Wednesday, June 24, 2015

today is the day

I left you with a sunset yesterday and I begin with a sunrise. I do not actually witness a sun rising, but I do get up to see the start of a new day. I love to see this street out my window -- it never looks the same to me. The play of light is splendid on the white houses.

(before sunrise)

(after sunrise)

Breakfast at the Bowmore Guest House.

 (the top right windows are my own)

You'd think by now I'd no longer be thrilled to wake up to eggs and smoked salmon, but Andrew does a perfect plate, with all my favorite trimmings. And the salmon is just superb!


I talk to my hosts about my plans for the four days (only four!) that I am here. Today's weather is supposed to be the best by far and so I want to do my grand hike now, while the chance of rain is near zero (it's never completely zero). I'd purchased a detailed map of Islay (at the Royal Highland Show, of all things), wanting to devise my own trail. There are no signposted paths here.

Roughly speaking,  the island has a road running along the coast, like a big, snaky N. Bowmore is exactly in the middle. There are lesser roads branching out (and dead-ending) into Islay's belly. The northern coast (above the N, so to speak) is barren and uninhabited.

There is one road that I haven't yet followed: it's the one leading to Port Askaig, where you would catch the ferry either to travel to the mainland (a 2.5 hour trip), or to go to the next island -- the more mountainous Jura. (Jura is really barren -- it has a total of 200 residents and the only access to it is via this ferry.)

What if I followed the road just to the port and took off along the coast heading north on foot?

Andrew tells me -- you could do better than that: go up from the port along the narrow lane that dead ends at Bunnahabhain Distillery. From there, you can walk along the coast, all the way to a lighthouse (the Rhuvaal Lighthouse) at the northern tip of the island if you want.
I ask about the Distillery. Is it good one?
Yes, he says without hesitation.

I'm not ready to address the whisky side of Islay just yet, but if you're on the coast of the island, you're never too far from a distillery (there are eight here right now) and it helps to have a picture in your head of what's what.

I fill my small day pack with essentials: a walking stick, the map, a notebook and pen, my disabled phone.
Andrew says -- maybe you want to tell them at the distillery that if your car is still around when they close at 5, they should send out an alarm. Of course, we'll know if you haven't come back, but still...

He is sweetly protective of his guests (and especially of this solo hiker who loves to poke her walking stick on remote terrain).

The drive to Port Askaig is (like most other drives here) pleasantly short. Along the way, I pause for a sheep photo. It seems the sheep here are always placing themselves before lovely vistas. Here, you see the "Paps of Jura" -- the higher hills of the next island.


And at the Port (If you can call a handful of houses and a landing dock a port), I watch the Jura ferry for a few minutes.

(looking east)

(looking north)

Okay, but my focus is on the walk and so I get back in the car and take the lane that leads to the Bunnahabhain Distillery. It's a three mile stretch of road and it is a single lane with passing points.


Honestly, I can't imagine how they transport whisky along this road. I am happy that I do not encounter traffic. The passing points are far between and the pavement drops off to a ditch, so that if you're not careful, you can easily back your car right off the road and leave the rear wheels hanging. At least the island etiquette is clear. If you see a car far up the road and you're near a passing point, you wait, sometimes even a minute or two, until the car has passed you by.

Toward the end of the road, I pull my car into a space that could, I suppose, be called a parking area. I note that there is no one here doing a coastal hike. I'm pleased to have the hills to myself. A booklet on suggested Islay walks warns that the terrain can be very boggy, but I'm fine with that as well: if it gets too rough, I can turn back.

First though, a look away from the coast. It's beautiful here -- the wild rhododendrons are just at their peak!


And now I'm ready for my adventure.

Of course, you can't get lost if you're doing a coastal walk. I mean, there's the coast, with the Paps of Jura always to my right heading out...


... and you have your starting point, and your ending point, and then you turn around and retrace your steps. They say it's about five hilly miles to the light house. I have vague ambitions to get to it, but I wont mind giving up if I tire of the trek.

But though you can't lose your way, you can lose the dirt track that makes moving across this boggy landscape that much easier. And sure enough, after about two hours of relatively smooth hiking, with only a few boggy missteps, I lose the track and have to go cross country. The light house is visible by now and I am determined to make it there, but my hiking shoes let me know that they are not cut out for this. They and of course my feet, are completely wet.

(the bog, the lighthouse, the mountain on the Isle of Mull)

I kick myself for losing the track. I blame the deer.


They criss cross this terrain along known to them paths and they create a maze of intersecting trails that are to human sensibilities awfully reminiscent of a beaten down track. These have a way of suddenly disappearing and you stand confused among heather shrub and a damp, mossy earth.

Oh, but let me not forget to show you the hidden beauty here (apart the views which are stunning all the way)...

(looking south toward the distillery and the strait)

Wild orchids!


All that I learned about Islay last year came from the people who live here. Becky, a woman who took me on two guided walks, taught me to spot the orchids. Eddy, the master distiller, taught me to cut peat and he showed me where the bluebells grew in late spring. I am so aware now of Islay's low growing beauties!


I'm also aware of something else: I walk in the sometimes secretive company of deer. They watch over me from all vantage points.


But, too -- of birds. You would think that these are sweet little accents: a bird chirping overhead -- how lovely! But no, these birds are not happy with my presence. Two of them, the size of a large hand and swallow-like in their tail, though I couldn't possibly identify them further, hover over me, screeching to high heaven. They do this again and again, so that I know I surely must be near a nest. I try to explain that I mean to harm, but they don't give up their war on me. Two wee birds, intent on scaring a monster of a human -- that's how much they love their offspring!


Finally, I am within touching distance of the lighthouse! It's the northernmost point on the island.

I am so smugly satisfied, so delighted that I made it here that I forget about the usual "selfie at the summit." You just get the lighthouse.


The return is much easier because I know the danger points and, too, my shoes are so wet that it hardly matters. (My leap across boggy terrain isn't as fluid and lengthy as it once would have been and so it's always a guessing game as to whether I'll make it to the next dry patch of grass.)

And 4.5 hours later, I'm done.

I could not explain here how happy I am with this excursion! To you, the reader, it seems so benign: she walked, she came back. But to me, each year that I meet my solo hiking goals is reason to rejoice. And so, buoyed by the day's adventure, I decide to walk down to the distillery and pay them a visit. I did my walk. I can handle a distillery -- Islay's most remote distillery.


What's there to handle -- you ask. Oh, the utter friendliness of these people! It's overwhelming! You walk past a warehouse and the worker looks up, smiles, waves, shouts a greeting. You enter the visitors' room (here, it's small, with only one attendant) and you feel you've come home. Your offered expensive drams of their finest whiskys for free. I tell the man I've walked to the lighthouse and back and I feel he is celebrating my success!

The whisky he gives me is a first batch, from this November. It's their peatiest, smokiest and it was aged in bourbon casks, so that there is a heavenly combination of peat and vanilla. It's unbelievably good! Why don't I drink this stuff back home?


I ask if this can purchased in the States. We're tryin' he tells me. We're tryin'. Out comes my wallet.

On the drive back, I again pause just before pulling into my village of Bowmore. Yes, it's the sheep.


...on a strip of sand between the bay waters.


And now I am back in Bowmore (pronounced: boh-MORE).


Dinner tonight -- it's at the informal  bistro-like "Taste." There is a great restaurant in the village and this is its lesser cousin and they're both related in some financial fashion to Bowmore Distillery which stands majestically to the side.


I have cauliflower soup...


...and sea bream over warm potato salad for a main...


...and you will not be surprised that both are excellent. No, it's not just hunger! It's the touch of the sea on the fish and the earthiness of the potatoes served with it.

In my room for dessert, I have a wee dram, gratis of my hosts, along with a few chunks of very dark chocolate. I can't say that I am a food and drink traveler. I love and search out good food and I'll groan loudly if I can't find something fresh and honest, but I wont pick my destination with just food in mind. Still, when it all comes together for me, as it does in Islay, I feel I've struck gold.

(a golden sunset out my window)