The Scottish Highlands is all about getting away from the hustle and bustle. This beautiful region of Scotland lets you get in touch with nature, connect with your inner peace, and breath clean air. It’s the perfect place to get cozy and relax by a fire, take the time to read a book or play a board game, light candles with friends and family, and enjoy a hot mug while wrapped in a blanket. It’s where you can hike, bike, fish, zip-line, swim or ski, and it’s the ultimate destination: right in the U.K.’s backyard.
As an American visitor in this area, I’m loving the open spaces, mountain terrain, winding rivers, small villages, and welcoming people. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of Highland sheep and cows, chickens, farm houses, and sunsets. I’ve fallen in love with the Scottish accent, the tartan scarves, and the comfort food served in pubs (especially the haggis).
Soon after my arrival here, I worked on getting my bearings: small villages with Gaelic names, farms (crofts), lakes (lochs)- all on a circular connection of roadways that make up a region called Strathspey. We are in the Cairngorms, an old mountain range in the Highlands, one of 3 ranges in the Cairngorm National Park. Just on the edge of Strathspey is CairnGorm Mountain which has a Ski Area, Funicular, Christmas markets, and hiking trails; then there’s the Glenmore Forest Park with a mountaineering center, zip lining options, and plenty of rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and water sports on a lake (Loch Morlich).
Aviemore is the largest town in the area with fancy outdoor gear shops, an old steam train, bakeries, gift shops, galleries, a movie theater, a mom-and-pop butcher, and large grocery stores. Most of the other villages, like Carrbridge (where I am living), are made up of a pub, cafés, art shops, and a tiny corner store, just a few miles from the main hub of Aviemore.
The company I’m helping is called Highland Hideouts and they offer 6 different luxury holiday lodges for multi-family outings, all on different properties around Strathspey. The homes are gorgeous, massive old Scottish country houses remodeled to include bathrooms with every bedroom (a HUGE feat in this area of the world where buildings from the 17-1800’s often only had 1 bathroom for an entire house), hot tubs and fire pits, large kitchens, flat-screen tv’s in every room, hideaway bunkbeds for children, and multiple fireplaces inside.
As a traveler, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Strathspey in several of Highland Hideouts’ beautiful Scottish country homes. I was driven all over the area by locals and guided on a biking tour from Mike’s Bikes in Aviemore. I hiked to the top of Cairngorm Mountain with a friend, enjoyed a hot chocolate in the ski area’s cafe at the bottom, wandered around Loch Morlich while watching sailboats and windsurfers cruise by, and photographed the eroding castle on an island in Loch Eilein in the sunshine. I wandered amongst Hebridean sheep in the meadows and picked fresh eggs in the crisp morning air. I enjoyed coffee in tiny village cafes and read books by warm fires after browsing through outdoor gear and gift shops. I’ve discovered it’s the perfect get-away for anyone who needs a break from a hectic lifestyle and wants to enjoy one of Europe’s last great wildernesses… it’s a step back into an older time and it’s more beautiful than you can imagine.
Over the following articles, I’ve provide suggestions for things to do and see in the area- sort of a guide I wish I had when I arrived. I hope it helps, and I hope you too can experience all of it for yourself.
Hygge? How about Scottish Coorie…
Hygge (pronounced: hoog-ah) is a trending lifestyle concept brought to us by the Danes (rated the happiest people on earth), and essentially perfects the art of being cozy. When I see a reference to hygge, I always picture a raging fire in the fireplace, candles burning on tables, blankets wrapped around people drinking hot chocolate, and a blizzard blowing outside the window. It’s not just about the warm drinks and snuggling under blankets, however, it’s a mindset about relaxing and about being good to yourself, embracing what your body craves, and surrounding yourself with loved ones.
The Scots have their own word for this: Coorie, and the Highlands is the perfect place to practice the simplicity of getting cozy with friends and family after spending time out in nature. The Art of Coorie, by Gabriella Bennett, explains how the Scottish version of coziness adds a twist: embrace nature, the rugged landscape, and Scottish traditions before getting comfortable in Merino-wool socks and cozying up to a fire. Imagine setting out for some wild swimming in one of the nearby lochs, hiking one of the 282 900+meter mountains in the country, or simply stargazing on a clear night. Afterwards, imagine lighting that fire, setting out a pot of hot tea, and sitting around a board game with your dearest friends. Imagine the cold rain coming down outside the window, candles flickering on shelves and tables, and warm scones being passed around with butter and jam. Maybe in the corner, a grandmother is knitting socks and on the sheepskin rug in front of the fire, children are quietly playing with their toys. It’s the practically the definition of contentment.
Highland Hideouts provides gorgeous Scottish country homes that are the perfect vessel for this scene, and the villages that surround these beautiful homes provides even more options for getting cozy.
Cairngorm Mountain Sports is an outdoor gear shop in the center of Aviemore on Grampian Road with an adventure book collection, a comfortable couch, and a large wood-burning stove pumping out maximum heat. I curled up with three of their books on that couch for about an hour before I realized I should probably purchase one. In all honesty, I could have stayed in that snug living room set-up all afternoon as the rain came down. Instead, I purchased my ‘Scottish Bothy Bible’ and took a detour up the spiral staircase to the Mountain Cafe, a Kiwi-owned cafe and lunch spot that cannot be missed. Exceptional desserts and coffee are served to go, or tables are provided for those who wish to sit and enjoy a full ‘healthy and wholesome’ meal or simply a flat white. From the second story of the cafe, you can see the Strathspey Railroad steam train arriving, the ScotRail flying by, and the mountains surrounded by clouds in the distance- all while you’re nice and warm inside.
With either of these Highland scenes, it doesn’t get more Coorie/Hygge than this.
Get Your Biking On…
The first guided tour I did while in Strathspey was with Mike’s Bikes, a bike rental and guiding company tucked off Grampain Road, Aviemore’s main street. Sales and rentals of E-Bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, and the sale of biking equipment and clothing are all supplied here. They provide guided bike tours through the region and free Wednesday evening group bike rides for locals and visitors, encouraging weekly outings with new routes.
The U.K. isn’t known for warm, dry weather, and biking in the rain is approached with just as much enthusiasm as biking in the sunshine. Plans don’t change for rain, and if you have the energy and the right clothing, there should be no reason why you can’t get outside with a smile on your face.
I went on my first E-Bike ride on a private tour with Sally, one of Mike’s Bikes awesome employees working in the shop that day. During the season, they often rent out every bike they have, but since it was October, there were plenty of bikes to choose from.
After seeing a few options for tours, I decided I wanted to see Glenmore Forest, Rothiemurchus Estate, Loch Morlich, and my very first bothy: Ryvoan. We set out on our bikes, the sky cloudy and the air warm.
The temperature was so pleasant, I just needed a bike helmet and a light jacket over my long-sleeve shirt and stretch pants. I loved that we were able to ride right from the bike shop through the town and onto the Rothiemurchus trail. We were soon surrounded by the ancient Caledonian Forest I had heard so much about. We passed large swaths of heather, wild mushrooms, moss, and rode along the Cairngorm range until we came out above Loch Morlich.
Back down on the Old Logging Trail, we passed the Glenmore Forest Park Visitor Center, the Cairngorm Reindeer Center, the Glenmore Lodge, and set out towards An Lochan Uaine– otherwise known as the green lochan. We stopped at the beautiful green lochan for some photos and a protein bar, then headed up a rocky trail and to the top of the next hill (Ryvoan Pass). Because of those E-Bikes, I wasn’t winded when we got to the top of the hill. Instead, it was a relaxed and enjoyable ride. I could see these bikes being the perfect tool for a family excursion- especially towards the end of the ride when the kids are winded.
We approached Ryvoan Bothy as the pass flattened out, stepped off our bikes and had a look inside. It was just what I was expecting: a small stone room painted white, a black fireplace, small windows, and a stack of wood by the front door. The smell of the fire from the night before still permeated the air.
We coasted back down the hill, past the ancient Caledonian pines, rode along Loch Morlich and back to the Old Logging Trail. We were back in Aviemore just in time for the rain to start with some gusto. I changed back into my jeans and sweater in Mike’s Bikes and thanked my amazing tour guide Sally (who put up with my many, many questions) and the cool bike employees in the shop before heading across the street to the Mountain Cafe for a hot cup of coffee. What a wonderful way to discover the area over a few hours: lakes, trails, a bothy, and enjoyable exercise. I could see myself doing this again very soon.
48 Hours in Strathspey
Arriving on a Friday evening, just in time to kick off the weekend, you pull up to one of the Highland Hideouts lodges. Maybe it’s Old Mill on the Spey with a blue-colored barn door, a sauna in a large barrel, and a water wheel inside the house behind glass, or Whiskey Trail Lodge, a 19th Century stone townhome right in the heart of Grantown-on-Spey, or the Highland Lodge Estate where the rooms and views go forever over sheep pastures and hills… or perhaps you’re staying just outside of Carrbridge at the Snowy River Lodge with its modern ski lodge look, dark-wood decks, hot tub, lights, and grill overlooking the river.
You’ve stopped at the grocery store in Aviemore on your way, so you’re prepared to grill up a feast, then relax with a dip in the hot tub and a card game by the fire. The next morning, you’re getting up early for a breakfast and coffee in Carrbridge, a bike ride from Aviemore, a stop for lunch in town, a drive up to the ski area to check out the views, and an afternoon swim in (or walk around) Loch Morlich depending on the weather.
10am: Bike ride with Mike’s Bikes: You decide to rent bikes and ride around Loch Eilein, a beautiful lake with a small island and castle in the middle. There’s an old stone building just near the lake loop entrance with a gallery of Highland art, which you stop to enjoy, then continue around the large lake (7km loop), snapping photos of the deteriorating castle from different angles as you go. You make your way back to Mike’s Bikes to return the bikes, change clothes there, and walk across the street for lunch.
12:30pm: Tea (lunch and dessert) at Mountain Café, a Kiwi-owned restaurant with some of the best food in the area, including desserts and coffee drinks.
3pm: Drive up to Cairngorm Mountain, pull into the parking area for views (and photos) of the mountains and glen below.
4pm: Swim/walk at Loch Morlich: Driving back towards Aviemore, pull alongside Loch Morlich into the car park with the sign ‘Loch Morlich Watersports’ (or even into the Glenmore Forest Visitor Center car park, and walk down through the RV campground to the lake). You’ll see a cute building with Boat Café written on the side. You can use their facilities to shower if you plan on swimming or sailing, or just notice this as a reference point if walking all the way around (6km). The paths are marked, so be sure to take the dark red trail markers… see the map here.
6pm: Head back to the house to shower and get ready…
7:30pm: Dinner at The Old Bridge Inn, a converted cottage that sits on the River Spey. You share the haggis croquets with the table, split the venison haunch, Shetland salmon, and Old Inn burger (with beet root) with two of your friends, and you all share the chocolate tart for dessert. You have, after all, burned up quite a bit of calories today and deserve all you can eat.
9:30pm: Head home to the lodge for a late-night dip in the hot tub, some chamomile tea, and to finish up a puzzle by the fire. You head to bed before midnight, excited for the following day’s adventure.
The following morning, you look forward to a home-cooked breakfast, a walk through the area’s woods and parks, a Steam Railway ride with lunch, a walk through the stores and galleries of Aviemore, and to finish up the day, fine dining in an old country-lodge-turned-hip restaurant near Grantown-on-Spey.
8am: Cook up an egg and toast breakfast with a side of fruit for the gang and eat outside the house on the deck.
10am: If staying in Carrbridge (Snowy River or Highland Lodge), head out for a hike a few steps from town at Ellan Wood. It’s an easy walk through a pretty pine forest and finishes at the Cartridge ‘packhorse’ bridge built in 1717, the oldest bridge in the Highlands. There’s a car park right at the entrance to the walk and directions listed here; it’s about 4.5km, 1-1.5hours walk. If staying in Whiskey Trail, you’re located right next to the town’s park, which has beautiful walks next to marshes, streams, ponds, and eventually winds its way over to the River Spey. If staying at Old Mill, walk into Boat of Garten along the river and back.
12:30-2:08pm: Steam Railroad ride on Strathspey Railway with Tea. Park at Aviemore Station (next to the Police Station). Take the steam train to the end of the line and back while enjoying lunch and the views of the Cairngorms. When you return, walk through Aviemore to see the galleries, gift shops, and the many outdoor-wear outfitters.
5:30-7pm: Home to relax and get ready for dinner at Muchrach Country House.
7:30pm: Treat yourself to a high-end dinner at Muchrach Country House Restaurant with outstanding views, a hunting-lodge-hip décor, and food sourced from local farms for your last night in Strathspey.
The following day, as you head home to real life, you vow to come back soon and maybe sit by the fire more now that you know the area so well…