Sunday, September 29, 2013


Our time to depart Islay came far too soon for my liking. As I said in a previous post, I think we could have stayed here an entire week and been perfectly okay with it.

After another amazing breakfast from Andrew and Alison at Bowmore House, it was time to pack our bags (including finding a home in said bags for our whisky haul), load up the bus, and get on the road to Port Ellen for the ferry back to the mainland. Andrew was kind enough to give us some of his whisky boxes to make transporting our liquid gold a safer proposition.

You can pretty much see a storm brewing in this next set of photos. Given the weather, we decided to stay inside during the duration of our sailing back.

Our fist stop in the day's drive back to Edinburgh was an adorable town called Inverary, on the western shore of Loch Fyne. In 2004, Scotland passed a law stating that tour bus drivers must stop every two hours. Because of this, Inverary is pretty much tour bus mania. There were a ton of tour buses there, most with tours of people over 80. We were on our own for the 1.5 hour stop, so we decided to get some lunch. This proved to be more difficult than we imagined, and after walking out of several places that were either going to take too long, or were completely overrun with fellow tourists, we settled on a cute little takeaway shop for a sausage roll and some salmon pate and crackers. Simon came in while we were there and informed us we'd chosen the best lunch place in the whole town. 

I know most people hate them, but I love seagulls. They crack me up.

Enjoying a dram of Finlaggan on the bus, we ventured to our next stop - Rest and Be Thankful. This place was stunning.
The Finlaggan Mystery: Finlaggan is a conundrum. Bottles from the Finlaggan brand (a product of the “Vintage Malt Whisky Company Ltd.”) contain a single malt from an Islay distillery. The company keeps a very tight lid on the identity of its source, breaking silence only to insist that Finlaggan does now, always has, and always will contain whisky from the same distillery. If we are to believe the company, we must trust our nose and not our ears in order to divine the secrets of this pale liquid. A favorite topic of whisky forums, the identity of Finlaggan’s source is thought to be Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, or Caol Ila. It’s very likely that the OR (Old Reserve) contains younger whisky – perhaps in the 6 year range – although a bottling of 10 year-old is available in some markets. 
The fascination with this whisky comes primarily from its absurdly low price. A bottle at my local Trader Joe’s (the primary reseller of Finlaggan in the U.S.) costs $18. This makes it, by a wide margin, the cheapest single-malt available to me. The astounding part is that it’s actually QUITE GOOD. A good, peat-forward, single malt for $18 a bottle? Mystery aside, that makes Finlaggan a rarity in a world where Ardbeg can sell out of $100 bottles of 10 year-old malts named after reptiles. 
Finlaggan itself is named after the ruins of Finlaggan Castle, a historic site on Loch Finlaggan on Islay, which was the residence of The Lords of the Isles.
My personal philosophy based on what we tasted and heard during our time on Islay is that it's a young Laphroaig. A lot of people, however, seem to think it's a Lagavulin. During our warehouse tour with Iain at Lagavulin (by the way, did y'all see the season premier of Parks & Rec where Leslie sent Ron to Lagavulin?! I found myself so happy for a fictional character. And then to see him hanging out with Iain? Oh, it brought a huge smile to my face), we tasted a young Lagavulin and based on that experience, I don't think it was the same as what I tasted with that Finlaggan. Also, there's a story that when one of the more recent owners sold to Jim Beam, part of the deal was that he got to keep 5% of the whisky produced to do what he wanted with so now that's what goes into Finlaggan. Now obviously, I don't know if this is heresay or if there's any actual truth in it. Another theory is that because Caol Ila makes so much whisky - remember, it's the largest producer on the island - that it is the supplier for many of the mystery malts, including Ileach and Port Askaig.

Our next quick, stop-to-stretch-your-legs break was at Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater lake in all of Britain. Loch Lomond is also part of the boundary between the Scottish Highlands and the Lowlands. 

And that was it for the scenic stops en route to Edinburgh. We made it back to the city around 5 p.m. and went our separate ways. The Swedes had all the luck as our drop off point was really close to their hotel. We had to walk about 10 blocks with all of our luggage. I guess we could have taken a taxi, but for whatever reason we decided not to.

Our hotel for the next two days was The Caledonia, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I had initially booked a castle about 30 minutes outside Edinburgh, but a few months before our trip I changed my mind and sought out a hotel in the city. Prices were still pretty exorbitant so I looked into renting a flat again. Alas, at two nights no one was interested in that proposition. I kept my eye on Travelocity (after a pretty bad experience with Expedia for our Las Vegas trip I've started using the Roving Gnome), when lo and behold a castle view room at the Caledonian came up for less than a three star chain hotel. You had to pre-pay for your entire stay up front but we like doing that anyhow as then you don't have a bill when you're there. It's a nice way to stretch the cost of a vacation out over several months instead of one or two weeks. What I love about The Caledonian, is that in addition to being a luxury property, it also has a lot of history in the city.
Princes Street Station was a mainline railway station which stood at the west end of Princes Street, in Edinburgh, Scotland, for almost 100 years. A temporary station was opened in 1870, with construction of the main station commencing in the 1890s. The station was closed completely in 1965 and largely demolished in 1969-70. Only its hotel remains, but it is no longer in railway ownership. The Caledonian Railway company's main line reached Edinburgh, and was ceremonially opened on 15 February 1848. Its initial Edinburgh terminus was located at Lothian Road. The track was extended slightly and the temporary Lothian Road station, opened in 1848, was replaced in 1870 by another temporary station in Princes Street. After nationalisation of the railways in 1948, it was considered logical to concentrate all rail services in Edinburgh on one station. With Waverley Station a short distance along Princes Street beyond Princes Street Gardens, by the 1960s Princes Street Station was seen as surplus to requirements. Although its street-level entrance was rather more convenient for travelers than that of Waverley (which is in a deep cutting and requires a steep climb to reach street level), the latter was much larger, more conveniently located within the city, and (crucially) had access to the East Coast Main Line. After closure of Princes Street, the west of the city would continue to be served by nearby Haymarket Station. Local services were gradually withdrawn, starting with those to Balerno in 1943, followed by those to Barnton in 1951, Leith North in 1962, and stopping trains on the main line to Carstairs in 1964. The remaining services to Glasgow Central, Stirling and English cities were then diverted to Waverley, allowing Princes Street Station to be closed in September 1965. The station was demolished in 1969-70, with the West Approach Road being built along the track bed in the early 1970s. The hotel still operates on the site and has been renamed the The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Part of the station space still remains within it and the grand entrance arch is still visible at the side of the hotel. The former Parcels Office survived, on Lothian Road between the hotel and the Western Approach Road, until a major office development was constructed on its site in the 1990s.
Because it was comparatively such a bargain price (although I'll be honest and say that it was still over $250/night), I expected our castle view was going to be if we stuck our head out the window and looked to the right at just the correct angle we'd get to see a glimpse of the castle. Oh how wrong I was.

Not bad, right?

And our room was lovely as well. And that bad? Oh, that bed. These guys know how to outfit a room. The bathroom was just so lovely too, but I don't have a photo of that. So we loved the room and the view, but I do have a problem with luxury hotels that charge for WiFi, which The Caledonian did - 14 pounds for 24 hours, which covered only two devices. I chose my iPhone instead of my iPad so that I could upload pictures, but it was still annoying not to be able to use the internet on my iPad to look up tourist information and whatnot. 

We tried to go to a bar that a friend had recommended because they had a beer she also recommended on tap, but the bar was in a pretty sketchy part of town just blocks from our hotel. It was really weird. One street is lovely and Georgian, and the next is full of strip clubs and kebab storefronts. Ultimately, we decided to go to a place called Brew Dog that our friend had mentioned before we left. They are a bit experimental in their brewing, and we love brew pubs, so we made the somewhat wandering walk over there (we took the long, arduous route) for beer & pizza. And oh, what amazing beer it was!  

And yes, we did try them all. Given the alcohol percentages listed above, you can probably guess what state that left us in. But those percentages are nothing compared to one of their beers - Tactical Nuclear Penguin. This brew clocks in at a whopping 32% ABV. We bought a bottle to share with our friend Joe who told us about this place, but we still need to find a time to pop that bad boy open.

Unfortunately, I have a history on vacations such as this as leaving a bar and then five minutes later needing to go pee so, so, so bad (walks home in Rome and Dublin have been quite precarious situations). Alas, this night was to be no different. While previously there have been no untoward incidents to report, this night I was not so lucky. You see, we left our luggage in the middle of the floor by the foot of the bed, so as I ran to the restroom I tripped over a suitcase and went flying across the room, landing on my face and my wrist, breaking my watch and giving myself a rug burn on my face. My wrist hurt a bit, but I was fine by the next morning. Alan was so mad at me for not being careful, but how was I to know - considering that it was dark - that the luggage was there? When you gotta go, you gotta go. I would have done the same thing had I been stone cold sober. This was not because I was drinking, but rather because I am a clutz and I needed to use the loo something fierce. Thank goodness that in my fall I also didn't piss myself.

So yeah, that's how our night ended. I was crying - not because I'd hurt myself - but because Alan was mad at me for not being careful. He's gotta know by now that if there's a way to fall, I'm going to find it. My sister and I are cursed in this regard. There's an old family joke about her sticking an ice cream cone to her forehead. I don't remember if this ever actually happened, but because she was such a klutz as a kid, when my grandpa teased her with it, it stuck. It's just the way it is for us gals, and at some point Alan's just gotta realize that he's married a person that will find a way to fall. Of the two of us, it should be noted, I'm the only one who HASN'T broken both of their wrists at the same time. Ahem.