Rear View Part 16 - Skye

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Any sign of summer?

'Long Way Down?' inquired the delivery guy with our Chinese takeaway on Wednesday night, as we checked tyre pressures, packed panniers and generally fettled ready for the off. 'Long Way UP!' we replied, explaining we were heading for Skye, a large and bonny island off the north-west coast of Scotland.

Thursday, 5.45am: Left Lisburn. It wasn't raining when we left the house, but it started on the Westlink, and coming up through the roadworks on the M2 it was lashing down - I was on the hard shoulder, lorries rumbling past were showering me with dirty water, and I could barely see out of my visor as it was covered in raindrops on the outside, steaming up inside, and the rain hit my face like needles if I raised it at all. Yuck. But we made the ferry at Larne in plenty of time. Just as well, as it left 15 minutes early - many ferries are doing this at the minute to try to save fuel by going slightly slower.

7.00am: Time for tea and breakfast, on what was to be the first of four different ferries on our trip. I'll summarise and review them all at the end. The crossing was calm, the rain died down, the ferry wasn't full - we were two of only four bikes on board. Dai and I passed the time trying to beat each other's Bejewelled score, and checking the weather forecast on his new iPhone.

9.30am: Off the ferry into dry Troon, calling at the first petrol station to fill up. We let the SatNav guide us up to the Erskine Bridge, avoiding motorways, a route which took us down some rather pleasant single-track roads.

11am: McDonald's at Balloch. Yeah, it's not haute cuisine, but it's easy to find, there's a good car park, and the loos are always clean! Balloch is at the southern foot of Loch Lomond, and from there on the scenery is fantastic, although the traffic can be a bit heavy with foreign motorhomes. I was a bit tense passing the spot at Crianlarich where I'd first dropped my bike - on this trip last year - but it wasn't nearly as hairy as it was in my mind's eye, and without any trucks heading for me in the middle of the road it was a simple enough junction to negotiate.

12.30pm: The Green Welly. This is a famous stopping place, especially for bikes, which have their own dedicated parking place. We smiled at a little Honda 90, laden down with shopping bags and rucksacks. Who needs fancy aluminium panniers and top boxes, eh? We ate our soup and pasties outside in the sunshine, and met a few other of our fellow party goers. And a little Oriental chap who headed for the Spanish registered Honda 90, and proceeded to spray all the backpacks and carrying sacks with a waterproofing spray. The Green Welly not only has a café, shop and loos, but also petrol and an ATM, those last two becoming scarce commodities the further north you travel. We carried on in glorious sunshine through the spectacular rugged rocks and waterfalls of Glencoe, which never looks the same twice.

3pm: Lochy. Just outside Fort William, the town at the foot of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, is a little pub, owned by a fellow biker. It doesn't look much from the outside, but the food is very good, and they have a wide range from filled baked potatoes to club sandwiches to burgers. We'd just parked up and said our hellos to Gordon when a whole posse of our fellow party-goers arrived from 'Darn Sarf'. They hungrily tore into some pies and chips, not having eaten for many hours and many many miles. We discussed routes and timings - 'Sure it's only 100 miles to go isn't it?' enquired one of the English lads. 'Yup' said local boy Gordon. 'That'll take you about 3 - 3½hours'. Horrified gasps from the English crew, who are more used to zooming along on motorways than pottering along in second gear on single-track roads.

4pm: Glenmoriston Arms. We had decided after last year that doing the trip up in one go was just way too long, and so we were taking two days to go up, and the same down again. Dai had been over to Scotland on a solo trip earlier in the year, and had stayed in this hotel at the end of Loch Ness. It's much more relaxed when you know where you're going and how to get there, rather than riding through a strange town in the rain seeing nothing but 'No Vacancies' signs. In the hotel car park, our bikes were spotted by a journalist on an 800 GS and photographer with an Africa Twin on their way home from Iceland, and so we kicked tyres over a few drinks before it was time for dinner. Some tasty grilled sea bream, washed down with a bottle of Pinot Grigio, and I was ready for bed at about 10pm.

Over the sea to...

Friday, 9.30am: After a hearty fried breakfast, we set off for a look at Loch Ness, to see if there were any signs of the fabled monster. It is a massive body of water, but if Nessie was about she was keeping herself well hidden. Plenty of German and Spanish tourists about though!

12.30pm: Shiel Bridge filling station. We had a glorious ride over the hills and through Glen Shiel towards the West coast, stopping for a fill up before leaving the mainland. We took the little road towards the Glen Elg ferry, which twisted and climbed up the mountainside, before a viewpoint at the summit revealed the most breathtaking of views. Back down the other side of the mountain, along single tracks, we reached the small pier. An unmanned room in a small white tower provided tea and coffee with an honesty box, and we watched in amazement as the ferry pulled up beside the slipway, and the platform carrying half a dozen cars turned around on bearings to let them drive off at an angle to the ferry itself. Barley the dog is a famous crew member, and he trots about making sure everyone is safely on board for the 10 minute crossing. The scenery on the Skye side is no less stunning, as the road skirts the base of the sharp-peaked Cuillin hills.

2pm: Broadford. A handy stopping place - good flat car park, café with loos, cash machine, shop and petrol.

3pm: Stein Inn, Waternish. Skye consists of a whole handful of peninsulas, and we were staying on Waternish, a place so remote it was impossible to get a mobile phone signal. The inn dates back to 1790, and has a small number of comfortable rooms, each with a sea view but no telly! We sipped on the specially brewed beer, and welcomed old friends as they arrived and either pitched their tents, or checked into their B&Bs. At 6.00pm we got our starters for the evening meal, but when we were still waiting for the main course an hour later there was some disgruntlement amongst the crowd. We decided to book the posh seafood restaurant next door for the Saturday meal.

9pm: Got a lift up to the village hall, two miles away, for the evening's ceilidh. It's really good to see young and old join in, and the locals were very patient with us novices, but by the end of the evening we were stripping the willow with the best of them. I've often tried to analyse what makes us as bikers get on so well - we come from all different backgrounds and do all sorts of jobs from engraver to IT consultant to bus driver. But I think the common trait is that of a sense of adventure and willingness to have a go. So perhaps it was no surprise to see so many grown men don their kilts and prance around like lunatics. The last photo I took was timed at half past midnight, so some time after that we must have gone to bed - we'd walked (staggered) about half a mile down the road before being picked up by Tash in her van.

Nothing like an 18 year old

Saturday, 9am: We woke to steady rain. Breakfast was delicious - free-range eggs and warming porridge, and we went back to bed for a quiet read to see if the rain and wind would die down. Our plan had been to take one bike down to the Talisker distillery, with me on the back so that I could sample the wares1 (since Dai doesn't like whisky I'd get sampling his wares too!) But the weather was so awful neither of us could face the thought of biking in it. So when the landlady remarked that some of our friends had taken a taxi to Talisker, a light bulb appeared over our heads, and we thought that was such a brilliant plan that we decided to follow suit.

1.30pm: Arrived at distillery. The tours were very popular that day (not a lot else to do in the rain) so the first available slot was at 3.20. We made our way to the Old Inn for lunch, and enjoyed the background music provided by Celtus.

3.20pm: Tour of Talisker. I hadn't been expecting to enjoy this whisky: I really don't like the aggressive TCP flavour of Islay malts such as Laphroiag, and prefer the smoother more honeyed Speysides such as Cragganmore. But on the first sip I was pleasantly surprised. Yes the smokiness and seaweed aroma were there, but not nearly so over-powering, and mellowed by a gingery pepperiness that tasted, well, pretty damn good. We enjoyed the informative tour round the mash tun and spirit stills, and I decided that if Whisky magazine had declared the 18 year old to be the world's best whisky, then I wasn't going to argue, and treated myself to a bottle. Having met up with our fellow tour-taking bikers, we'd arranged for the taxi driver to bring a seven-seater to take us all home, saving money and time.

7pm: Loch Bay seafood restauarant. This was so good it deserves its own write up, so I'll pick up my Our Man in Milliways pen and go into detail there. Mmmmmmmm.

8pm: Cheesy disco time. I'd allowed myself half a bottle of Chablis with the meal, and so was drinking water for the rest of the evening, wanting to make sure I was in fine form for riding the next day. Now, I'm beginning to suspect that those Orlando souvenir Thing 1 and 2 T-shirts may be jinxed. Ignoring the mix up we'd had in buying one for my daughter's best friend, which had involved me driving all the way to Universal Studios on our last day in Florida to exchange a 2 for a 1, when we got home I couldn't find my own Thing 1 at all! And we really wanted to be Thing 1 and 2 at the cheesy disco. So I'd tracked down and ordered one from eBay which had arrived in the nick of time on the Wednesday. And when I went to put it on on the Saturday evening....Dai discovered he hadn't packed his. Oh well. We macarena-ed and tush-pushed and bopped to the Shang-a-lang sound of the music until about 11, when I managed to walk home accompanied by two of the campers wearing head torches.


Sunday, 11.00am: We bade our farewells and wished safe riding to the rest of the gang, and found space in the luggage for my precious bottle of 18 year old, before setting off for the Armadale ferry at the southern end of the island. I'd phoned a reservation through from the pay phone in the pub (when was the last time you used a pay phone, then?) After hearing so many stories about the withering looks and unhelpful nature of the ferry staff when bikes arrive out of the blue, and wanting to avoid either a four-hour wait for the next ferry or a 100 mile detour to take the bridge, it was a wise move, and my tickets were waiting for me at the desk, and the staff were smiling and cheerful. This Cal Mac ferry holds about 25 vehicles, and gives one of the most stunning views of the highlands on its 30 minute crossing.

3pm: Back at Lochy. After being dry and sunny during the crossing to Mallaig, the rain started in earnest, and we were damp and miserable when we decided to call in for coffee. We shared a platter of chicken tikka skewers, onion bahjis and potato wedges, and dried out a little before continuing south. As we were leaving Fort William, Dai radioed to me to pull out into the right hand lane, which was signed for the South. I checked my mirror, indicated, looked over my shoulder, pulled out....and heard a thump followed closely by a bump on my right leg. I swore loudly as the blue car which had appeared out of nowhere carried on without stopping. On later examination my poor panniers had even more bashes and scrapes (although to be fair they had a good few to begin with). No doubt there are a few scratches on his car too! But my leg was fine. A timely reminder of the dangers on the road, and how vital it is to properly carry out a lifesaver look back over your shoulder.

7pm: Arrived at Balloch House, a lovely old building beside the marina, with a great menu and extensive wine list. We shared a baked camembert to start, and then I had the smoked salmon and crayfish ravioli. We'd been warned to be careful in Balloch, and so we made sure the bikes were parked safely with steering locks on in a well lit corner of the car park. We did hear some car alarm going off at 5.30am....

For our final journey of only 80 miles the next day we decided to hug the Clyde coast and come down through Largs and Ayr towards Cairnryan, where we were booked on the 3pm fast boat. The rain was still ever present, and tempers were fraying by lunchtime (McDonald's at Ayr), when I discovered I'd lost my wee rubber finger that I use to wipe away the rain from my visor. Dai was getting concerned about our slow progress - the average speed given by the SatNav was 37 mph. We agreed that he should ride on ahead and try to book us in. The roadworks along that coast severely impact the travel times - traffic lights must add at least 20 minutes to the journey, and I just about made it to the ferry terminal at a few minutes after 2.30. Dai was waiting anxiously with the boarding cards, and we rode straight on, just before they closed the gates. Lasting barely an hour, this is the fastest way across the Irish Sea, and we grabbed a quick snooze before the very last bit of the trip, back through the rush hour traffic in thankfully dry Belfast. Arrival time 5.30pm.

Four Ferries Contrasted

Larne - Troon. 2½ hours long, plenty of room for bikes and cars, costs about £50 single for bike plus rider. Food and shopping on board - the meals are pricey, and the shop doesn't stock cards. Arriving at Troon cuts out all those nasty roadworks, and is a good landing site if you're heading north. The downside is that it only runs in summer, and the boats are early in the morning and late at night.

Glen Elg - Kylerhea. 10 minutes long, goes back and forth all day every day. Costs a fiver. Roads to and from it are spectacular. Definitely one of the most charming ferry boats in existence, and easily the nicest way to get to Skye.

Armadale - Mallaig. Operated by Caledonian Macbrayne, who run most of the island-hopping services to Scotland's off shore domains. Costs £12.50, takes 30 minutes. Better if you book in advance. Great views. Facilities on board are limited to tea/ coffee and crisps/ sweets.

Carinryan - Larne. At an hour it's fast! Again costs about £50. Plenty of tables and seats to have a relax, hot meals available. But watch out for those roadworks if you're heading to either Stranraer or Cairnryan. They're scheduled to be there right into 2009 - allow at least an extra half an hour for your trip.

The Rear View Archive


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1Please enjoy Talisker responsibly.

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