Exploring Scotland: Where to stay. What to do. What to see.

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“Let’s pick a rock, any rock, and sit for a moment in complete silence and take in our surroundings.”

I was a few feet away from the summit of Cairngorm Mountains, which stands over 4,000 feet tall and is the highest mountain massif in the British Isles.

By the time I had gotten here, I had already experienced a week of whirlwind adventures that began in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, and had taken me through the Highlands, as well as a few castles. I was just making my way down the peak when ranger Rauri MacDonald, who was serving as our hiking guide, had instructed we take this moment of silence.

I chose my rock, a short distance away from our small group of 5, and just listened.

I could hear the wind swoosh and swirl over boulders and through whatever cracks it could find, forming a faint whistle. From a distance, I could see the Caldonian pine forest and the Loch an Eilein.

At my feet was the short grass that had been nurtured for years by rangers looking to bring back to life the greenery that once covered the landscape. At a distance I could see nothing else but sky. There was no other sound. Just wind. Wind and nothingness. But the sights were full of life and history, I could almost feel it overcome me, present and strong.

“This is the moment when you fall in love with Scotland,” I told our guide and it was clear that I had.

The weather in Scotland is all we know it to be, gray and cloudy at best, rainy and foggy at worst. Every so often you are blessed with sunlight – mostly in the mornings, but it often fades quickly as the day progresses. However, what cheer you may lack in weather is found ten-folds in the people you meet. Kenny, who drove our group around the entire time was my daily dose of joy. Always dressed in his traditional kilt, I delighted in his stories, his expertise, and his Scottish drawl, which I didn’t always understand, but I always loved.

He, along with Glenda – PR host, schedule navigator, and wrangler of untamed writers (which some of us were at times) – had me laughing as they tried to teach me the slangs (such as pure braw for something really good and many other combinations of the same I don’t recall) and were just overall fab.

Scotland itself with its majestic castles and fields of green captured my heart. I am excited for the country and the people that Disney Pixar chose theirs as the country and history to feature in their newest film Brave. So proud are the Scottish of their homeland and the upcoming exposure of the same through this film, that they took me on an adventure that would follow the footsteps of Princess Merida – a feisty, redhead with a will and sense of being so easily identified in many of the Scots I met.


My journey began in Edinburgh, where I arrived to a rainy day and cool breeze – a reprieve from the hot weather of the East Coast of the US. After dropping my things off for a breather at the super modern Apex Waterloo hotel, I chose to walk around to take in the views. It didn’t bother me that the air was humid and the day a bit damp. I rather enjoyed the way it made the city look, especially when taking in the view from the top of Calton Hill.

My time in Edinburg was short but fun. During my day there I got to eat at The Witchery, a step into another time where champagne flowed and the people who would be my adventure buddies and I would come together. I had pea soup and salmon, and it wasn’t bad – which was surprising considering how many warnings I got about the food in Scotland.

I got to walk on cobblestone streets and past bagpipers playing for money, past pubs and shops, as well as the Elephant House, where JK Rowling gave birth to Harry Potter.

The National Library of Scotland was gearing up to open its newest exhibit on the history of films in and about Scotland. It already had minor displays of Brave readily available to view.

The National Museum of Scotland was my favorite, as expert guides took us through exhibits that told the stories of clans, castle and Scottish life long ago. We also got to see some elements portrayed in the film, such as stone carvings and Lewis-Chessman pieces. Other items not displayed in the film, but fun to see were things like Dolly, the cloned sheep from 1997. Pretty wicked.

This would be the extent of my time in Edinburgh. What followed was a collection of fun I will not soon forget.

The Castles

No two castles are the same, and in my life I have never had the pleasure of seeing so many. If you are a history buff, or a lover of all things royalty, you will love the very many castles you can tour when visiting Scotland. The ones I got to see are only a small amount of the long list to check out, but they are a great place to start.

Glamis Castle

The impression is made immediately as you drive down the long narrow road leading up to the doors of the castle. It dates back 600 years to Mary Queen of Scots and as recently to the Queen Mother who spent her childhood here. It may sound intimidating, but the caretakers and others are happy to open their doors to visitors, both big and small, and provide tours giving historic details of everything you will see there. What makes this castle a bit more special is that there are personal photographs and belongings of the royal family past and present throughout, making it feel real – which is nice because walking around this place can feel like a dream.

Our visit was complimented by a falconry demonstration by Fife Falconry. If you have never come face to face with birds of prey, lemme tell ya, it’s quite the experience. Such powerful, beautiful creatures. I felt “this small” and completely at their mercy – it was pretty cool.

Photo courtesy of Glamis Castle.

Dunnottar Castle

Probably the most awe-inspiring castles I saw during my trip. Surrounded by three sides of the North Sea, walking up to the rock where the parts of the castle still remains, or has been restored, serves as a slow introduction. The castle was once the home of William Wallace (think Braveheart) and Mary Queen of Scots. You will see a lot of this castle in the one that inspired the one portrayed in Brave, and I can see why. Its past and the struggle to maintain it as a present figure of Scottish history makes this one of my favorite spots.

Balmoral Castle and Estate

Visiting this castle was exciting as I had heard that Queen Elizabeth had been on the estate just the day before! More fascinating than the castle itself are the grounds, which are open to campers, hikers, and nature lovers wanting to take in the acres and acres of natural beauty found here. Visitors can take a wildlife safari, rent holiday cottages, or even go salmon fishing. That this remains a vacation home to the royal family, but yet welcomes the public was astonishing to me, yet something I saw often when visiting these places in Scotland. Many of the sites are privately owned, but the importance to educate, preserve and instill pride for the national history and culture is so strong, that it is encouraged to have people visit and experience them, not from a far, but close up with representatives on hand to answer questions.

The iconic wild red deer can be found throughout the grounds in great numbers and though the percentage of forest land is small in comparison to what it once used to be, it still remains a serene nature experience.

Blair Castle

Located in the Highland Perthshire, the castle welcomes more visitors, big or small, than any other castle. They have a fascinating collection of weapons which can be admired from the moment you walk in.

Each castle hosts yearly events, and are open to families as well. Click on the name of each for a link to more information, hours and rates. I can’t image a traveler of any age not enjoying these visits as well.

The Hotels

During this trip, I got to experience various lodging options, some fun and basic, others more luxurious and pristine – all wonderful choices for whatever your needs.

I mentioned Apex Waterloo, in Edinburgh. It is a luxury hotel, but still open to family travelers with family-friendly rooms varying in size and number of beds. It’s centrally located to a lot of what Edinburgh has to offer, including easy access to Edinburgh castle, parks and theaters. The hotel offers free WiFi, as well as spa amenities, a pool and free continental breakfast for hotel guests. Check out their website for more more information on packages and rates.

Kinloch House is a family run country house hotel located on 25 acres of wooded land. Each room is individually decorated. They have various rooms which can easily accommodate a family, though I wouldn’t recommend visiting with small children.

My room here was like something from a picture perfect book, with a separate seating and bedroom area, and a bathroom as big as my first NYC apartment. I had views of the front grounds of the area, which was a lovely sight to behold. They have an in-house pool, free WiFi, spa, and restaurant, as well as a gorgeous greenhouse style reading room to enjoy tea in. Maybe you don’t tend to enjoy tea while reading, or read while enjoying tea, but this room kinda inspires you to start to.

Darroch Learg Hotel

This hotel had a bed and breakfast feel to it for me. I loved how the stairs creaked when you climbed them and how much character it had. The four post bed in my room gave it a very traditional feel and the view of the forestry landscape was one I admired till bright morning light – of course this was easy to do since it doesn’t really get dark till midnight this time of the year.

The hotel is located in River Dee, Aberdeenshire and is surrounded by Cairngorm National Park, which is lush and green and pretty spectacular, especially for those looking to stay busy either walking, bird watching, fishing and stalking, golf, tennis, gliding and skiing.

There are several rooms which would be spacious enough for families, but again, I would bring older children here. I think that with all the activities in the area the lodging destination really provides travelers the access without the hassle.

Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore

This hotel wasn’t as luxurious as the above mentioned, but it was cozy and very casual. It felt more like a ski lodge, which makes sense as it is so close to the mountains, and I heard is a favorite destination spot for skiers during the season. The in-house bar brings guests and locals together, as well as the in-house restaurant. They also offer amenities such as laundry areas, which is convenient for families staying there. My room was a lot smaller than the ones I had experienced elsewhere, but they do offer suites as well.

Atholl Palace Hotel

Atholl Palace Hotel was, in fact, a palace. Ok, well, in actuality, it’s a “traditional large country house”- but really, a palace by any other name. Everything about my experience here felt very royal. My room, the honeymoon suite, was a two story suite, located in a tower – yes, you read right, a tower. I spent a lot of time here, because really, when will I ever sleep in a tower again? Granted, my prince charming wasn’t there, but it was still pretty amazing.

But if you do get out of your room, you can walk their gardens, or swim in their unbelievably beautiful pool, or participate in any one of their list of activities (http://www.athollpalace.com/Pitlochry_hotel_activities.php).

Mar Lodge Estate

Mar Lodge is located on 7% of the Cairngorms National Park, a nature lover’s dream come true. Not a hotel as much a apartment-like rentals, this is a place where families come year round, every year. Apartments have all the guests need to make themselves at home during their stay. It is one of the many lodging options own and operated by the National Trust for Scotland, and reservations must be made through them (http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/Mar-Lodge-Estate/#).

The Fun Had

As if visiting the castles, and checking out all the various lodging options wasn’t enough, I had some other fun things to do as well, activities that anyone can participate in when visiting Scotland.

We got to check out visit the Tomnaverie Stone Circle and hear archaeologists share with us what they could about their history and the struggle for their preservation which has led to the conservation of these and other similar sites. Not much is known about these stones, their true purpose and function in ancient Scottish society, but standing on the grounds of a site expected to be more than 4,000 years old is pretty surreal, and the views of the surrounding hills and valleys of the Highlands just adds to that magical feeling. Keep on the look out for these in Brave.

The Highland Wildlife Park is a preserve for Scottish wildlife and other endangered animals found world wide. Because they make it a point to only take in animals that are acclimated to the Scottish environment, the Highland Wildlife Park is a zoo with the lowest carbon footprint, more than any other. Whether you choose to drive around the Main Reserve in your own car and or investigate the walk-round area on foot, or both, it’s a fabulous opportunity to learn about the various wildlife found throughout Scotland and learn about the various national conservation programs in place. Kids especially would love this place.

Rothiemurchis Estate is located in the largest areas of natural forest in Britain. It was here that I climbed the Cairngorm Moutain and had my “spiritual” moment of silence.

But I also was able to channel my inner Merida (from Brave) during an archery lesson, where I got to challenge one of the other writers with us, my German friend Thilo, and though he dares to disagree, I can safely say I beat him at it- at one point or another. Children 7 and up can sign up for archery lessons, appropriate bows and other equipment are provided. Other activities that visitors can sign up for here include horseback riding, Bushcraft survival, canoeing on Loch an Eilean, and so much more (check out the list of activities here http://www.rothiemurchus-activities.co.uk/). This is the ultimate in Scottish experiences for families with kids. If I did anything else on my visit to Scotland, I would do this first.

The Braermar Highland Games will take place September 1st, 2012 (http://www.braemargathering.org/). This ancient tradition is one still very much celebrated and honored, events often frequented by the royal family themselves.

Though I didn’t get a chance to actually see the games, our group received the special honor to witness a demo, and even give it a go – which to be honest wasn’t much after seeing the highlander himself do what he does.

I might have not been the most qualifies highland games competitor, but it matter little because in the end I was still able to score some major love, which for me was pretty epic.

Needless to say, my adventures in Scotland were pretty amazing. No matter what the weather, I found Scotland to be really  beautiful. Yes, there was haggis at almost every turn, but depending on how it was made, I didn’t mind it so much. Was the food as awful as everyone swore it would be? Not really. I mean, it was different from what I am used to – being of Caribbean descent and all – but I ate it and was happy to try everything so graciously offered to me.

Also, never ask what flavor of teas are available – in Scotland tea is just tea, only varying flavors are with milk or without. Lastly, there is such a thing as too much shortbread, but surprisingly enough never too much whisky.

On my last night in Scotland, I listened to an address to a haggis, got dressed in traditional Scottish garb by burly highlanders, and sung and danced to Scottish ceilidh.

To say that this experience was a great one is an understatement. To add to how special this trip was, for most of it I wore my husband’s tartan, representing his clan (Anderson), as a symbol of his presence in my heart and mind. But, each experience helped to bring me closer to a part of my husband’s heritage and that of my children. That to me is probably the most priceless gift of all. I think the only thing that will surpass that is experiencing it all over again with them by my side.

Eternal gratitude to Visit Scotland and their partners for sharing your country, your culture, your smiles, your friendship, your shortbread, and of course your whisky with me.

To Kenny – who by the way is a professional driver tour guide for the S.T.G.A. and can be booked upon request on your visit to Scotland (follow him on Twitter @KenScotGuide) – for driving us around and sharing all his knows about his homeland. But most especially for the laughs.

To Glenda Reid of @VisitScotland PR for her eternal smile – my goodness can this woman smile through it all – her grace under pressure, her professionalism, and friendly demeanor. You make tired and stress look so good!

To my new friends Lynda from Ireland and Thilo from Germany – I got mad love for you both. That is all.

If you missed my fun tweets and Instagram posts during this trip, check out Visiting BRAVE Scotland on Storify!



Disclosure: I toured Scotland as the guest of Visit Scotland and their partners. 


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Carol Cain

Carol is her happiest when on an adventure, either close to home or farther away. She's the mom to three fun boys and wife to a handsome Irish/Scot. She lives in New Jersey with her happy crew, but will always be a girl from Brooklyn. You can read her full profile here.

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8 Responses to Exploring Scotland: Where to stay. What to do. What to see.

  1. Jools Stone says:

    Nice rewiew Carol, but, wow, you packed a lot in! I love the gloomy skies in those Edinburgh pics, sadly fairly typical! The Apex is a great little hotel I agree. I used to work at the Nat Library, funnily enough.

  2. Leslie says:

    I was lucky enough to visit Scotland when I was in college and your post just totally brought me back. Loved Edinburgh and was able to drive through the Highlands to Inverness (also beautiful & fascinating). Just might have to drag the kids to Brave!! 😉 Thanks for this post!!!

  3. Carol Cain says:

    @ Leslie:

    How awesome Leslie! I'm so happy to know I brought back happy memories : ) I can't wait to take my kids to see Brave, but most of all take them to the real deal : )

  4. rosemary says:

    what a fabulous post! this will be one of my top 5 of the week, for sure! looks like a grand time with some gorgeous countryside along with it. Makes me want to go and I wasn't too keen before but the castles got me!! oh and ya the Harry Potter too! Plus Andy Murray the tennis player is from Scotland!! Thanx for the post, just wonderful as always!!

  5. Carol Cain says:

    @ rosemary:

    Thank you so much Rosemary!

  6. I am sold!!! I want to go tomorrow!

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