Many families across the UK and Ireland had to adapt their summer holiday this year, opting for “staycations” instead of their planned trip abroad. With lockdown restrictions constantly changing, it’s hard to envisage a time where we’ll be back to planning a trip, and it going ahead without a hitch.
Until that happens, looking a bit closer to home and having a staycation adds that level of flexibility, without the stress. One beautiful area to explore and guaranteed to tick every box are the Scottish Highlands, particularly as you have your choice in hotels, bed and breakfasts as well as self-catering accommodation.
The Highlands is a mountainous region located in northwest Scotland and has many well-known attractions, all a stone’s throw away from each other. With plenty of public transport, you can still easily access all these sites if you don’t have your own car.
Nestled in the centre of The Highlands is the mysterious Loch Ness. Spanning 22.5 miles long, 1.7 miles wide and 433 feet deep, when you’re there you can see why the idea of a monster living in the deep is plausible. Despite the size, I still stared intently at the water’s surface, hoping for a chance sighting of Nessie.
Being so large, there are different ways you can see Loch Ness too, from trails to tours, to my favourite, a trip to Drumnadrochit to visit Urquhart Castle. Not much of a castle anymore; instead the ruins of what stood before, Urquhart Castle overlooks the lock with stunning views for miles on a clear day. Even a rainy day doesn’t dampen your spirits when you’re there, adding to the atmosphere and mystery that surrounds the lake.
If you’re staying in nearby Inverness, buses go directly from the city to Urquhart Castle, with a beautiful scenic drive on the way.
Staying around the Inverness area, north of the city is Moray Firth, known for its resident population of dolphins. It’s estimated that around 130 bottlenose dolphins live in the Moray Firth, and they aren’t shy at saying “Hi!” by leaping out of the water, close to the shore.
With any wildlife spotting, there is no guarantee of success. Doing thorough research in advance is a must, particularly to tailor any dolphin-spotting to the time of year you plan to go. I spent all evening the night before my trip reading the advice of the online guides.
My plan was to head towards Chanonry Point an hour after low tide. Specific with the time I needed to get there, and relying on public transport (and then walking some two miles down a hill!), time was of the essence, and I wasn’t disappointed! Within five minutes of arriving, and surrounded by many on-lookers keen to see the dolphins in their natural habitat and glory, a dolphin leapt into the air before disappearing into the water, only to leap again some distance away.
Although my photographic evidence of the encounter was appalling, the memories of the day will last a lifetime.
For those driving, there is a car park that you need to pay for on-site, otherwise Chanonry Point as a location in itself is free to visit. And if like me you plan on taking the bus back, walk along the flat pebble beach to nearby Rosiemarkie, for a more scenic view.
South west of Inverness, and about 90 minutes’ drive, is Fort William. Known as the gateway to Ben Nevis, the seaside town sits in the shadow of the highest mountain in the British Isles.
Ben Nevis is an attraction in itself; once an active volcano, the mountain attracts experienced hikers who are well equipped to take on the 1352m ascent. If a 10-hour hike isn’t for you, there are other ways to enjoy the mountainous terrain, through rock climbing or taking a mountain gondola ride.
Not being the most physically capable when it comes to hiking, I much prefer to experience scenic views from a comfortable seat. Indulging in my childhood dream of going to Hogwarts, I boarded the Jacobite steam train with my first-class ticket, and journeyed the 84-mile round trip along the legendary West Highland Line, fully embracing the chocolate frogs, Butterbeer and more importantly, travelling over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, as seen in the Harry Potter movies.
Constructed in the early 1900s, the viaduct is 100 feet off the ground, allowing the most beautiful views across Glenfinnan Monument and the waters of Loch Shiel. The viaduct is impressively high, and as the steam train slowed to travel over it, I looked out the window to see hundreds of hikers below, waving frankly, as if we were really aboard the Hogwarts Express.
It was an incredible experience, and I thoroughly loved every second of it. A cheaper alternative is to take one of the scheduled passenger trains from Fort William, with tickets costing a fraction of the price, and travelling exactly the same route, anyone travelling on a budget can experience the magic too.
Before you leave the Scottish Highlands, one last trip has to be through the Glen Coe valley. Keeping with the movie themes, Outlaw King, The 39 Steps, Braveheart and Skyfall were also filmed in the area. As descriptive as I can be about the scenery, nothing matches you going there and taking it all in. With a blink of an eye, you’re taken in by the luscious rolling green mountains, the rocky edges and the waterfalls, with rainbows dancing in the sunlight.