Tastes & Trails of Scotland tour diary, by Andrew Clark, Operations Assistant
I have been a part of the H&I Adventures team for a little over five months now, and when I was asked to come along on our Tastes & Trails adventure that takes you from the glorious Cairngorm National Park to the awe-inspiring west coast of Scotland and back again, I jumped at the chance. What better way to further build my mountain biking skills and experience what our company does best than to try it first hand! Bags packed, bike at the ready and carefully-crafted itinerary in hand, it’s time to set off!
Day 1: Inverness to Grantown-on-Spey; introductions and warm-ups
Our week begins in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, where we pick up our American guests from the airport and grab a coffee in a local café. A gentle warm-up ride takes us through the local forest trails to familiarise ourselves with the bikes and to shake off any jet-lag, before a short transfer to the picturesque town of Grantown-on-Spey, and the first of a plethora of top class Scottish cuisine at the Garth Hotel. Our accommodation for the next two nights is at the charming Strathallan Guest House, and after a day of travelling, riding and eating, a good night’s sleep is not hard to find!
Day 2: Rothiemurchus Loop; welcome to the Cairngorms!
Our day gets off to a slightly unorthodox start as the Thunder in the Glens festival passes through town. The sound of over one thousand rumbling Harley Davidson motorbikes is certainly an effective alarm clock!
After a hearty breakfast, it’s time to start our Tastes & Trails tour in earnest, and we pedal out of Aviemore into the Rothiemurchus Estate.
Throughout the ride, awesome double and singletrack trails are intertwined with beautiful Scottish scenery and fascinating history. We pass through one of Scotland’s last remaining Caledonian pine forests to Loch an Eilean, and learn about the tyrannical Alexander Stewart, (the Wolf of Badenoch), who owned the 15th century castle that stands on an island in the middle of the loch.
Swooping through rivers, glens and woodland trails, our guide is constantly on the lookout for nuggets of information, pointing out birds of prey, a crash course in identifying the three different types of Scottish Heather, and even dishing out some juniper berries growing in the bushes. I can still taste the gin…
After a late lunch on the shores of Loch Morlich, we spend the afternoon charging through the final singletrack section of our loop, gaining speed and confidence in our bikes with each pedal stroke, before diving into the Cairngorm Brewery to try out some local craft beers and ales; a perfect end to any bike ride!
Dinner is enjoyed at the local Craig Bar, a small pub with a big heart, famed for its extensive range of delicious Scottish connoisseur pies and never-ending Scots “banter” from the staff!
Day 3: Glenfeshie to Fort William; a Highland Odyssey
We say our goodbyes to Grantown in the morning, and make the short transfer to the Southern Cairngorms for a ride around Glenfeshie. It’s a glorious day, so after putting on our sunglasses (and sunscreen for the slightly frecklier ones in the group…) we get going.
This day of mountain biking really does have a bit of everything packed into it. Starting on a quiet country road, we are soon off the beaten track and getting our legs warmed up with a sharp, but ultimately short, uphill doubletrack section. The effort put into the climb is highly rewarded with an epic, flowing, rocky singletrack descent, passing through forests, mountains and open glens. The magnificent views do everything they can to take your eyes off the trail, and by the foot of the hill, the adrenaline is really flowing. Cue mass whoops of delight and high-fives all around!
By the end of our ride the sun is beating down, and we head for an al-fresco lunch at a charming local cafe, leaving the Glenfeshie locals to continue their rock-jumping into the nearby river.
The afternoon is spent passing by the beautiful Loch Laggan, and taking a trip to the highest whisky distillery in Scotland at Dalwhinnie, home of the famous 15-year single malt.
After a few well-deserved drams, we make for our destination for the evening at the Outdoor Capital of the UK, Fort William. The inspiring views onto Loch Linnhe make our accommodation for the evening hard to leave, but our dinner at the Ben Nevis Inn is definitely worth getting up for. Based at the foot of the UK’s highest mountain, this converted barn is always a highlight for mountain bikers, locals and tourists alike, with amazing views and a great atmosphere always experienced. Our group even enjoyed an impromptu jamming session, a common feature within pubs in the Highlands and Islands.
Stomachs full and voices hoarse from singing, we make our way back to Fort William to rest up from a fantastic day.
Glenfinnan Monument Scotland
Sands of Morar
Ben Nevis Inn
Sunset at Arisaig
Day 4: Fort William to Mallaig to Arisaig; capturing the magic
After dousing any remnants of yesterday’s whisky with a delicious breakfast, it’s all-aboard the world famous Jacobite Steam Train as we travel from Fort William to the thriving coastal fishing village of Mallaig. Once again, the weather is spoiling us with a sunny, near-cloudless sky, as we follow the route made even more famous by the Harry Potter films, passing over the astonishing Glenfinnan Viaduct, which stands next to the equally beautiful monument. Standing at 18 metres, it commemorates the location where Bonnie Prince Charlie first raised his royal standard on Scottish shores, thus beginning the Second Jacobite Uprising of 1745/46.
Upon arriving in Mallaig, we enjoy another lunch in the sun, watching the world go by in this busy, industrious village. We even spot a few seals playing in the sea as we stroll along the harbour.
Before heading to our overnight stop at the nearby village of Arisaig, we take advantage of the weather to spend a couple of hours on one of the many beaches surrounding the two coastal towns. After a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean and soaking up the afternoon rays, strawberries and cream in hand, the mountains of Torridon and Skye are clearly visible in the distance. It’s difficult to remember that you’re actually on the west coast of Scotland, and not in the Caribbean!
Just when we think we can’t top the spectacular scenery experienced today, our arrival in the small, tranquil village of Arisaig dispels this. After a short evening ride around some local trails, our magnificent dinner is interrupted by a truly stunning sunset as the fishing boats anchor up in the bay, forcing the majority of us from our table to capture the moment.
Our dinner and accommodation is provided by the Old Library, a charming B&B by the sea which uses fresh produce from the day’s catches by the local fishermen. It also allows our American guests to sample their first Gaelic coffees. Needless to say, it wasn’t their last of the holiday!
Day 5: Mallaig to Skye to Balmacara; an Island Odyssey
The historic Isle of Skye is our destination for the next day of our adventure. After waving goodbye to the seals in Mallaig harbour, we take the morning ferry for the short crossing to Armadale. The dramatic change in landscape from the rolling hills of the Cairngorms to the rocky, jagged mountains of Skye is clearly visible.
Before long we are gearing up for our bike ride, and the rocky climbs and white-knuckle descents that are typical of the Skye region are certainly sufficient to get the blood pumping! Nevertheless the effort is well worth it, and we can take in the stunning views, scenery and wildlife; sometimes having to dodge Highland cows and sheep sunbathing on the trails! We even have time to take a short hike through the grasslands to discover a beautiful, secluded white sandy beach.
Lunch is at Michelin Star winning restaurant The Kinloch Lodge, where customers are treated to a dining experience to rival any. You simply need to taste it to believe it.
A bit of exercise is in order to work off our full stomachs, and so we travel to the north of the island for a walk up the famous Old Man of Storr. This iconic rock formation was created by massive ancient landslides, and has since become a walking route popular with locals and tourists alike. With such beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes, it’s not difficult to see why.
After a quick descent and “healthy” debate over who invented the television (he was Scottish, honest!), we pay a quick visit to the Sligachan Hotel and its 300+ whiskies.
With a quick dram warming us up, it’s off to the quaint fishing village of Plockton for a wonderful seafood dinner at the Plockton Inn, before a well-earned night’s sleep at the nearby Balmacara Mains, overlooking Loch Alsh.
Day 6: Glenelg to Balmacara; what goes up, must come down…
Our final day on the west coast takes us on a wonderful trail that starts and ends in the small town of Glenelg. The route has been dubbed the Camel Trail, thanks to the outlines left in the hill that we climb at the start of the trail. As ever, the views at the top of the hill are a wonderful reward for the effort put into the climb, and as our guide reminds us “what goes up, must come down!”. This leads us onto an amazing, ear-popping descent, whizzing past dragonflies and sheep until we reach the shoreline, taking a quick break to hold a highly competitive stone-skimming contest.
Re-energised, we continue the trail along the coast and through the grasslands, reaching some slightly technical but wonderful singletrack, passing through rivers and dense forests. We are introduced to Myrica Gale, more commonly known as Bog Myrtle, a plant that when crushed is an excellent repellent for the incessant midges. You learn something new every day!
After a couple more exciting climbs and descents, we return to Glenelg for a great lunch at the quirky Glenelg Inn.
The afternoon is spent visiting the iconic Eilean Donan Castle, famed for its astonishing location and backdrop. Three seperate lochs (Duich, Alsh and Long) surround the island that the castle is built on, and the building itself has been occupied by ancient Scottish clans and the Jacobites over the centuries, and was restored in the early 1900s. The tour is simply a must for any budding historians!
Yet another glorious dinner is consumed in Plockton, this time at the Plockton Shores restaurant (the venison is a must), before we settle in for one more night at Balmacara.
Ferry to Armadale, Skye
View of Torridon & Skye
Honesty Cafe in Skye
A view of the ocean between Skye and Scotland
Eilean Donan Castle
The Old Man of Storr
Sea Bream at the Old Library, Arisaig
Day 7: Balmacara to Fort Augustus to Inverness; where’s Nessie?
Waking up to see the sun rise over the loch is an experience that no-one could grow tired of, but unfortunately the last day of our tour has arrived! After an awesome breakfast of porridge, smoked salmon and eggs (not together, of course!), we head for the settlement of Fort Augustus to pick up some final gifts and memorabilia, spotting some Highland cows on the way. Before we know it we are back in Inverness. Has a week passed already?!
Fortunately, there is still time to fit in one final breathtaking ride, accumulating all the skills we have gathered during the holiday to pass through flowy forest singletrack, rocky yet manageable hills, and finally a fast, swooping and adrenaline-pumping descent right onto the Dores Inn pub on the shores of Loch Ness. Bliss!
After lunch and some Nessie-spotting on the shores of Loch Ness, it is with a collective heavy heart that the group pedals back to Inverness and hops off our mountain bikes for the last time on this amazing holiday. Over dinner we all recollect the trails, meals, experiences and stories that will live long in the memory.
Day 8: Departures and Reflections
All too soon, it’s time to end our Tastes and Trails adventure, as we drop off our customers at the airport and say our fond farewells.
Heading back to the H&I Adventures office, I have time to reflect on where we’ve been over the past seven days; from the rolling hills of the Cairngorms to the rocky, dramatic mountains of Skye; from some of the finest Scots whisky to juniper berries and Bog Myrtle; from the Wolf of Badenoch to the Highland cow and the Old Man of Storr.
I learn that with each tour comes new experiences and new memories, but the things that remain constant are the amazing quality of the trails, the huge increase in ability and riding confidence of the customers by the end of the week and, most importantly, the unanimous agreement across the board that they have experienced the mountain biking holiday of a lifetime!