The reward for a week of pre-vacation hell at work – those of you in the working world know what I mean – was possibly the world’s smoothest trip from Orlando, Florida to Manchester, England. J and I were able to meet my parents at Gate 75, stop at a restaurant, and travel all the way to Gate 83 for our Virgin Atlantic flight. I’d never flown Virgin before, and it lived up to its reputation as a luxury flight even for those of us in lowly economy.
But the best part? We were able to board early – due, I believe, to my father skillfully asking for his cane at just the right moment and within earshot of the gate agent. After we arranged ourselves and our hand luggage into our seats, it seemed boarding was taking an inordinately long time as hardly anyone else had joined us. Then I realized the flight attendants (all wearing those elegant red VA suits) were closing all the overhead bins. At that point we realized the flight was less than half full – there were only seven other people in our section of the 747! We were all able to have our own row to stretch out on. It had been years since I didn’t feel like a proverbial sardine in a tin can on a trans-Atlantic flight.
Once at Manchester we met up with daughters A and S, and respective boyfriends N and P, whose trip on budget Thomas Cook Airlines had been anything but easy. The entire computer system had gone down at checkin and the agents were handwriting boarding passes. When was the last time you traveled with one of those?!
In any event, after a rather long session at the rental car booth, the daughters/boyfriends took off to the hotel – P, the driver, looking a little white-knuckled during his first experience of left hand side driving – and J and I left in the other rental car to take my parents to their friends where they will stay while we hike the Speyside Way. I’m hopeful that was our most difficult drive. It involved narrow car lined streets, lots of traffic, pedestrians with a strong sense of entitlement, a world festival with parking problems that had resulted in a street with room only for one vehicle, topped off by a hairpin turn that took multiple starts and reverses to accomplish.
We stayed at the Normanhurst Hotel in Sale, a small town on the outskirts of Manchester (best known for being close to the stadium where Manchester United plays). It had beautiful gardens, very small rooms, a nice sunlit bar, and a dining room that was populated by semi-elderly people who looked like they came there regularly for their weekly night out. It felt just like the type of place I would have gone to with my Yorkshire grandparents in the 1970s.
The next day the six of us fit ourselves, our backpacks, and our suitcases into the two cars, and started north on our eight hour drive to Buckie. Weather varied from sun to rain to glowering clouds, all in the space of thirty minutes, and then started all over again. One of our stops involved a trip to a camping store to buy yet more rain pants.
After only a few wrong turns – which resulted in some miles on the “B” roads – we made our way across the Grampion Mountains to the River Spey and on into the town of Buckie, a town of 8,000 on the coast of the North Sea. The buildings are universally grey/brown stone, which matches the grayish Firth of Moray (what a great name!), which I can see through the window of our guesthouse as I write this. We topped off a long day of driving with – of course – an Indian meal – it was the only restaurant open in Buckie at 7:30 pm when we arrived.
The walk begins today. We located the trail head in the middle of the town square last night, and it is now Westward Ho!