A winter holiday in Scotland isn't often at the forefront of travelers' plans. Indeed, only the most hardened Americans are willing to experience the North Sea's prevailing winds in cooler weather.
However, choosing Scotland as a winter or spring destination is rewarding and exciting. There are better deals from airlines and hotels, and far fewer tourists. Although the summer months may prove more opportune for perusing castles, exploring nature and fraternizing with the locals, the wintry weather does highlight the eclectic and dramatic Scottish landscape, so I set off to explore the Highlands.
Even in the depths of winter, Scotland's scenery is striking. Its landscape demonstrates the geographical extremities of the British Isles. The rugged mountain peaks of the Northern Highlands are dominated by the Grampian Mountains. Ben Nevis, the Isle's highest peak, reaches 4,140 feet. These mountains sweep down to breathtaking lochs nestled in remote glens. The Lowland area, to the south, is more rolling and lush, a pastoral region in which lives the majority of the historic nation's population. Due to its jagged geography, Scotland has more than 6,000 miles of coastline.
The following Web sites are excellent resources for planning your trip:
aboutscotland.com. Total cost for my trip was about $2,500 for two people for a week. Round-trip air fares to London are significantly cheaper in the off-season, creeping up several hundred dollars in the height of summer. Accommodations averaged $100 a night ($150 in the high season).
First Stop, Glasgow
Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, has become a sophisticated metropolis, shrugging off its industrial image. The U.K.'s first Versace store is located in the Italian Center on John Street, and trendy boutiques line Princes Square. Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art is the second-most-visited U.K. gallery outside of London. I stayed in Merchant City, a centrally located historic area full of chic restaurants (including fantastic pan-Asian fare -- chili-mango duck, chicken lemongrass salad at
Café Maos) and avant-garde lodgings, such as
The Brunswick hotel.
Architecture in Glasgow is typically Victorian and in stark contrast to Edinburgh's prolific 18th-century neo-Grecian offerings. Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of Glasgow's most famous sons, is an internationally celebrated architect and designer in the Modernist style. Incorporating art and design into his work, he is frequently compared to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Mackintosh Society offers a day-trail ticket for about $20, allowing entry into 12 sites and including travel on the subway and local buses. Also included is entry to the McLellan Galleries, where Mackintosh's furniture, paintings and various decorative objects are displayed. His famous Willow Tea Rooms are not included on the tour but still are in operation -- you can visit during normal business hours at 217 Sauchiehall Street.
Afterward, it was off to Callander, a wee town 45 minutes north of Glasgow. Located in the famous
Trossachs National Park -- the second largest in the U.K. -- it is surrounded by some of the country's most spectacular landscape. If you wish to experience Scotland's rich musical heritage, then head to the Glengarry Hotel on Main Street. Nothing feels more authentic than dancing with an old, frisky Scotsman to a lively rendition of
: "You take the high road, I'll take the low road / I'll be in Scotland before you," each word belted out with relish by the locals.
Indeed, the pub holds a special place in Scots' hearts, and in provincial areas it is the nucleus of the community. Edinburgh, it's said, boasts more pubs per square mile than any other place in Europe. Never people to shy away from a wee dram (a small draft), the Scots take their
whisky very seriously. The most popular tipples include Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Glenlivet. I can advise on good authority that all demonstrate the best traditions of single malts.
Another exquisite example, less well known, is the smooth and velvety
Highland Park whisky. It has won 23 international awards in the last four years, and the 1798 Orkney Island distillery uses water sourced from its own spring.
Our journey continued north through Glencoe and on to Fort William. Glencoe contains the most dramatic landscape of the Trossachs National Park, with Ben Nevis rising nearby. The still water in Loch Lomond is a glassy black, reflecting almost perfectly the surrounding flora. The Harry Potter film
The Prisoner of Azkaban
was filmed on location there. Fort William is the largest settlement in the West Highlands -- an old military outpost built by the English in 1690 to help quell the Scottish uprising.
Castles in the Sky
There are more castles in Scotland than you can shake a Scotch thistle at. On the way to the Isle of Skye from Fort William, I stopped at the darling of the tourist hordes,
Eileen Donan. This is reputedly the most photographed castle in Scotland, even though it was almost entirely rebuilt in the 20th century. Not all castles are open during winter months, and this was the case with Eileen Donan, though it's still possible to walk around the island it is built on.
The Isle of Skye came into prominence in the early 20th century with Virginia Woolf's novel
To the Lighthouse
. However, nothing can quite prepare you for the magnificence of the landscape. The southern part of the isle has sandy beaches and clusters of cottages, providing a lovely contrast to the stunning Cuillins Mountains.
Driving across the northeast peninsula, negotiating a tiny one-lane road that wound its way through the rugged paddocks, sheep begrudgingly allowed the car through. The view from here was breathtaking: jagged fingers of land stretching out to the sparkling sea far below.
The Black Isle was next, along the southern coast to the picturesque village of North Kessock, nestled on a bay. The road twisted through farmland and hills with densely forested woodlands. A bridge connects the isle with Inverness, the only city in the Highlands.
In Search of Nessie
The visit to my final stop, Inverness, was fleeting, but it did provide some of the trip's highlights: superb food and stunning accommodations.
That Scottish fare is not loved around the world is no surprise, since many in the country consider deep-fried Mars bars palatable. The Scottish breakfasts, often included with accommodation, usually consisted of sausage, egg, black pudding, fried bread and the ubiquitous potato pancake. While the opportunity to try haggis (the traditional Scottish dish of sheep heart, lungs, windpipe, onions and oatmeal) did not present itself, the chance to have an exquisite beef Wellington did.
Dunain Park Hotel is located two miles outside of Inverness and five miles from Loch Ness. It offers traditional food with a French influence. Being seated by the fireplace to await your table, a smooth Cabernet Sauvignon in hand, does not go amiss, either.
Staying in a bed-and-breakfast, which are in abundance in the U.K., allows for an authentic experience at a reasonable cost. An exceptional example was the
Ivybank Guest House. It is highly recommended by travel guides, and the staff couldn't be friendlier.
Returning to Glasgow, I drove along the Loch Ness. Upscale accommodation can be found there at the
Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. For the more fiscally conservative, the Loch Ness Clansman, the only hotel overlooking the Loch, has a three-night offer for the price of two during the winter months -- working out to $100 per night for three nights.
The loch itself is vast -- the largest body of fresh water in Britain -- with rich flora adorning its banks. I cast long glances across the expanse of water searching for any sign of serpent activity. Alas, there was only an errant log bobbing up and down.