Here I’ll continue an epic series of blogposts about our trip to the British Isles this summer. Much like last year’s trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, this was a self-organized tour with our friends Jim and Lori Stroner, as well as my wife Sarajo (Sj) and myself. I’ll be posting a day-by-day travelogue of the trip as I organize and go through my multitude of pictures. While the posts won’t be fully about beer–there will be a focus on good pubs, real ale, distilleries, and food! So here goes: enjoy!
Boats, Boats, Boats!
Bright and early–too early for man or beast–we had to get up and down to the warf to catch the large ferry boat for the Isle of Mull. We were out too early for our B&B breakfast but our thoughtful host had provided bagged meals for us to take with us. Rain started in again (we had been spoiled the previous day with some patches of sun) and spattered at the windows of the ferry, obscuring our view of the coast and islands. It was as if we were steaming slowly into the mist and off the map, into the land of dragons and tentacled sea monsters.
Isle of Mull
Once we arrived at the Isle of Mull, we were hustled through the rain and into a large tour bus, which rocketed across the dark and rainy landscape, seemingly far too fast for such narrow and flooded roads. Recorded tour information about the surrounding countryside was playing but we could see nothing from the rainslicked windows. The driver politely cursed out the GPS a few times as it tried to steer us into the surrounding countryside (he didn’t really need it since there was only one road). We found a nice pair of young ladies from the Midwest (Duluth and Iowa) to talk to on the bus. Despite his hatred of the GPS, our driver did a good job navigating the tiny one-laned road, at one point warning us that there was a dip and it might get “a little scrapey”. It did with a horrendous metal tearing sound that surely woke up those passengers that were dozing.
Next up on the other side of the island was a smaller boat to the Isle of Staffa. We moved quickly into the boat to get our camera gear out of the pouring rain. Everyone who came after us had to sit or stand outside the tiny cabin in big Gorton’s Fisherman yellow slickers–taking rain and sea spray to the face. I would have given up my seat but didn’t want my camera to get any more wet and also was already feeling a bit “hurlish”. By the time we got to the small uninhabited island and tied up next to the slick stone wharf I was feeling less than happy. The island is known for Fingal’s cave, and the geometric columnar basalt pillars that prompted the Vikings to name this Staffa. Sj and I have been to the other end of this rock formation in Northern Ireland–the Giants Causeway, so it was cool to get to see this similar rock formation many years later.
We climbed the treacherous steep stairs, rain hurling down upon us–attempting to throw us from the slick cliff to broken and splattered death below. Yeah, I have some phobia of heights so this combined with my shaky sea-sick legs was a recipe for being off my game. We ended up coming out on top of the cliff, to a high area of tall grass with a few poorly defined grass and dirt trails leading in different directions. We headed left and got some good views of the opposite end of the island, but our main goal was to hopefully see the nesting puffins, apparently located on the other side of the island. The rain was brutal and despite our rain coats, legs and feet were soaked, Sj’s glasses were spattered with water, rain was leaking into my camera bag. Nearing despair, we skittered down the slippery muddy trails to the farther end of the island. And then magically, the rain slowed down.
Arriving where some other members of our tour had set up shop, the sun raised it welcome head and shone rays of beautiful golden light upon our steaming and bedraggled forms. Puffins were not visible, but we had been told that they were not afraid of humans and in fact would likely come out because the predatory gulls were afraid of us and would stay away while we were around. Within minutes the cute black, white, and orange waterbirds popped out of their little burrows and showed off their utter cutenesss. And it was all worth it. We got as many puffin shots as possible, but were under a pretty limited timeline. If you miss the boat, you have only one more chance to get off the island later that day.
I made a mad dash up the hills and back to the stunning vista I had glimpsed in the rain from the top of the island–took a few hand-held shots and stumbled my way back to the boat just in time to get back inside.
Next we rode the increasingly rocky death-boat through higher seas, but this time to the Isle of Iona. Yes I’m keeping track of boat trips in my running tally at the end of this post. But it was all worth it for 30 minutes of sun and puffins!
Iona is a tiny island of about 100 residents with white sand beaches and quaint little buildings along the seaside. With the newly arrived sun, the place was a thing of beauty. Most of the people in town work in the tourist trade and there were several small shops, as well as cafe and a small inn. The tourist shops here were actually cooler than most we saw on our trip, more local art and jewelry and specific Iona tartan patterns, etc. We saw the ruins of a nunnery as well as an old abbey and graveyard. A solomn high celtic cross was a landing place for a hungry bird on both our trips past it. The inn/pub was booked for a large party so we had lunch at the little cafe (more meat pies!) along with some fairly local bottled beer. This might be the longest time between pubs in the whole trip so far! I want my pub!
Finishing up early for the ride home, we spent some time playing in tidepools with anenomies and other aquatic creatures. From here we picked up another small boat back to Mull. Then back to the bus across Mull, but this time we could see some of the scenery. I saw a white-tailed eagle, two red deer, and a pheasant all on the way home. Sj slept through this and doesn’t believe me. Then on to the large ferry and back to Oban. This was a lot of travel, but a cool time overall. And puffins!
Finally disembarking from our last boat, I wanted to kiss the solid ground but we were in a hurry. The Oban Distillery’s Whisky Bar was only open a little longer and I had been skunked the day before. We walked briskly to the nearby distillery and headed upstairs to the busy and warm tasting area. They had several flights of whisky (Scotch for those not in Scotland) to try, and we went ahead and tasted the Distiller’s Reserve flight with special release options from Lagavulin, Talisker, Caol Ila, and Cragganmore. We also splurged and got a sample of the Oban 21 year which tasted like 20 Pounds.
Next we stopped in at the Oban Inn along the seaside. This is an old classic English pub and was always pretty busy during our short stay in the town. Here, they had the excellent malty Highlander ale from our new favorite brewery Fyne Ales. Finding a spot upstairs to sit and sip our libations, it took a while before we realized that Lori had headed outside to find seating on the (chilly) patio. We gathered her up, don’t worry! Eventually. After a few sips of well-needed ale.
Dinner was at Norrie’s Fish and Chips, whose aroma of deep fried fishy goodness had been taunting us every time we passed it. When Lori asked the staff what their favorite was among the shrimp or the squid, both the cook and another customer chimed in “The Haddock!” The rest of us went with the haddock and were not disappointed–this was the best fish and (curry) chips I’ve ever had.
Coming out of the chippy, we heard the haunting strains of bagpipes and the rattle of drums and were drawn down the wharf to see what was going on. Two sets of high-school pipe and drum bands were performing to large crowds as a fundraiser! We actually spent a fair amount of time watching and listening to these talented young musicians.
We finished up the evening with a couple pints at the warfside Corryvreckan pub. This place was large and much more modern, but had the largest tap selection we had seen so far, with at least 7 cask beers available. Feeling the need to hop it up, I opted for a Brewdog Punk IPA which was quite nice. Jim had a roasty Dorset Brewing Midnight Blinder stout–one of the best stouts of the whole trip. And off for an early night of it at our B&B.
If you want to hear the episode of A One Pint Stand where Dan and I recap the entirety of my UK Beercation, click on the link below. If you like the podcast, subscribe so you don’t miss an episode!
Number rocking boats that made Eric want to hurl: 5
Ruined Abbey/Churches: 5
Unesco World Heritage Sites: 3