I don’t know whether I should feel like Janet Leigh checking into the Bates Motel or Don Henley knocking on the doors of the Hotel California.
In the movie, oil is discovered off Scotland and an American company representative is sent across the Atlantic to negotiate the purchase of a delightful little fishing village that will be demolished to make way for a refinery.
Much of the story takes place in the local hotel, outside which is the quintessential red “tickey-box” – the village’s only means of communication with the outside world.
Pennan and its near neighbour Crovie are typically remote Aberdeenshire coastal settlements, nestling at the foot of cliffs and comprising a single road of houses built end-on to the sea.
I adored the movie (and the Knopfler soundtrack) but it took me years to identify the village and make contact with the hotel’s owners.
“We’ll be away the while,” I was told when I called and said I wanted to rent a room for a couple of nights, “but we’ll leave the keys with Tam at the pub.”
I didn’t realise they’d leave the keys for the whole hotel.
Tam and I became well acquainted and I would sit outside in the long autumn evenings with a Lagavulin in hand, listening to wavelets lapping against the shore.
And, yes, I used the tickey-box (there was a photo in the hotel reception of Knopfler standing in the booth, phone to ear) to call my girlfriend in Cape Town.
As pilgrimages go, it was a particularly fine one.
The fictional village of Ferness and the phone box in Pennan, Scotland. Picture: Wikimedia / Tom Jer
In 2011, two years after being part of a TV crew that overran Zahara de los Atunes in southern Spain, I returned to Andalucía on holiday. I’d e-mailed the owners of the Hotel Pozo del Duque, which the crew had booked out for over a week, and asked if they could squeeze me in … not knowing November is the nadir of the Spanish tourist season.
Once again I had the place to myself. It was bliss: the weather wasn’t too hot or cold and the village was almost deserted.
The locals got to know my eating and drinking habits – more of the latter than the former – and, while we never got friendly because they were (after all) snotty Spaniards, I was tolerated. I’ll be back … damned right I will.
Hotel Pozo del Duque in Spain. Picture: Supplied
Nine years later and I’ve been the lone guest twice in two months – this time thanks to Covid-19. I don’t know whether I should feel like Janet Leigh checking into the Bates Motel or Don Henley knocking on the doors of the Hotel California.
The first time was when Uncle Cyril gave the green light to business travel and Spier invited me to be guinea-pig for a night.
It was a really cool experience and, best of all, no-one told Jesse the resident cat about the need for social distancing. I’m not sure if it was because he was craving fresh company or that I ordered oxtail for my room-service dinner but Jesse didn’t stop purring all night.
Last weekend saw the resumption of intra-provincial leisure travel in the Overberg. Winter or no, I’d been itching to do a motorcycle road trip and, when Suzuki offered me the new DL1050 VSTROM, all that remained was to find a destination and an excuse to visit it.
Several things came together to suggest Gansbaai and the Grootbos Nature Reserve, home to about 800 species of fynbos.
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. Picture: Supplied
Grootbos owner Michael Lutzeyer was happy to welcome me back, he said, but would not be able to provide catering because he only planned to open a fortnight later. No problem and thanks very much, I responded.
The second evening (a Thursday), on returning from friends in nearby Stanford about an hour after dark, I discovered the downside of being the only guest: the reserve was shut and no-one was on duty either at the gate or at reception.
I parked the bike and scaled the four-metre fence with a lot more difficulty than I would have done when I was in my 20s. The night was overcast and the 2.5km uphill trek to the lodge was conducted in pitch darkness.
I was just extremely glad that it wasn’t a Big Five reserve.
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