Saturday, 24 March 2018

Scotland: Mull of Kintyre

As I write, seated in an antique chair at an antique table in a lamplit Victorian sitting room, I can hear the sea roaring and crashing, and the billowing of the wind in the branches outside the cottage. The sky is charcoal with night, but the crests of the waves shimmer silver beyond the sash window. For my birthday treat, we're spending a week on the Landmark Trust's Saddell Estate on Kintyre in western Scotland, perhaps most famous as the location of Paul McCartney's 'Mull of Kintyre' video. Looking out across the Kilbrannan Sound to the rugged skyline of the Isle of Arran, the estate is reached by a tree-lined driveway and comprises a tumbledown 16th-century castle and a clutch of quaint cottages almost concealed by tangled woodland. We're in Shore Cottage, which is delightful in a puritanical way - all fuss-free decor and flagstone floors, with features like an original range and ceiling hooks, and prints of ships, castles and adoring couples adorning the otherwise plain walls. Its doors open onto the creamy white horseshoe-shaped bay, where an Anthony Gormley sculpture of a figure, stoic among the waves, startles. I love the dark at night and the unceasing quiet, and the fact there is no WiFi or TV, so we spend our evenings engaged in conversation and board games.
Kintyre is similarly unspoilt - it's all tumbling woodland and rolling glens, with the occasional sleepy settlement - but there is lots to do. One highlight is going to the Machrihanish Bird Observatory run by Eddie Maguire, who is kind enough to open up for us even though the centre is still closed for the winter. The observatory is perched on a rocky promontory that lots of seabirds must pass on their journeys, and Eddie is a real expert, spending countless hours observing the wildlife. Thanks to his persistence, he even spotted Argyll's first sooty tern - a bird usually found in the equatorial zone. On our visit, we see ringed plovers, eider ducks, oyster catchers and rock pipits, and enjoy watching their antics from our unseen position. Another day takes us further north to the Knapdale area and Tayvallich. It's a wet day, the rain driving sideways, and the village cafe is closed... but there's something evocative still about this tranquil collection of cottages clustered around one fingertip of Loch Sween and cloaked by folds of riotous ancient woodland. We delve into it on the three-mile Scottish Beaver Trial walk in Knapdale Forest. A few years ago, beavers were reintroduced to Scotland and have been busy creating dams here ever since. There are signs of the shy creatures all around, like footprints and gnawed tree trunks. Not ones to be put off by wet weather - just don your waterproof and smile, I say - we then venture up Dunadd Hillfort in the ancient landscape of Kilmartin Glen, where there's such a concentration of archaeological sites that only the presence of cars and roads anchors it in the modern day. From the top of the hillock, the views are commanding - serene tones of gold and pewter unfurl in every direction as if in a sfumato painting, the drizzle merging the colours together. Dunadd, at its most powerful from 500 to 900 AD, is thought to have been the capital of Dalriada, the kingdom that gave rise to modern Scotland. Some of the stone fortifications still remain intact, and there is ogham text (straight lines used in early Irish writing) carved into some stone slabs, as well a 'footprint' - size 8, apparently - in a rock near the summit that is thought to be connected to the coronation ceremony for the kings of Dalriada.
Our perhaps most memorable day is on Gigha, a community-run island 20 minutes off the coast of Kintyre. "It's just one road to the north of the island, and one to the south," the shopkeeper tells us when we collect our hire bikes. But we have acquired a dog escort nevertheless. 'Ben' joined us at one of the farms and is now running ahead of our bikes, his ears flapping and his tongue lolling, showing the way as we cycle along the six-mile spine of the island. The scenery is Scotland at its finest - tangled fields tumbling towards pure white sand beaches that meet a turquoise sea lapping between a hazy jigsaw of island and mainland. There are cattle in some fields, flocks of geese in others. Daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops are bursting open in the verges. The air feels salty but clean on my cheeks as we freewheel towards the island's northern tip, where the view opens to encompass the Paps of Jura. Ben waits, head cocked, tail wagging, as we unpack our picnic and settle on a rock in the warm sun. The sweet dog is so eager to please that he sits on command and holds out his paw for a handshake, and it's with heavy hearts that we bid him goodbye at his farm on the way back. At the other end of the island, we find Achamore Gardens, a stately arrangement of sub-tropical plants that are curled up against the cold weather. There's just time for a slice of cake at the Gigha Gallery, halfway down the island, which also sells gorgeous seascapes and toiletries handmade on Gigha. I'm equally enticed by the organic products on offer at the Ardminish Stores, and can't resist some coriander pate, bergamot dark chocolate and quinoa crisps for the journey.
The Gigha sunshine doesn't endure, and by the time we're due to return to Edinburgh Airport via the Isle of Arran, all ferries are cancelled because of high winds. For us, there is a silver lining, as we drive to Inverarey for a birthday fish-and-chips lunch and a slab of creamy Victoria Sponge at Brambles Cafe, before continuing around Loch Fyne to its opposite shore and Portavadie Spa. Our cottage there overlooks the marina and is warm and comfortable as we sit listening the wind whistle through the yachts' masts. We have the spa to ourselves in the evening, and bask in the warm outdoor infinity pool watching the waves whip up and crash on the loch as the hazy sun slides into the sea.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

America: New York, New York

"Welcome to New York," proclaims our taxi driver, Joseph, with a hint of disapproval as he waves his hand towards rubbish bags piled high along the pavement. He's ferried us two hours north from Philadelphia and we've left richly tree-tapestried countryside for the filthy, loud, busy big city. We're excited though, and a bit of litter isn't going to dampen our spirits. We're staying in East Village, a lively enclave east of Broadway crowded with independent bars, food shops, cafes and redbrick facades that look like 'Snakes and Ladders' boards thanks to their fire escapes. Not far from the apartment, a healthy vegan lunch of green juice and lentil, avocado and beetroot salad at the ironically named The Butcher's Daughter sets us up nicely. But the weather is hostile - driving, cold rain - and puts paid to our explorations for the afternoon. Instead, we cosy up in Jin Soon East Village, a natural hand and foot spa, where we enjoy simply fantastic manicures that deploy milk, honey, essential oils, lashings of warm lotion and hot towels to leave our digits soft and nourished. The following day, the sky gleams cerulean behind the buildings opposite: it's weather for walking. And walk we do - 17km of it. We meander around West Village, which is smarter, leafier and more quaintly residential than its eastern counterpart, with quiet streets flanked by those iconic brownstone townhouses. We do the touristy thing and seek out Carrie Bradshaw's apartment and the Friends apartment, then chomp down on a 'cronut' at the Dominique Ansel Bakery - it's like a very creamy doughnut and Tim loves it. Uptown and further down, there's the sense of being in a deep mountain gorge - the buildings are so high that in places no sunlight reaches the pavement, resulting in a sharp juxtaposition between light and dark, for, if you look up, the buildings gleam golden. It's fascinating: occasional historic facades are bundled between glossy, mirrored skyscrapers. It is better still admired from the perimeter. We view the financial district from Brooklyn Bridge and are captivated by the layers of geometric structures stretching skywards in a serene collage. The city looks equally placid from the 'Top of the Rock', 70 floors up atop the Rockefeller Center, far above the honking, fumes, litter and throngs of people. We're amazed by the sea of skyscrapers rippling out in a mosaic all around us, broken only by Central Park and the Hudson River. The Empire State Building rises elegant and magnificent, while the Chrysler building is intricately artistic. We much prefer it up there to on Times Square, which is loud and in-your-face, a must-see but a must-leave-as-quickly-as-possible too. The Staten Island Ferry is more our scene, and we enjoy a creamily delicious brownie from Financier Patisserie while sailing past the Statue of Liberty. We stroll through the financial district and are incredibly moved by the National September 11 Memorial pools, black granite pits engraved with the victims' names and located at the site of the World Trade Towers. Water trickles unceasingly down the stone and into a seemingly neverending square hole at the centre, while trees dapple sunlight across the square. As we pass through the Art Deco Grand Central Terminal, for no other reason than to admire its barrel-vaulted ceiling painted with the 2,500 stars of the winter night sky shown back to front, we coincide with the Tournament of Champions - a real treat for Tim, who is a big squash fan. Then, what better way to end our brief visit than The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre? It's a riotous display of colour and creativity threaded through with the kind of singing that gives you goose pimples. New York. I really didn't know what to expect, even though I'd seen it so much on TV or in films or books. Yes, it's filthy. And it stinks of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. And it's loud and hectic, and not a little claustrophobic. But its dynamism, and sense of being in a state of constant reinvention, and of possibility, is tangibly intoxicating. I've never been anywhere quite like it.