Hertz Travelogue - A driving holiday to Scotland
Bring up the name 'Scotland' and the quickest association anyone will draw up is Scotch whisky. There is no doubting it's the region's most famous export with hundreds of blends brewed all over Scotland and sold in every corner of the world. Millions of bottles of Scotch whiskey pass through duty free counters around the world's airports. It's one of the easiest products to spot in the world, and its honey gold brew is hard to mistake for anything but the world's most famous spirit.
But this wasn't a get high trip in the literal sense, no whiskey tasting for me as I drove around Scotland. But three days after I first set off, there was an undeniable buzz in my head, a happy high to put all other happy highs to rest. Scotland has, in my mind's list of destinations to travel to in this lifetime, entered right up into the top two or three spots.It's a magical land that takes away a piece of your soul and sanity as payment for all that natural splendor. It will leave you breathless mile after mile and my only regret after one of the most breathtaking journeys of my life was that I should have done this trip in summer rather than at the onset of winter. The only explanation being is that the days in winter have so few hours in which to absorb Scotland's beauty.
My road trip began in London, at the Hertz outlet near Heathrow in a Volvo XC60. The car was familiar since I had driven it in India but more importantly it was a full time four wheel drive SUV so if ever I caught snow on the roads in Scotland I knew I had a good chance to keep matters safer than in a sedan. From London it was a fairly long drive up the M6 all the way to Glasgow. The motorway is what any other motorway throughout the UK or Europe is like, busy day and night. The only advantage to travelling in the UK is the language, its English, the only difference for us is it's slightly accented! As you go further north, the English gets twisted around some more, and then some more, until it's what's properly known as Scottish English. Not pure Scottish mind you because that would mean it's Gaelic, a Celtic language native to Scotland and spoken by fewer and fewer of the locals as the years pass by.
Scotland is a vast region made up of the lowlands, highlands and islands, actually there is more to it geographically but it's these three regions that are the most spectacular. So the itinerary I made up would take me to Fort Augustus, which is a small village on the south-western bank of the Loch Ness (Loch is Gaelic for lake), Scotland's most famous lake. Setting up base in Fort Augustus seemed like a plan, and from there day trips to Aviemore, the Isle of Skye and Glencoe looked perfect for a short but rewarding driving holiday.
Fort Augustus to Aviemore,104 kilometres
With a population of just 640-odd people Fort Augustus is a small sleepy little hamlet that on average sees just around 1000 hours of sunshine per annum. Yet its claim to fame is the majestic and mystical Loch Ness, the United Kingdom's most famous lake. Live in the Fort Augustus Abbey now called the Highland Club (see box) whose stone walls that reach into the starry sky may seem a bit spooky at night. But let the morning regale you with some of the most stunning views of the Loch on whose banks this late 19th century Benedictine monastery was built. Tearing yourself away from the Loch is a task in itself but if you can then drive towards Inverness on the A82. The road clings to the entire west bank of the Loch Ness, and if you do see Nessie, the Loch's famous resident, make sure you have a camera ready just to prove the skeptics wrong.
The A82 takes you right up to Inverness, a fairly large city that's close to the North Sea and forms the capital of the Scottish Highlands. There is a lot to see and experience in Inverness but I took a right turn onto the A9 to head around Loch Ness. There are several B-roads, small tight single carriageways that offer even more fantastic views of the Loch Ness spread all over this countryside. Be advised though, it is nothing short of stupid to drive fast on these roads, no matter how tempting, the risks are just too high. Instead get into cruise mood and allow enough time to stop and stare, I guarantee you will stop probably every couple of kilometres to take in the views.
Aviemore is just a few kilometres south of Inverness snugly placed within the Grampian mountains. It is also the most popular ski resort in Scotland and one of the reasons to drive up there was to see some snow on the peaks around. Unfortunately the hills were still dry and devoid of any winter sprinkling yet that does not make Aviemore any less charming. It's a small town with lovely houses lining broad avenues. The scenery all around and from any corner of the town is always spectacular with the added splendor that seasonal changes bring in.
From Aviemore you can head out on the whiskey trail, driving deeper into the Grampian mountains which are home to scores of whiskey distilleries. Though, it would be a good idea to keep the tasting to a minimum if you are going to drive. If you really must then I'd suggest hitting a pub or bar anywhere in Scotland who have dozens of blends available. From popular culture whiskey to home made brews, Scotland can give you a taste of everything.
The road back to Fort Augustus according to Google maps is a longer journey than the one which the regional sat nav throws up. That's because this is a very narrow road that almost turns into a walking path at times. You will find roads like these all over Scotland and wisely these roads have passing shoulders built every few hundred metres. Traffic however is sparse and on most B-roads you will see more livestock than people, whether they are in a car or not.
If you decide to stay back in Aviemore, there are dozens of options to choose from though like me the best and usually the cheaper option is a self catering cottage. In most cases these cottages offer spectacular views of the countryside and if you can cook it's a terrific experience.
Fort Augustus to Isle Of Skye, 150 kilometres
In all of Scotland the most mystical and magical destination has to be the Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago. Its diverse topography is what makes it remarkable, with lofty peaks jostling for space with low lying plains. From Fort Augustus you take the A82 towards Fort William which is down south but much before you get there you have to take a right towards the west on the A87. The road meanders through the Ardochy forest which in the winter months stuns with its mix of shiny gold, flaming reds and deep green shades. These rich colours can only be witnessed in the winter months so if you truly want to see Scotland sparkle, you will have to travel in the colder months.
In between the trees you can spot Loch Garry and then a little further ahead Loch Loyne. I was lucky to get caught in a slight blizzard at the top of a peak that carried some sleet and snow. But what the rapidly deteriorating weather gave me was one of the best sights of my life. Out of the waters of Loch Loyne rose not one but two massive and bright rainbows rapidly headed towards me. It was surreal because I have never ever seen the end of a rainbow's arch but to see it here amidst all this beauty was poetic. Was there a pot of gold? I don't know but this sight was rewarding enough for this lifetime.
The road continues past some mighty peaks by now layered by a thin gossamer layer of snow from the blizzard. The temperature outside the car is a cold three degrees but if you're adequately covered up, it's not much to bother about. There are several small B&Bs to stop at along the way where a cup of coffee and some local treats will warm you up. The good news for us Indians is that at most of these places the chances of getting an Indian curry or tikka is pretty high, though it's more often than not non-vegetarian cuisine.
Another 40 kilometres ahead you come across the Eilean Donan (that's not any woman's name but simply means island of Donan in Gaelic) castle that is perched on an island in the Loch Duich. It's one of Scotland's most famous landmarks with several appearances in films including the Bollywood romantic melodrama Kuch Kuch Hota Hain. It's also one of the most photographed monuments in Scotland and the sight of that lonely castle on the still lake will inspire you to take your camera out and capture it. Don't be surprised to see both amateur and pro photographers walking around, here and all around Scotland in galoshes and raincoats carrying large tripods and even larger cameras. Scotland is truly a photographer's wet dream come true!
Another half hour on the road will get you to the Skye bridge which is the most popular connection between the Isle of Skye and the mainland. You could still choose to use a ferry which will take your car and it's a lovely journey but the bridge is much more convenient and quicker. After the bridge turn right at the circle towards Portree, the island's largest and prettiest town. This road runs parallel to the coast for miles and offers stunning views upto Portree. After passing through the town, just a few kilometres ahead you come across another incredible land formation called the Storr, a range of hills that is part of the Trotterish landslide. Within this resides the famous Old Man of Storr, a steep rock formation that is clearly visible from the road.
A few more kilometres ahead towards Staffin stop off at the car park next to Loch Mealt which runs under the road to freefall into the Sound of Raasay. This spectacular waterfall drops 170 feet into the sea below. From the viewing point here you can, in addition to the waterfall also view the Kilt rock, a unique pattern on the cliffs that resembles a kilt, the traditional Scottish skirt that men wear. Don't stop driving, after having taken enough pictures drive further on to view the Quiraing just a few kilometres on. The Quiraing is another unique land formation on the northernmost tip of the Trotterish ridge alongside Staffin. From here you can drive around towards Uig which is a small port on the western coast of Skye. The road meanders back towards Portree giving you a fairly exhaustive view of the northern portion of the island. There are several more routes to drive on around Skye, namely the equally scenic west coast of the island but to do that you will have to spend a couple more days on the island.
Fort Augustus to Glencoe & Loch Lomond, 173 kilometres
Glencoe isn't too far from Fort Augustus and falls on the route to Glasgow, so it's ideal to leave it for when you intend to leave behind the highlands. Glencoe recently got a shot of tourism adrenaline thanks to its appearance in the latest Bond thriller, Skyfall. Yet this valley has been frequented for decades no thanks to its proximity to United Kingdom's most famous and tallest mountain, Ben Nevis.
From Fort Augustus take the A82 down to Fort William, you won't even have to divert from the main road to get a view of Ben Nevis which is clearly visible on your left. Stop for some haggis at the Highland Centre which also falls on your way and then head further south to Glencoe.
Claimed to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Scotland, Glencoe can truly take your breath away. The A82 passes right through the glen, with spectacular mountains rising out of the ground just a few hundred metres away from the road. The 16-kilometre long valley floor is just around 700 metres wide but packs in such amazing beauty that it can make you cry! I could only wonder what this place must be like in the summers.
The road carries on for another 160km to Loch Lomond, the second largest lake in Scotland and the largest body of fresh water in England. It's a stunning lake, inky black in places, still in others and gleaming and sparkling whenever the sun's rays hit the surface.
Before you get to Loch Lomond you will also drive through the Rannoch moor, a 50 sq kilometre moorland to the west of Loch Rannock. It's a startlingly beautiful and biodiverse region which was once where the last great glacier in UK existed during the last ice age. The lush carpet of reddish brown grass speckled with green tufts, the lake in the distance surrounded by stunning peaks is a fantastic high point to savour on the way towards Glasgow.
Scotland is fairly easy to drive around in as the direction of traffic flow is the same as in India. The Scots drive on the left side of the road just like us in right hand drive cars which makes the whole experience simpler than you would actually think. Using a car here is ideal but it's even nicer to sometimes stop and take a walk. Just remember to be prepared for sudden turns in weather, Scotland is just as wet as it's beautiful. While there aren't too many police patrols to be seen, do keep in mind the speed limits even if the roads might look empty and smooth. It was tough to restrain myself but it will keep you safe as most of the roads are single carriageways. And though Scots love their whiskey they simply don't tolerate drinking and driving! Also keep in mind that Scotland is by far the most expensive region of the United Kingdom so ensure you have prepared deep pockets for this road trip. Or travel in the absolute off season like I did!
Hertz has a much wider selection of cars in the United Kingdom as compared to most other European destinations. This includes a prestige and fun collection though the prestige collection of cars is accessible only to UK residents.
The Hertz counter in London is conveniently located at the Heathrow airport but to collect the car you will have to take a special shuttle provided by Hertz to the periphery of the airport where the cars are parked. There are several other car pick up points in Scotland in either Glasgow or Edinburgh if you begin your journey from either of these two cities. Most of the cars come with either in built navigation or Tom Tom devices so getting lost isn't going to be easy. All cars are insured and you also get breakdown assistance and even child seats if required for a nominal cost.
Starts Rs 55.9 Lakhs
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