Sunday, September 21, 2014

AKUREYRI, NORTHERN ICELAND


Akureyri's town square
I had a blustery walk in a wind blowing directly from the Arctic this afternoon. Akureyri was quiet on this Sunday afternoon; it's out of the tourist season here that ends on August 31.  Temperature is 6C!!

The sky is overcast but it's not raining. I walked around the town square, which was well nigh empty and the shops are closed. A few cafés are open but not busy. It's definitely fall here, with the trees turning fast and the leaves blowing around. Everything is spotlessy clean and the water very hot!! Geothermal energy is apparent....

Looking across the fjord to farmland
Aureyri has a population of 17,000 but does not look big enough, neither did I see many of them. The few I did see were well wrapped up with hats, scarves, and mitts. The kids are blonde cuties, the young women are blond bombshells, and the men – ah, the young men! Also blonde and to die for! Though my taxi driver yesterday looked like a Viking fresh off his longboat. He was a redhead and had a fiery red beard. No doubt about it, he had Viking blood. (No pix, sadly; no one let me take their photo.)

Icelanders love ice cream, even if it's freezing outside, and when I visited the local parlour it was packed. The choice of flavours was immense, but not as big as the number of additional tidbits that could be added to your selection and whizzed up, then piled into a cone. I bought two slices of an Icelandic apple pie that was recommended for our afternoon snack. Topped with caramel, the apple filling was held together with a thick custard. Absolutely yummy! (Also, no pix!)

Akureyri from waterfront with the cathedral
The city, really only a small town, is the second largest in Iceland and has busy fishing and shipbuilding industries with farming in the hinterland. Akureyri lies at the head of Eyeafjordur below snow-capped mountains. It has a university, so a large, vibrant undergrad society. It was settled in 890 by a Norse-Irish permanent resident, and a trading-post was established in 1601. Most surprising is the huge cathedral that dominates Akureyri and was built in 1940. It looks more like an old New York skyscraper, but inside has a vast organ with 3200 pipes and a stained glass window from the original Coventry Cathedral. A ship hangs from the ceiling – it is part of an old Norse tradition of a votive offering for protection of loved ones at sea.

Many of the houses are three storeys. The lower one would have been the byre where the livestock lived in winter and heated the floor above with their body heat. Today it looks as if this is now the storeroom for the household. The steep roofs are bright red corrugated iron that allows the snow to slide off and not build up. I don't know how much Akureyri gets each winter.

We ate dinner at Noa, a resto owned by a Pennsylvanian who is married to an Icelander. It's about a mile north of the town, so a taxi was needed. Ingredients were all sourced locally. The starter was a share-plate of cured meats – ham, beef, chorizo (mild), and horse set off with Iceland cheeses. The brie is quite different from French brie – sweeter and a little earthier. Loved it all. Then came the local prime rib of lamb and root veggies sauteed in a cast-iron fry pan that came to the table sizzling. Gravy, plenty of it, accompanied it. This was the tastiest lamb I've ever eaten. Gamey and strong. The gravy was delicious. Bravo, Noa!!


IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. 

                   All rights reserved.

FAREWELL SCOTLAND – HALLÓ ICELAND

Leaving Scotland and the Hebrides was a painful wrench for me. I really didn't want to leave Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis with so much left to do and see. I knew I would miss the hospitality and friendliness I had enjoyed so much. Also the mostly sunny, warm weather.

However, the welcome on board Iceland Air at Glasgow diminished the glumness and I began to anticipate my new adventure. The Boeing 757 was only half-full and our Premium Economy seats were big and comfortable. The flight departed and arrived bang on schedule and took 2.5 hours to Keflavik. I enjoyed flying over Skye and the Outer Hebrides on the way. Puffy white clouds dotted the skyscape and I was able to recognize a few of the Isles we had visited. I read most of the way and I munched on an Icelandic doughnut that was long and thin without a hole. Yummy! The flight was very smooth, and I'm delighted we are returning to Canada with Iceland Air. We will use this airline again from Vancouver to get to European destinations – it's excellent.

Keflavik














My first sight of Iceland as we came into Keflavik was a golf course along the coast. Not a tree in sight! Soon I saw the city hugging the sea. It was smaller than I expected. The airport is both civil and military. Immigration and customs were a breeze – no line-ups and just a walk through "Nothing to declare." I never saw a customs officer!


I had to change airports to catch a plane to Akureyri in northern Iceland. It was a 50kms journey to an airport on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Visitors can either take a shuttle bus or a taxi. Both are more expensive than I expected, but soon I learned that Iceland is about two and a half times as expensive as Canada.

This road journey was quite eye-opening. The coastal plain is as flat as a pancake with high purple mountains rising up from it in the distance. One, slightly closer, was a perfectly triangular cinder cone. The plain is covered in lava rock, some smooth, some craggy. All the rocks are covered with thick moss and lichen, which made me hope to see reindeer. And, yes, Iceland does have reindeer herds, probably imported and farmed. Wherever the land had been cleared, all you could see was cinders, looking like black coal.

The flight north was with Air Iceland (Flugfélag Íslands) from a tiny airport. We flew in a Fokker 50, twin prop plane that was small but quiet and comfy for the forty minute flight. The views through the clouds showed a desolate, wild landscape of mountains, deep valleys, glaciers, and winding rivers. The pilot said we could see the smoke and fumes from the active volcano, but I was on the wrong side of the plane. I did see an ice dome poking up through the clouds as we flew ever northwards. I've never been this close to the Arctic Circle before.

The descent into Akureyri was intimidating. As we lost altitude the mountain tops grew closer. Soon the plane was flying below them along the valley, lower and lower. Then I saw the sea and we were landing.

The town is a five minute drive from the airport and lies at the head of a long fjord. It is attractive with red-roofed homes and an astonishing church on the hillside.

By now it was 7:30pm and we were very tired and hungry. We dropped our bags at the Hotel Nordurland and found the nearest resto. We ate langoustines with gusto and then fell into bed dreaming of a day of rest on Sunday and maybe a walk around the harbour in the morning.
Akureyri, Iceland
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
IMAGES: All taken with my phone except for the last.  
                                                               © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.


Friday, September 19, 2014

ON THE VERY NORTH OF THE ISLE OF LEWIS, SCOTLAND

The Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis
For years I've known about the Standing Stones in the north of Scotland and today I visited this 5000 year old site. It is located on the top of a fat peninsula that juts out into a large sea loch on the northwest coast of the Isle of Lewis. The day was overcast and grey – moody, misty, and mysterious. The site is huge, one of the most significant in Europe with a central circle (above) and stones that
radiate out east, west, north and south in a cross. The stones have defeated archeologists' ideas of what they were for or represented. That the site is powerful and sacred to its builders is not in doubt. In 3000+ BCE, the weather was warmer and the sea levels lower. The land and sea teemed with game, fish, and shellfish, and supported many individuals. When the stones were discovered 1.5m of peat had to be excavated to reveal them. There are times every 18.6 years when the moon appears to dance along the stones. Some gneiss stones have weathered into strange, striated shapes. I saw many visitors touching or stroking them.

The experience here was eerie, enigmatic, and set the hairs up on the nape of my neck.  Silent, sacred maybe, and certainly amazing.
The village lies above a cove
on the Atlantic coast

Next up was the restored Black House village at Gearranan up the coast. This has been a village since the 1700s and supported twenty weavers of Harris Tweed in the 1950s who were also crofters. As the younger generations left to pursue a different lifestyle, the inhabitants aged to the point that they had to be relocated.


The village was eventually restored and now has four or five self-catering thatched cottages with all mod cons and two are interpretive centres. One cottage has been returned as it was in the 50s, and when I saw it, a peat fire was burning in the grate. There were two small bedrooms, and a living room/ kitchen. I didn't see a bathroom, so assume the privy was out back.









The peat burns slowly and produces a huge heat. Once the three foot stone walls have warmed up, they radiate the heat back into the living space. Peat is still cut and dried here on the Isle of Lewis for fuel and there was a huge stack of it outside, as well as the hand cart used to carry it back to the village. It smells strong and I found it unpleasant, but had to remind myself that peaty water is what makes whisky great.

On the other side of the cottage's low front door, is the working space/workshop with a pig sty, and today it had a weaver working at the mechanized loom. Once set up to make the tweed, the weaver just works two pedals rather like a bike. He also demonstrated the mechanized wool spinner. The tweed roll was growing daily and was the colour of early autumn bracken – golden orange.

The other cottage that is open to the public has explanations and photos of the previous era. It also shows a film about how Harris Tweed is made by crofters. Most of it is made in their homes. It is an incredibly complex job to set up the loom, then it is relatively easy to peddle away and see the cloth grow.

I wanted to see much more of the northwest coast of Lewis, but wasn't over my bad cold and needed some extra rest. Tomorrow I leave Scotland with much regret and cannot recommend the Hebrides highly enough. They are fascinating isles, all with a distinct character, friendly citizens, and some of the best seafood I ever eaten.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

ISLES OF HARRIS AND LEWIS – IN FOG

I couldn't believe it when I woke this morning. Sun gone and replaced with pea soup fog. I s'pose it was not surprising given the heat yesterday and the much cooler night that followed.

I drove to the ferry on the Isle of Berneray to learn that the first ferry of the day couldn't make it across to Harris. "Be prepared to wait, take much longer than an hour, or to turn round half way across," a crew member told me. As it happened the captain decided to give it a go and left on time with a double load. He must have sweated blood navigating through islets, skerries, and sandbanks, which is known to be difficult enough in good visibility. He made it too, only five minutes late. We saw lots of sea birds – eider ducks, Great Northern Divers (loons to Canadians), shags, and some eagles.

I decided to go the wild and winding route to Tarbert along the southeast shore. The fog made me go slower than usual over this tortuous road. It was narrower and more up and down than I had driven so far. Sheep were all over the road. Harris is so completely different from the Uists. It's rockier and much more hilly. Granite boulders litter the land.

About noon the sun began to break through the gloom and I could see the sea lochs that I was driving around all the way north to Tarbert. I was headed for two Harris Tweed shops out in the wilds. Found them too, but they charged more than twice the price than the bigger centres for the same products.  Found a third at Plocipol that was much better, but didn't have the colour I wanted. They guided me to their big Tarbert store, about five miles further on where we had planned to eat a late lunch.

On the way we saw these lochs with the hint of big mountains to come. They were beautiful in their autumn colours.















I found the perfect Harris Tweed jacket in the colour of heather and bought it, along with a tiny kilt for my granddaughter age two and a half.

Here is a shot taken on one of the roads showing the sign indicating a slight
widening where vehicles can pass. I have Honda Fit, very small. It is the width of this secondary road. You can also see that a driver often cannot see a car coming over the top of the rise until you get there. I was not out of second gear the whole way from Leverburgh where the ferry docks to Tarbert. It can be unnerving when you meet a semi or a tour coach on one of these single-track roads.

After Tarbert driving north to Stornaway, the landscape changes dramatically to huge mountains, glens, and inland lochs. This main road is two lanes and a fast drive. Sometimes the drop on one side was 1000 feet and sheep wandered freely. These sheep are bred for their wool for tweed and are sheared twice a year.

My guest house is on the east of Stornaway by the airport so I decided to avoid the bustling town of 9000 citizens on this referendum day. Braighe House is just before the causeway to the Eye Penisula and has a view of the Scottish mainland and the north of Skye. It is a very upmarket B&B run by a delightful young couple.

The fog suddenly lifted at dusk and I'm hopeful my planned adventure around the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis tomorrow will have clear weather before I fly to Iceland on Saturday morning.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

THE WILDS OF NORTH UIST

Typical N. Uist landscape
Set out from the Hamersay House, an excellent hotel in Lochmaddy, to explore the very northern tip of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Roads continue to be single-track with passing places and the one this morning goes all the way around the north of the island, with a few no-through lanes darting off to the coast.

The country here is flat, wind-swept, and has no trees at all. Sea lochs penetrate inland and it was low tide. The colours of the landscape are green, yellow, brown, and the blue of the sky. Houses and crofts are well separated, and sheep predominate. It feels remote and it is. Strangely beautiful in all its guises and in all lights.
Scolpaig Tower

As we wound around the top of N. Uist, we came upon the remains of a tower perched on an islet in a shallow loch. In the distance could be seen the island of Hasgeir with a light house on top. These uninhabited islands are home to the breeding colonies of gannets, kittiwakes, and many species of seabirds. The time to visit for birding is in the spring, of course. Though I did nearly run over a cock pheasant today.
A beautiful croft at Traigh Bhalaigh

The most amazing feature here are the shallow, wide sea lochs that the ebbing tide turns into acres and acres of white sand. They are quite stunning. Beside one we came upon a restored croft with a thatched roof held in place by rocks attached to chicken wire. Peat is still cut and used for fuel here – it is the brown pile beside the animal's byre on the right of the photo.

There are many more abandoned and neglected crofts in the Outer Hebrides than there are those that are still occupied. The ones that are lived in are mainly now bought by owners from the mainland wanting a holiday home or for retirement. The climate in North Uist is mild and rarely drops below -2C in the winter, despite the winter storms and gales that roar over the island.

Tigharry
At Tigharry is a huge bay with many sandy beaches and on the left-hand headland is an RSPB reserve (Balranald). Sadly we didn't stop here, as much as I would have liked to, as my husband was still not feeling up to walking. But, it is beautiful - sandy, grassy plain that sports a carpet of wild flowers and is home to 600 pairs of wading birds, as well as otters. From May to August, visitors can take guided walks with the staff. A must-do, IMHO.

As we returned to Lochmaddy for a late lunch in the pub overlooking the sea, we made a six mile detour along Locheport, a sea loch that almost reaches the west coast of North Uist. Here the landscape changes a bit, with purple mountains in the distance. It is achingly beautiful in the sun with blue waters, crofts, brown streams, rock bridges, sheep everywhere, and heather growing on the granite outcrops.

Locheport and Mt. Eabal

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014
              All rights reserved

Monday, September 15, 2014

BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE AND WILD HORSES

Eriskay in front; South Uist in distance
The ferry from Barra sailing north deposits visitors on Eriskay, a delightful isle filled with romance — for example, the famous Love Lilt and the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed. He set foot on a beach here in the summer of 1745 on the west of Eriskay. I stood on the exact spot.

The isles from Barra north to North Uist are Catholic and statues and
The prince set foot on the sand just below the grass
shrines to the Virgin Mary are dotted along the highways here. I noticed the ticket office on the ferry had several crosses pinned to the walls. The churches are small but exquisite.

I ate a lousy lunch at the pub, MV Politician, memorializing the wreck of this ship that Compton MacKenzie wrote of in Whisky Galore. The movie of the same name was filmed here and on Barra. It took me just an hour to drive all the roads on Eriskay before crossing the causeway onto South Uist to the north.

Loch Druidibeag
South Uist is a long narrow island deeply indented with sea lochs on the east and is one long sand beach and dunes on the west. Inland is moorland rising up to small mountains in the centre of the isle. The Isle of Benbecula separates S. Uist from N. Uist and they are connected by causeways. Today it was very warm with little wind and good visibility.


I stopped at Kildonan Museum and was struck by the hard lives of those who eked out a living here before WW1. They survived by fishing and digging peat. Today they still fish but also farm sheep and some cattle. These roam freely and are often found in the middle of the roads.




I also took some detours from the main north-south road and saw thatched crofts, castle ruins, and many Mute Swans on the lochs. The history here dates back to Neolithic times and Christianity arrived very early. I tooks some photos of some ruined chapels that were built in the 13th century but probably were a Christian worship site much earlier.

A wild pony on N. Uist



My highlight on North Uist was a side trip to Lochs Druidibeag and Sgioport, down a long winding lane to the east coast. At the very end, beside the ruin of a croft were two wild ponies. They are small, like Shetlands, and were quite unfazed by my presence. On the way back to the main road, I stopped and photographed a herd of blonde ponies grazing beside the road and stepping delicately around the heather.

After seven hours of driving, I arrived at the Hamersay House in Lochmaddy on North Uist. This is a modern hotel with a bar and a recommended restaurant. However my duck breast was overdone, which was disappointing.

It was a long day of driving, but rewarding. I'm happy that I have three nights here and, hopefully, a rest before moving on to Harris and Lewis.

This tour of the Outer Hebrides was customized for us by McKinlay Kidd and saved us the bother of figuring out and booking ferries and hotels. They also gave us the places we should see on our travels here. So far, it has proved to be perfect.


IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Sunday, September 14, 2014

EXPLORING BARRA AND VATERSAY

Castlebay, Barra
After landing at Barra's beach airport, one of the world's ten best approaches, I drove into Castlebay. This is the main village on the island and is well named for out in the middle of the bay is a medieval castle sitting on a rock. Kisimul has guarded Barra since prehistory. Why? It also has a fresh water spring within it. More later.

I'm staying at Castlebay Hotel, built in 1880, that has a commanding view of the bay. This morning, after an enormous Scottish breakfast, I was ready to explore the whole island and the smaller Isle of Vatersay, to the south. The wind blew the marine cloud away at 11am and I wandered happily.



Earsary on the east coast
Eoligarry in the north

















I started on the east coast of Barra, considered to be less beautiful than the west, Atlantic side. It has it's own charm, however. I prowled by rocky, narrow inlets, white houses scattered beside these sheltered harbours, and shooed sheep out of my way. Up the winding road to the north, I found Eoligarry with a small harbour and a vast, empty beach, one of many here. This is a trailhead for hikers and serious walkers as the road ends here. The sun made its appearance and brightened steadily.

The only way to follow the west coast road south was to backtrack a bit, drive past the airport that was preparing for the first flight of the day, and then start stopping around every corner. The coast is sand dunes, empty, and wild. Inland the ground rises to small mountains, covered with rocks, heather, and bracken. The Atlantic swells are unimpeded from the west, and surfers love their purity. I didn't see any, but it's out of season.
Allasdale on Barra's west coast


Along this west side of Barra, the beaches are white sand, crescent-shaped, and quite unspoiled. A walk here is a must. I've found my low-cut hiking boots to be the best thing I packed on this trip. The sand is packed hard by the tides, and the smell of the sea filled my nose. Cattle and sheep were the only living creatures I encountered, except for one woman reading her book on a bench.

The dunes at Allasdale
I circled the whole island and returned to my hotel for a snack lunch in the bar with a pint of pale ale from the Orkneys.

Again I stared at the castle in the bay and read that the Vikings used this site and fortified it before the Clan Macneil made it their stronghold. They were known for their lawlessness and piracy in Elizabethan times. By the 18th century the Macneils had abandoned the castle for a more comfortable spot on Barra. It deteriorated and the clan lost it to bankruptcy as well as their ownership of Barra.



Most of the clan emigrated to Canada and in 1915 one of them made a successful claim to recover the chiefdom and Barra. Eventually the castle underwent an excellent restoration from 1956–1970. It is well worth a visit today by taking a boat tour from Castlebay.

*****


Siar Bay faces west and the Atlantic
I set out for Vatersay, the tiny island south of Barra. A short causeway joins the two islands now, built in 1991. Although tiny, this isle has two of the best beaches in the Hebrides. One faces east and directly behind it, separated by dunes, the other faces the Atlantic.

The roads here are strewn with sheep and often have grass growing down the middle. Sometimes they simply peter out and somehow I had to turn the car around with little room. This lane is the width of a Honda Fit, which is the rental car I have here. I wouldn't want anything bigger....

Eighty people are resident year-round on Vatersay and are mainly fishers and farmers. There is a huge demand for herring, lobster, hake and other fish and shellfish from the Hebrides.

After a pleasant hour exploring, walking, and photographing, I had thoroughly covered the whole of Vatersay. There are no cafés, washrooms, or any facilities for visitors here. Nor a gas station, stores, or gift shops. It is totally unspoiled.

Our tour of the Outer Hebrides was customized for me by McKinlay Kidd, award-winning experts in tours of Scotland and Ireland.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved