If Arran is Scotland in miniature then Lochranza must be one of the prettiest Highland villages you could ever visit and the Scottish Youth Hostel is located in a prime setting to take advantage of the breathtaking surroundings.
I was staying for my second #SYHAdventure and if I thought the view from my previous room at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, which looked on to Ben Nevis itself, would take some beating then I was happily proved wrong!
If I had a check list for my perfect Highland view then a tidal sea loch, mountains, ruined castle, wildlife and pretty little white cottages would be definite inclusions and to my delight they had all been tantalisingly arranged outside my window. It took me a while to draw myself away from observing the roaming red deer, fishing heron and the incoming flow of the tide below.
If you have preconceptions about staying at a youth hostel you really need to leave them here, with private en-suite rooms and modern shared facilities on offer alongside traditional budget dormitory options, this recently renovated accommodation is great value and a bonus for me was being able to take my dog as Lochranza is one of several dog friendly SYHA escapes.
I have explored all the villages on Arran and although all picturesque, Lochranza is without doubt the one I would choose to stay in. Other than lacking a shop which is a bit inconvenient (you can buy basics at the SYHA) it has everything a lover of the outdoors and picturesque scenery could want and I was not the only one there to take advantage of this natural playground judging by the bikes and kayaks lining the outside of the building.
With a 13th Century ruined castle, whisky distillery and abundance of wildlife on the doorstep there is plenty to keep you entertained even if you don't want to stray far.
The SYHA theme for May is wildlife and their Lochranza Youth Hostel is the perfect wildlife watching location, you only have to look out the window to spot red deer, seals, and a wide variety of bird life, venture a little further from the doorstep and you could be rewarded with a plethora of creatures including red squirrels, golden eagles and otters.
Low level hillwalking is the most popular activity on the island and provides plenty opportunity to seek out some of the island's more elusive inhabitants. There are lots of signposted trails from Lochranza so I decided that it was time to turn to social media and ask the locals for their recommendations. No surprise that I had lots of suggestions but I opted firstly to follow the route to Laggan as I was promised spectacular views across the water to my home island of Bute.
LAGGAN COTTAGE ROUTE (approx 8 miles return, moderate walking)
From the Youth Hostel turn right and follow the signpost for Laggan (4 miles) a little further along the road. The route starts just after the golf course, look out for the sheep and red deer keeping the fairways trim or sunbathing in the bunkers, I can imagine playing here has a few challenges!
The path then begins a gentle but steady climb to the summit as the views on the ascent open up to reveal the surrounding stunningly rugged glen with the miniature sized whisky distillery and cottages in the valley below.
I spotted lots of wildlife along the route with red deer, sheep and birds of prey keeping a watchful eye as I wound my way over the stony track, past waterfalls and streams.
A large rock jutting out from the side of the path about two thirds of the way up made a perfect place to pause and absorb the encompassing sights and sounds from the winding road and lush farmland far below to the jagged mountain tops brushing the clouds in the distance.
With a final push to the summit I watched the deep blue of the Firth of Clyde unfold before me and what a reward for my efforts! As promised I had dazzling views across to Bute with the mainland beyond and deciding that this was a perfect lunch spot, I sat for a while watching the toy sized fishing boats traverse the peaceful sparkling water.
As the path winds down sharply towards the whitewashed Laggan Cottage look out for the ruins of Cock Farm far below, this desolate area was once home to over 100 inhabitants before the Clearances. It was this community that built the once vital historic pathway between here and Lochranza that is now only trodden for leisure purposes.
It is possible to make this a circular walk by returning via the Cock of Arran, however I was happy retrace my route and end my walk with sweeping views across Lochranza. This is a really rewarding route with extensive vistas, varied scenery and plentiful wildlife.
With a whisky distillery on the doorstep it would have been rude not to visit and after a long walk I felt I deserved a taste of the local dram. Apparently this is the third most visited distillery in the country and I joined a mix of nationalities on one of their basic Oak tours. With a well stocked whisky shop and a cafe onsite this is a good visiting option.
The Four Seasons Hotel sits dominantly overlooking the picturesque Loch Earn in St Fillans, Perthshire. If it is accommodation with a view that you are looking for then booking one of their loch facing rooms or chalets would be enough of a reason to stay. However, I was there to not only admire the views (which are stunning) but also check out their pet friendly credentials, or rather my furry companion Willow was going to run the hotel through it's paces.
It is hard to find a truly dog friendly hotel in Scotland, believe me after 20 years as a dog owner who travels I have tried many to various degrees of disappointment. I understand not all hotels and their guests want to embrace travellers with a furry companion but those that claim they do often fail on the most basic levels. I'm glad to say that The Four Seasons passed every dog and human test with flying colours and at last I feel as if I have found a hotel that truly welcomes humans and dogs with equal measure.
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised as owner Andrew Low is himself a dog lover and boss to the resident canine reservation managers, Sham and Pagne (it took me a while to get the connection, perhaps Andrew's favourite tipple?). It is also a wedding resort...for dogs and yes they have had a canine wedding, can you get any dog friendlier than that?!
Before we even arrived I was impressed by the pet concierge service on the website with options to book a pet walker/sitter, groomer and order from a canine menu. As I was planning to take advantage of dinner at the hotel's Meall Reamhar Rosette Restaurant I decided to call and inquire about the pet sitting service. A quick phone call back confirmed that the local pet sitter Norma was booked at the time requested and myself and Mr Adventures Around Scotland could enjoy a relaxing, romantic meal for a change, now I was getting excited, this seemed to good to be true!
I was also delighted to see that they didn't charge any pet supplements on to their rates, usually an excuse to bump the price up for the privilege of bringing your dog, how is that ever pet friendly?
On arrival the whole family was warmly greeted and while I was busy admiring the STUNNING VIEWS from our room, Willow was delighted to discover a Bonio on the bed. A handy list of walks in the area suitable for humans and dogs was a useful addition to our welcome pack along with bottled water and homemade shortbread for the humans.
The bedroom and bathroom looked as if they had been recently partly refurbished and I was delighted to find Arran Aromatics products in the bathroom to pamper myself with!
The hotel is a mix of modern bright decor with quirky objects decorating the corridors and walls which owner Andrew has picked up on his many exotic travels. I loved wandering around admiring his eclectic acquisitions from around the world and there is a very interesting guest lounge with an opium bed imported from Bangkok which was not what I expected in a lochside hotel in Scotland!
The hotel also has six separate dog friendly chalets onsite which would be ideal for families.
WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
This weekend I completed my first joint travel blogger collaboration with #Scotlanders. For our launch campaign we took to the streets of Dundee to discover what this often overlooked Scottish city has to offer. Our aim was to showcase the many interesting faces of the city with each of us focusing on a particular theme.
While my fellow #Scotlanders enjoyed a diverse range of activities from archery to visiting a cruise ship, I was tasked with uncovering Dundee's developing culinary layers, which is very topical as this is the Year of Food and Drink in Scotland.
Best known for it's foodie contributions of cake and cow pie, the city has an ever expanding range of restaurants and cuisine to match the expanding building plans and predicted tourism growth. The new kids on the block sit happily beside the traditional offerings and this sums up Dundee itself, a city with grand modern design plans that will complement the industrial history and heritage.
If it's food heritage you're looking for then Dundee Cake and Mackays Marmalade are thriving examples of traditional fare with provenance.
I don't know of any other city in Scotland that has a cake named after it so I was feeling quite smug when I found out that I would not only get to sample one of these famous plump, fruity creations but I would also be involved in the baking process. I was also delighted that my lesson would take place at Clark's 24 hour Bakery, a legendary food takeaway in Dundee which I missed on my last visit.
Clark's Bakery has it's own historical roots in the city and is currently being run by the third generation of the same family. My Dundee cake baking session was with Alan Clark, whose father established the bakery in 1950.
For those that haven't tried it, Dundee cake is a rich, fruity cake containing sultanas, candied peel and topped with almonds. It's origins in the city are said to date back hundreds of years to the kitchens of marmalade inventor Janet Keiller and although still a local specialty of Dundee bakers it is now mass produced and sold widely by supermarkets who don't necessarily follow the accepted recipe.
There is currently a bid to give this local creation Protected Geographical Indicator Status (PGI). This means that only Dundee Cakes made in Dundee and following a traditional recipe can legally be called Dundee Cake and ensures that you are buying and eating an authentic product and local producers are being supported.
MACKAYS DUNDEE MARMALADE
Mackays are the only remaining producers of Dundee Orange Marmalade in the Dundee area, which also happens to be referred to as the home of marmalade. Mackays are proud of the heritage of their product and continue to make the marmalade in the traditional way in copper pans and sourcing the world’s best bitter oranges from Seville in Spain. Sticking to historic production methods seems to have paid off as Mackays are the largest producer of traditionally manufactured marmalades and preserves in the world!
The branding of their product with the city name and the logo 'Made The Authentic Way' have ensured this classic orange preserve remains a favourite on breakfast tables across the country and helps to promote the city and it's heritage far and wide.
A more recent edition to the Dundee food and drink scene is MòR Brewery, established in 2012 and based in the village of Kellas on the outskirts of the city, this microbrewery has brought it's unique Scottish ale with humour to the ever growing market of craft beers.
MòR means 'big' or 'great' in Gaelic and the big plans for this small brewery were brought to life by former Broughty Ferry lifeboat coxswain Jim Hughan and business partner Ross Niven. The word MòR (pronounced more) has enabled then to come up with a witty range of names for their ales such as 'MòR-ish' and 'MòR Tea, Vicar?' which are not only sold in an increasing number of pubs but also sold by the bottle in stores such as Aldi and Spar. It's good to see that Dundee businesses are not only great at preserving heritage but also competing in emerging food and drink markets and from my own personal point of view I'm glad that I have a something local to wash down my cake with! I'm sure I'm not the first person to say "Can I have some MòR Please?"
This year was my first time visiting StAnza, Scotland's International Poetry Festival, in fact it was my first time visiting a poetry event of any type. I had a fantastic weekend and hopefully I can share some of the tips that I picked up so you can have a fantastic time too. So here is my First Timers Guide to Visiting StAnza...
Where does StAnza take place?
In the historic and picturesque town of St Andrews which is situated in the region of Fife on the east coast of Scotland. St Andrews is 'The Home of Golf' and the third-oldest English-speaking university in the world which was founded in 1413. it is also legend that the bones of St Andrew were brought here, hence the name.
When does it takes place?
The festival takes place in March and has just celebrated it's 18th year.
What does StAnza mean?
Stanza is a poetry term which in this case has been carefully branded with the St and A of St Andrews. If you look at the festival logo then you will see that the A has also been designed to look like the St Andrews Cross (the flag of Scotland).
As a poetry term www.shmoop.com describes a stanza as 'A division within a poem where a group of lines are formed into a unit. The word “stanza” comes from the Italian word for “room.” Just like a room, a poetic stanza is set apart on a page by four “walls” of blank, white space.'
Why should I visit?
This is the perfect chilled out festival and St Andrews is the perfect Scottish short break destination. Combine the two and you will have an amazingly relaxed and unique experience.
Who is this festival suitable for?
Families, couples, friends or solo travellers will feel equally at home and welcome with events for all tastes. Even if you don't have any poetry knowledge you may be surprised at how accessible many of the events are. If you enjoy live performances such as plays or storytelling then you will most likely enjoy live poetry too.
How do I get there?
Bus - There is a bus station in the town centre and you can catch a Stagecoach bus from Edinburgh or Glasgow, see their website for more details https://www.stagecoachbus.com/
Train - St Andrews doesn't have it's own train station, instead you will have to travel to Leuchars station (6 miles away) and complete your journey by bus or taxi. Train information can be found on the ScotRail website at http://www.scotrail.co.uk/
Car - St Andrews is easily accessible by car from all the main cities in Scotland. The St Andrews University website has some suggested driving routes, be warned though if you decide to drive then finding a parking place in the town centre at peak times is not easy (understatement!) and paid parking meters are in operation which have a maximum stay time of 2 hours. The Visit St Andrews website has information on the best places to park for free and current parking restrictions.
Where should I stay?
St Andrews has accommodation to suit all budgets and there are some fabulous high end hotels if you are looking for some luxury. I always use TripAdvisor as a great guide for honest hotel reviews and they have a handy list of the best St Andrews Hotels which is worth looking at before you book.
I spent the first weekend in March staying in the beautiful and characterful town of St Andrews on the east coast. I was there to blog about StAnza, Scotland's International Poetry Festival, which takes place each year in this historic Royal Burgh and makes an ideal relaxing weekend break with a difference.
St Andrews is 'The Home of Golf' and the third-oldest English-speaking university in the world which was founded in 1413. it is also legend that the bones of St Andrew were brought here, hence the name.
It is a small town and it is easy to visit all the main attractions including world class beaches, castle, cathedral, university, golf courses, boutique shops, historic streets and picturesque harbour over a couple of days.
In between poetry shows I still had plenty of time to explore the sites and take plenty of photographs and decided to share some of my favourites with you, enjoy!
StAnza must be a contender for Scotland's most chilled out festival. The main hub and gathering place is The Byre Theatre where performers, organisers and audience members can be found mingling casually over coffee or a glass of wine.
As someone attending the festival alone and for the first time I didn't feel in the least bit intimidated, in fact I immediately felt welcome and at home. Between performances and over dinner I got chatting to people from an interesting variety of backgrounds and they all somehow felt like long lost friends. Having returned from the festival a few days ago, the feeling of homeliness and friendliness is still my overriding impression of StAnza and my weekend in St Andrews.
It is easy to have pre-conceived ideas about what a poetry festival might consist of or dismiss it as too arty or boring, certainly when I told people what I was going to be doing over the weekend not one of them said 'Wow, that sounds awesome!' (maybe I need to get more cultured friends). As it turns out a poetry festival is a mixture of music, comedy and storytelling all rolled into one and much more accessible to the masses than you might first think.
My philosophy in life is to approach things with an open mind as the best experiences often come from the most unexpected places and it turns out StAnza is one of those places, as I loved the experience from start to finish and will certainly return for a future visit.
Aside from the genuine friendly, laid-back atmosphere, it was the poets and their performances that really made this event for me. I went to 5 very different shows and enjoyed every one of them for different reasons.
My introduction to the festival saw me casually chilling out with a pie and a pint at one of the excellent Poetry Cafe events, which are ideal for poetry festival newbies like me. Erin Fornoff, a spoken word poet, had me quickly captivated with her emotional performance and stories of her life growing up in the Appalachian Mountains before a transition across the Atlantic to Dublin and an unfortunate casting couch experience.
By coincidence I ended up sharing my dinner table and conversation with Erin later that evening and it was this kind of informal, accessible atmosphere where everyone ate, drank and chatted together that made StAnza so memorable and unique for me.
I'm a big fan of walking tours, there is nothing better than a local guide pointing out the hidden gems and nooks and crannies of a place that are all too easy to miss if you don't know where to look. Good walking tours bring local history to life and leave you with some great stories to take home and share.
Having never been to Linlithgow as a 'tourist', I jumped at the opportunity to join a guided historic walking tour of this royal burgh with Mary's Meanders, who not only specialise in telling intriguing local tales about Linlithgow itself but are also experts on Outlander filming locations in the area.
Emma, the owner of Mary's Meanders, had invited a group of tourism specialists and travel bloggers to sample her walking tour and to showcase some of the great things that Linlithgow has to offer. It was fantastic to spend a day out with so many people passionate about Scottish tourism and of course some fab fellow bloggers!
Our knowledgeable guide for the hour was Anne who has lived in the town for 20 years. Her passion and enthusiasm for Linlithgow were obvious and her warm, down to earth personality made her the perfect group host.
As we navigated our way past characterful buildings, weathered plaques and significant statues we learned the stories behind them and some well known facts about the town such as it being the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, however I also learned plenty of new trivia, like why you are called a 'Black Bitch' if you are born in Linlithgow and which well known politician would be proud if you called them one!
Not surprisingly the tour ended up at Linlithgow Palace, which despite being a ruin, still commands impressively over the town. Anne provided an informative narrative history of this former royal retreat and as an Outlander fan I was delighted when she took us into the dark depths of the building to show us where scenes from the TV series were filmed when it was used as the interior of Wentworth Prison.
If you are an Outlander fan then you will be excited to know that Mary's Meanders will also be running Outlander tours and Taste of Outlander dinner shows this year.
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