Dreaming of soulful bagpipe melodies floating over heathered hills and foggy moors? Wishing you could disappear into the lush green expanse, but avoid incessant commentary from the seat behind you in a guided tour bus? (Trust me … in Greece I was captive audience on a three hour rundown of my seatmate’s mysterious skin maladies).
Navigating a self-guided road trip through Scotland is easier than you might think. Visitors to the UK from the United States are free to rent cars and drive on their State issued licenses, and freedom from tour buses allows you to sightsee, eat and hike at your leisure. In 2008, my husband and I struck out on just such an adventure. We recommend the route below, not because it is the only way to see Scotland, but because it covers a bit of everything, the lowlands, the highlands, and the capital city. Living abroad for 3 years, we still list it as our favorite holiday to date.
1. Arriving in Edinburgh
Depending on how you feel about sightseeing in England in connection with your trip to Scotland, there are a couple of options. Edinburgh and Glasgow both have international airports, but flying to London allows for the greatest flexibility of flights. From there, a train takes you direct from London to Edinburgh station. Rental cars are easily reserved online before you arrive and can be picked up from the airport.
Gothic architecture, a castle, a whiskey tour and miles of hiking await you once you arrive into Edinburgh. Driving through town can be tricky for those unfamiliar with UK roads, so for best sightseeing, I recommend staying in a hotel as close to the Royal Mile (main street) as possible. Edinburgh’s main shopping, restaurants and nightlife are all within walking distance of this main artery.
2. Across the Lowlands and Fort William
A mere three hours’ drive across Scotland’s lush lowlands to the northwest deposits visitors in the mountain biking capital of Scotland, Fort William. Stop at the Nevis Range Mountain Experience and test your skills on green, blue, red and black trails, including the 2009 World Cup race trail. Also home to the highest peak in the UK, Ben Nevis, visitors can drive or hike to the top for unsurpassed panoramic view of Invernessshire. For those more seafaring than mountain climbing, summer time boat rides give guided tours of local sea life, specializing in puffins and seals. Fresh sea food can be found in any of the dockside restaurants with views over the water and surrounding hills. For Harry Potter enthusiasts, stop by the train station for a peak at the steam engine train which carries Harry and his friends to Hogwarts at the start of each school year. Smaller than Edinburgh, stay at a local bed and breakfast near the centre of town. The rates are around 30 GBP per person per night and include four star accommodations and huge full Scottish breakfasts each morning.
3. Isle of Skye
One and a half hours further to the northwest is the most easily accessible island off of Scotland’s west coast. Home to breathtaking scenery, sheer cliffs drop to the sea, and waterfalls pour from the highest points, unhindered by trees. Local lore claims that sheep outnumber residents to this island. Explorers can appreciate the sensation of discovery in the Cuillin mountain range, where hikers trek for miles without encountering another soul, and views are some of the most spectacular in all of the UK. When ready to celebrate outdoor accomplishments, visitors can stop by the local single malt whiskey distillery, Talisker, offers tours and tasting and gives a bit of history of whiskey on Skye. For those who like to imagine ruling over this remote island, stop by the Dunvegan Castle and gardens on the north side of the island. As with Fort William, this tiny island has few hotels, but many bed and breakfasts. For summer months it is recommended to book before arriving as space fills up with Scottish and English tourists.
4. Inverness and Loch Ness
Circling back towards the northeast, take your time to meander through one of the most beautiful drives in Scotland. Wind through the spectacular tips and dips of highland hills and watch out for roaming Scottish wildcats and shaggy, orange Highland Cows. Follow the sparkling coastline of Loch Ness for 23 miles, and keep your eyes open for Nessie, the nickname of the local legend, the Loch Ness Monster. Daily tour boats take you out onto this deep freshwater loch and outline the history of sightings of this mysterious creature. Allow for time to stop at Urquhart Castle, a ruin with history dating back to the 6th century. In town, Inverness feels like a modern city, with hotel chains, restaurants and familiar shops on every street. Do take advantage of catching some local musicians at the Hootananny Pub downtown. On our visit, we caught a young accordion player and guitar accompaniment playing traditional Scottish folk music. For the outdoor lovers, hiking abounds around the Loch, and also holds a pristinely kept mountain bike track to miles from the main road, the Abriachan trails also known as the Kelpies trails.
5. End of the Road – Home to Edinburgh
The return drive to Edinburgh takes approximately 3 hours. With so much to do in Scotland’s capital city, it is worth exploring even at the tail end of a trip. If you enjoy Thai food, do not miss The Thai Orchid, located next to the Royal Mile to wrap up a week of spectacular Scotland.