Drive to the Highlands! We stayed in Grantown on Spey for 6 nights. It's a fab traditional Scottish town, with grey stone buildings, a local bakery that makes award winning pies and a brilliant pub with a fire and pool tables.
We ate twice in the cosy Little Puffin restaurant, walking distance from the hotel, which served delicious local food and had a great range of local ales.
Start the trip with a bang but challenging yourself to climb the 2nd largest peak in the UK, Ben Macdui. Only 30m shorter than touristy Ben Nevis, you'll hardly see a soul on the paths which makes for a much nicer climbing experience!
It's about an 11 mile round trip up and down, and took us about 6 hours. Pack lots of high energy/protein snacks (peanuts, jerky), water, chocolate and lunch, as well as layers and waterproofs. While the car park might be sunny, you climb above the cloud line which became very cold and damp! We carried waterproof trousers and coats in our backpacks that we put on before we walked into the drizzly cloud, which helped keep us warm, plus a microfleece and warm hat. Hiking boots will also help support your ankles as you climb!
Book yourself in at the Little Puffin tonight to reward yourself with a hearty warming meal.
Loch Ness is so deep that you could fit the entire world's population in it 3 times... who knows what might be hiding in the depths?
Rest your legs today with a less walk-y, more tourist-y day . It's an easy hour and a half drive from Grantown on Spey to Loch Ness - keep and eye out for red squirrels en route! We stopped to see the Falls of Foyers, a pretty waterfall that's a steep but short walk down from the road.
There are a couple of boat companies that offer boat trips on the loch. We went with Cruise Loch Ness who operate from the picturesque village of Fort Augustus. It has a radar screen that you can watch as you head out on the water, in case it picks up signs of any mysterious creatures down in the deep dark water...
Fort Augustus is halfway between Inverness and Fort William on the 60 mile long Caledonian Canal, and has an impressive system of 5 locks. Grab a Highland ice cream and wander along them before heading back to the loch waterside. The views here are amazing!
We drove around the west side of the Loch, past the impressive ruins of Urqhart Castle until we reached the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Here you can enjoy state-of-the-art exhibitions using multimedia about the geological history of the Loch, and the myths surrounding its famous resident, the Loch Ness Monster. The gift shop sells anything you could ever want with Nessie on it.
We hope you brought your wetsuit, because after spending the day on and around the Loch, it's time for you to get IN it! IN all seriousness, the water temperature never really gets above 5 degrees, so we would recommend wearing a wetsuit and staying close to shore. Some of the Loch shores are inaccessible because of high rocky walls, so keep driving, park in Dores, round past Inverness, and enter the water safely and easily from Loch Ness Beach.
Drive back to Grantown on Spey and treat yourself to a warming fish and chip supper from the fantastic Royal Fish Bar and a wee dram in the hotel bar.
Time for another hike, this time around stunning Loch an Eilein in the Cairngorms National Park. This truly felt like what we imagined Canada to look like - the towering pine trees of Rothiemurchus forest reflected perfectly in the dark glassy surface of the loch. We extended the route by also walking around nearby Loch Gamhna and following finger posts along walking trails in the forest.
We saw bullfinches, woodpeckers and red squirrels, and the scenery was just breath taking. The hike was nice and long, but largely flat.
Start the day with a hearty breakfast at the Grantown diner and takeaway. We recommend the breakfast hash - diced potatoes fried with black pudding, Cairngorms bacon and onions, topped with a fried egg and LOTS of cheese. Sooo good!
We spent the morning at Zip Trek Aviemore, a series of exhilarating high wires through beautiful pine forest. We had a great time whizzing through the trees, sometimes at great heights! Sadly it was too windy to do the last wire, which is 500m long but more exposed as it is over open land rather than forest. But the other 12 were so much fun!
We then went on a scenic roadtrip taking in Culloden battlefield (free to visit, the visitor centre/exhibition has an entry fee), Cawdor Castle (of Macbeth fame) and ending up at blustery, beautiful Nairn Beach. Having won a Scotland Best Beach Award for 23 years in a row, Nairn Beach has golden sand at one end, and rockpools at the other.
From here it's an easy half hour drive back to Grantown on Spey, where we spent the evening playing pool and enjoying the fire in the local pub, the Claymore Bar.
Today you'll do a full lap of Cairngorms National Park.
We booked a guided tour and tasting at the Dalwhinnie Distillery which was VERY high on David's Scottish bucketlist. The tour took us around the stills and barrel stores of the distillery and taught us all about the process of making whiskey, before enjoying 4 different whiskeys, each with a complimentary chocolate. Brilliant! As Emma was the designated driver, we were very impressed that they provided little bottles for her to put her whiskey measures in to takeaway. This meant she could taste them but still drive safely.
After Dalwhinnie, we drove around the southern most reaches of the Cairngorms through some astonishing mountain scenery, to the village of Braemar. It has the 14th century ruins of Kindrochit castle, a Highland Games exhibition centre (currently closed due to Covid) and the grand Fife Arms Hotel, and just outside of the village is Braemar Castle. Compact and square, it's currently closed to the public, but is worth pulling over in the free carpark and looking at the outside. Once it reopens, it has 12 furnished rooms full of historic artefacts, so if you're visiting in a post covid future, definitely go in!
15 minutes up the road is the Queen's holiday home, Balmoral. We looked in the gift shop and at the front gates, but time permitting you can book a guided tour if the Royals aren't there.
Continue up and round Cairngorms National park to Grantown on Spey to complete the loop!
Top tip... download some Bond themes and play them loud as you drive through the jawdropping scenery - this is Skyfall country after all!
Drive south and stop at the village of Balhama on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Conic Hill is a steep climb but the views from the top are astonishing. Below you lies Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain, with a herd of Highland Cattle (or Coos) in the foreground. About as Scottish as it gets!
We spent the night back over the border at Carlisle Travelodge, cheap and cheerful, perfect for breaking the journey on the long drive south.