The Scottish Highlands might not immediately spring to mind as a holiday destination, but for those who love exploring nature and early nights in with a pint of real ale by an open fire, the landscapes of Lochalsh and Skye have a very powerful allure.
Skye is the largest island of the Inner Hebrides and is well known for its stunning scenery, as well as a stepping stone to some of the Scottish Highland’s most remote locations. If you don’t mind braving the elements, take some time on your way north to explore the picture-perfect villages and hamlets of the lesser known Lochalsh.
Exploring pretty Plockton by land and sea
The fishing village of Plockton on the mainland is a little pocket of prettiness, and palm trees (yes, really!) line the waterfront thanks to the famously mild climate of this sheltered enclave. The village itself is home to several traditional pubs, serving fresh locally-caught seafood caught in the area and prepared to simple perfection.
After lunch, take one of the signposted walks such as the one-kilometre forest amble to the imposing Duncraig Castle, or mooch around the small selection of local shops. Feeling more adventurous? Explore the turquoise seas and deserted white beaches with a kayak. The waters around Plockton are sheltered, peppered with little islands and brimming with marine life – just don’t forget to wear warm and waterproof clothing because even in the summer months it can be cold and windy.
Majestic scenery by train
They say it’s not about the destination but the journey itself, and this is particularly true when you take the train from Inverness to the end of the line at the Kyle of Lochalsh – the last town before the Skye Bridge Crossing. Even if you’ve driven to the Highlands, hop aboard the little Scotrail train from the station for one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world. The modern carriages might not be the most atmospheric but the views of looming mountains, rushing rivers and the glass-like waters of Loch Carron as you snake around the brooding coastline more than make up for it. Three trains a day, running back and forth from Inverness, make this memorable two-and-a-half-hour journey.
Castles steeped in history
Driving on the mainland towards the Skye Bridge on the mainland, you’ll come across a true Scottish icon. Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Highlands but even at the height of summer it never feels overcrowded. Strategically located on its own little island, overlooking the Isle of Skye, and surrounded by the forested mountains of Kintail, this picture perfect castle has recently been restored to tell a story of Jacobean battles and bloody warfare. The castle also featured in the modern day James Bond film, Skyfall, so it’s certainly worth stopping in for a few hours.
Exploring the capital, Portree
After miles of driving through Skye’s natural landscapes, the main road through the island will bring you to the quaint capital of Portree. A day or a couple of nights enjoying the sights and sounds of this town will make it easy to forget just how remote you are.
Highlights of your stay should be savouring a half of Skye Gold Ale in the Isles Inn, nibbling at sweet cranberry bread from the Isle of Skye Baking Company, or wandering around some of the city’s art galleries and natural product shops. There are plenty of places to stay in Portree too so it provides the perfect nighttime hub for your day time activities on the island.
Eat at the most remote fine dining restaurants
With so much beautiful, fresh produce from the land and sea available to chefs, it’s no wonder that Skye is home to its fair share of fine dining establishments. If you drive for an hour northwest of Portree to the remote village of Colbost, reward yourself with lunch or dinner at the award-winning Three Chimneys. The restaurant and luxury B&B serves locally inspired dishes with a touch of elegance from a comfortable dining room that provides a perfect spot to watch the afternoon clouds roll in from the North Sea. In the summer savour the endlessly long mild nights with a glass of wine, or cosy up in the winter with a warming glass of the restaurant’s famed mulled cider.
The island also boasts a roster of big-name chefs such as Michelin-starred Michael Smith at Loch Bay and Paul Rankin, who took over Stein Inn in August last year.
Hiking trails that are the stuff of myths
No trip to the Highlands is complete without a day or two of hiking – and both the Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye provide outstanding backdrops for walkers of all levels. A paragraph in a travel story about the region cannot convey the sheer scale and diversity of the hikes on offer, but it’s worth picking out a couple of standout trails.
Turn left after crossing the bridge and drive south towards Armadale (where you can park) and you’ll come to the Point of Sleat and a walk along a track to the most southern point of Skye. The route passes a white sand beach with crystal waters – an ample resting point for a quick lunch or a thermos of coffee. Continue on to the point where you’ll find a lighthouse and some fantastic views out to the small isles of Rum, Canna and Eigg.
The Fairy Pools are touted as one of Skye’s top tourist attractions and for good reason. This easy-to-follow route leads to the beautifully crystal clear blue pools on the River Brittle. If you’re brave enough to enter the cold water (it’s freezing even in summer) the pools make for a magical dip, but most will be happy for the unique photo opportunity.
Take a whiskey tour
Dreaming of a dram? Whisky flows through the veins of Scotland, with each region offering its own unique flavour and characteristics to the amber coloured liquor. The Talisker Distillery, located about a 30-minute drive from the Skye Bridge, might be one of the most recognisable and popular brands globally but this hasn’t really changed the process by which the spirit is made. Talisiker still uses the natural spring water from the surrounding areas, locally-sourced barley and traditional wooden vessels for fermentation. Not just for whisky connoisseurs, a visit to the brewery includes a tour and tasting that will interest even non whisky-drinkers. Plus if it’s a nice day, you can take a small boat along the burn and into the loch.
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