Jan 30, 2012 5:00:05 AM
Exploring Scotland by road
Scotland offers a heady mix of rugged scenic beauty and historical delights. Whether you’re up for urbane city pastimes, outdoor activities or sampling the fresh local food and drink, two weeks is ample time to hit the highlights – depending on your mode of transport. There are good bus and train networks across the country, but hiring a car will give you the greatest freedom to move around, plus allow you to stop for a breathtaking valley view or the warm glow of a welcoming country pub. (Just don’t forget to pack your walking shoes.) Here’s a two-week itinerary that will lead you on an unforgettable tour.
Start with a couple of days in elegant Edinburgh to revel in the Georgian architecture of New Town and the history of Edinburgh Castle, which broods silently over the city from its craggy perch. Take a walk up Arthur’s Seat for more great views, and as a warm-up for longer treks coming up.
Once you’ve soaked up atmospheric Edinburgh, head to Stirling Castle to tour one of Scotland’s most historically significant fortresses: it’s been said that whoever holds Stirling, holds Scotland. The Stirling region is a source of much national pride, being the setting for two of Scotland’s most important battles for independence: William Wallace’s victory over the English took place at Stirling Bridge, followed 17 years later by Robert Bruce’s triumph at Bannockburn. It’s a short drive from Stirling on to Callander, where you can do some afternoon cycling around the lush forests of the Trossachs. Stay overnight at a B&B here for a taste of warm Scottish hospitality.
After a hearty breakfast, continue northwest through the Trossachs to reach one of Scotland’s most scenic valleys – the moody, mysterious Glen Coe, where one of Scottish history’s saddest chapters played out in the tragic Glen Coe Massacre. The area has beautiful walks, plus there’s a small folk museum in the village with a local historical collection. Head up the road to stay in Fort William for two nights. Really keen hill walkers can spend the next day climbing Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak, and celebrate their descent with a pint and some live music at the gloriously sited Ben Nevis Inn; those after somewhat less vertical pursuits can head to nearby Glen Nevis for an easy walk to Steall Meadows, home to a 100m-high bridal-veil waterfall.
On day six, start with the 46-mile scenic drive along the Road to the Isles, stopping at Loch Shiel to see the historic Glenfinnan Monument, which marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie first rallied the clans to his cause in 1745, the start of his ill-fated campaign to reclaim the throne. The setting, at the north end of Loch Shiel, is hauntingly beautiful; if you time it right you might even catch the steam train chugging along the majestic Glenfinnan Viaduct. Continuing on, take a seaside stroll on the silvery sands at Morar, then stop in Mallaig for a filling seafood lunch before catching a ferry to the Isle of Skye.
Spend a few days on Skye, Scotland’s largest island. Walking opportunities abound in the spectacular Cuillin Hills, and water lovers can go sea kayaking around the craggy coastline. Or else opt for more relaxing pursuits: visit the Talisker Distillery for a wee drop of local whisky, dine on local seafood and shop for handmade crafts and knitwear in Portree.
Head back to the mainland via the Skye Bridge to spend a day’s drive through the magnificent mountain scenery of Scotland’s remote northwest highlands. Head up the A896 for the breathtaking views through Glen Torridon, then continue west on the A832, along the shores of Loch Maree, to stop for lunch at seaside Gairloch. Keep winding along the dramatic coastline and loop around to join the A835 to make it in time for dinner in Inverness, Scotland’s highland capital. Give yourself two nights in Inverness, taking a wildlife cruise on Moray Firth, touring some of the nearby historic castles or hitting the links at the seaside golf resort in Nairn.
Then spend your last few days in the Orkney Islands, clustered not far off the mainland and reachable either via a half-day ferry or quick flight to Kirkwall. For centuries a Scandinavian stronghold, the low, the grassy Orkneys offer a different flavour entirely to the mainland, and are rich with historic sites that predate the Egyptian pyramids. On the main island are the World Heritage-listed neolithic sites of Skara Brae village, Maes Howe tomb and the ancient Ring of Brodgar, as well as the world’s northernmost distillery. Sunken WWII warships in Scapa Flow harbour offer fantastic diving opportunities; or take a ferry to either Westray or Hoy for spectacular cliffside walks and the chance to see puffins and other seabirds (in season) at the bird preserves on each island.
To return to Edinburgh, take a short flight from Kirkwall or sail back to Inverness for a scenic train ride down through eastern Scotland – or else consider splurging on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper train all the way down to London, to finish up your holiday in classic British style.