Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

The last stop on our mini-Texas tour was Dallas-Fort Worth, which is technically two cities (or one “metroplex“).  We were visiting friends who live about halfway between the two cities, and they’d very kindly offered to show us some of the highlights.  We only had a day in the area so we definitely only scratched the surface of both locations.

First up, we drove into Fort Worth for some brunch.  I’d seen some good reviews for Yolk in Sundance Square, and whilst it was good, I don’t think it was worth the hour way.  We did get to explore Sundance Square whilst we waited which was very relaxed and peaceful on that Sunday morning.  It was also freakishly cold (again!) so we were pleased to finally get into the warmth of the restaurant.

I loved the neon signs around the area, and there were some very pretty old buildings.

Continuing the old theme, we then drove to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards.  I have such little knowledge of American history that I don’t think I understood the significance of the Stockyards, but there once was a lot of cows here (that might be understating some facts).  There still are some cows here who get herded down the street twice a day (we weren’t in time for that), but there’s also cowboys, shops, bars, and a rodeo in the district.  It was fun to wander around and see the wild west – a little cheesy, but fun!

We jumped back in the car and drove the 45 minutes over to the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.  When we were asked what we wanted to see, we hadn’t wanted to spend a significant amount of time in Dallas city centre – we figured that it was similar enough to other big American cities that we’d been to, and as we had such a short amount of time, we wanted to do something different.  The Arboretum looked beautiful, and we were lucky enough to visit when they had both their Fall and Christmas displays out.

It was a grey day, but that didn’t stop us spending an hour and a half here, enjoying their wonderful displays.  I can imagine it’d be stunning in the spring.

We then drove around Dallas for a bit, seeing the big skyscrapers and going passed the infamous grassy knoll.  For dinner, we’d asked for something authentically Texan so were taken to the Truck Yard.  This place was amazing – they have different food trucks every day and if I lived in the area, I’d be here all the time.  Husband had some kind of huge chicken sandwich, I had a hot dog, and we sat people-watching as the sun went down.

I really wish I’d taken a photo of the front entrance as it was covered in lights.

On the way home, we stopped at a Dairy Queen (or DQ as it’s called now) for some ice cream – I have always wanted to try DQ ice cream – it’s one of those places that I saw referenced in TV shows as a teen – and it feels quintessentially American to pick up dessert on the way home.

We were so grateful to our wonderful hosts for showing us so much of their cities.  We only experienced a small slice of this huge state, but loved everything.  Maybe next time we go, it’ll actually be warm (yes, I’m still grumbling about this, two months later.  I’m not over it).

Magnolia Market at the Silos, Waco, TX

As much as I would have loved to spend more time in Austin, we had places to go and people to see, so we checked out of the glorious Archer hotel, jumped into our rental car and found our way to the interstate. We were headed north to a little town just outside of Fort Worth which was about three hours away and fortunately, we were to have an uneventful journey. Built-up Austin gave way to huge endless roads and we were able to take it easy and enjoy the scenery.

In my humble opinion, an essential part of any road trip is stopping along the way, so I planned one “quick” stop pretty much halfway – Waco, Texas. Admittedly, the only thing I knew about Waco was its infamy, but when Googling for places to eat, one place was recommended over and over again, so we had to visit to find out exactly what it was.

Waco itself appeared to be a quiet town – as we drove in, we couldn’t really see much going on, and there really weren’t that many people on the roads. We found some street parking next to an (abandoned?) railway line and walked towards two huge grain silos. Husband was incredibly confused – I had promised him grilled cheese for lunch, and now I was taking him to some rusty old silos?

The Magnolia Market at the Silos is quite an abstract concept for people who aren’t familiar with the programme Fixer Upper ie both me and Husband. I had never heard of it before, so honestly much of the visit to the silos was lost on me but for fans of this show, this is like Disneyland. There’s a shop where you can buy merch, food trucks, a lawn area to sit and play on, some more food trucks, a garden store, bakery, and yet more food trucks.

The food trucks were what we were here for and I naively thought we’d just grab a couple of grilled cheeses, take a few minutes to eat them, then be back on the road in next to no time. You know how I said that Waco appeared to be a quiet town? That’s because EVERYONE IN WACO WAS AT THE SILOS. It was crazy, and despite there being about a dozen trucks, the queue for each one was about 20 minutes long.

The Cheddar Box was our chosen truck. Husband changed his mind in the queue and went for one of the Mac Daddies pots – a cup filled with gouda mac and cheese and bacon whereas I stuck with my original plan of a bacon and gouda grilled cheese. And they were definitely worth the wait. After a quick wander around the perimeter, and about 15 minutes of standing about, we had our hot lunch in our greedy little hands.

It still wasn’t particularly nice weather so I was so surprised that the place was as busy as it was. There were so many people on the lawn, and there was no way we were getting into either the store or the bakery as they were rammed. Good for Chip and Joanna Gaines though – they’ve taken two old silos and made them into the place to be in central Texas. People come from miles around to visit this area that used to be… well, nothing!

Unbelievably, we ended up spending an hour and a half in Waco (which really threw off our schedule) without seeing very much of the actual city but I would have regretted not experiencing the incredible grilled cheese so I’m pleased we did stop. I had given serious consideration to visiting the Dr Pepper Museum and really wanted to walk around the centre of the town as well, but we just ran out of time. I’d scoffed at the Waco travel guides that recommend more than a day in the city, but you really do need more time to explore. Especially if you’re going to spend a day solely going to each of the delicious food trucks of the Magnolia Market – what a life goal.

Dr Pepper Museum in Waco

Austin Day Two

After spending our first day exploring downtown Austin, we drove south of the river and parked up at Zilker Park, very close to Barton Springs Pool.  There was zero chance of relaxing by the pool today as the temperature had dropped further, but there were some brave souls taking a dip in the natural spring water.  I can imagine how beautiful it would be to spend time here in the summer.

We walked along the creek, crossed a footbridge, and continued parallel to Ladybird Lake.  There were a few people out on the hiking trail, but we had much of it to ourselves – the wind was quite harsh coming off the water which I suspect kept people indoors.  As we passed under Congress Avenue Bridge, we could hear (and smell) the hundreds of thousands of bats that live there – tiny little squeaks!  At sunset, people watch them fly out from underneath the bridge – there are some amazing photos to be found online of this phenomenon.  

We continued our walk down South Congress Avenue, stepping over the Bird scooters that had been liberally abandoned all over the place (I didn’t even know they were a thing).  The road was a little trafficy, but it was a lovely to spend the morning checking out the unique shops and restaurants with their glorious signs.

We thought about going into Allen’s boot store but a) it was really busy and b) I knew I end up spending a lot of money on boots I’d never wear, so I settled for just photographing their sign.  We then peered in more store windows before stopping for lunch at Jo’s Coffee, warming our hands around our hot cups because it had turned bitterly cold (I know – I keep complaining about the weather, but it was just so unexpected!).  I spent way too much money on a Jo’s tote bag – in my defence, it’s an amazing tote bag – and headed back to Zilker Park to find the car.  

This walk around South Congress had made me realise that I needed more suitable clothes – the t-shirts I’d packed were not remotely appropriate – so on the drive back to the hotel, we stopped at a few retail parks.  We just visited some standard shops including Ulta and Skechers.  Nothing special, but I really appreciated having the car so we could go and buy an emergency coat from an outlet store!

Back at The Domain, we went on a little wander for some more shopping.  The Domain is a lot bigger than I expected, and we seem to have ended up walking about two miles and even then I don’t think we saw everything it had to offer.  Once we’d had our fill of window shopping, I stopped by the Sprinkles cupcake ATM (conveniently opposite our hotel), Husband stopped by the Apple store (conveniently next to our hotel) and we went back to the room for a little nap.  

We didn’t end up going out for dinner in the end as the Archer’s excellent room service tempted us.  We spent the evening planning for the next day – a nervous drive north to see more of Texas.  

I think we managed to see a lot of Austin over our two days in the city.  If we had more time, we perhaps would have spent some time exploring east and west of downtown, maybe been a bit more courageous with our driving, or visited Lake Travis.  There’s always next time

Austin Day One

With two days in Austin, we wanted to tick off as many sights as possible.  We decided to split the city into two – north of the river, and south – day one being our northern adventure.

Before we flew out, the weather looked really promising – beautiful sunshine and a not-too-hot 25ºC.  We packed t-shirts, sunglasses, and plenty of SPF for me.

What a waste of time that was, because the temperature dropped to 8ºC and we were FREEZING.  I had to buy a coat as we were completely unprepared – it’s Texas for goodness sake, it’s supposed to be hot!  The consequence of this was that some of our walks were not particularly pleasant, and the rain got a little tiresome, but I suppose at least we weren’t walking around in the sweltering heat!

Although we’d hired a car, we decided to get an Uber from The Domain down to the city centre as Husband didn’t feel like trying to find a parking space.  It was a good decision as the traffic was crazy, so we just sat back to enjoy the half-an-hour ride.  

Our Uber driver was very confused by our first stop and checked with us a couple of times to make sure this was where we wanted to be.  Oh yes, this was exactly where I wanted to be.  The Co-Op on Guadalupe Street is three floors of merchandise from the University of Texas – we’re talking flags, bumper stickers, sweaters, children’s clothes, even Christmas decorations.  I bought a bauble.  A BAUBLE!  I am not ashamed to admit that this was my favourite store in the whole of Austin and we spent 45 minutes filling a basket full of Texas Longhorns goodies.  I should have bought more.

After my spending spree, we walked south towards the Capitol Building, stopping to take photos of Jeremiah the Innocent – an iconic mural by Daniel Johnston of a frog saying Hi How Are You.  This was one of my Austin must-sees, but I can’t remember where I saw it first – I’m sure it’s appeared in the titles for a TV show I watched years ago, but no idea what that was.  I’m pleased I’ve seen it in person now.

We wandered around the outside of the Texas State Capitol building for a while, taking photos from every angle.  We were in Austin just days after the divisive mid-term elections which had initially worried us as we thought there might be some unrest, but there was no drama whilst we were there.  The Capitol building and the grounds were very peaceful, quite impressive and imposing and we considered going on a tour – maybe if we had more time.

As we sat in the grounds and watched the visitors (and squirrels), we scoured Google Maps for somewhere to get brunch.  It was only 11am but we were a little peckish after skipping breakfast so we took a little detour to Walton’s Fancy and Staple on 6th Street.  This was a deli/restaurant/florist and I fell in love with it.  We got there when there was plenty of seating, but by the time we left it was packed – I’m so glad we got there early, as we would have missed out on their delicious sandwiches.  

After having the first of many debates with myself over whether to get a tote bag (a recurring theme pretty much everywhere we went), we continued our walk and ended up at the 6th Street Historic District.  We were here to pick up some legendary Voodoo Doughnuts, and spent a good 5-6 minutes just deciding on what to get – their flavour combinations are phenomenal.  The restaurant is cash only (I made sure I had plenty of $$$) and is open 24/7 – I hadn’t realised this prior to our visit and had spent the morning being worried that they’d sell out.  After a really great chat with the guy behind the counter who seemed genuinely excited that we were from the UK, our choices were boxed up and we continued our adventure.

In all of the travel guides about Austin, people raved about 6th Street.  We were there during the day, so we didn’t see it in all it’s neon glory, but honestly we didn’t want to hang around for too long.  It felt kind of… sketchy, and this is coming from someone who has hung out in some very sketchy places.  Neither of us felt particularly comfortable, so we quickly took some photos and wandered further towards the river.  

We didn’t want to cross the river today as that was scheduled in for day two, so instead we walked west down the hiking trail.  It started to rain ever so lightly and the wind was picking up a little, so after a quick Google, we decided to find a place to get some snacks and head back to the hotel.  We cut up West Avenue and found the most amazing building – the Turbine Generator Building of the Seaholm Power Plant.

The whole area has been turned from a decommissioned power station into a new neighbourhood full of residences, shops, and restaurants, and is just a delight to walk around.  I really liked the energy and the atmosphere here, and whilst a few of the retail units are still empty, it definitely has promise.

We popped into the nearby Whole Foods which was very exciting (for boring people like me) because it’s the original one, dating back to late 1970s.  If you like Whole Foods, I highly recommend a visit, but I admit that it’s not going to be top of many people’s list.  

We picked up some water and other fun snacks, then Uber’ed back to our hotel room (with a driver who was not happy about going to The Domain).  Back in the hotel room, we feasted on our Voodoo Doughnuts before having a quick wander around the rest of The Domain.  We did consider going back downtown for dinner that evening, but having walked almost 20,000 steps, we decided to stay local for the night.

Should have got more doughnuts though.

Archer Hotel and The Domain, Austin

We had two days in Austin on our Texas mini-break and knowing we were going to hire a car gave us a bit more freedom than we normally do when picking a hotel – we didn’t have to rely on finding something super central.  I am so pleased that we had this option as we were able to choose one of the best (if not the best) hotels in Austin – the Archer Hotel.

The Archer is located at The Domain shopping and restaurant district in North Austin which isn’t everyone’s idea of what Austin should be, but I loved it.  It was very easy to walk around and we felt very safe even exploring the area at night.  It has everything we need in a holiday base.  Well, almost everything – we missed having a CVS/Walgreen type store, particularly when I urgently (yes, urgently) needed nail polish remover and couldn’t find anywhere that stocked it.  

The hotel itself is beautiful.  We booked a King Suite which was very generously sized with a separate seating area and the most insanely comfortable bed.  There was a wonderful waterfall shower in the bathroom which was stocked full of Malin and Goetz toiletries (my favourite!), topped off by a comfy dressing gown and Archer branded slippers.  The decor was perfect, everything was so clean and tidy – we really couldn’t have asked for anything more.  

We had a great view over The Domain from our huge window where I could see my favourite stores (Sephora and Sprinkles cupcakes), and there were fantastic restaurants just steps away.  We ate at Velvet Taco on our first night and had amazing chicken tacos – I would happily have eaten there again but we were too exhausted after our walk around South Austin so we ordered perfect room service from Second Bar + Kitchen in the hotel.  

I’ve already mentioned the amazing service that the Archer offers, but it really is second to none.  When we arrived, there were caramel sweets waiting for us in the room, and the turndown service came with delicious snacks – we had shortbread one night and a moorish caramel brownie the second night.  I wish we were there for longer.  

As we checked out, we had a great conversation with Nate on the front desk – he gave us valuable advice for our drive up to Fort Worth, we chatted about his visit to the UK a few years ago, and he talked passionately about the hotel brand which has genuinely made me want to stay at the other Archers.  He told us all about the ‘souvenir’ cabinet in the lobby – instead of generic, tired tourist rubbish, each Archer has its own curated range of gifts made by local artists.  The display was almost like a mini gallery, which complimented the rest of the beautiful art displayed around the whole hotel.

We were throughly impressed by our stay at the Archer and should we find ourselves in Austin again, we wouldn’t hesitate to go back.  Not only because we didn’t get to experience their outdoor space like their pool and patio (it was so freakishly cold – more on that in later posts) but also because I really want to see what other turndown treats they offer!

Delta One Business Class – A330

A few months ago, one of the many travel blogs I follow alerted their readers to a sale on some unusual routes for Virgin/Delta codeshare flights.  One of the destinations was Austin, Texas – a city Husband has visited many times for work but never as a tourist – so I spent the evening playing about with flight options.

Unfortunately, we took too long thinking about it and the flights disappeared at midnight (very Cinderella).  We berated ourselves for not being more spontaneous, and I set up an alert on Google Flights just in case they appeared again.  And a few weeks later, they did – this time, we didn’t wait and snapped them up immediately.  Heathrow to Atlanta on an A330 followed by Atlanta to Austin on an A321.

Whilst I was excited about visiting Texas for the first time, I was equally excited about visiting the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in LHR again.  When I visited for the first time last year, we’d had a bit of a stressful morning, so I had planned to get there earlier to take full advantage of the facilities this time.  Sadly, it was still not meant to be – the traffic was horrendous and that ridiculous private security lane in the Upper Class Wing took forever once again.  People in that queue simply do not understand how to go through airport security.  Once we got to the lounge, we only had about 45 minutes there, which was not enough time to get a spa treatment.  Boo.

I had been reading up on the Delta One product over the past few weeks and found that there are a lot of mixed reviews depending on which plane you fly in.  We were unfortunately in some relatively old A330s – clunky buttons, creaky seats, stinky toilets and just very noisy overall.  But there were several things which made the flights more pleasurable:

  • The bedding – the seats have seen better days, and it felt really weird not having an armrest on one side (we were in 2C and 2G which were open to the aisle) but the bedding by Westin was amazing.  The pillow was the softest pillow I’ve ever slept on, and the blanket was the perfect thickness.  I slept so well on both the international flights – I really wish I could have stolen the bedding.
  • The staff – the Purser on the LHR-ATL leg of the journey was amazing.  He had the perfect level of care for us – referring to us by name when checking our meal preference, making sure we had everything we needed but also giving us plenty of space to nap and watch films.  We didn’t feel harassed or ignored.  It was exemplary.
  • The amenity kits – Kiehls products, cute socks, and mouthwash.  Hell yes!  Why do other airlines not offer mouthwash!?  It was a shame we got the soft Tumi bag going out to the US –  you can get the hard case monogrammed free at Tumi stores and there happened to be a Tumi near our hotel that we could have visited.  Never mind.

We haven’t done an indirect flight to the US for a while, but we gave ourselves plenty of layover time in ATL as I have read that it’s a nightmare to get through.  However, immigration for us was a breeze as we now have Global Entry so we sailed through in record time, collected our bags, re-checked them, and were sat comfortably in the Sky Club by gate A16 in no time.  There are a lot of Sky Club lounges in Atlanta, so I did a bit of Googling to find out which to visit (the best report I found was on pointsmd.com) and A16 came out tops for us on the way out.   We had popcorn, plenty of coffee, and big windows to sit by to watch the rain whilst waiting for our flight to be called.  It was not Clubhouse standards, but still a welcome spot of calm in an otherwise manic Atlanta Airport, and I’m very grateful for it.

We even had time to explore underneath the concourses and see the wonderful Flight Paths installation between terminals A and B.  What a lovely thing to have in an airport!

The two internal flights from Atlanta to Austin were unremarkable.  We were lucky to have much newer planes for both trips although they were still insanely noisy, and we didn’t get any cabin service because of turbulence (which honestly didn’t feel that turbulent).  I don’t think we were missing much though – they were short flights, and I mostly slept.  The main thing bringing us glee was that we were in seats 1A and 1B.  Because we are nerds.

We flew back to Heathrow from the International Terminal in Atlanta so visited the Sky Club there.  It was small, with very similar food choices as in A16 and a very… active bar crowd.  It was raining very heavily, so the outdoor space was closed – from what I’ve read, the outdoor space is what makes this lounge unique so it was a shame to miss out.  There were showers at the back of the lounge, and if we’d have had a little more time, I would have taken advantage (it took forever to get to the correct gate when we flew in from Austin which eat into our layover time).  The other passengers astonished me in this lounge though – we had screaming drunks, loud Instagram Stories vloggers, and parents allowing their children to smear food all over the place.  I’ve never seen anything like it!

Atlanta back to Heathrow was a very similar experience again, except the toilets were somehow worse and Husband’s seat hadn’t been cleaned properly so he found a crusty old sock waiting for him before he sat down (eww).  However, the flight attendants called us by our names again, and still provided the same excellent level of service so we could look over the negatives.  The food on both flights was good, but I’m not really a foodie person so I skipped a couple of the courses as I preferred getting some nap time.

Something I wasn’t particularly comfortable with was the biometric boarding used at the gate in Atlanta.  I know I’m fussy with my data, but no one explained to us why we were having our photo taken or how it was going to be processed.  I only found out afterwards what it was, and not once did anyone explain that we could opt out.  I don’t really understand when we actually opted in!

It was a perfectly decent flight, but I don’t think we’d choose to fly Delta Business on the A330 again as they’re too old and noisy.  I’d love to try the new suites on the A350 or 777 but I’m not sure if any of them currently go from the UK.

That said, if a good deal pops up again, I could easily be tempted.  Only this time, I’m going to get to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse the night before.  Just in case.

Islay – The Distilleries

Islay is stunningly beautiful, and we both would have fallen in love with it regardless, but the main reason we visited was for the whisky.

There are currently 8 distilleries on the island, although there have been many more ‘lost’ over the years.  Islay whisky is so very strong and very distinctive, all down to the peat fields that you drive through on your way around.  I’m saying all of this as if I tasted any, but don’t actually drink so was purely there as a driver for Husband.  Expect dirty looks if you tell the locals and tourists that you’re a teetotaller.

Our whirlwind tour started with Husband’s favourite – Laphroaig.  He was treated to a two hour experience – a tour of the distillery, followed by an hour in one of their warehouses tasting three special casks.  This was a really fun 2 hours (and introduced us to people we would see again and again from our tour group – Islay truly is a ‘small world’ kind of place).  After tasting the casks, we used a wooden suction tube called a valinch to extract a small bottle’s worth of our favourites (well, Husband chose his two favourites).

During this first tour, I learnt about something which would save Husband’s liver – the driver’s dram.  As I wasn’t drinking, I assumed we’d only have two options for the samples we’d receive – we decline mine, or Husband drinks them all.  Fortunately, the distilleries have tiny bottles that you can pour your samples into and take away with you.  Goodness knows what would have happened if he had to drink double the whisky.

Laphoraig was my favourite tour, and I especially loved the shop and bar area – warm and snug, with free coffee and big comfy sofas to aid recovery.   I could quite happily have spent all afternoon here, but we had more distilleries to visit.

Next up, we went to Ardbeg – we didn’t actually tour this one as we couldn’t quite fit it into our schedule, but stopped here for lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe where we ate hearty sandwiches followed by clootie dumplings.

With full tummies, we drove back to Lagavulin for another hour tour followed by three samples (and some driver’s drams).  I found Lagavulin slightly more corporate, although their waiting area was very cute.  There were no photos allowed on the tour which made me roll my eyes a little – Laphroaig positively encouraged it – but it was still enjoyable.

Two tours was probably enough for the day, so we started afresh the following morning with Bruichladdich.

We chose their Warehouse Experience, which was less of a tour and more of a ‘sit in a warehouse and get hammered’.  Again, very enjoyable for a whisky fan as you got to sample some limited edition casks whilst sat amongst the barrels, listening to our guide telling us all about life on the island.  Bruichladdich is noticeably different to the others – they call themselves progressive, and they definitely feel less stuffy, more youthful.  They also make a gin called The Botanist so we’ll need to go back and try that at some point as well.

Our final distillery on this visit was Kilchoman which was different again.  Whilst the first three we visited were right by the sea, Kilchoman is on a farm, more inland and down a long single-track road.  They’re a much smaller scale operation, really family-orientated.  They really felt like a hard-working team – not that the others didn’t seem hard-working, but Kilchoman is the newest distillery so there was a lot more of a buzz in the grounds.  Another added bonus – their small cafe at the back of the shop served amazing cakes which I highly recommend.

Four distilleries in two days didn’t seem like a lot, but we were definitely tired.  Our next trip needs to be longer – we have four other distilleries to cover off, and we possibly even need to pop over to the neighbouring isle of Jura to samples their whisky too.

For a someone who doesn’t drink, I sure have been to a lot of distilleries.

Islay – The Logistics

Once I’d figured out where we were going to stay on Islay for Husband’s surprise birthday trip, I then had to figure out how to get there.

The first leg of the journey was to Glasgow which was the easy part.  From there, there are a few options but realistically for our schedule, we could either fly with Logan Air or drive to Kennacraig to get the Calmac ferry.  There are pros and cons for both modes of transport but considering my goal was to get to Islay as quickly as possible, flying ended up being the best choice.

Unfortunately, flying made the beginning and end of our trip quite stressful.  We almost missed our first flight from Heathrow as there was an accident on the M3 which was so frustrating as we only live 30 minutes away from Terminal 5.  Not only that, whilst I thought I had given us enough time to switch planes on the way back from Islay at Glasgow airport, our Logan Air flight ended up leaving Islay half an hour late so we had to run to our gate.  And I hate being that person who runs through airports.

Not only that, but Husband was sad that our luggage wasn’t big enough to pack all the whisky he wanted.  Next time, we’ll have to drive the 13 hours from our house so he can fill the whole car with bottles of whisky.

Ignoring the stress, flying into Islay is very special.  It takes 40 minutes from Glasgow on a tiny 34 seat turboprop plane (which was only moderately terrifying).  For most of our journey, the cloud level stopped us from seeing anything below but all of a sudden, the iconic Laphroaig appeared out of the right side of the plane.  I confess – I squealed when I saw it.

The airport itself is as small as you’d expect – two check-in counters, a bijou but comfortable lounge, a cafe serving locals as well as visitors.  I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a dog at the front door, but I don’t think he’s there all the time.

There’s a few transport options on the island – a regular bus service, a few taxi companies, but I decided on hiring a car from Islay Car Hire at the airport which was incredibly easy.  I booked a medium sized car as I knew the route to our Airbnb was a little off-road and I didn’t want to risk a small car.  Within about five minutes of getting off the plane, I was adjusting the mirrors in a Vauxhall Astra who I named Sassy.  The car hire worked for us mainly because I don’t drink, so was happy to ferry a tipsy Husband from distillery to distillery.

So other than drive from distillery to distillery (which I’ll be covering in a future post), what else did we do?  Not much to be honest.  With only two full days on the island, Husband wanted to maximise his whisky tasting time but we did manage to see a few non-whisky related places.

On our first night, we went up to Bowmore for a little wander around and some pizza at Peatzeria (good pun).  It was surprisingly busy for a Monday night and we ended up getting one of the last tables which I was relieved about as it would have been a shame to miss out on tasty pizza.  Bowmore has a lot of lovely little shops which were all closed as we were there late, but it’s definitely somewhere to get cute souvenirs as well as more every-day items.

The second night, we were too tired to go out so we ended up in the Port Ellen Co-op and cobbling something together to cook back at home.  I won’t tell you what we ended up with as it’s so pathetic (in our defence, the Co-op isn’t that big).  We did want to try the Sea Salt Bistro but instead tried their sister restaurant Yan’s Kitchen for lunch on our last day where I had an amazing burger.

My two favourite things about Islay:

  • The empty landscape.  There are a few “main” roads across the island but you can drive for miles and see nothing but fields.  Following the coast down to Port Charlotte, you’re right next to the sea.  When you’re not on a main road, you’re on a single track lane going through farmland.  There’s just nothing and I adore it.
  • The people.  I don’t want to being a patronising mainlander who just thinks everyone is sooo cute and quaint but every single person we came across was incredible friendly.  People wave at you as you’re driving along – other drivers and pedestrians – and I very quickly got used to waving back.  It felt really jarring to be back at home where people aren’t so nice.

What a phenomenal island.

Islay – Where We Stayed

For the past year, I have been planning a surprise trip for Husband’s big birthday (I won’t reveal the number – let’s pretend it was 30).  He was not involved in any of the planning and I managed to keep the secret all the way up until our final leg of the trip, so honestly, I am feeling pretty smug about what I managed to pull off.

On our very first trip to Edinburgh 4 years ago, Husband discovered Islay whisky, and became quickly fascinated by all the different elements that go into making the iconic whisky.  Since then, he’s been working his way through all the different brands that make this small island their home. so there really was only one place to take him.

And it certainly helps that Islay is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited.

More about the island in the next few posts, but this first one is about the place we stayed.  I have a reputation amongst friends and family for obsessively seeking out unusual places to stay (exhibit Aexhibit B, exhibit C to name a few) so of course I spent weeks – months – finding the most perfect property.  And I found a gem (here comes that smug feeling again).

This small but ever so beautiful turf roofed lodge is called Tigh Na Uiseag (which I think means house of the lark) and I found it on Airbnb.  I haven’t ever used Airbnb before so was a little nervous of booking, but I had no reason to be – Richard the host was a delight, so generous and helpful.  We couldn’t have wished for a better first Airbnb experience.

There are many places to chose from on Islay from B&Bs, to self-catering, to hotels, but there were a couple of things that helped me choose Tigh Na Uiseag – the overwhelmingly positive reviews, the Scandinavian-inspired decor (an Arne Jacobson chair!) and the view.  My god, what a view.And if you zoom in at the centre…

Husband’s favourite distillery, Laphroaig.  This post could just be a million photos of the view as we spent most of the time in the house just looking out the window, but then you’d miss out on the beautiful interior.

I didn’t photograph it, but the bathroom was amazing as well – Molton Brown toiletries, White Company bathrobes, and the most phenomenal shower I have ever used in my life.

There were so many thoughtful touches which made our stay even more wonderful – a book of short stories on the bedside tables, home-baked bread, eggs and bacon in the fridge,  and a cute pot of delicious marmalade which we ate whilst watching the ferry arrive in the morning.

Sadly, our stay was too short – a drawback of working in Higher Education with an August birthday is that annual leave is a little difficult – but we will definitely be returning for a longer stay.  As you’ll see from my next few posts, we still have so many distilleries left to visit…

Gianni’s at The Villa, South Beach


Yep, Gianni Versace’s mansion.

Before our trip to Miami, we were looking for somewhere special to celebrate my Mum’s big birthday.  We had also become obsessed with The Assassination of Gianni Versace.  These two seemingly unrelated elements led to us discovering that Versace’s former house on Ocean Drive had been converted into a hotel and restaurant so we just had to book a table at Gianni’s – the restaurant at The Villa Casa Casuarina.

The villa has had a complicated history – built back in the 1930s, converted into apartments shortly after and had its ups and downs before Versace bought it in the 1990s who converted back into one mansion.  He also bought the property next door and created a beautiful outdoor space (although not without controversy).  After his death, it continued to have a troubled existence, but seems to have been a little more stable since opening as a hotel a couple of years ago.  It’s definitely earned its iconic status.

South Beach at night really isn’t my style.  I’ve never really been into partying or bar hopping and this is pretty much South Beach’s primary purpose (it’s why we’ve enjoyed our hotel up in Surfside).  But Gianni’s was definitely worth the effort.  We decided to splash out on an Uber Lux, and pulling up to the front of the villa in a big fancy GMC… car (I’m not good with American cars) felt really special.

We were shown in to the restaurant at the front of the hotel – there were a couple of different areas dotted around the ground floor including the terrace and poolside and whilst it would have been amazing to sit out by the pool, it started raining about half an hour into our meal so we were happy to be inside!

Whilst we waited for our food to arrive, Mum and I scampered around looking at the beautiful decor.  It was outrageously over the top and not remotely my taste, but that’s exactly why I loved it!  The staff were happy for customers to walk around, but didn’t allow tourists – one couple were asked to either book a table or leave as it wasn’t a “tourist attraction” which I did appreciate (mostly because it made it easier for us to look around).

The food itself was expensive of course, but very enjoyable.  There’s obviously a premium for being in such an amazing location, but we all ate really well.  I wasn’t going to have dessert, but couldn’t resist trying a red chocolate mousse.  It was phenomenal.

Gianni's red chocolate mousseI will confess that I had fairly low expectations – I had a preconceived idea on what the food and service would be like, but we had such an unexpectedly great evening!  It’s nice to go fancy every once in a while.

After the meal, we took a wander down Ocean Drive to see the art deco buildings lit up at night.

Really very pretty, but the rest of the strip just confirmed what I’ve always thought – South Beach at night isn’t for me.  Interesting, but definitely not for me.  Wow.