Ending Up in Aviemore – Finishing the Speyside Way

image

The last four weeks have been the longest break I’ve taken from blogging in the two years since I started this journey. And to think I stopped right before the exciting conclusion of the 70 mile hike along the Speyside Way.

But as we all know, sometimes life gets in the way, and it’s important to remember a blog isn’t actually a thru hike that requires you to march 20 plus miles every day when the spirit simply isn’t there. Self discipline is one thing, but walking for the sake of just putting one foot in front of the other starts to seem a bit pointless.

In any event – I’m back! And with the Speyside Way still to finish up, I have lots more subject matter for the future. For one, there’s the second week of our Scotland and England trip, which will feature Niddrie Castle (whoever has heard of it?), an aborted trip to another castle that turned out to be an event venue where we almost crashed Colin and Allie’s wedding, and a gypsy caravan on its way to the travelers’ horse show in Scarborough. There are also plans for the future – including, dare I say it? Yes? The Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal in May 2017.  Seriously. And then there are my latest training adventures which involve discovering barre, a hip injury, new hiking boots….

But it’s important to finish stories before starting new ones, and when I last wrote we had just finished a lovely evening at the Dunallan House in Grantown-on-Spey socializing with our host from Northern Island.  Did I mention that I didn’t feel like scotch so was handed our host’s six week old baby to hold while he poured “wee drams” for the others? I’m not sure it was a fair trade.

Our final day started off with medical care issues, involving trips to the chemist for more blister care products (nearly all of us) and tape for shin splints (P) and a strained Achilles’ tendon (me). After we finally made our way back to the trailhead, S’s ankle started hurting, and she decided she needed to ditch her hiking boots in favor of tennis shoes. Since they were in the bag being transported to our next stop, this necessitated P running a quarter mile back to the guesthouse before the luggage was picked up to retrieve said shoes…not sure that helped the shin splints at all.

image

Our last day was predicted to be the longest – over 17 miles presuming no wrong turns which was an impossible assumption for our crew. Our plan was that the three fastest hikers would forge ahead to Aviemore, check in at the hotel, take the taxi we’d reserved the 70 miles back to the beginning of the trail in Buckie, pick up the two cars and then drive back to Aviemore. All this because Aviemore was a good two hours closer to Scarborough, which was our destination the next day. It sounds a bit insane, but we couldn’t think of any other way to do it.

In any event, the morning hike was relatively flat. We were near the Spey for a bit but mostly inland.  We hiked more or less together in the morning and paused for lunch in a beautiful, solitary wooded spot – except for the ubiquitous Scottish flies with which we were well familiar by now.

image

After lunch, J, P and S plowed ahead on their car retrieval mission. A, N and I continued on at a slightly more leisurely pace, made more interesting by A’s retelling of a Norwegian epic that recounted the life and legends of Od the Pointy. Really, that was the name – at least in her pronunciation. Anyway, she’d just listened to it on a podcast and proceeded to give a remarkable verbatim account. It lasted a while since Od lived to be about 300 years old.  Hiking mile after mile you start to realize how and why epics evolve!

image

We crossed field and forest, finally encountering rugged moors that were more what I had actually envisioned the whole trail to be rather than the gentle farmland much of it was.  We were approaching the Cairngorn Mountains, many of which still had patches of snow, and their dark and brooding presence cast shadows over the moors.

image

When we reached mile 16, there was, of course, a decision to make. We could blindly follow the sign pointing to “Aviemore,” or we could ignore it and instead take the road to the “town centre” where we’d already seen another couple of hikers go. Being a lawyer, I, of course, opted to follow the sign as precisely as possible – only to find that we’d put ourselves on a loop hike called the Orbital that added at least two extra miles to our trek. We finally found someone to ask for directions -a young woman walking two golden labs. Just as we’d finished our conversation another woman with a pit bull walked by and we were treated to a very messy dog fight.

In any event, our triumphant March into Aviemore ended with a traipse through a vacant lot near a housing development. That brought us out on the main road, and victory of victories, we located the Ravenscraig Guesthouse.

The  other three of our party had indeed already made it to Aviemore  and gone off to get the cars, so A, N and I cleaned ourselves up and found the Ski-Ing Doo pub. That truly was the name. There was a ski resort nearby and the whole place was themed around skiing – with some odd touches like lamb steak burgers. And I’m pretty sure haggis was on the menu.

J, S and P joined us about 7:45 pm after driving 70 miles back from Buckie. Our five day hike had taken less than two hours by car. But somehow I think we gained a lot more than just miles by walking.

image

Advertisements

To Ballindalloch and Beyond – Hiking the Speyside Way

image

As a reminder, this summer’s adventure was a 70 mile hike along the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, followed by a week in Scarborough on the North Yorkshire Coast. By day 3 of the hike we had sampled lots of scotch, eaten some very interesting food, and were getting in the groove of plus 13 mile days.

Day 3 was supposed to be easy, and it was mainly flat, even though the distances were longer than promised.  This is the point at which I became convinced that a Scottish mile is simply longer than an American one. But easier walking didn’t mean there weren’t other issues – this time of the directional variety.

After a nice breakfast at the Craigellachie Lodge – which included a “wee dram” of scotch in daughter A’s porridge – we got a late start and stopped for lunch only two miles later at a small town called Aberlour. By then my sunglasses had broken so we went to a chemist’s – where the only women’s sunglasses resided in a plastic box in the depths of the shop – which took the sales girl about ten minutes if not more to ferret out. Apparently there’s not much call for sunglasses in the Scottish Highlands.

image

After dilly dallying around, it was time to make some miles. Scents distinguished day 3 from the others. They ranged from honeysuckle to breath of wild rose to anise to the yeast into sharp spirits smell of the distilleries.

image

There were quite a few distilleries along the way, but tourist friendly most of them weren’t. These aren’t anything like the welcoming wineries you find throughout California and elsewhere. The distilleries are definitely a product of the Industrial Revolution and they maintain a stern factory like appearance – replete with lots of metal, brick, tubes….quaint, they aren’t.

image
Distillery close to Ballindalloch – the ones on the river were even more forbidding

By mid afternoon we’d spread out, with daughter S and boyfriend P well in the lead. That meant that when we arrived at Ballindalloch after many miles of hiking, expecting to find our next hotel immediately, they were the first to discover that there were simply a few holiday cottages by the trail, none of which was for us. Ever resourceful, they asked directions and finally realized it was another two miles, off the main trail and on what’s called the Tomintoul Spur. Needless to say, all this had to be conveyed back to us stragglers, which required much use of our free texting on our close to dying phones.

As we were all somewhat dubious about where we were going, it was a relief to find the Delnashaugh Hotel, a very nice small hotel just off the A 95. No, the last couple of mile weren’t particularly scenic – for much of them we clung to the side of a two lane highway hoping the speeding cars wouldn’t sideswipe us.

An added benefit of the hotel was a really excellent restaurant and a very nice bar.

image

Day 4 involved the two mile trek back to the trail, and another thirteen miles (that is, a Scottish thirteen miles) to Grantown-on-Spey.  This was possibly the most beautiful scenery of the entire hike. Along the river and between fields, past a huge bull with a ring in his nose – separated from us by only two strings of barbed wire- baby calves and lambs, and deer.  S and P even met a large and friendly horse near a farm, following which they took a wrong turn down what turned out to be a driveway where they were pursued by a very small and yapping guard dog.  We then traversed forest and more fields into a magical hidden valley, complete with babbling brook and wild flowers. Lots of uphill today – even one section steep enough that steps had been kicked into the grassy incline.

After a very nice lunch – at the edge of a forest with a view over the valley – more fields and forest. We must have gone through every variety of metal gate in existence.

I especially loved crossing muddy fields with little portable bridges and stepping stones over the muddiest bits.

image

At Cromdale we crossed the river and collapsed in front of an old railway station – only to learn we had another 3-4 miles left. They seemed neverending – especially those through a forested park with very few directional signs right outside the town. But eventually we made it to Dunallan House, where we received a warm welcome from the owner, a native of Northern Ireland, who offered scotch and lots of stories. Incidentally, the interesting bridge below turned out to be another of our wrong turns!

Speyside Way Days 1 and 2 – Buckie to Fochabers and onto Craigellachie

image

After our kick off dinner in Sale (don’t try googling “Sale United Kingdom” – a place name will not be your first hit) and a night in Buckie at the Rosemount Guest House, we got a relatively early start for our first and easiest day – about ten miles to Fochabers.

Fortified by Indian food the night before, and a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, which seems to be a Highlands favorite (and kippers for some!), we retraced our steps to the trailhead we had supposedly already located. After a few wrong turns that took us down some alleys we made our way to the edge of the Firth of Moray. We walked on a well laid path by glassy silver water, passing small cottages where various inhabitants gave friendly, but rather bemused greetings to our party of six hikers.

It was five miles to Spey Bay.  Wild flowers were everywhere – scarlet poppies, pink and purple foxgloves, brilliant yellow gorse. And lots of animals, too. Many dogs were being walked; sheep grazed contentedly; and a family of grey seals swam beside us for part of the way.

image

We stopped for lunch at Spey Bay, which is part of a dolphin research center. It features two old ice houses, a small museum, a path to the sea amid the rocks, but most importantly, a bathroom and a picnic table. We were also introduced to the dread Scottish midges we’d been warned about.

The trail then cut inland through varying landscapes – planted pine forests of serious uniformity, native forests filled with an abundance of different trees, riverfront with anglers fly fishing  and wearing thigh high waders, and small paths between fields. The weather changed from rain to sun and back again on a steady rotation. At one point we passed someone who must have been a birder – wearing a most peculiar garment that may have been an oil cloth coat – something I’ve read about but never actually seen. Not a lot of hikers though.

image

We arrived in Fochebers in mid afternoon. Entering the very small town via a park with a river vista and a manicured bowling green, we made our way to the Gordon Arms Hotel, and managed to find the sole pub in town for a post-hike pint. The hotel, a faded, rambling place, had the only actual restaurant in town. We sampled six different Speyside Way scotches, and feasted on game pie (venison, partridge, and pheasant), haggis in cream sauce (surprisingly good), and cullen skink, a thick soup boasting smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions.

Day 2 of the hike was supposed to be more difficult, and our one reserved distillery tour at The Macallan, as it’s known, was at 3 pm. Hence, we took off early and set a brisk pace, even counting breaks, which were few and far between. Day 2 presented fields, forest, and some very muddy uphill that was the equivalent of 160 floors according to my faithful Fitbit. And wildlife today included two deer and rabbits (which seem exceptionally large and warrant the title of hare, I think).

image

After 13 or so miles, we arrived in Craigellachie about 1:30. We stayed at a lovely small guesthouse, likely the nicest place we would stay. There was a beautiful garden and slippers in the rooms (which the daughters and boyfriends took and used religiously for the rest of the trip – I’m sure they will end up back at their homes in Boston and New Orleans).

After a picnic lunch in the hotel lounge we decided to forego the walk to the distillery and splurge on a taxi. The Macallan is very aware that it is an impressive operation – they don’t even let you take pictures in the manufacturing areas – lest their secrets be revealed I suppose.

image

Craigellachie is a very small and seemingly high end tourist town- with an expensive dress shop and nowhere to buy food. It seemed like an appropriate place to have dinner at The Copper Dog, a well known Scottish restaurant that, according to J, is being  replicated in Dubai!

Finished the day with wine in the drawing room of the hotel – contemplating the number of miles tomorrow would hold.

Up in the Air and Down Again – Beginning in Buckie

The faithful backpacks
The faithful backpacks

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.

image

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.

image

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 Firth of Moray at sunset in Buckie
The Firth of Moray at sunset in Buckie

The walk begins today. We located the trail head in the middle of the town square last night, and it is now Westward Ho!

image

Gear Check #? – The Scottish Highlands

image

Ok, so Speyside Way isn’t much of a summit. In fact, much of it seems suspiciously close to a river bed, and it’s still unclear to me how much above the ocean rivers can be anyway. I mean, they run downhill, right? Where do they start?

Regardless, the Speyside Way is so darn far north on the globe that it should still count as a summit of some sort. I can’t rid myself of  this vague idea that things to the north must be higher  than things to the south. And, of course, if you live in  Australia you must get very tired clinging onto the earth for dear life so you don’t fall off.

Yes, there are true mountains for us in the future including Katahdin in Maine. And we hope Mont Blanc next summer.  But for now – it’s four weeks to our multi generational trip to Scotland and England. More on all that to come in future posts.

As six of the eight of our traveling party will be engaged in a 67 mile hike in the Scottish Highlands during week one …. there’s still got to be  a gear check. Admittedly, this is luxury back packing (glampacking?). Our luggage will be  carted along by a taxi between b’n’bs and  small hotels and we only have to carry daypacks. A far cry from the barrels on Mt. Elbrus. (Yes, for those of you new to this blog – you really do stay in converted (but large) oil barrels on Mt. Elbrus.)

Nonetheless, we’ve learned from experience – there’s still gear that must go with you even while glampacking   So what does this trip entail?

  1. Hiking poles. Everybody but me on the trip rejects them, but after day 3 they will be thanking me.
  2. Headlamps. Who would have thought you needed them in Mt. Washington in October but after a late start and letting all the French Canadians celebrating Canada  Day pass us, it was a pretty dark descent.
  3. Hard candies. I’ve sworn by these since Kilimanjaro. Cinnamon is the best but husband J swears by cherry.
  4. Everything waterproof. I have a strong feeling that there is is a lot of rain to be experienced north of Aberdeen. As we celebrate Tropical Storm Colin here in Florida this week the wet theme is definite front and center.
  5. Gloves. Need I say more. Cold hands. (Not small hands.)
  6. Ibuprofen. It will make everything feel better. Especially after a couple of 15 mile days.
  7. A kindle. Weighs nothing. Battery lasts for months. And you can cart an entire library with you. There’s a lot of down time on hikes. You need a good book to read.
  8. Less than four weeks now. Ready for vacation!