Flanked by seas and filled with natural wonders, this region is worth the trip.
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Çwith international travel restrictions easing, and the United States lifting its COVID testing requirements, this summer is prime time to dust off your passport. But while some travelers might still be wary of squeezing into the Louvre or partying in Berlin, the Scottish Highlands’ open spaces are the ideal setting for those looking to venture abroad while clinging to wild places.
Located in northwest Scotland, flanked by the Atlantic to the west and the North Sea to the east, the Highlands are a relatively tranquil region, marked by high peaks and deep lakes. Its largest city, Inverness, has just 47,000 people, while most populous cities like Wick and Fort William are quiet harborside villages of a few thousand people.
A realm of supernatural natural wonders, it’s a unique setting where you can see dolphins and reindeer in the same day, where mythical beasts and castles the size of Hogwarts share traditions, and where national parks and distilleries offer a distinct heritage.
Glencoe and Ben Nevis
The gateway to the Highlands, the Glencoe Valley is the entry point for many visitors, considering its proximity to Glasgow to the south. As you drive along the A82, the road rises into the clouds and the terrain transforms into a sprawling, moss-green landscape that looks more Lord of the Rings than the UK. Flanked by lakes and streams, the road zigzags through a mountainous valley carved out of glaciers and volcanoes, with huge boulders, waterfalls and cottages 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 could live here.
The trip is a scenic spectacle, but if you want to explore a little more, Glencoe Mountain Resort offers mountain biking, tubing, skiing and sledding. Summer cable car tickets are £15 ($18) per adult for hikers and £30 ($37) for mountain bikers.
Further north, things reach their literal peak with Ben Nevis. The highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis, towers 4,413 feet over 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 often immersed in the clouds.
An iconic fixture of the Highlands is Loch Ness, a mighty body of freshwater stretching 23 miles through a mountainous valley, with an average depth of 433 feet and plenty of room for mythical monsters. Companies like Loch Ness cruise (from £14 per adult) and high speed beastie boats (from £28) offer lake tours, or you can learn more at Loch Ness Center and Exhibition, which hosts sonar-equipped cruises (in case you find “Nessie”) and features exhibits that examine the history of Loch Ness as well as Nessie. Entry to the exhibition is £9 for adults and cruises are £14.
The nicest point of view is from Urquhart Castle, an abandoned stone fortress perched on the banks along the A82. The century-old castle is as storied as Nessie, with exhibits delving into the castle’s role in the battles between the Scots and the English in the Wars of Independence. Nowadays, the cannon fire has diminished, providing a peaceful panorama of the mysteriously black lake. Tickets cost €12 online or €13 at the box office.
If you want to stay, Loch Ness Lodge it is the size of a modern castle, with modern amenities to match. The intimate property features nine extravagantly decorated nature-inspired rooms, as well as private cottages, plus a spa and gorgeous grounds with gardens and sweeping water views. Nearby, enjoy dinner at Cobbs Restaurantwhere local ingredients and whiskey shine in a dining room overlooking Loch Ness.
Northeast of Loch Ness is the urban center of the Highlands, Inverness. With less than 50,000 people, it’s a far cry from the Scottish urban centers of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but still buzzes with big-city glow.
On Scotland’s northeast coast, it’s a town where old meets new – where the ancient Inverness Castle shares an area code with live music venues and contemporary cuisine. For the latter, visit the mustard seeda wood-burning restaurant in an old church tossing piri piri shrimp bruschetta and chicken stuffed with black pudding, or stop by White House for glamorized pub food like bon bon haggis and beet burgers in a bland, whitewashed space. Inverness also has a surprisingly robust nightlife, with hot spots like Hootanannywhere musicians play casually around tables, and Gelions Bar, an old place to dance to bands. so there is market bara small bar located in an alley and up a flight of stairs, where the jazzy stage takes up about half the space.
Stay in the elegant boutique Kingsmills Hotel, home to upscale luxury, cozy rooms, a spa and a large indoor pool under a light wood ceiling. The hotel also has a fully loaded whiskey bar for Scottish connoisseurs and a fine dining venue, english restaurantwith seasonal dishes such as coffee-roasted venison loin, carrot and chestnut pie and cheese souffle with pickled walnuts.
Outside the city, nature and history abound. Moray Firth, northeast of Inverness, is a coastal enclave with bustling beaches, golf courses (such as 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 spot 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 around 1,600 men died in one of the bloodiest battles on British soil during the last Jacobite uprising against the Duke of Cumberland. Comprised of sprawling grounds and a visitor centre, the museum costs £14 per adult, but the outdoor grounds are free to explore, with footpaths past headstones denoting Scottish clansmen who died in battle.
For something that ages a little more peacefully, Glen Ord’s Singleton Distillery is one of the UK’s most famous whiskey distilleries At this Hogwarts-sized facility in the village of Muir of Ord (about 24 kilometers northwest of Inverness), visitors can tour the distillery (£9 per person), sample aged whiskey and get a coveted bottle. (Bottles of Glen Ord are notoriously rare to find outside of the distillery.)
Cairngorms National Park
In addition to dolphins and lake monsters, the Highlands are also home to the UK’s only free-ranging reindeer herd, in Cairngorms National Park. Most of the herd of 150 animals roam free in the Cairngorms Mountains, while others can be seen in the paddocks in Cairngorm Reindeer Center. The center works to safely manage breeding and prevent disease transmission, and the reindeer are rotated in and out 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 through the hills to see them in their natural habitat. Hill rides cost £20 for adults, while a stop at the paddocks costs £3.50.
When you’re not living out your North Pole fantasies, Cairngorms National Park – located on the eastern side of the Highlands – has plenty of other activities, from mountain biking and hiking to kayaking and paddle boarding on pristine lakes. Mountain and hill trails range from leisurely strolls to strenuous hikes, including the Speyside Way and Cateran Trail. If you’re looking to summit a munro (the Scottish term for mountains over 3,000 feet), Cairngorms is home to the largest range of them in the UK.
From peaks that disappear into the clouds to wildlife that sways in folklore, the Scottish Highlands need to be seen, tasted and traveled through to be believed. In a region where reindeer and lakes seem to outnumber humans, it’s the perfect re-entry into international travel, during a season when ingredients are fresher and reindeer are roaming around.
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