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
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.
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.
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