Palm trees growing in a mild climate, superb local and traditional food, and a fantastically warm welcome in some truly special hotels and B&Bs. Welcome to Dumfries and Galloway
The combination of a balmy Gulf Stream climate, artistic histories, gourmet local food, unspoilt scenery and unusual wildlife has made Cornwall one of Britain's most popular tourist destinations. But on another Western-facing peninsula, Dumfries & Galloway offers many of the same attractions – minus the high season crowds, and at much more affordable prices.
Savouring the flavours
Along the Solway coast it's possible to eat and drink your way along a trail of superb organic, artisan and traditional food producers.
The first stop is Craigadam Hotel, where Richard and Celia Pickup sell a range of award-winning organic lamb and game, ranging from au naturel (not for the squeamish) to Celia's pies and pates. You can also collect hampers of local produce to take away or give as very special gifts.
Heading south and west, back towards the coast, the next stop is at Cream O'Galloway (www.creamogalloway.co.uk) at Rainton, where David and Wilma Finlay make luscious organic and Fairtrade ice creams using milk from their herd of organically-reared cows. The visitor centre also sells burgers and other food made from the farm's beef, from cattle whose lives have been immeasurably improved by David Finlay's quest for the most humane methods to rear his animals. Children can let off steam on the go-karts and 'Flying Fox' rope slide, while adults can hire bikes and follow the trails through the hills. Check out the website for tours of the ice-cream plant and opportunities to make your own flavours. Cream O'Galloway also sells a range of tasty, wholesome bread from Wigwam Bakery (www.wigwambakery.co.uk/) in Creetown – and unless you're at the Saturday morning farmers' market in Gatehouse of Fleet, where Wigwam has a stall, it may be your only chance to sample the bakery's work.
Further along the Solway Firth is Marrbury Smokehouse (www.visitmarrbury.co.uk), which supplies some of Britain's top chefs as well as the famous Gleneagles Hotel. Vincent Marr learned the ancient craft of 'net and coble' fishing from his family, who have been catching salmon this way since at least the 1920s. As well as smoked salmon, the shop at Carsluith sells smoked trout, duck, scallops and seasonal specialities, to eat in the little cafe or to take away.
Finally, Bladnoch, set amidst remote inland hills further round Wigtown Bay, is home to Scotland's southernmost whisky distillery, dating from 1817. Having been mothballed by United Distillers and only fully re-opened in 2000, Bladnoch's own products are a comparatively rare find, and the tour around the distillery – and the chance to sample its wares – is a real privilege. Visit www.bladnoch.co.uk for tour times and opening hours.
Artists' town and book town
Dumfries & Galloway doesn't just feed the belly, but the soul as well. Kirkcudbright, one of the county's main towns, is an 'artists' town.' Home to a number of well-known Scottish artists, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its clear, cool light, hills and riverine views continue to attract painters and other artists. The town has a number of galleries, as well as museums cataloguing a history which extends back over a thousand years. According to legend, in the ninth century the town was one of the refuges for the bones of St Cuthbert after the monks of Lindisfarne fled, together with his remains, from Norse raiders. Today, Kirkcudbright is a tranquil town of pretty pastel houses, picturesque stone courtyards and fishing boats.
Further along the coast, Wigtown is known as 'Scotland's booktown' and claims to have a quarter of a million (mainly second-hand) books for sale at any one time. Booklovers will be happily overwhelmed by the browsing possibilities, and several good cafes provide refreshments to keep visiting bookworms going. The cafe in the Reading Lasses bookshop (www.reading-lasses.com) is especially good, with home-made cakes, home-grown salads, Marrbury Smokehouse salmon and local Galloway cheese on offer. Check out www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk for listings of book readings, literature and music festivals and other events. If you have time, think about heading further down the Machars peninsula to the see the ancient chapel to the hermit St Ninian at Isle of Whithorn, and the hermit's own cave, perched in a cliff looking out to sea.
Where to stay
The coast of Dumfries & Galloway is home to innumerable B&Bs, small hotels and farms offering all levels of accommodation. For something a bit special, however:
- Craigadam Hotel in Kirkpatrick Durham, in the hills inland from Kirkcudbright, offers luxurious en-suite rooms in single-storey buildings (some of them converted stables) around a courtyard, attractively planted with lavender. Each room is 'themed' – ranging from traditional Scottish to Creole – and the superb food, much of it prepared from ingredients grown or raised on the farm – is served in the splendid dining room in the main house. There's also an honesty bar in the pool room for guests wanting to sample Scotland's whiskies late into the night... single rooms are £60 per night on a B&B basis, doubles £45 per person, and dinner (featuring award-winning game and organic produce) is £26.50;
- Baytree House (High Street) is situated in one of central Kirkcudbright's picturesque pastel houses, and offers comfortable rooms in a good location for exploring the town's sights. Excellent breakfasts – which again often features local produce such as smoked haddock, smoked salmon and sausages – are served in a bright, sunny back room. There is also a small studio flat for independent hire. The £36 per person per night B&B tariff is a bargain;
- the Murray Arms, part of the Cally Estate, is a very good value pub hotel at the top of Gatehouse of Fleet High Street. A single room comes in at around £45 a night B&B, with two breakfast options - divine localy smoked haddock with poached eggs, or a 'Full Scottish' dry-up which would be a challenge for the most carnivorous eater. The dinner menu is excellent, again using a wide range of local produce, and the wonderfully friendly staff can give loads of information about attractions in the area.
- for something a little grander, the Selkirk Arms (High Street) – on the same street in Kirkcudbright as the Baytree – is a traditional hotel in an eighteenth century inn. It's also home to one of the town's most established restaurants (serving local produce such as Marrbury Smokehouse salmon) and a cosy bar with a good selection of whiskies. Expect to pay £100-140 for a room and breakfast.