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24: Islay

Scottish breakfast includes black pudding today, and I must say that it tastes a whole lot better than I feared. Today, I'm going to undertake my pilgrimage to the Laphroaig distillery, where my favorite single malt is made. Furthermore, I'm going to visit "my" patch of Scotland: being member of the 'Friends of Laphroaig' program (which you become by entering the barcode of a bottle of the stuff on their website), you get a square foot of Islay, to be leased back to the distillery for the price of one good dram of whisky per year, to be collected in person at the distillery.

It's a couple of miles to the ferry, the road is dry, so I put on my regular clothes on the bike. The bike is parked there (it would cost too much to take it across and the roads on the island seem to be few and largely a bit boring), and after buying a ticket I board the ship. In the store I pick up some sandwiches for lunch and a book called "Scottish Murders". The ferry trip to Port Ellen is two hours, so I want to have something to read.

The sea is extremely calm - it is hard to believe that the ferry is not crossing a lake, but a stretch of sea that's connected to the Atlantic, not the world's most calm bit of water. The islands must form a natural barrier against the waves, and of course the weather is quite calm as well. From the ferry, we have great views on the surrounding islands in a decor of clouds that looks threatening but turns out to be harmless - it will stay dry all day, another day of dragging around that army poncho for nothing.

After landing in Port Ellen, and when the cars on the ferry have all sped off to their various destinations, I walk into the village. I'm impressed about the calm - nice rows of houses that are visually pleasing, a neat lawn along the seashore, a calm sea making hardly any noise, and virtually no traffic through the village. I pick up a disposable camera at the local Spar (his digital fanciness has decided to not want to write to the memory card anymore, spoiling a very nice shot of a shipwreck I attempted to make before getting onto the ferry), and head towards Laphroaig.

I enter much too early for the tour, so I have time to visit my patch of peat. A nice girl checks my membership number, gets me certificate about having cashed in the rent, hands me the promised dram (a 5cl mini bottle of 10yrs old), and proceeds to explain how to visit the land.

It turns out that my membership number holds the coordinates: I'm 151530, meaning that my patch is 151 down, 530 across on the piece of land that the distillery set away for the program. The patch is just across the road, and finding it is easy - put on a pair of size 12 rubber boots (I've got 9 1/2 normally but size 12 seems to be closest to a foot in length), and count 151 down heel-to-toe steps, then 530 across. After her assurance that this is doable before the tour begins, I pick up a little Dutch flag from the supply of national flags they have for the purpose, and make way for the land which is just across the road.

The ground is covered with little flags from all over the world, and when I walk across the 'zero coordinate' I see elaborate signs, people having put flags on every corner of 'their land', etcetera. It's just all a big joke to me, although I feel that the joke's on the islanders passing along the road when I'm carefully counting the steps in a nondescript piece of peat and heather. I love it when a company shows a sick sense of humor, and before I know it I am at the spot that should belong to me (give or take 10 meters, probably, with this method of measuring). I plant the flag in the center, put the boots across the 'border' of my land, and make a shot with the disposable. Satisfied with a job well done I walk back to the brewery to have lunch on a bench at the seashore I noticed. When looking again at the map in the visitor centre I'm suddenly not so sure anymore I started counting at the right spot but hey, I did the thing and it was fun.

Lunch on the bench is nice. I make some shots of the distillery, and read a bit until the tour I booked starts.

Laphroaig turns out to be a bit special because they do their own malting - they'd like to control 10% of the malt they use for the distinct peaty taste, so we get to see (and taste) the whole process from grain, malting, smoking over peat, brewing some funny tasting beer-like stuff (8% and 30 degrees, the stranged brew I ever sampled but already having some of the typical Laphroaig taste), up to distilling and ripening (bottling probably appears elsewhere). We are a small group, around 10 visitors, the girl doing the tour is nice, and it's great to have seen the whole process (I never visited a distillery before, although I knew in theory how it works). Back in the visitor centre, we can sample the 10yrs old and I buy a small bottle of 15yrs and a small bottle of cask strength. Sometimes I wish I were rich - I'm dying to find out how the 40yrs old tastes, but at a thousand pound per bottle, I decide that I won't give in to the credit card aching to be used.

It is still too early for the ferry back, and I bought a topographical map of the island on the ferry, so I pick out some hills and start to walk. On top of the hill I take a well deserved break - the terrain is probably even a bit harder than on the mainland - and start heading for the city. It's a bit of agricultural land, so quite a number of artificial barriers force me to do detours, but I still reach Port Ellen plenty early to send a postcard to the kids, buy some snacks, and enjoy these on a bench in the lawn at the shore.

At the ferry, I walk up with an American guy holding an Ardbeg bag - he's been visiting the three distilleries along the road (Laphroaig, Lagavullin, and Ardbeg), so we are both tired and happy to plunge down on the reasonably comfortable seats in the top lounge of the boat. We start talking, and it turns out he used to be a biker, is a BMW lover (of the 4-wheeled kind, he drives an 540i), and a colleage from the IT industry. So we have got plenty to chat about, we walk down to have a healthy dinner (ahem.... corned beef mash with potato chips washed down with a large coke ;-)) and before we know it, the ferry arrives in Kennacraig. We say goodbye and I ride back to the hotel, where I take a pint at the bar before heading upstairs.

I suddenly realize that I have a thing called a travelbug still with me - these are numbered thingies that can be tracked on the geocaching.com website when they are picked up and dropped off, traveling from cache to cache. The owners of this travel bug dropped it first off in Paris and christened it "Eye Spye 001", giving it a mission to visit the headquarters of British and US intelligence service in commemoration of Casino Royale, the book by Ian Fleming that kicked off the whole James Bond thing. I picked it up in the Netherlands in a cache I setup, and I promised on the site to drop it off in Scotland: easier to get to London from there, and Ian Fleming's father was a Scot, not to forget the first Bond actor, Sean Connery.

I have the data for a nearby cache with me, so in the light of another beautiful red sunset, I head up for the hills above the village. A strenuous walk (both because of the terrain and because of the insane speed I travel it - I want to get back before it gets too dark because I forgot to bring my flashlight), and I get at the cache site near a picknick bench just after the sunset has stopped being beautifully red. The sight from here would probably have been quite magnificent thirty minutes earlier. I drop off the travelbug, make a note in the cache log, and rush down to the hotel to get another well-deserved pint. A local immediately starts talking to me and I sit down at his table and we drink beer and talk about drinking whisky and similar bar stuff together with a couple of stage technicians at the next table. This time the last round call comes way too early, but I head of for bed anyway - I'm too tired to walk around town to see whether anything might still be open, and I think my chances of finding a nightclub in Tarbet are neglicible anyway.


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