Thursday, June 26, 2003

What’s the Story in Ballamory?

Hope this finds you well and enjoying summer. Our vacation to Scotland was actually delightful, although different than previous vacations. The reason we went so early in the summer is that we do this sort of thing with another family—Richard and Carla--and this year they were unable to go in September (we have gone to Spain with them for the past two years . . . we have also outgrown the house there we rented, which is sad because the house was really nice). Richard also said there’s something about the midges in summer . . .

So this year, Richard proposed finding a place out of the British Trust catalogue. These tend to be castles and manor houses and things that the owner can no longer afford to maintain, so they turn them over to the government who then rents them out as a way to make ends meet. The place we ended up with was not on that list, but sort of the same idea. We think it is still privately owned.

But I'm a little ahead of myself. On June 6 (Eldest Daughter’s birthday), we flew from Vienna to Glasgow. (A highlight of this part of the journey was watching a cranky priest fight with a luggage cart that had a wobbly wheel and snarl at the old ladies with canes in his party who were walking too slowly.) Because we had a 2-3 hour drive from Glasgow to the house (including a ferry ride) and we are not used to driving English style, we stayed over night at the Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn.

This was fine . . . just basic Holiday Inn. They gave us a sort of suite with two adjoining bedrooms so the girls had their own beds and bathroom, and we didn't have to watch what they liked on TV.

We were reading the menu for the restaurant and getting very excited because it featured a wide range of ethnic foods (Indian, Mexican, etc.). Now we all know that any airport Holiday Inn ethnic cuisine is going to consist of "peel back foil and microwave before serving," but we live in a culinary wasteland and Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn Mexican looked pretty darn good to us.

At the front desk they mentioned "booking for dinner," so I thought I'd better see what that meant. Yes, they did want you to reserve. And did I know that since it was Friday night, the regular menu was suspended in exchange for "Fine Dining"? WHAT? It's the Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn, for God's sake. Who are they trying to kid? I know they feel bad that the guests are stuck in the Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn on a Friday night, but just give us the damn curry!

I try to get the man on the phone to describe what "Fine Dining" entails (my voice becoming more and more shrill as I begin to shriek, "Just tell me what's for dinner!"), but his accent is so thick, I cannot begin to decipher what he is saying. I do finally gather that the regular menu is available for room service, but there really isn't anyplace in the room to sit and eat. So off I go downstairs to see if I can do better face-to-face.

Someone gives me a printed version of the menu and it looks okay, so all of us troop down to the dining room to enjoy a night of "Fine Dining." The Spouse orders the Breaded Goat's Cheese with Apple & Celery Chutney and I have the Prawn and Crab Salad in a Lemon & Lime Chantilly. His is basically Slovak fried cheese . . . no way you could tell what type of cheese it was. Mine was thawed mini shrimps swimming in mayonnaise. I think we both had the Herb & Cheese Crusted Delice of Salmon (which wasn't). And for this we paid about 17 pounds apiece.

But things picked up the next day. Immensely. We rented a Rover (sort of by accident), which turned out to be just lovely. It had a leather interior and heated seats (which, believe me, we could use . . . it was in the 90s F in Slovakia, but it was about 60 F in Scotland). The only problem with it at all was that we opted not to bring Eldest Daughter's car seat, and she was too low then to see out the windows (and suffered some car sickness on the winding, turning sheep trails on the island.

But we had a pleasant drive from Glasgow to the port city of Oban. It took about 2 1/2 hours and took us along Loch Lomand. On the drive up, it was overcast and drizzly and parts of the road ranged from what I’d call “REALLY Narrow” to “White-Knuckle” to us. But by the time we left the Loch area, we had gotten used to driving on the left, and the road got wider and a bit straighter.

In Oban, we deposited the car at the ferry and found a wonderful seafood place right on the dock for lunch. We had scallops and crab, and the girls had the lightest, fluffiest fish and chips I have ever tasted. Quite a change from Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn cuisine. The girls were also really good after sitting in a car all morning. Their good behaviour was further amplified by table of children next to us who were really disruptive and unpleasant. (On our return to the restaurant at the end of the week, the waiter remembered us and commented that those naughty children were the family of the local MP!)

We found Carla and Richard (and Katya and Baby Sebastian and Zoe the Airedale who chewed the front door and sent Richard on a frantic week of Bob Villa Do-It-Yourself repairs that included coffee grounds, show polish, and old tea bags cleverly employer to fid the damage. Thankfully, Zoe was not the first creature to chew that door, so the damage sort of blended right in.). Carla was buried in their car under bags of Tesco groceries. They stopped on the way in (since they drove up from the London area) and bought a few days of provisions because we were expecting the house to be bare and the stores closed until Monday . . . which was true. The only thing we ended up rationing until Monday was toilet paper as the house came with only two rolls.

The ferry ride took 45 minutes, and then the drive to the house took another 45 minutes. It felt like a million cars came off that ferry, but they all were somehow absorbed into the island. Only once did we see any people from the ferry out and about, and that was only because I recognized their dogs (we introduced ourselves while waiting to board . . . later in the village, I said, "That looks like Murphy" and the family said, "It is Murphy! How do you know our dog?")

The landscape is incredible on the Isle of Mull. Very green, mostly hilly, and not very populated. I'm guessing there were more sheep and Highland Cattle than people.

If you are familiar with BBC children's TV programming, there is a show called Balamory. It is filmed in the village of Tobermory, which is the largest village on Oban and was about an hour from where we were staying. The kids were very excited to be visiting Balamory, but disappointed that it didn't seem to have the people who star in the show (although the village does make a point of playing up the connection).

The house was incredible. HUGE! And rackety-packety. The exterior was more impressive than most of the interior, although it was nice enough for our crowd. It seemed that the family who owns it married into some money at one point, which enabled them to expand and finish this place, but also gave them access to bigger and nicer places. So they didn't have a lot of reason to spend a much time way out there. Many of the trees on the property were said to have been planted by Sir Walter Scott, who was a family friend. The chairs in the "drawing room" were George III, as in from the time of the American Revolution. Even this family's junk was cool.

There were pheasants who wandered around the grounds and shrieked. One wandered in the back door one morning, and Richard found it in the room where the dishwasher lived. He was trying to chase it out the window without it breaking glasses and dishes, but apparently was not very successful. We found pheasant poops in other rooms that afternoon, too, so who knows how long it was wandering the hallways.

We ate very well: local lamb, trout, salmon . . . had interesting Scottish snacks like "flapjack" (a sort of granola bar), but no haggis (although Carla and Richard did sneak one into the house). We tried to get Mary and Margaret, the ancient ladies who manage the house, to cook for us, but they answered sternly, "It's self-catering, you know."

High points included Duart castle, a mini-train ride (really, really mini. We barely got Ron's knees in it.), and a tour of the Tobermory harbor where we saw dolphins and jelly fish and seals. The boat crew included Kip, the dog, and Eldest Daughter got to sit in the captain's chair and even wear his hat.

It never seemed to get dark. I looked on a map later and we were even with Moscow. We put the kids to bed and cooked dinner every night, which we ate in a formerly elegant dining room with a bay window that looked out over the lawn and the sea. We finished between 10:00 and 11:00 each night, and it looked like 8:00 p.m. The only time it got really dark at night was when it rained. But the bedrooms all had shutters (and electric blankets, which we used!), so it didn't really matter.

There was a small beach nearby that the girls adored. The water was freezing, but the girls took off their Wellies (purchased at the totally tourist trap "Wellie Stop" we passed on the way) and socks (Youngest Daughter removed all her clothing from the waist down) and splashed about in it.

We had a picnic in the rain one day (which the kids loved) and a weenie roast on the beach that left everyone smelling of wood smoke. Mostly the weather cooperated, or at least was what we expected. And, of course, the day we left Mull, they skies were blue and cloudless. It was glorious.

Not sure we will make it back to Mull, but we would definitely like to spend more time in England and Scotland. Next time, maybe the Lake District for Beatrix Potter experience??