Scotland’s just been voted the most beautiful country in the world - again. It’s a breathtaking place: all indigo lochs, misty glens, undulating green hills, purple, heather-clad mountains and jagged coastlines, with Caledonian heritage at every junction. There’s no better way to appreciate this gem of a land than by driving its twisty, turning roads from one stunning locale to another.
Do the Highlands in style. We spoke to the super-knowledgeable Jonny Stage of Scotland’s bespoke luxury travel experts Sandgrouse Travel & Expeditions to give us his insight into the best uber-stylish road trip route, including the luxury hotels and must-do things to see, eat and drink along the way.
‘Start in Edinburgh for a couple of days,’ advises Jonny, ‘Decide whether you want self-drive or go guided, and get your car delivered to you just before you leave, to avoid having to worry about Edinburgh parking.’ Jonny recommends an atmospheric stay at The Witchery, with its Pugin-meets-Victorian-Gothic décor, just 50 yards from the portcullis of Edinburgh Castle while you explore this exciting, historic city.
When it comes to the car, we’d recommend a Land Rover or Range Rover for ultimate capability and luxury, then head north out of Edinburgh across Rannoch Moor - ‘one of the most beautiful places in the UK, it's isolated and desolate,’ says Jonny - before dropping down into dramatic Glencoe. You have a good chance of spotting red deer, golden eagles and ospreys on and above the hills.
If a luxury hotel and spa with a golf club on its own private island rings your bell, book into the magical Isle of Eriska Hotel, before spending the next day exploring Oban. Forget Michelin stars and follow the enticing scent of garlic, butter and shellfish past the historic Caledonian ferries to the Oban Seafood Shack. With great takeaway platters piled high with crustaceans, and scallops the size of a retriever’s paw, this is the finest alfresco seafood you’ll ever taste. Round off your gastronomic day with a wee dram of the Oban 14-year-old West Highland Malt at Oban Distillery, one of Scotland’s oldest and smallest whiskey distilleries.
Your next drive takes you through some classic loch scenery: past Loch Creran and Loch Linnhe to Fort William. Jonny suggests you book a night or two at Inverlochy Castle, beloved of Queen Victoria. The kitchen is run by no less than Albert and Michel Roux Jr using the finest local produce. Nestled at the foot of Ben Nevis, what could be more Scottish than Inverlochy?
Take a day off from driving and book yourself some tickets (first class, of course) on the Jacobite steam train round trip from Fort William to Mallaig. It’s one of the world’s great railway journeys and beloved of Harry Potter fans; the train puffs across the Glenfinnan Viaduct, one of the film’s spectacular locations. There’s time for fabulous seafood in one of Mallaig’s small restaurants and a pleasant amble round the harbour before boarding the train for the return journey.
From Fort William, drive up country towards Inverness. You’ll have absorbed some blood-soaked Scottish history in Glencoe: make it a double with a visit to the eerie Culloden battlefield. Happily, Culloden House, a Grade A listed mansion next to the battlefield, is anything but eerie and bleak. ‘The food and especially the service is great,’ says Jonny.
From Inverness, you now have a choice. You could leave the car and fly onwards from Inverness airport, but Jonny suggests driving back south through the magnificent Cairngorm mountains to Braemar. Stay at the Fife Arms: ‘This is the best hotel in Scotland,’ says Jonny, ‘you’ll find 14,000 individual pieces of artwork in there.’ He’s not wrong – from Louise Bourgeois’ Spider in the courtyard to Picasso’s Mousquetaire assis and Lucien Freud’s Child Portrait (Annie) casually hanging on the walls, there’s something beautiful everywhere you glance.
When you can tear yourself away from the living gallery that’s the Fife Arms, it’s just over a couple of hours’ drive back to Edinburgh. Break your journey at lovely Scone Palace and arrive back, full circle, in Auld Reekie.
Finally, we asked Jonny for his ultimate touring Scotland recommendation: ‘By helicopter,’ he says without hesitation, ‘it’s the ultimate taxi. You can be tucked up in your castle at night and the next day be on an island.’
Maybe next time.
Main image credit: Sandgrouse Travel