Bordered by seas and full of natural wonders, this region is worth a visit.
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Owith the reduction of restrictions on international travel, and the United States lifting its COVID testing requirements, this summer is the time to dust off the passport. But while some travelers may still be wary of cramming into the Louvre or partying in Berlin, the wide open spaces of Scotland’s Highlands are an ideal setting for those who fancy venturing abroad while still staying in non-frenzied places.
Located in the northwest of Scotland, bordered by the Atlantic to the west and the North Sea to the east, the Highlands are a relatively calm region marked by high peaks and deep lochs. Its largest city, Inverness, has a population of just 47,000, while most populated towns, such as Wick and Fort William, are quiet harborside hamlets with a few thousand residents.
A realm of otherworldly natural wonders, it’s a singular setting where you can see dolphins and reindeer on the same day, where mythical beasts and Hogwarts-sized castles share their lore, and where parks national and distilleries offer a distinct heritage of their own.
Glencoe and Ben Nevis
Gateway to the Highlands, the Glencoe Valley is the entry point for many visitors, given its proximity to Glasgow to the south. Going up the A82 the road rises into the clouds and the terrain turns into a vast moss green landscape that looks more the Lord of the Rings than the UK. Lined with lakes and streams, the road zigzags through a mountainous valley carved by glaciers and volcanoes, with huge boulders, cascading waterfalls and cabins along the route. It’s an epic departure from the urban areas of southern Scotland – a larger-than-life natural landscape that looks like dragons might live here.
The road is a scenic sight, but if you wish to explore a bit more, Glencoe Hill Station offers mountain biking, tubing, skiing and sledding. Summer chairlift tickets cost £15 (US$18) per adult for hikers and £30 (US$37) for mountain bikers.
Further north, things peak with Ben Nevis. The UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis rises 4,413 feet above nearby Fort William, making it popular with hikers and climbers. With a name that translates into Old Gaelic as “mountain with its head in the clouds”, Ben Nevis is frequently immersed in clouds.
An iconic feature of the Highlands is Loch Ness, a mighty freshwater body that stretches 23 miles through a rolling valley, with an average depth of 433 feet and plenty of room for mythical monsters. Companies like Cruise on Loch Ness (from £14 per adult) and broadband cattle boats (from £28) offer loch tours, or you can find out more about the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition, which hosts sonar-equipped cruises (in case you find “Nessie”) and has exhibits examining the history of Loch Ness, as well as Nessie. Entrance to the exhibition costs £9 for adults and cruises cost £14.
The coolest point of view is from Urquhart Castle, an abandoned stone fortress perched on the banks along the A82. The centuries-old castle has as much history as Nessie, with exhibits exploring the castle’s role in battles between the Scots and the English during the Wars of Independence. These days the cannon fire has diminished, providing a peaceful vista over the eerily jet-black loch. Tickets cost £12 online or £13 at the door.
If you want to linger, Loch Ness Lodge is the size of a modern castle, with modern amenities to match. The intimate property features nine extravagant, nature-inspired rooms and private cottages, plus a spa and beautiful grounds with gardens and stunning water views. Nearby, dine at Cobb’s Restaurantwhere local ingredients and scotch shine in a dining room overlooking Loch Ness.
Just northeast of Loch Ness is the urban center of the Highlands, Inverness. With less than 50,000 inhabitants, it is a far cry from the Scottish urban centers of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but still oozes big-city sparkle.
On Scotland’s northeast coast, it’s a city where old meets new, where the ancient castle of Inverness shares an area code with live music venues and contemporary cuisine. For the latter, go mustard seeda wood-fired restaurant in a former church offering bruschetta with piri piri prawns and chicken stuffed with black pudding, or stop at the White House for glamorous pub fare like bon bon haggis and beetroot burgers in a suave whitewashed space. Inverness also has a surprisingly robust nightlife, with hip haunts like hootanannywhere musicians play nonchalantly around the tables, and Bar Gellions, a longtime venue for dancing to bands. So there is market bara pint-sized watering hole located down an alley and up a flight of stairs, where the jazzy scene takes up about half the space.
Stay in the elegant boutique Hotel King’s Mills, housing confines of luxury, cozy rooms, a spa, and a large indoor swimming pool under a light wood ceiling. The hotel also has a whiskey bar for Scottish connoisseurs and a local gourmet restaurant, Inglis Restaurantwith seasonal dishes such as the loin of venison roasted in coffee, the tarte tatin with carrots and chestnuts and the cheese soufflé with pickled walnuts.
Outside the city, nature and history abound. Moray Firth, northeast of Inverness, is a coastal enclave with bustling beaches, golf courses (like Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Clubone of the oldest in the world), and the iconic Chanonry Point lighthouse, one of the best places in the UK to see bottlenose dolphins. Home to around 200 dolphinsMoray Firth has the northernmost population of the species on Earth.
A few miles east of Inverness, Culloden Battlefield tells the story of the Battle of Culloden in 1745, where some 1,600 men died in one of the bloodiest battles on British soil during the last Jacobite rising against the Duke of Cumberland. Consisting of sprawling fields and a visitor centre, the museum costs £14 per adult, but the grounds outside are free to explore, with paths winding past headstones indicating members of Scottish clans who died in battle .
For something that has aged a little more peacefully, Glen Ord Distillery Singleton is one of the most famous whiskey distilleries in the UK. At this Hogwarts-size facility in the village of Muir of Ord (about 15 miles northwest of Inverness), visitors can tour the distillery (£9 pp), sample aged Scotch and snag a coveted bottle. (Glen Ord bottles are notoriously rare to find outside of the distillery.)
Cairngorms National Park
Beyond dolphins and loch monsters, the Highlands are also home to the UK’s only free-roaming herd of reindeer, in Cairngorms National Park. Most of the 150 animals in the herd roam the Cairngorms mountains freely, while others can be seen in the paddocks at Cairngorm Reindeer Center. The center strives to safely manage breeding and prevent disease transmission, and reindeer are rotated to keep them acclimated to the wild. People can visit the center to see the animals up close (and look for elf dolls, of course), or book a guided trip up into the hills to see them in their natural habitat. Hill rides cost £20 for adults, while a stop in the paddocks costs £3.50.
When you’re not living out your North Pole fantasies, Cairngorms National Park in the eastern Highlands offers plenty of other activities, from mountain biking and hiking to kayaking and paddleboarding on crystal clear lochs. The trails on the mountains and hills range from leisurely strolls to strenuous hikes, including the Speyside Way and the Cateran Trail. If you’re looking to reach the top of a munro (the Scottish term for mountains over 3,000ft), Cairngorms is home to the widest range of them in the UK.
From peaks vanishing in the clouds to wildlife teetering on folklore, the Scottish Highlands have to be seen, sipped and walked to be believed. In an area where reindeer and lochs seem to outnumber humans, it’s the perfect start to international travel, during a season when the ingredients are freshest and the reindeer roam.
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