There's more to Scotland than rain and whisky. A couple of weeks ago, I hit up the Adventure Travel World Summit in Aviemore on a mission to find the best international trips of 2011. I found them, and also brought back the top active crack in the country—served with a wee dram of the good stuff.
This one speaks for itself. Walk. Drink. Walk off the drink. Drink. Ask which bottles you can't get in the U.S. Pack them up, the extra weight will be worth the bragging at home. Write down your favorite—trust me. If you go to one region, set a path through Speyside's Malt Whisky Trail (home to more than 50 distilleries.) For a wetter break, head to the Isle of Islay (10 distilleries). Follow the trail blazed by famed Outside writer David Quammen—or phone an expert for a little logistical help.
From whales, to stag, to the reintroduced sea eagle, Scotland has more than you might expect in the wildlife watching department. Speyside Wildlife offers a string of all-inclusive tours, from raptors, martens, and seabirds in Speyside and Islay (11 days, $1900 US dollars) to sea eagles and phalaropes in the Outer Hebrides (8 days, $1980 US). Whale watching boats go out from most islands. For a unique wildlife experience, check out Wild Scotland—it keeps a fully stocked online buffet of the best wild outfitters in the country.
8. Skye Trek
Loch Coruisk (Courtesy of Visit Scotland)
The trails on the Isle of Skyle can be muddy, steep, tight, and rocky, but the lodges, B&B's, and whiskey sampled along the way will smooth over the edges at night. Stop at the island's only distillery, Talisker, for a tour. Down the 10-year single malt for a smokey burn. Plan a route that delivers views of both Glen Sligachen and Loch Coruisk. Mac Adventures offers a 7 Day, 8 Night planned route (from $785 US) for those that don't want to bother with logistics, but do want to walk at their own pace.
Set up base camp in the colorful coastal town of Tobermory. Ramble around taking pictures of boats, detritus, and storefronts. For something more active, go during the Tour of Mull Rally. For a relaxed lesson in landscape shots, head out with Sam of Islandscape Photography and snap everything from sheds to seascapes—there's 300 miles of coastline. Take a fluke shot while on a whale watching cruise with Sea Life Surveys. Stay—or at least check out—one of the corner whisky suites at the Western Isles Hotel (from $187 US)—the bathrooms are as big as the view. If it rains during the day, sip a few drams of Tobermory whisky in the local distillery or down the local brew in the Mishnish pub—or both.
The Isle of Tiree offers surfing, SUP, kitesurfing, and just about any other coastal board sport you can think up—even some on sand. Wild Diamond and Suds Surf School offer lessons and rentals. If the wind and waves aren't right, set off for nine holes at Vaul or grab a bike from Tiree Cycle Centre and explore the 12-mile-long island. Stay at the Rockvale Guest House (kings, $65 US). Gorge on dinners of fresh seafood and locally raised lamb and beef and wake up to a full Scottish breakfast, in bed.
5. Sea Kayaking the Knoydart Peninsula
Kayaking Knoydart (Courtesy of Wilderness Scotland)
Outside gear guru Pieter van Noordennen took off on a trip to Knoydart guided by Wilderness Scotland and had a good enough time that he left some of his gear behind. Here's what he had to say about the kayaking.
Just as we were going to don an impressive amount of hardcore rain gear, the skies above us cleared to a Mountain West blue and out came the rainbows, seals, and cormorants. We sea-kayaked in the hot sun (really) and shed layers on our way out white-sand beaches (seriously) on small islands that had more Pirates of the Caribbean than Braveheart.
In 2011,wilderness Scotland will be offering a new trip exploring the Scottish Sea Kayak trail (from 1220 US).
Both the Mountain Bike World Cup and Mountain Bike World Championships have been held in the hills around Ben Nevis, the UK's highest peak. Trails cater to any fat tire pleasure: downhill, freeride, or cross-country. Beginners should check out Highland Activities. They offer an instructional course in the morning, then push you off on a track that fits your skill level (halfday, $70 US).
The Munros are the 14ers of Scotland, though at a slightly lower altitude—any peak over 3,000 feet. A total of 284 of them poke their heads through the country's frequent clouds. Anyone that climbs them all—and send a name to the Scottish Mountaineering Club—can brag about joining the counties exclusive climbing ranks. Good luck tackling them all in one vacation—the record time is roughly 40 days.
Pedal 249 miles coast-to-coast across the Scottish Highlands and end up with a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean. Though the trip is not about the destination, since the journey features big mountain passes, singletrack cut through dense pine forests, and lodges stocked with hearty meals and local malts. There's a reason we picked this week-long expedition ($1430 US) from Wilderness Scotland as one of the Best Trips of 2010.
It's #1 because because of the options. It's in the middle of the highlands with loads of activities just a short drive away. During the conference people took off on all sorts of jaunts, from Class III and IV whitewater rafting, to climbing and canyoneering, to canoeing the River Spey and drinking whisky, to hiking to Ben MacDui. Crash at the plus Highland Resort (spa, pool, bar, from $65 US a night) or the charming Cairngorm Hotel (live music, coffee shop, from $70 US a night). For something different, in the morning go gorge walking—think canyoneering in 40 degree water with no ropes. Grab lunch at the Mountain Cafe, making sure to top it off with a slice of home-baked carrot cake. Warm up in the afternoon by clay pigeon shooting. If that doesn't do it, head off for a tour of the Dalwhinnie Distillery.