In stark contrast to U.S. customs, a kind, older Brit was quick to offer his two pence on the best way to get from Heathrow to King’s Cross and saved my mom and I a few pounds in the process. Stamp in passport, to the tube I went. I was on a mission with my four hours in London and Big Ben was ticking. By complete coincidence my lifelong friend Elliot happened to be in London for work and it would have been a shame to miss the small window during which we could meet up. A quick pizza lunch with my mom and his girlfriend was just like the old days back in New Jersey, unfortunately, our visit was short; business called and I had a train to catch.
With childhood memories on top of mind I was blown away walking onto the King’s Cross platform. My train departed from track 11, but I couldn’t help take a peek at the now permanent Track 9 3/4 sign, equipped with a line hundreds of Harry Potter fans deep, foaming at the mouth to take a picture holding Harry’s pushcart, adorned with Gryffindor scarf. Comfortably aboard the Virgin East Coast line the English country side began to roll past.
In Edinburgh Abi rejoined, and as a trio a whirlwind Scotland adventure began. Back in travel mode I dove right into the usual activities: Free walking tour, in-depth coffee offering analysis, and tastings of the local culinary fare. The first two went well. The walking tour guide, though overly theatrical with his delivery, was well informed and interesting, sharing a wealth of Scottish and again Harry Potter facts. The coffee game, solid, as to be expected from a hip university city. The Scottish cuisine...too early to make a definitive call but first impressions, lacking. Rich in history and ornate architecture, Edinburgh was a great launching point, however the bulk of this trip wasn’t aimed to be city dwelling so I grabbed a Honda Civic from a disorganized and frantic Hertz outpost and set off for the Highlands.
Quickly the city streets gave way to country hills; bustling avenues turned into quaint main streets. Along tight winding roads I drove, feeling confident with my right hand positioning, well-practiced from time in Australia yet still a British decision I simply do not understand. Scones with cream and jam alongside meat pies fueled a short hike, and an early evening stop for a pint and some tea acted as a cultural toll into the Trosach’s and the official entry to the southern highlands.
Skirting around lakes bookended by valley walls, castles began peering over each tight bend. The roads turned to single-track and begged to be raced over by a more worthy vehicle than that which I piloted. Grassy hills, home to endless sheep, danced in reflective bays hiding the peaty bog and fresh shellfish dwelling beneath the clear, frigid waters. A fine craft brewery, hidden outside the uniform black and white town of Arrochar served pints of English pale ales and refreshing fruit goses, quenching dry mouths after a long day exploring vast botanic and royal gardens. Onward I drove to the coast, where fresh seafood waited to be devoured, but first, whisky.
No trip to Scotland would be complete without indulging in the namesake spirit, and to the best of my knowledge, no other place lays claim to a distillate that I actually enjoy consuming. In the picturesque port town of Oban a golden sample of the flagship 14 year old single malt splashed into my snifter. I swirled and nosed as instructed and the mild peatyness, salt air, and light fruit notes tickled my sinuses on the sniff. One of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, our guide shared the rich heritage of the scotch and the important role the plant has played in town. Now much more of a tourist stop than an active port, the original Oban building still sits central and every drip of the good stuff is produced inside. But these days, maybe even more famous than the Oban distillery is the town’s Green Seafood Shack where steep mountains of sautéed mussels drenched in garlic and wine fly out of a large cauldron. Though cheap, delicious, and filling they play second fiddle to unbelievably tender and buttery scallops, served simply to accentuate the quality of the raw product. Full of all the earthly delicacies the now slightly heavier Civic was ushered onto a CalMac ferry; the rocky isle of Mull beckoned.
As a group it was clear no amount of seafood would be deemed too much, and the jagged coastal road was easily navigated by sense of smell. Pulling into a smokery I was giddy to see weighty packages of smoked salmon fillet trimmings (the fattiest and best bits in my opinion) piled high in a cooler. Regarded as the scraps, and priced accordingly, smoked fish was officially added to the lunch menu. Tobermory, Mull’s iconic, primary colored fishing town played host to an oily feast which was walked off in pursuit of panoramic views from the island’s old lighthouse. Though daylight never posed an issue, sunset wasn’t occurring until around 11pm, a long drive laid ahead into the heart of the highlands.
Rolling hills sharpened and intensified on the approach to Glen Coe where quintessentially Scottish scenery forced me to back, lest knights on horseback came charging, clan flag and tartan at the helm. Deeper still into the highlands I drove, through ever sleepier, ever narrower back roads and dirt tracks. Through the Caringorm’s protected forests and medieval ruins, beyond the rich blue lakes and rocky hills, Edinburgh was once again on the radar. But first...more whisky.
Edradour Distillery is a classic, take a step back in time, paradise and the evaporating angles share of single malt lingering about their barrels is one of the most desirable amongst the haloed thieves. Superb whisky is crafted using the most traditional of methods, and this being one of the few scotch distilleries to remain independent from major alcohol conglomerates, there is no intention to change. The whisky was beautifully smoky but not over the top, charismatic yet smooth on the throat. Aged in a wide range of expertly selected barrels, unique and complex profiles define these delicious, though not budget friendly, elixirs. I feel it’s worth a note that of all the beer, wine, whisky, etc... alcohol themed tours I have taken over time this was hands down the best, and is a must if you appreciate the arts of fermentation and distillation. Back in Edinburgh I was happy to relinquish my keys back to Hertz and a celebratory feast was consumed at the most ubiquitously recommended restaurant I have ever encountered: Dishoom. Serving up Bombay style, Iranian cafe era street food, the place certainly lived up to the hype and got me the U.K. Indian fix needed to consider my culinary exploration of this island complete.
Returning to London, my mom quickly flexed her art scene muscle the moment a trendy gallery neighborhood appeared. Walking from the tube she instantly recognized her friend’s gallery, and sure enough he was both elated and surprised at her and I dropping in that evening as he exhibited two U.K. artists’ work. With only a day left until she departed it was off to the queen’s gardens, Borough Market, and a delightful brunch with Abi’s god mother who calls London home. My mom was headed back to the states, and the U.K. is no place for a budget backpacker to linger for too long, but this wasn’t a random stop on my journey, and there was a method to the last month of continent hopping madness. Over a hipster beer in Hackney Wick, London’s conveniently named analog to NYC’s Bushwick, my newest Lonely Planet was christened. I knew almost nothing about what lay ahead as I flipped through the pages, but as advised months earlier in Chile I had booked my ultra-cheap London to Kutaisi direct Wizz air flight and tomorrow was off to one of recorded civilizations most ancient cross roads.