Cycle from the Southern to the Central Highlands, Scotland

By Colin Baird, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Aviemore.

Overall rating:4.0 out of 5 (based on 3 votes)
Enjoyable
5
5.0
Useful
4
4.0
Inspirational
4.333335
4.3
Recommended for:
Activity, Short Break, Mid-range

Cycle Scotland's most notorious mountain pass, visit a romantic castle, tour a whisky distillery, ride a steam train, and enjoy some of the best scenery in the country

"Warning!” The sign at the start of the Drumochter Pass stopped us in our tracks. It read like something you would expect to see in outback Australia, not bonny Scotland. “Weather conditions deteriorate without warning.” “No food or shelter for 30km.” What had we let ourselves in for?

Despite such forebodings, the cycle route from Pitlochry to Aviemore is perfect for an active weekend that gives you a true taste of the Highlands. It ticks all the boxes: wild mountain scenery, a white washed baronial castle, remote whisky distillery, plenty of history and a steam train through forest and moor.

Day one: Pitlochry to Newtonmore - 66km

The journey begins at Pitlochry train station. The building houses a second-hand bookshop that can be a useful excuse to stall the inevitable start for just a few minutes more. Look for the blue route 7 cycle signs at the station; these are the ever present friendly beacons that guide the way.

After 5km you will reach one of Scotland’s most important Jacobite sites, the Battle of Killiecrankie (www.nts.org.uk/Property/39 Pitlochry, 0844 4932194) A free visitor centre provides a fascinating overview of the battle. There is a woodland walk to Soldier Leap Gorge where it is reputed a government soldier jumped five metres to escape his pursuers.

Another 5km will bring you to the most stereotypically Scottish of all Scottish castles. Blair Castle (www.blair-castle.co.uk Blair Athol, 01796 481207) is a white baronial masterpiece where a bagpiper welcomes visitors at the entrance. It is free to wander the extensive gardens or you can pay to visit the rooms.

There is not long to go until the start of the Drumochter Pass, a 30km stretch of nothingness. The House of Bruar (www.houseofbruar.com Blair Atholl, 01796 483709), a kind of country-style Harrods, is the last outpost. It has a food hall, clothing, gifts and café serving the carbs you will need for the journey ahead. A seat outside will get you attention from the local bird life; swooping boldly to pick on your sultana scone crumbs.

If you have time it is worth doing the nearby Falls of Bruar walk which traverses Scots Pine forest and has stone bridges crossing the waterfalls (www.walkhighlands.co.uk/perthshire/falls-of-bruar.shtml).

I have to say that I did not find the pass daunting; I enjoyed cycling this completely car-free path. The scenery was spectacular in places, but I could understand how bleak it would be in poor weather.

The motivation for completing the pass is the fact that the most perfect reward awaits you at the finishing line - Dalwhinnie Whisky Distillery (www.discovering-distilleries.com/dalwhinnie Dalwhinne, 01540 672219). This place changed my life!

I had no interest in whisky up to that point. I would go so far as saying I found it to be slightly revolting. However, I left with a new found desire to experience the world of whisky. How did this happen? First of all our tour guide was so inspiring and enthusiastic about the drink that he had me captivated - it was the way he described the process, the smells, colours and tastes. Then there are the surroundings; 1057 feet above sea level and one of the coldest villages in the UK. Finally, I was inspired by the small scale of the production; employing only six people and using traditional white-painted buildings with distinctive pagodas.

Where to eat and stay: Newtonmore

Craigerne Hotel
The owners of the Craigerne Hotel were very friendly and chatted to us about the cycling - they also let us keep the bikes in their garage. The 10 rooms are cosy and finished with modern décor. Expect to pay £30 per person for bed and breakfast.

Highlander Hotel
The Highlander Hotel could easily be marketed as a 1970s theme hotel; the interiors and furnishings are all from this period. I could not fault the comfortable and immaculate rooms. The sprawling restaurant still manages to be snug due to a low ceiling and subdued lighting. Families and groups of friends are the main clientele for the hearty, classic dishes like fish and chips, steak pie and salmon in hollandaise sauce. The '70s theme extends to a desert trolley with sherry trifle and meringues. Off season it is possible to get a double room for £30 bed and breakfast.

The Glen Hotel
I did not stay here, but had a meal in the restaurant. This is a menu for all tastes and features quality pub fare; fajitas, curry, steak and fisherman's pie, or something Scottish like haggis and venison. Most main courses cost are under £10. This is a place to get a filling, tasty meal; not hang about and admire the interior design. The room is functional and at busy times you will feel the pressure to finish up so that somebody else can get fed. Although a 3-star, the hotel promotes its purchase of 5-star quality beds for the rooms.

Day two: Newtonmore to Aviemore - 29km

This is a straightforward cycle; mostly flat and on quiet B-roads. However, you can make the day last much longer because there are many diversions.

The first is one of those romantic ruins that Scotland seems to have all over the place. Ruthven Barracks sits on a commanding position on a huge mound. This place was built by the British Government in response to Jacobite uprisings. In August 1745 200 Jacobites attacked it. A force of just 12 red coat soldiers managed to repeal them with the loss of just one man “shot through the head by foolishly holding his head too high over the parapet”!

How about one of Britain's top ten cake shops next? Inside Inshriach Nursery there is the Potting Shed café (www.drakesalpines.com/pottingshed.php Aviemore, 01540 651 287) one of the best cake eating experiences of my life. It was torture to choose which one of the beautiful creations to have on my plate because it meant leaving the others behind! I took the chocolate and caramel cake: crushed peanuts and caramel drizzled on the top of thick cream and a moist sponge.

The next surprise is something that I term as “cycling heaven”. Rothiemurchus Forest (www.rothiemurchus.net Aviemore, 01479 812345) has beautiful cycle paths that you could easily and very happily explore for hours.

If you have never put your bike on the guard's van of a steam train and fancy combining something unique with your cycling this is your chance. You can take the Strathspey Steam Railway (www.strathspeyrailway.com Aviemore, 01479 810 725) to the first stop, Boat of Garten, and cycle back to Aviemore through forest and moorland. This is another path that I would not hesitate to label “cycling heaven” and a perfect way to end your weekend.

Where to eat and stay: Aviemore

International Starters Restaurant and Rooms
Aviemore is not short of places to stay, but I would like to recommend somewhere a bit special that stands out from the crowd. International Starters is categorised as a “restaurant with rooms”. It is unsurprising, then, that the ground floor is all restaurant and upstairs is where a small number of rooms are kept. The bedrooms are small, but gorgeously outfitted with the trendiest modern furnishings. Expect to pay £70 for a double room with breakfast.

The menu is a great concept, offering only starters (most costing £5.50-£6.50). It is divided into four categories: Scotland, Mediterranean, Asia, and the Americans. It works a bit like tapas with the idea that you order several different starters. Crispy haggis parcels are their most popular dish, for good reason. Loch Fyne mussels, Greek mezze, Peking duck and Cajun prawns are also very fine. An upmarket decor attracts couples and discerning families.  

Practicalities

Pitlcochry and Aviemore are well connected to the rest of the UK by train. Edinburgh to Pitlochry takes under two hours. Bikes are carried free, but must be booked in advance. See: www.scotrail.co.uk

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More information on Cycle from the Southern to the Central Highlands, Scotland:

Author:
Colin Baird
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4
Average: 4 (3 votes)
Total views:
700
First uploaded:
19 March 2010
Last updated:
4 years 24 weeks 4 days 14 hours 17 min 33 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Short Break
Budget level:
Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
cycling, castle, whisky

Colin recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Highlander Hotel
£32
N/A
2. The Glen Hotel
£30
N/A
3. International Starters Restaurant And Rooms
£63
N/A
4. Craigearne Hotel
N/A

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Community comments (7)

Rating:
4
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Ah! Cakes and scones - something we Scots are great at. Pity you have to do all that hard cycling, though. Seriously, a great guide, Colin, and a tempter to get 'on yer bike' and back north of the border.

Good to point out the downside of some of the eating places, too.

Well done!

Was this comment useful?

Thanks Murray! I love my cakes, particularly during cycle trips and it is an absolute must for me to find good cafes when I am bicycling. It tastes so much better after exercise and you never feel guilty because you are just replacing lost calories.

Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

A great write up on a beautiful part of the world. I've walked some of the area but never cycled.

Paul

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Thank you Paul. It is one of my favourite parts of Scotland; so much to see and do within a relatively small area and brilliant scenery. I hope the article encourages you to consider some cycling!

Rating:
4
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

I love the addition of a video from your trip, Colin. It really complements your images and descriptions of the route. Thanks for a well-structured and enjoyable guide with an opening that really grabbed my attention. The crispy haggis parcels sound interesting...did you try some?

A few minor points...can you add any information about The Glen Hotel as a place to stay? Did you get a chance to see any of the rooms? Also, please can you add some more contact details after each recommendation – address; phone number; website is ideal.

What do other readers think of this guide? Has it inspired you to grab your bike and head to the Highlands? Have you cycled in the same area? Thanks.

Was this comment useful?

Thanks Cathy. I have added locations and phone numbers for the attractions. I have not done this for the accommodation as I think the link to the booking engine takes care of this. Is this okay?

I added a small bit about the rooms in the Glen, based on what I read but I didn't see them. For future guides there is probably no harm in asking to see the rooms. I guess people do this all the time by saying they might come back and stay.

The Haggis Parcels were superb. Nice and spicy. International Starters also have a restaurant in Edinburgh so if you fancy the cuisine and aren't heading north this is another option.

That's great. Thank you, Colin!