The wild charm of the Scottish Highlands draws tourists from around the world during the summer months but as DW's Susan Bonney-Cox found out, it also has much to offer in the off-season, too.
I made Inverness, the historical capital of the Highlands and the most northerly city on the British mainland, my base to explore what this area offers outside of the tourist season. Inverness, which officially gained its status as a city in 2000, is economically booming and rapidly expanding; the city center, situated beside the wide and fast-flowing River Ness, is not only attractive, but provides great shopping opportunities and has a wide range of bars and restaurants to explore.
Paying Nessie a visit
The tourist season in the Highlands usually begins around Easter and continues through autumn as visitors flock there to go hiking, kayaking, climbing, golfing and biking in these vast swathes of untouched nature. But even with moderate sunshine, there's plenty to explore outdoors.
A 20-minute drive outside of Inverness gets you to Lochend which marks the start of Loch Ness; here, this immense body of water stretches out beside the road. A short drive further brings you into Drumnadrochit, home to the Loch Ness Centre, where you can immerse yourself in the history of the Loch, including, of course, the famed Loch Ness monster and the reported sightings of it. The exhibition allows you to decide whether you believe in the existence of such a creature, known affectionately as Nessie, and what kind of animal it might be.
From here, it isn't far to Urquhart Castle — a ruined fortress dating from 1509, overlooking Loch Ness, which was destroyed during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. A comfortable stroll brings you into the ruins where you can explore the remnants of this former family castle, whilst at the same time enjoying some fantastic views across the clear waters of Loch Ness, which is at its deepest around Urquhart Castle.
Rocking back to the Bronze Age
The Clava Cairns, a well-preserved Bronze Age burial site also near Inverness, are another popular tourist spot. Under age-old elm trees and surrounded by ancient stones you are free to roam the area which contains the remains of the three burial houses that are over 4,000 years old.
Stones on Culloden Battlefield mark the places where government soldiers and clansmen alike are buried
A short journey, just a few kilometers, up the road brings you to Culloden Battlefield. In April 1746, this moor was where the aforementioned Jacobite Uprising came to a final, brutal head. It was the last pitched battle on British soil. In less than an hour of fighting, around 1,500 men lay slain. The moor remains a graveyard for the fallen.
Heading further east, about an hour's drive brings you to Elgin, with its historical town center and famous cathedral. This historic ruin dates from 1224. Following repeated fires and extensive repair work, it eventually fell victim to the 1560 Reformation.
Elgin Cathedral, once a splendid place of worship, was known affectionately as the 'Lantern of the North'
Biking, hiking and bird-watching
A short 40-minute drive from Inverness gets you to Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park, in the heart of the Highlands.
From here you can drive up through woods along the river Luineag to Loch Morlich, popular in the summer with water sports enthusiasts, and a busy spot for ducks all year round. It is an established starting point for hikers, and many of the pristine cycle paths lead past here. Driving further up brings you to the base of the mountain cable car train.
As I progressed up the road, I was surprised and amused by a couple coming towards me on skateboards. The Cairngorms offer mountain fun all year long, from hiking and climbing in the warmer months, to skiing in winter (make sure to check if and when the cable car runs).
I ventured along the path leading uphill for a while, finding the naturally paved walk rather pleasant. This is where I encountered amateur wildlife photographers Gary from Luton and Mark from Gateshead. Both were hiking up to the snow in order to take pictures of rare animals like the ptarmigan bird, snow hares and even reindeer.
As they continued their climb, I was surprised to see a red grouse pop out from behind some heather quite close to me.
Getting into the spirit
Another popular tourist attraction in the Highlands are the many whisky distilleries - there is even a whisky route on which you can discover the different distilleries. I booked a tour about 20 km (12 miles) outside Inverness in the small village of Tomatin, at the distillery of the same name. I joined tour guide Barbara, who led us through the distillery, explaining the history of Tomatin – which apparently is Gaelic for "hill of the juniper bush."
Alongside tourists from the Netherlands, Germany, Scotland and a family group from Spain, I got to learn – in great detail – how Highland Malt Whisky is produced.
Barbara enthralled us with tales of illegal distilleries from over 500 years ago, explained what defines a Highland from a Speyside whisky, what a monkey-shoulder is and what the heart, head and feet of the spirit are.
Having been briefed on malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, pot stills, spirit safes, and maturation we returned to the visitor center where the non-drivers were given three 'drams' to taste; as a designated driver, I was handed a neatly wrapped miniature bottle of whisky to taste later.
Food glorious food!
Back in Inverness, I dove into some traditional quality pub food at McGregor's pub. The crowd-funded establishment also offers an extensive range of craft beers and local gins and whiskies. This venue has established itself as a meeting place for local musicians – something to look out for!
My personal highlight though, was the Mustard Seed, a restaurant based in a former church on the banks of the River Ness. The place is vibrant and cozy, with a fireplace in the middle of the restaurant and a menu that offers lots of local produce. I would recommend the mussels, smoked salmon and highland cattle steaks - but the restaurant offers several vegan and vegetarian options, too.
Any meal in Scotland should end with a dram of local whisky; the Mustard Seed provides a useful menu listing the different varieties according to their taste features, such as peaty, smoky or smooth. This should be accompanied by a piece of tablet — the crumbly, grainy Scottish cousin of fudge.
I thoroughly enjoyed my off-season adventure in the Scottish Highlands but was very aware that I had seen just a small corner of this breathtakingly beautiful area. Anyone thinking of traveling here should do so regardless of the time of year.