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Highland fling

Drinking and driving in Scotland

“Left! Left! Keep left!” I yell at my partner as we pull out of the car rental in Inverness in northern Scotland. Driving on the opposite side of the road isn’t the hard part, it’s driving on the other side of the car that takes some getting used to. Screaming around the Highlands in a wee Audi presents a huge range of fun, due in large part to the fact that having fun is something the Scots are particularly good at. And there’s just something about burly men in kilts that seems really right.

First things first. We never arrive in a foreign land without first assessing the holiday plan of attack with a drink in our hands. Happily, Scotland is teeming with whisky distilleries, some older than dirt; all delicious. The region of Speyside in the northeast is home to the most concentrated number of them, more than 50 in all. One of the reasons for this is the amazing water from the River Spey, but a far juicier story has distillers sequestering themselves in the hills of this once-remote area hundreds of years ago, during a time when whisky making was actually illegal. Fast-forward to today, The Whisky Trail includes everything from the small and organic (Benromach near Forres) to big and popular (Glenfiddich near Dufftown). All will happily show you around, and are quite generous with a nice dram at the end. Pity whichever one of you draws the short straw and has to be the designated driver for the day. Take turns.

With the whisky tour ticked off the list and the drams drunk, we head northwest to Loch Ness to cruise the biggest lake in the U.K. Slightly cheesy, for sure, but you can’t go that far and not block off some quality time with the European tourists clogging the gangplanks, just to say you’ve done both the lake and the nearby ruins of Urquhart Castle. This is all a short drive south of Inverness. “Did you see Nessie?” an Edinburgh cab driver asked later in the week. “No,” we said. “I didn’t think so, because she’s at my house, likely in the kitchen. The mice actually throw themselves on the traps just to get out of her way.”

Could the Air Get Any Fresher?
No amount of Facebook photo albums can prepare you for the beauty of the Highlands, breath-taking at every turn. And with your days as full or as empty as you’d like, you can easily make time to hit the castles, the lookout points and the lakes. And though the “contemplative crowd” (read blue-rinse set) may head south to the larger and busier town of Fort William for adventure, you need to stop at the southern tip of Loch Ness at the town of Fort Augustus, and soak up the incredible scenery surrounding The Lovat, the region’s highly touted eco-friendly boutique hotel—not to mention more whisky.

Whistling westward the next day toward the MacRae clan’s Eilean Donan Castle on our way to Skye, we stop on the side of the road to see why everyone else stopped. There, at the edge of a cliff in the middle of nowhere, stood a busking piper in full formal dress, playing for change—face as red as a beet. His CDs were arranged artfully on a little table if you needed to take home some pipes, like anyone would ever do that. He was there the next day on the way back, too, bless him.

Once over the Skye Bridge, we steel ourselves for one of the most exciting destination restaurants on the Highlands map. The Three Chimneys, helmed by handsome celebrity chef Michael Smith, truly takes Scottish cuisine to a level it has never enjoyed before. Diners book months in advance to eat his food, and to stay at The House Over-By six-suite hotel adjacent to the restaurant. Try to book the chef’s table so you can watch what goes on backstage and even take part in the prep of your own Seven Courses of Skye experience.

Also up in this quadrant of Skye is Dunvegan Castle, home to the storied Fairy Flag, an heirloom of the MacLeod clan. No rainbows here, just some squiggles and red dots on a piece of silk that dates back to between the 4th and 7th centuries. Dunvegan has a nice garden, too, but if you have an hour or so, take the 10-minute drive north from the castle parking lot to White Coral Beach. Once parked, it’s a 20-minute hike to this little anomaly on the edge of the Atlantic, where we kick off socks and shoes (but not bowties)—and freeze our toes in the water.

The High Road to the Low Road
Winding roads are narrow here, often single-lane in the rural parts, so keep an eye on the (literally) oncoming traffic. And be wary of sheep who, at night, often fall asleep at the side of the road. And if I was prime minister, I would ban the following things from all the roads in northern Scotland: camper trailers (called caravans, like some kind of Gypsy romance novel), cyclists and motorcycles, especially the ones that travel in packs. Nothing will prevent you from popping a blood vessel in frustration over the combination of tourists and locals sharing highways with hairpin turns, steep hills, blind intersections and no shoulders. I made up a driving song, to the tune of “Bringing in the Sheaves,” called “Trying Not to Die.”

Down through Glencoe we go, past lake after lake, with one even named Loch Lubhair—you can’t make this stuff up. Past Rob Roy’s grave site near Balquhidder, we pull into Monachyle Mohr, a dreamy estate-turned-hotel within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. This is the type of place to just let go and eat as much cheese and cream and jam and lamb as you can. After a death by pampering, it’s time to head back to the city.

Whichever town you fly into and out of, plan to hit both Edinburgh and Glasgow if you have even an extra day; both are quite different. In fact, people from each town are bewildered that the others live where they do.

Trains run throughout the day and night between the two, taking about 45 minutes. Edinburgh drips with huge tracts of 450-year-old Reformation-era buildings and monuments, a rich arts scene and smart restaurants; Glasgow is like the Montreal of Scotland: a bit edgier, more devil-may-care, with great shopping and art.

And such nice people. Though some Scots might look like they’d just as soon head-butt you as look at you, in truth, they would all not only have a clean handkerchief, but would give it to you if you asked.

 


So Effin’ Bonnie!

Speyside Digs
Two hotels on The Whisky Trail are worth seeking out for their homespun, almost storybook air and country hospitality: Knockomie Hotel in Forres (knockomie.co.uk) and The Craigellachie Hotel in Craigellachie (bespokehotels.com/craigellachiehotel), which was built in 1893 to house whisky merchants, and is famous for it’s Quaich Bar, which boasts about 700 different whiskies.

Kings of the Castle
With everything from the ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness (urquhart-castle.co.uk) to the fully restored Eilean Donan Castle (eileandonancastle.com), you can’t spit and not hit a castle. The reconstructed kitchen at Eilean Donan is particularly worth spending time in.

Eco Perfection
The Lovat (thelovat.com), a highly touted eco-friendly, 28-room boutique hotel, has won awards for its resource efficiency, one of the first hotels to have a biodiversity plan in place—and we don’t just mean biodegradable amenities in the bathroom. Dozens of things—from motion detecting lights to coasters made out of car tires—up the eco ante. (Have the venison carpaccio.)

Pie in the Skye
At the Three Chimneys (threechimneys.co.uk), everything on the menu is produced within a stone’s throw, including the freshest oysters you will ever taste, scallops with an asparagus and rhubarb chutney, and succulent smoked fish. Even though there’s a town nearby named Balgown that sounds like camp fun, you should stay at the gay-friendly Wilmar B&B (wilmarbedandbreakfast.com) in the town of Carbost.

Yay, Gay Night
In Edinburgh, Picardy Place near the city centre is the gay strip. Bars and clubs change hands rapidly, so check local listings before you go. But The Street is the first bar to head to after dinner (2B Picardy Place). Ask around to see where everyone is going next, and don’t be surprised if the answer is “downstairs” to the little club in the basement that opens when upstairs closes—like a secret speakeasy.

Sláinte!

  • Keep an eye out for these Scottish delights:
  • Black Isle Organic: “Beervana” according to the website, particularly the Red Kite Ale.
  • Belhaven Ales & Stouts: Established in 1712, so they’ve really figured it out.
  • Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer: No, it’s not for alcoholics.
  • Caorunn Gin: With a nice, round loganberry undertone, this is made in Speyside with the same water as the whisky. Martinis come garnished with apple slices in most bars.

Last we checked, our livers appear to still be functioning normally. But don’t dare ask me about my cholesterol levels.

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