Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh, the capital, and Glasgow, are welcoming year round. But, in summer, when the yellow gorse and wildflowers bloom and, in fall, when the moors blaze with purple heather, the Highlands are at their best.
Allow at least 10 days for the trip, 2-3 days for each city and five days for the Highlands. The luxury Royal Scotsman (www.royalscotsman.com) train and Scotrail’s (www.scotrail.co.uk) West Highland Line make Highland forays. Driving is another option, but narrow, winding roads are challenging.
To explore the Highlands’ broadest swath, choose Rabbie’s Trail Burners (www.rabbies.com) with sleek 16-passenger vans for 1 to 19-day tours. I opted for Rabbie’s five-day “Highland Explorer,” for $395, plus nightly hotel rates starting at about $90.
In Glasgow, I checked into centrally located Hotel Indigo (www.hotelindigoglasgow.com), a trendy boutique hotel with spacious design rooms, a colorful lobby bar, and a sunny dining room serving bountiful Scottish breakfasts. Former European Cultural Capital and UNESCO City of Music, Glasgow has all the energy and style of a New York or Chicago. A capital of art and architecture, its streets are lined with ornate red and blonde sandstone buildings with arched windows, columns and friezes.
Glasgow’s most famous architect is Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Though his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art (www.gsa.ac.uk), recently suffered a fire, an outdoor tour is being given. Just south, The Lighthouse, originally designed by Mackintosh as Glasgow Herald offices, displays his furniture. Ensconce yourself in one of his high-backed chairs at the Willow Tea Rooms.
City Sightseeing Glasgow’s (www.citysightseeingglasgow.co.uk) double-decker bus makes 24 stops. East lies medieval Glasgow Cathedral, a short walk from cozy Café Gandolfi, serving Scottish haggis and international fare. In the trendy West End, browse vintage-clothing shops and design boutiques. The red-sandstone Kelvingrove Museum showcases everything from a huge stuffed elephant named Sir Roger to Old Dutch Masters. Across the River Clyde, see the Burrell Collection’s acclaimed Chinese porcelain, medieval tapestries and Impressionist works.
Stroll along the river where shipbuilders once constructed a third of the British Empire’s tonnage. Spanned by arched steel bridges, the promenade leads to architect Zaha Hadid’s award-winning Riverside Museum, a treasury of vintage automobiles, locomotives and trams as well as bicycles and motorbikes.
To the Highlands
A 50-minute ScotRail ride took me east to Edinburgh. My hotel, the five-star Balmoral (www.roccofortehotels.com), a grande dame in gray stone, was steps from the station and across from the ScottishPeople’s Centre where genealogists trace visitors’ ancestry. The Balmoral boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant, number one, casual Hadrian’s Brasserie, the greenery filled Palm Court for coffee and high tea, and a cozy whisky bar with over 400 malt whiskies.
Stroll compact Edinburgh, or take the red double-decker City Sightseeing Edinburgh (www.edinburghtour.com) bus. The Royal Mile stretches from Edinburgh Castle (www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk), housing the Crown Jewels and the National War Memorial, east to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (www.royalcollection.org.uk) featuring Mary, Queen of Scots’ state apartments. Beneath the lofty ridge of Arthur’s Seat, Holyroodhouse is a short walk from the Burns Monument, honoring Scotland’s greatest poet.
After two days in Edinburgh, I hopped aboard a gleaming-white Rabbie’s van and headed for the Highlands. Crossing the Firth of Forth, we passed Stirling Castle (www.stirlingcastle.gov.uk), overlooking the battlefield where William Wallace, immortalized in the film, “Braveheart,” defeated the English in 1297.
Before long, we were in bucolic Dunkeld with its 13th-century cathedral along the River Tay. A relaxing woodland walk, a regular feature of Rabbie’s tours, led us to thundering Dunkeld Falls. Our group continued to Pitlochry-gateway to the Highlands-where visitors can tour the Blair Atholl distillery (www.discovering-distilleries.com) and buy Bell’s and other whiskeys.
Soon we were skirting the western edges of mountainous Cairngorms National Park (www.visitcairngorms.com), the U.K.’s largest. Passing Dalwhinnie, home of Scotland’s highest distillery, we reached the stone ruins of Ruthven Barracks, built to police the Highlanders after the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Nearby, at Aviemore ski resort, a funicular up 3,599-foot-high Cairngorm Mountain offers fabulous Highland views.
The Northwest Highlands
West, at the meeting of the River Ness, Beauly Firth, and Moray Firth was graceful Inverness. No one glimpsed the legendary Loch Ness monster, celebrated just south in Drumnadrochit at the Loch Ness Centre (www.lochness.com).
Five miles east lay Culloden (www.nts.org.uk) where the English defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders in 1746. But we pressed northwest to Ullapool, our base for the next two days. There the 52-room Royal Hotel (www.royalhotel-ullapool.com) has spacious rooms, a fine restaurant and a cozy bar overlooking Loch Broom from which Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk) ferries depart west for the Isle of Lewis.
Etched by peninsulas, the Northwest Highlands are sheer splendor. From Achiltibuie, the Hectoria departs for the Summer Isles, topped by Viking burial mounds. In Lochinver, on the Assynt Peninsula, we hiked to a pretty pebble beach through Culag Wood (www.culagwood.org.uk), home to otters, eider ducks and pine martens.
At the Assynt Peninsula’s tip rises the 200-foot-high Old Man of Stoer, a red-sandstone sea stack. We continued southeast for coffee at cozy Kylesku Hotel (www.kyleleskuhotel.co.uk) at the meeting of lochs Glendhu and Glencoul. Crowning a knoll in nearby Loch Assynt was ruined Ardvreck Castle, built by Clan Macleod in 1590 and later captured by Clan Mackenzie.
Over the Bridge to Skye
The next morning, driving south from Ullapool along 200-foot-deep Corrieshalloch Gorge, then west, we stopped to photograph shaggy blonde and red Highland cows on the moors. Heading toward Torridon, we passed stunning red-sandstone beaches, then sparse groves of gnarled Caledonian pines. We continued east to the Applecross Inn (www.applecross.uk.com/inn), facing a broad beach and renowned for prawns, scallops and mussels.
Crossing the bridge to the Isle of Skye, I checked into the luxurious, four-star Cuillin Hills Hotel (cuillinhillshotel-skye.co.uk) on a 15-acre knoll overlooking boat-filled Portree Bay and the saw-toothed Cuillin mountain range.
In Skye, we marveled at the stony pleats of Kilt Rock, high above the Sound of Raasay, and climbed the prow-like monolith at Neist Point, Skye’s westernmost. We were spellbound by Fairy Glen, where sheep grazed in an impossibly green dell of hummocky moorlands and bogs. And we were amazed to learn that Dunvegan Castle (www.dunvegancastle.com) has been a Macleod stronghold for nearly 800 years.
After two days, our Rabbie’s van turned southeast toward Glasgow, stopping to see the treasures of Eilean Donan Castle (www.eileandonancastle.com) in Dornie and to gaze at the legendary Five Sisters of Kintail range. Crossing the Great Glen, with its narrow lochs, we stopped at Spean Bridge to buy whisky and other souvenirs
Soon we were in historic Glencoe, known as the “Weeping Glen.” In 1692, the Campbells massacred their hosts, the Macdonalds, here, igniting a centuries-old feud. At 23-room Clachaig Inn (www.clachaig.com) we lunched, then traveled south past 50-square-mile Rannoch Moor. Traveling through the low-lying mountains of The Trossachs National Park, we stopped in Balquhidder at the grave of Rob Roy McGregor, the Highlander celebrated in the 1995 film. From there, it was 55 miles south to Glasgow, and an overnight at The George (www.thegeorgehoteledinburgh.co.uk), an award-winning four-star hotel with a chandeliered lobby, stylish restaurant and
Go to www.visitscotland.com or www.homecomingscotland.com