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Back Buzz - February 6, 2006

pumping heart Merchants House, Main Street, Cairnryan, Wigtownshire, Scotland

Once again I apologise for this column being late. Don't worry, I haven't been run over by another bus -- just busy with the holiday season and work, not to mention a much needed post-New Year's break in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Sadly, with all the places I visited on our holiday, I am extremely embarrassed to report that I failed to visit a single coffeehouse.

This was because we stayed in hotels and B&Bs the entire time. I know that's a lame excuse; but after a full day and evening of holiday fun, over breakfast we tended to tank up on so much coffee to fuel another day that an afternoon caffeine stop plunged rather low on our list of priorities. Considering the average quality of hotel coffee, this resulted in our trip being rather uninspiring as far as caffeine is concerned.

But there was one exception.

As we planned to catch an early morning Irish Sea ferry from Cairnryan in Scotland over to Larne in Northern Ireland, we booked a room for the night in Cairnryan. Located on the A77, 15 minutes from Stranraer on the eastern shore of Loch Ryan, the village of Cairnryan was established in 1701 and became an important World War II military port where American soldiers camped. Today the seaside village is dominated by the P&O Ferry Terminal.

We stayed at the Merchants House, a traditional stone house in the centre of the village which features 2 modern ensuite rooms, a licensed restaurant, and a bar, all with views of the loch. When we arrived in the afternoon after a full day of travel we found there wasn't much to do in Cairnryan, and we didn't feel like driving over to Stranraer. So we ended up whiling away the hours in the Merchants House bar, sipping drinks by the roaring log fire and watching the ferries pass by as we read, did crosswords, and chatted with the proprietors, Alan and Fiona Dutton. Over evening meal was superb: we were seated at a romantic little table with the same gorgeous loch view. We started with an excellent tomato tarragon soup, and I had a lovely salmon fillet in white wine and parsley sauce, some nice crusty bread, good homemade chips, and proper al dente vegetables, all accompanied by a nice Chilean cabernet with the Merchants House's own label.

Because we were catching an early ferry we requested an early breakfast -- ungodly early. By some miracle of the alarm clock we managed to steer our foggy heads out of bed and downstairs, without performing any stair-diving manoeuvres, and by 6:00am we found ourselves sitting at the same window table, gazing out upon the blackness of the loch. (Since it was January the sun was sleeping late and wouldn't be showing its face for some time yet.) Our breakfast, like our evening meal, was excellent and sensibly small. And the coffee was proper cafetiére coffee, the kind which makes you actually want to pour another cup to enjoy rather than to get more caffeine down. I wasn't too surprised by this, because Alan and Fiona take pride in the details of their restaurant, and obviously coffee (or tea) is an important part of any breakfast.

As a result our dawn ferry trip was very pleasant, and I could be suitably enthusiastic about seeing the shores of Ireland looming in the early morning sun.

So if you're planning a trip to Northern Ireland from Scotland or northern England and you'd like to take the ferry, I would heartily recommend departing from Cairnryan, especially since the Stena Ferries in nearby Stranraer are planning to move their operations to Cairnryan as well. And be sure to stop in at the Merchants House. Even if you have no need for overnight accommodation, you can always stop in for a lovely meal. And if you do stay overnight, you can look forward to a decent cup of coffee, or two or three, in the morning. And perhaps a bit of lively banter as well.

Speaking of surprisingly good service and quality reminds me of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from last year:

Do you remember
an e-mail discussion we had back in early 1998 about hard-to-open cereal packages, where I was disappointed about having written a letter of complaint to Nature's Path and not having received a coupon as compensation?

Just recently I received the following e-mail:

Dear JC,

I read your feedback on your website on the hard to open Millet Rice bags from February 1998, and how Nature's Path did not send you a coupon for your efforts. We always love to hear from our customers and rest be assured, we would like to make it up to you.

A lot has changed since 1998, and Nature's Path is now one of North America's leading organic cereal brands. We owe a lot to consumers like you gave us your feedback in our early days. Please send your mailing address and we will send you a coupon for a free box of Nature's Path, Enviro Kidz Organic cereals/bars redeemable at a store near you.

Kind Regards,
Arjan Stephens

...which led to the following e-mail exchange:


Thanks for your e-mail! I'm sure a lot has changed, and I'm happy that I can still buy Nature's Path cereals here in England. It's so difficult to find good tasting cereals that don't have all kinds of added sugars, fats, and salt. Keep up the good work!

Will the coupon be redeemable in the UK? If so, my address is below.

Again, thanks for writing.

JC Mitchell

Hi JC,

Thanks for the email. I am forwarding this on to our consumer affairs department - I do not think that there should be a problem redeeming the coupon in the UK.


Hi JC,

I was mistaken, our coupons are not redeemable in the UK.

Our consumer affairs department is sending you a box of Nature's Path cereal from Vancouver Canada.



Thanks so much! I've added an update to my coffee column.


Just a few minutes ago a package arrived: a box of Nature's Path Millet Rice Flakes! And with it was the following letter:

Dear sir / madam,

Community Foods Ltd are the UK agents and distributors for the Natures Path & Envirokidz ranges of organic breakfast cereals & Nature's Path Inc have asked us to contact you following your recent complaint about one of their products.

We are very sorry that you have had cause to complain about this product. As a gesture of goodwill we enclose a replacement packet of Nature's Path Millet Rice flakes.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you should have any further queries.

Yours sincerely,
Mary Lawrey
Customer Services
Community Foods Ltd, London

With this kind of response I can't help but wonder if that complementary piece of freeway I was hoping to receive when I wrote a letter to CalTrans 3 decades ago might arrive in next week's post... That's an impressive story.

Wouldn't it be fine if people were monitoring the web for all complaints and trying to make them right? What if a Customer Service rep for car alarm companies read our rants and sent us tickets for a trip to some quiet, remote place? Or perhaps send a portable control device that deactivates any car alarm. (There is something like this to silence blaring television sets in bars. Have we talked about "TV-be-gone", which you can carry on a keychain?)

What if there was a Customer Service rep for the whole human race that sympathized with a common complaint and sought to de-clutter the world of people with bad taste? People who drink caramel lattes, talk loudly on their cell phones and guzzle lite beer could be offered one-way passes to a distant land where they wouldn't interfere with civilized life.