Stunning coastlines, beautiful castles and magical malt whiskies... if you haven't discovered the Scottish highlands yet, you're missing out!
Pine forests, Viking history, local crafts sold in tiny hamlets, renewable energy, not another person for miles, rivers, streams and a deserted, picture-perfect, rocky, rugged coastline... Scandinavia has a serious competitor and it’s only an hour-and-a-half flight from London (with fares from £40 return, so it’s credit-crunch-zapping to boot!). In these times of recession and economic downturn, we should step in and support the good old British pound when it comes to choosing a holiday destination. So my girlfriend and I headed to the Scottish highlands for a five-day trip.
We arrived at Inverness airport just as the sun was setting (in the northern Highlands in mid winter this happens around 3.30pm) and made the short and easy journey to the centre of town, where our delightful Agatha Christie-esque Victorian hotel awaited. Pre-booking is definitely recommended: off-season deals at this time of year are rife, but only for pre-bookers.
Inverness was more cosmopolitan than either of us had imagined, and there were plenty of modern restaurants. We were, however, surprised at the prices: restaurants are expensive in the highlands. So we experimented a little and found it just as good to choose a pub - they tend to be far more food-focused in the highlands and are cosy places with open fires and chatty locals, who are more than happy to share their useful local knowledge with you.
We hired a car from the airport (top tip: try to avoid the £10 meet-and-greet fee by doing it online) and from the centre of Inverness we took the coastal road northbound just over an hour to the coastal village of Dornoch, where we checked into a beautiful castle. This delightful residence gave us the opportunity to live like royalty, sleeping in a four-poster bed and relaxing in front of an old open fire and later in a gorgeous free-standing bath. The castle was luxurious throughout, with all mod cons, including large screen flat TVs in your room and wireless internet to keep you up to date with the goings-on outside the village - or, in our case, just checking the menus of the local restaurants!
While we slept that night in early December snow fell outside. When we opened the grand castle curtains in the morning, the views across the Dornoch Firth and over the mountains were spectacular. Staying in a Scottish castle on a snowy night was a heart-warming experience. The early sunshine over the fallen snow resulted in the perfect Sunday morning; the pace of life slowed to a stroll outside, while inside our delicious breakfast amid the cosy tartan decor made for a very romantic morning. Not cheap but at £170 a night it was well worth it.
In the highlands, public transport can be scarce and distances are long, so taking a car gives you a massive advantage. One place to take the car is to one of the many whisky distilleries. (Let’s be honest: on a visit to the highlands, you can’t not!) Fifteen miles west of Inverness is the delightful Glen Ord distillery. You don’t have to be a big drinker to like this; the smells are rich and the tasting is an experience even for the most loyal of white wine drinkers. These magical malts are known locally as the ‘perilously drinkable dram’ and they are. It’s easy to see why whisky is more of an art up here than a drink.
From whisky to lochs, and there are none more famous than Loch Ness. We reached this great flat and peaceful water on a clear bright day and pulled over in the car on a number of occasions to look at spectacular views of the loch stretching for miles. As we followed the roads around the highlands, we would often drive for miles without passing another car, but when we got stuck behind a huge wandering highland cow, suddenly our little car seemed more like a golf buggy and the girlfriend wasn’t sure whether to be scared or get out for a picture.
The road from Wick to Thurso takes you past the historic Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother’s holiday home for over 50 years and the most northerly castle on mainland Britain. It looks a bit like a Disney castle belonging to an evil witch, all beautiful turrets in browned ancient stone. The chilly frost on the day we visited added to its haunted beauty. You can only visit inside the castle until October so unfortunately we were locked out, but the view of the castle overlooking the Orkneys was simply stunning.
We continued our journey down the west coast to Ullapool, with its picturesque harbour and bustling, holiday-maker-friendly pubs.This is great driving country, with meandering roads and beautiful wild coastlines (the north coast of Scotland has some of the best surfing in Britain), so it’s worth getting a half-decent car to get you around. My girlfriend had persuaded me to get a cheap one and by day three I was mistaking ours for a letter box.
Summing up the five days isn’t hard: we loved the Scottish highlands. They're not your conventional British holiday destination - we didn’t see a teddy-grabbing machine or ice cream van the whole trip. The locals loved to meet out-of-town visitors and we were invited to stay at an elderly couples’ house instead of paying for a hotel minutes after meeting them on the beach. The highlands are a breath of fresh air, literally and metaphorically, with classy establishments and natural beauty in abundance - the perfect place to relax in style, with ease.