Nessie, Inverness, and the Left Side of the Road

In most circumstances, saying goodbye to your better half for over a month would be a rather somber occasion. Yet when I ditched MJ at London's Victoria Coach Station, I bolted out of there with more pep in my step than Gene Kelly during a thunderstorm. OK, sure, I was a little sad, but feeling sorry for myself would have to wait for another day. For now, I had a date with The Home of Golf.

No sign of Nessie.

While MJ rode the bus to Cambridge, I caught a different kind of bus - read: easyJet - to the Scottish Highlands and the city of Inverness. Golf was, of course, the main attraction, however my plans for the first day of this adventure didn't involve my clubs. Instead, my goal was to recover from the hectic last few days of travel with a nice leisurely afternoon establishing my bearings and exploring a few of the sights.
My chariot to Inverness.

In hindsight, "leisurely" may not have been the most appropriate adjective.

What can only be described as anxious exhilaration hit a fever pitch when my flight buzzed the art deco clubhouse at Castle Stuart Golf Links while on approach to the Inverness airport. That sense of "Holy crap, I'm really here" had officially set in, and in that moment I was both incredibly excited and absolutely terrified. Why was I terrified, you ask? Because I knew a man was holding a sign with my name on it in the terminal, and I'd have to face my biggest fear with this trip straight away...

Driving on the left-side of the road.

This would be the 2nd time I'd ever driven on the "wrong" side of the road; my only other experience being on the island of St. Thomas where I just followed my dad in a jeep right in front of me. As I checked-in at the car rental office, I tried recalling all of the tips I'd picked up from the 322 blogs I read before the trip. Just then, the agent said something that snapped my out of my nervous trance...

"We've upgraded you to a nice BMW."

After adding on every possible insurance available, I waited outside and watched as a glistening piece of German machinery was pulled around. I confirmed with the attendant the type of fuel and color coding of the gas pump handles - Black for Diesel, Green for Unleaded... Like the lanes, also the opposite of the U.S. - and just like that, I was off.

I quickly discovered that there was just one problem... This car, by U.K. standards, was enormous. Combine that with lanes that felt as narrow as the monorail track at Disney, plus the unnerving sight of cars passing on my right, and I felt like I was 15 with my learner's permit all over again.

And then came the roundabouts.
Wait... What??

About 2 minutes into my leisurely afternoon, I was completely stressed out. As I barreled my way through one roundabout after another, without the slightest clue if I was doing so correctly, one question kept coming to mind: How was I going to handle this for 6 days? It was now that I had a decision to make... I could toss in the towel on driving for the day and head straight to my hotel, or I could suck it up and continue with my plans.

I decided that the best way to overcome this fear was to rip the band-aid right off. At the next roundabout, I veered left and began my quest to find Nessie.

I'd love to tell you that the driving got easier that afternoon, but it didn't. Despite appearing on the map as a relatively main highway, the route which paralleled Loch Ness was nothing more than your average two-lane country road. I soon discovered that in Scotland there's no such thing as Interstates, and the four-lane divided highway was a luxury I encountered just once during the entire trip. The rest of the time was spent on these narrow, winding, shoulder-less roads.
I did this... A lot.

Along the way, I spotted an odd road-sign with the picture of a camera on it. Just a few yards ahead, there was a rather pretty pull-off area alongside the shore of the lake. Given this road was basically one long picturesque tourist trip, I assumed the sign notified folks like me that a nice photo opportunity was just ahead. I was wrong... Turns out that little camera sign warns of the possible position of speed cameras. I didn't learn this helpful little nugget of info until the very last day of my trip. Thankfully, the car rental agency hasn't forwarded me any speeding tickets... Yet. 
Not Scotland, but look... A Kodak moment ahead!

After 45-harrowing minutes, I finally arrived to my intended destination... Urquhart Castle. For the most part, Loch Ness is nothing more than a giant lake.. albeit, a rather gorgeous one. But.. toss in the ruins of a 13th century fortress and a little sunshine, and I had something that made the drive entirely worthwhile. Not eager to return to the car anytime soon, I made an iced coffee in the gift shop's coffee bar - they hadn't heard of such a thing - and soaked up what would prove to be the last sunshine I'd see for three days.

It was a good decision to soak up the rays while they lasted, because I was just a few miles up the road when it was time to learn how to turn on the Beamers windshield wipers. The rain was nothing serious, but enough to make my next destination a drive-by of sorts. The Culloden Battlefield was the site of the final stand of the Jacobite Rebellion which sought to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. It also marked the final "pitched battle" - basically, two rows of troops facing each other and firing - on British soil. The rain seemed appropriate, given the lives lost and the 100 years of suppression, known as the Highland Clearances, which followed.
A stone honoring the members of one of the clans lost in the fighting.
The red flags mark the line of British troops.

By now it was going on 6pm and the hunger pains were coming on strong. I made my way into the heart of Inverness, pulled into the tiniest hotel parking lot imaginable, and checked-in to my digs for the next two nights: the Best Western Inverness Palace. Don't let the name fool you.. my general thought on the hotel is "Meh." The location is great, but it's clearly well past its prime and is a tour group turn-and-burn operation. That said, I slept like an absolute rock both nights. 

I'm sure part of that opinion stemmed from an unfair comparison to the Rocpool Reserve, which was my first stop on my tour of the food scene in Inverness. This place oozed class and reinforced what I knew before departing - that this was where I should have stayed - if only I could have stomached the rate. Both the smoked salmon and whisky cocktail I enjoyed here were among the best I've had anywhere. 

The next morning, I quickly learned one of Scotland's quirks... Everything opens later than on this side of the pond. Coffee shops were locked up tight until 8 or 9am, many restaurants didn't start serving until 7pm, and even the earliest tee times at the golf courses were often much later than "normal." For an "early to bed, early to rise" type, this took some getting used to, and I'm not sure that I ever did.
Don't tell the authorities... I imported a bag of Entenmann's. 

My time in Inverness was short, but in the end it provided exactly what I needed in advance of the busy week ahead. Here I found a welcome pause in the hectic travel, a few memorable sites, and the opportunity to adjust to things like 18 hours of daylight, wacky coffee shop hours, and the left-side of the road. That last one did get much easier with time, which allowed me to focus on the all-important task ahead...

7 golf courses... 5 days.

Enjoy Your Stay