Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The best laid plans of mice & men

Gee, things conspire against (or for) you occasionally! We had originally planned a day trip to the Isle of Islay. But with only one ferry crossing at the moment, reservations are not so easy and if we want to go over, it will require a longer visit. This means that we will have to stay two nights for a total of a two and a half day visit - bugger!

And I know just how hard this is going to be for Michael - for one of the main reasons for the visit is to visit the Whisky Distilleries - all 8 of them on an island known world wide for it's pure waters and smokey peats! But that is not all we have come to see - there is also a wealth of ancient monuments and natural beauty here, so you see all is not quite lost.

We leave Stonefield Castle Hotel in beautiful sunshine. The day is looming to be just perfect with hardly a breeze blowing and the waters calm. We stop in the seaside village of Tarbert to go to the bank and the supermarket where I find (other than the shampoo and conditioner I need) a couple of little trinkets to send to the-most-beautiful-child-in-the-world (aka our granddaughter Izabella Rose) so it then also necessitates a quick trip to the Post Office.

Then it is down to the ferry port at Kennacraig for a crossing to the Isle of Islay. Now for those who know me well, you will understand that excited as I am about the distilleries, I face this morning with some trepidation because of the boat trip. And for those who don't, well lets just say that the rolling of the seas usually coincides with the rolling of my stomach!

But I need not have worried. The sea truly was like a mill-pond with not a wave in sight, and a mere breeze just barely generated little caps atop the water dancing in the sunlight as we skimmed along like gliding on a mirror. Seagulls escorted us for almost the entire journey - perhaps waiting for some tasty morsel to be thrown to them by some dumb tourist. Sadly, I think they missed out. I am amazed to learn that the boat we are travelling on - the MV Hebrides carries some 98 cars. Today there are 3 semi trailers, 4 vans, a couple of 4WDs and about 15 cars and I was worried that they all would not fit! Still can't get over how calm the crossing was!

There are an eclectic mix of passengers - a couple of young boys seeing the world the hard way - on bikes with tents, a couple of businessmen (probably trading with the distilleries), various locals and the odd two or few of people like us. And then there are the birdwatchers / bushwalkers. Amongst this group are two older ladies that you would have expected to see with a crocheted rug over their knees sitting in a nursing home. All kitted out with mod cons such as binoculars around their necks, North Pole wet weather gear enveloping their petite frames and bulging backpacks hoisted on their shoulders! Good for you ladies!!

We sailed from Kennacraig through the Sound of Jura and then into Sound of Islay once we round the tip of the island of Jura which is the island between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Islay. And still I cant believe how calm it is! There is a much stronger current that runs against the trip up to the northern Port of Askaig and you can hear the boat engines working more heavily now. The channels are deep here and the boat effortlessly glides right up to a high jetty where we all drive off the ferry.

We have to travel across and halfway down the island to Bowmore where we have accommodation for the next two nights. But before we go and book into the accommodation, we decide to go further around to Port Ellen and the distilleries around there firstly to get the lay of the land but also to have a bit of a sqizz at some more of the island. The little towns are very similar to many of those that we saw yesterday on the islands just south of Oban and although the aspect is different, with many of the bays littered with large rocks or sometimes small islets jutting out of the water. Many of the brochures talk about the wildlife that you can see on Islay and even on the first day we strike it rich!

We are travelling on the roads that can best be described as little more than goat tracks whe we come over a hill to see another small bay in front of us with lots of rocks framing a natural harbour. And, there just lolling around on the rocks are a whole colony of seals - in the raw, in the wild. They couldn't give two hoots that we are there and don't even give a look when Michael gets out of the car to get a photo. They just arch their back to better display themselves or disdainly roll over away from us!

A little further on we come across a couple of deer just grazing in a paddock. They however are mush more alert and quiet jumpy. We better understand later when we see tours that can be booked to go - deer hunting! We are now travelling further up the eastern coast of the island to find the Kildalton High Cross that dates from about AD800. We find it easily as it is well signposted. It sits in the yard of a church ruin and is very impressive - especially when you think about it sitting there in the elements for the last 12oo years. And not only is there this famous cross here, there are also some very impressive old grave markers in the church and the yard and even an ancient stone stile built on both sides of the wall that contains these once hallowed grounds. Our history thirst quenched for the moment, and with the day almost done, we decided to drive over to Bowmore via Port Ellen.

We are staying right on the (working) harbour at Bowmore in one of the original buildings that now houses The Harbour Inn Hotel & Restaurant. It is almost 6 pm when we pull up outside, but now that daylight saving is here, it is still very light. The hotel is very nice and we have been lucky enough to get a two day deal. Our room is on the first floor and has a sideways view of the harbour. No sooner are we in the room when a window washer appears to freshen the windows - now, that is what you call service!

Dinner is served from 6 pm and we book in for dinner at 7:30. We start in the conservatory with a drink while we peruse the menu. Gin and lemon for me and a plain tonic water for Michael. The restaurant here is reknown and the menu looks very inviting. After about 15 minutes considering and weighing up the choices we settle on:
Seared breast of Wood Pigeon (on Stornoway Black Pudding with a warm rowanberry dressing) Michael
The Harbour Inn Seafood Chowder (topped with Garlic Croutons) Maria
Loin of Islay Lamb (on a minted pea puree and aubergine with port and redcurrant jus) Michael Pan seared Islay Scallops (with braised fennel, crisp pancetta and a marsala cream) Maria
Warm Crepes with a brandy and kumquat sauce finished with fresh cream - Michael
Trio of Desserts (mini selection of Rosewater and Honey Parfait, Dark Chocolate Mousse and our Orange & Grand Marnier Cheesecake) Maria

Well, it is hard to keep saying how good the food is. We know it is becoming repetitive - but, bite us - it really is that good. Michael moans as he eats the pigeon and the chowder is light but lively. The lamb is rare (read raw!) just as Michael enjoys it and I am not joking, the scallops with their roe on are as big as golf balls. They are just barely cooked and oh-so melt-in-your-mouth perfect. And the parfait is up their with the custard from Avingnon (see the 'Best of' blog list!)

So another day done, another meal over. Yes, sometimes it pays for the plans to go awry!

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