turns on a side road. The main challenge, as with so much else in life, is other people. More specifically, other people driving anything bigger than a motorbike. For while motor coaches and heavy commercial trucks have the good sense to take the lower road (more on that later), apparently drivers of motorhomes do not. Nor do they understand that motorbikes don’t have a reverse gear, and really can’t move much closer to the edge of the road without beginning a rapid and involuntary, not to mention inelegant, descent. The car drivers are not much better.

It’s not a long drive over the mountain from Tornapress to Applecross, but it is a slow one. Even if you removed the other vehicles – and, oh! how I wished I could! – it is still a very technical road. By the time I reached Applecross, my adrenal glands had been working at maximum effort for more than half an hour. And, as Heraclitus would have wished, the way down was not much different from the way up. It is the kind of road motorcyclists dream about. The kind of road that is a destination in itself.

And that is a good thing, because Applecross would be utterly forgettable if not for the road. Not that the location isn’t beautiful. It is. Just like almost anyplace you can name on the Scottish coast. But it’s the road that makes it worth going to. That’s the only reason why there were so many motorbikes in the parking lot across from the Inn. You can get a beer almost anywhere, after all.

The only other thing that stood out about Applecross was that I saw two stags grazing by the roadside, tame as the ubiquitous sheep. They were still young, their antlers only partly formed, and still covered in fuzz. I’d seen signs warning of them from Strathpeffer to Lochcarron, but only saw sheep. When I saw signs warning of sheep, there were cows (thankfully, not on the road), but now when no signs to warn of any wildlife, here they were.

I had a quick and not particularly satisfying lunch while I waited for my adrenaline levels to subside. I decided there wasn’t a lot of point in going back over the way I’d just come, so I took the longer way round, through Fearnmore, Shieldaig and Torridon. I’m glad I did. That unnamed, unsung, un-YouTubed route may be less challenging than Bealach na Ba, but in some ways it is a far superior ride. So much more scenic, so many fewer cars. At times it hugs the shoreline of the lochs, at times it cuts inland, past old crofts where rams and highland cattle stand by the roadside, or in their fenced-in fields, and slowly chew their grass. This road, too, is single track. This road, too, has twists and curves (though none as tight as the hairpins on The Cattle Pass). Although it’s a longer road, you can make pretty good time on it.

I stopped at a place called Nanny’s Cafe in Shieldaig. They make a mean Americano, pretty good scones, and some ridiculous homemade jam. I didn’t stop again, except to stretch and to take the occasional picture, until I got back to Inverness.

Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain, so I’ve booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery. I’ll take the bus there, so I don’t have to worry about the drive back. Then Thursday I’ll be off again, although not so far this time. I’m going to camp out in Elgin for a couple of days, and try to get to a couple more distilleries in Speyside, before heading down to Edinburgh. And then… and then…. But let’s not look too far ahead. Today is in the book. Tomorrow’s chapter – and each chapter of every future tomorrow – will write itself when it’s ready.

Setting up camp in Inverness

I’m in a cozy little apartment, attached to a B&B that’s run by a fantastic couple, Maggie & Malcolm, near the centre of town on the castle side of the river in Inverness, the gateway to the Highlands. At least, it will be that for me. I had originally planned just to ride from one place to the next, finding a new place to stay each night, but my experiences on this trip so far have demonstrated there’s a clear benefit to having a hub that you ride out from and return to each day, so that you’re not carrying everything with you everywhere you go. And in many cases, for me, this means literally carrying (and wearing) things I wish I didn’t have to, simply because I have no place to store them safely while I wander around on foot. For the next few days, Inverness will be that safe place.

But here again, I’m getting ahead of myself. I should be writing first about the ride from Loch Lomond to Inverness, before getting into conjectures about the next few days. And that ride was brilliant.

But before that, let me say a few words about Scottish breakfasts. They are the most ridiculous thing imaginable, with the possible exception of Irish breakfasts. In fact, they are very nearly the same thing: egg, back bacon, sausage (banger), beans (boring tinned beans, not Mexican refried beans with chiles, or American BBQ pit beans, or even pork & beans in molasses, but sad little white beans in a sea of bland, vaguely tomotoey sauce), black pudding (a.k.a., blood sausage), haggis (in place of the Irish breakfast’s white pudding), potato scones (which are not even a little scone-like), a charred tomato, and, of course, toast. This was included in the price of my hotel last night. I did my best.

Actually, with the exception of the black pudding, which I find more than a little challenging (I had an easier time with tripe, tongue and tendon at dim sum, but that’s another story), and the objectionable beans, and the potato scone (which tastes like someone mashed up potatoes, formed a patty, dredged it in potato flour and fried it)… except for those few things, it was pretty good. Surprisingly – to me, anyway – the haggis was the best part. And while it was, taken as a whole, far too much food first thing in the morning, it did keep me full until about 3 in the afternoon.

Anyway…. With breakfast working its way slowly through my digestive tract, I packed up the bike and was soon on the road again. Although, not before I saw this beautiful old Jag in the car park, and decided I had to take a picture. (Do not adjust your set. It really was that weird creme de menthe colour.)

The A82 is a motorcyclist’s dream. Or it would be, if not for the all to frequent convoys of cars and vans and caravans, motorhomes and motor coaches, consistently clogging up the artery. Fortunately, like the Irish, the Scots are good about being overtaken, and the Tiger is happy to overtake anyone. Have I mentioned how zippy this bike is? I feel like I have to add some hesitation of my own, since the bike has none. Twist the throttle and go!

The landscape, too, is more than just a little impressive. Loch Lomond, for example, is stunning to see. Like Lake Louise back home, but without so many ostentatiously tall mountains to distract you. The road hugs the shoreline, more or less, for several miles, and it makes for a beautiful ride, the bike tilting from side to side around the bends. The weather started well, too, if not so fine as it had the previous week or so. High cloud covered most of the sky, but scatterings of blue showed through, and the sun had enough of gaps to peak through and take the edge off the morning air. This is not really farm country, and there were no cows or horses, but here and there were cloud-shaped sheep grazing lazily on the bright green mirror of the sky. This gave way to heavily wooded areas, towering oaks an birches lining the roadsides and stretching out their limbs towards each other, the shadows of their leafy branches mottling the pavement, as I swept northward.

A sign announced that I’d entered the Highlands. The landscape became more jagged. At one point, a boulder at the roadside with a tree growing defiantly out of it. By this time, the cloud had formed an iron grey ceiling, the temperature dropped, and I had to zip the vents on my jacket closed. I switched to my regular glasses, too, as it had become too dark for sunglasses. The sheer, in-your-face beauty of it all was utterly striking. Like the Canadian Rockies, but on a slightly smaller scale. Or maybe just concentrated.

I stopped for coffee in Fort William. It was normally lunchtime, but I still wasn’t hungry. The clouds had broken up, and it had become warmer, so I switched back to my sunglasses and re-opened the vents in my jacket. It wasn’t long, though, before I regretted that. I’d heard the castle that was featured near the start of the movie Highlander (one of the best B-movies ever made, in my opinion, although you’ll want to avoid the director’s cut, if you can, and just watch the original theatrical release). The GPS claimed to know the way, but instead took me to a posh hotel. Maybe I’ll see it another day.

The A82 eventually skirts what is arguably the world’s most famous (or infamous?) loch, that being Loch Ness. The only things to be found resembling monsters, though, were the previously mentioned convoys, slithering serpentinite around s-curves. I decided to stop and take a picture of myself at a lay by, and thought briefly about looking for the house where Jimmy Page lived. (He hasn’t lived there for quite some time, I’ve learned from Google, and the place was all but destroyed in a fire several years ago. But maybe I’ll stop by Bron-Yr-Aur when I’m in Wales.)

It wasn’t long afterward that I arrived in Inverness. I love the feel of the old city. So much stone. The buildings, and many of the roads, made with it. The River Ness cuts through it, with Inverness Castle on on bank, and Inverness Cathedral on the other. Talk about separation of church and state! I imagine medieval lords and bishops glaring at each from their respective sides of the river, thinking, One of these days!

But in more contemporary terms, I checked into my place. I showered and changed and went out to find dinner. I did. It was light, small and delicious. I followed it with a 12 year old Tomatin, which I’d never actually heard of before. It was nice, fairly sweet, very smooth, almost no peat (which to my mind is a failing). I picked up some things to make for breakfast.

Tomorrow, I plan to ride either to Applecross or John o’Groats, to be determined, sort of, by weather forecasts. Wednesday, I may take the bus and/or train to some distilleries (so I don’t have to ride back from them). I mentioned that idea to Malcolm, and he kindly printed off some info about a distillery bus tour from Inverness. Unfortunately it’s only on Friday, and my plan was to be gone by then. But we’ll see. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

You take the high road

I don’t know if the A77 qualifies as ‘the low road’, but I’m in Scotland right now, on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond. Well, across the street, anyway. I can see it out my hotel room window. What the hell do you want?

This trip has been amazing so far. Ireland (all of it) gave me more than I had hoped for, and I wished I never had to leave. I felt so at home there. I’d have been even sadder to leave, though, if I hadn’t been looking forward to Scotland so much. Scotland, after all, was really the beginning of this trip – or, at least, the premeditation of it.

Originally, Adele suggested I tag along for the start of my friend Scott’s trip (he’s going for much longer – six months!). Scott, in turn, suggested I might want to meet him part way through, since he was going to be spending the first week or so visiting his ex’s family in England. I thought about it, and it occurred to me that I could, instead, spend that time riding around Scotland, and we could meet up when it was convenient to both of us. That was the start of the idea. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and thought, I might as well add Ireland, if I’m over there. And I’ve never been to Wales, either. Or to England, outside of London and a day trip to Cambridge. Gradually, the whole thing began to take on a shape very different from tagging along for part of someone else’s adventure.

So, this morning, I woke up in Northern Ireland. Looked at the time on my phone. And went back to sleep. Seriously, who gets up before six on a holiday? Eventually, I got up and set about packing up my things and loading the bike back up. I’m becoming gradually more efficient with how I load the Triumph bags, which are quite a bit smaller than the Happy Trails cases on my GS. Still, squeezing them closed is always a bit tricky.

I shaved, ate some cereal for breakfast, made some coffee, and cleaned up after myself. At a little after ten I was on my way to the Belfast ferry terminal to catch the Stena Line to Cairnryan. I stopped off for coffee on the way, and a few other bikers pulled up and we chatted. I asked if they were taking the ferry across, or just stopping for breakfast. It was the latter. They asked where I was off to, and where I was from. Essentially, they were politely sussing out whether or not I was an American. This happens a lot, and it always seems to relieve people to hear I’m Canadian, after which they mutter something about the ridiculous orange catastrophe in the White House. One of them mentioned he had relatives in Toronto. I told them I lived as far away from that as they do from Berlin, which is a pretty big understatement, actually, but still impressed them.

Anyway, they told me about journeys they’d done – the tallest bridge in the world, somewhere in the south of France – and told me I had to go to the Glenfiddich distillery. I often ignore these kinds of suggestions, but I may take this one, since it was my father’s favourite whisky.

Soon it was time for me to get to the ferry, so I said goodbye to them, put my helmet back on, and fired up the tiger. It’s an excellent bike, and I’ve largely gotten over most of my minor dislikes. I’ve learned to deal with the clusterfuck of controls operated by the left thumb, for example. I still think, given the choice, I’d pick a GS over a Tiger, but it would be a close decision, and the trade offs are real. The Tiger is just so much more zippy. Thank god for the cruise control, or I’d likely rack up a lot of fines.

The ferry ride was efficient, comfortable and pleasant, and there really isn’t much more to say about it than that. The food was far better than on the ferries back home.

Riding up the A77 toward Glasgow, I was impressed by how different the landscape and flora in Scotland are from Ireland. Scotland is just as beautiful as Ireland, certainly, but it feels more fierce about it. By turns lush and austere, there is little middle ground (in my extremely limited experience) where things are merely pretty. There were stretches that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in southwestern Alberta, if not for their proximity to a very large body of water. Others were more like my home province of British Columbia. Perhaps this is why western Canada is so full of Scottish place names. The rest of Canada, too, for that matter.

A little more than two and half hours after docking, I was here. In a hotel facing Loch Lomond. As I write, I’m watching the sunset colour the clouds in the east and cast shadows over the loch. Once again, the threat of weather hasn’t come to be. I’ve had sunshine pretty much the whole day.

A little while ago, I had dinner in the hotel bar. The most enormous piece of battered cod I’ve ever seen with excellent chips, a couple of pints of bitter, and for dessert, a dram of 18 year old Glenfiddich. Tomorrow I’ll be off to Inverness, which I’m going to use as a base from which to launch excursions into the Highlands over the next few days: to Bealach na Ba, John o’ Groats, Fort William, probably Dufftown and Tain (for distilleries) and wherever else I get a notion to go. As the signs at the edge of towns here say, Haste ye back!

****

P.s. – I want to thank all the readers who are following along, clicking like, commenting, or just reading. I know many of you, but there are obviously strangers in the mix – from Japan, Mexico, India, and Cameroon (!), among other places. I’m happy to get your feedback, if you feel like giving it. If you’d rather just read anonymously, that’s cool, too.

North

We Canadians like to think of ourselves as northern. Our national anthem even tells us we live in “the true north strong and free.” Well, I’m about five degrees further north than I would be at home, and I’m planning to go further north over the next several days.

I’m currently sitting in a suburb of Belfast called Newtownabbey. It’s a pleasant, tidy, ordinary place, and I expect most of the people here are pleasant and ordinary. They go to work, come home and eat dinner, tend their gardens, and some nights go down to a local pub for a few pints with their friends. They watch movies that make lives like theirs look like a crime. They laugh at the dumb suburbanites, who are very much like them, when they are the butt of the film’s jokes, and then they continue on as before. Wash, rinse, repeat. I know. My own neighbourhood, my own life, is not so different. And it’s not so bad, either.

I woke up early this morning, and got myself ready for my last full day in Ireland for the next couple of weeks. Tomorrow I’m off to Scotland (and hopefully not to hail storms like they had today!), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is what we need to deal with now. Tomorrow can wait.

After getting the bike mostly packed, I went down for breakfast in the hotel. If you find yourself in Bundoran (god knows why you would – but if you do) you could do worse than to stay at Fitzgerald’s Hotel. The barman/proprietor is friendly and gregarious. He remembers something about everyone, and makes it seem like he’s talking to an old friend, even when it’s just a guest he met less than an hour ago. The staff, generally, are helpful and pleasant, if not quite as affable as their employer. The rooms are spacious, the price is pretty good. The one downside is their proximity to a country & western bar, down at the end of the block. But you can’t choose your neighbours. Thankfully, as a motorcyclist, I travel with earplugs. Even better, last orders came relatively early – around one, I think, but I fell asleep with my earplugs in, so don’t hold me to that.

Anyway, breakfast. Which didn’t come with – or didn’t have to, anyway – beans, various “puddings” (really sausages), fried tomatoes, and so on. I ordered two eggs, scrambled, and bacon. They were puzzled that I didn’t want cereal to start. As it was, they brought me a basket of toasted breads (dry, as is the fashion here), a croissant, and a small dish of butter, along with my coffee and orange juice, prior to my order. That’s more than I normally eat in the morning as it is. I can’t imagine adding cereal and yogurt to that.

Once breakfast and the hotel bill were sorted, I set out through the north of Ireland, not to be confused with Northern Ireland, although that was my destination today. The GPS led me along the northern coast, past Letterkenney and Derry, across the international border on my way to the Giant’s Causeway. The morning was grey and cool and damp, like the day before, only this time it didn’t burn off until I was in Co. Antrim, and even then, it kept the temperature to 17C.

Along the way, I noticed that sheep had come to outnumber cows, as they had in Connemara the day before. In most of Ireland, cows are the dominant livestock. Dairy, I expect, is one of Ireland’s top exports, the others being Guinness, whiskey and Irishness (a.k.a., “charm”). From the sheer number of B&Bs, I’d say their main import is tourists.

I arrived at the Giant’s Causeway a little after noon. This is no €8 tourist attraction, let me tell you. It’s an £11.50 tourist attraction. When you work out the exchange… But why? It’s a holiday. We’ll count the cost later.

Anyway, it’s a spectacular site, the result of ancient volcanic activity creating the interlocking basalt pillars that seem to form enormous stepping stones. Of course, the less prosaic explanation is that an ancient Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by an ancient Scottish giant named Benandonner. Fionn builds the causeway so the two giants can meet. There are similar columns from the same lava flow on the Isle of Staffa, and that may be how the myths originated. There are variations on how this turned out. No spoilers here, you can look it up for yourself. (I’d start with Wikipedia, and then look at the source materials.)

The causeway itself is a short distance from the village of Bushmill’s, where they make, of all things, Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey. The parking lot of the distillery was at least as full as the parking lot for the causeway, so I rode on past. As I did, I remembered being told that Bushmill’s was ‘Protestant whiskey’, while Jameson’s (and I assume this goes for all the others made in the Republic) is ‘Catholic whiskey’. I’ve never thought of whiskey as being associated with a religion, myself; although, it could arguably be a religion in its own right. I did notice in some of the pubs I’ve been in over the past few days that Bushmill’s, if they had any at all, was kept behind the other whiskeys. I haven’t noticed any similar religious or political tendencies with beer here. Guinness is just Irish.

There was a street festival of some kind in a village I had to pass through that required the GPS to do some recalculation of my route to Newtownabbey, where I’m staying for the night. Again, it sent me careening along narrow country roads, between overgrown hedgerows and beneath the verdant canopies of arching tree limbs, the motorcycle whirring happily along beneath me.

Tonight I sat for a while in a pub near the water and wrote postcards home. I had some ecumenical beer, and bangers and mash. It’s hard to believe this is my last night in Ireland for the next couple of weeks. I’m sad to leave it behind, but also looking forward to new roads and adventures.

The thunderstorms threatened by the weather forecast this never materialized. I hear they did in Scotland. With hail. In the Highlands. Where I will be heading tomorrow. I hope my Irish luck with the weather follows me!

Under Ben Bulben

I left David & Lin’s place this morning filled with gratitude, and just a hint of sadness that I won’t see them (or Davey) again for… who knows how long? The sky was grey with low clouds, and the air was cool and damp. The forecast said rain, but less than it had threatened when I looked yesterday. I loaded the bike and said my goodbyes, and then I was off.

David suggested going to Roundstone, on the south coast of Connemara, and I was happy to take his advice. The ride was brilliant, and it wasn’t long before the low cloud burned off and the air warmed itself in the sunshine yet again. With the exception of about a quarter hour on the bus ride to Lisburn, I’ve had exceptional weather so far on this trip. Knock on wood.

The N59 was a brilliant ride, and could, in different stretches, be renamed The Ram Road, given the number of horned sheep grazing along the verge. (In fairness, there were likely some ewes, and definitely some lambs, but those don’t alliterate.) At one point there was a ram standing on the centre line of the road staring in my direction, as if to say, “Go on, I feckin dare ye.” But I slid past without incident.

The landscape in much of Connemara is, as Oscar Wilde said of, savagely beautiful. Reminiscent of parts of the Rocky Mountains back home, and yet different enough to have a wonderful strangeness mixed with that familiarity. So different from what I’d experienced elsewhere in Co. Galway, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. In place of the lush vegetation I’d grown used to, here everything was rock and scrub, with only the occasional gnarled tree jutting up above the level of the ubiquitous stone walls. No hedgerows here. I have a notion the Highlands will be similarly austere and beautiful, but I’ll find that out soon enough.

After stopping for coffee and a scone (with clotted cream and raspberry jam!) at the Bogbean Cafe, I rode through Cliffden to Westport, watching the landscape transform itself back to lushness, while still retaining a certain wildness.

After a quick lunch (Irish Toasty with salad), I was back on the road and heading steadily northward, through Co. Mayo to Sligo. The N5 has wide lanes with broad shoulders, and the optimism of Irish speed limits finally felt well placed. That wasn’t encouragement enough for some drivers, though, who insisted on keeping to 80 kmh in a hundred zone. I passed them happily, and they seemed happy enough to be passed, pulling a little to the left as I zipped past.

I passed through Sligo all too quickly. I should have stuck to my plan about not booking accommodations until I arrive in a place lesson learned, which I’ll apply in Scotland (or try to).

Just outside the city, I found the churchyard in Drumcliff, where Yeats is buried. I studied Yeats in university, of course, but I had already introduced myself to his poetry in the summer before I began my undergrad in Calgary. I looked at the inscription on the stone, which he composed in his famous poem “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by.

A motorcyclist, I thought, is as close as we come now to a horseman.

Riding past Ben Bulben, I think I understand why Yeats was so impressed. It stands out from the landscape with conspicuous enormity, much as his poetry stands out. No photograph could hope to convey the feeling – at least, not one I’m capable of taking – so I didn’t stop for it.

Tonight I’m in Bundoran, a slightly sad little seaside resort on Ireland’s northwest coast, in the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in so far. Tomorrow I head eastward, and a little further north, to the Giants’ Causeway, then down to Newtown Abbey, before leaving Ireland behind for Scotland. The threatened rain still hasn’t materialized, and I’m hoping my weather luck holds for a couple more weeks. But, as I’ve said before, I’ll take things as they come. I’m not made of sugar after all.

Towers, cliffs & Celtic crows

One way to tell you’re in Ireland, rather than a particularly lush corner of North America, is the difference in birdsong. Sure, the Irish finches sound pretty much like their Canadian cousins, but Celtic crow definitely do not. They squawk instead of cawing, almost (but not quite) like a dog’s squeeze toy. They’re also smaller & less tricksterish. And at David & Lin’s place there are also cuckoos, which I’ve never heard outside of a clock.

Today I went to the Cliffs of Moher, and I was hoping to see puffins, but didn’t, which I’ll explain later. Puffins are not a bird you’re likely ever to see in Vancouver. Apparently they breed on the cliff tops. But I’m jumping ahead.

I took the coast road down to the Burren, the geographical region of which the Cliffs are a spectacular piece. The road took me through the village of Kinvarra, which is home to, among other things, Dunguaire Castle. It was built in the 16th century, although it has a decidedly medieval feel to it. I decided to stop, since I’d already passed by a bevy of ruined farmhouses, churches and towers in the few days I’ve been here. I decided I shouldn’t pass them all, and besides, today was all about sightseeing.

It costs €8 to go up into the tower, and while the view of the village and the surrounding countryside is good, I’m not sure it’s worth handling over €8 for. I got better pictures from the outside. (At some point I’ll have to transfer some photos over to my phone/iPad from the camera.) Still, I guess they’ve got to raise the money to keep the doors open somehow.

I bought a coffee in the courtyard, and chatted a little with barista about her motorbike, which was parked behind the coffee wagon. Then I headed back to the bike and continued on to the Cliffs of Moher.

Access to the Cliffs’ visitors centre & parking also costs €8, although I don’t feel bad about it. The views are spectacular. And I even made sure I took one picture with my phone. Sadly, I’m blocking most of the view, but I’ll post better pictures later, and in the meantime, there’s loads of pictures on Google.

I walked up to the Norman-looking observation tower, thinking it might some historical relic. But in fact, it was an early attempt at tourist trapping, having been built a mere 183 years ago for Victorian tourists by the then landlord, Cornelius O’Brien. I decided to forego ascending to its battlements.

I’d read in the visitors centre that there was a place to see puffins along a path in the opposite direction from the tower, so I set off to see if I could find them. After a while, though, I started to feel more inclined to find lunch, and so headed back to the snack bar at the visitors centre, which is is called The Puffin’s Nest. Life is pretty funny sometimes.

After lunch and a quick tour through the gift shop, I headed back to the bike. It was already after 1 p.m., and I wanted to make another, less common tourist stop.

I set the GPS for Gort, and when it tried to make me backtrack, I promptly defied it. In my brief and limited experience with the Zumo, this often leads to more interesting routes. Today it resulted in a two-hour detour along wonderfully winding, terrifically twisty, brilliant Burren backroads. Narrow lanes between stone walls and hedgerows, past old stone farm buildings with roofs missing and walls caving, cattle lazing in the sun and horses seemingly posing for photographs.

I passed another castle, and stopped to take a picture since it appears still to be in use, at least as a holiday rental. A little further on I came across the ruin of the Monastery of Kilmacduagh, which was more impressive architecturally.

Eventually I reached the village of Gort, and near that Thoor Ballylee, the tower where Yeats moves with his wife and children in the midst of the Irish Cicil War. Only €7 for this, and worth every penny if you’re a fan of Yeats. (How can you not be?) Yeats wrote some of his most important poems here.

I sat through the audio-visual presentation made by the tourism board, by the look of it sometime back in the 70s, and then went up to see the inside of the tower itself. They even have a stare’s nest in one of the windows, with birds living in it. (No honeybees, though. You can’t have everything.)

I talked for a while to the volunteer who was running the place, an older (than me) woman named Toni. I asked where she was from, since her accent was clearly not local. She said she was from Florida, that she had worked for the Miami Herald, and told me how she came to be there. About Yeats, she said she couldn’t imagine what George (his wife) must have thought about being brought there, close as they were to Lady Gregory’s place at Coole. I said she likely had confidence he was no more attractive to Augusta as a married man thane had been when single.

After leaving Yeats’s tower it was time to come back here to rest up before another long day tomorrow. I’ll be sad to leave Galway behind, and David and Lin have been marvellous hosts. But tomorrow I’m heading west to Connemara, and then north to Sligo and Donegal. I’ll visit Ben Bulben, and Yeats’s grave. I’m hoping my luck with the weather holds, but I’ll deal with things as they come. There isn’t another way.

Finding Zen in Galway

I’ve woken in a little corner of paradise on the edge of Galway. David & Lin have a fantastic place, surrounded by a barely tamed garden filled rhubarb, grape vines, roses, oak trees and hawthorns, and much more. The tension between wildness and order is palpable and beautiful.

I rode here yesterday from Ardfert, after taking a detour down through Dingle. There was a light fog in the hills, not enough to impair vision, but enough to put a chill in the air. By the time I reached Dingle, though, it had burned off, and I had good weather the rest of the day.

Dingle is postcard pretty and filled with your buses. I expect it is the perfect image simultaneously of Ireland as it once was and never has been.

I talked to a fellow from Dallas who commented that the riding gear looked overly warm. I said I’d rather sweat than bleed, and he asked where I was from. He said he’d grown up in Seattle, and although he lives in Texas he runs a motorcycle touring company out of Fresno that focuses on camping in the Sierras. He was waiting for a whale watching tour. When he heard I was going to Galway he suggested I tour the Arran Islands, and told me which tour he thought was best. Also, to visit a castle I forget the name of, which he said is “better than Blarney.” I thanked him for the advice & wished him a good time on the boat.

The road up to Galway was mostly dual carriageway (two lanes in each direction) or motorway (like an interstate). The surrounding countryside was beautiful, in a typical Irish way. It was a long but pleasant ride until the GPS started misnaming roads, which resulted in a couple of detours.

When I arrived here, after filtering through the afternoon rush in Galway, David greeted me like an old friend. It’s great to finally meet him, after hearing so much about him from Adele over the years.

We had dinner and walked around the garden, sat outside and drank cider and talked. His son Davey came out and joined us. He’s a great kid. Full of energy & curiosity, and very smart. (He speaks English, Chinese & Irish. I wonder how many people can say that. Not many, I think.)

We came back into the house, and I borrowed the use of their washer, and David and I sat and talked while Lin played the guzheng, and Davey showed how he catches spiders.

Today we’ll head into town for a while. It’ll be nice to have a day off from the road.