Whether you see Nessie or not, you can have a monstrously good time in Inverness. A long way north, but well worth it, the city will wine you, dine you, dance your socks off and send you home happy
On the flight from London to Inverness, the girl in front of me asked her boyfriend in all seriousness: “Is there a time difference between London and Inverness?” Without hesitation, he replied: “Yes, Inverness is about 20 years behind.”
The capital of the Highlands may be geographically isolated from the more populous parts of Britain, but it can more than match the ‘big boys’ for quality of life, culture and the outdoors. Fine restaurants and deep-rooted, historical connections strengthen its case. Stunning scenery just a caber-toss away ends the argument.
Inverness Airport is well-served by Easyjet, Flybe and British Airways (Gatwick). Taking a train is another option, though this may be too long for some: eight hours from London.
What to do and see
Inverness’ status as the biggest dot on the map of the Highlands has counted against it. The city's comparative lack of awe-inspiring buildings is due to the number of times the town has been destroyed over the years by various invaders. Invaders like big dots.
But history there is. For starters, it has a castle. Although the current building dates only from 1836, there has been a fortification here since the 11th century. You can’t visit the interior, but its lofty location gives great views over the city and River Ness. In front of it is the statue of Flora McDonald, who once helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the Battle of Culloden, inspiring the immortal lines of the Skye Boat Song (see video link, below).
To find out more about emotive Culloden, the last land battle on British soil (1746), try the worthwhile visitor centre (Culloden Moor, IV2 5EU, +44 (0)844 493 2159, www.nts.org.uk), 8 miles out of town. Bus information from the Tourist Office.
Take a walking tour around town with a kilted guide from Happy Tours (www.happy-tours.biz ), adults £10, concessions £8. Discover the city’s past, its connections with Oliver Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots and the Jacobites.
Chanonry Point, on the Moray Firth is renowned for its bottlenose dolphins. Let Inverness Dolphin Cruises (+44 (0)1463 717900, www.inverness-dolphin-cruises.co.uk) organise you a boat trip (March to October) to see them. There's a high chance of success - take binoculars!
In poor weather, the city's Victorian Market (www.invernessvictorianmarket.co.uk) provides shelter for a few hours browsing some quirky outlets (get your bagpipes refurbished at Cabarfeidh Pipes). Oh yes: tartanalia - rugs, kilts, scarves and shawls - abounds here.
And if you can't find a whisky to your taste at The Whisky Shop (17 Bridge Street, +44 (0)1463 811871), file yourself under 'F' for 'fussy'.
Anything special happening today?
Inverness can pull in big name acts, recently attracting Rod Stewart. Every year there's the annual Rockness music festival (www.rockness.co.uk), the Inverness Highland Games (www.invernesshighlandgames.com) for caber-tossing, and Inverness Tattoo (www.tattooinverness.org.uk) for pipers and parachutists.
I'm hungry - do I have to eat deep-fried Mars bars?
Start the day at the Castle Restaurant (41 Castle Street, IV2 3DU, +44 (0)1463 230925), where a hearty Scottish breakfast is £6, including haggis. It's good value and a city institution. They do lunches, too. (And I thought that crinkle-cut chips and knickerbocker glories were out of fashion.)
Still on Castle Street, take lunch at Cafe One (75 Castle St, IV1 1ES, +44 (0)1463 2262000 www.cafe1.net). Norman, the genial maitre d' awaits with delicious cuisine in a tasteful setting. A two-course lunch costs a mere £9.50.
For luxury dining,celebrated chef Albert Roux's Chez Roux restaurant nestles in the Rocpool Reserve Hotel (contact details below). The evening set menu is around £22, lunch menus are £13.
Er, any chance of a wee drink?
Scottish beer can be something of an acquired taste for visitors. Try the organic ales of the award-winning Black Isle Brewery (Old Allangrange, Munlochy, IV8 8NZ, +44 (0)1463 811871, www.blackislebrewery.com) north of the city. Should you risk their 'Knicker Dropper Glory', suitably strong at 6.5%? Hmm. I'll let you decide. Brewery visits are possible, but if you simply want to taste rather than tour, the brewery supplies some of Inverness’s hostelries (Hootanannys' is one, see below).
And a wee jig?
Don’t miss Hootanannys' (67 Church St, +44 (0)1463 233651, www.hootananny.co.uk), where some of the Highland’s finest musicians guarantee you a memorable night. Willing locals hurl foreign students around, supposedly teaching them Scottish Country Dancing. It’s carnage and chaos, but great fun. Do join in - you don't need to be able to spell 'ceilidh' to take part in one! Bizarrely, the pub also serves well-priced Thai cuisine. Inverness is truly cosmopolitan.
And now.... I'm ready for my bed
For those on a budget, try the Bazpackers' Hostel (4 Culduthel Rd, IV2 4AB) which provides dormitory accommodation (including female-only) for £14.
Mid-price Ardconnel House (21 Ardconnel Street, IV2 3EU) has b&b rates from £35pp. Breakfasts include porridge, oatcakes and smoked haddock.
The chic Rocpool Reserve Hotel (Culduthel Road, IV2 4AG) combines luxury with...more luxury. Doubles are from £170. Pamper yourselves.
I took ALL of your drink suggestions. Now I need some fresh air and exercise to get rid of my hangover
A short stroll along the banks of the River Ness, to the Ness Islands, takes you to a calm, leafy space for walkers, shared with local wildlife.
Out of town, the wild outdoors really begins. Hillwalking is a huge favourite in the Highlands, and the serious mountain-collector in Scotland is known as a Munro-bagger. A Munro is a mountain over 3,000 feet high, and many are less than an hour's drive to the south and west of Inverness. Check out www.munromagic.com for details.
But.... but you haven't talked much about the monster!
Oh, alright then. Down the side of Loch Ness is Drumnadrochit and the Loch Ness Visitor Centre (www.lochness-centre.com), where you can see photos and films, and read the stories and countless theories that have evolved over the years since Nessie first reared his (or her?) humps in the 1930s.
But here's an alternative: since 1991, Steve Feltham has lived as a monster-hunter in a former mobile library on Dores Beach on the banks of the loch. His hunting has (to date) been unsuccessful: tongue-in-cheek, his website is www.haveyouseenityet.com. He'd be ecstatic to meet Nessie, but in the meantime he is very content to chat to visitors.
Inverness is the starting/finishing point for cycling, walking and boating holidays down the Caledonian Canal. There's world-class golf and a new marina, but they'll have to wait for another guide.
On the flight back to London, there was a cabin crew announcement, directed at one member of a returning stag party, and no doubt scripted by another:
“Could passengers please join with me in congratulating Simon, who not only saw the Loch Ness Monster, but apparently spent the night with her?”
As the bewildered passengers applauded, and his mates erupted with laughter, the miscreant buried his face in his hands. He may have been unique (or not!) in his close encounter.
But while the 'real' Loch Ness Monster may have disappeared into the past, Inverness is very much a city with a vibrant present. And a bright future.