My latest #SYHAdventure may only have involved a journey of less than 55 miles but I assure you that it is a road-trip that should be on every Scotland travel bucket list and is up there with any adventure!
The SYHA in Torridon stands nestled between the water of Upper Loch Torridon and the foot of the mighty Liathach, rated by many climbers and hill-walkers as Scotland's finest mountain. As this was my third #SYHAdventure I was getting used to the fact that Scottish Youth Hostels are inevitably situated in some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring locations in Scotland and Torridon didn't fail to live up to my new high expectations.
With an outdoor paradise on the doorstep it was tempting to lace up my boots and venture off on my usual walking expeditions but I had an even bigger temptation on this excursion and it involved jumping behind the wheel and heading off on a road-trip.
Despite only being officially launched 2 months ago, the North Coast 500 has been creating a huge buzz in the global travelsphere and has already been listed as one of the top coastal road-trips in the world by Travel Now magazine and has been dubbed Scotland's own Route 66.
Split into 6 route sections, Torridon SYHA very handily sits midway along the Wester Ross segment and makes an ideal base for those undertaking this breathtaking and adrenaline pumping section, as this part of the route encompasses the notorious Bealach Na Ba (pronounced Bay-Lach-Na-Ba and means Pass of the Cattle).
WHAT TO DO IN TORRIDON
I started my adventure in the pretty little village of Torridon which is dwarfed by some spectacularly huge mountains and sits on the edge of Loch Torridon. It would be easy to drive through thinking that such a small place might not have much to offer but looks can be deceiving and delve a little deeper and you will find plenty to keep you occupied.
The modern community centre has a surprisingly large display of local arts and crafts for sale, in fact it is one of the best ranges of handmade Scottish products that I have found anywhere outside of a craft market and an ideal place to pick up an authentic souvenir of your trip while supporting the local economy.
Torridon sea tours offer a range of excursions from the nearby village of Sheildaig which take you wildlife spotting on half-day trips around the loch or full-day adventures to some of the remote isles.
The nearby Torridon Inn not only serves delicious local produce but offers bike hire and an assortment of outdoor activities including canoeing, archery, rock climbing and gorge scrambling. If that's not enough to keep you busy then the walking options, wildlife watching and dramatic scenery will!
I stayed in one of the dog friendly private rooms at the Youth Hostel and although not en-suite it did have it's own sink and was clean and comfortable. After travelling for more than a week it was great to make use of the washing and drying facilities and to finally have a choice of fresh, clean clothes.
A large well equipped self catering kitchen allows easy cooking and a choice of heat your own meals are available to purchase in case you didn't realise that rather surprisingly there are no supermarkets in the remote Highlands!
The social interaction is one thing I have really enjoyed on my SYHA trips and finding out what has brought my fellow hostelers to the area. In Torridon I was surprised at the mix of nationalities and found out most of them were also there on a scenic Highland road-trip or cycling adventure.
As Torridon SYHA has an alcohol licence and two panoramic lounges where you can relax and watch the wildlife and landscape, there is every reason to spend your evening chilling out there. However, for those wanting to eat out or venture to the pub, I highly recommend the nearby Torridon Inn which is also dog friendly.
I drove anti-clockwise along the coastal road from Torridon following the breathtaking route to Applecross before negotiating the steep and sharp narrow curves of Bealach Na Ba, an unmissable driving experience although not for the faint-hearted!
My first stop was at the village of Shieldaig which dates back to 1800 and and is mainly comprised of a row of pretty whitewashed cottages sitting on the shore of Loch Shieldaig. A short distance out in the loch rises the distinctive Sheildaig Island, clad in Scots pine trees and home to a pair of nesting sea eagles. A birders paradise, look out for a thoughtful set of binoculars fixed on the shore allowing you to zoom in for a close up.
The best views of the village, island and loch are definitely from further along the road as it rises up the hillside and the little cottages shrink to toy size!
As you travel further along the route look out for the well photographed cottage with the red roof and try not to be too envious of their view!
A couple of weeks ago I found myself exploring an enchanting Kingdom where a Prince met his now Princess before they married and went off to live happily ever after. It may sound like I had entered the pages of a fairy-tale but such a place actually exists and you too can live the Royal romantic dream on the idyllic east coast of Scotland. The Kingdom of Fife is where Prince Wills wooed the now Princess Kate while they attended university in St Andrews and the rest is of course history...
Along with my own Prince Charming I spent the weekend testing the region's romantic credentials on the latest Scotlanders campaign and found that reality is even better than fairy-tale fantasy. Being accompanied by your own Prince or Princess is optional, after all it is also the place that you could meet that special someone as Kate and Wills can testify! Whether you are a coupledom or still waiting to be swept off your feet, here are my 10 romantic reasons why you too should visit Scotland's own fairy-tale Kingdom...
1. The secluded hideaway in the woods
Our fairy-tale weekend began as all good fairy-tales do in a secluded hideaway in the woods. However, this was no ordinary woodland retreat but a rather pretty snowdrop tent on Cambo Estate near St Andrews with it’s own double bed and just the right dose of rustic charm.
This is true glamorous camping with cosy furnishings, cooking facilities and access to a modern toilet block with your own private shower, luxury indeed! In the evening the leafy pathways glow with fairy-lights and your own fire pit provides enough heat to keep warm while you sit and savor an evening under the stars.
Cambo Estate is perfect for a romantic stroll with it's walled gardens, nature trails and pathway to the beach, all on your little canvas doorstep.
2. The surprise supplies
A surprise box of welcome goodies and local produce from the lovely folk at Holiday Essentials ensured that we wouldn't go hungry during our stay; the handmade ceramic heart and love themed candle were thoughtful little romantic inclusions. They must be mind readers as our generous bounty included a bottle of one of my favourite Cairn o’Mohr wines and the yummy selection of sweet treats and savoury staples were ideal choices to keep our hunger pangs at bay.
3. The theatre culture
I don't know about you but I do love a night at the theatre and The Byre Theatre in St Andrews is one of my favourites in Scotland, it has such a nice ambiance and it became my second home when I was blogging for StAnza earlier this year. On this occasion we enjoyed a pre-theatre buffet dinner and a performance of Shirley Valentine in the perfectly proportioned auditorium. If you are ever visiting the town I highly recommend checking out their events list as the shows are great value and the atmosphere is intimate and relaxed.
4. The local whisky
The following morning I met up with my fellow Scotlanders for an early start at the recently opened Kingsbarns Distillery which is handily placed next door to Cambo Estate. After a quick catch up over some delicious fresh scones and coffee we were treated to a tour by Douglas Clement, the visionary behind this Fife ‘Dream to Dram’ project.
Whisky is definitely an ingredient I would normally include in any romantic celebration, however my driving duties for the day meant that I sadly couldn't indulge on this occasion. Although I reluctantly had to turn down the offer of some free drams, the passionate tour provided by Douglas and the picture postcard setting were still great tasters which have left me with several reasons to return.
5. The stunning scenery
Picture postcard is an overused term that I try to avoid but look it up in the dictionary and don't be surprised if an image of the Fife coast pops up! It really is the definition of scenic with colourful, quaint fishing villages, sparkling blue water, patchwork golden fields, magnificent sandy stretches and dramatic historic architecture. Undertake a coastal road-trip and you should expect it to take at least twice as long as planned with every twist and turn bringing new photogenic opportunities and the fresh salty tang in the breeze drawing you into the seaside communities in search of the catch of the day.
There's nothing like going on a Scottish road-trip, cruising over hills, along coasts and through glens. However, if you are one of the growing number of electric vehicle owners wanting to take off on a journey along the highways and byways of Scotland you might have to plan a bit more carefully. particularly when it comes to finding accommodation as few overnight stops currently provide the facility to charge your vehicle.
For those wanting to seek out the delights of Edinburgh and the surrounding area you will be pleased to know that you can now make use of new free twin charging points at The Edinburgh Marriott, handily situated near the city airport.
Having no experience of the logistics of taking an electric vehicle on such a road-trip, I was intrigued to take up an invite to stay at the hotel with the use of an electric car to explore the area during my stay and find out just how far I could go on battery power.
Here is how my 2 days went...
The Edinburgh Marriot is a large and functional hotel mainly used for business travel, coach tours, corporate events and airport stopovers. As you would expect from this size and type of hotel it has facilities such as a leisure club with swimming pool, business suites, beauty salon and hairdresser.
The rooms are more functional than luxury although they provide all the extras you would need. A couple of nice touches I appreciated were the sculpted swan towels on the bed (a dying art in my opinion!) and rather nice L'Occitane toiletries. Unfortunately WiFi is only free in public areas with a charge applied to access it from the bedroom, not ideal for someone like me who needs frequent online access.
I stayed in one of the deluxe bedrooms which had a huge and comfy bed and after a good nights sleep I enjoyed a tasty breakfast from a large buffet selection. I can also highly recommend the bar snacks as the pork belly bites were totally delicious!
My Nissan Leaf vehicle was provided by eCorporate Travel, who offer a professional and discreet 'green' chauffeur service, based in Edinburgh Their concept is to provide environmentally sustainable travel at competitive prices and after chatting to them I was impressed at how passionate they are about their business and their vision to provide a more environmentally friendly travel service, something we should all be embracing.
After some quick tuition in driving and charging the vehicle I was ready to set off on my first electric adventure in my silent, green machine!
Where did I go?
The Edinburgh Marriott is situated on the outskirts of Scotland's historic capital and this is a bonus if you are driving and don't relish the thought of navigating the one way streets or rush hour traffic going in and out of the city centre, not to mention finding an affordable parking space! With plenty of free parking and sitting next to the city bypass, this is ideal accommodation for those wanting to explore the gems that surround Edinburgh.
With over 100 miles of charge and the sun shining I was firstly drawn towards Edinburgh's own coastal suburb and a proper Scottish road-trip to visit the seaside delights of Portobello Beach. A 32 mile round trip wasn't too much of a drain on the battery, however I found it easy and convenient to top it up in the hotel car park whilst I checked in to my room and planned my next adventure.
On the second day I again opted to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city and made my way to Castlelaw Iron Age Hillfort in the Pentland Hills near Penicuik. At just over 10 miles from the hotel this makes an interesting alternative to the historic city centre attractions. There are also walking routes for those wanting to explore more of the outdoors and I highly recommend heading a few miles along the road to visit the famous Rosslyn Chapel while you are in the area.
Can it really be 20 years since the cry of 'Freedom' echoed in cinemas across the globe? Apparently so (which makes me feel quite old!) and two decades later Braveheart continues to inspire people to uncover the facts from the fiction of the legendary William Wallace and how he rose to become Scotland's National Hero.
Most people interested in this era of Scottish history make their way to Stirling and the area of his most famous victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Shadowing over the battlefield is the volcanic outcrop of Abbey Craig with the National Wallace Monument pointedly rising a further 220ft skywards. Erected in the 1860s to commemorate one of the most recognised figures from Scotland's past, it is currently also commemorating the film that helped create international awareness of his story.
I went along to one of their special free events that are running throughout 2015 with costumed actors and historians taking you back to one of the most dramatic periods in Scottish history as they tell tales from the battlefield and stories about the man himself.
I really enjoyed the 'Scotland's National Hero' talk and it provided an entertaining insight into the life of William Wallace before I embarked on the 246 monument steps to observe the landscape that was so significant not just during the time of Wallace but also for hundreds of years previous.
Constructed with money from a fundraising campaign and designed by the Scottish architect John Thomas Rochead, the monument is based on a combination of a traditional Scottish tower house castle with a stone crown spire on the top.
Today you can follow the spiral stone staircase and the story of the famous Scottish warrior at the various floors with exhibitions as you climb upwards, be sure to stop at the Hall of Heroes where you will see the famous Wallace sword on display, said to have been used by him during battle! It also includes busts of some of Scotland's other notable figures including Sir Walter Scott and King Robert the Bruce.
Just when you think that your staircase workout is never going to end, you step out into the crown and are rewarded with impressive 360 degree sweeping views spreading into the distance. Look out for Stirling Castle, perched on another volcanic outcrop before you, the Ochil hills stretching in the other direction and of course the looping river that played a vital role in the victory for the Scots at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Have you ever been to The Edinburgh Dungeon? If you have then you will know that it is the ultimate experience for scary fun in the capital. If you haven't then I suggest you add it to your must do list for a funnily frightening time in the city.
I bet as you wandered around in the semi-darkness your adrenaline was pumping far too hard to think about the huge amount of work that goes in to running such a spookily busy attraction. To be honest I hadn't either until I received an invite to a fun blogger night to get an exclusive look behind the scenes and it was a real eye opener, well I might have closed my eyes once or twice!
First we were given a make-up demonstration and a lucky volunteer had the opportunity to have a less than glamorous make-under as we learned the tricks of the trade including the use of eyelash glue to create boils, nice!
I was surprised to learn the rigorous auditioning that a potential Dungeon actor has to go through and I didn't realise that they have to play a number of characters which means perfecting several parts and scripts. I have always been impressed at how convincing the actors are and even though we met a few of them out of character at the beginning, their creepy and humorous performances during the show previews had me believing every word.
Stumbling around in darkened rooms definitely helps create a spooky tension and as we found out also handily hides technical spoilers such as speakers and wires. We got the rare opportunity to explore with the lights on and find out more about the work, props and preparation that goes into designing each set.
On my recent trip to the Scottish Borders I was fortunate enough to have one of those spectacular and memorable experiences which occasionally come with being a travel blogger, which I assure you isn't normally as glamorous as you might think. Although staying at the Hope Scott Wing of Abbotsford House is every bit as glamorous as you might think!
An extension to the original private home of Sir Walter Scott and the former living area of his descendants, it has now been refurbished and opened as luxury accommodation. Available on a self catering basis for up to 15 people, it is possible to hire all or part of the wing for yourself. There is also a bed and breakfast option, subject to availability.
I stayed here along with my fellow Scotlanders as part of our Borders Railway campaign and it's fair to say we were all lost for words, which was definitely a first for our normally chatty group. On arrival we were taken on a tour of our accommodation by the fantastic and passionate House Manager, Marianne. We followed her around excitedly on a goggle eyed tour of our private wing, in amazement at the number of lavish rooms we had to ourselves.
Decorated with some of the family's belongings, furniture and artwork, the whole place has an authentic and historical feel which at times makes you wonder if you have actually stepped back in time or onto the set of a period drama.
Sympathetic grand design and modern convenience is how I would best describe the decor and facilities. The seven luxury en-suite bedrooms are individually designed with period style pieces and furniture while the HUGE bathrooms have modern roll-top baths and walk-in showers.
There is Wi-Fi throughout and although some might appreciate a TV within the bedrooms, I would have personally been happy to do away with mine as it felt too out of place in the stately surroundings!
My own bedroom was literally fit for a princess and named after one, the Queen's aunt, Princess Alice to be precise. One of many notable visitors and distinguished guests that also included Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. Incidentally, Queen Victoria was so impressed that she chose to model her own home in Scotland, Balmoral Castle, on Abbotsford’s Scottish Baronial style.
I always feel a bit conflicted when people tell me their travel plans for Scotland. More often than not they commence in Edinburgh or Glasgow and involve a journey north, following a predictable although rewarding route. While I don't want to deprive anyone from immersing themselves in the Highland scenery they have been dreaming of for months, years or even a lifetime, a big part of me is still desperate to tell people to abandon their plans and explore many of the underrated but equally as amazing areas of Scotland instead.
The Scottish Borders is a prime example of an often overlooked regional gem. This part of the country is so steeped in history, tradition and legend that i really believe a visit here should be squeezed into every Scottish travel itinerary.
With the opening of the new Borders Railway in September, the area will open up to train travellers who will be able to depart from Edinburgh and arrive in the Borders in less than an hour, so there really is no excuse now to miss this area out on your trip to Scotland!
In anticipation of the new line opening, I recently spent a weekend in the historic town of Melrose as part of a Scotlanders and Visit Scotland collaboration. My remit was to experience the wide variety of activities that will be available to a new wave of passengers arriving at the final stop in Tweedbank, the nearest station to Melrose.
I have always associated the Scottish Borders as an area with a rich tapestry of history, however as I found out it is also a draw for outdoor adrenaline adventurers, food lovers and culture vultures looking to escape the city.
My first real holiday to the region was around 20 years ago and I have periodically returned since, always thankful to see little has changed over the past two decades. In some places progress is welcomed and often much needed in order to survive, however the Scottish Borders is not one of those places. The towns have remained charming, the houses still historic, traditional events thrive, independent shops survive and rule, ruins remain standing, the grass is still vividly green and the hills continue to roll. For me, the draw of the Scottish Borders is it's unchanging and timeless quaintness.
However, on this visit I wanted to find out what else the area has to offer other than historic appeal and found myself with a variety filled weekend, proving there really is something for everyone.
My experience of Go Ape, Peebles
It's just after 9am on Saturday morning and while most sane people are still easing their way into the day, I'm teetering precariously on the edge of a small platform deceivingly high up a tree trunk in Glentress Forest. The longer I stand and contemplate the rationale behind what I'm about to do, the more the forest floor seems to recede below me.
After checking and rechecking (and triple checking) that my lifesaving harness is correctly attached to the safety wire I take a leap of faith into fresh air and begin to swing Tarzan like towards a cargo net at considerable speed, remembering at the last minute my instructor's advice to relax my body and resist the temptation to grab on for dear life. A couple of bounces later and my momentum carries me back towards the dangling rope climbing frame that I somehow manage to haul myself up towards the next tiny platform. My ungainly effort may not qualify me as a GI Jane but I survived and at that moment I feel an adrenalin fuelled invincibility and ready to take on the world, well the next challenging obstacle at least!
Each of the 5 course sections grow increasingly difficult and every journey down a zip wire culminates with me being dragged backside first up a pile of wood chippings which seem to accumulate inside my trousers in the most uncomfortable of places. By the final section some sort of delirium has taken over and I begin to laugh uncontrollably to the point I am struggling to see for my watering eyes and stupidly opt to attempt the extreme crossing when given the choice of a less painful route. I decide I must be some sort of sadist because I'm having the time of my life!
A couple of hours of limb twisting challenges later and soggy with sweat and tears (of laughter/joy) I triumphantly reach the final zip wire and with well earned bounding boldness I clip myself to the safety line one last time. As I now fearlessly step off the last platform and soar 325 metres across the expansive valley and reservoir below, I embrace the liberating feeling that comes with flying through the skies without a barrier between me and the rushing air. All too quickly my moment of airborne glory comes to an end and I find myself landing like an upturned turtle in the most ungraceful way possible and collecting a final gathering of wood-chips in my trousers. I can't remember the last time I have laughed as much and although I may have lost all dignity, I have gained a renewed confidence and a generous pile of bark for my garden!
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