Flanked by seas and full of natural wonders, this region is well worth a visit.
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WWith international travel restrictions easing and the United States is lifting its COVID testing requirements, this summer is the best time to dust off the pass. But while some travelers may still be wary of cramming into the Louvre or partying in Berlin, the vast expanses of the Scottish Highlands make an ideal backdrop for those itching to go abroad while sticking to quiet places .
Located in north-west Scotland, flanked by the Atlantic to the west and the North Sea to the east, the Highlands are a comparatively tranquil region characterized by high peaks and deep lochs. The largest city, Inverness, has a population of just 47,000, while most of the populous cities such as Wick and Fort William are quiet harborside hamlets of a few thousand people.
It’s a realm of otherworldly natural wonders, a unique environment where you can see dolphins and reindeer in the same day, where mythical beasts and Hogwarts-sized castles share common histories, and where national parks and distilleries offer heritages all their own.
Glencoe and Ben Nevis
Gateway to the Highlands, Glencoe Valley is the entry point for many visitors due to its proximity to Glasgow to the south. Driving up the A82 the road rises into the clouds and the terrain turns into a sprawling moss green landscape that looks more Lord of the rings than Great Britain. Lined with lakes and streams, the road zigzags through a mountain valley carved by glaciers and volcanoes, with huge boulders, cascading waterfalls and cabins along the way. It’s an epic departure from the urban areas of southern Scotland – a larger-than-life natural landscape that looks like dragons could live here.
The drive is scenic, but if you want to explore a bit more, Glencoe Mountain Resort offers mountain biking, tubing, skiing and tobogganing. Summer chairlift tickets are £15 ($18) per adult for walkers and £30 ($37) for mountain bikers.
Further north, things literally reach their peak with Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, rises 4,413 feet above nearby Fort William, making it popular with hikers and climbers. With a name meaning “mountain with its head in the clouds” in Old Gaelic, Ben Nevis is often shrouded in cloud.
An iconic element of the Highlands is Loch Ness, a mighty body of freshwater stretching 23 miles through a rolling valley, averaging 433 feet deep and plenty of room for mythical monsters. companies like Cruise Loch Ness (from £14 per adult) and High Speed Beastie Boats (From £28) offer guided tours of the loch, or you can find out more at Loch Ness Center and Exhibition, which hosts sonar-equipped cruises (if you can find “Nessie”) and features exhibits exploring the history of Loch Ness as well as Nessie. Exhibition entry is £9 for adults and cruises are £14.
The coolest vantage point is from Urquhart Castle, a ruined stone fortress perched on the banks of the A82. The centuries-old castle is as steeped in history as Nessie, with exhibits detailing the castle’s role in the battles between the Scots and English in the Revolutionary Wars. Today the cannon fire has subsided and offers a peaceful panorama of the eerily pitch-black lake. Tickets are £12 online or £13 at the door.
If you want to stay Loch Ness Lodge is the size of a modern chateau and is equipped with modern amenities. The intimate property features nine extravagantly appointed nature-inspired rooms and private cottages, along with a spa and beautiful grounds with gardens and sweeping water views. Enjoy your dinner nearby Cobbs restaurantwhere local ingredients and scotch shine in a dining room overlooking Loch Ness.
Just north-east of Loch Ness lies the urban heart of the Highlands, Inverness. With a population of less than 50,000, it’s a far cry from the Scottish metropolises of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but it still oozes big-city glitz.
On Scotland’s north-east coast, it’s a city where old meets new – where ancient Inverness Castle shares an area code with live music and modern cuisine. Visit for the latter the mustard seedVisit or visit a wood-fired restaurant in a former church that serves piri piri shrimp bruschetta and black pudding stuffed chicken White House for glamorous pub grub like haggis sweets and beetroot burgers in a sleek whitewashed space. Inverness also has a surprisingly robust nightlife, with hip hangouts such as hootananywhere musicians play casually around tables, and Gellions Bar, a longstanding place to dance to bands. And then there’s Marketablea small pub down an alleyway and up a flight of stairs where the jazzy stage takes up about half the space.
Stay in the elegant boutique Kingsmills Hotel, home to luxurious accommodation, cozy rooms, a spa and a large indoor pool under a light wood ceiling. The hotel also has a fully loaded whiskey bar for Scotch connoisseurs and a place for fine dining with local ingredients, English restaurantwith seasonal dishes such as saddle of venison roasted in coffee, carrot and chestnut tart tatin and cheese soufflé with pickled walnuts.
Outside of the city there is a lot of nature and history. Moray Firth, north-east of Inverness, is a coastal enclave with lively beaches, golf courses (such as Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Clubone of the oldest in the world) and the famous Chanonry Point Lighthouse, one of the best spots in the UK for spotting bottlenose dolphins. Home to about 200 dolphinsMoray Firth has the northernmost population of the species on Earth.
A few miles east of Inverness, Culloden Battlefield tells the story of the Battle of Culloden in 1745 in which some 1,600 men died in one of the bloodiest battles on British soil during the final Jacobite rising against the Duke of Cumberland. Consisting of extensive fields and a visitor center, the museum costs £14 per adult, but the grounds outside are free to explore, with paths winding past headstones commemorating Scottish clansmen who died in battle.
For something that’s aged a little more peacefully the Singleton of Glen Ord distillery is one of the most famous whiskey distilleries in the UK. At this Hogwarts-sized establishment in the village of Muir of Ord (about 15 miles north-west of Inverness), visitors can tour the distillery (£9pp), sample aged Scotch and snag a coveted bottle. (Bottles of Glen Ord are notoriously rare to find outside of the distillery.)
Cairngorms National Park
As well as dolphins and sea monsters, the Highlands are also home to Britain’s only free-roaming herd of reindeer Cairngorms National Park. Most of the 150 head herd roam freely in the Cairngorms Mountains while others can be seen in the paddocks Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. The center works to safely manage the herd and prevent disease transmission, and reindeer are rotated in and out to acclimate them to the wild. People can visit the center to see the animals up close (and look out for elf dolls, of course) or book a guided mountain tour to see them in their natural habitat. Uphill rides are £20 for adults, while a stop at the paddocks is £3.50.
If you’re not living out your North Pole fantasies, the Cairngorms National Park – situated on the east side of the Highlands – offers plenty of other activities, from mountain biking and hiking to kayaking and paddling on crystal clear lakes. Hiking trails in the mountains and hills range from leisurely excursions to strenuous hikes, including the Speyside Way and the Cateran Trail. If you want to scale a Munro (Scottish for mountains over 3,000ft), Cairngorms has the most extensive range of peaks in Britain
From peaks disappearing into the clouds to wildlife swaying to folklore, Scotland’s Highlands have to be seen, drunk and hiked to be believed. In a region where reindeer and lakes seem to outnumber humans, this is the perfect return to international travel during a season when ingredients are at their freshest and reindeer roam.
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