Scotland 2017: Spirit of Speyside day 1

The Spirit of Speyside event registration opened right after our return from Malaysia. A few days before that we went through the events available for Saturday and Sunday and made a prioritized list; some events are quite exclusive and sell out within minutes, so we knew we needed a plan. When the registration opened at 7a EST were able to reserve each item we wanted (several were sold out within the hour!).

Given that background, we were quite excited to start the festival at Cardhu Distillery for the Stillman’s Tour with Willie ‘Buzz’ Hutcheson. This distillery, owned by Johnnie Walker, is quite an operation.

Cardhu Distillery

Buzz was a hoot, providing lots of interesting anecdotes along our tour. We were amazed at how automated the plant is – they can run the whole production with a single Stillman!

Cardhu Distillery

Cardhu Distillery  Eric posing with a 31 year old cask whisky
Beautiful stills!; enjoying a 31 year old whisky

Our tour took us into the storage room where we got to try samples of a very dark 31 year malt (1986) straight out of the barrel. The second dram from a reused barrel (1987) was much lighter, so the 31 was my fave.

Buzz showing off the old casks

We ended the tour with a small tasting in the Johnnie Walker house, which features a beautiful wood-covered sitting room. Even better, they had tubes so that Leandra could take her samples to try later!

Cardhu Distillery

This tour was definitely a worthwhile experience and a great way to start the festival.

Knockando Woolmill is just around the corner so we stopped in to explore. This old wool mill has been renovated to once again run on water power! It wasn’t in operation on this Saturday, but it was fascinating to see how they process raw wool into yarn.

weaving some yard @ Knockando Woolmill

Mind Yer Heid

Knockando Woolmill  Knockando Woolmill

shop @ Knockando Woolmill

Our next stop was Dowans Hotel on the outskirts of Aberlour for lunch. Unique in our experience, we sat in the lounge area to peruse the menu and order our drinks, then seated in the restaurant when our food was ready. The decor and our sandwiches were both memorably good.

Dowans Hotel

lunch @ Dowans Hotel

We made a quick stop in downtown Aberlour to check out a gallery, then the The Spey Larder for their whisky flavored foods event before driving on to Craigellachie. We had just enough time for a quick check-in before our second event, a blind whisky taste-off between the towns of Rothes and Dufftown. This event was amazing, filled with laughter as each town one-upped the other with stories and good-natured ribbing.

Rothes vs Dufftown blind tasting

speeches in between tasting flights  interested bystanders

Over the course of two hours we tasted 10 whiskies.

Round 1: Glenrothes Vintage Reserve vs. Glenfiddich Project XX
Round 2: Glendullan ‘The Singleton’ 12 year vs. Speyburn 10 year
Round 3: Glen Grant 18 year ‘Rare Edition’ vs. Mortlach 18 year
Round 4: Glen Spey 21 year vs. Balvenie Portwood 21 year
Round 5: Cadenhead’s Cask Ends Caperdonich 1992 vs. Wm Grant and Sons Kininvie 1990

In the end Dufftown prevailed 4-1 and we both choose the winners in 4/5 rounds!

Following the blind tasting, the Craigellachie distillery hosted a free tasting under the bridge in town. Each person was allowed one dram, so Leandra choose the 31 year old and I went for the 21. Unsurprisingly, quite a few people turned out for this event! The crowd was quite fun too, as we bumped into several people that we’d met at the earlier events.

having a dram under the Craigellachie Bridge

Craigellachie Distillery options

Leandra had made a 7pm reservation for dinner at the Copper Dog several weeks earlier, which was a really good idea given how busy they were on this festival evening. I went for the fish and chips which were perfectly done and tasty. Leandra couldn’t resist the oysters and, wow, were they intimidatingly large! For her main she went with the venison.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."  venison loin @ Copper Dog

And of course, we ended the evening in the Quaich bar. It was busy, but we snagged chairs in the far corner so were tucked away a bit. These were the whiskies we sampled:

  • Dalmore 15 – not as good as 12, brown sugar nose but more of a burn.
  • Benriach 20 – light coconut, tropical notes,  cocoa, sharp alcohol. Very nice.
  • Edradour 12 Caledonia – bit of a burn, brown sugar and citrus on nose, vanilla and honey. Good dram.
  • Ancnoc Rascan – nice smokiness, intense. Burnt marshmallows, very nice
  • Inchgower 14 – sea salt smell, pear and lime, bit of a burn, but Leandra’s fave of the night.
  • Kilchoman Sanaig – ashy! Dry, med finish with some iodine on finish. Really strong.

Another long day, but one that was quite memorable.

Vietnam 2016: overwater villa at the Vedana Lagoon Resort

Between Hoi An and Hue we spent two nights at the Vedana Lagoon Resort. Quiet and peaceful, it was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the towns. Upon arrival our bags were whisked away and we were invited to sit on the couches in the open air lobby for check-in. After our long drive from Hoi An (about 3.5 hours) the hot ginger tea and fresh towel were quite pleasant. I was even able to add spicy crystallized ginger from a huge jar on the table. At this point we were given a thorough overview of resort options, and they also recommended against our planned tour to Bach Ma National Park due to lousy weather on the mountain.

Our assigned villa was #7. Talk about a nice view!

our overwater villa

phu-loc-villa-5

our lagoon view (from bed)

There was a massive deck with a roof overhang for shade/rain protection. The bed was huge, probably two queens put together and very comfortable. Opposite the bathroom there was also a large daybed with window. Plenty of space and options for lounging about with a book – which is how we spent most of our time in the room!

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The marble bath tub shared our bedroom private lagoon views and there was also an outdoor shower and toilet (which we would have preferred be indoors). Each night we had a turn down service after dark — two ladies came sweeping in to set up mosquito coils at the front entrance and bathroom doors, light a citronella candle in the bedroom, draw the shades, and quickly tidy the room.

phu-loc-villa-4

In general, the food at the resort was very good. It was more expensive than the meals we had in Hoi An but not so outrageous considering there weren’t any other close options! For lunch on the first day I had the crispy pancake with the usual assortment of greens and dipping sauces while Eric sampled the Bun Thit Nurong (pork and rice noodles).

lunch @ Vedana Resort  pho for breakfast
pork and rice noodles w/ peanut sauce; beef pho for breakfast

my smiley dinner companion

For dinner the first night I had the Bo Nurong la lot (beef rolled in local leaf) and Eric had Ga Nurong Sa Ot (grilled chicken with chili and lemongrass). We also couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a nice bottle of bubbles. On the second night we split a bottle of Chilean white (a popular wine region for Vietnam) and I enjoyed the green papaya salad with beef while Eric tried the Heo Rim Vurong (stir fry pork). There is no photo of the amazing passion fruit mousse we had for dessert because we ate it too quickly.

The included breakfast buffet was very extensive, plus they had a range of made-to-order items available as well. I think more people were at the resort the second day as the buffet also had expanded options. The apple tartlets and creme puffs were especially good and of course, we both ate a ton of passion fruit.

Each villa was assigned two bikes to help speed up transportation around the resort, so I had a bit of fun on our bike ride off property.

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cow hanging out by the side of the road  fishing boats and rice paddies

We explored for about 45 minutes, then headed back to the room to read before I had my 3pm Swedish massage appointment at the spa. I arrived 30 minutes early to choose my oil preference (lavender) and camp out in the sauna for a bit before my treatment. My therapist, Ms. Mi, did a wonderful job and the whole experience was very relaxing and pleasant. Plus, I didn’t feel like like a slicked pig at the end of the massage. I tried to talk Eric into one but I think he’s still dubious after the Bali experience.

While the weather was grey and drizzly and the views quite monochromatic we still enjoyed the peaceful setting at Vedana for a few days.

UK 2015: Stirling

We landed at the Edinburgh airport in the late morning, and feeling reasonably energetic, we decided to make a side trip to Stirling instead of heading straight to Glasgow. The rental car took about an hour because Sixt didn’t have the exact car class we reserved and after much back and forth we needed to upgrade to an SUV so all of the luggage would fit. The only one available was a Volvo XC 60 which was by far the best rental car we’ve ever had the pleasure of driving.

So, after a brief detour to the Falkirk Wheel we arrived in Stirling in time for a late lunch at Brea, the same restaurant we had visited on our previous trip. Our server was an experience, as he changed a drink order for Kimberly (espresso martini rather than her standby captain and coke) and Drew (out of his selected beer so just chose a different for him). Eric ordered the chicken sandwich which was rather plain, but Leandra liked her mussels (naturally). We split a Grozet, a Williams Bros lager made with gooseberries that was a light and tasty saison-like beer.

After lunch we walked up the road to cemetery around the Holy Rude, then views of the castle and surrounding countryside. The weather was beautiful!

us w/ Stirling Castle
the only time Leandra was able to wear a tank top

rooftops in Stirling    castle detail

Church of the Holy Rude cemetary

Walking back into town we stopped in at the Curly Coo for our first whisky of the trip. Mandy, the owner and bartender, was quite hospitable and we enjoyed a chat about what she had available. Eric and Drew each ordered Kilchoman, one a sherry single cask release (only available at distillery), the other a cask strength.

forst scotch of the trip @ Curly Coo    forst scotch of the trip @ Curly Coo

Both were very nice, but Eric liked the single cask better, which had a deep golden color, a raisin and intense smoke flavor. The original cask strength was lighter, still quite smokey. Leandra ordered The Glendronach original 12 year aged in sherry cask that had a maple and floral nose, and a fruity aftertaste. We really enjoyed our experience at this little whisky bar and wish we could have returned again on our trip. Maybe next time!

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Curly Coo

UK 2015: overview

In late April we traveled to the UK with a group of friends. Altogether we spent eight days traveling around Scotland, where Leandra drove over 900 miles (!) in six days; then onto London for two nights. Our adventure took us past many castles, quite a few hills and lochs, a sun-filled snow storm, and elevated our Scotch whisky experience to a new level.

Scotland-Driving-Map
click to enlarge map

Where we stayed

Park Inn by Radisson, Glasgow

We knew parking in Glasgow would be challenging given the downtown location of this hotel, so we emailed a week before and were given the address of a parking garage that would charge us 7 pounds for 24 hours.

On arrival we pulled up to the hotel to find no available loading zone plus a giant trash bin blocking the front of the hotel. With nowhere convenient to unload the car we just drove to the recommended parking garage about 6 blocks south walked our luggage back to the hotel. On check-in we asked if we needed to do anything special to validate our parking, and found out we had to leave the car in the garage for 24 hours and couldn’t take it out… so basically there was only a special rate if we parked for a whole day, something that was definitely not clear in their communication. Because we parked the car for less time (16 hours), we had to pay the standard garage rate of 14 pounds. We later discovered that street parking was free overnight on the weekends.

Our room was on the 2nd floor and along the main road, so it was a little noisy at night. As usual we had our earplugs so it wasn’t an issue. The room size was fine, with a good size closet and enough space to open our bags. The desk had easy-to-access outlets too.

glasgow-bath  glasgow-bed

The hotel itself has a great location, with the train station quite convenient and quite a few great bars and restaurants very close. (Though the front desk staff didn’t have any specific suggestions on that front either.)

Ben A’an House, Callander

Our group of 5 had all three rooms in this B&B. Our room had an ensuite bathroom, and a low bed and large wardrobe in a room with high ceilings and detailed crown moldings. Not too fancy and certainly comfortable enough. Our room faced the street, but Callander is pretty quiet at night so noise was not a problem.

calender-bed

Breakfast was fine with the usual selection of eggs how you like, bacon, blood sausage, haggis, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast.

The other two rooms shared a bathroom across the hall. Showers in both were a little tricky as you needed to start the hot water with a pull chain. Street parking was easy as we found a spot within a block each time we needed one.

Strathallan Guesthouse, Grantown on Spey

The Strathallan Guesthouse was a wonderful experience. On arrival the exterior was wonderfully decorated, and even had a bit of snow!  We received a warm reception from the owner who gave us a quick tour.

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Our room was large with plenty of space to spread out. There was a small table in the window with two chairs, and very comfortable four-poster bed. Our hosts had included several nice touches like a glass of whisky and chocolates on the dresser.

gos-bed

The bathroom had a marvelous soaking tub and a lot of space.

Breakfast was also quite filling and tasty. Each evening we made selections for the next morning, with plenty of options available. Leandra thought this was the best haggis she’s tried in Scotland. Definitely a good choice for the area, we would easily consider a return on a future trip.

Clamshell Land Apartment Royals Mile, Edinburgh

You definitely can’t beat the location of this apartment – in the middle of the Royal Mile, a few minutes walk from the train station. The apartment itself was fairly modern with high ceilings and lots of technical touches. We had a small bedroom with en-suite bathroom, while the other two bedrooms shared a huge bathroom.

royalmileviews
our view of the Royal Mile just outside our front door!

Both bathrooms were a little weird. For example, the light switch activated the locks for the doors – if you hit the lights before you closed both doors the lock wouldn’t engage, and you had to hit the lights to properly unlock the door. Both were a little difficult for people to remember. Our bathroom was quite narrow with the shower head right in the middle. While it looked cool, it meant that the entire room got wet each time the shower was used and you had to wade across a wet floor to use the toilet. Given the large sauna that was attached, it would be a lot nicer to have a bath/shower room with a door instead.

The living room was nicely sized and comfortable. Given the technology theme, it was equipped with a Sonos player, and the TV had netflix and amazon streaming. The kitchen was well stocked with supplies too.

One item to note: it was a bit difficult to get a hold of the owner/manager via email or text, so we resorted to phone calls. Also, they were quite late to show us around the apartment; however, he was quite apologetic, and gave us a bottle of sauvignon blanc wine as an apology.

Premier Inn London St.Pancras

With a great location one block from the tube and train station, the Premier Inn was a convenient spot for us on this trip. The hotel had check-in via kiosk, which was relatively easy, and our room was ready at 2pm. The room itself was rather small, consistent with London rooms in general, and had a very small window to an interior courtyard. There was no closet, just a small rack with a few hangers available for clothes. The bathroom was fine, a bit more spacious than the rest of the room with an all-in-one body and hair wash dispenser in lieu of bottled amenities. Overall it was clean, in a good location, and reasonably priced.