This post is part of a paid partnership with North East 250 to showcase the diversity along this scenic Scottish road route
Driving the North East 250
The beauty of Scotland, in my humble opinion, is the vast variety of scenery over relatively short distances. Over recent years, a number of bitesize road routes have sprung up around the country to showcase the diversity across various regions. I'll be honest though, I'm not always a fan of following streams of cars, motorbikes and campervans that bimble along the popular Scottish highways like a trail of ants. I've always been one that prefers to take the road less travelled when I have the option.
The North East 250 is a road route that ticks that box because despite traversing through some well trodden landscapes, it frequently navigates quieter roads and offers up many diversions that are well off the tourist trail. I recently spent 3 days exploring this route, often shortened to the NE250, and there was no shortage of variety in scenery or attractions. My itinerary options were countless but I tried to include an assortment of activities as an introduction to the wide array on offer. Of course, you might plan a completely different trip from me and that is the beauty of the North East 250, you can design a road trip that matches your own interests.
You can discover what I chose to include during my 3 day trip below and I've added in some of my other favourite things to do from previous visits to the area at the bottom of this blog in case you need some more inspiration.
What is the North East 250?
As the name might suggest, the North East 250 (or NE250) is a 250 mile circular road trip around the North East of Scotland, taking in the regions of Aberdeenshire and Moray from the city to the mountains and coast. As the route is circular, you could start at any point and travel clockwise or anti-clockwise - it is up to you.
I started at the Spittal of Glenshee and travelled clockwise - this is a good starting option for those travelling from Glasgow or Edinburgh and serves up a dramatic start to your adventure as the road rises up through a mountain pass that takes in the Devil's Elbow Viewpoint before reaching the Glenshee Ski Centre on the highest A road in the UK.
Dubbed 'The Ultimate Road Trip to the Heart of Scotland', the route takes in the mountains and forests of the Cairngorms National Park, the grand castles of Royal Deeside, the iconic whisky distilleries of Speyside, charming coastal villages, nature reserves brimming with wildlife and the granite city of Aberdeen.
North East 250 Route Map
You can follow the route that I took below, I've also marked the points of interest mentioned in this blog post. My North East 250 map is interactive so you can delve deeper if you wish.
A 3 day itinerary for the North East 250
DAY 1 - GLENSHEE TO BALLINDALLOCH
STOP 1 - LINN OF DEE
After driving for over 2 hours from Glasgow, I took the chance to stretch my legs on one of the way marked trails at the Linn of Dee, part of Mar Lodge Estate, a National Nature Reserve which covers 29,000 hectares and is home to 15 munros (mountains over 3000ft). Other than some quick photo stops, this was my first proper venture out in to the picturesque terrain along the North East 250.
Due to time constraints I opted to follow an easy path along the River Dee, stopping to watch the water tumble down a craggy gorge before meandering below towering Caledonian pines. Longer routes continue deeper in to Glen Lui where you are rewarded with mountain views.
As first stops go, it was a gentle and stirring introduction to the Royal Deeside section of the road trip where the landscape is shortbread-tin-bonnie. As the name suggests, this area has been a favourite of the royal family since Queen Victoria made nearby Balmoral Castle her Scottish sanctuary. My visit to Royal Deeside occurred just after the death of Queen Elizabeth II who passed away at Balmoral earlier that week, making it a poignant and significant time to pass through the region.
STOP 2 - BRAEMAR
Braemar is a historic Highland village nestled in the Cairngorms National Park, probably best known for its yearly highland games known as the Braemar Gathering. 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
It is a bustling destination all year round thanks to its spectacular surroundings and village centre packed with high end independent shops selling local crafted goods alongside eateries serving up tasty Scottish produce. I delved in to haggis, neeps and tatties for lunch at Farquharson's Bar and Kitchen - I didn't regret it!
If you have an extra night to spend touring the North East of Scotland, Braemar makes for a great base with numerous outdoor offerings and a swathe of castles on the doorstep.
STOP 3 - CORGARFF CASTLE
As I made my way up the windswept hillside to the lonely white figure of Corgarff Castle, the first thing that struck me is the unusual star-shaped perimeter wall - the only one I've come across apart from Braemar Castle, which by coincidence isn't too far away.
Sitting strategically guarding the road between Deeside and Speyside, the structure dates back to the 16th century. Originally built as a tower house by John Forbes of Towie, it endured a tumultuous history, including being used as a barracks for Redcoats after Culloden and a base for tackling whisky smuggling.
Today it is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and open to the public between April and September although you can walk around the outside walls at any time. Unfortunately, due to staff sickness it was closed on the day I visited but it is a castle that is high on my list for next time and I still enjoyed experiencing some of the atmosphere around its slightly desolate feeling location.
STOP 4 - INVERAVON CHURCH
Any regular reader of my blog will know that I love checking out a hidden gem or two on my travels so I just had to veer off the main road when I spotted a sign pointing to Inveravon Church and Pictish Stones.
The narrow track led me to the white washed church which dates to 1806 although there has been various church buildings on the site since at least 1108. The discovery of some remarkable carved Pictish stones indicates this has likely been a site of burial for centuries before that.
Housed within the porch of the church to protect them from weather damage, the carvings on the stones are still in a remarkable condition. If you're driving the NE250, I highly recommend a detour here when the church is open to see them for yourself. The other notable point of interest is the family mausoleum of the Macpherson-Grants who own nearby Ballindalloch Castle, my first suggested stop on day 2.
OVERNIGHT AT DELNASHAUGH HOTEL, BALLINDALLOCH
The Delnashaugh Hotel is a cosy country inn that has been welcoming travellers for centuries. Today, many of the guests are on a whisky pilgrimage in Speyside as the hotel is perfectly located for touring the biggest whisky producing region in Scotland.
This makes it an ideal overnight stop for exploring the Speyside section of the North East 250, and although it feels like you stumble over a distillery or three whichever direction you travel in, there is more to the area than Scotland's national drink as you will see from my day 2 itinerary.
I found the hotel to have a friendly, intimate charm and the peaceful location ensured a great night's sleep. Homemade, hearty food is the dish of the day, although at the time of writing the current owners are moving on so I hope the new owners maintain the high standards.
DAY 2 - BALLINDALLOCH TO CULLEN
STOP 1 - BALLINDALLOCH CASTLE
Ballindalloch Castle dates back to the 16th century and is not only a private home, but also one of the few castles in Scotland to have remained in the same family since it was built - remember the Macpherson-Grant mausoleum I mentioned yesterday? Well this has been their grand abode for generations.
Part of the castle is open to the public for tours between April and September, and it is a star attraction to visit on the North East 250. As you can imagine, it is packed full of history with some ornate objects on display, including a collection of fine Spanish art. After exploring the castle, take a meander around the extensive gardens before stopping for a bite to eat in the tearoom - I can highly recommend the home baking.
Ballindalloch Castle and Gardens are actually part of a much bigger estate which generates income through a diverse range of activities including farming, country pursuits and their own whisky distillery - well it is Speyside after all! You could extend your time here with a whisky tour and discover what sets Ballindalloch apart from other distilleries in the area.
STOP 2 - KNOCKANDO WOOLLEN MILL
Knockando Woolmill has existed on the same site since 1784 and is the oldest continually working woolmill in the UK, although the buildings you see today date back to the 19th century when the site was expanded to house new machinery.
The mill remained a family affair until 2000 when The Knockando Woollmill Trust was established with the aim of overhauling the historic machinery which had been in use for over a century, along with sympathetically restoring the increasingly dilapidated mill buildings.
This has allowed the production of cloth to continue, woven on the same Victorian machinery that previous generations of weavers would have used. Traditional and contemporary woollen designs are on sale in the on-site shop, and self-guided and guided tours are available to anyone interested in learning more about the historic weaving process that still takes place at the mill.
STOP 3 - GLENFIDDICH DISTILLERY
When you're driving the North East 250, it would be rude not to visit at least one of the multiple whisky distilleries that line the route. Many of them offer tours or exclusive whisky experiences, and don't worry about not being able to sample the drams because you're driving, an increasing number of distilleries now provide driver's kits to take away and drink later - be aware though, tours book up fast so get your ticket well in advance!
I stopped off atGlenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown which is one of the best known names among Scotch whisky. If you don't manage to get a tour booked (like me!), browsing the visitor centre and shop is still an option and a great place to pick up a locally crafted gift or a fine bottle of malt.
Take a short walk from Glenfiddich to the ruins of Balvenie Castle which I recommend as an interesting detour when it's open.
OVERNIGHT AT THE SEAFIELD ARMS HOTEL, CULLEN
The Seafield Arms in Cullen was built by The Earl of Seafield in 1822 as a quality coaching inn where his guests could be entertained. In recent times it has undergone a 21st century makeover and the interior is more boutique hotel than historic hostelry to meet the demands of the modern traveller.
I stayed in the Crannoch Room, a spacious suite with a standalone bath and powerful walk-in shower, plus all the extras you would expect from a luxurious room including a bathrobe and slippers for lounging about in once you've pampered yourself with a foamy bubble bath and settled down with a coffee from the pod machine.
The restaurant menu specialises in Scottish produce, I couldn't resist the venison, and the bar is well stocked with local gin and whisky. I loved the tasteful nod to Scottish heritage in the hotel decor, the super friendly staff and the effort to maintain a high standard of accommodation.
The hotel is handily located for exploring the Moray and Aberdeenshire coast which made it a great base for my next stretch of the North East 250.
DAY 3 - CULLEN TO GLEN TANAR
STOP 1 - CULLEN & PORTSOY
I know I have picked two villages for my first stop but since I woke up in Cullen, I didn't really class it is a separate stop. To be honest, there is a whole heap of characterful coastal villages to choose from along the Moray and Aberdeenshire coast and I have been to many of them several times previously as they are some of my favourite places to visit - I've listed some more of them below as they all have something special to offer.
On the morning I woke up in Cullen there was a strong wind blowing in from the North Sea creating some wave drama down by the beach and harbour so that is naturally where I headed! I've been to Cullen in all weathers and it is just as lovely in a storm as it is in the sun. Enjoy the scenery on one of the picturesque coastal walks, I particularly recommend this circular walk around Cullen Bay and along the clifftops.
The centre of Cullen has a number of lovely galleries and antique shops, I picked up a memento of my trip from Intricate Designs, a local gift shop opposite my hotel. Of course, during your visit you just have to try some local Cullen Skink, a hearty smoked fish soup which originated in the village.
After leaving Cullen I drove about 10 minutes along the coast to the village of Portsoy for a stroll around its quaint 17th century harbour. This is a brilliant place to stop if you're interested in traditional boat building as the art is being kept alive at The Boatshed where members of the public are welcome to visit. The village is also home to the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, a major event that not only celebrates traditional boats but also local food, drink, art and music.
If the sun is shining, join the queue for some Portsoy ice-cream or shop for some local Portsoy marble which was incorporated in the Palace of Versailles.
STOP 2 - THE MUSEUM OF SCOTTISH LIGHTHOUSES
Heading further east along the Aberdeenshire coast to the town of Fraserburgh, I finally got to visit an attraction that has been on my Scotland travel list for a long time. Like many people, I'm fascinated by lighthouses and have visited many around the country, so a trip to a museum dedicated to all things to do with Scottish lighthouses, from their engineering to their history, is right up my street.
However, it wasn't just the display of huge lenses at The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses that had me excited, the real highlight was climbing Kinnaird Lighthouse which is located adjacent to the museum and is included in the museum tour ticket price. I wasn't just looking forward to the blustery views from the top, I was excited to visit the only lighthouse built inside a castle.
That's right, your ticket gets you entry to the museum, lighthouse and a 16th century castle - amazing value. Kinnaird Head Castle was built by the Frasers of Philorth and some of the original features are still visible. What makes this castle unique is the full height lighthouse sticking out of the top!
The castle was sold to the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1787 with the intention of converting it into Scotland’s first mainland lighthouse. Although it has been replaced by a newer beacon nearby, the original light and machinery still work. I was so happy that my route around the NE250 gave me a chance to finally visit this unusual building.
STOP 3 - GLEN TANAR ESTATE
To complete the circular route of the North East 250, I headed back inland to Glen Tanar Estate in Royal Deeside, about an hour east from my starting point at the Spittal of Glenshee 2 days earlier.
Currently in the hands of the 4th generation of the Coats family, the Highland Estate covers approximately 25,000 acres of the Cairngorms National Park and is home to Mount Keen, Scotland's most easterly munro. As you might expect. there is a wide range of things to do from exploring the National Nature Reserve to Country Sports.
I have visited Glen Tanar previously to follow some of the walking trails so I wanted to try a different activity this time and opted to join a guided horse riding tour from the equestrian centre. Even though I am a fairly novice rider, my instructor Carol, put me at ease straight away and in no time at all, Freya, my trusty steed, was navigating trails through Caledonian pine forests, traversing the river and taking me up to picturesque viewpoints.
Throughout our ride, Carol regaled me with the history of the estate and even managed to teach me how to trot which I only managed in short spurts! I loved gaining a new perspective of the scenery and learning all about the Norwegian Fjord Horses that the estate breeds,
After my trek and 3 busy days on the road, booking in for a private woodfired sauna before leaving Glen Tanar seemed like a blissful way to end my trip. The sauna is located in a converted horsebox that sits nestled next to the river and pine woods. Sitting in the warmth, looking out to trees and greenery was idyllic and is my new favourite way to end my adventures around Scotland!
My other recommended things to do on the NE250
The places mentioned above will easily fill a 3-day itinerary, however if you have longer to spend driving around the North East of Scotland, or some of those options don't resonate with you, don't worry I have lots more suggestions below gained from previous visits to the area.
Where to eat on the NE250
Staying fuelled up is an essential element of any road trip, and personally I prefer to sample local produce on my travels to give me a true taste of an area. These are some of the places I enjoyed eating at on my trips to the area
With so many possibilities, I really recommend popping over to the North East 250 website to create the perfect NE250 itinerary for you.
I hope my latest Adventure Around Scotland has given you some inspiration
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