Five Tips for Top Things to do in Scotland in 2016
It’s that time of year again. A particularly sodden winter is nearly over, darkness descends slightly later each night and thoughts start to wander to travel plans for the year ahead. It’s one of my favourite times, pencilling in destinations and activities and mapping out where my kilt is off to next. So whether you’re a travelled veteran or a Scotland newbie, here’s my top standout suggestions to consider for your own itinerary for 2016.
Take on the North Coast 500
This new route starting and ending in Inverness and following the Northern Highland’s coastline has been proclaimed (no pun about the band and/or its 500 miles intended) Scotland’s answer to Route 66. Over 500 miles of rugged, natural and majestic scenery is covered throughout this epic road trip. Covering Inverness-shire, the Black Isle, Caithness, Sutherland and both Easter and Wester Ross the aim is to shine the spotlight on an incredible part of the country that is under-visited, mainly due to accessibility and length of time required. Do not be letting this put you off.
Cyclists, bikers, campers and walkers could not find a more diverse and challenging journey. The incredible scenery around Torridon and Gairloch, the desolate Cape Wrath and the serenity of Shieldaig make for lifelong memories. It’s not all about the outdoors on the NC500 though and stops at picturesque villages in the Black Isle, jaw-dropping Dunrobin Castle near Golspie or barely-there Ardvreck Castle guarantee regular stops along the way. As does anywhere offering fresh seafood – head to Applecross for one of the best meals in the Highlands and to enjoy the views over to Skye and Raasay.
Find your wild side!
Scotland is one of the top travel destinations for those with a sense of adventure – and a hint of the crazy – about them. Fleeing down river rapids in the Cairngorms, scaling the heights to reach Highland summits or looking effortlessly graceful on the ski slopes at Glenshee there is something to fix every adrenaline craving.
White water rafting can be done in numerous spots throughout the Highlands by a range of experienced and enthusiastic providers. In 2015 I, as a Scotlander, took on the River Findhorn in the Cairngorms with Ace Adventures. Terror, excitement, nervous giggling – yes it was all there in abundance. Travelling at both a leisurely and break-neck speed in perfect intervals, and surrounded by a raw and dramatic natural landscape, it’s one of the best water thrills to be found.
Munro bagging has become a bit of a rite of passage for folk of the outdoors in Scotland and the choices of which peak to assault are almost inexhaustible. If you are basing yourself at Fort William, our Outdoor Capital, Ben Nevis is the highest of them all but other fabulous hillwalking favourites include Ben Lomond, Ben Lawers and Ben Arthur.
You’ll have seen those gorgeous surfing folk from Hawaii Five-0 with their coconut water, shrimp stands and all that carry on. Oh aye, you’ll find all of that and more in Scotland where surfers descend on the likes of Thurso and Tiree in search of the perfect wave. Skiers can head to Glenshee, Glen Coe or the Nevis Range for some winter fun in the white stuff and for those looking for something a little more organised there’s Go Ape centres in the Trossachs, Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders.
If animals are your thing, Scotland is host to some of the world’s most impressive beasts, including dolphins, whales and sharks. My recent Skye wildlife boat tours take a look at the great options available from the spectacularly located village of Elgol.
Discover the dram for you
Never mind milk and honey, if you’re like me your chosen afterlife will be spent somewhere where the ‘water of life’ flows freely. For seasoned pros, you’ll have your favourites already while for beginners, it’s all a bit intimidating. The regions, the colours, the flavours, the process, all the things that represent years of effort….where do you begin?
Crash course. Whisky in Scotland can be separated into the following regions – Highland, Lowland and Campbelltown, Islay and the Islands and Speyside. The latter is the most famous and boasts drams distinctive for their (usually) sweet and delicate flavours coming as a result of the best quality water and barley to be found. Look out for some whopping brands like Macallan, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet in this neck of the woods. Islay malts enjoy a loyal fan club of their own as well and this island off of the west coasts currently has 8 distilleries in operation. Famous for the smoky and peaty scents and tastes that tend to polarise opinions, Islay malts will be branded “medicinal” to critics but to those that love it, these characteristics embody Scotland and make for the most evocative of beverages. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin will all be waiting for you if you make the pilgrimage to Islay.
Whatever your level or taste, a visit to a whisky distillery is a fabulous way of both revelling in the process and educating yourself in one of Scotland’s favourite assets. Tour options abound throughout the country but Speyside and Islay present the best concentration where you can find powerhouse global brands within a stone’s throw of each other.
Stumble upon beach paradise
Word is definitely getting out – Scotland has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Beach vistas do not come better than those to be found on the Isle of Harris in particular, where the cold waters of the Atlantic produce sumptuous colour variations. Turquoise clear waters, soft sands and immaculate sunsets are all to be expected and, just to seal the deal, you can have all of this almost entirely to yourself.
Outside of Harris, almost all of Scotland’s islands can boast a contender or three but some of the top spots include the Isles of Barra and Vatersay, Mull (where Calgary Bay continually astounds), Kiloran Bay on Colonsay and Scousburgh Sands on Shetland. As for the mainland, the North West is my favourite spot where the beaches in and around Durness in Sutherland are glorious. Whether it’s star shapes in the sand or a good old fashioned smouldering glare at the sea that you’re after, Scotland’s coastlines have you covered.
Go back in time – in the Scottish Borders
As one of the most historically rich countries in the world, Scotland has a headspinning amount of turbulent history to offer 21st Century visitors. Nowhere is this colourful past more intriguing than the Scottish Borders, another of our mystifyingly under-hyped regions. Nestled as it is between the Central Belt and our historic rivals down south, it has seen more than its fair share of conflict and strife. The Borders Abbeys are some of the most romantic and atmospheric ruins to be found – Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh and Jedburgh make up the pack and each has its own fascinating story. Amidst the ruins a nod to one of our great literary masters, Sir Walter Scott, is a must and, in Abbotsford House, you will find one of the best visitor centres we have to offer. Scott’s former home, Abbotsford is a museum of memories to this great writer, traveller and pioneer.
The Borders is also home to the menacingly sinister Hermitage Castle. Isolated and angular, this takes the prize for atmospheric bone-chillers and is perfect on a gloomy day when the centuries of fear and grim expectation can almost be felt in those wee hairs that have suddenly made an appearance on the back of your neck. It makes me endlessly perturbed that Scotland missed out on Game of Thrones filming – this place would fit right in.
Hear more about my views on the Borders in this Radio Scotland broadcast ahead of the start of the 2016 summer season:
This blog post has been included in Travel Supermarket’s Trends for 2016. Keep up to date on my adventures around the country this year on my Scotland travel blog or subscribe below to get all my top tips to your inbox.
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