Saturday, 24 June 2017

A to Z Dating | H is for Highlands

H is for Highlands!
Harry Potter World  - Hiking - Hogwarts Express - Horse Riding

Is there any date better than a romantic weekend away, surrounded by beautiful scenery? Scotland has lots to offer but the highlands are definitely up there as one of the most scenic parts of the country with its rolling hills and peaceful lochs. I thought I'd use this chance to share what we got up to and put together a little travel guide. So if you're planning a trip to the Highlands any time soon, this is for you!

Where We Stayed

Craiglinnhe House

I can't recommend this B&B enough. Our host, Lawrence, greeted us in the driveway and showed us to our room, overlooking the Pap of Glencoe! We'd struggled to find anywhere to stay and ended up booking twin beds at Craiglinnhe's but it wasn't an issue and the view made up for it. The house was beautiful, situated right on Loch Linnhe with a guest lounge looking out onto the water.

Gordon appreciated the honesty bar in the evenings, but it was Lawrence who really made our stay. He gave us the warmest of welcomes every time we arrived back at the house and was always happy to help. Chilling our post-hike champagne in the fridge, making us dinner reservations and even lending us a map and compass - nothing was too much trouble!

What to See & Do

Culloden Battlefield

We left early on the Saturday morning and reached Inverness by lunch time, stopping off at Culloden Battlefield along the way. The visitor centre tells the tale of the rise and fall of the Jacobite's on Culloden moor in 1745, from both the Scots and the governments perspectives. It ends with a powerful reenactment of the battle projected onto the four walls around you which really helps you get a feel of how the final fatal battle went down.

Outside you can walk the moor which is marked with flags and a memorial to those who lost their lives in the battle. Individual Stones mark the graves of the clans who fought and died there. Its a sombre experience but a must for any Outlander fan or clan descendant.

Castle Stalker

Otherwise known as Castle AAAARRGGHH! to fans of Monty Python & the Holy Grail. Just five minutes along the road from Craiglinnhe House. We didn't visit the castle itself but stopped off at the Castle View Café for the photo op. Turns out the view is rather distant! Luckily Lawrence had tipped us off on a little side road that led us down to the shore for a closer look.

Visit Glencoe

You can literally just drive through Glencoe and appreciate the most spectacular place I've ever seen in Scotland. There's no need to stop anywhere, but I guarantee you'll want to! Those hills, looming over that twisty road... wow! The Three Sisters of Glencoe are just an incredible sight to behold and I'm desperate to get back and climb. Buachaille Etive Mor and the Devil's Staircase are high on my priority list. I might even take part in next year's Great Glencoe Challenge!

It's also worthwhile driving into Glencoe village itself. Here you'll find a memorial to those of the Macdonald clan who were savagely murdered in 1692 by Government forces they'd played host to in their own homes, in what became known as the Glencoe Massacre.

Highland Folk Museum

Another Outlander one guys. Scenes from the first series - where Claire is seen getting her hands dirty with the locals while out collecting taxes with Jamie and Dougal - were filmed at the 1700's Township here! The Highland Folk Museum gives you a peep into the lives of locals right up to the 1960's with it's periodical buildings - some of which have actually been moved here from elsewhere in the highlands.

Entry is free which we hadn't expected so gladly bought a £5 programme to contribute to the upkeep of the open air museum. The 1930's sweet shop and the working croft were a particular highlight with the ponies, goats and symbolic Highland coos!

Where to Eat

Clachaig Inn

The Clachaig Inn features in CAMRA's Wild Pub Walks and plays a big part in the history of Highland adventurers. It's where the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team formed in 1962 and Sir Hugh Munro features in one picture of a Scottish Mountaineering Council meeting at the inn, dating back to 1906! A sign at the entrance reads "No Campbells or Hawkers" relating back to that infamous Glencoe massacre!

We dined in the Bidean Lounge, looking out over the surrounding mountains. I sipped a Porter's gin with slimlie tonic and orange slice, while Gordon enjoyed a pint of Cairngorm Gold. Starters were a delicious haggis parcel with neeps and tatties, and Stornoway black pudding with sweet cure bacon, oatcakes and apple and plum chutney. We both had the Clachaig chicken for main - oat crusted chicken in a whiskey mustard sauce served with chips and veg. If you call a baked sweet potato veg that is.

Other than the definition of veg, we had no complaints and thoroughly enjoyed our meal as well as another drink in the cosy Boots Bar. Later in the evenings there's live music but as we were climbing Ben Nevis the next day we gave it a miss. I'd definitely fit this in next time though, I imagine the atmosphere would be fantastic.

Holly Tree Hotel

Just a half hour walk from our B&B, located right on the edge of Loch Linnhe, the Holly Tree Hotel has a strong focus on seafood and local fare. We dined here after our epic day of walking and thoroughly enjoyed four courses. The bar selection needs a bit of work but the food was fab.

"The world is your oyster, go grab an oyster!" reads one of the bucket list ideas added by a guest at our wedding last year. So when I spotted fresh Hebridean oysters on the menu it had to be done. Gordon wasn't a fan of the slimy texture and salty taste, but I didn't mind them - mostly thanks to the tonne of Tabasco I'd showered them in!

For starters we stuck to the seafood theme chowing down on Moules Mariniere (mussels in garlic, white wine and cream) and Scottish salmon salad. Mains were more meaty with Barbary duck breast served with black pudding, red cabbage and "a rich port and berry jus". The lightly chargrilled venison was the star of the night, closely followed by dessert. Not surprisingly after all that I couldn't finish my white chocolate and vanilla cheesecake.

Mountain Café Aviemore

Scotland meets New Zealand at this café, located above an outdoors specialist store in Aviemore. We stopped off on the way home and despite a short time queuing enjoyed a lovely, relaxed lunch. My steak flatbread was a treat but I have to admit I was jealous of the burger!

The cakes at Mountain Café were out of this world. We couldn't help but grab a brownie and a chocolate whoopee pie for the journey home. Vegan, dairy free, gluten free and wheat free options are all available and colour coded on the menu.

We can't wait to go back to the Highlands already - please send us your recommendations for next time!

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mountains, Mud & Marathons | Climbing Ben Nevis

We did it! We climbed the highest mountain in the UK and completed my first Mountains, Mud and (Half) Marathons challenge!

Ben Nevis is now the third munro we've bagged. Three out of 282 isn't many but at least we can say we've done the highest one. Despite it's height status, Ben Nevis isn't one of the most difficult mountains to conquer in Scotland. This isn't to say you shouldn't go prepared. It has a path all the way, which is well maintained, but steep and long, and slightly unstable in certain parts.

The views along the entire 7 hour walk were incredible. We parked at the visitor centre car park (there is a small charge which goes towards maintenance and the centre itself was closed for refurbishment) and made our way up the mountain route, or "tourist path" as it's often called. Walk Highlands has a great walk description as usual.

Eventually we reached the "halfway lochan" Loch Meall an t-Suidhe. I was pleased to see this as it gave us an idea of how far we still had to go! We'd set off early at 8am with only 4 other people starting at the same time. However, we started to catch up with people at this point who must of started earlier, and even passed a few keen beans on their way back down already! The path was growing steadily busier behind us as well. They don't call it the tourist route for nothing.

The zig-zagging path becomes more unsteady underfoot as you climb higher. It was at this point we stopped for lunch and suddenly felt how cold the air was. We chucked on a few layers, snapped some photos and carried on. We were blessed with epic views in between cloud cover.

Eventually we reached the summit plateau, but Lochnagar the week before had taught us not to expect the actual summit to be in sight! Instead we were met with patches of snow and cairns marking the path for us to continue our walk. Soon the cliffs of the north face came into view and I kept my distance from the edge!

At last the war memorial appeared, swiftly followed by the sight of the old observatory and the trig point marking the official summit! It was misty as hell but we took the chance to rest, refuel, take photos and celebrate with a nip of whisky - him, not me! Check us out standing on the highest point of Britain...

It was busy up there with everyone celebrating their feat but it made for a great atmosphere. One thing that did annoy me though was the water bottles and rubbish people had left. There wasn't a lot, but if you can carry it up there you can surely carry it back down! I decided I'm going to take a plastic bag on future walks and collect rubbish on my descent. Keep Scotland beautiful people!

A few tips if you're planning to climb Ben Nevis or any other munro...

1. Pack plenty water and carby supplies. Hiking is bloody hard work, you will be tired and hungry, and need to rehydrate due to all the water you lose through sweat. We took 2 litres of water each, sandwiches, a pasta pot, Grenade bars and chocolate.

2. Layer up! It was beautifully sunny day back down on earth, but at the summit I needed my tshirt, jumper and North Face jacket, a hat, thermal gloves, a Beast Race buff around my neck and sunglasses. We also packed waterproof trousers just in case.

3. Invest in sturdy walking boots! As I said, the ground is rocky and unstable with scree near the top and you'll definitely appreciate the ankle support on the stone steps climbing back down. My Scarpas did the trick and I highly recommend 1000 mile socks!

4. Speaking of stone steps... bring a first aid kit! I slipped and fell on my back side on the way down, grazing my hand and bruising my ass. It was all Gordon's fault of course. Buy a first aid kit specifically for hillwalking, like this one, and make sure it includes blister plasters!

5. Learn to use a map & compass. I will confess, I don't know how to read maps but Gordon does. I'm on the lookout for a course locally if you know of any? Second confession - we forgot our map. Our amazing B&B host had given us one with waterproof cover and all but we stupidly left it in the car by mistake. In worse visibility, or snow cover, the path wouldn't be clear enough to follow and it'd be far too easy to take a wrong turn towards the scary north face.

6. Safety first! Carry a torch and a whistle in case of emergency. And always let someone know where you're going, what route you're taking and when you expect to return. If you get into any difficulty or aren't sure of your capabilities, just turn back. The mountain will still be there for another day.

7. Toast your success! The Ben Nevis Inn features as one of the Wild Pub Walks in CAMRA's latest book and there's a good reason for that. This cosy little pub provides hot food, cold pints and a place to rest your weary feet. Gordon enjoyed a pint of Skye Red while I sipped my OJ as designated driver. Everybody is there for the same reason and it's great to celebrate with fellow hillwalkers!

Have you ever climbed Ben Nevis? What advice would you give?
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