Friday 3rd September 2017
This was a trip that grew like Topsy. Pat fancied spending her 70th birthday in Aberdeenshire where she spent her early childhood so she found a nice hotel in Banff and thought we might have two or three nights there. Since the hotel was booked up for Friday and Saturday we decided to spend those two nights in Inverness and move on to Banff on Sunday.
Most of Friday we spent on the long drive up to Inverness, taking the Coldstream road, then up to Perth and the A9 the rest of the way. What a lovely drive it was, with snow on the Grampians adding to the scenery.
We received a warm welcome at the Beaufort Hotel, which was near the river and the centre of town. We followed the receptionist’s advice and strolled along the Victorian island walk across the river, along the opposite bank and back across a bridge to the town centre. Inverness is an attractive town with plenty of life. There’s the University of the Highlands and a new theatre and cinema complex advertising the very Cuban dancers we’d seen the previous week at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.
Having enjoyed our walk, and feeling a bit chilly, we were ready for dinner. Colin had googled for a couple of likely restaurants, and the second one we looked at was a real find. The Mustard Seed had an unusual interior and great ambience. We sat on the mezzanine floor overlooking the bar. Pat had smoked haddock on a pea risotto, Colin venison with (he said) an ambrosial jus.
Only a short walk from the Mustard Seed took us back to the Beaufort for a drop of whisky in the bar while listening to the music from an engagement party in the back room. We were too tired to gatecrash and took ourselves up to our nice, quiet bedroom with its view over the front.
Pat’s birthday. The plan was to take Pat’s great-uncle’s daughter out to lunch. Christina (or “Cis”, as she’s always been known) was a delightfully spry 86-year-old, and she and Pat spent several hours (including through lunch) swapping family tales and photographs. Lunch was in a cafe in the old Strathpeffer railway station.
Once back in Inverness we did a little shopping, then back to the hotel for Pat’s birthday meal – something to soak up the champagne and help absorb the large post-prandial glasses of Oban we planned to have. This turned out to be “the veggie option” for Pat and Fillet Steak au Poivre for Colin. The veggie option was freshly cooked and tasty, so no complaints.
We’d planned to spend the day bimbling around the Black Isle, but the weather was looking a bit iffy so we decided to work our way along the coast to Banff. As it turned out the showers were not too frequent, and we had a lovely day.
The Moray Firth has a narrow waist formed by the Black Isle’s Chanonry Point (allegedly the best place to see dolphins) on its north coast and Fort George on its south coast, so we decided to make the latter our first stop to see what we could see. What the map hadn’t told us was that the whole of the point at Fort George was military land with no access allowed!
So we made the short drive to Nairn and took a stroll along its Links to the small harbour. We were impressed by the town, and the number of people (and dogs) taking advantage of the paths along the sea front. The harbour was hosting a flock of Turnstones, demonstrating on seaweed how they got their name.
After a coffee it was back in the car and along the coast to Findhorn. What a lovely place! The weather was windy but sunny, so we walked the length of the village to the dunes by the sea. We could see why it was such a popular holiday destination.
Next stop was Lossiemouth. We parked down by the river mouth, opposite the East Beach, and after another stroll disappeared into the Clifton Bar for a spot of lunch.
Given our fondness for the produce of the various distilleries along the banks of the river Spey, we thought we’d have a look at Spey Bay, which is also home to the Dolphin Centre. A couple of dolphins had been spotted an hour previously (the river mouth is a favourite feeding place) but we contented ourselves with a walk round the centre and the memory of the large school of dolphins we’d seen off the Tyne – not to mention the hundreds at Kaikoura!
By then it was time to complete the journey to Banff, along the A98 via Cullen, for three nights at the Banff Springs Hotel. This turned out to be a great hotel – nice staff, nice room, good food, nice view from the restaurant. We dined at the hotel, Pat on Lemon Sole Mornay and Colin on Spaghetti Carbonara, both delicious.
The plan for the morning was to have a wander round New Deer, where Pat had spent the first seven years of her life. She had great fun remembering what used to be where and what was still the same. Rather disappointingly, we heard no Doric spoken; people talking to each other in the cafe (ex village shop) used the Queen’s English.
Back in Banff we had a look round the centre. It seemed to be struggling, some of it quite run down with a lot of closed and boarded-up shops, some of it quite nice. We chanced upon the Broken Fiddle cafe, so had lunch there. There was a fantastic mural on the back wall, and a display explaining the story of the broken fiddle and the history behind MacPherson’s Rant.
We then walked over to Duff House, but it was closed – as was the Tourist Information Centre – visitors are not expected before April.
In the evening we went back to Cullen, specifically the Cullen Bay Hotel, for large bowlfuls of its eponymous Skink. Delicious, although Colin couldn’t resist finishing with one of the desserts we found on all the local menus – sticky toffee pudding and ice cream.
Our last day in the area, so we decided to fill the morning with the one gap in our itinerary – a Distillery! We settled on GlenDronach, and it proved to be a good choice. We had an hour’s tour to ourselves, and we really got in amongst all the stages of the actual production. Fascinating. We ended with a tasting of three malts for Pat (drivers not allowed) but the samples were so large that Pat needed help with them. Our guide’s absence for several minutes provided the opportunity! We came away with a bottle of the 12-year-old.
Given we’d started the day with Nancy Whisky we popped into Huntly toon for a coffee, then headed over to Delgaty for a photo of Barnyards farm and a look at Delgatie Castle. The former was accomplished, but we thought the entry fee for the latter was a little too much for what was in essence an art gallery, so we gave it a miss.
Our last port of call was Fraserbrough, where after some lunch and a fascinating tour of the lighthouse museum and the old lighthouse itself we found our way to the docks – and got chatting to a fisherman who did indeed follow the shoals of herring (and mackerel) for a living!
In the evening we popped into Banff to the Indian Garden restaurant. The curry, we were pleased to find, lived up to our expectations.
Home – an uneventful journey via Aberdeen, remembering to break into song as we came through Fyvie!
Pat expressed herself well satisfied with her 70th birthday celebration. Colin admitted it hadn’t been too bad!