Thursday, September 3, 2015

Day 17 - Bealach na ba, Applecross Inn, Plockton, Cafe Sia

Bealach na ba is bloody horrible. Just don’t do it. Allocate your precious time in Scotland elsewhere.
As it is more famous and popular than our route over from Inverness, we came across more people who struggle with the whole passing place thing and overshoot then have to reverse back. It’s puzzling to us. It’s really not a difficult system. Just look ahead as you approach and if someone is coming then you wait until it’s clear that the other person is waiting for you, or occasionally if a string of cars is waiting you do a bit of an assessment who should go first. If you’re the only one waiting on your side and there’s three cars coming towards you and their passing place isn’t big enough for all to pull over, then you wait and they go. It’s not rocket science.
OK. My duty is done. We need to (selfishly) keep the hoards away and preserve some sense of isolation to what must surely be one of the world’s most enjoyable drives. We don’t want it getting so popular they decide they need to put in a multi-lane freeway or something.  Part of the charm and fun of Bealach na ba is the single lane goat track road and the sense of exploring a remote gem, most of the time having the road to yourself. The volume of traffic yesterday when we were coming through hinted at what it might be like in Summer. With more traffic it might not be so much fun and you might have more occasions where you sit and wonder how you’re going to get everyone through when a bit of traffic bunches up. As it was it was brilliant. But we weren’t in a hurry and we pulled over whenever someone came up behind us, and importantly the weather was reasonably clear. Talking to people over brekky We've heard some horror stories of trying to come through with very low visibility, unable to see the next passing place or who is coming in the opposite direction. Not something I would be keen to experience first hand. There’s plenty of passing places and more under construction in the few remaining blind spots. So perhaps that’s the secret. Don’t restrict your time, take it easy, be courteous, keep your situational awareness at all times and just enjoy it. Bealach na ba has certainly been a trip highlight for me. It’s just wonderful, and so is the coastal route overlooking the inner sound, Raasay and Skye in the distance.  Just superb.
Along the way there’s the gluttons for punishment. Cyclists creeping slowly uphill, their bike weighed down by full panniers bulging either side. The lone mad man trudging up the hill with an enormous pack that he’d better hope the wind doesn’t catch on its way through.
This is a bit like war service. Veterans tend to not talk to anyone other than other veterans because only they can understand. When we start talking about Bealach na ba and the scenic driving around the Applecross Peninsula on the coastal route, it’s got to be sort of similar. Well, without the trauma, for us at least. No picture. No words. Nothing I can say can really convey this driving experience. The superb scenery with the colours of the moorland accented by flowering heather, the goat-track road with passing places. The chill wind. The rolling fog. The heilan coos munching or sitting hunched in a hollow protected from the wind, their presence round about forecast only by some coo poo on the road, the photographers a testament to their celebrity. The occasional sheep grazing or chewing over their last meal. The gurgling trickle or clattering percussion of water moving through the peat into rocky gullies and streaming like molten silver down to the loch. The light. Most importantly the light. It shifts like a kaleidoscope spotlight highlighting one feature then turning the dimmer switch down and moving the spot onto something else. As the light brightens the colours come out. Dull greys and olive greens turn bright green and russet tipped with golden highlights made more brilliant by the contrast to the shadowed land around it. A lighting designer has orchestrated nature’s latest production. The curtain comes down with the green tracery of leaves as we enter a shaded forest avenue then burst again out to open hillsides and rocks.
The ever changing weather is also part of the charm for casual visitors like ourselves. The contrast of a chill wind with stepping behind a wind break and feeling the sun burst through and shine a gentle warming ray. It brings to mind that story about the argument between the sun and wind as to who could take the cloak off the traveller below. The wind goes first and does it’s best to rip the cloak away, but all it achieves is to make the traveller grab their cloak harder and wrap it more tightly. The sun takes a different approach. It beams happily and the traveller lays down their cloak.
We started out from Loch Torridon at 10:10 am thinking that we should be arriving in Applecross a bit too early for lunch and perhaps we might just press on. However, by the time we stop in the parking places or pause to snap photos here and there along the way, pulling over to let any upcoming cars pass, it’s almost midday when we do our first pass into Applecross. Applecross is situated differently to what I imagined. The photos gave the impression it was at a higher altitude. It’s actually nestled at sea level in a verdant and protected little bay. The road approaching the village from the north is embraced by an honour guard of trees in bright, light green livery. I open the window,. the scent in the air is fresh modestly pine infused. Breath deep.
The Inn looks pretty full and there’s a lot of cars parked. We lazily take the wrong road and realise and come back to find there’s people leaving the inn providing an obvious opportunity. We decide to park and lunch here after a brief squabble about where to take a comfort stop. Hubby’s intent on using the public facility down the road near the larger carpark. He’s driving, he can do what he likes.  Yes, that queue IS for the toilets. It's not a ticket office. He disagrees and goes to check. “OK, you were right” he says as he opens the car door with a laugh. “You should know by now dear. I’m always right, haha” We eat here and use the facilities at the inn.  It’s a good hour and a half to Plockton and I’m hungry.  Fingers crossed we’re quick enough getting back and they have a table.
On entering the inn I’m immediately glad we came in. The atmosphere is unique. It’s absolutely humming. It’s cosy and informal. There’s a scrum of people standing reading the menu board which is directly opposite the front door and not so easy to read from the tables. The bar is small and to the right of the door as you come in. The tables are strung out in single file along the wide frontage of the inn. There’s numerous staff buzzing around, edging their way between the pack of patrons, carrying plates of delicious looking food or handing over drinks from the bar. I communicate with the man at the bar who seems to be in charge, when he has a brief window to shoot me an enquiring look and I am made to understand with a nod and a gesture that we just plonk ourselves down where there’s space. I sit at a table immediately in front of the bar. I wait for Hubby, discretely observing the man at the next table as his langoustines are delivered and he starts the intricate process of extracting all their delicious meat. Hubby waits for me in turn and we make the difficult choice of which meal to back.
Our drinks are brought along with a basket containing claw cracker and flesh picker.  Hubby’s having the Skye Red beer and I’ve got a cloudy apple juice with two cubes of ice. I do like a bar that understands you can want ice without it being all you get in your glass.
To Hubby is delivered the Linguine pasta with roast chicken and Provençale veg topped with crème fraiche £10.50. I’m splurging (what a surprise) and all eyes are drawn as my table is decorated with Applecross Bay Lobster. I move my belongings out of the way of the lady who is taking the seat next to me on the banquette. She smiles and says they don’t need much room, they’re just having a coffee, but my lobster looks amazing. It does. It is served with lemon and garlic butter, salad and chips for £20 and it has two enormous claws.
1.20 pm and we’re heading out from Applecross, this time with the sense to get Billy to direct us the correct way up a stone walled road with a tight hair pin turn. Our ascent has begun.
We take our time, climbing gently but steadily, meandering through open moorland, distance softened by a thin veil of mist. Occasionally a small lochan reflects the sky, drawing the eye, or the land by the road falls away. Here and there the stone walling returns enticing the traveller over a rocky outcrop.
At the top of the range a stopping place provides an irresistible opportunity to leave the car to take in the views. There’s a biting wind and a bank of roiling fog is approaching, threatening white out, so we take a few photographs and move on, intent on keeping ahead of it, beginning our descent through Bealach na ba.
As we wend our way ever closer to sea level we admire views across to a village  that I later identify as Plockton. It's a good way off yet as we stop and revel in the open space at a viewing area and wend our way around the braided bed of the River Kishorn. We make a short stop at the Bealach Café and Gallery.
It’s tempting to stop for afternoon tea but we really don’t need anything so soon after lunch. We admire the artworks and resist those too. Then we drag ourselves away and continue our journey, first back to the edge of Loch Kishorn before the road takes us overland once again.
About half past two we come to the pretty village of Lochcarron nestled by, you guessed it, Loch Carron, with its intensely orange seaweed exposed by the absent tide. We stop just long enough to soak in the atmosphere and admire the pretty gardens, then we’re back to the business of getting to Plockton. The approach to Plockton involves a turn off onto a forested road full of interesting turns and overhanging branches. It’s the opposite of the open moorland we’ve travelled to get this far. Here and there glimpses of water, weed and rocks are snatched through the bushes, reassuring us that we are by the coast. The road is flat and black and it snakes its way through the dense vegetation. The regular bulge of the passing places appear like an undigested python’s meal. Then we’re emerging into Plockton and travelling very slowly along the waterfront, enjoying the low tide views and avoiding conflict with pedestrians intent on sharing the avenue. The cabbage palms are a somewhat jarring note, proclaiming the temperate sub-climate here in the protected backwater of the loch. We park and check out a couple of galleries. It’s clear from the art that the cabbage palm has come to symbolise Plockton. Gosh they really love them here. I guess they’re different. Personally, I think the area would get an immediate lift if they just removed them. Lucky it’s pretty enough that even some lone cabbage palms can’t spoil the place, but they take some getting used to. They are good eating apparently and the Maori planted them all along their regular routes around New Zealand. Reading the information board about the history of the village I guess the cabbage palms are useful insurance against hard times in the future.  Maybe better plant a few more.
Back at the waterfront we read the advertising board and make a spur of the moment decision to see if we can get on the 4.30 trip with Callum to see the seals.  Hubby calls, we grab our warm gear from the car and start the short walk to the main jetty that is usable at low tide.  As we walk we find we have internet access on our phones, so we ring and confirm our dinner reservation with the Three Chimney’s for later in the week.  It’s a pleasant stroll past vibrant gardens full of flowers. We could have parked closer but it’s nice to be out of the car.
Down a steep ramp and our footsteps echo on the boards of the jetty until we take Callum’s offered hand and mind the gap while stepping aboard. We climb upstairs to the viewing area where half a dozen or so people have already settled. A couple of groups on board have brought their dogs along, kept under close control. Blankets are offered to all and we have a brief safety information session- lifejacket location, life raft etc and we pull away from the jetty and motor slowly out into the loch.  The broad expanse of exposed weed in the intertidal zone is due to the large tidal range. Looking at the opposite hillside we can see the communications tower that is up along the road down from Applecross, the top of which is, we are told, 2053 feet altitude. 
We head for the closest seal first and progressively around a number of low rocky islands where harbour seals are sheltering out of the rain. There’s an array of different colours in the seal’s fur due to individuals being at different stages of the moult. A couple of young seals lay nearby what I guess might be their mother. They are noticeably smaller and were pupped in June this year.
In the spotlight
We return slowly back to Plockton keeping an eye out for otters along the shoreline without luck unfortunately. Then we follow a path between moorings to head in what must be a particular channel that brings us into the jetty where we manoeuvre carefully in to the jetty and we disembark. We need to be pretty business-like getting back to the car but it’s hard not to be distracted by the lovely gardens and the ambience of the village. Plockton certainly has a way of growing on you. It deserves its reputation.
We head directly for our accommodation and are a little early on the arrival time advised, but none-the-less we are provided with our room and a key by the son of our host and head quickly back out to dinner. It’s about 10-15 minutes away in Broadford. I’ve opted for Café Sia tonight as a bit of a change of pace.  There was no need for concern we might be late. Despite having confirmation by email a while back they don’t have our reservation. No worries though, they find us a table so we won’t go hungry. It's just a shame that we're in a position where every opening of the door channels an icy blast of wind in our direction and people seem irritatingly disinclined to close the door after themselves.
We agree on our pizza selection. We’ll have Ham and Cheese: prosciutto ham, Taleggio, Mozzarella, tomato £9.95 and the Glasrach (Gaelic for vegetarian): Mozzarella, artichokes, mushrooms, red peppers, sunblush tomatoes, leeks, olives, garlic oil also £9.95.  They arrive at the table on round pieces of black slate which are hot and keep our pizza warm. They are not sliced but we have each been provided with a large, effective pizza wheel that slices through the thin crust easily. The edge of the pizza’s is a little singed, but the filling looks amazing. They taste amazing too. Neither of us can remember ever having had pizza better than this. Classic yet a much higher quality than one usually finds. The Glasrach especially was extremely tasty with an excellent balance of flavours. I especially enjoyed the tang of the archichokes in just the right proportion to the fresh tomato.
With the help of one of the staff we decide that we’ll just share the Sia Wood-Fired Alaska: “homemade sponge topped with meringue-encased vanilla ice cream, flash baked in our wood fired oven”. Served with a tangy berry compote that breaks the sweetness of the very soft, browned meringue, this too is a delight.  A fabulous meal. Just fabulous. Hubby is glad he didn’t notice the specials board before we ordered because he’d probably have got something else. We have savoured the pizza. 

Such a great meal usually leads to a cheerful drive home and this time we are greeted by our Scottish host and have a delightful chat before we retire for the evening.

We’re very happy with our accommodation here on Skye. The standard is excellent. The bed is a dream and we have lovely views from our room. The whole property is very well designed and kitted out and appears to be quite new. No stairs, ample parking, beautiful guest sitting area also with views. We’re very happy with our choice. 

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