We are not, by any means, reinventing the wheel (pun intended) when we suggest a road trip through Scotland. In fact, few visitors travel to the fabled, mythical nation with intentions of anything but navigating through its winding tracks, flanked by towering mountains, glassy lochs and wild oceans. However, the beauty of Scotland’s roads is, in short, how many there are. You could return year after year and discover new routes and landscapes unfurling before you — as well as plenty more wonderful places to stay along the way.
Then, of course, there’s deciding when to visit. Fools might tell you that summer is when you’ll catch the best of Scotland’s famously unpredictable weather, but I am here to fly the flag for fall. Yes, the gamble for sunshine might be greater, but it is during the later months of the year that the Scottish landscape becomes its most brilliant, when the green of the high season twists into a deep coppery auburn and when, if you’re lucky, a smattering of snow sits on the mountaintops.
Also, those rarer flashes of blue sky feel sweeter when they follow a dramatic downpour. It is actually fortunate, despite what I might have muttered to myself as I marched across a beach during a particularly heavy burst of rain, that Scotland doesn’t have a more reliable climate — otherwise, everyone would be here all year round. We’re starting at Inverness, an industrial city on the east coast, loosely considered the capital of the Highlands.
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While most would use the metropolis as the starting point for the NC500 route — a road trip that winds its way around Scotland’s most northerly points — we’re slicing the countryside in two and heading due west to The Torridon hotel, which sits on the shores of Loch Torridon. The journey is short but gives a perfect snapshot of the Scottish landscape, with coiling roads traversing through hill-flanked glens. The stretch of the A832 that leads along Glen Docherty toward Loch Maree is especially photo-worthy.
A member of Luxury Scotland (a hospitality organization that groups the nation’s finest hotels and experiences), The Torridon blends five-star service with immersive outdoor adventures. On a rainy afternoon, indulge in a guided whisky tasting (The Whisky Bar proudly offers 365 bottles, or one for every day of the year); when the weather is on your side, make use of the neighboring Torridon Outdoors center with a sea kayaking expedition, or hike one of the many trails that surround the resort. Spend at least two nights here: The rooms, especially the Grand Master options in the main house, with their oversized headboards, roll-top tubs and mountain views, are too good for just a single night.
From The Torridon, the route to the Isle of Skye, where we’re checking into the historic Kinloch Lodge, is relatively short and incredibly beautiful, taking in dramatic coastal views as we travel along Loch Torridon and Loch Carron toward the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge. In recent years, Skye has become like a light to moths when it comes to attracting tourists, with coachloads of visitors descending on the mystical island, all craning for a chance to witness its famously dramatic landscape. Visit in the fall, and you’ll find the region far quieter than during peak summer.
Skye doesn’t do grand five-star hotels in the same style you might find on the mainland, so don’t come to Kinloch Lodge expecting luxury in its most glamorous form; hospitality here comes in the most traditional of guises. Owner Isabella Macdonald — whose parents launched Kinloch as a hotel in 1972 — treats every single guest not as a customer, but genuinely as a close friend or a member of her extended family, with a level of warmth and familiarity that many hotels strive for but few achieve. As well as a smartly dressed formal dining room (Kinloch is known for serving some of the best food on the island), the lodge’s numerous lounges are an irresistible spot for that last dram of whisky — all crackling fires, deep couches and family portraits.
Guest rooms are spread across two chalk-white buildings that sit proudly at the base of Kinloch Hill, with all suites in the secondary building, closer to the banks of Loch na Dal. Macdonald has designed each herself (with the help of a particularly interiors-savvy brother-in-law); they’re cozy and comfortable with plenty of cute touches like ornate wallpaper and hand-selected art and vintage furniture. Be sure to request one of the luxury rooms with a tub — they’re wedged under the window and have uninterrupted views of the water beyond.
It would be sinful to spend less than three days on Skye, especially if it’s your first visit. Spend the first exploring the majestic natural landmarks toward the north of the island — Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing and the mystical Fairy Glens are all relatively close to one another. On day two, start with a visit to Portree, the island’s sweet ‘capital,’ where you should fit in a boat trip. Several providers line the harbor, each offering excursions into the surprisingly tame seas beyond — on a good day, there’s the chance to spot humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea eagles.
A short 30-minute drive from Portree is Talisker — the oldest working distillery on the island. The distillery recently underwent a serious facelift as part of Diageo’s £185m ($225m) investment in Scotch whisky tourism in Scotland and reemerged last year with a new shop, bar, tasting rooms and, most excitingly, private client areas where, if you ask nicely, you might be treated to a dram of something special. The waterfront distillery deftly caters to all levels of whisky drinker (the tours are a great intro to Talisker’s signature sweet, spicy and even salty single malts), but the Cask Draw & Tasting Experience is one for the more seasoned enthusiast. Drawing drams directly from still-aging casks, this tasting gives guests the chance to sample whiskies (with handy take-home bottles for drivers) otherwise unavailable on any market.
Leaving the Misty Isle behind, it’s back onto the mainland and south to Isle of Eriska. Sat-nav systems will take you back over the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge, but ignore this in favor of taking the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig — ferries are a rite of passage when traveling around Scotland’s west coast and can offer some great wildlife spotting opportunities (a minke whale made an appearance for us). When the ship docks, take another little detour to visit the Silver Sands of Morar and Camusdarach Beach. Mere minutes from Mallaig, these beaches have white sand and blue waters to rival that of the Maldives — albeit a fair few degrees cooler.
Set on its own private island just north of Oban, Isle of Eriska is a self-contained haven. The main house, where you’ll find stately bedrooms with brilliantly ostentatious four-poster beds and a sophisticated yet casual restaurant serving thoughtful, hearty dishes, was built in the late 1800s and stands in dramatic contrast against the island’s lush woodland. There are myriad things to do — golf, croquet, clay pigeon shooting, archery, spa trips, kayaking, tennis — but for me, Eriska’s bounty of wildlife trumped it all. Deer, seals, badgers and herons all call the island home. On our final morning, Scotland gave us a parting treat: As we sat on one of Eriska’s most remote rocky outlets, in yet another downpour, a sea otter scuttled across the rocks and slinked its way into the sea — not before stopping for a little glance over at us.
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Instead of returning to Inverness, drive from Isle of Eriska directly to Edinburgh (the journey length is similar) for a few days of culture in the Scottish capital. There are tons of hotels to choose from, but for something a little different, go for a room onboard the Fingal — a floating five-star hotel, permanently birthed on Leith harbor. Fingal is a dining destination too, but if you want to explore, consider The Little Chartroom — a posh neighborhood restaurant celebrating Scottish ingredients.
Just north of the Cairngorms and a touch further east of Inverness is Speyside: a small region home to the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland. It is here that you’ll find the likes of The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and more; tag an extra day or two on to the end of your trip for a mini Scotch whisky immersion.
Isle of Mull
Best sandwiched between your time on the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Eriska (drive from Mallaig directly to Kilchoan, then get the ferry across to Tobermory), Mull is the second largest isle of the Inner Hebrides. It is abundant with wildlife as well as views that make your jaw drop. The colorful Tobermory harbor is well worth your time, with plenty of cute shops, a whisky distillery and cafes all in walking distance. Don’t miss The Mishnish for a taste of a proper Scottish good time.
[See also: Experience Glenapp Castle’s Sea Safari]
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2023/24