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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Speyside and the Moray Coast

Speyside is recognised worldwide as being at the heart of whisky production. Many drink enthusiasts travel its green straths and charming waterways, merely dotting from one distillery to another but there are many other attractions for the imbiber in this part of northern Scotland.

The Glenlivet, Tomintoul, Glenfarclas, Macallan… the names slip as easily from the mouth of a whisky lover as the golden liquid goes in the other direction. Many hours or days or even week can be spent visiting the 50-odd distilleries in Speyside that produce the nectar enjoyed from China to Chile.

But you don’t have to set foot in these whisky factories to have fun sampling alcohol in this land of mountains, native forests and broad glens. This can mean a cocktail in the understated granite elegance Boat of Garten’s Boat Hotel or a simple neat dram of Tomatin in the homely bar of the Cairn Hotel in Carrbridge.

I enjoyed both of these pleasures recently but I’ll concentrate instead on the pub experiences to be found on the Moray coast, the shoreline that is breached by the mouth of the Spey.

The quiet coastline, which changes from rocky to sandy and back again within very short distances can be enjoyed for its beauty without any liquid accompaniment but, as we know by now, a glass in hand and a warming feeling in one’s belly and brain does wonders for one’s appreciation of any setting, so why not combine both?

Nearer the eastern end of the coast there are quite a few small fishing villages that offer great maritime vantage points as well as welcoming hostelries. Portsoy is one of them.

It isn’t a tourist magnet, more of a normal village where life has followed a similar pattern for many years unaffected by who comes to look at it. That isn’t to say that the blights of dying industries and unemployment haven’t impinged here. Quite the opposite, as can be seen in The Shore Inn.

A myriad of notices such as Drug Free Zone, Moray Pubwatch, Child Zone, Zero Tolerance for Nose Picking etc etc etc litter the walls. Perhaps some of the instructions here offer real, valuable guidance but mostly they just advertise what kind of fun can be had or, rather, avoided here on a swinging Saturday night.

So much so that sheltered souls might run out before properly sampling the low-ceilinged interior and the decent range of cask ales. Indeed, another poster proclaims CAMRA’S endorsement of the inn but that turns this reviewer off as much as the other notices.

Despite it’s location the only fish on the menu is haddock and scampi but eating isn’t really what this place is about.

It’s worth hanging around to see how things turn slower in this kind of bar than in a city counterpart. Conversations are left hanging to be continued later that day or the next and the local drunk is given that bit longer before he is turfed out.

After a while I headed west along the coast where in places like Cullen and Portknockie there is a slightly softer appearance to the seaside and there are a fair choices of places from which to sample local beverages and the salty air. The latter can bring up quite a thirst. The Cullen Bay Hotel - sitting at a high vantage point of the town and its golf course, both of which are split in level and in character - is the most notable venue in the area.

Moving even further west past the sadly neglected town of Buckie the landscape flattens after Lossiemouth and the shoreline becomes more open. Findhorn, with its particularly pleasing bay, is probably the best stop along this part of the coast. The money in the area seems to recognise this too because the kind of drinking/eating establishment you get here is far removed from the unreconstructed kind present in Portsoy and neighbouring villages.

The Kimberley Inn is a thriving little bar/eatery whose front beer garden gets busy as soon as the sun shines. Just up the road, the Crown and Anchor has a larger beer garden and interior. But even this garden, complete with smoking shelter (barn, actually) isn’t enough sometimes and drinkers often slip down for a seat and view overlooking the bay, and why not? After all, there are no Strathclyde police officers around.

If you do go inside, you’ll find a bar with two personalities. A dark, older, low beamed front area where drink and bar food are served and a brighter back end with dining room and entrance hall complete with whisky showcase cabinet.

After a long day coasteering I felt like finishing the long daylight hours with the drink (remember I mentioned it earlier?) that has made this part of Scotland especially famous. I had one outside at the shore and one in the traditional part of the Crown and Anchor. A fine 21-year-old Benromach. There was no other way of toasting the day.