When Wendy from Red Kite Campers got in touch asking if I wanted to take their new VW campervan away for a few days to try it out, I got pretty excited. I've been on a couple of campervan road-trips in Scotland already and I love the freedom of making up my route as I go along and parking up at the most beautiful places for a short stop or even a whole night.
That initial excitement soon turned to dilemma after dilemma. With so many rewarding journey options, I struggled to decide on a route! In the end I opted for a road-trip that would incorporate some of the best Highland scenery on Scotland's west coast. As I only had the campervan for 3 nights, I had to be selective in the places I could visit in order to reach a balance of having time to enjoy the adventure without spending too many hours behind the wheel.
The route I have featured below includes a few Scottish tourist classics with my usual mix of hidden gems thrown in. It is impossible to see all of Scotland in a few days but if you are short on time and big on scenic landscapes, my recommended 4 day itinerary should tick all the boxes. I've also included some extra suggestions if you have more time to spend.
DAY 1 - MILTON OF CAMPSIE TO GLEN SHIEL
APPROX 160 MILES
With no sign of the torrential rain easing, I decided that our planned walk in Glen Coe was best abandoned as our clothes were just about dry again after our earlier soaking at Loch Lomond.
Mr Adventures Around Scotland pulled our colourful VW campervan in to a layby near the mouth of the looming glen and we both hopped in the back, feeling quite smug that we had such a cosy shelter to wait out the worst of the weather.
The rain thrummed noisily on the roof as a pot of water bubbled away on the stove. As I poured two mugs of steaming hot coffee, I could just about make out the distinctive form of Buchaille Etive Mor through the sheets of water sweeping across the surrounding landscape. On days like this, the iconic mountain takes on a foreboding appearance as it guards entry to the gloomy glen beyond.
I've been to Glen Coe countless times and could number the times I've visited on a clear, dry day on both hands and this was definitely not one of those days!
Last year I spent a lovely week in Ullapool with my mum, staying on the shores of Loch Broom in the well equipped Rubha Mor. Ullapool is well positioned for memorable road-trips around the North West of Scotland and we did plenty of exploring during our holiday. When I'm with my mum (or anyone else for that matter!), a day out exploring inevitably includes a tea and cake stop and we discovered some cute cafe gems in the most unexpected of places so I thought I would share my recommendations in case you find yourself craving for a cake fix in this stunning and wild part of the country. Those of you undertaking the North Coast 500 Route might also find this guide useful as you pass most of these stops on the way.
My mum and I do consider ourselves to be Scotland cake and tea stop aficionados so hopefully you won't be disappointed in our choices which definitely met with our expert approval!
TEA BY THE SEA, 17 SHORE STREET, ULLAPOOL
We walked past this gift shop come cafe a couple of times before we finally succumbed to temptation. Our willpower was eroded away by the list of delicious sounding daily desserts on the notice board outside which we just had to investigate for ourselves.
This is a quirky little place inside with a few tables adjoining a new age type gift shop. The friendly owners were more than happy to explain what delights were on offer that day and the counter was stuffed with enticing choices.
I opted for a creamy slice of bannoffee pie and my mum opted for the apple pie topped with caramel sauce and cream just for good calorific measure! A generous amount of tea and an extra pot of hot water to wash everything down completed our sweet, sticky feast and we both agreed that a cake stop at Tea By The Sea deserved a big thumbs up.
Check out my blog or more ideas on things to do around Ullapool
ACHILTIBUIE PIPING SCHOOL CAFE, OLD VILLAGE HALL, ACHILTIBUIE
The highlight from my week in Ullapool was definitely a trip to Achiltibuie and the Coigach Peninsula. The scenery is breathtaking and it really feels as if you have left the tourist trail well behind. I highly recommend a visit to this stunning part of Scotland and a stop at the village of Achiltibuie which is surprisingly big considering its remote location.
The Achiltibuie Piping School Cafe is a real off the beaten path gem with amazing views to the Summer Isles. This old village hall has a real community vibe and we found the table of home-made cakes irresistible! For such a remote place, I was also surprised at the wide range of teas on offer and although I didn't have Willow with me, it was good to discover that it is also dog friendly.
Now this is where I must confess to a blogger fail, I didn't photograph our tea and cakes as I was enjoying the experience too much, oops! I can tell you that I really enjoyed my huge slice of lemon cake and I did remember to photograph the view! The baking was so good that we bought pumpkin scones to take back to the accommodation and I also bought a cute little puffin card as a souvenir of our day. We also bought some local free range eggs from an honesty box on the road and I made sure I photographed them to make up for my earlier fail. You'll just have to take my word for it that our cakes looked and tasted incredible and of course try them for yourself!
Check out my blog to find out why I fell in love with the Coigach Peninsula
If you have read my recent blog with some of the highlights from my week in Ullapool, you will know that I was waiting to reveal my stand out experience from the trip as I felt it deserved a blog post all to itself. Well, I am finally ready to share not only the top highlight from my week in Ullapool, but a corner of Scotland that has firmly entered my list of top places to visit in the country.
I wanted to take you on a photo journey of my road-trip which started at Ullapool and ventured towards Achiltibuie and around the Coigach peninsula, a region that I fell more than a little bit in love with. It really was one of those road-trips when I kept thinking that the views couldn't get any better until I turned the next corner!
The only way to reach Achiltibuie is by a long and winding single track road which means it remains free from mass tourism and the whole area still has a simple and rustic charm. I could easily spend way more than a thousand words rambling on about how magical this place is, but I thought on this occasion I would let the pictures do the talking instead...
Heading north from Ullapool it wasn't long before I got my first glimpse of the Coigach mountains as I followed the road towards Ardmair.
Abandoned stone buildings topped with red tin are a common sight in this part of the country.
As the sweep of Ardmair Bay came in to view, the white pebble beach was a stark contrast to the dark and brooding mountains in the distance.
Around the bend from Ardmair, the mountain and loch scene was completed by some colourful fishing boats.
Ullapool is somewhere I should have first visited in July had all my #ScotCoast plans gone to, errrr, well, plan! Waiting an extra 3 months to finally get to this part of Scotland was worth the delay, especially as I could spend a whole week based in the picturesque Wester Ross village, much more relaxing than the quick stop I had planned in the summer.
Ullapool and the surrounding area have certainly been put firmly on the tourist map this year thanks to the excellent marketing of the North Coast 500 route which passes through the village. It seemed everywhere I went there was a buzz about the increased visitors and income from what has been dubbed Scotland's answer to Route 66.
As I drove around the region there were still quite a few motor-homes and camper-vans making their way around the remote Highland roads. Although I felt a bit left out that I wasn't among the majority of visitors embarking on this epic road-trip, deep down I felt quite smug that I had almost a week to explore the area when most of them only had a day or two.
Thanks to Embrace Scotland, I had a cosy self-catering apartment to return to each day and use as a base for trips around Wester Ross and Sutherland. As you can imagine, I managed to fit in quite a lot during my week but several places really stood out for me and I thought I would share some of the highlights of my trip with you. I should say that some of these places were recommended to me on social media and I'm grateful to everyone that provided their tips.
There was one absolute highlight of the week for me which deserves a whole blog post to itself so I'll keep you in suspense for a little longer before I tell you what that was, but in the meantime here are a some of the other things and places that I particularly enjoyed during my stay in Ullapool.
The tarmac road and occasional car snaking through the winding glen is the only reminder that I'm still in 21st Century Scotland. For long periods the silence lingers and I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the timeless sprawling mountain landscape before me. Glenshee might mean the 'Glen of the Fairies' but I can't help thinking it could comfortably house a small army of giants without any trouble.
This glen has been used as a route north to the Highlands for thousands of years, and like numerous travellers before me, my journey is destined to end at a 'Gathering'. From cattle drovers to Kings and Queens, I wonder how many of them have also stood here in the same awe.
Before reaching my terminus at Braemar, I have to navigate the highest main road in the UK over the ear popping Cairnwell Pass, a route surprisingly well frequented in the winter thanks to those flocking to the largest ski and snowboard resort in Scotland. A further 9 miles of twists and turns through the wild terrain of the Cairngorms National Park brings me to its heart at the village of Braemar and the end of my journey.
Thanks to its geographical position, Braemar has been the ideal location for various 'gatherings' throughout the centuries. A strategic place in the days of clan warfare, a meeting point of cattle droving roads, the centre of the biggest deer forest in the country and a place frequented by Scottish Kings. The current Braemar Royal Highland Gathering is just the latest in a long list of local meetings.
According to tradition it is said the original Braemar Gathering dates back to the time of King Malcolm Canmore who would call the clans to the Braes of Mar and have members compete against each other to find the strongest and quickest soldiers.
Gatherings at Braemar continued until after Culloden and the failed 1745 Uprising, when they were banned by law for over 30 years and were not up and running again until 1800.
In 1815 the Braemar Wrights Society was formed to organise a welfare and social insurance system. The Wrights Society subsequently became the Braemar Highland Society, with aims to preserve the kilt, language and cultural interests of the Highlands, values which continue to this day. The Society's Annual Procession laid the roots for the current Braemar Gathering which has enjoyed Patronage of successive Monarchs since Queen Victoria.
Sitting on the edge of the Dornoch Firth and positioned off the busy main A9 road and popular North Coast 500 route, means that Dornoch is the kind of town that might easily get overlooked in your travel plans. I know I was guilty of bypassing at speed on my journeys through this part of the country in my haste to get north. Recently I was persuaded by Visit Dornoch to take the 5 minute detour from the bustling A9 (yes, it really is only 5 minutes!) and discover just what this small historic town has to offer. It turns out that despite its small size there was more than enough to keep me occupied for my 3 day visit and there was still quite a few things I didn't manage to see by the time I was due to leave. If you are planning a trip along the North East of Scotland and especially if you are undertaking a road-trip on the North Coast 500, here are 10 reasons why the 5 minute detour to Dornoch is a worthwhile one.
1. Follow in the footsteps of pop royalty at Dornoch Cathedral
If it was good enough for Madonna to have baby Rocco baptised in, then it was surely worth me taking a 5 minute detour from the A9 to find out just what makes the 13th Century Dornoch Cathedral deemed worthy of a pop superstar.
Open daily to visitors, you will find a bright, peaceful space decorated with 27 beautiful stained glass windows, that gives little clue to the Cathedral's turbulent past. Founded in 1224, a clan feud in 1570 between the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Caithness resulted in the Cathedral being set on fire and partially ruined, with repairs not carried out until 50 years later. This was far from the end of the Cathedral's troubles, with another fire set during the Civil War in 1655 and further damage caused during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46.
Repair and restoration was finally undertaken by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1833 who wanted to make a suitable resting place for her husband, the first Duke of Sutherland.
Dominating the town centre, the Cathedral is hard to miss and an interesting and tranquil place to visit.
2. Experience woodland trails with a difference
How do you make an already great walk in the woods even more fun for all the family? By adding a sculpture trail or a natural playground of course! Dornoch has not just one but two interesting woodland walks with a difference.
Skelbo Woods - A circular 1.5 mile trail around Skelbo Woods will take you through a scenic forest plantation, a pretty pond, over Skelbo Burn and back again, with a view towards the coast thrown in for good measure. If that isn't enough of a reason to visit, then hunting for the hidden sculptures along the way is guaranteed to keep you entertained, I particularly loved finding Action Man parachuting from a tree!
Camore Woods - Pine trees and purple heather are the first thing that welcome you to Camore Woods. Hidden further in the forest are the remains of more than 25 hut circles and chambered cairns, evidence that this was a popular place to live 2-3000 years ago. Add to that some imaginative play areas with tunnels, a fort and even quoits and all ages are guaranteed to find a walk here fun and engaging.
3. Tee off at one of the world's best golf courses
St Andrews may be the birthplace of golf in Scotland but Dornoch can make a claim as the birthplace of Donald Ross. A name that might mean little to non-golfers should be a familiar one to golf fans around the world, particularly those in the USA. The first golf Professional at Dornoch, in 1899 he emigrated to America and went on to become one of the finest golf architects, designing over 500 courses in America, Scotland, Canada and Cuba.
If a golf break in Scotland features in your holiday itinerary then you have a very good reason to detour to Dornoch as Royal Dornoch's Championship Course is currently ranked 5th in the world and number 1 in Scotland by Golf Digest. With several neighbouring golf courses in the area, you have plenty of choice if you need an excuse to air your clubs.
I'm not a golfer but I did enjoy the novel golf bag planters that added a splash of fun and colour around the town.
If like me, you prefer to travel with your furry companion rather than leave them at home, you are probably always Googling for dog friendly accommodation and activities. I know I spend about half my time researching for dog friendly places in Scotland where Willow can enjoy a holiday too.
Dornoch on the north east coast of Scotland promotes itself as a dog friendly destination so when the lovely people at Visit Dornoch invited Willow to put that claim to the test she happily accepted and obviously I persuaded her to take me along!
Our dog friendly visit got off to a promising start when staff at the new visitor centre were happy for Willow to join me as I gathered up all the local leaflets and info for our stay. We had 3 days in Dornoch to check out the best human and dog friendly things on offer and here's what we managed to get up to...
AWARD WINNING DOG FRIENDLY BEACHES
Not only are all these beaches dog friendly, they have all been awarded a Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award which recognises excellence in beach management, access and facilities, cleanliness and safety.
Dornoch Beach was our first stop, simply because Willow LOVES the beach and I must admit to being partial to a walk along the sands myself. Thankfully it ticked all the boxes and more. I was wowed by the beautiful expanse of clean golden sand that fringes the Dornoch FIrth and Willow was delighted to find plenty of doggy chums to run about with and space to chase her ball.
Dornoch Beach is definitely a place that can be enjoyed equally by humans and their canine companions.
Fort William sits nestled beneath the rugged peaks of the Northwest Highlands, with Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, a constant fixture over the town. Each year it celebrates everything great about the outdoors and wild mountain culture through art, photography, film, workshops and well known names in the world of adventure at The Fort William Mountain Festival.
This year I was invited to experience some of what the festival has to offer and also to explore what else there is to do in Fort William in the winter. As it turns out there is a surprising amount of ways to fill your time (you can read some of my recommendations here) and combining a winter break with some of the festival events meant I enjoyed a diverse range of activities during my three days there.
I got my first feel for the festival at the launch night which officially kicked off with a torch-lit descent of Aonach Mor on ski, board and mountain bike before everyone gathered in the warmth of The Pinemartin Cafe at the Nevis Range. Here we were treated to a series of short films and talks before providing an audience for the BBC's Adventure Show live with presenters Dougie Vipond, Cameron McNeish and Michael Stewart keeping us entertained with their witty banter. I also have to give a special shout out to the Scottish stovies served up during the interval, they were amazing!
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