The Highlands Experience
Aviemore, Cairgorms and Local Distillerie
A lot of tourists visit Scotland and end up only going to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and a few castles around. In reality, doing anything beyond that will likely involve getting a car with a manual transmission and the steering wheel on the other side. It would also mean navigating through the rugged landscape, but, as an overall experience, it is a much more rewarding and comprehensive way to see the real Scotland. As one of our Edinburgh’s guides said: “The further north and west you go, the more outlandish landscapes are unveiled as a reward.”
Actually, our road trip started in London, as we drove through beautiful Wales to reach Edinburgh, which was followed by passing through Sterling, Aberdeen, Aviemore, Inverness, Isle of Skye, Oban and Islay. There are so many beautiful details and stories we can tell, however, we want to focus on an area for which we initially had admittedly low expectations, but were pleasantly surprised at how much can be accomplished there in a day.
We arrived at Aviemore in the evening, after about half-a-day drive, and immediately went to their Happy Haggis Diner - a bright spot with a friendly service and generous portions. While not overly expensive, the town is in the middle of a national park and, overall, is quite pricey in terms of accommodations. Much like with most of Scotland, we did not find the food around there to be offered at much of a premium.
Mon Cheri was lucky to find a cool AirBnB host - Andrew, a Londoner-restaurateur who decided to move to this part of the country. We had an amazing time staying with him, diving into many stories of the UK’s past and present as well as adventures from his diverse life. Andrew was a great guide about what to do in the area. He had hosted many tourists over theyears, and even trusted them with his car, as well as his motorbikes to get around. A guy with a great attitude throughout, and there were awesome breakfast and snack options available.
The first day went almost as planned with a few deviations to make up for our overly optimistic aspirations. We started off our on an overcast morning with a 10:30 am tour at the Glenlivet distillery with Jamie - a young Scot, who immediately raised the distillery tour expectations bar very high. He got us with his friendly demeanour, without a single drop of pretentious attitude, multiplied by his knowledge of the process, as all of our questions were patiently answered. We went through the full process of whiskey birth and walked the facility to end the tour at a private tasting area in the warehouse. Jamie used a dog tool to scoop generous shots straight from the cask. This two-hour tour was full of stories about the tools and nuances of the trade. The final stop was the presentation room with the focus on the story behind Glenlivet (“Valley of the smooth flowing one” in Gaelic).
Cardhu was the next distillery nearby, and the experience here was a bit different. Irene led us on a tour and told the distillery’s origin story, using 3D models of the initial barley processes. She also focussed on teaching us about various smells found in whiskey though little testers. We appreciated the new information and were able to compare the approaches (Pernod Ricard owns Glenlivet and Cardhu is a part of Diageo). One curious detail was that Cardhu keeps the grist for a longer time with the yeast (72 hrs instead of 50). This made a difference to the flavour, Irene explained, as the shorter time with the yeast resulted in nuttier flavours, as opposed to a fruitier nose, otherwise. It was an opposite effect of comparing to aging a Chardonnay which gets nuttier with age. Another fun part of this distillery was a small herd of domesticated woolly-cows in the yard. They looked like buffaloes and the owner kept them as pets, so we had a chance to pet the gentle giants.
Throughout our research, we realized that most of the bigger distilleries are owned by a handful of conglomerates (LVMH, Diageo, Pernod Ricard etc.). Although they do a good job at keeping the uniqueness of the brand at the retail level, there is not as much of a difference when you get to the distilleries themselves – choose what to visit wisely and avoid hitting too many of the same ownership, if possible. This revelation put a dent in the overall experience, but international whiskey retailing is a tough business to be in.
Next, we were off to Johnstons of Elgin. All these sheep around us got us thinking that we should learn more about the Scottish Cashmere. Although we missed the last facility tour at 2 pm, we still had wandered around the museum and watched a short video. It is truly a great way to learn about the numerous processes involved in making a fabric - selection and wool types, dying, weaving, and so on! Don't miss out on your chance to find out about the role of thistles in this industry. We learned that Johnstons of Elgin is the manufacturer behind numerous big brand luxury wool products, including Burberry.
Furthermore, there is a great fabrics shop filled with blankets, pillows cases, toys, and such. Lastly, if you are looking for formal refined wear, the adjacent building has a tailor shop, as well as a cafe, and restaurant in the back, serving foods made with the local ingredients.
Hiking the Local National Park
The day was still young, so we decided to further our experience of the area. Aviemore is one of the few cities in Cairngorms (Scotland’s largest national park), and we needed to wrap our day with a hiking experience. Andrew, our AirBnB host, had recommended us the Loch an Eilein as a short hike with a beautiful vista - the most photographed place in Scotland, according to some. This somewhat flat hike was energizing and light. We circled a small lake with castle ruins in the middle. Of course, it is Scotland, ruins and castles are everywhere, so we did not find anything especially exciting about these ones in particular. There was about an hour left before sunset by the time we finished the walk.
We followed the River Feshie on the way back to Aviemore which lead us to a tucked-in beautiful arched bridge. That would have been a perfect spot for a wee drink and some snacks. The slabs of rock surrounding the bridge made for a perfect, multi-level seating area overlooking the fast-flowing water.
Lastly, we pushed our luck and walked the one-of-a-kind sculpture garden trail by Frank Bruce. It turned out to be a real treat! Frank is a true craftsman and installation artist, who created a wavy walk through a forested area, hiding his sculptures made of wood and stone in there like little treasures. It was imaginative and impressive seeing trees with faces, body parts, and even spiritual ones. This was truly a unique outdoor space and one worth not missing. The twilight and eerie forest setting added a mystical edge of our experience.
We ended our day at Hotel Cairngorms - a local restaurant and pub that Andrew highly recommended. Although considered to be a fancier place, the prices were quite reasonable. A full review of this local gem will follow.
Planning an extra day in the area? There is also a local train to the Natural Retreats Cairngorm Mountain with a funicular taking people up to the peak for scenic views.