Luxury Travel Breaks in North of Scotland
There’s no doubt about it – Scotland has some fabulous roads and if you know where to go, it is still possible to get away from the jams, frustrating roadworks and forests of traffic cones. The west coast around Caithness, Sutherland, and Wester Ross is especially good if you are lucky with the weather with the added benefit of spectacular views over the Inner Hebrides, the chance to gaze upon, and stroll along, golden beaches and a guaranteed warm welcome at the host of hostelries along the way.
But there’s another area north of the Border which offers the chance of some stunning driving on fabulous roads and again some fine establishments to relax in and wind down. I’m referring to rural Aberdeenshire and the wild Cairngorms and frankly it’s just not right that the Royal Family should have it to themselves while holidaying at Balmoral Castle. I’ve been up that way many times in recent years but I’d almost forgotten just how good it is until the car company Mazda invited me to join them on a test drive of their latest compact SUV, the CX-5.
They don’t just know about making good cars, they’re also pretty smart at picking the right roads to enjoy them at their best and that’s why they often head to Scotland whenever they have a new piece of machinery to show off.
This time we started in Inverness on a six-hour drive circling the Cairngorms and I was more than delighted to find that my route first took me south over the wide- open and desolate Dava Moor to Speyside, the location of the distilleries of some of the best-known names in the business, like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Cardhu. But I was driving, so there wasn’t time, or the opportunity, to sample their offerings. Instead, I was directed to the Muckrach Country House Hotel, at Dulnain Bridge, just outside Grantown-on-Spey. It’s a wonderfully refurbished Victorian shooting lodge set in ten acres in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park with 13 individually-designed bedrooms.
I headed for the restaurant and a delicious lunch of prawn cocktail with lobster followed by a splendid serving of Argyll Estate venison although I was seriously tempted by the medium-rare Balliefurth Babette of Beef, with wild mushrooms, celeriac remoulade, potato croquette and red wine jus. Suitably sustained, I headed for the A9 and mixed with the tourist traffic before turning off again at Pitlochry through Strathardle and then north over the Devil’s Elbow past the Glenshee Ski Centre to Royal Deeside, passing by the front door of Balmoral Castle.
The skies darkened as I took to the notorious Cockbridge to Tomintoul road, which I’m told features more than any other in broadcast traffic news when it’s closed by snow over much of the winter months. It was decidedly damp and misty as I passed the Lecht Ski Centre and the surrounding 3,000 foot high mountains. It was relief to make it into Tomintoul and there was a real warm welcome at the Clockhouse Restaurant in The Square in the heart of the village. A group of local parents were preparing for a children’s party but our gaggle of motoring journalists from all over the UK found a corner to tuck into some splendid cakes and nibbles washed down with some fine pots of tea.Back on the road again and even more great surfaces and challenges through stunning and dramatic scenery – even if it was more than a little wet – which made a tremendous test route for the very capable new car.
I was in the smaller output of the two 2.2 litre diesel engines, which is likely to be the biggest seller, but it soaked up the miles and challenging hills without complaint and handled a variety of surfaces and tightening bends with total confidence and stability. Mazda are very good at bringing forward themes in each of their cars. In the case of the new second-generation CX-5, they call the concept ‘Refined Toughness’ which is interpreted in a more robust front-end design with sleeker sides and a lower roofline to enhance a more solid stance on the road.
Heading towards Aberdeen and as the light began to drop, I was very happy to drive through the gates of the grounds of the Meldrum House Hotel, in Oldmeldrum just up the road from Inverurie. The Barony of Meldrum can be traced back to 1236 and the manor house itself has been much modified in the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries. The stone carved Royal Coat of Arms which can still be seen on the north-east face of the central tower dates back to 1628. The house was substantially redesigned in 1934 and more recently the current owners have created a golf course within the estate and a brand-new wing with 28 rooms overlooking the fairways and countryside beyond.
After clocking up many miles in the new car, I was happy to relax and soak up the stunning menu, which featured the best of local produce such as poached Sutherlands of Portsoy sea trout samphire, saffron potato, smoked tomato and shellfish broth. All Meldrum’s beef is sourced from the local family-run butcher and grocer Presly’s & Co who keep the community well supplied with pork, lamb and poultry from the surrounding area.
With the car keys safely put away for the night, there was just time for a nightcap in the oldest part of the house in the 800 year old Cave Bar, where I’m sure the huge collection of 120 exquisite malts aren’t the only spirits in the place.
Guest Author: Alan Douglas
Journalist and Broadcaster