A binge session of Outlander can easily dictate your perception of the Scottish Highlands. The show conjures visions of coarse men, coarse food and coarse landscape, all isolated in the farthest reaches of the country. While this may not sound like the makings for a luxury vacation, Scotland has another, softer tempo, one that is nothing short of otherworldly thanks to the country’s sublime landscapes, deliciously fresh produce, and charm-filled lodgings.
A perfect week in the Highlands follows the North Coast 500, a coastal route that begins in Inverness and circles the Northern
tip of the United Kingdom. The way will wind you by endless hills blanketed in violet-hued heather, through storybook towns crowned with bewitching castles, and by white sand beaches. If you pull off the road, you can hike through undulating mountains and moss-covered forests that seem more fit for a fairytale than the mortal world.
While traversing the Highlands alone is entirely doable, the North is best seen with Wilderness Scotland, an adventure company with a luxury lean, leading the way. The guides are just as quick to crack a well-timed joke as they are to regale you with tales of history and lore.
Their completely-customized trip saves the anxiety of avoiding missed connections, parlaying with cab drivers in foreign tongues or thick accents, deciphering Yelp reviews, or inevitably ending up in charmless tourist traps. Besides, driving Scotland’s oft single-track roads isn’t for the meek-hearted.
So pack your bags, channel your inner Highlander and be prepared to be enchanted by Scotland.
A short flight from London lands you in Inverness, the gateway city to the Highlands. Stretch your legs with a stroll the Ness Islands, a series of small islands in the River Ness threaded together by suspension bridges. Stop at Leakey’s Bookshop on the way home; a second-hand bookshop situated within a former church, complete with spiral staircases and stained glass windows.
The city is not short on luxury souvenirs – cashmere scarves and sweaters or a bottle of Scotch will be treasured long after your plane lands home. If you’re not short on time, tour the pink-hued Inverness Castle or pop-up to Loch Ness and search for the famed Monster. Rest for your journey ahead at the Rocpol Hotel, or, if you just can’t shut your eyes, check out live music at MacGregor’s.
Head North via the coast and watch as a fairytale in the form of rolling green hills and towering sea cliffs unfolds out the window. Dunrobin
Castle is just off the road, so stop to explore the castle’s impressive art collection and stroll the gardens.
Weave up to John O’Groats, the most Northern point of the mainland. Off the mainland, the neolithic towns of the Orkney Islands are just a boat ride away. Stop to take a picture at the famous sign – it notes the distance to major metropolises around the world – then head East. As you loop around a corner, the Duncansby Head stacks appear as if out of thin air. It’s a truly captivating sight – the natural arches and sea stacks shoot majestically out of the water.
Back in the car, the roads will wind down to Tongue, where Wildland’s Kinloch Lodge acts as a stopping point for the night. While it has all the airs of a classic hunting lodge, the decor has a Scandinavian twist (fitting, as Wildland is helmed by Danish billionaire Anders Holch Polvson). Think hygge – Sheepskin draped across chairs, art books decorating coffee tables, and fireplaces warming almost every room. A sky-lit solarium means every meal is backlit by a jaw-dropping view of Ben Loyal (a designated National Scenic Area). After a day of the outdoors, you’ve more than earned a gin & tonic and a round of pool.
Meals on the property pay homage to the area; almost all produce is sourced from the grounds or from the nearby lands. It’s a mecca for seafood lovers – nothing is fresher than oysters just pulled from the loch. For dinner, expect river salmon or trout, delicately poached and devoid of heavy batter (though perfectly crispy fish and chips is easy to find).
While Kinloch is private rental only, the Wildland group will be opening Lundies nearby later in 2019. Expect thoughtfully eclectic en-suite rooms complete with clawfoot tubs in the main house, and beautiful studios in the former stable space.
Kinloch’s proximity to Ben Loyal makes for a perfect day of exploring. Our trail leads us through mossy forest trails and up a riverside broken up by a swimmable waterfall. We hike through a forest landscape that opens up to sprawling valleys nestled amongst the verdant
foothills of the mountains. Closer to the top of Ben Loyal is the wreckage of a World War II-era plane to explore.
The hills opened up to a deep blue lake (postcard-perfect) that made the perfect backdrop for a picnic lunch. While I had expected sandwiches, Kinloch’s idea of a picnic is a three-course meal that starts with warm soup and crab and leek quiche and concludes with a rich chocolate tart. Wine – French, with a discernible vintage – flows freely.
Bid goodbye to the day with a refreshing dip in the river, followed by an evening spent curled up by a fire (Scotch in hand, naturally). If you’re a little more uptempo, Wilderness Scotland can arrange a local musician to swing by for a night of revelry to the tune of both traditional and contemporary Scottish music.
Days 4 + 5:
Just south of the Highland capital lies the Cairngorm National Park, home to five of the highest mountains in the United Kingdom. In the winter, this makes the area a hotspot for snowsports, and in the warmer months, fertile valleys of Scots pine, birch, and juniper are prime hiking territory. Perennially snow-capped mountains and ever-changing weather means you could face all four seasons in one day, so packing layers is essential (though the guides will plan the hikes based on the weather conditions).
We spend a bucolic few days hiking through the area, with jovial pack ponies as the perfect companions. We walk upwards in the mountain, above the cloud covered and through a fog-draped forest. The air feels fresher here, giving my skin a pore-less glean that I know the New York City climate will quickly scourge upon my return. In the valley surrounding, old growth forest is broken up by sprinkling of young saplings – Wildland has planted over 3,000,000 trees in an effort to rewild the lands.
Rest-stops come when you stumble upon a bothy – public-access cottages that dots more remote areas. Sip mulled wines and nibble on sweets in front of a blazing fire as a respite from the foul weather. A guide pulls out bagpipes, and though I initially stifled a cringe, it was the perfect soundtrack to the moment.
It’s not a trip to Scotland without indulging in a Scotch or two. Ask for one with a meal, or stop into one of the many distilleries – Wilderness Scotland brought us into the closed-door Spey Distillery – in the area to taste your way through everything from complex 18-year Scotches or thistle gins.
Through hiking was the catalyst for the trip, there are many more activities that can round out your week. Learn to make a bowl from a local woodcarver, venture out on a sea kayak or ask your guide for the best vantage points for stunning photography.
After a day’s hike, reward your body for the day by unwinding in Killiehuntly Farmhouse’s sauna – it’s perched atop a hill for prime sunset views. Choose to stay in one of the kitted-out rooms in the main house, a restored 19th-century farmhouse, or opt for the more secluded Hayloft, a minimalistic alpine-inspired loft nestled in what once was a hayloft.
The rooms skip TVs and mini-bars in favor of plush, convivial communal spaces and an honesty bar, encouraging guests to get to know one another. The cozy decor is also a great excuse to finally make a dent in your to-read list while wrapped in one of the soft woven blankets. After a dinner of softly poached salmon and dessert of vanilla panna cotta topped with fresh rhubarb, a local storyteller weaves tall tales of local folklore and fairies by a roaring fire. It’s a most sublime way to postpone any last-night sadness.
As you board the plane home, the Highland magic will still rings in your ears. It may be the Scotch or perhaps the merriment of the night before, but chances are, you’ve been beguiled by the Highlands.