Monthly Archives: September 2013

Mull of Galloway and Dunnet Head


It’s both subject to interpretation and trivia, but some say the easternmost and westernmost points in the United States, territories included, are neighboring islands in the Aleutian archipelago:  Semisopochnoi  and Amatignak.

The easternmost point in Scotland is Keith Inch in the town of Peterhead (both names should have been included in September 2nd’s “R Rated Great Britain”).   West is Corrachadh Mòr, Gaelic for “great tapering field”, near the Ardnamurchan Point Lighthouse.  Neither are promoted as tourist attractions.   Corrachadh Mòr is especially remote and weather-challenged. Scotland’s southernmost point is Mull of Galloway and its northernmost is Dunnet Head.   Both attract busloads of tourists.

Mull of Galloway, about 17 miles south of the town of Stranraer (pronounced Strun rah), is a particularly worthwhile spot since it has become a major nature reserve.  Seabirds–black guillemots, kittiwakes, etc.–live and breed on its soaring cliffs.  The two women running the visitor centre were a bit disappointed that we didn’t share their detail-oriented enthusiasm for local birds.  They reminded me of the lady the evening before who was crushed when I didn’t want to hear the history of every person buried in the Stoneykirk cemetery.  The Galloway ladies kept track of sightings, paying special attention to puffins.  By mid-July they had already recorded 16 species.   Trails, some rather challenging, took us to viewpoints and places where strictly local butterflies, graylings, and plants, purple milk-vetch, abounded.   Sunning seals and frolicking porpoises are common sights, but not that day.  Mull of Galloway’s 1830 lighthouse, scene of a Hollywood-worthy plane crash in World War II, is only opened daily in July and August.  The summer weather here is fine, for Scotland.

The summer weather is not so fine at Dunnet Head where, like at Galloway, orange-legged puffins are beloved.   The area has so many avian visitors that it has been dubbed Seabird City.   Dunnet Head is not only Scotland’s most northerly mainland point, it’s also Great Britain’s.  Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Treasure Island’s Robert Louis, built its 1831 lighthouse.  During World War II Dunnet Head was a U-boat station.

Near the village of John o’Groats where travelers get a boat to the Orkney Islands is a vigorous hike past some dramatic sea cliffs dotted with nesting fulmars and sure-footed sheep to the Duncansby Stacks seen above.

More trivia.  The most southerly point of US controlled territory is Rose Atoll in American Samoa.  The most northerly is Point Barrow, Alaska.  The Mull of Galloway and Dunnet Head, truthfully, are a lot easier to get to.


Yale University Art Gallery, Second to None


Ruth and I took the New York-New Haven Line from Grand Central Terminal on a June morning and were at Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut less than 2 hours later.  We were lucky.  The free Downtown Union Station shuttle that normally doesn’t run on Saturday and Sunday was parked outside the train station.  It dropped us 2 blocks from also free YUAG.   If you’re going by car any day, the closest parking garage is at 150 York Avenue.

In 2004, YUAG commenced a stupendous renovation that was completed last year.   Ruth and I wanted to see the results.   The story of, in my opinion, the finest university art and culture museum in the US began in 1832 with 28 paintings and 60 miniature portraits.  Forever expanding, the 1886 and 1928 museum versions have now been seamlessly integrated into the 1953 Louis Kahn design as Gothic met Modern.   A contemporary upper level and rooftop sculpture terrace have been added.  This all cost $135 million and every penny shows.   The new YUAG will celebrate its first anniversary on December 12, 2013.

Some museums are much more than just places to look at art. YUAG qualifies. Eight new classrooms and increased teaching facilities are in use.   This is what sets YUAG apart from other art galleries.   It has 2 main missions.  The 1st is to wow visitors like Ruth and me.  The 2nd is to use its collection to inspire and teach Yale students about art.  And not just art students, all students.  There are 2 new study areas showing items selected by Yale professors for use in current courses.  Redoing the entire Yale University Art Gallery allowed it to put a vastly increased number of its works on view.  In most museums, I wander around looking at stuff with other long-ago students.  Not at YUAG.  Here I shared galleries with excited current students of archaeology, foreign languages,  African-American studies, etc.

I had no idea Yale had such a vast collection when I first visited a few years ago.  Back in 2013 and in awe, I quickly learned to climb every step and ease into every alcove and dark space.   Annexes like 2E between the 2nd and 3rd floor contain Yale’s easily missed pre-1900 American Art collection that rivals the Philadelphia Museum.  Yale, has, after all, been collecting American masters and the works of other cultures for 250 years.  You don’t see just 1 Giacometti here.  You find 20 or so of his creations grouped together.   It’s easy enough to assume that YUAG is showing off.  If so, it’s justifiable.

However, my favorite space didn’t have a mustering of Monets and Renoirs, although they were in European Art.  It was the Indo-Pacific collection acquired in 2009 and like nothing I had seen before.   It was so impressive that I went through twice marveling at earrings that looked crafted for big-eared weightlifters, Javanese top knots, betel bags, and the gold funeral mask above.

Yale has educated 5 US presidents, 18 Nobel laureates, and 17 Supreme Court justices.  I was impressed by this until I looked at Wikipedia’s list of artists it has influenced, like Mark Rothko, class of ’24.  Seeing all those bright young visitors, not all art students, made me very optimistic about the future.


The Wellcome Museum for the Incurably Curious


The 2 large display areas in the Wellcome Museum are on the 1st floor.  In other words, you go upstairs to see them.   Cultural differences.   In England, the 1st floor would be the 2nd in the US.   Another I was not aware of until my recent visit is that distances all over Great Britain are still computed in miles.  In every other measurement, to my knowledge, the metric system is used.

After visiting the Wellcome, I wrote in my notes “medical marvels beautifully displayed”.   This was, in other words, my kind of place.

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) was born in a Wisconsin log cabin.  By 1932 he had co-founded pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome and Company, been knighted, and was well on his way to collecting 1 million medical objects and oddities.  Many of those are on display in his Museum at 183 Euston Road in London.  They range from the ordinary, medical glassware, to the curious, Japanese sex aids.  In addition to his lifelong interest in health and the human body, Wellcome was an aerial photography pioneer.   He also apparently cultivated an attention-drawing  moustache.

I was fascinated by the anything-but-ordinary art in the Museum’s Henry Wellcome Cabinet.  Like everything else in Henry’s personal  collection, they made me gasp and lean in.   How could I resist paintings with names like “A man being hit on the head by a falling flowerpot” and “William Price in druidic costume with goats”  Canvassing them, I learned that the astronomer Galileo had 3 illegitimate children.  Considered unfit for marriage, his daughter Virginia Gamba became a nun, Suor Maria Celeste, and supported Dad in his confrontations with the Catholic Church.

The other large display area on Level One, or the 2nd floor, is called MEDICINE NOW and presents “a range of ideas about science and medicine” occurring since Wellcome’s death.  Ruth and I studied a transparent body that lit up, information about malaria, a gross exploration of obesity, etc.

But don’t necessarily expect to find these exact displays if you’re lucky enough to visit this 5 Compass collection for the “Incurably curious” any time soon.  By summer 2014, £17.5 from a development fund will have enhanced it with a new gallery, a transformed Reading Room, a new restaurant, etc.  The Wellcome Museum will remain open during remodeling and stay amazingly free to enter.   It’s worth whatever kilometers, uh, miles you must travel to see it.


Speyside, Whiskyland


After a great deal of diligent research“, the writers of Lonely Planet Highlands and Islands listed the top 10 single malt whiskys in Scotland.  One was in Campbelltown on the Kintyre Peninsula, another on the Isle of Skye.   Two were on Arran.  Three were on Islay in The Hebrides.  Three were in Speyside.   John, Trish, Ruth, and I were on our way to Speyside!

I’m somewhat educated about wine regions of the world but know virtually nothing about single malt whisky even though we had  visited the Dalwhinnie distillery. The family expert on them would be my sister Julie. The first thing I learned, thanks again to Lonely Planet, was not to ask for Scotch in Scotland.  Duh.

Then I learned about the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside, the area between Inverness and Aberdeen.   All that a whisky maker needs is here–barley, peat, water, high lands–so there are about 50 Speyside distilleries.  Each follows the same basic process but with variations.   Not all of them are open to the public.   My whisky trail map listed 8 that were including the Glen Moray Distillery in Elgin since 1897.   We were near Elgin.  It was still morning.

It was recommended that we take a distillery tour before sampling Glen Moray’s single malt whiskies.  The tour promised “unforgettable insight into how water and barley are transformed into ‘the water of life’.”   Why not?   Much later in the tasting room we took our jobs seriously.  First, the 4 of us sipped a 12-year-old described as a typical Speyside whisky–clean, no peat.   Then a 16-year-old splashed into our glasses and we were told to look for dried fruit flavors, like raisins.  I carefully wrote in my travel book “peat and chocolate”, as if I knew.  The next was a 10-year-old described as an elegant, floral whisky liked by wine drinkers.  Our unanimous favorite was the 16-year-old.

On to Glenfiddich, one of the world’s 2 best-selling whiskies.  The other is Glenlivet, also in Speyside.  I quickly learned that I was mispronouncing Glenfiddich’s name, which means valley of the deer.  It’s Glen fid’ ik. Glenfiddich is the Apple of the whisky world.  We had to wait for a crowded tour.  Joel, our college-age guide, knew his subject, but he was a bit bored and discouraged any personalizing while spewing information–the 5th generation now runs Glenfiddich, tons of barley are ground into flour and soaked in water to get sugar out of the grits in a 3 day process, blades spin, alcohol happens, the grits become cattle feed, etc. etc.

Glenfiddich offers 3 tours, the most expensive was £75 per person.  Tour over, we sampled 15, 12, and 18-year-olds.  15 was finished in new casks that affected the taste, making it spicier.  12 was the world’s best-selling single malt, and we were told to look for pear and oak.  18 was compared to apple pie and recommended for drinking during cold, Scottish winters.

While the ladies browsed the huge gift shop, I had someone call the nearby Ballvenie Distillery, also in Dufftown, to see if we could stop in.  Owned by William Grant and Sons, it had a fine reputation and wasn’t on the Malt Whisky trail.  I was told there was nothing to see unless I took a tour and the last one that day was unavailable.   The Gaelic toast equal to to your health, I learned at some point, is pronounced slan gaa vaa.

By the time we got to Aberlour, it was too late in the day to do anything. Owned by Pernod Ricard, Aberlour offered 2 daily tours then “Tutored tasting of six Aberlour expressions” for £12.

The next day no one suggested visiting a distillery.


Still the One–Whistler


Davey Barr has lived in Whistler all his life.  When Whistler Traveler asked him to describe a perfect day there, he said, “…mid week, blue bird spring morning on the mountain with 30 cm of fresh snow, followed by a mountain bike ride to top it all off.   The ultimate dual sport day!”

About 60 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, Whistler has grown into maybe the best all-amenities-resort area in North America.  With 8,171 acres of skiable terrain making it more than twice the size of Vail, Whistler, the biggest ski area in North America, also has the longest ski season, normally from November to July.  But Whistler isn’t just about skiing.  We were there in September and the place was jumping.

It’s no surprise that Whistler hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics with grace. An Olympic Park was developed here for alpine events–Nordic combined, cross-country, biathlon, and ski jumping.   The Vancouver to Whistler Sea to Sky Highway was completely redone.  On this road, one of the world’s most beautiful drives, The Tantalus Lookout provides one of this planet’s most spectacular views.  There are other travel options to Whistler. like the Mountaineer, a train from Vancouver that operates from May through September.

Garibaldi Whistler Mountain opened in 1966 with a single gondola and chairlift.  Thirty-three years later 7,160 feet Whistler Mountain and 8,000 feet Blackcomb were combined and Whistler became the first resort in North America to welcome more than 2 million skiers in a single season.

What can visitors do in Whistler that they can’t do in Vail?  Legally buy a Cuban cigar.  Experience Peak to Peak.  Learn about the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations in their Culture Centre at the intersection of Lorimer Road and Blackcomb Way.  Walk slowly through Whistler Village, the area’s unofficial capital.

Whistler Valley has grown to 18 distinct neighborhoods where celebrities like Justin Timberlake are “rumored” to own property  according to Whistler Traveler.   The Valley has accomplished this growth without seeming overcrowded and overdeveloped, an amazing feat.

Peak to Peak was the ultimate experience on our most recent visit.  Unlike us, access it fairly early in the day and allow several hours to ride more than once in one of this engineering marvel’s 28 gondolas that can hold 28 people and takes only 11 minutes to travel from Whistler to Blackcomb.  Holder of 3 world records–longest unsupported span, highest lift of its kind over a valley floor, and longest continuous lift system–Peak to Peak whisked us across the sky for almost 3 thrilling miles.   Because it was September, Ruth, Bob, and I had to access Peak to Peak via the Whistler Village Gondola to Roundhouse Lodge.  We delighted in sharing this ride with excited kids, mostly boys, determined to use the Whistler Mountain Bike Park as often as they could before the gondola shut down for the day.  Below us all the way up and back were, not the expected bears, but focused mountain bikers ripping down 155 miles of downhill trails maintained because they service the lifts.

I learned in Visitor’s Choice that Whistler got its name from the calls of local hoary marmots, full-figured ground squirrels.  They whistle.  You will too when you have an ultimate dual-something day there like Davey, Bob, Ruth, and me.


PS:  30 cm is almost 12 feet!  If you want inexpensive tasty italian food in an unpretentious setting while in Whistler Village, go to small, terrific Lupino’s.