Despite being situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and home to the world's only rotating boat lift, Falkirk remained pretty much under the tourist radar until the arrival of two giant horse-head sculptures in 2014. Since the launch of The Kelpies and the regeneration of the surrounding area, Falkirk has become an essential inclusion in many travel itineraries as visitors now flock to the town to admire it's two unique feats of engineering and design. I'm the first to put a guilty hand up and admit that until recently my own visits to Falkirk haven't extended beyond these two attractions.
But what else, if anything, does this Central Lowland town have to offer a visitor?
That was the challenge on our latest Scotlanders campaign as we spent a weekend discovering the other gems worth searching out in the area and I was tasked with showcasing Falkirk as an outdoors destination.
Thanks to new cycle paths, the opening of the John Muir Way and general redevelopment, the town is gradually transforming itself into a tourist and outdoor activity hot spot.
Nordic walking classes, mountain bike trails, water sports, fishing, golf, Segway tours and skiing are some of the more adventurous activities available, however I opted for two of the most accessible and enjoyable ways to explore the town and it's attractions - by bike and on foot.
The HArTT Cycle Route
On the Saturday I picked up my hire bike and braved the inclement weather to explore part of the new Helix Around Town Tour, a 16 mile circular cycle route which passes the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel, Callendar House and some lesser known places of interest.
You really can do as much or as little of the circuit as you like and as the mainly flat trail follows cycle-ways, towpaths and woodland, it is an ideal biking route for novices or families.
I found that travelling between the attractions on two wheels gave me a whole new perspective on the town as I discovered quiet, scenic pathways hidden away from the busy roads. Wetland, woods, canals and tunnels provided an ever-changing backdrop as I travelled through a variety of urban, industrial and landscaped scenery. I particularly enjoyed the sections running alongside the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals, with colourful boats moored along the way and curious swans swimming alongside in the hope of a feed.
One of the more interesting hidden gems to look out for is the 630m long Falkirk Tunnel on the Union Canal. The cycle route passes by it, however I recommend stopping to explore inside. Although there is some lighting, I found the tunnel pretty dark and just a wee bit creepy so a torch is useful if you do decide to have a look around.
The tunnel was completed in 1822 with hand picks, shovels and gunpowder used to cut through the bare rock. The walls aren't lined and peculiar calcified forms and stalactites have built up over the years which means you also have to watch out for lots of drips. A strange, spooky and worthwhile stop off!
My next destination was at Callendar Estate where I had a welcome lunch date with fellow Scotlander Nicola who was exploring Callendar House as part of her heritage theme. The restored mansion was a very pleasant setting for our afternoon tea and the visitor staff were more than happy to safely store my bike away while I refueled.
Those wanting to add a more challenging cycle can try out the network of mountain bike trails on the estate. Each trail has been graded according to its level of difficulty and challenge from easy to exhilarating!
I love visiting the autumnal Big Tree Country of Perthshire to witness the vibrant tapestry of foliage as it goes out in a final blaze of yellow, orange and red glory. It really is one of the prettiest places to visit in Scotland at this time of year and on my latest venture to the region I discovered Killiecrankie Hotel is the perfect place to hibernate with a whisky by the fire when the darkness encroaches into the afternoon and wet woodland explorations have to be cut short.
I picked a pretty poor day to travel north as Britain's first named storm is on its way. Storm Abigail is predicted to bring battering wind and torrential rain as it traverses Scotland. As I head past Perth the sky turns an ominous black and the heavens open, roads are quickly flooded and driving conditions become more and more challenging. Relieved to reach my destination, I make a dash from the car to the entrance in an attempt to avoid presenting myself at reception like a drowned rat which I just about manage to achieve.
On arrival I am eagerly welcomed by Beanie, the resident spaniel who expectantly presents me with a squeaky toy before following me to the reception where I'm welcomed again, this time by Henrietta, the hotel's owner and manager.
My bags are transported to my room by an assistant in unique patchwork tartan trews, coffee and cake is arranged and I'm already getting the impression that despite the decor, this is not a conventional country house hotel. Henrietta confirms this when she explains that she doesn't want the place to feel stuffy, instead she treats people as if they are guests in her house and technically they are although her background working in some of the country's most luxurious hotels is reflected in the high standards throughout. The result is a quality hotel with an informal feel and some quirky touches!
My large deluxe bedroom had a Scottish country house feel with just enough tartan to be tasteful without being tacky. The fresh decor made the room feel very homely and any thoughts of the storm outside were long gone as I settled in for the evening.
With all the usual inclusions and extras you would expect from a luxury room, I couldn't think of anything else I would have needed. Real coffee, a cafetiere and current copies of several Scottish magazines were a welcome touch and if I was being picky, then a desk rather than a set of drawers would have been preferred. A stool was provided but it really wasn't a comfortable way to sit and use the dressing mirror or my laptop.
The bathroom was spacious and spotlessly clean, with a separate bath and powerful shower and the quirky duck sponge was a nice bit of fun. Although the toiletries smelled lovely it would have been nice to carry through the Scottish theme with some local products.
After a really comfortable sleep, I woke up to discover that the room also had a pretty view to the garden and the hills beyond, a pleasant surprise.
As a Scottish travel blogger I often get asked for advice when people are making plans to visit Scotland and this usually inspires me to write a blog post on a place or experience that will help to answer some of those queries. However there is one place that I get asked about more than any other and that is Glencoe.
A rugged, dramatic and at times hostile environment, not surprisingly many of you find the thought of exploring it on foot an intimidating one and worry that it is only accessible to accomplished climbers and mountaineers.
One of the most common questions I get asked about is suggestions for easy trails for those with little or no hiking experience, so I wanted to share with you three of my favourite simple but rewarding walks in the area. For me, being among the mountains and forests brings the scenery to life as you start to notice the sounds of rushing water, smell the scent of pine and find yourself encompassed by the brooding atmosphere. It truly is a landscape that makes you feel small and you can't help but feel humbled and in awe at the power of Mother Nature. The best way to appreciate it is on foot, exposing yourself to all it's wonderful, powerful and strangely magical elements.
Can you tell how much I love this place?!
So here are my 3 favourite easy but rewarding Glencoe walks
1, Glencoe Lochan
Glencoe Lochan is an oasis of tranquility hidden away below the mammoth mountains. On the outskirts of Glencoe village this idyllic little spot was planted and modelled to resemble a Canadian landscape by a previous Canadian owner after his wife became homesick.
This is one of my favourite places in the area, the reflections of the mountains and trees in the still water make this a great spot for taking beautiful photographs.
The circular route around the Lochan is flat and easy, with longer woodland trails for those that want to explore further. There is an option to take a higher level route signposted 'mountain path' but to be honest the mature trees now block any view that would have previously made the effort worthwhile and the flat walk around the Lochan is visually the most rewarding.
This peaceful place makes a perfect relaxing escape from the contrast of the wilder landscape that surrounds it. An easy walk for all levels of fitness and mobility through some of the prettiest scenery.
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