The vast and picturesque Scottish Highlands offer awe and wonder at every turn. I highly recommend renting a car for this trip, although there are many tours available. This guide will focus on the Isle of Skye, Inverness, and Cairngorms National Park.
If you are starting this trip from the south (Edinburgh, Glasgow, etc.), prepare for a jaw-dropping ride through the Glencoe Valley, which features a beautiful landscape that was carved out by glaciers. Also consider driving out west to spend a night at Mingary Castle before starting this trip. How many times will you get to stay at a restored 5-star castle on the water with a Michelin-star-worthy chef who prepares a remarkably delicious 10-course tasting menu and wine pairing for dinner?
The Isle of Skye is my favorite part of Scotland. If you are coming up from the islands, you’ll arrive via the Armadale ferry. Otherwise, you’ll drive in over the Skye Bridge. Your first stop is Armadale Castle, which sits on the southern end of Skye. The ruins and gardens are pretty, although you must keep out of the ruins. You’ll see a more complete castle when you head to Dunvegan, but first enjoy an excursion to the Fairy Pools. In the rain, which is likely, part of the trail may be underwater, but the surrounding area is worth stomping around in rain or shine.
Dunvegan Castle features parts from the 13th century. The rest was added on over time. The entire structure was heavily renovated in the 1800s. The interior is beautifully furnished and filled with historic artifacts. The gardens are equally wonderful, boasting a walled, round, and water garden with waterfall. A 30-minute drive west of Dunvegan takes you to the Neist Point Lighthouse. More impressive than the lighthouse is the bluff that you can hike up for an amazing 360-degree view of the cliffs and water. If the weather cooperates, you’re in for a magical moment. Be warned that you’ll probably step in sheep droppings.
For lodging in this part of Skye, there are a number of dated yet satisfactory B&Bs that are all similar in nature. There aren’t many restaurants, so without reservations you may find yourself driving to the Edinbane Inn’s restaurant. And that’s totally fine, as I found it to be the best food in the area.
Today, drive the Trotternish Loop. This drive features some of the most amazing scenery on the island. Start at Fairy Glen, which is about a 45-minute drive from Dunvegan. It’s fun to hike around the mounds and have your own adventure among the rocks and water features. Then, enjoy the views of the Quiraing. Or, hike them if you desire. Next on the loop comes the unique Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock, which are worth the stop despite the small pot-hole filled parking lot. Later on in the loop comes Brother’s Point. There are ruins here, but the real gem is walking down to the beach to see the smooth colorful stones among the massive volcanic rocks housing small pools and sealife. If you have the energy, the last stop is a hike to the Old Man of Storr. It’s a cool rock feature with more great views. Then, continue on to Portree, a beautiful harbor town.
For lodging here, the Rosedale Hotel is a renovated fisherman cabin overlooking the water. It has an amazing restaurant that offers excellent and varied Scottish tapas. You’ll need to make dinner reservations as Portree is very popular.
Today, head east to Inverness. On your way, definitely stop at Eilean Donan castle. It’s the stuff of movies. Literally. was featured in Highlander and Skyfall. The views of the castle across the water from the parking lot are beautiful. It was built and rebuilt over time and was reopened to the public in 1932.
Near Inverness, stop at the very popular Urquhart castle on the Loch Ness in Drumnadrochit. Loch Ness cruises depart from here, so finding parking requires a little luck. After you see a short movie in the visitor’s center, you can explore the ruins. A medieval reenactor gives a great presentation on fighting techniques and dress. Climb up to the tower for a very crowded but beautiful overlook of the loch.
When you arrive at Inverness, you’ll notice the private Inverness Castle dominates the landscape. The Strathness Inn provides a great lodging experience with some rooms looking onto the castle. Take a 40-minute loop stroll along the River Ness through the Ness Islands and back into town. After dinner at the modern The Kitchen Restaurant, visit the Hootenanny to enjoy live traditional Scottish music at 9:30PM most days of the week.
Today, enjoy Cairngorms National Park. A highlight here is the Reindeer Centre. Arrive early to go on the short guided walk to learn about these wonderful animals. You will get to pet and feed them... a truly memorable experience! The park offers many activities and also houses a few castles. The royal residence Balmoral Castle is here. Although admission only grants you access to just the ballroom, which is one out of 775 rooms, you can walk around the massive grounds and stables. Just a little more south is a much better castle experience… Braemar Castle. Offering one of the most thorough and interesting tours of any castle, you’ll get to go in all the furnished rooms. For food and lodging in Braemar, look no further than the Braemar Lodge.