The Scottish Highlands

“Let me take you away for your up coming birthday” he said. A feeling of dread consumed me. You see the only times he’s ever booked trips he’s either arrived for flights on the wrong day, booked flights for the wrong month, arranged flights to the Canary Islands via Spain or got on the plane to Malaga when we were supposed to be going to Majorca. Also the sun is my preferred climate, but our birthdays are in December, so I was a bit apprehensive.

However I left it to him. The only time we could get away was actually on HIS birthday and as the hours went by it suddenly dawned on me that this was actually more a trip for him than me.

Starting off with a flight to Glasgow, we arrived at the airport when he realised he’d forgotten his file of things he’d organised. Frankly I was impressed he’d actually put together a file in the first place, and in hindsight I needn’t have worried as I realised the only things the file had in it was the confirmation for the car hire and for one out of 3 hotels booked!

Arriving in Glasgow, we picked up the car, a large, swanky 4 wheel drive type. Clearly he knew what was ahead. After a lovely birthday (his) meal at the fabulous Hutchesons in Glasgow, we awoke the next day to face the 6.5 hour drive ahead to our first overnight stop.

Hutchesons Glasgow

Passing through the roads along the west coast to Fort William (our first pit stop) via Loch Lomond the scenery was breathtaking. Four seasons in one, a combination of pine forests, orange, yellow and red moorlands, with streams flowing down the middle of the mountains and sea mist coming in over the Loch, it was both a photographer’s and painter’s paradise. Simple houses built into the hills on the water front with their reflection glistening in the water. Not many places to stop to take photos as the roads were too long and windy, one minute 5 degrees and Autumnal, the next -1 degree with snow and ice on the ground. Green and brown forests in the hills with the contour of a snowy summit of Ben Nevis behind them.

My biggest tip for this drive is plan ahead. Get there before it gets dark. Make sure there are no road closures, otherwise the drive can turn into a scene from a hideous horror movie. We (he) didn’t plan ahead, so all of the above applied to us. As we drove along the mountain road over to Applecross, the highest mountain pass along the West Coast awaited us. Apparently it’s truly spectacular, but we will have to YouTube it instead. It’s called Bealach Na Ba for those who want to see it before you experience it. At this point I was both furious and delighted it was dark! Not sure we could have handled another screaming row about his driving, after realising just how high, narrow and icy it was. However one of the bonuses of driving in pitch black is that the Stag’s and other rare wildlife came out to play. One of the pitfalls of driving with a potential bird watcher and wildlife fanatic is that each time he saw something he thought was exciting, he would gasp loudly, leading me to believe we’d either hit something large and furry or there was a masked murderer with an axe on our roof!!

If you like the rugged outdoors (and indoors) then this first stop is for you. The AppleCross Inn. Gorgeously remote yet very basic. Delicious pub fare, fish pie, dressed crab and oxtail stew some of the choices, as well as comfort desserts like Eton mess, fruit crumble and sticky toffee pudding. It also had a great gin and tonic menu! It’s the type of establishment where everyone can hear you unzip your suitcase or take a shower, and you have to whisper at breakfast or they’ll hear what you’re talking about, which is usually them! The Inn was cosy and never empty, it’s reputation ensures it’s always full, and I’d highly recommend it as a stopover to Skye or as a base to discover this part of the Highlands

After a little exploratory walk first thing in the morning, we got back in the truck for part two of our adventure towards Skye.

Once I realised just how remote the area we were driving through was, I seemed to get more and more nervous about it, which wasn’t good for the in car entertainment! So I soon learnt how to zip it when I realised we still had another 3 hours together in the car!

We took the opposite route back down from whence we came, towards Sheildig, so there was no worrying drive back ‘over the pass’ as the locals say. Once I spotted the other half’s binoculars and bird spotting book I knew that he knew he was in for a treat! I can’t tell you about any of the birds (maybe Eagles and Sea Eagles) or deadly rabbits (Pine Martins I think) he saw but I can tell you this was actually the most  beautiful scenery of the whole trip. Even more colourful than yesterday’s drive, even more varied, and even more remote.

We didn’t see any other cars for at least 10-15 miles at a time and the local Highland cows soon became our friends, and also our most annoying hazard, blocking the narrow roads. Even the satnav got lost, taking us down dead ends, and turning itself upside down so our destination got further and further away! It was like driving through the Black Forest, the Alps and the Nevada desert all in the one trip.

Skye was over the bridge and far away and obviously my other half had chosen the most stunning little place for my big birthday, but it was as far North as you could go before dropping off the end! Not his fault I guess but still a further hour and a half away. The views were almost like those aerial views you see from a plane, flat fields, with high hills, little streams coming down from the hills. I have to say even though I was told Skye was the most stunning to look at, so far the West coast route was winning hands down for me. We had, however, the best weather they’ve had for a while on the Isle with beautiful blue skies which made the drive easier and not at all boring.

Skye has more of a finer vista. Mini waterfalls in the dark rocks of the hillside, with the well defined contours of the mountains behind. The perspective and contrast of the blue water, with the green pine forests in the background was still appreciated, however there was a lot of the same there, making it much less dramatic and often quite bleak. 

The hotel The Three Chimneys is one that most culinary experts would aspire to work in or eat in. The restaurant came first, it used to be a tea room, and the small hotel soon followed. A small but perfect menu, with a 3 course a la carte or a land and sea 8 course tasting menu with wine pairing to chose from. As we had 2 nights here we tried both menus and there wasn’t one thing to complain about (not that we do anyway, as we’re British!). With only 8 rooms it was never overcrowded and the restaurant had a great atmosphere, with impeccable service and a lovely young workforce.

A gorgeous bedroom, with split levels, sitting area and lounge on the lower and bed and dressing area on the upper. Tastefully decorated with lovely little touches to make you feel relaxed, rested and well fed. Small tea light candle in the bathroom (brought that one home, not stolen but gifted), Bose speakers for our music and a small terrace to sit out (in the Summer).

Beer or wine tastings late afternoon, followed by afternoon tea and cake in our room or in the small lounge area. Once we were back in the room after dinner, a flask of hot milk and mugs with chocolate truffles and spices, had been left for us to make our own bedtime drink. 2 nights were not enough, but sadly we needed the rest of the week to get ourselves back to Glasgow airport! In hindsight Inverness would have been the shorter drive but maybe not as scenic. As our visit was the middle of Winter, a lot of the restaurants and usual attractions were closed, but there were enough little galleries and whisky distilleries for us to visit to keep entertained whilst it poured with rain for the next two days. Apparently May is the best month to go to Skye, that’s when it rains the least! But the rain squalls only added to the atmosphere of the scenery.

Some of the locals told us they feel Skye is being ruined by day trippers who visit in a hurry, they want visitors to take their time there, to stay and get to know their treasured island better.

After a wonderful cooked breakfast and a table with a view, it was back to the roads for the final night of our Northern adventure, down through Glencoe and The Trossochs.

So now we were on our penultimate car journey to Glasgow with a stop over in the Trossachs and Loch Lomond area. We had made some friends at our various tastings at the Three Chimneys who were from Glencoe, so picked their brains for the best places to stop for our 5.5 hour journey.

First stop, 3 hours from Skye, we found Inverlochy Castle Hotel on the outskirts of Fort William. Worth a stop just for a look but luckily for us afternoon tea service had just started so we sat ourselves down in the main lobby right in front of the crackling fire and whilst waiting for our tea and cakes and sandwiches and mousses (is there a plural for mousse?) we took in the delights of the ceiling decor, their Xmas decorations and enormous Xmas tree.

Tea was perfect considering we weren’t actually that hungry. Can’t remember the last time we had afternoon tea and it was truly scrumptious. Rooms there start at around £400 a night which I’d like to think included dinner and breakfast, and I got a fright when I looked at the wine list. £14 for a 125ml glass of wine. Who has 125ml glssses nowadays?! Anyway it was soon time to leave as darkness drew in. It was only 3.20, but at this time of year the sun sets early which is why the Scots say they drink so much! 

So back on the road and this is definitely not a trip for the faint hearted when it’s pouring with rain and dark and you’re driving on long, windy narrow roads with oncoming lorries passing by and momentarily blinding you with their wake! There was no radio signal so the only way to entertain ourselves was by reading the road signs in our bestest Scottish accent possible . Kilmahog in Trossachs was my best one! Then picture the scene, one minute it was silent and we’re doing a risky overtaking manoever over a summit the next a woman says in a very loud Scottish accent ‘Hello my name is Margaret and I run a pasty shop!’ The radio signal was back. Adverts and all. Her timing was perfect!

The next stop suggested was the Clachaig inn which is a Climbers pub at the bottom of a mountain. But we never got there! I’d had enough of navigating in the dark and was keen to have a lie down!

Our final stop was Callendar, a small unassuming village but with a delightful guest house to set down in for the night. Yet more squeaky floorboards, and sneezing from the room above us, there were only 8 rooms, 4 of which were occupied. Run by a young Italian couple who had moved from Rome 10 years ago. Why, I asked him. It was their dream to run a B&B in Corwall, but it was way out of their reach so they settled in Scotland instead and love it.

I’d recommend the Lubnaig Guest House to anyone looking for a reasonable place to stay to explore this part of Scotland. I think they open a small restaurant in the  summer but during winter months there’s little demand so we had to make do with the local pub for fish and chips. Breakfast here was wonderful and I really wish it had turned into brunch!

The tea rooms and fish and chip shop in Mhor were the places to be according to our new friends, but closed at night.

A great night’s sleep, lovely cotton sheets and comfortable mattress, it was up and out after breakfast for our final and I’m glad to say uneventful car journey back to Glasgow Airport then home for a rest!

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