Bonnie Scotland: An Alternative Road Trip Across the Highlands to Skye
With international travel plans on hold, staycations are at the top of our agenda. Embarking on a road trip across an unusually sunny Scotland, over the Cairngorms to the wild north-west coast and the Isle of Skye, one writer gets a much-needed fix of escapism.
27 October, 2020
Exasperated by months spent at home and guided by a concern for safety, we took to the road on a route that circumnavigated the best bits of Scotland. With its vast emptiness, fresh air and postcard-perfect panoramas, it's a go-to destination for domestic escapism. While England was submerged in showers, the sun shone down on Scotland during our trip, perfect for wild swims, walks and picnics en route. We were fortunate enough to complete this route before tiered travel restrictions were imposed; make sure to check the current state of play before setting off yourself.
Setting off from Oxfordshire, our journey north is broken by a stopover in the Lake District. The Cumbrian countryside quickly makes up for the fairly dull drive straight up the M6; its rippling hills interspersed with stone-walled farms. What you have to remember about road tripping is that, between all the driving and humdrum stop-offs, you need a few "wow" moments on the itinerary. We set our sat nav for Ambleside's The Drunken Duck Inn, where comfortable rooms are outshone by the globetrotting menu. You come here for the food, specifically the sticky toffee pudding.
Another road-tripping tip? Don't hang around in the morning. Get up and go. In the early hours, we run along the silent shores of Lake Windermere in front of Wray Castle before resuming our journey north across the border.
Diverting off the A9 at Perth and into the Cairngorms National Park, we soon realise why people make such a fuss about the Highlands. It's mid-August and the heather is beginning to turn. After an hour's journey through the park, passing only a handful of cars, we arrive at The Fife Arms.
At the heart of Braemar town, The Fife Arms is one of those "wow" places I was telling you about. Art and culture is the hotel's lifeblood, and we take up the offer of a tour to see its many pieces and installations.
We pick up our picnic lunch and set off - on foot this time - to conquer the Morrone ascent. The route is misleadingly chiselled with false summits, but the 360-degree views at the top are well worth the blisters. Packed lunch feels positively gourmet as you crunch down on cheese and biscuits slathered in the chef's housemade chutney. It's so good, in fact, that we later ask for a jar to take home.
As night falls, before diving into the hotel's dangerous cocktail menu, we take a short drive up the road to Braemar Castle where Martin Creed's outdoor neon sign reads "EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT".
We set off out in the direction of Balmoral Castle. Her Majesty was in residence so we weren't allowed in, but I'm assured that the landscape over the surrounding moors is better - and we're not disappointed. It's the type of place where you pull over every two minutes to take a photo. By the end of the day, we would have what seemed like 1,000 near-identical photos, none of which quite capture its majesty.
At this point, we veer west towards Beauly, just past Inverness, the starting point for the North Coast 500. Things to see and do here: Campbell's of Beauly, Iain Marr Antiques and a river walk to Lovat Bridge. Grab a picnic lunch from Corner on the Square and drive on to the vast expanse of Dornoch Beach to enjoy your delicacies by the sea.
We check in to the Dornoch Castle Hotel just down the road, though for something more remote, spend the night at Loch Shin Luxury Pods at Forge Cottage.
While we skipped the north-east, Scotland's wild north-west is unmissable. This is where the country starts to get really good. Head up the A836 and re-join the North Coast-route at Tongue for one of the most enchanting drives. Make sure you don't cut any corners along this section; Loch Eriboll is stunning as are the white sands and crystal-blue waters of Ceannabeinne Beach. As we beat around the corner, the sun shines down ferociously and the deserted beach lights up on our right-hand side. We immediately pull into the parking lot, strip off, whip on our swimsuits and run into the water. It's hands down the best moment of our entire trip. For me, this is Scotland's best beach, if not one of the world's best.
A couple of hours driving south takes us on to Kylesku Hotel, where we park for the night. Pristine beaches are in their plenty on this north-western edge; some harder to get to than others. Regularly compared to Caribbean beaches, Oldshoremore is a two-hour hike away and not an option for my blistered feet. Instead, we take in the sunset from Loch Inver. It's far from disappointing.
After a (seriously cold) morning dip with some of the loch's resident seals, we power down to the Isle of Skye, stopping around the Summer Isles for a picnic lunch and later to take in the view of Loch Maree. You could easily break up this section with an overnight at either The Torridon or Shieldaig Lodge.
We cross the bridge to Skye, arriving at Kinloch Lodge just in time for sundowners; there is certainly no better spot for this particular event. Try not to be lured by snacks; dinner is the star of the show here and we don't let anything get in the way of enjoying the evening menu.
It's impossible to do the Isle of Skye in two days, especially when it's basking in sunshine. After a morning feasting on chef Jordan Webb's famous porridge (voted the best in Scotland), we set off with a personalised map from Isabella Macdonald, Kinloch's director, in hand. There's no "best" route to take on Skye - every inch of this island vaunts impressionable views. We head to Loch Harport for lunch at The Oyster Shed. This place shucks more than 200,000 oysters for its queues of hungry visitors every year. We eat a dozen from a tray with shallot vinegar and lemon, and follow up with lobster and chips wrapped in foil. There are some small hammers attached to the bench tables for assistance. It isn't luxury by any means - this is a place to get your hands dirty - but it's the best lobster and oysters we eat on our trip. We finish off the A863 in the north of Skye, just for the views.
If you wanted to extend your trip on Skye, The Three Chimneys comes highly recommended, as does newcomer Hame On Skye. I'd suggest splitting the north and south for a night or two each, so you have the time to explore the neighbouring landscape.
Saved by Isabella once again (she's part of the furniture on Skye), we board the ferry to Mallaig and made headway towards Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. The road we travel is one of the main arteries that leads north towards Inverness and beyond it to the NC500, which is perhaps the reason it's one of the busiest roads we encounter. It's stunning too, but by this point in the trip, having already travelled north, I fear we've been spoiled by the real-life art on far quieter roads.
We veer off towards Loch Venachar and are met with total serenity on the banks at Loch Venachar Cabins. There's no traffic here whatsoever. If you've got this far through this article, you're welcome, because you've now discovered Scotland's best-kept secret. The word "cabin" feels almost undignified for this accommodation; these are architectural masterpieces.
Another morning dip, this time followed by a barbecue breakfast. The chef-owners happen to be in residence when we visit, so we feast on the freshest, local ingredients foraged and line-hooked within a few miles.
We could (should!) have stayed longer, but we are booked and paid on a Loch Lomond Seaplane tour. A perk of Covid-19 is that we enjoy a semi-private flight experience for the same price as the "riff-raff" ticket. For some reason, we weren't expecting too much from this; to say we are pleasantly surprised is an enormous understatement. We soar above the clouds to bright-blue skies interrupted by green grassy peaks erupting from the seawater below. It's a fine way to see some of Scotland's most impressive, ancestral architecture too. A flawless finale.
Landed, we began the journey south, with a final stopover at The Punch Bowl in Crosthwaite. The location of this night is strategic - we have a dinner reservation at L'Enclume in nearby Cartmel. That is another story in itself; there aren't the words to adequately describe Simon Rogan's dining ritual in this itinerary. If you know, you know.
An early-morning departure and the pathetic fallacy could not have been more pertinent as the rain poured down spattering our windscreen and dampening our mood. As we rejoined the M6, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, my mind mourning the bonnie, bonnie banks of Scotland.