Golf Heaven, good restaurants and bunker hell
NORTH BERWICK, Scotland || Does heaven exist? Let's leave that one aside and talk about golf heaven instead. Oh, we know it exists. The question is, which part of Scotland is most sublime?
Some will say St. Andrews, or maybe the wild west coast or elemental northeast. My vote at the moment is for the area just east of Edinburgh, centered around the seaside village of North Berwick. I'm standing on one of the world's oldest (and best, and most underrated) golf courses, which might have something to do with it. North Berwick West Links was laid out early in the 19th century, and despite playing almost exactly as it did at the turn of the 20th, still challenges top players while giving less-than-top ones like me the round of a lifetime. This is golf before the game became pasteurized and homogenized. One green is guarded by stone walls, another has a two-foot-deep trench running through its centre. The par-3 15th—"Redan"—may be the most copied hole in the game.
And North Berwick West is just one of roughly a dozen seaside links stretching along the south shore of the Firth of Forth. Muirfield is in the Open Championship rota, and Old Musselburgh lays claim to a hotly contested title of the oldest golf course still extant, its origins in 1672 predating the current layout at St. Andrews. (Moreover, Mary Queen of Scots was known to have knocked a ball around here a century before even that, so there.) Throw in Dunbar and North Berwick's Glen course, to name just a couple, and this is easily one of the finest arrays on the globe.
I could go on, but the appeal of North Berwick extends even beyond its courses. The town is mere minutes from Edinburgh by commuter train, and the Scottish capital has a thing or two going for it from a tourist's point of view. For another, North Berwick puts the lie to the idea that eating in Scotland is a less than pleasant adventure. That commuter train figures in again. Most of the traffic is in fact the other way around—carrying prosperous executives back and forth from their jobs in the city to their seaside homes in charming North Berwick—and the town's eateries reflect this reality. Fast food outlets have been outlawed, humble pubs feature chef-driven menus, and good white-tablecloth restaurants abound. The town and immediate area are also home to a couple of prominent tourist attractions: the Scottish Seabird Centre, its telescopes trained on the puffins that inhabit a nearby island, and the National Museum of Flight, complete with a now-grounded Concorde.
Oh, not everything is perfect here in golf heaven—my shot here on the Redan, for example. Going against all wisdom, I've attempted to fly the pin from 180 yards, and my six-iron has come up inches short. Given that my next shot will be out of the bunker from hell, the true question this moment is, why am I so content?
The canal where a ferris wheel replaces the locks
FALKIRK, Scotland || Scotland has long been famous for engineering genius, its roving sons building the world's bridges, railways and steamships from the Victorian era onwards. So it is perhaps only appropriate that a fine piece of 21st century engineering has become one of Scotland's most popular tourist attractions.
Towards the end of the 18th century the completion of a 56-kilometre-long canal, the Forth & Clyde, allowed ocean-going trading vessels to sail right into Glasgow. Subsequently, when the Union Canal opened in 1822, this connection was extended to Edinburgh, completing a Scottish Lowlands waterway network. But in 1933 the vital, 11-lock link that joined the two canals was cut by road construction, leaving two separate routes, one 35 metres above the other. In the decades that followed, both were largely abandoned and forgotten.
Now, revived for pleasure boating (along with much of Britain's extensive, 18th and 19th century canal network), the two have been reconnected with the world's only rotating boat lift: a vast, cog-covered mechanical beast that scoops up boats and water and sends them arcing through the air on the mother of all ferris wheel rides.
The ride didn't come cheap. The highway project that originally severed the canal only saved £16,000 by taking the shorter route through the locks. The revival of the waterway, completed in 2002, cost £84.5 million, of which 20 per cent was spent on the reconnection itself.
In the new alignment the final bit of the upper canal, before it reaches the Falkirk Wheel, soars over the valley on a series of pylons, passing like a thread through the concrete rings that top each support. Beyond the last ring is the wheel. There is more than a small element of science fiction in its design, and yet just beyond lie some traditional locks with creaking wooden gates: the overall effect is Klingon Empire meets Wind in the Willows.
To the onlooker, a ship entering the wheel's upper gondola seems ready to glide straight on and plunge into the water below. But it halts, and barriers rise behind it. There's a 20-second delay while 240 sensor checks are carried out by computer, then the structure begins, ponderously but magnificently, to rotate. The speed is impressive, if not exactly the "white-knuckle ride" promised in some of the literature. More impressively still, the system is so perfectly balanced that the energy needed for a single rotation is no more than that required to boil eight kettles.
Unlike with traditional locks, no water is lost, since as much is carried up with each rotation as travels down, and the journey time is in minutes rather than the hours it sometimes took to descend the original 11 locks, especially at peak season.
There's no charge for taking a boat up or down, but if you haven't brought your own vessel you can pay to take one of the frequent cruises on offer at the visitor centre, which sits at the base of the wheel and whose glass wall offers panoramic views of this unique engineering marvel at work.