For Sam’s birthday this year, we spent an incredible weekend in Ross-shire, a county of the Highlands which borders Sutherland, Cromartyshire and Inverness-shire. We could scarcely believe how much there was to see and do in this small but beautiful part of the Scottish Highlands, so I thought I’d share some of our personal highlights.
The trip was a present for Sam’s birthday, so we could go and visit the home of his favourite whisky, The Dalmore. Naturally, being in the Highlands, you’re always going to be a stone’s throw away from one distillery or another, but even if you’re not a whisky drinker, you won’t be lost for things to do.
We were staying at Kincraig Castle Hotel – a really beautiful country house hotel, tastefully decorated to create an idyllic Scottish country escape. From here, we explored the surrounding area, enjoying the stunning landscape and some of the local tourist attractions, and there were plenty of foodie gems to keep me happy too!
WHAT TO DO
Like I said, you’ll never be short of things to do, and if the weather is on your side, you’re in for a treat. So whether you’re a foodie like me or keen to spot the local wildlife, these activities will keep you busy!
TAKE A TOUR OF THE DALMORE DISTILLERY
The distillery has an incredible history with the Mackenzie clan, dating back centuries, and it’s situated in a stunning, secluded spot on the banks of the Cromarty Firth. On the hour-long tour, you’ll learn about the whisky making process and see it in action, step inside the warehouse and get to taste a dram of their 12 year old single malt. The tour only costs £8 and is a great insight into the world of whisky. You can see the whisky at different stages of maturation, the different barrels used, from sherry to cabernet sauvignon, and of course, there’s a shop where you can continue sampling, and maybe make a purchase.
SPOT DOLPHINS AT CHANONRY POINT
Travel to the town of Fortrose and follow the crowds to Chanonry Point, where you can walk along the beach with an ice cream and watch the shoreline for dolphins. There are a number of resident dolphin pods in the Moray Firth, and if you time it just right, you might spot them playing or feeding just off shore as we did. Even if you don’t catch them, the beach is wonderful to stroll along and simply enjoy the view. If, however, you want to get a bit closer to the dolphins, you can always take a wildlife boat tour out on the water to go dolphin, seal and wildlife watching.
STOCK UP ON GIN AT THE STOREHOUSE
Just off the A9, this deli, gift shop and food hall is a real gem. There’s an adorable gift shop on your left, and in the main building, a charming little deli with local meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and other store cupboard treats – the giant meringues at the checkout are incredible. Besides this, they have one of the most eclectic collections of gins I have ever seen! There were all the classics, as well as some lesser known brands and flavours, like chocolate mint. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, you can head across to the Food Hall, where they serve fresh soups, sandwiches, salads and a selection of hot dishes and stunning desserts – the raspberry posset was particularly good, plus if the sun is shining you can sit outside at picnic tables and enjoy more stunning views of the Cromarty Firth.
SAMPLE ORGANIC BEER ON THE BLACK ISLE
Again easily accessible from the A9, the quirky Black Isle Brewery creates fresh, organic beer in the heart of the Highlands. The small, remote brewery is situated right next to a working farm, and you can take a tour and taste some of their trademark beers for free! The short tour takes you onto the brewery floor, explaining the growth of the business and the brewing process, followed by a tasting of four of their classic beers: Blonde, Yellowhammer, Red Kite Ale, and Porter. Outside of these four, there are several other lagers, porters, and IPAs you can buy. If you want more than just a short tour, you can attend their annual ‘Jocktoberfest’ – a camping beer festival held at the brewery with live music, locally sourced organic food and of course, plenty of beer!
IF YOU HAVE MORE THAN A WEEKEND…
We were limited in what time we had available to us, but I certainly think we made the most of it! If, however, you have a little more time on your hands, you can visit the Glenmorangie or Tomatin whisky distilleries, take a boat trip on Loch Ness, drive along the Moray Firth Coastal Trail, take a tour of the Cromarty Brewing Co. from May to September, or simply take some time to walk around the woods and hillsides surrounding this beautiful area.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHAT TO EAT
As mentioned, we stayed at the beautiful Kincraig Castle Hotel, which provided a bit of secluded luxury and relaxation after a day of sightseeing, whisky and beer tasting! We stayed in one of the Estate Rooms, looking out onto the rolling landscape. The room was spacious and tastefully decorated, with traditional Scottish influences, and a definite nod to the hotel’s baronial past. The hotel has two different dining options and a stunning lounge area with an open log fire, tartan carpets, and big, cosy leather furniture, so even if you don’t stay here, it’s definitely worth coming for a meal.
On our first evening, we ate in the lovely little bar area from their ‘Home Comforts’ menu, offering pub classics like pie of the day, fish and chips, steak and more. Sam opted for the Scottish mussels while I went for the pie of the day – chicken and leek with a mashed potato topping. The food was delicious and filling, just what we wanted after our 4.5 hour drive! My pie, rather than being made of bits of processed chicken, was proper roasted chicken that had been shredded for the pie filling, and Sam’s mussels were beautifully fresh, served in a delicate cream and craft beer sauce.
The breakfasts too were of a very high standard. A buffet offered a choice of fresh and dried fruits, cereals, pastry, yoghurt and fruit juice, and there was an a la carte menu of hot food options, from a traditional fry up to Scottish pancakes!
In the evening, I recommend treating yourself to dinner in the restaurant, and if its available, go for the five-course menu. The menu is £42.50 per person and includes a snacking tray of cheese straws, fresh bread, and olives, followed by four delicious courses of food, and a cheese board.
My highlights were the gorgeous slow-cooked sirloin of beef with smoked shallots, and my incredible dessert of white chocolate parfait with honeycomb, while Sam couldn’t believe the intense taste of his haggis dish, which was wrapped in sheep stomach, as is tradition, and packed full of meaty flavour.
There are, of course, several cheaper options in terms of accommodation, including B&Bs and hotels half an hour away in Inverness, but this, for us, created a unique escape that made the weekend really special.
APPRECIATE THE VIEW
One of the best things about living in Scotland is having all this incredible landscape on our doorstep. We may have only seen a small fraction of the Highlands in our weekend away, but I love knowing there is so much of it still left to explore. From Glasgow, we’re lucky enough to have places like Loch Lomond less than an hour away, but up in Ross-shire, it’s a whole different level of isolation and escapism. Just driving around leaves you in awe; the rolling hills, the sun glistening on the water…can I go back please?!