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The moon over my bed

Having decided late in the afternoon that dinner was out of the question, that I needed to purge my body of its salt-infused diet, that it would be good for me to take a break from all things liquid related, including wine, I find myself inexplicably hungry at 7. So I compromise with myself by riding my bike to Ars near sunset and ordering a snack at Bistrot de Bernard—a dozen oysters, a risotto of langostinos, and a half bottle of wine.

Well, what did you expect? There are no villages on Île de Ré named St.-David, in my honor, nor will there be after my visit.

Ars is quieter than St.-Martin. In the cafes and bistros, voices are as subdued as the rust-colored light at dusk.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


The oysters are marvelous but I’m not happy with the wine, some cloying rose from Aix-en-Provence. I am forced to order another demi-bottle of the island rose, chiding myself for not knowing better.

Local food, local wine.

To keep the wine company, I order an assorted plate of cheese. Suddenly it’s dark out. My bike ride home is, shall we say, interesting (can you get arrested in France for being intoxicated on a bike?). But the bike path glows from the reflection of a full moon guiding me like a lighthouse beacon to safe harbor.

Eventually I find my way home and lie in bed, iPod stuck in my ears, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Paprika Plains” (I’m floating into dreams/I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams). Over my bed is a moonroof that automatically opens to the night sky and right in the middle of it sits a dazzling full moon, like a luminescent pearl.

I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams.

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I’m at the car-rental counter inside the Bordeaux airport, pondering a map of France. Feeling a bit groggy, I nonetheless notice that my destination—a small island somewhere off the western coast of mainland France called Île de Ré—doesn’t exist. At least, not on this map. There’s the obvious brown thing, France, and the blue thing to the left, which must be the Atlantic Ocean, but nothing in between. No little obvious speck to suggest an isle. Is Île de Ré some sort of oceanic Oz?

Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît,” I say to the perky car-rental gal whose name tag, I swear to God, says Glenda. “How do I get to Île de Ré ?”

The petite French people behind the counter giggle at this question, but Glenda only smiles and says, “Why that’s simple. Just follow the road to Paris.”

“Follow the road to Paris?”

“Yes, follow the road to Paris.”

Shall we all chime in now?

So off I go to…the road to Paris. There are no lions and tigers and bears, but there are swaying fields of gigantic sunflowers, a frightening thunderstorm and a forest of confusing road signs pointing thither and yon that only leads me in circles. Five hours into a journey that Glenda assured me would take no more than three, I finally find the yellow brick road: a swooping, nearly two-mile-long bridge connecting the port city of La Rochelle, on the west coast of the mainland, to Île de Ré .

The sun is just beginning to set and the bridge sparkles, disappearing into a haze at the other end, appearing to drop precipitously down into the sea. Is there really land on the other side? As I cross the bridge in my cool little Citroën, hurtling through puffy, dark clouds, I feel as if I am falling through the sky. A swirling American plummeting toward a magical French isle.

Listen, I don’t like little yappy dogs, and I’m not from Kansas. I’ve always lived near the ocean, but I seldom swim in it. The sea both mesmerizes and terrifies me. When I am in it, I am always aware of the enormity of the unknown beneath me and the downward pull. Being in the ocean reminds me all too well that I am little more than a stressed, frantic sardine who spends most of his time darting in circles with no clear destination in mind. I worry that, sooner or later, I will grow tired of all this movement and slip beneath a wave. In short, I sometimes feel like a drowning man.

I am never completely satisfied when I travel and my friends say, What is it you want? Here’s what I want: I want to be somewhere like Île de Ré long enough that I not only know how to properly say huîtres without embarrassing myself but know precisely who, on the island, sells the best. I want to know when market day is in every village and be on good enough terms with the fish monger that she holds the best hommard back, knowing I will ask for it. I want the waiter at my favorite café to greet me warmly when I show up on a busy mid-August evening and to pull a table in off the street and have it set, even though he has been telling everyone else for an hour that the restaurant is complet.

I want to know the difference between saucisson noix and saucisson noisettes. In short, I don’t want to go to the aquarium and lean against the glass, staring at the fascinating fish that are so close but so inaccessible. I want to immerse myself in the tank. I want to dive in and joint them. Despite my fear of water.

Is that too much to ask?

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Almondine the salt farmer

There is not much to see at the salt museum, housed in an old farmhouse on the edge of Loix. Actually, it looks more like a small classroom where students have set up their science exhibits. A few old photos, rusty tools, and modest displays showing the process for farming salt. All in all it takes no more than 10 minutes to go through the whole thing.

But there is a salt pond behind the museum where I sat on the bank, watching a young woman named Almondine pull a wooden rake through the shallow water, bringing the gray salt from the floor of the pond to the berm where she carefully piled it into two-foot-high pyramids to dry.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


Almondine is from Paris and has a degree in psychology so I asked her why she did this work on this little island. “I like being out here in the marshes,” she said. “It is very beautiful and quiet.”

And it was. Just the cries of gulls overhead and the soft sound of the wind rustling the dead stalks of wild mustard along the banks. Because the salt ponds are all in protected habitats, there is a lot of wildlife out here if you take the time to notice. More than 300 species of birds in fact, like the egret standing stoically just yards away from where Almondine worked.

We walked to the lowest pond where a thin crust of very fine salt had formed on the surface. This was the fleur de sel—flower of salt—which you can only get when the weather is hot and windy and the salt doesn’t sink but floats on top of the pond, giving it a naturally white color and a delicate taste. So delicate you can, as I did, taste it straight from the marsh.

“What does it taste like?” Almondine asked me.

“Like life,” I said.

She smiled. ”Oui, comme la vie. Très bon.”

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On our last night on the isle of Arran, Charles and I have what is, without doubt, my best dinner since getting off the Chantilly. It’s at Creelers in Brodick, a well-known seafood restaurant. We start off with a trio of smoked Scottish salmon followed by whole lobsters from the north coast that Sam, the chef, tells us “Came in kickin’ just this morning.”

For dessert, I order a trio of Arran cheeses, including the whisky cheese, along with a dram of 10-year-old single malt Isle of Arran. Sipping my water of life, I feel expansive. I feel emotional. I feel as if I am exactly where I should be at this moment in time, and whether it’s the north coast lobster, the Arran cheese, or, more likely, the warming whisky, I couldn’t tell you. Nor does it matter.

Driving back to the Glenartney, Charles seems to sense my Scottish euphoria. Without saying a word, he ignores the turnoff to our hotel and keeps driving along the coast. It is 9:30 on a late summer eve in Scotland but it is still light out. The gloaming. The most glorious time, in my mind, in all the day. The sky is layers of orange, purple, and pale blue, particularly towards Goat Fell, the barren, stoney hill that is the highest mountain on Arran.

The gloaming on the isle of Arran.

The gloaming on the isle of Arran.

We drive and drive along this Great Wee Road out into the country until suddenly Charles slams on the brakes and we come to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Have we hit something? Has the car broken down?

Without saying a word, Charles gets out of the car. I follow. He is staring off towards the sea. I follow his gaze to a green pasture sloping gently down to the shoreline. There, just on the other side of the fence, are two silent, magnificent hairy coos staring calmly at me, a mother and her calf.

“Oh my god,” I whisper.

Mama hairy coo. Photos by David Lansing.

A mama hairy coo, top, and child on the isle of Arran. Photos by David Lansing.

A mama hairy coo, top, and child on the isle of Arran. Photos by David Lansing.

Charles smiles but doesn’t say a word. I cross the country road and stand at the fence, close enough to touch the mother hairy coos. She is stoic and serene and wise-looking. Like the Queen Mother herself. Or a bovine Buddha. Standing there before them is as close to a spiritual experience as I think I’ve ever had. I half-wonder if they are going to start talking to me, telling me what to do with the rest of my life.

“Should I stay or should I go?” I ask them.

The hairy coos are elegantly silent.

Back at the Glenartney, I find that I am so contented I can hardly stand it. While Charles goes off to his room, I head off to the lounge, which is little more than a home bar, and ask Robbie to pour me an Arran whisky with just a wee touch of water. I take my whisky out into the garden and sit in an old rickety wooden garden chair facing Goat Fell, sipping on my single malt and thinking about my time in the Hebrides.

There’s a lot that happens emotionally to me when I travel. It’s not really all about finding the perfect dram or listening to the stories of old coots or hoping to spot a hairy coo, though, of course, that’s all part of it. It’s more about what happens inside you. It’s about the thoughts you have and the cinematic dreams that come over you at night when you’re outside your comfort zone.

It’s about life. As Graham, the captain of Chantilly, told me back at Talisker on our last evening together, “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.”

Sitting in the gloaming, drinking my whisky, I imagine taking a spiritual retreat at the Buddhist sanctuary on Holy Isle. I contemplate grounding myself for a year in some small village like Port Ellen and maybe buying the pub where, years ago, an Irish artist painted a mural of Islay scenes depicting the locals in exchange for a dram—or two—of whisky. I wonder over the possibility of living in Barnhill, George Orwell’s old stone house on Jura and looking for the Future Stone.

I sip my whisky and I think hard about all the possibilities before me. Here on a small isle on the western coast of Scotland.

And I’m really thinking about it, Graham. All of it.

I’m thinking hard.

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The Scots are mad for their walk-abouts. If they spot a stretch of open country or, even better, a hilly moor, they’re off and about before you can say Give me my walking stick. Last night, while I was sitting in a rusty old chair in the garden of the Glenartney Inn, Charles was swapping stories with the owner, Robbie Mallinson. But the light was fading and Robbie needed to take his dog, Zak, out for a walk. Which, of course, suited Charles just fine. So off they went.

Zack the dog getting the hang of things on a walk with Robbie.

Zack the dog getting the hang of things on a walk with Robbie.

I mention this because it seems that during their walk Charles divulged the futility of our search for a hairy coo. Not a problem, said Robbie. There are hairy coos at the Isle of Arran distillery. They use them to keep the grass clipped.

Perfect. So this morning, after tucking into a substantial FSB prepared by Robbie’s wife, Angela, we were off to the distillery. As Robbie suggested, there were in fact livestock roaming the grounds munching at the grass. But they just happened to be sheep, not hairy coos. Seems everyone in Scotland has a problem differentiating livestock.

Sheep--not a hairy coo--at Isle of Arran distillery.

Sheep--not a hairy coo--at Isle of Arran distillery.

Anyway, since we were here, we thought we might as well peak in at the visitor center where we ran into the manager, Gordon Mitchell, a wee chap who rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet when he talks, lifting up on his toes to emphasize this point or that. He was anxious to give us a tour.

Having gone on a half-dozen tours already, I tell him we can dispense with one more, but he’ll have none of it. He wants to show us everything: his office, the stills, the gift shop, but most importantly, the locked cellars where hundreds of oak casks hold thousands of gallons of whisky.

With the excitement of a child stumbling towards the yuletide tree on Christmas morning, Gordon takes us to a corner of the cask warehouse, standing proudly before three barrels above his head. The first two are single malts from 1997 that are owned by Prince Harry and his brother, Prince William, their names stenciled in white. Next to those is a third cask owned by the actor Ewan McGregor.

The casks are like newborn triplets and Gordon the proud father. And, in fact, this is a whisky nursery of sorts. All around us are other people’s whisky barrels, their signatures and dates scribbled on them like autographs in a baseball program. Each barrel, which holds about 100 bottles of whisky, is owned by an individual. Or a couple. Or a group of friends. It’s the distillery’s unique way of raising funds to finance the enterprise which started up 14 years ago. Own your own barrel of whisky. It costs 1,200 quid for your own cask—about $2,000. And you have to wait three years for it to age (although you can leave it at the distillery to age for as long as 10 years if you like). But at the end, you get 100 bottles, with your own label on it.

I consider the possibility: Lansing Single Malt Whiskey.

I rather like that.

When we leave the distillery, I notice that Charles is unusually quiet. He admits he’s a bit down on himself for not having produced a hairy coo for me, especially since we leave the island tomorrow. Thinking a walk-about might cheer him up, I suggest we stop at Lochranza Castle and go for a hike around the bay. Charles doesn’t seem too enthused but stops anyway.

It’s not much of a castle, Lochranza. Just a big pile of stones, really. Originally a fortified two-story towerhouse, with lodging upstairs and a barn on the ground level, it was probably built early in the 13th century. When new owners took over a couple of centuries later, they did what all new owners do: remodeled. Which is when it became a castle of sorts.

Charles Hunter at Lochranza Castle. Photos by David Lansing.

Charles Hunter at Lochranza Castle. Photos by David Lansing.

Anyway, while I’m sitting outside the castle soaking up some rare sun, Charles is poking around the structure, seeing what he can see. When he finally comes over to me, he’s much more chipper.

“It just came to me, while poking about these ruins, where we’ll find our hairy coos,” he says. “If you’re up for it.”

How can I not be? Even if I no longer believe they really exist.

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