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Tobermory

We’ve been back from this trip for over a month so there’s been time for us to reach a balanced conclusion. So here goes.

The first thing to say is that we enjoyed the tour – just not perhaps as much as last year’s. But on days 2 and 3 we had some really memorable experiences. I’ll remember the visit to Iona on day 2 for a very long time, and also the visit to Calgary on day 3. The stroll around Tobermory in the afternoon of day 3 was also very enjoyable. We were ready for a bit of serious downtime by then and that afternoon gave it to us.

However, we can’t help thinking that a lot of the pleasure was due to the excellent weather. If it had been grey we wouldn’t have enjoyed the time on the white sand beaches on Iona and Calgary anything like as much, or the forest walk at Calgary Art & Nature, or the relaxed stroll around Tobermory; and if it had been raining (not entirely unknown in the west of Scotland…) we might not have done those things at all. If that had been the case, what else would we have done? There weren’t many alternatives.

There was a lot of time in the mini-coach, and in many regards the places we drove through – western Lochaber, south Mull, north Mull, and finally the Kilmartin area – were actually very similar. Very beautiful, but by the fourth day we had seen enough. There wasn’t the range of locations to visit that we found on the Arran trip, on which we went from modern technology (the wind farm!) to a stately home, to the memorial for, and locations related to, Scotland’s national poet, Rabbie Burns – all on just the first day! I suppose the truth is that Arran, being in the Clyde estuary, is much closer to central Scotland and there is simply more stuff, both on the island and when getting to & back from. Mull is further away, and once you get as far as Loch Lomond, you’re entering areas that are sparsely populated and therefore have less in them – apart from the landscape, that is.

So as I said above, we certainly enjoyed it; but we also recognise that we were very lucky with the weather, and that good fortune allowed us to visit and enjoy places in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had the weather been otherwise.

Will we do more Rabbies tours? Well, we’re not sure, but possibly. What is coming into our minds is the idea of basing ourselves in Edinburgh for a period, and perhaps doing a couple of Rabbies’ day tours. They seem to be location-packed. Another alternative is to do Rabbies tours that aren’t in Scotland – Rabbies have expanded into England, and there are a couple of itineraries from Manchester into Wales that look interesting. We’ll see. In any case, I don’t think we’ll be doing anything next year – we already have a full calendar for 2020, what with a trip to the USA and a couple of cruise already booked.

The Sound of Mull and the mountains of the Western Highlands

We spent pretty much the whole of the final day travelling back to Edinburgh. After the magic of the previous two days on Mull and Iona, this was a disappointing day, if truth be told. Lots of time in the mini-coach again, and this time the scenery wasn’t quite so beautiful. We also took a diversion that, on reflection, wasn’t ideal. Once we got off the ferry at Oban we were offered a choice – a direct drive back to Edinburgh with a break in Oban first, or a detour around part of the Kintyre peninsula, south to Kilmartin, then turning northwards at Lochgilphead and up through Inverary and back onto the expected route at Tarbet, on Loch Lomond. The consensus on the coach was that the Kilmartin diversion sounded good so that was the way we went.

I suppose, looking back on it, that in fact the scenery was beautiful, and once again the weather was good. But this was the fourth day of long drives in the mini-coach, and I think this was one too many remote highland scenic drives. In fact, I can’t remember much about it at all, to be truthful. Was there a strange ‘standing stone’ monument that we stopped at? Or was that another day? I can’t even remember where we stopped for lunch. Even looking at the time-stamps on my images from that day doesn’t help – I’ve got a load from the ferry to Oban at around 10:30, and another load at 3:30pm at Tarbet pier on Loch Lomond, but nothing in between.  So I have no real memories of that drive at all – it obviously made a big impression on me.

We got to Tarbet in the mid afternoon and spent about 30 minutes there, before heading back to Edinburgh. I think we avoided Glasgow – well, it was late afternoon on a Friday – and eventually joined the M9 at Stirling for the drive into Edinburgh, and we got back to Edinburgh bus station at around 7pm. Then it was back to the hotel where I recall that we ate in our room – room service – and subsequently went down to the bar for a couple of glasses of wine. And that was the end of the tour.

We travelled back to Sheffield on the train the following day, but we had time for a bit of a walk and a coffee before we checked out of the hotel. As you can see from one of the images below, Val decided to think she was on a beach – after all, there were deck chairs and the sun was shining!

In the next (and final) post from this trip I’ll give my thoughts about this tour and compare it with last year’s, to Arran.

Calgary Beach

On the third day of the tour we spent the morning journeying around the north end of Mull visiting Dervaig and Calgary, before returning to Tobermory for an afternoon of free time in the village. This was another good day with a couple of stops during the morning, and once again the weather was very kind – not especially warm, but clear skies.

As on the day before, the morning was spent driving along single-track roads around the north of Mull; and as before the scenery was spectacular. Our first stop was to see some standing stones at Kilmore, just above the small settlement of Dervaig where we spent about 15 minutes. Then it was on to Dervaig village where we looked at Kilmore Church. The main points of interest here seem to be the stained glass windows which date from 1910. One of these has apparently caused some controversy. It shows a figure presumed to be Jesus (he has a halo and a cross) hand-in-hand with an obviously pregnant woman (halo-less) who, thanks to the text below the image, is presumed to be Mary Magdalene. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this window – either I missed the significance of it, or perhaps it I just couldn’t get a good-enough shot of it. But I have an image (below) of another of the windows.

Then it was on to the highlights of the morning, Calgary. There’s no settlement here except for one or two houses, but there is a magnificent white-sand beach, and, just inland, an arts centre: Calgary Art in Nature. There’s also a cafe associated with it, thankfully….

We spent well over an hour in the area, what with a cup of tea, doing a woodland walk, and wandering along the beach. The tea (and, IIRC, a piece of cake) was excellent, but even better were the next two activities. One of the arts centre’s main features is a woodland walk, along which are placed various carvings, sculptures, playful buildings and other landscape features. It’s all quite extraordinary and very beautiful – or at least it was that day, with the sun shining. We did part of the walk and loved it. Then it was down to the beach, which has to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been on. Some of the time we strolled along it and some of the time we just stood there and took in the sand, the sea, the sky and the surrounding landscape. It was very peaceful and relaxing.

And after that it was back into the mini-coach for the drive back to Tobermory for our free afternoon. I’ve written about Tobermory in a previous post.

White sand beach on Iona

On day 2 of the tour (the first of two full days on Mull) we travelled around the south of the island during the morning and at lunchtime crossed over to Iona. The weather had improved, by mid-morning the sun was shining, and it only got better from then on.

Most of the morning was spent on the mini-coach (again). We must have stopped somewhere for mid-morning coffee but I don’t recall where. Certainly the drive was spectacular and beautiful but it was also long. Looking at maps now, I see that from Tobermory in the NE of Mull to Fionnphort Terminal in the SW of the island is 56 miles, and it was mainly along single-track roads. I think it was almost two hours to Fionnphort.

Once there, things picked up. We had a short break while we waited for the small ferry over to Iona. That journey takes maybe 10 minutes or so – certainly very quick – and by not long after midday we were on Iona. The visit there turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole tour.

We decided to look for lunch at a cafe we’d been told about “beyond Iona Nunnery”, so off we went. First we found the nunnery. It’s a ruin, but well-preserved, and you can walk around its grounds. On the day we were there, with the sun shining and just a low wind, it was very peaceful, quiet and pleasant, though I’ll guess that in other conditions it would be different. Just beyond the nunnery we found the cafe, the Heritage Garden Cafe, but before lunch we went a few steps further to the Iona Heritage Centre. This is a small museum – just one room, I think – and quite traditional, with cases containing old press clippings about events on Iona from many years ago, plus artefacts and objects. I think we were the only people there. Then it was back to the cafe next door for lunch. We ate it outside in the garden, enjoying the sun.

The big attraction on Iona is the Abbey, but we’d already decided that we weren’t very interested in it (heresy, I know). We’d heard about some beaches at the northern end of Iona – white sand, we were told – so we set off along the road towards them. We were a little disconcerted when we were nearly run over – the point being that there are practically no cars or other vehicles on Iona and only half-a-mile of road! There’s no vehicle access either – the regular ferry is foot passengers only. So we had got used (along with everyone else on the island) to walking down the middle of the road, when this Range Rover hove into view and we had to move smartly to get out of its way. Then five minutes later it came back and we had to repeat the trick….

We walked all the way to the end of the road where it became first a track and then a footpath leading us across short-cropped turf. Then over a short rise and we were onto the sand. At first the actual beach was hidden by dunes and hillocks, but we walked on and eventually it was revealed. I think it’s one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen – fine, white sand, with dramatic black rock outcrops, and amazing views across to Mull. In the foreground was another small island, Eileen Annraidh (Storm Island), which also seemed to have a dramatic white beach. As far as looks go it could have been the Caribbean, I thought. We spent about an hour on the beach; Val sat and read while I wandered around and took pictures.

Eventually it was time to leave, so we walked back. By this time it was getting cooler and the wind had got up, so it was good to find an indoors cafe by the jetty with picture windows and good views back to Mull and the ferry. Also helpful was the fact that we could watch for the ferry from there! Then it was back onto Mull and the long drive to Tobermory.

That evening we had a meal down by the harbour at the Tobermory Hotel. I’m pretty certain that we had fish, and it was good, albeit there was a bit of comedy. The waiter didn’t seem to be altogether with it; for example, when I asked for the bill he queried “for this table?…” Err, yes, I thought – I’m not paying for everyone in the restaurant! Then it was time for the walk along the harbour before the struggle up the hill to the B&B. We made it eventually.

Wobbly iPhone panorama of Tobermory harbour

We spent all three nights of this year’s tour in Tobermory, staying at a B&B in the village. We also had a free afternoon there (on day 3) which we spent exploring the village, so overall we got to know the public face of Tobermory pretty well. It’s not a huge place – the population is about 1000 – but it’s the main town on Mull (the only place that could be called anything like a ‘town’, in fact) so it has more service than you would normally expect in a place of that size. There’s a bank, for instance, and there are at least two cash machines, one at the bank and the other at the supermarket. (And both of them are free!)

It’s arranged in a classic horse-shoe harbour which faces out onto the Sound of Mull. In the past there were fishing boats and it was the main port for the island, but since the advent of modern ferries, new docks have been built which reduce the sailing time. The main ferry route, from Oban on the mainland, now terminates at Craignure which is about 15 miles away from Tobermory and therefore 15 miles closer to Oban. In fact, the distance from Oban to Craignure is less than half the distance to Tobermory, so Tobermory no longer has its ferry connections. Nonetheless it’s a popular leisure sailing destination, and some smaller cruise ships anchor off-shore and tender passengers into the village.

Round the harbour are the expected collection of pubs, hotels, gift shops, and sea food restaurants. Lots of the latter, and the hotel restaurants tend to specialise in fish dishes as well. There is a lonely-looking Indian restaurant on the front, and a steak house/grill restaurant tucked away just off the main street. Of course there are a number of gift shops, but also some practical shops serving the local community – there’s a co-op, for example. Off at one end of the harbour is a small distillery.

However, the main thing to know about Tobermory is that it’s practically vertical….. The harbour road and the premises along it seem to sit on a narrow shelf just in front of the sea. Behind that the land shoots up steeply, with a succession of further roads parallel to the harbour front but successively higher up the very steep hill, and connecting them to the harbour from are one or two narrow steep roads, and a couple of very steep footpaths. It’s always a worrying sign when you see a long handrail along the side of a footpath! Of course, our B&B (which was very good, btw) was right at the top of the town. After the first night’s struggle up the path immediately after we finished our meal (frequent stops to catch breath were needed), we decided that for future occasions we needed to work up to tackling the hill, so on the following two nights we walked along the harbour and back before attempting the ascent.

To be truthful, there’s not a lot in Tobermory. It’s certainly very pretty, and (as you can see from the images above and below) we were lucky with the weather during our afternoon free time there, so we were happy to wander along the harbour and back and explore. But by the end of the afternoon we felt that we’d seen everything. In poorer weather we wouldn’t have been able to do even that much of course, and in that case the choices come down to tea shops, bars or restaurants.

So I felt that Tobermory is a great destination for an afternoon – OK, a day if you add things such as a visit to the distillery – but even then you really need good weather. And that’s the one thing that really can’t be guaranteed in west Scotland.

In Glencoe

Following our successful 2018 trip to Arran with Rabbie’s Tours we repeated the exercise this year, this time to Mull. This time it was three night/four day tour, with the nights spent at a B&B in Tobermory, the main settlement on Mull. As with last year the tour started from Edinburgh, and we travelled there on the Sunday and had a day in Edinburgh first. Then on Tuesday morning we assembled at Edinburgh bus station for the tour. This time the mini-coach was almost full. In addition to Val and myself there were two american couples plus an american woman, two other couples from the UK (one from Yorkshire and one from Edinburgh), and two women from Kuwait.

The first day of the tour was the journey from Edinburgh to Tobermory. This was longer than last year’s journey to Arran, and as a result we spent more time in the mini-coach than was the case last year – this turned out to be a bit of a pattern for the tour, in fact. So on the first day we drove past Stirling, through Crianlarich and Tyndrum, across Rannoch Moor and down Glencoe to our first couple of stops in Glencoe itself and for lunch at the NTS Glencoe Visitor Centre. Then it was on again, across Ballachulish Bridge to the Corran ferry, where we crossed over to western Lochaber. Then it was southwards along the single-track roads until we reached Lochaline on the north side of the sound of Mull from where we took the ferry over to Fishnish on Mull. From there it was just a short drive to Tobermory.

This was a long day with not many stops, and several of them were just photo stops. The weather was not kind, either – it was grey and cold all day, and had turned to rain by late afternoon. We were tired by the time we reached Tobermory, and perhaps a little depressed – this first day had not been as enjoyable as last year’s first day.

Given the weather my photographic results were not great, but I did get some images.

A Lotus flower

On my last full day I made it to two destinations: the Jim Thompson house, and Wat Arun, a temple on the river.

The Jim Thompson house was the house of one Jim Thompson, an american who settled in Bangkok after the second world war. He apparently became interested in the history of Thai silk making, and the further production of cloth from that silk. He was apparently instrumental in re-starting production of silk, and of silk products, using craft workers in Bangkok. In the following years (basically, the 1950s) he built himself a house near the location of his workers, and lived there. The house is actually made up of several old teak-built wooden houses, brought to the site from other parts of Thailand, altered, and put together to form a new and quite large structure. It’s located not far from the overhead railway so I was able to get there easily.

I had been looking forward to the visit – the Jim Thompson house is highlighted in many guide books – but I was disappointed when I discovered that it takes the form of a guided tour of the house lasting maybe 40 minutes or so. There’s no opportunity to explore or indeed to revisit any rooms that you’ve already passed through. I suppose that’s unavoidable; there were a lot of visitors, and while the house is a good size it’s still a domestic house, so it would be impractical to have people wandering around in all directions. (At least with a guided tour all the visitors are moving in the same direction….) It’s also the case that the house is furnished and decorated, and on the walls are many apparently rare and certainly beautiful Thai objects, and again with a guided tour visitors are under the eye of a guide all the time. More disappointingly, photography of the house interior is not permitted.

So this was not the experience I’d been looking forward to. The house itself is characterful and attractive, and the objects on display are beautiful and fascinating; I would have loved to be able to explore at my leisure – but not so. In fact, on the way out I think I found the actual point of the place – a Retail Opportunity! There is a Jim Thompson Foundation shop, in which various items made from Thai silk can be purchased – at a price. For example, over-the-shoulder tote bags started at just above 4,000 Thai Baht, and went up from there. At just about 40 Baht to £1, that’s a starting price of £100. To be fair, there were cheaper items, e.g. scarves and silk squares, but it was the bags that caught my eye – they were beautiful. Anyway, here’s a link to their website to give you a feel for the full range of their goods, and the prices (in €).

During the afternoon I visited Wat Arun, a Buddhist temple on the river. It takes the form of a Stupa – a sort of tower, with various outlying sub-towers. You can climb so far up it but not all the way – which I was glad of, as the steps are steep and in places a bit dilapidated. This was interesting and dramatic, but very, very hot – this was mid afternoon, the sun was out, and there were quite large crowds. The queue on the pier for the tourist boat back was especially hot, but while it was uncomfortable there were no real problems. Once I was on the boat things improved a lot – indeed, it was on this boat ride that I took a lot of images in the previous post.

 

In the middle of the day – i.e. between the Jim Thompson House and Wat Arun – I made an impromptu visit to an arts centre in the middle of Bangkok, and in many ways that was the best part of the day. I found a photo exhibition by a member of the Thai royal family – images taken on her travels in 2018. (I have a feeling that this is an annual exhibition; after all, who in Thailand is going to say ‘No’ to a Princess?) The quality of the images was varied, but all were attractive. The internal architecture of the building was stunning – it was on about 9 floors with a huge open atrium – and it had cafes, etc, on the first couple of floors. So this was where I had my lunch that day, in lovely air-conditioned coolness! So all in all, not quite as good a day as the previous two. But I still enjoyed the river boat ride and the Arts centre, and although the visit to Wat Arun was hot, the architecture was stunning.

And that was my visit to Bangkok! I was up before 5am the following morning in order to get to the airport for a 9 o’clock flight to Dubai. Once I was there I embarked on P&O’s Oceana for a 10-night cruise around the persian Gulf, and you can find a summary post from that, and links to detailed posts, in my Cruise blog, here.

I’ve mentioned the river in a couple of other posts, but this one will major on it and provide some images.

Running broadly north to south, there are many historic or religious sites on the river, or very near to it. It seems to be the main highway for the older part of the city, and in addition to the river itself, there are a number of canals leading off it that connect into the deeper parts of the city. I gather that formerly there were more canals, and travel by boat along the river and/or the canals was the main way of getting around. In recent decades, and especially during the building frenzy of the 80s and 90s, a number of the canals were filled in and either built over or converted to roads – my previous post shows some of the results of that!

Nonetheless, the river itself is still a transport artery with boats of various types running up and down it. These seems to fall into several different categories. There are some basic passenger boats, often only running in the early morning and again during the late afternoon/early evening which serve the needs of local people getting to and from work. Then there are some older, smaller boats that operate as water-borne delivery trucks. As expected, there are large, more comfortable (and more expensive) tourist boats, collecting passengers from the main access points and connecting them to the tourist sites all along the river; there are some very large boats dedicated to evening dinner cruises; and finally, a more recent development has been the appearance of smaller boats operating as shuttles for the luxury hotels and other developments along the river-side. The architecture varies as well, from beautiful and well-maintained historic or traditional sites, to run-down older spots, to modern high-rise developments; and often these are are in startlingly-close juxtaposition.

I went up and down the river on all three full days I was in Bangkok, and I enjoyed it. Lots of variety, some breeze, and constant change of scenery – wonderful. Here are some images:

Head of a Buddha – about 1500 CE

For my second full day I visited the National Museum. This is housed in another former palace not far from the river, and not far from the Grand Palace. Getting to it involved the by-now usual ride on the SkyTrain and then a boat up the river.

The museum could best be described as ‘eclectic’ – the collections of objects are very varied. Most of them are housed in old buildings of the former palace, and each collection room holds objects that are thematically linked. For example, there’s a huge building that holds the Royal Funeral Chariots and their various appurtenances – whenever a leading member of the Thai royal family dies there’s an elaborate funeral ceremony and their remains are conveyed on one of these chariots. (Which chariot is used depends on their status within the royal family.) Then there were displays of weapons and warcraft; puppets, and puppetry paraphernalia (puppet dramas were apparently a leading art form within the court); and old textiles and garments.

There’s also a new gallery showing artefacts, mainly statues and sculptures, from pre-history down to recent times. Many of these are statues of the Buddha, in the various ‘attitudes’ that are regarded as correct. The statuary all originates from sites that might be described as ‘Greater Thailand’, but also display attributes that reflect whichever culture (Thai, Khmer or Burmese) was predominant in that part of Asia at the relevant time.

I spent perhaps three hours wandering around the museum, and enjoyed it greatly. In contrast to the visit to the Grand Palace the previous day, this site was not especially crowded; in deed, at times I was alone in front of a display.

The highlight was being able to visit the Buddhaisawan chapel. Like other Thai religious sites, the decoration, ornamentation and craftsmanship on display is extraordinary. This time I was able to get a picture – photography was not prohibited.

I found this day easier than my first full day. It was no less hot, but I was better able to cope with it and keep going. It was easier to ignore my discomfort, if you like.

Bangkok – Downtown

I found Bangkok to be a city of great contrasts. On the one hand there was the Chao Phraya river and all the historic sites along it, filled with treasures of amazing artistry and beauty; and on the other, there was the downtown area, which … wasn’t.

The image above is an example of what I mean. That’s Sukhumvit Road, a busy road in the downtown area. You can see three levels of development. At the bottom is the actual road, a wide dual carriageway packed with cars, four lanes on each side. At the top level (second floor) are the platforms of the SkyTrain station, with the escalators and stairs going up to it. (This is just an ordinary station, ‘Asok’, not the main station in the city centre.) Being a railway line, that second floor level just continues on for miles, of course. Then in the middle, at first floor level, there’s more stuff. In the middle of the picture is a plaza for the SkyTrain station – the ticket booth and machines, the ticket barriers, and the bottom of the steps and escalators up to the platforms, and also (not visible in this image) the top of the access steps and escalators from street level. One the left-hand side at 1st floor level is an access walkway to the ‘Terminal 21’ shopping mall – you can see the link from that straight into the SkyTrain station in the middle distance. And finally, what this image doesn’t really show is that this 1st floor structure continues under the SkyTrain level all the way to the next station, and onwards. Between the stations it’s an elevated pedestrian walkway, with regular access stairways down to street level – there’s an image below that shows this better. All that concrete, and all in 35° heat…. not much Thai grace or beauty on display here!

Below are a few other spots that I just took quick snaps of.